More Attempts At Defining Consciousness

Well, I’ve run into some unexpected difficulty getting my hands on a certain article, so the article I wanted to post yesterday is going to have to wait some more. This afternoon I’d just like to offer the following to see how people of varying worldviews react, and if anybody can add anything or make any other valuable suggestions.

A few posts back I took a stab at defining consciousness:

While I hesitate to speculate on what consciousness is, I feel fairly confident in asserting what consciousness does, or what its characteristics are: consciousness affords the abilities to feel, to know, to create, to express intent and to choose. Consciousness also affords the ability to manipulate objective matter via choice

Something elemental, like wind, can certainly manipulate objective matter, yet it presumably does so independent of any choice or consciousness. For what it’s worth, I’m currently unsure to what extent I’d claim that consciousness is analogous to soul / spirit, but I believe that regardless of the distinction, any demonstration that consciousness is anything else besides a mere product of neural transactions has [the conventional cerebro-centric view of consciousness] dead in the water.

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On Homology

The phenomenon of homology refers to things that are corresponding or similar in position, value, structure and purpose. For example, many mammals share a common limb design that is versatile and lends well to a number of different functions. In Origin, Darwin notes in great detail the similar expressions of pentadactyl limb design as utilized by man for grasping, moles for digging, horses for movement and bats for flying. Further considering monkey and man, coyote and wolf, or fir and pine, the fact that different types and kinds of organisms share similarities in physical structure, biochemistry and embryonic patterns of development is argued as evidence that life must have descended from a common ancestor. Darwin cited the phenomenon of homology as the strongest evidence for his general theory of evolution. In the same vein, Miller and Levine also feel that homologous resemblance amongst organisms is compelling evidence: “The structural and biochemical similarities among living organisms are best explained by Darwin’s conclusion: living organisms evolved through gradual modification of earlier forms – descent from a common ancestor.”

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False Argument #14: Microevolution And Macroevolution Are Creationist Fabrications

I read a comment on a thread the other day that seemed to be making a modified version of a false argument I heard proposed about six months ago in the blogosphere. Unfortunately I couldn't track down the comment, but I do recall the first place I heard its premise:

"First, just so everyone's clear: 'Macro-evolution' and 'micro-evolution' are made-up words concocted by creationists to make themselves sound scientific. Biologists don't use them. They're scientifically meaningless. They're just different stages in the evolutionary process; 'macro' is just 'micro' over a longer period of time. Also, 'macro-evolution' (if people insist on calling it that) has been observed, both in the field and in the lab. Just so we're clear."

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False Argument #3: Appendix Doesn’t Seem To Serve A Function

While reading a high school biology textbook written by two highly reputable science authors, I couldn’t help but feel resentment when I came across the following statement: “The appendix is a vestigial organ that does not seem to serve a function in digestion today.”

The statement is misleading. Now it’s not as much the first half of this statement I wish to contest as the last, although I have a few non-traditional opinions about the first half as well. The official position on vestigial organs here is that we don’t claim them any more favorable to the atheist, evolutionary worldview than the faith-based, creationist worldview, and that all participants in the debate need to understand clearly what constitutes a vestigial structure. The point of this post and why I think it belongs on the site is that even accomplished biology textbook writers holding Ph.D degrees and better occasionally succumb to confirmation bias and perpetuate errors and misconceptions concerning the human body. With the textbook editors I will be less forgiving, first for not catching the error in the editing process, and second for not explaining anything else about the matter of vestigial organs at all. For example, what concrete point of reference do we have upon which we might reason the current state of affairs in the appendix is reduced or in any way rudimentary? Can we say with surety that the appendix did more for Homo sapiens 50,000 years ago or at any other point in time? Or is our conclusion reached on account of more functioning appendices in other species?

The English vestigial derives from the Latin vestigium, meaning among other things an imprint or trace. Definitions of vestigial organs vary from source to source. My personal, off-the-cuff definition as I write this today is "the remnant of a superior, fully functional organ thought to have once existed in an ancient ancestor, based on the theory of linear descent from a LUCA. Generally characterized by reduced function, it is important to note that not all vestigial organs are claimed to be useless and there is nothing about the term that demands non-utility. German Anatomist R. Wiedersheim in 1893 included approximately 85 structures in his original list of vestiges, and it was later said that man possessed nearly 200 vestigial organs including the appendix, coccyx, pineal gland, the tonsils and the pituitary gland. Of course as science and understanding of human anatomy have progressed, the number of vestigial organs has dwindled, and there is of course ongoing debate about the subject. Medical professionals have demonstrated bona fide functions of many organs classified as vestigial, supported among other documented evidences by the observation of drastic changes in patient physiology noted upon removal of the organ in question. For example, the extensive work of the Calderoli brothers details this occurrence in tonsillectomy patients.

More accurately described as a gland than an organ, the modest vermiform appendix sits in a crucially important location, located just below the ileo-cecal valve at the beginning of the colon or large intestine. Other animals have larger appendices such as the Koala bear and we know rather specifically what some of the functions of the appendix are. Among other things it has an active relationship with the hypothalamus gland, and one function of the hypothalamus is to regulate body responses in a manner conducive to its protection. With an average length around three inches, this tube-like cluster of lymph and glands is responsible for secreting a germicidal fluid that is automatically injected into the colon in the event that waste matter coming from the small intestine is determined to be toxic for the individual.

Poor eating habits add to the burden of our faculties and when maintained over a significant duration of time, the appendix will eventually tire from overexertion. Appendicitis is a typical result descriptive of a worn and inflamed appendix. Too much toxic waste for too long causes the appendix to work overtime and once the limit of inflammation has been reached, the poor gut has no choice but to burst, causing considerable pain and privation to the sufferer. Among other things your appendix is a built-in detector and neutralizer of certain toxicities and poison, a seemingly fitting feature congruent with many other self-maintenance mechanisms our bodies possess.

Especially in the context of the argument, Miller and Levine’s statement that the appendix "does not seem to serve a function in digestion today" is an inaccurate and misleading claim, one that nutritionists and health experts have been known to take issue with. As stated the claim does not belong in a high-school textbook, especially in the absence of further information about the appendix or the phenomenon of vestigial organs in general, and the claim is of the caliber one might expect from an irresponsible tabloid newspaper, cheap YEC tract or the machinations of science-fiction. In fact, thinking back I do recall that Isaac Asimov makes this very same claim in his Words of Science: "The appendix is thus the useless remainder of a once useful organ…"

Now I normally don’t have too much of a problem with assumptions provided they are supported by sound logic, observation or scientific principle. However, when an assumption is not only unfounded and unscientific but also demonstrably wrong, I do have a problem, and when such assumptions are pawned off onto unsuspecting school kids in the name of science, whether in defense of creationism or evolution in my such tactics are certainly reprehensible. The error of calling the appendix an organ as opposed to a gland is really just a technicality and is, of course, both arguable and forgivable. However, the error of claiming the appendix "does not seem to serve a function in digestion today" reveals ignorance regarding nutrition and anatomy.

Another enigma is why those militant about the quality of science education in this country don’t seem to apply the same level of stringency when an error is unrelated to creationism. What’s further interesting is the special pleading of individuals who embrace vestigial organs as suggestive of Darwinism while harshly criticizing those who embrace life’s complexity as being suggestive of intelligent design, when both conclusions are in fact arrived at via identical means. Isn’t declaring an organ vestigial on account of the fact we haven’t identified its function yet the very same error ID gets charged with for declaring the universe a product of intelligent design because we haven’t discerned a natural cause for it yet?

However it arose, the appendix is a useful feature of human physiology.

False Argument #2: Genesis Chronology Violates Law Of Photosynthesis

One common but flawed argument against a literal interpretation of Genesis states that the chronology violates biology by listing the creation of seed-bearing plants and vegetation before the creation of the sun. Now if we are taking Genesis literally, this is in fact what Genesis incontrovertibly appears to say; however, the argument proposed to refute this is typically based on a singular claim, namely that seed-bearing plants and vegetation need light and photosynthesis to have arisen. From everything we know from the Enlightenment until now, this also is in fact what science incontrovertibly appears to say; however, what the argument fails to account for is that light is recorded as being present in the creation process much earlier in Genesis 1:3 and concurrent with the creation of seed-bearing plants and vegetation. Thus the rebuttal to this argument is at least twofold: 1) Yes, it is true that seed-bearing plants and vegetation would need light to grow on Earth, however 2) Genesis records that light was in fact present prior to the creation of seed-bearing plants and vegetation.

Note this is not the same as implying the sun was created before the other stars. Scripture simply states that light was present, and we know life needs light to exist, evolve and flourish. Of the many arguments against creationism, this is one of the demonstrably weaker claims.

Life

As any good biologist or taxonomist can tell you, there is a fundamental line of demarcation between living and non-living systems. Among others, a few of the prerequisites for a living system of any sort are the abilities to process energy, store information and replicate. A rock, for example, seems to contain information in the form of mineral structure, textual pattern and general shape, but rocks cannot process energy or replicate. Also, all living things must contain amino acids, along with DNA and/or RNA.