Re: Of Martian Sculptures (was: Re: [asa] on science and meta-science)

From: Iain Strachan <>
Date: Wed Nov 11 2009 - 08:23:26 EST

Time for a more detailed reply.

On Tue, Nov 10, 2009 at 10:43 PM, Cameron Wybrow <> wrote:
> Iain, I'm tempted to reply that if you are so short of time, you don't have
> the time to be counting the words in everyone's posts.  :-)
> But seriously, for someone like yourself (with a Ph.D. if I recall
> correctly), reading 400-500 words per minute should be no problem,
> especially when it's not technical prose, but semi-popular prose about a
> topic you know well, i.e., evolution.  So it should take you roughly 3
> minutes to read a 1300-word post.

First I'll respond to this bit. I regret to inform you that I am an
intellectual pigmy and am seriously considering sending my PhD
certificate back to Edinburgh University. Evidently I am not worthy
of the title. I re-read your 1300 word post with as much care as I
think it deserves, trying to understand the meaning and intent of
every sentence, to be absolutely sure I'd listened to what you said.
Despite the fact that I already knew what was in it, I took 6 minutes
21 seconds to read your post, and a paltry reading speed of 205 words
per minute. There are frequently 10 or more posts a day on the ASA
listserve, and if I read all of them with the same level of care, I
would be spending at least an hour a day just reading the ASA list.
Clearly my intellectual abilities are not up to being a part of the
list, because as you say, a PhD level person should be able to read
400-500 words per minute with ease. It's not even as if Cameron's
prose is difficult to read. If I were timing myself reading one of
Paul's epistles, I expect the reading speed would drop to about a
quarter of that if I were to gain a similar measure of understanding.
[Does anyone else find Paul hard to read, or am I just thick?]

However, in reality I don't consider myself an intellectual pigmy -
just someone who wants to do justice to what is written. It has often
been my experience on this list that people don't really listen to
what I say; they twist it round and make it look as though I said
something entirely different. Hence I'll often say "Are you
listening?" or "No that's not what I said". The obvious inference
from this is that people don't read properly what is said, which is
probably a function of the large number of excessively long posts on
the list, meaning that people skip over stuff and don't really think
about or listen to what is being said.

 It took me at least 15-20 minutes to
> write it.  I figure, if someone is not willing to take 3 minutes to read
> something that I took five times as long to write, putting in quite a bit of
> thought and effort (excising parts, re-arranging others, taking time to
> choose the best word, taking time to build all the proper qualifications
> into my example, etc.), well then ...

Well, then, Cameron, evidently your typing skills are also vastly
superior to mine. To compose 1300 words of text in 20 minutes
requires an _average_ typing speed of 65 words per minute (not
counting thinking or editing time). That's flat out for me, if I
didn't think about what I said and typed out a stream of consciousness
without thinking about it, I'd probably not do better than 65 or 70
words per minute.

It is easy if you are a fast touch typist to churn out reams of text;
it demands a lot more thought to cut it down to a digestible size. It
is often the case that less is more.

So I propose the following as a self-discipline exercise for list
members. Make sure you compose your response in an editor that gives
you a live word count as you type ( MS Word 2007 does this). Then aim
to keep your posts to at most 400 words. I think if we all exercised
this discipline the list would be much more readable and I genuinely
believe the dialogue would be more productive.

Not counting this preamble, the following more detailed response on
Martian sculptures was one I composed in MS words. The final word
count is 365 words; initially it was 380, and I found several parts
that could be lost and in the process improved the clarity.

Moan over, technical content follows:

Suppose if you converted one of the chromosomes in the human genome to
bits and found the number of bits was the product of two large prime
numbers. Then you arranged them in a rectangular array to form a
bitmap, displayed it on the screen, and saw a traditional Nativity
scene, complete with snow, animals, wise men and so forth, together
with the message “Merry Christmas Professor Dawkins, explain how this
evolved”. Given this, I think you would have a fair case for saying
that it was the action of an intelligent agent, and the nature of the
scene might point fairly and squarely to the Christian God.

That is how I conceive of Cameron’s Martian Sculptures. If such a
thing happened, which defied naturalistic explanation, we’d be stupid
to look for naturalistic causes. If such a thing ever happened we’d
be compelled to believe, ASA-list orthodoxy or not. But there is no
evidence that such a thing has happened.

Now I based my example on the Aricebo message that was sent out by
radio telescope. It was a sequence of 1’s and 0’s that came to the
product of two primes, and when arranged in a bitmap array showed a
message (I think some representation of numbers, an outline of a
human, a double helix to represent DNA and something based on the
distance of the planets to the sun). Suppose an alien, DNA-based life
form on another planet intercepted the signal and saw the meaningful
picture. They would reason that an intelligent life form was
attempting to communicate with the message. They might see the double
helix and say “we’re made of that too”. So they would have a
naturalistic explanation – creatures like them made of DNA were
attempting to communicate. The science of biology offers them an
explanation for the origin of the message.

But the “Human Genome Christmas Card” offers no prospect of a
scientific explanation. Nor have we seen any evidence of such a
thing. Or Martian statues with no tell-tale evidence such as fossils,
discarded tools etc, or messages written in the stars. Moreover, I
don’t believe God reveals Himself like that – not in a way that
compels belief.


> Anyhow, I'll be briefer here.
> 1.  I remember reading your "five gods out of a machine" argument on this
> list about a year ago.  It makes a valid point.
> 2.  You're ducking the epistemological issue raised by my Martian sculpture
> example.  The example specifies that we have no prior knowledge of any
> intelligence in the universe other than the human.  If it is a *requirement*
> for a design inference (as many here insist it is) that we know in advance
> that a designer of the requisite sort in fact exists, then we cannot infer
> design from the Martian sculptures.  In the scenario I have sketched, our
> only evidence that such a designer ever existed is the sculptures
> themselves.  Nor can you argue, as you argue below, that it seems reasonable
> that the universe should have produced other rational beings like ourselves,
> and therefore that such beings carved the sculptures.  You don't know that
> the universe has in fact produced any other intelligent races (unless you
> use the sculptures themselves as evidence, which gives away the game). Thus,
> you remain without independent knowledge that such designers exist, and the
> design inference therefore isn't (according to many here) legitimate.  I, on
> the other hand, hold that we need no such independent knowledge, and that
> the existence of the sculptures alone would be sufficient to prove that such
> intelligent beings exist.  So do you agree with the "ASA-list orthodoxy" on
> this point, or with me?
> I didn't have time to count the words, but I hope this is brief enough for
> you.  :-)
> Cameron.
> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Iain Strachan" <>
> To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>
> Cc: "asa" <>
> Sent: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 2:55 PM
> Subject: Re: Of Martian Sculptures (was: Re: [asa] on science and
> meta-science)
>> Dear Cameron,
>> First I'll just note the following.
>> My post was 439 words long, including a quotation from Keith.  (383)
>> without.  Your reply was 1306 words long - over three times the
>> length.  Is it really necessary to be this verbose?  The trouble I
>> have is that I don't have sufficient time to take it all in and in
>> replying am afraid I'll have missed some vital point.  If you could
>> try and be more succinct that risk would be lowered.  So let me try
>> and summarise your two points as succinctly as I can.
>> 1.  Just as Intelligent Design (or miracles) can be invoked to explain
>> virtually anything, so can Neo-Darwinism.  (And it is).
>> 2.  Suppose you find Rushmore-like statues on Mars but absolutely no
>> trace of the creators of the statues.  Are you justified in drawing a
>> design inference even though you know nothing of the nature of the
>> designers?  If you are, then why doesn't the biological example
>> follow?
>> Is there anything essential I missed out?
>> In answer to point 1.
>> I don't know quite what you expected, but I agree with  you.  Recently
>> I gave a talk to a church "men's breakfast" (following on from a talk
>> about Creation and ID), which I titled "Five Gods out of a Machine".
>> I based it around the idea of a poor literary device; the "deus ex
>> machina", where the difficulties of a plot were resolved at the end by
>> a God appearing on a crane and magically sorting everything out, as
>> opposed to them being resolved within the story or the actions of the
>> characters.  My "Five Gods" out of the machine were:
>> (1)  The appeal to coincidence.
>> (Take the story I posted in the Quantum Consciousness thread about
>> what happened to my father-in-law - compelled by an overwhelming
>> feeling to do something apparently quite irrational, which turned out
>> to save the day - as if some premonition of the future had happened).
>> Your atheist/rationalist is compelled to invoke coincidence on this
>> one  (or maybe say it was a lie).
>> (2) The appeal to the Intelligent Designer.  (I think I've dealt with
>> that in the previous post).
>> (3) The appeal to Evolution (your point).
>> (4) The appeal to the Multiverse.  In most universes nothing
>> interesting happens - the anthropic principle states that we just
>> happen to be in one where interesting things did happen.  Just make
>> enough Universes and you're bound to hit the jackpot sometimes just as
>> if you buy enough lottery tickets.  Note it's infinitely pliable as
>> there is no limit on the number of universes.
>> (5) The appeal to Science we haven't discovered yet.  We don't know
>> now but we will given time.  Again, unspecific and hence unlimited in
>> explanatory power, just like the designer.
>> All five of these, I suggest are infinitely malleable, just like my
>> polynomial of arbitrary degree, and hence are equally unsatisfactory
>> as explanations.
>> In answer to point 2. (Martian Sculptures).
>> I think it's wrong to say we know nothing of the nature of the
>> creators of the statues. I think it would be reasonable to infer that
>> just as intelligent life evolved on our planet, so it did on Mars, so
>> we might well infer that the creators of the statues were somewhat
>> like us (multicellular organisms, DNA etc).  But we don't presume that
>> God is made of cells and DNA.
>> However, I simply don't buy your scenario where all life vanished
>> without trace - no fossils, no discarded tools etc.  I think you would
>> expect to see those things if you found the statues.  Therefore I feel
>> that I must reject your example as unrealistic.
>> [511 words without the preamble - a reply of similar length (or even
>> shorter) would be appreciated - already I think my reply has become
>> somewhat too long].
>> Regards
>> Iain
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Received on Wed Nov 11 08:24:00 2009

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