How do we separate natural from designed? The last post critiquing the Creationist project of Christian apologist Jim Wallace looked at some of the cases that make this sorting project so difficult. Now, let’s pull back and look at the bigger picture. This is just one of a number of similar challenges.
The first post in this series is here.
Other difficult category challenges
Separating things into natural vs. designed is just one of many similar problems. Here are a few more we’re all familiar with. Bang your head against a few of these to remind yourself that making these distinctions is often easy, but that’s only for things we already have an answer for. For each category, add your own ambiguous cases that should encourage humility in anyone who thinks this is easy.
I bring up these familiar questions only to remind you of that familiar feeling of not knowing which bin something belongs in. Wallace wants to imagine that these questions are easy, but read this list to remember that they are not.
Arthur C. Clarke observed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is the challenge that we find in lots of areas—separating real from fake, life from nonlife, and designed from natural.
1. Real vs. hoax, lie, or fake. Is the Venezuelan poodle moth real? Yes and no. What about the Mpemba effect, which claims that hot water can freeze faster than an equal amount of cold? Or the Voynich manuscript, hundreds of illustrated, handwritten pages written 600 years ago. If it’s just a joke, it’s an extremely elaborate one, but if it’s not, then what the heck does it say? And what do we make of the Wenatchee child abuse panic of 1994—were there 29,726 incidents of child sex abuse, as officially charged . . . or were there actually zero?
2. Stage magic vs. real magic. We all know that magic shows are just illusions. But even knowing this, we still pay to see them because we still can’t conceive how the tricks were performed.
Imagine a team of stage magicians summarizing the audience experience for five of their most impressive tricks. Now they make another list. This time, it’s for five tricks with a similar wow factor that they don’t know how to do as illusions. They mix the two lists and give them to you to separate back into two piles, stage magic and impossible.
3. Right vs. wrong. Christians insist that objective moral truths exist, and yet they never get beyond the insisting part. They point to shared or strongly felt moral claims. Yes, those exist, but that doesn’t make them objective. More to the point, Christians can’t even agree among themselves which things are right and which wrong. Abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, same-sex marriage—you’ll find Christians on different sides of each of these. More.
4. Science vs. pseudoscience. It’s easy to dismiss flat earth claims, ESP, and even the popular horoscope as pseudoscience without much pushback, but what about claims about weight-loss diets? Does echinacea cure colds? Is apple cider vinegar a health panacea? Is homeopathy effective?
There’s Bigfoot, Nessie, and other cryptids. There’s are the supposedly nefarious Illuminati, Bilderberg Group, and Trilateral Commission. There are conspiracy theories like chemtrails, Paul is dead, and the moon landing “hoax.” And there’s always the things that go bump in the night like haunted houses, ghosts, spontaneous human combustion, and alien abductions. Skeptics will likely have the same opinions, but millions will disagree.
5. Life vs. nonlife. What is life? Bacteria are living, but what about viruses? What about prions? If a kind of life relied on an information storage technique other than DNA and RNA, could we detect it? We keep being surprised at extremophiles, microorganisms that live in environments with extreme temperature, pressure, salinity, radiation, and so on.
NASA’s Mars 2020 mission launched a few weeks ago. One goal is to bring samples back to earth to test for life. But if we don’t even understand the scope of life on earth, we risk missing clues to life on Mars.
6. Science consensus vs. speculation. On the topic of life on Mars, a five-pound meteorite from Mars found in Antarctica in 1984 might hold fossil evidence of life on Mars from the earliest days of the solar system. But so far this argument is scientific conjecture. The jury is out on this and many other important questions.
And there are more categories where debate continues—what is art?, coincidence vs. the hand of God, and so on.
Of course, these are different categories than the one brought up by Christian apologists, designed vs. natural, but I hope these other categories remind us how difficult it can be to reach an overwhelming consensus on sorting problems like these.
what “irreducibly complex” really means:
a statement, fact or event so simple
it cannot be simplified any further,
but still too complex to be grasped by a creationist.
— biologist Björn Brembs
(h/t Ignorant Amos)