The Reasonableness of Atheism and Black Swans

As an ID proponent and creationist, the irony is that at the time in my life where I have the greatest level of faith in ID and creation, it is also the time in my life at some level I wish it were not true. I have concluded if the Christian God is the Intelligent Designer then he also makes the world a miserable place by design, that He has cursed this world because of Adam’s sin. See Malicious Intelligent Design.

Jesus prophesied of the intelligently designed outcome of humanity: “wars and rumors of wars..famines…pestilence…earthquakes.” If there is nuclear and biological weapons proliferation, overpopulation, destruction of natural resources in the next 500 years or less, things could get ugly. If such awful things are Intelligently Designed for the trajectory of planet Earth, on some level, I think it would almost be merciful if the atheists are right….

The reason I feel so much kinship with the atheists and agnostics at TSZ and elsewhere is that I share and value the skeptical mindset. Gullibility is not a virtue, skepticism is. A personal friend of Richard Dawkins was my professor and mentor who lifted me out of despair when I was about to flunk out of school. Another professor, James Trefil, who has spent some time fighting ID has been a mentor and friend. All to say, atheists and people of little religious affiliation (like Trefil) have been kind and highly positive influences on my life, and I thank God for them! Thus, though I disagree with atheists and agnostics, I find the wholesale demonization of their character highly repugnant — it’s like trash talking of my mentors, friends and family.

I have often found more wonder and solace in my science classes than I have on many Sunday mornings being screamed at by not-so-nice preachers. So despite my many disagreements with the regulars here, because I’ve enjoyed the academic climate in the sciences, I feel somewhat at home at TSZ….

Now, on to the main point of this essay! Like IDist Mike Gene, I find the atheist/agnostic viewpoint reasonable for the simple reason that most people don’t see miracles or God appearing in their every day lives if not their entire lives. It is as simple as that.

Naturalism would seem to me, given most everyone’s personal sample of events in the universe, to be a most reasonable position. The line of reasoning would be, “I don’t see miracles, I don’t see God, by way of extrapolation, I don’t think miracles and God exists. People who claim God exists must be mistaken or deluded or something else.”

The logic of such a viewpoint seems almost unassailable, and I nearly left the Christian faith 15 years ago when such simple logic was not really dealt with by my pastors and fellow parishioners. I had to re-examine such issues on my own, and the one way I found to frame the ID/Creation/Evolution issue is by arguing for the reasonableness of Black Swan events.

I will use the notion of Black Swans very loosely. The notion is stated here, and is identified with a financeer and academic by the name of Nasim Taleb. I have Taleb’s books on investing entitled Dynamic Hedging which is considered a classic monograph in mathematical finance. His math is almost impenetrable! He is something of a Super Quant. Any way:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory

The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.

The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:

1.The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology.
2.The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities).
3.The psychological biases that blind people, both individually and collectively, to uncertainty and to a rare event’s massive role in historical affairs.

Unlike the earlier and broader “black swan problem” in philosophy (i.e. the problem of induction), Taleb’s “black swan theory” refers only to unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence and their dominant role in history. Such events, considered extreme outliers, collectively play vastly larger roles than regular occurrences.[1] More technically, in the scientific monograph Silent Risk , Taleb mathematically defines the black swan problem as “stemming from the use of degenerate metaprobability”.[2]
….
The phrase “black swan” derives from a Latin expression; its oldest known occurrence is the poet Juvenal’s characterization of something being “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno” (“a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan”; 6.165).[3] When the phrase was coined, the black swan was presumed not to exist. The importance of the metaphor lies in its analogy to the fragility of any system of thought. A set of conclusions is potentially undone once any of its fundamental postulates is disproved. In this case, the observation of a single black swan would be the undoing of the logic of any system of thought, as well as any reasoning that followed from that underlying logic.

Juvenal’s phrase was a common expression in 16th century London as a statement of impossibility. The London expression derives from the Old World presumption that all swans must be white because all historical records of swans reported that they had white feathers.[4] In that context, a black swan was impossible or at least nonexistent. After Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh discovered black swans in Western Australia in 1697,[5] the term metamorphosed to connote that a perceived impossibility might later be disproven. Taleb notes that in the 19th century John Stuart Mill used the black swan logical fallacy as a new term to identify falsification.[6]

The very first question I looked at when I was having bouts of agnosticism was the question of origin of life. Now looking back, the real question being asked is “was OOL a long sequence of typical events or a black swan sequence of events.” Beyond OOL, one could go on to the question of biological evolution. If we assume Common Descent or Universal Common Ancestry (UCA), would evolution, as a matter of principle, proceed by typical or black swan events or a mix of such events (the stock market follows patterns of typical events punctuated by black swan events).

If natural selection is the mechanism of much of evolution, does the evolution of the major forms (like prokaryote vs. eukaryote, unicellular vs. multicellular, etc.) proceed by typical or black swan events?

[As a side note, when there is a Black Swan stock market crash, it isn’t a POOF, but a sequence of small steps adding up to an atypical set of events. Black Swan doesn’t necessarily imply POOF, but it can still be viewed as a highly exceptional phenomenon.]

Without getting into the naturalism vs. supernaturalism debate, one could at least make statements whether OOL, eukaryotic evolution (eukaryogenesis), multicellular evolution, evolution of Taxonomically Restricted Features (TRFs), Taxonomically Restricted Genes (TRGs), proceeded via many many typical events happening in sequence or a few (if not one) Black Swan event.

I personally believe, outside of the naturalism supernaturalism debate, that as a matter of principle, OOL, eukaryogenesis, emergence of multicellularity (especially animal multicellularity), must have transpired via Black Swan events. Why? The proverbial Chicken and Egg paradox which has been reframed in various incarnations and supplemented with notions such as Irreducible Complexity or Integrated Complexity or whatever. Behe is not alone in his notions of this sort of complexity, Andreas Wagner and Joe Thornton use similar language even though they thing such complexity is bridgeable by typical rather than Black Swan events.

When I do a sequence lookup at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI), it is very easy to see the hierarchical patterns that would, at first glance, confirm UCA! For example look at this diagram of Bone Morphogenetic Proteins (BMP) to see the hierarchical patterns:

BMP

From such studies, one could even construct Molecular Clock Hypotheses and state hypothesized rates of molecular evolution.

The problem however is that even if some organisms share so many genes, and even if these genes can be hierarchically laid out, there are genes that are restricted only to certain groups. We might refer to them as Taxonomically Restricted Genes (TRG). I much prefer the term TRG over “orphan gene” especially since some orphan genes seem to emerge without the necessity of Black Swan events and orphan genes are not well defined and orphan genes are only a subset of TRGs. I also coin the notion of Taxonomically Restricted Feature (TRF) since I believe many heritable features of biology are not solely genetic but have heritable cytoplasmic bases (like Post Translation modifications of proteins).

TRGs and TRFs sort of just poof onto the biological scene. How would we calibrate the molecular clock for such features? It goes “from zero to sixty” in a poof.

Finally, on the question of directly observed evolution, it seems to me, that evolution in the present is mostly of the reductive and exterminating variety. Rather than Dawkins Blind Watchmaker, I see a Blind Watch Destroyer. Rather than natural selection acting in cumulative modes, I natural selection acting in reductive and exterminating modes in the present day, in the lab and field.

For those reasons, even outside the naturalism vs. supernaturalism debate, I would think a reasonable inference is that many of the most important features of biology did not emerge via large collections of small typical events but rather via some Black Swan process in the past, not by any mechanisms we see in the present. It is not an argument from incredulity so much as a proof by contradiction.

If one accepts the reasonableness of Black Swan events as the cause of the major features of biology, it becomes possible to accept that these were miracles, and if Miracles there must be a Miracle Maker (aka God). But questions of God are outside science. However, I think the inference to Black Swan events for biology may well be science.

In sum, I think atheism is a reasonable position. I also think the viewpoint that biological emergence via Black Swan events is also a highly reasonable hypothesis even though we don’t see such Black Swans in every day life. The absence of such Black Swans is not necessarily evidence against Black Swans, especially if the Black Swan will bring coherence to the trajectory of biological evolution in the present day. That is to say, it seems to me things are evolving toward simplicity and death in the present day, ergo some other mechanism than what we see with our very own eyes was the cause of OOL and bridging of major gaps in the taxonomic groupings.

Of course such a Black Swan interpretation of biology may have theological implications, but formally speaking, I think inferring Black Swan hypotheses for biology is fair game in the realm of science to the extent it brings coherence to real-time observations in the present day.

775 Replies to “The Reasonableness of Atheism and Black Swans”

  1. stcordova
    Ignored
    says:

    I wrote:

    In 2001 when I explored the ID movement, I was fairly convinced the Earth and Life were old.My mind changed in light of these facts that cannot be reconciled with and old fossil interpretation.

    Flint says:

    Pardon me if I don’t believe a word of this.

    You don’t believe I was fairly convinced the earth was old in 2001? How are you going to prove to me that I didn’t know what I believed in 2001?

    Can you be more specific? Is there a paper you can point me to? I don’t see any primary references to this on a quick google search.

    This is from a creationist site, but the logic and references seem on the up and up:
    https://www.creationscience.com/onlinebook/FrozenMammoths.html

    Brown is also a real scientist. He got his PhD from MIT and taught at the Air Force Academy. He’s no Kent Hovind.

  2. GlenDavidson
    Ignored
    says:

    You know what a great bet would be? It would be to have a substantially better understanding of the world, then to develop it into a sound method for discovering gold, oil, and gems such as emeralds.

    While it might be a bit much for Sal to develop Young Earth geology by himself to the degree that he could put Old Earth chronologies to shame–while cashing in handsomely–surely he could persuade some other Young Earthers to do so, along with his support. If, that is, they really believed in the Young Earth as science, and not as apologetics existing solely to prop up prior beliefs.

    But Sal and the rest of the Young Earthers are not going to place that “winning bet,” because they know that it hasn’t yielded any insight into the development of mineral wealth and of oil reservoirs. It doesn’t even occur to them, normally, to think of using YECism to find natural resources, because it isn’t about doing science or understanding strata, it’s about warding off the threat of real geology. In fact, what we do see occasionally are true believers in the young earth using old earth science, along with the index fossils that reflect evolution (I know that they were used prior to evolution being accepted, but there was no adequate reason for why they disappear altogether except for unthinking evolution), to do research–because it’s the only coherent and useful geologic viewpoint that exists.

    Find oil with the Young Earth model, or at least try. Until you do that, or invest heavily with those who are attempting the task, you’re just blowing smoke. Anomalies, if they indeed exist, are one thing, the utter uselessness of Young Earth models for doing anything productive is quite another.

    Glen Davidson

  3. stcordova
    Ignored
    says:

    You are aware that Antarctica was not always located over the South Pole?

    I was referring to Arctic (North) not Antarctic (South).

    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/study-north-pole-once-was-tropical/

    Scientists have found something about the North Pole that could send a shiver down Santa’s spine: It used to be downright balmy.

    In fact, 55 million years ago the Arctic was once a lot like Miami, with an average temperature of 74 degrees, alligator ancestors and palm trees, scientists say.

    To be fair, the scientists are saying the fossil record is old, but they do confirm the anomaly I was speaking of.

  4. Flint
    Ignored
    says:

    Alan Fox: Can you be more specific? Is there a paper you can point me to? I don’t see any primary references to this on a quick google search.

    This wasn’t me saying it, but you can find references here:

    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/mammoths.html

    As you might imagine, creation.com and icr.org have some misinformation on it as well.

  5. stcordova
    Ignored
    says:

    In case anyone is wonder how I can specifically cite 2001 as the time I was looking into ID, it was in that year that our family found out of my Dad’s terminal illness. I began studying ID to try to find meaning in life. That’s why I remember where I was emotionally and intellectually back then.

  6. Alan Fox Alan Fox
    Ignored
    says:

    stcordova,

    We are bound by the rules not to question your honesty here and as you say, you are the only one who knows what you believe at any stage in your life.

    On the other hand, picking up on your claim that a mammoth was found with stomach contents of tropical vegetation, I’m not finding any primary source for this. Who found this mammoth? Where and when? Who analysed the stomach contents? Where is this documented?

  7. colewd
    Ignored
    says:

    stcordova,

    The enzymes in their stomach would have dismantled the vegetation in their stomach if they weren’t frozen to death so quickly, and that means very very cold temperatures.

    This point is not clear to me. Can you cite evidence that bacterial and enzymes in the stomach would live long enough past death.

    The measured rock age variation in the map of Britain is interesting. Thanks.

  8. Alan Fox Alan Fox
    Ignored
    says:

    Flint: As you might imagine, creation.com and icr.org have some misinformation on it as well.

    Yes, but what’s missing is details that can be checked.

    ETA don’t find any reference to tropical vegetation in mammoth stomachs even at ICR or Answers in Genesis.

  9. hotshoe_
    Ignored
    says:

    stcordova: This is from a creationist site, but the logic and references seem on the up and up:
    https://www.creationscience.com/onlinebook/FrozenMammoths.html

    Brown is also a real scientist. He got his PhD from MIT and taught at the Air Force Academy. He’s no Kent Hovind.

    Walt Brown? Mechanical engineer? This is whom you feel is a “real scientist” who is qualified to speak about paleobiology, geography, climate, and evolution?

    Oh god, Sal, you’ve got to stop shoveling this shit.

  10. Alan Fox Alan Fox
    Ignored
    says:

    Sal

    Can I suggest you revisit your claim about “tropical” regarding contents of mammoth stomachs. You may be mistaken about this.

  11. hotshoe_
    Ignored
    says:

    Alan Fox: ETA don’t find any reference to tropical vegetation in mammoth stomachs even at ICR or Answers in Genesis.

    It’s a long ago rumor based on Velikovsky. Yep, “worlds in collision” Velikovsky.

    He based it on the circa-1900 report of Ranunculus in frozen-mummy wooly mammoth. But ranunculus are members of a worldwide family – known in Lapland in modern day – so he had zero excuse for jumping to the conclusion that it was tropical. That was either a bizarre mistake or an outright lie on his part.

    Apparently, Walt Brown got it from Velikovsky, and Sal got it from Brown.

  12. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    hotshoe_: Apparently, Walt Brown got it from Velikovsky, and Sal got it from Brown.

    It’s a miracle!

  13. stcordova
    Ignored
    says:

    Can you cite evidence that bacterial and enzymes in the stomach would live long enough past death.

    Actually these aren’t bacterial enzymes, just regular digestive enzymes from the mammoth.

    The measured rock age variation in the map of Britain is interesting. Thanks.

    You’re welcome. I found that one on my own, not some creationist site. 🙂

    It has been a real pleasure talking to you, but evening classes are starting up today at the NIH and my participation at TSZ will be more sporadic and I may be participating in some obscure topics like micro-RNA and chromatin since that will be my focus this semester.

    But any time you have a question about some of the stuff I said, I’ll try to respond.

    One thing I found rewarding was trying to google and find original literature. It’s tedious but a lot faster than the old days when we had to go to libraries.

    Anything that you find that is contrary to stuff I’ve said and refutes it, I would very want to hear. Even if being corrected is unpleasant, I’d rather know the truth than worry about saving face.

    So if you post questions here or elsewhere at TSZ, I’ll make an effort to respond.

    Sal

  14. Alan Fox Alan Fox
    Ignored
    says:

    hotshoe_,

    It’s disappointing though not surprising.

  15. Alan Fox Alan Fox
    Ignored
    says:

    stcordova: Actually these aren’t bacterial enzymes, just regular digestive enzymes from the mammoth.

    Your’re misreading from a typo. I’m sure colewd meant “bacteria (as in gut flora) and enzymes secreted by the gut”.

  16. colewd
    Ignored
    says:

    Alan Fox,

    Yes, it was a typo. Thanks.

  17. Patrick Patrick
    Ignored
    says:

    petrushka,

    hotshoe_: Apparently, Walt Brown got it from Velikovsky, and Sal got it from Brown.

    It’s a miracle!

    It looks like evolution to me.

  18. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    Limestone. I’ve mentioned this before and will mention it again: the stoichiometry of limestone is such that, if every single carbon atom in living things today were converted into carbonate rock, you could make a square block 1000m high and 63k on a side. That’s a lot – about the amount of limestone remaining in the Picos d’Europa. But this map shows the limestone regions of the world. The Picos are at the northern edge of of Spain, about 1/8th of the red bar that runs through to the edge of the Alps. Limestone being limestone, that remaining is but a fraction of that which once must have joined exposed facies across valleys and eroded domes.

    You can bump up the amount of biomass on the freshly Created earth, but I have been generous already – I have converted every carbon atom into shell. This alone renders Young Earth untenable, to me.

  19. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    Patrick:
    petrushka,
    It’s a miracle!

    It looks like evolution to me.

    You are referring to evolved resistance?

  20. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    The Bactrian civilization was thriving before Adam was a gleam in the deity’s eye.They don’t seem to have left any writing, but one might assume they left both stories and religions.

  21. stcordova
    Ignored
    says:

    Limestone. I’ve mentioned this before and will mention it again: the stoichiometry of limestone is such that, if every single carbon atom in living things today were converted into carbonate rock, you could make a square block 1000m high and 63k on a side. That’s a lot – about the amount of limestone remaining in the Picos d’Europa. But this map shows the limestone regions of the world. The Picos are at the northern edge of of Spain, about 1/8th of the red bar that runs through to the edge of the Alps. Limestone being limestone, that remaining is but a fraction of that which once must have joined exposed facies across valleys and eroded domes.

    You can bump up the amount of biomass on the freshly Created earth, but I have been generous already – I have converted every carbon atom into shell. This alone renders Young Earth untenable, to me.

    Excellent criticism! I have no counter at this time. Thank you for putting it on the table.

  22. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    stcordova,

    Ta!

  23. Robin Robin
    Ignored
    says:

    stcordova: That right there is proof you promote a twisted conception of what constitutes health and wellness.

    I don’t understand how you are concluding this. What, in your mind, constitutes “health and wellness” if not successful survival? What else is there? Humans, as a species, have greater longevity than all animals except giant tortoises, but unlike them, we are thriving. So again I ask, what else indicates “health and wellness”?

    The exponential growth is due to the relaxation of selection pressures due to the increase in technology (particularly agricultural), not mutation plus natural selection.So exponential grown is due to lack of selection against bad traits, not presence of it.

    How is our intelligence that allows us to create and use technology not a product of mutation and natural selection? More to the point, how is technology not a legitimate characteristic of overall “health and wellness”?

    Thus the negative S-coeffients get small because of technology changes, not because of genome changes, but changes outside of the genome.

    How do you know this? More to the point, how do you know that our intelligence to create said technology isn’t a result of a whole series of improvements to our genome?

    We look at the same facts, but you look at them differently.The exponential increase of dumber and weaker you view as genetic improvement.

    No I don’t. I just don’t believe we are actually dumber and weaker in any significant sense. Further, I don’t assume or handwave away the significance of our creation and use of better technology as that too is an adaptation to our environment.

    I don’t look at it that way, I view it as a genetic tragedy rooted in the fact mutations are generally damaging to such a fragile Rube Goldberg genome as ours and that selection can’t do much to arrest it as hinted at by the population genetics considerations laid out starting with Muller.

    Oh…yeah…right…nothing like relying on cherry-picking and ignoring the issues and facts that don’t support your conclusion. Whatever Sal…

  24. colewd
    Ignored
    says:

    Allan Miller,
    Very interesting point.

    Based on this you are saying that current life on earth is but a fraction of what has existed. Could some ball park math be applied here?

  25. petrushka
    Ignored
    says:

    I have a related question, which I thought should be easily answered, but doesn’t seem to be.

    How much biomass is produced each year compared to how much fossil fuel we use?

    If we know how much coal an oil exist (roughly) and how much carbon is sequestered each year, we have a baseline minimum age for the existence of plants. (Or for the era in which coal and oil strata were laid down)

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