Michael Egnor: Manipulative Liar

Michael Egnor is back, with yet more drivel about reverse engineering. This time, he’s upset about a new blog post by Michael Lemonick (the one whose blog started Michael Egnor‘s career as a DI shill in the first place, although Egnor had a history of kookiness). Lemonick speaks some plain and simple truth:

If the DI had been around when people thought lightning was stuff the gods threw when angry, we might still not have electricity.

That didn’t make Egnor very happy:

It’s ironic that Mr. Lemonick would choose electromagnetism as a vignette for the design inference in science. The two scientific pioneers of classical electromagnetism, Faraday and Maxwell, were particularly devout Christians who inferred design everywhere in nature. They believed that God designed everything—including electricity. Their approach to science was pure design inference, undiluted by atheism or materialism. Contra Mr. Lemonick, we have electricity because of men who believed in God and in the evident design in nature.

Mr. Lemonick misunderstands the philosophical origins of modern science. The Scientific Revolution emerged within, and only within, Judeo-Christian civilization, and nearly all of the scientists who gave us modern science—Copernicus, Pascal, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Leibniz, Harvey, Vesalius, Linnaeus, Lavoisier, Mendel, Pasteur, as well as Faraday and Maxwell, were devout Christians who inferred design in all of nature. They worked entirely from the design inference.

In a word, NO. They worked from the idea that Nature exhibits predictable regularities, which is an entirely different animal. They also worked from the evidence, which is a concept the creationists of all stripes, ID included, have had a hard time understanding. Most important of all, they accepted the facts which their observations revealed to them. Scientists of religious persuasions take our discoveries about Nature as indications of the divine imagination, but they do not refuse to acknowledge discoveries because they conflict with prior dogma — and, my friends, that’s all the Discovery Institute has ever done. There’s a big gap — no, a gaping chasm — between thinking that God set the world up with some intelligible order which people can understand and refusing to acknowledge that order because it clashes with your personal notions of the divine blueprint.

Taking an honest search for Nature’s patterns expressed in the mindset of earlier times and conflating that with the Discovery Institute’s manipulative propaganda tactics is despicable behavior.

It is difficult to imagine a sequence of words which could penetrate the barrier of willful, arrogant ignorance which shields a creationist mind of this caliber. I get the distinct feeling that even trying to approach their thought patterns will make a rational brain bubble and send blood flowing out the nose, rather like what happens when an unwary Net surfer stumbles into an attack barrier. Penetrating beyond the barrier into a creationist’s ghost-line is a doubleplus dangerous stunt.

The last time Egnor rambled about the “design inference” being helpful to science, he claimed that Watson and Crick’s solution of the DNA molecular structure was an act of “reverse engineering”. Orac summarized,

Think about it. If Dr. Egnor is correct and all science that seeks to understand the structure and function of biological molecules is nothing more than “reverse engineering” of “biological machines” […] then, in Dr. Egnor’s mind, that must mean only one thing: the structures being “reverse-engineered” must have been designed. After all you only “reverse engineer” machines, or computer code, or devices, and all of those things are designed.

That’s it. That’s the core of his argument. That’s really all there is to it.

The stuff about Faraday and Maxwell is really the same non-logic that we saw before. To Egnor, “natural law” equates with “order” which equates with “design”, so all science is just a hunt for “design”. Elegant, isn’t it? Of course, anyone with a dram of curiosity will then ask, “So who’s the designer?” At which point, an intellectually honest person would admit that even if one imagined that something remotely like a conscious, thinking being chose the laws of electromagnetism, there is no logically valid way to go from that to the Judeo-Christian God, or any other anthropomorphic deity worshiped in human history. No holy writ ever put on parchment describes God mandating Lorentz invariance, the existence of electric charge or the non-existence of magnetic monopoles. So, even if we sought God in science, we’d never find one which matches our preconceptions. Whatever lurks in the dawn of time shares very few character traits and interests with the chap who wrote Leviticus.

(Scott Aaronson wrote an illuminating essay on this.)

Historically, many scientists (but not all) did justify their work as an effort to see “the mind of God”. Jumping from this largely correct statement to the assertion that all science proceeds from the “design inference” is brazen, daring, and completely wrong-headed:

  1. Science started before Christianity. (One word: Democritus.) The idea that Nature exhibits order, patterns or predictable regularities goes back to prehistoric times. You don’t go about building Stonehenge unless you think the stars will follow some kind of regular motion. Long before Sumerian accountants invented writing, we knew that the seasons followed one another, that the Moon grew and shrank, that sex preceded birth and that the tracks of animals decay over time. We had science — of a rough-and-ready, practical kind — millennia before we had monotheism.
  2. Time and time again, scientists’ efforts to “know the mind of God” got them in serious trouble with the people who already knew what God had on His agenda. Employing that “design inference”, it seems, inevitably leads you smack up against the theological status quo.
  3. Guess what? Now that science and technology have transformed the world and discoveries far more wondrous than any scripture ever described are within everyone’s intellectual grasp, we don’t need the lure of God anymore. Knowing about the Universe is plenty good enough.
  4. Once upon a time, the natural world was comprised of clues to God’s intentions, but in the Einsteinian usage employed today, God is just a synonym for the Universe, a word for Cosmos which rhymes with rod and sod. And that’s what we call progress.

Egnor’s conclusion is remarkable for its sheer audacity. Multiply it by minus one to see the truth:

Mr. Lemonick’s misunderstanding of the history of electromagnetism, as well as the history and philosophy of science, is on a par with his misunderstanding of the Darwinism/ID debate. There’s reason for his blindness: Mr. Lemonick has an ideological axe to grind. He detests any approach to science that crosses the boundaries set by scientific materialism, and he wants science scrubbed of any hint of transcendence.

Excuse me — “an ideological axe to grind”? Pot, meet kettle. On top of that, saying that science must incorporate “transcendence” is a blatant admission that Egnor — and, by plausible extension, the Discovery Institute — want to pump science full of mysticism. They want to shut down rational inquiry; at least they have the honesty to admit it.

Now that I’ve reflected upon it for a moment, I think that in a funny way, Egnor is wrong about the “transcendence” bit, too. Science does offer us “transcendence”, in a very meaningful fashion: it lets us rise above the mystical claptrap which has polluted the human mind since time immemorial, offering us the chance to live healthier, longer lives in a world burgeoning with wonder.

9 thoughts on “Michael Egnor: Manipulative Liar”

  1. You’re 100% right, of course, and your writing is wonderful. But I fail to see why you’re working so hard here. Egnor writes:

    “Contra Mr. Lemonick, we have electricity because of men who believed in God and in the evident design in nature.”

    That is such a spectacularly egregious non-sequitur that the argument is over and Egnor is hors de combat. There is no relationship whatsoever between belief in God and/or design in nature and a scientist’s capacity to do great science. And Egnor knows it. Both his argument AND his strategy are utterly, willfully dishonest.

  2. It should be obvious to anybody who’s actually tried to use Maxwell’s Equations to solve an EM system that God either doesn’t exist or is a madman.

    Mind you, EM Theory was one of my favourite classes, and there’s a weird elegance to The Equations, but given the ability to design any theory of EM that I wanted, I’d probably pick one that didn’t require so many goddamned terms that need to be solved.

  3. Most scientists want to get laid. Except maybe Newton, who had to stay a virgin for magickal alcemical reasons. Does that mean that because of men and women who believed in Sex and in the evident sexual design in nature, that Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy (heavenly bodies) and Biology are themselves ultimately about Sex? Einstein slept around. By Egnor’s twisted logic, Electricity, Relativity, Quantum Mecchanics, and even Darwinian Evolution are really about Sex? Just asking…

  4. “No holy writ ever put on parchment describes God mandating Lorentz invariance, the existence of electric charge or the non-existence of magnetic monopoles.”

    (Monty Python “Holy Hand Grenade” voice) “E shall equal mc squared….”

  5. I hope the Egnor borg fruit loop ever has a chance to operate on my brain. I really think he wouyld merely open my skull, pray, then close it up.

    He really needs to be disbarred (or the medical equilvalent).

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