Monday, May 11, 2009

J.P. Holding's Standards of Evidence

J.P. Holding has some questions about evolution. He expressed these in private email correspondence. It's probably somewhat irritating for him that this private correspondence is now all over the web, and I'm not aware that he granted permission for the person he was emailing to make the discussion public. Personally, I wouldn't have posted this publicly without his permission. But it's out there now and it does make arguments that need to be addressed. Here is a portion of what he wrote:

My first set of questions was epistemological. The questions I asked were more or less this:

1) How many mutations did it take to go from the earliest member of the tree, Hyracotheium, to the latest member, New World Equus?

Obviously this was a rhetorical question to some extent; no one would know the actual answer, but I'd think they'd be able to at least give an estimate, and I knew it would have to be a large number - maybe even in the millions.

2) How many of these mutations are directly in evidence in the fossil record?

In turn, I expected this number to be very small - likely no more than a few dozen.

And by now you may see where this is going. I have to imagine that the percentage of mutations for which we have direct evidence is vanishingly small, say .002%. From this follows a third question:

3) If I were to present a case for (say) the Resurrection of Jesus, and I only had .002% of the evidence I needed to make that case, who would think I had made a good case?

For this reason, I should think at the very least some agnosticism is warranted regarding wholly materialistic evolution - certainly people like Dawkins don't need to be as aggressive as they are.

To me this just seems very unreasonable. Holding seems to be arguing that if an event can be broken down into steps, then a large percentage of those steps needs to be shown in order to draw conclusions about what happened.

Take for instance the formation of a galaxy. How many steps would be involved in the formation? There are different ways to break it down, but if I want to present an analogy similar to Holding's (precisely which mutations occurred) I might break it down by asking how much hydrogen formed at a given location and what was it's speed. These factors would determine the type of galaxy formed. How many steps of hydrogen clustering, stars forming, supernova occuring, black holes emerging, stars crashing, planets and moons crashing, etc, are there? Maybe we could break it down to 10 to the 50th power steps? And how many are we aware of? Maybe 1000. So we know something like 10 to the minus 45th power percent. Do we need to know a large ratio of these details in order to form general conclusions about what happened in the formation of Andromeda?

What does Holding mean when he asks about presenting .002% of the evidence needed to make the case for the resurrection of Jesus? Does he mean he must present .002% of all conceivable evidence that might have been available? For instance, when Jesus was 2 years old he might have done something extraordinary that we haven't heard of. We don't have the evidence for this. We don't have anything regarding a lot of what Jesus did according to the gospel of John (the whole world coudn't contain the book that would be required to record all these deeds). So there's a lot of evidence missing right there. Does this mean we could never conclude that Jesus rose, because we can never have anything more than a small percentage of the conceivable evidence?

This is an absurd standard. We don't need a large ratio of the potential evidence. We need whatever amount of quality evidence necessary for us to conclude that the resurrection hypothesis makes better sense of the data than any alternative explanation. If the pieces of data are good enough, perhaps 3 or 4 pieces of data would be enough. If the data was less compelling, more would be required.

Darwin was able to draw conclusions about evolution without ever having heard of genetics or understanding mutation. By Holding's standard he had 0% of the evidence. Yet he was able to correctly predict many startling things. How was he able to do this, with 0% of the evidence? He did it because demanding a large ratio of all conceivable evidence is absurd, and has nothing to do with how we draw conclusions.


Steven Carr said...

So if Holding sees a wall, comes back a few days later and sees a pile of bricks lying on the ground, he won't believe the wall fell down and became a pile of bricks, until he sees evidence for each brick falling in the sequence from wall to rubble?

And if Holding sees a plane take off in New York, and sees the plane land in Miami, he won't believe it flew through the air, unless he sees video evidence for more than 0.002% of the miles this plane allegedly 'flew'?

Stephan Huller said...

This idiot just attacked my new book which attacks the traditional story of Christianity. I have been going around to different blogs who have had run ins with this guy. He's quite a character. Anyway it gave me something to write about on my blog.

Just saying hi!