28 August 2005

The Flying Spaghetti Monster in context

Those of you who haven’t visited the Flying Spaghetti Monster site yet need to. It’s a riot! (-:

the spark of pasta

One thing which struck me was that the site presents its case as if there were only three alternative theories of origins, namely Evolution, Intelligent Design and Pastafarianism. RealLife™ is seldom that simple, and it turns out that there is actually an enormous range of options to speculate on. Here’s an (incomplete) laundry list, presented roughly as a spectrum from least interventionist to most.

Gradualist Evolution AKA Naturalism

The basic idea here is that in the face of literally incredible odds, everything just fell together over time. Plasma begat hydrogen, which eventually formed stars; hydrogen begat other elements, which eventually formed planets; somewhere, somehow, enough molecules all bounced the right way (perhaps in “some warm little pond”, perhaps through radiant bombardment, perhaps via a clay template) and formed a self-reproducing assembly; this self-reproducing assembly through many trials and many errors “learned” through accidental changes in structure how to do stuff like locomote and survive in other environments, eventually to form all life from pelagobacter to primate inclusive.

Catastrophist Evolution

As above, but using catastrophes to shave off the less useful (or, if you’s a Stephen Jay Gould fan, least lucky) organisms and generally stimulate development. Often referred to as “Punctuated Equilibrium” or disparagingly as “Punk Eek”

The Independent Birth of Organisms

This one has a whack at solving a bunch of outstanding problems raised by the previous two. Periannan Senapathy, PhD, postulates that “some warm little pond” was highly prolific; that once the conditions for forming life became about right, it produced a whole swage of lifeforms. His “Cambrian Explosion” — the relatively sudden appearance of a huge variety of basic body plans in the fossil record — radiated from one place at essentially one time (there’s no impediment in his basic proposal to the pond having several rounds of production, or of there being a collection of ponds). At first glance, his idea sounds completely bizarre, but from a mathematical and genomic perspective, it’s the most plausible so far. It certainly adds a less inadequate feeling of scope to the odds.

Intelligent Design

Some features we observe cannot reasonably have been produced by gradual steps, and there is no evidence to support “scaffolding” sub-theories, so ID advocates use William of Ockham’s famous Razor to say that someone or something meddled with our devlopment, at least at those points. IDers pointedly avoid identifying a Designer, many because they truly do not believe that one has been identified, many because they believe that one has, but that intruding their chosen Designer into the argument would dissolve any scientific merit.

Pastafarianist

Pastafarians identify their Designer as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This has led to some very enjoyable excesses of literary imagination (“I was having a delicious meatball lasagna, I remember — and suddenly my eyes were filled with light, and the restaurant around me fell away, and there was nothing but His noodly appendage encircling me, caressing me. . . . I heard singing, and tomato sauce rained from the sky, and I saw angel hair pasta flying about with little farfalle wings and playing harps. It was beautiful.”). The fundamental assertion is that since one designer is as likely as any other, why not a Flying Spaghetti Monster? I would have chosen ingredients which were less obviously man-made, but in a way the artificiality of it underscores the point that their founder and apostle, Bobby Henderson.

Theistic Evolution

This viewpoint says that evolution happened, but that God dunnit. I struggle to see where any of the proponents plan to acquire any firm evidence in support of this idea from either naturalism or the Bible. It’s a little similar to the next one.

Progressive Creationist

This PoV is typified by Hugh Ross and his organisation Reasons To Believe. Hugh prefers to use the term “day-age creationism”. The basic idea is that new lifeforms were progressively created by God and added to Earth over a long period of time. A typical quote from his home page: ”A host of disparate evidences indicates that life appeared suddenly on Earth around 3.8 billion years ago and that this first life was metabolically complex.A host of disparate evidences indicates that life appeared suddenly on Earth around 3.8 billion years ago and that this first life was metabolically complex.” Sustaining the position from the Bible, espceially as new discoveries change the “playfield” again and again involves some amazing logical and linguistic contortions.

Old-Earth Creationism

This plays slightly less complicated linguistic games than Progressive Creationism to postulate that the Earth itself is billions of years old, but the life upon it is quite recent. One variation on this says that the Earth is young but most of the rest of the universe it is set in is ancient. One interesting reconciliation is Dr D Russel Humphreys’ ”White Hole” cosmology, which postulates the universe originating from a huge white hole, with Earth emerging quite late in the picture.

Young-Earth Creationism

This takes a reasonably literal view of the Bible and asserts that both the Earth and the life on it are quite young, typically 6-10,000 years. The “flagship” site for this PoV is Answers In Genesis, slthough there are a couple of livelier news sites, including an interesting one which lists origins-related news from all sides with little or no comment. One essentially obsolete version claims that God created ancient fossils and such just to fool us, but mainstream YEC simply calls the dating methods into question (key phrase: “were you there?”, sometimes expressed as “did someone stand there with a video recorder, or take notes?”).

Five-Minute World Hypothesis

Bertrand Russell once postulated “suppose the universe were suddenly created five minutes ago, complete with memories, historical and geological records, and so forth. That is, at the moment of creation, the universe would have all the evidence that it was billions of years old already ‘packed in.’ How could it ever be known that the creation of the universe did not occur five minutes ago?”. Commentators Lee and John G Archie remark that “from a purely empirical point of view, no evidence is available which could prove that God isn’t constantly creating the universe moment by moment”. An interesting epistemological question. The position is sometimes also named “Continuous Creation” although technically this represents only a subset.

Paganism/Miscellaneous

Before anyone’s dander gets up, think about the various flavours of official Paganism and tell me with a straight face that “Miscellaneous” isn’t a fair description of them — or in fact part of the point of Paganism in the first place (cf Wicca’s “An thou harm no other, do as thou wilt”. Most of the Pagans that I have knowingly met in real life and discussed this with are a little unclear on their origins theory. Probably the majority would plonk for a mysticised edition of Catastrophist Evolution.

However, within little-p paganism and also the assorted religions (including some of the biggies) that Victorian-era Europeans would have called “pagan” there are some pretty amazing scenarious laid out. Worlds and people being created from the heads or other body parts of dieties and so on. Stunningly detailed maps of the various levels and outposts of Hell, and ranks and units of angels, spirits or demons. One thing they all have in common is that their universes and/or people are all created from pre-existent objects.

One common variant is Panspermia, which has Earth seeded with life by aliens, with varying degrees of naturalism (from the interstellar spores of Svante August Arrhenius to Lafayette Ronald Hubbard’s invasion by Xenu and the Galactic Confederation 75 million years ago). This is not really an origins theory, since all it does is displace the question of origin to some alien location.

Discussion

Each of these positions has factions within it (e.g. Big-Bang vs Steady-State vs Cyclic-Universe within Naturalism), and there are other positions I didn’t feel enough like growing old to list. Some of them could be coalesced a little (e.g. they could be grouped by some undergirding axioms such as Atheism vs Theism vs Yahweh-derivatives) but sometimes “insignificant” positional differences produce sweeping behavioural changes.

Another factor to beware of is kind of common to all human endeavours: having the core purpose hijacked either for personal gain, or by individuals carried away with “purifying” the purpose to represent only their own interpretation of it.

However, I believe that I’ve made my key point: the positions aren’t as simple as many people would like them to be, or have us all believe. FSM is very helpful in clarifying some of the factors involved, and I think many fields of endeavor would benefit from having an FSM-like pigeon thrown in amongst their academic cats.

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