This Critique of ‘What Passes for Serious Thought’ Comes Up Short on Serious Thought

He’s a writer, he’s a professor of biology, and Nathan Lents thinks my Evolution News essay on the gift of fall colors this week is “silly.” It’s “what passes for serious thought at the Discovery Institute,” and it’s pretty bad, he wants us to know. He stated it through a series of tweets starting here, which he gave me permission to reproduce here at Thinking Christian. 

I’m afraid he’s not going to like my answer. I’m not going to defend my article’s thesis. I wrote it by dictation while walking through the woods, it’s obviously incomplete and intentionally not rigorous, and I think most readers would recognize its intent as such. So instead of re-visiting my article, I’m going to focus on what Lents has to say. He says my article doesn’t represent serious thought. Does his? The evidence, unfortunately, says no. Way too many errors in such a small amount of space, way too many fallacies in such a short series of tweets.

“Um, Okay,” Isn’t an Argument

Let’s take it a step at a time. (I’ve compiled his entire series of tweets into block quotes here.)

Another strange claim from #IntelligentDesign: the lovely colors of #autumn were purposely designed for humans to enjoy. Because I love autumn foliage & nature walks, I wanted to like this essay by @TomGilsonAuthor. But this is just pain silly.

This essay perfectly exemplifies the kind of bizarre reasoning that ID folks claim is open-mindedness about evidence for supernatural forces in nature. Let’s consider the ridiculous things that this claim requires (and add more to my list, please!)

First of all, leaf senescence is an intricately programmed process involving hundreds of genes. While it is most commonly associated with flowering plants (angiosperms), the genes and pathways for this process evolved in even older lineages of plant, before plants had colonized dry land, over 500 million years before Homo sapiens appeared. So… plants were engaging this process for 500 million years so that some humans could be treated to nice colors during their nature walks for a few weeks out of the year. Um, okay.

This “Um, okay,” is obviously no argument; or if it is, it’s an argument from incredulity, and not his only one in here. I suppose it might seem to work if you already agree with him; if you beg the question, that is. If all this process of development went on over half a billion years with no planning, no foresight, no teleology involved, then “Um, okay,” would be quite an adequate refutation, and my point that fall colors are an intentional gift would be ridiculous. But that’s no better than saying, If my point is wrong, then it’s wrong. True enough, except it assumes the conclusion; it begs the “if.”

Making Things Hard That Aren’t

Secondly, humans and their ancestors evolved almost exclusively in Africa for basically all of the last 20 million years. (Yes, waves of other hominids periodically left Africa but these were not our ancestors and probably had little appreciation for foliage.) Even our recent ancestry was almost exclusively in tropical and subtropical areas in which leaf senescence is not a thing. So… the design for fall colors could have been placed where humans were actually living for most of our history, but it wasn’t because… ?

Because there is nothing in the word “gift” that entails it be given identically to all persons at all times. That’s not hard, actually.

And thirdly, even in modern times, the vast majority of humanity does not live in regions that exhibit anything like the autumn foliage that we see in parts of Europe, North America, and some parts of Central and East Asia. Brilliant and conspicuous leaf senescence occurs in a particular slice of where human beings live. So… this gift was not for all of humanity, but exclusively for those living in specific places. Lucky us!

Same answer. Again, not difficult.

Arguing From Incredulity

To believe this story (for which there is no evidence), you have to also believe that a supernatural power designed this little gift 500 millions years ahead of time, specifically for a minority of modern humans that would eventually live in a small slice of the world.

Here we have an argument from incredulity. It amounts to, “I can’t believe God would design something good for some people, and not give it to all people.” Why not? Why kind of bland world would it be where everyone got all the same good things? What kind of impossible, contradictory world would it be where everyone got mountains, forests, oceanfront views, acres and acres of fertile fields, warm sun all year round, skiing and ice skating whenever you like, four seasons, no seasons …

Different places have different advantages. You don’t get much by way of fall colors in coastal Orange County, California, where I once lived, but you do have near-ideal weather most of the year. Is that a design flaw? Nathan seems to assume that design means homogeneity. I have no idea where he gets that from. His objection is just thoughtless incredulity, as far as I can see.

False Dichotomy and Question-Begging

And fourthly, what about the actual function of leaf senescence for the plant? Was this just a side effect? In the view of Intelligent Design, everything else in nature was designed specifically for the pleasure and comfort of human beings. But here in the real world, we understand that living things have their own physiology that functions for their own purposes. Not everything is about us.

No, that’s not “in the view of Intelligent Design.” Sorry. It’s not even essential to my perspective on leaf coloration being a gift, for those who get to enjoy it. He’s set up a false dichotomy: Either living things have their own physiology and functions for their own purposes (his view) or nature is “designed specifically for the pleasure and comfort of human beings.” That’s a strange forced choice, and a fallacious one. On a theistic intelligent design viewpoint, things can have multiple ends or purposes. To deny that possibility is to beg the question again. It’s fallacious reasoning.

Besides just being comically unscientific, this particular kind of thinking, that humans are the center of everything and everything was designed with us in mind, has some pretty harmful consequences and corollaries.

If that’s supposed to count against the truth of my argument, it’s an argument from consequences, and fallacious on that count. I’m sure he’d object if I said evolution is false because “this particular kind of thinking, that humans have no purpose, has some pretty harmful consequences and corollaries.” I believe it does, but that’s not what makes it false.

Maybe he’s just raising a warning, though, as in, “Not only is this wrong, it’s also harmful.” That avoids that consequences fallacy. It’s still in error, though, because it depends on his jumping wildly to a conclusion that no one’s ever suggested: That “humans are the center of everything and everything was designed with us in mind.” I don’t believe that for a moment, and neither does any other theist. (Intelligent design theory doesn’t entail theism, but a majority of ID supporters including myself are theists, and it’s the version of design theory I know best how to discuss.)

Rebutting What No One Believes

To be a theist, in fact, is to believe that God is the center of everything, and that some things he created with humans in mind. Christian theism in particular places humans in stewardship of the environment, giving us responsibility to care for it.

If he’s rebutting anything in this paragraph, he’s rebutting something no one believes. Why not? I’ll rebut it right along with him! I think it’s wrong, too, which is the same as saying I don’t believe it either. I’m not going to waste time doing it, though. Sure, I could go around knocking down beliefs no one holds, but if I’m going to while away the time with mind games that have no connection to the real world, I’d rather do it playing Sudoku instead.

And before you says this is just poetic, read the essay. He’s quite serious. And before you say this doesn’t represent ID, this is a featured article at “the intellectual home of Intelligent Design.” This is what passes for serious thought at the Discovery Institute.

The silliness of Intelligent Design is why no one takes their ideas seriously. But the harmful consequences is why we do take the movement seriously and why we take time from our other work to refute them at every turn.

Why They “Can’t Say the Trees are Beautiful”

In a side conversation on Twitter, someone asked why I said, “The evolutionist cannot honestly and coherently say, ‘It’s glorious out there! The trees are beautiful.'” He wondered what I meant by “evolutionist.” I think that’s plain in context. In case it isn’t, I was talking about the person who believes in undirected, naturalistic evolution.

Nathan Lents answered him, “Maybe @TomGilsonAuthor can enlighten us as to why we can’t say the trees are beautiful.” I didn’t. I said they can’t say it honestly and coherently. If he wants to know why I said it, he can go back and read the reasoning I wrote there in the first place. If he thinks I’m wrong about it, he can probe with questions or objections.

Where Not to Find Serious Thought

There was no refutation here. It was all fallacious. Some of it was misdirected at things I didn’t say, some of it was question-begging. Some of it was making easy things hard, some was built on a false dichotomy. The rest? He was arguing from incredulity.

He mocks my essay as “what passes for serious thought,” but he does so by means of an extended series of logical fallacies. It doesn’t speak well for his standing as a critic of serious thought.

Does this mean my essay is sound, rational, well-argued? No, actually, it doesn’t. I wasn’t defending my essay; I wasn’t even talking about it, really, but about Lents’s short Twitter article instead. It does mean, though, that to the extent that any problem with it may depend on Lents’s critique, it still stands solid. But sure, maybe it still is a bad article. Maybe someone will show that there’s a whole lot wrong with it. That’s an open question anyone can pursue. But not for Lents’s reasons, because his reasons fail the test of valid reasoning.


Note: It is my strong and consistent policy not to engage in extended arguments on Twitter. I will post a link to this article there, but I will not debate it there. The 240-character limit makes it impossible to do it well. I am happy to debate it here, however. Within my long-standing guidelines of civil discussion (the Starbucks Standard) I am wide open to dispute and disagreement, even vigorous dispute.

Image Credit(s): Tom Gilson.

Tom Gilson

Vice President for Strategic Services, Ratio Christi Lead Blogger at Thinking Christian Editor, True Reason BreakPoint Columnist

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10 Responses

  1. I’m quite surprised that you decided not “to defend [your] article’s thesis,” and rather than going elsewhere, I’d like to return to that. I assume that your opening statements comprise your thesis. “Fall colors are such a gift. And I am convinced it must have been intentional.” I was hoping you would present the evidence for this conviction. Almost everyone enjoys the colors of fall foliage. On that we agree. But you are convinced that enjoyment was intentional. So I ask, what evidence convinced you?

  2. jweaksnc says:

    Hear, hear.

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    Thank you for the question, Nathan.

    I presented reasons for my conclusion in that article, reasons that you tried to rebut, but so far without success. But of course it was just a short reflection, written by dictation as I was walking through the woods. I had no intention of making it an unimpeachable rational case. There are times when that’s good or even necessary, and times when something less than that is still appropriate. One of those times is when one is writing for people who may be interested in a different perspective on their already-existing beliefs. That’s what this was, I hope, for a goodly number of Evolution News readers: A fresh new way to see one slice of reality, in line with their existing worldview.

    Yes, I included some short snippets of reasoning in there to support my conclusion that fall colors are a gift of God. I did for the purpose of helping situate that opinion within Intelligent Design discussions, not to change the minds of those who start from a different worldview entirely.

    Do I have other reasons? Of course. It starts with my theistic worldview, for which I have dozens and dozens of evidence-based reasons, and that list doesn’t even include the many more I’ve just published in Too Good to be False. From theism as a starting point, it is but a very short distance to that article and its conclusions.

    From philosophical naturalism or from naturalistic evolution, on the other hand, it is a very, very long leap, and one that I recognize would be impossible for almost anyone to make. If there is anything that would persuade a philosophical naturalist to adopt theism, well, I’d be very surprised if this were it. It fits well within theism, but I’d be foolish to think it had the argumentative power to cause a non-theist to say, “Oh, my goodness, those believers were right after all!”

    That’s all by way of perspective on what I had in mind when I dictated/wrote the article. Yes, it’s mostly for the already-convinced. We’re allowed to have that conversation — even in public! — I think you’ll agree. No, it wasn’t intended as a tightly woven argument to persuade the unconvinced.

    So… you asked what evidence convinced me? Years and years and years of study into the truth of Christian theism, to start with, including those 50 points of evidential and philosophical coherence that I linked to above, have convinced me that there is a good God who gives gifts to people he loves. Then as I reflected on what fall colors actually do for us humans in deciduous temperate zones, as I realized that there’s no reason God had to design the world that way, and as I realized that it functions very much as a gift, it just made sense to call it that.

    You can see I’m still not trying to offer reasons that would persuade a philosophical naturalist. I do that in other times and in other ways, but that’s not what this was or is about, at least not at this point.

    As for my deciding not to defend my article’s thesis, maybe now you understand that one reason I didn’t do that is because my purpose in writing it was rather more modest than trying to create such a strong persuasive case. Maybe also you noticed I did do one sort of defense — a defense against your attack on the article’s basic and foundational rationality. You called it “silly;” I explained that the reasons for calling it that were all fallacious. At least so far. If you want to try to mount a different argument for its silliness, I’d say, go right ahead and try! If anyone was actually persuaded by your first argument, though, they really shouldn’t have been. There was nothing in it that stood up to an examination of its fallacies.

    So I did defend my article to that extent, which for me in this particular context seems sufficient.

  4. Let me try to better articulate my real issue with this kind of thinking, since you are either missing it or skirting it intentionally. (Below is copy-pasted from my post on the Peaceful Science forum.)

    When we discuss the beauty and wonder of nature, or of “creation” if you prefer, and of the emotional response that said beauty evokes, that’s all fine and good as poetry. (And I don’t mean that to dismiss. I enjoy poetry and beauty and nature!) And it may also be very good as theology. But where I find it problematic is when it tries to enter the realm of science. And this article, published on “Evolution News and Science Today,” definitely seems to enter that realm. At least to me. If I’m wrong and it’s not intended that way, then POOF, we have no disagreement and let’s go for a walk one day and enjoy the foliage together!

    If we’re going to approach the lovely colors of autumn from the perspective of beauty and calling us toward awe of God’s work in the world and all of that… that’s just gravy. And I love gravy. But if we approach the topic of leaf senescence from the perspective of plant biology or evolutionary biology, there are some real traps we would fall into in claiming that it is has anything to do with human enjoyment.

    Leaf senescence is a physiological and genetically programmed process that performs specific functions. Those functions were in response to selective pressures experienced by a population of early plants. This particular adaptation gave the plant an important advantage in the grand and natural struggle for survival and success. That’s why it evolved, and that’s why it persists today, because it benefits the plants.

    At the time this evolutionary process first played out, it is more likely than not that NO animal could even perceive let alone appreciate the rainbow of colors that result from senescence. (The vertebrate eye was in its evolutionary infancy.) The process evolved to benefit the plants, not to dazzle the animals. And it has evolved and developed extensively since then, always (or almost always) for the direct benefit of the plants and only the plants.

    The notion that this process could have evolved for the purpose of delighting creatures that would only appear hundreds of millions of years later is, to be blunt, absurd, from the biological perspective. Traits and adaptations emerge because they benefit the organisms who harbor those traits, not because they make other organisms happy. (Even attracting and feeding pollinators and seed dispersers is ultimately for plants’ self-interest.) That’s how evolution works. And presenting evolution accurately is important to me, and should be important to all scientists.

    To claim that an ancient adaptation was designed to please modern humans is simply not tenable because it violates what we we know about how organisms evolve. If this essay had appeared on Christianity Today, Id have no problem with it because it would be obvious that it is theology. Or poetry even. But this is poetry masquerading as science and that’s why I spoke up. Does the DI wants EN to be taken seriously as a science website or not?

  5. Tom Gilson says:

    Nathan, if you want to stick with a scientific perspective, please do so. You’re blatantly theologizing. Your entire perspective here is built on the assumption, “And if it happened this way in nature, then God had nothing to do with it; or if God had something to do with it, it couldn’t have had anything to do with planning or foresight with respect to humans he would create.”

    You write, “The notion that this process could have evolved for the purpose of delighting creatures that would only appear hundreds of millions of years later is, to be blunt, absurd, from the biological perspective.” It’s not absurd from a theistic perspective, and your dismissal of it on that account is really just another argument from incredulity: “I cannot even believe any God would do that!”

    You’re still begging the question quite badly, in other words. If you think processes consistent with philosophical naturalism explain everything, just say so and get it over with. Say, “Look, Tom, this has nothing to do with the naturalistic world I believe in, so I think you’re wrong.”

    Just as I took the modest approach of not expecting my argument to convince you, however, I would hope your assertion, “I’m right, you’re wrong,” would have an equally modest effect upon me.

    Further: If you think that a proper biological or scientific approach entails this kind of naturalism, I would implore you once again to stay within your field. That’s a philosophical opinion. It enjoys very widespread support among biologists, so widespread that it probably feels like science, but it isn’t.

    I wrote poetry consistent with a worldview you don’t agree with. I barely, barely, barely touched upon science, so I don’t know in which world it would be considered masquerading as science. I would agree, naturally, that if “science” must be equated with philosophical naturalism, then even the small amount of science I mentioned would be a “masquerade.” I do not agree that science must be equated with philosophical naturalism, however. To restate in other words what I’ve already said more than once, if you think that’s a necessary equation you are both wandering outside your field into philosophy, and you’re doing it poorly, fallaciously, by begging the question.

    I know you want to hammer on me for my errors, as you see them. I think I’ve been rather forthright in admitting how they might seem wrong from your point of view. Now it’s your turn. I’ve called you for several errors. In your worldview, would you agree or disagree that begging the question, posing false dichotomies, arguments from incredulity, etc. are good ways to carry on an argument?

    You made some strong accusations of my silliness and more. I’ve answered you, showing rational reasons to conclude your accusations are empty, lacking in reason, due to identifiable fallacies in your reasoning. Let’s discuss your reasoning next, please. Did you or did you not commit those fallacies?

  6. Nathan H. Lents says:

    Of course I subscribe to philosophical and methodological naturalism because it is the only approach that produces verifiable and objective scientific knowledge. Your view is inherently subjective and I’m sure it’s convincing for you and others that agree with all the a priori assumptions about scripture and revelation. But the great thing about the objectivity of philosophical naturalism is that the knowledge it creates is true for everyone, regardless of perspective. It doesn’t matter to me how much you insist that I’m theologizing because, like with other matters apparently, you can just make up your own definition for that. And lastly, your errors are not just wrong from my point of view. They are objectively wrong insofar as objective methods have produced knowledge about how evolution works.

    It’s clear that we’re now just talking past each other, so I’m going back to my regularly scheduled work now. Enjoy the foliage!

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    Have you confused your philosophical naturalism with your methodological naturalism?

    Have you confused your attempt at undercutting my “subjective” and “a priori” assumptions with your own failure to produce a short essay without multiple objectively identifiable logical fallacies? Is this how you demonstrate that my reasoning is silly?

    I’ve published a good, non-question begging alternative to methodological naturalism, by the way. If you want a copy I’ll send it to you. If you think naturalism is the only proper grounding for science, that conclusion is premature at best if you haven’t surveyed the other options. It’s a hasty conclusion, to use a more definitive label for this (again, objectively definable) reasoning fallacy.

    My definition for theologizing is not ad hoc, nor is it merely my own. When one makes statements about what God would or would not do, that’s very arguably making a statement in the realm of theology. Hand-waving that kind of reasoning away is yet another form of fallacy.

    Hasty conclusion, begging the question, false dichotomy, theologizing, etc., etc., … The list keeps growing.

    You need not stay in this discussion. That’s your choice. The list will remain, however.

  8. And yet, essentially every active credentialed scientist would agree with me and not with you, many Christians among them. So you go right ahead and whine and wring your hands about how we do our work, but understand that we’re going to keep right on doing that work and ignoring your objections. Thankfully for us both, you and I will continue to enjoy the foliage in our own way, just as we will continue to enjoy the many benefits and knowledge that the proper execution of science has produced for humanity. Good day.

  9. Tom Gilson says:

    Really? Who’s whining? Who’s wringing any hands? This is an amazing thing you’re saying. Whining and hand-wringing are things one does from a position of helplessness and weakness. I’m actually feeling quite secure and confident in identifying the illogic and fallacies your points are riddled with. You’re the one who’s running from it, had you noticed? And these aren’t just “objections” you’re ignoring, they’re fully substantiated explanations of objectively identifiable fallacious reasoning, right here on this page where everyone can see them. Why would I wring my hands over that?

    It’s just odd to me. You seem content to let these fallacies stand by the power of your scientific authority. I have great respect for science, make no mistake, but poor reasoning is still poor reasoning. Science itself depends on solid, valid, sound reasoning, and would fall without it. So again, it’s odd to me that you wouldn’t even care to take note of what’s been so clearly identified here.

    You need not stay in this discussion. That’s your choice. You can even believe that I personally am whining and wringing my hands. That’s your choice, too. Others will observe that there isn’t the slightest hint of any visible evidence for it. That, too, is fallacious, a hasty conclusion. It’s not all that scientific of you, is it, to run ahead of the evidence that way?

    You can do whatever you will with this discussion. The list of fallacies will remain.

  10. David Madison says:

    Nathan Lents seems pretty confused. He starts with the assumption that biological “purpose” must be defined in selective terms. So, for example, the purpose of a flower is to attract pollinators. In Lents’ terms this would be a legitimate use of the word “purpose”. Flowers evolved because of their ability to attract pollinators. Therefore we can legitimately say that this is the purpose of a flower.

    On the other hand, fallen leaves did not acquire their colour in order to please human eyes, since humans played no role which would be analogous to that of pollinators. Humans were not involved in the evolution of leaves. Surprise, surprise!! It seems that Lents is having a debate with an imaginary opponent who doesn’t get the point.

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