Thursday, October 2, 2014

Phlogiston Can Do Anything!

I recently finished reading A Meaningful World by Benjamin Wiker & Jonathan Witt. It’s a brilliant read about how the arts & sciences reveal the genius and purpose of nature as opposed to mindlessness and purposelessness.

Just about any science or nature documentary will express a kind of "Alice in Wonderland" amazement about nature. This often goes hand in hand with a “dogma”’ of meaninglessness. For some, all things MUST ultimately come from “nothing”, meaning nothing intelligent, and with no intended purpose, regardless of how brilliantly it is put together. The finely tuned universe, our planet and the first single celled life form just magically appear by themselves given enough time for matter & energy to jostle around. Once life creates itself, it evolves thoughtlessly into many things including us. It seems mindlessness can do things better than the human mind can. If fact, mindlessness can explain anything if we try hard enough.

This brings us to a discussion about phlogiston as mentioned in chapter five of the book in the context of evolution. Phlogiston is the Greek word for “burn” or to “set on fire”. In the 1600’s and 1700’s scientist believed that things that burned had phlogiston in them (like an element) that was released during burning. This explained why things were lighter after burning. It also explains why a candle would go out if placed under a glass globe. The released phlogiston would fill the globe and eventually snuff out the candle.

A French chemist named Antoine Lavoisier believed that phlogiston did not exist. He showed how burning pure mercury would make it heavier as it took on oxygen and became mercury oxide. Phlogistians explained this away by saying that sometimes phlogiston has negative weight. Lavoisier’s frustration comes through in this quote:

Chemists have made phlogiston a vague principle, which is not strictly defined and which consequently fits all explanations demanded of it. Sometimes it has weight, sometimes it has not; sometimes it is free fire, sometimes it is fire combined with an earth; sometimes it passes though the pores of vessels, sometimes they are impenetrable to it. It explains at once causticity and non-causticity, transparency and opacity, color and the absence of colors. It is veritable Proteus that changes its form every instant!”
– Quoted in Brock, Norton History, pp. 111-12.

Seems the phlogiston arguments were not only bad science, but also bad problem solving. First make a conclusion and then find the facts. Facts that do not fit are explained by pilling up assumptions until they do fit. In all fairness, this can relate to bad religion too. If your answer to every question is, “God did it”, you won’t be a good evangelist. If “God is good” only when He agrees with you, then your religion has become linked to our own selfishness.
In a similar way Darwinism is used as the do-anything and do-everything explanation of life. I remember a conversation about moral conscience given “survival of the fittest”. An example was given of someone who felt very guilty for forgetting to leave a tip at a restaurant after a good meal with good service. He felt so bad that he went all the way back to the restaurant from his home to find the server and give her the gratuity. Why? He almost never frequents that restaurant and is likely to never see the server again.  Survival of the fittest can explain selfishness, but this? The answer given was that since humans live in communities, we evolved an instinct to take care of others in our tribe which increases the chance of our own survival. Sometimes natural selection explains selfishness, sometimes self-giving.  Any situation can be explained with a wave of the evolutionary magic wand.

In another conversation, structured music was brought up as part of human culture which makes us fundamentally different than animals. Consider our closest animal relatives; about 96% of a chimps DNA is genetically similar to ours, but they share 0% of our music. I wouldn't necessarily expect a 96% match, but if all we essentially are is a surviving DNA code, I would expect greater than a 0% match. Whale songs and birds “singing” were given as the evolutionary origins that explain human music. I was left to wonder, “are those really songs or just the sounds that whales and birds make and it is we who call them songs”, but it’s hard to argue with a magic wand.

An example was given in the book about finding a species of cheetah that could run 6000mph instead of 60mph. Natural section in and around chasing down food would not explain such speed. We would have to look elsewhere. Similarly, human intelligence is evolutionary overkill in terms of only surviving and reproducing. Monkeys survive just fine on this planet. There is no need for a species to be so much more intelligent than them, let alone a species capable of producing individuals like Newton, Einstein and Shakespeare while the rest of their kind marvel at not only their existence, but existence itself. If the universe is meaningless, we are the only species unfortunate enough to realize it.

“Some people will pretend to see things to suit their own purposes while missing the true signatures of design all around them, because to see the design and point it out would risk their position.”
A Meaningful World, p.40.


  1. Nicely done, Ben. Phlogiston is a fine example of how science works. It took the experiments of Count Rumford, cannon boring to produce heat, to show that phlogiston couldn't exist. The problem is that the Darwinian model for evolution isn't really falsifiable, in the sense that one can construct a measurement to show it's false (as the ID proponents have tried to do with "irreducible complexity"). On the other hand it isn't a good model for evolution, because it doesn't seem to explain lots of evolutionary facts... Non-theists like it because it seems to do away with the need for a providential God, but even a non-theist like Thomas Nagel will insist that the Darwinian model is inadequate, and that there seems to be a built-in teleology that guides evolution (and the formation of the universe). See his "Mind and Cosmos".

    1. Thanks for the input Bob. Always good to hear from a real scientist on such matters.

  2. I used to be a staunch Darwinist--until I started thinking about it for myself.

    I'm not even kidding. I've come to the conclusion that Darwinism is about seeing the forest and missing the trees. When I tried narrowing it down to what happens at a "speciation event", no matter how I looked at it, I couldn't find any way of making it work without the supernatural--contradictory to Darwinism.

    If one species evolves from another by nature, that necessarily means that at some point, the first member of the new species was conceived by parents of a completely different species. Does that happen by nature?

    And when I've presented this to Darwinists, they were not convinced but they failed to even address my argument. Instead came the conversation-stopper "you just don't understand Darwinism"--even though they didn't strike me as understanding it enough to explain it--as well as arguments that didn't even address my argument, much less refute it. They would talk about genetics being the mechanism when my argument stands or falls irrespective of the natural mechanism; they would use the old "color gradient" claim to justify the unfounded claim that microevolution naturally becomes macroevolution given enough time. And sometimes they would talk about "a 2000-year-old book" even when I didn't even mention the Bible but only looked at Darwinism on its own terms, not even presuming any faith to be true.

    Since then, not only have I become a young earth creationist but I've come to realize certain things: if abiogenesis happened by nature, then by definition it is possible by nature for us to create life (whatever happens in nature is possible at least in theory for us to recreate). Is that consistent with the faith?

    I've come to reject a lot of the "scientific history" narrative as being obviously false, given that it 1) paints the Church and religion as "the enemy" and 2) has a major gap in the West during the Middle Ages.

    God bless you for being bold enough to point out folly!

    1. The book actually has a section about abiogenesis. Cells were thought to be simple blobs of matter in Darwin's day, but as science learns more and more how complex even the simplest cell is, accepting that the very first cell is a product of chance seems unreasonable to many scientists. Sort of like accepting that all the parts of a car just come together mindlessly given enough time for them to jostle around. Thanks for your comment.