The Absurdity Of Debate

by John A. Davison
13 February 2010

The internet teems with "debating societies," "debating" everything from global warming versus global cooling, to Conservatism versus Liberalism, to Creationism versus Darwinism, the list goes on and on. Each of these "factions" has attracted large numbers of dedicated followers who expend enormous amounts of energy defending their own views as they deprecate those of their adversaries. These "groupthinktanks" are well known to every enlightened observer of the contemporary scene. Here are some representative examples of the more prominent ones engaged in the Creationism/Darwinism debate. William Dembski's Uncommon Descent debates the Darwinian factions, Panda's Thumb (with its subsidiary After The Bar Closes), Pharyngula and The latter three, with the strength of numbers, do everything in their power to undermine the arguments out forward by Dembski's faction.

I am going to examine the role of debate in the resolution of scientific matters with the purpose of showing that not in a single instance has debate every served to play a significant role in the advance of scientific progress. Quite the contrary.

Early in the history of Geology as a science a "debate" developed as to the causes of the geological changes that had shaped the surface of the earth. It soon segregated into two opposing factions, the "Neptunists" and the "Vulcanists." We now know that both factions were partially correct in understanding the forces which have shaped the contemporary geological scene. In other words, a debate was meaningless.

This example is especially significant as it didn't end there. It played a significant role in the "debate" concerning the origin of life as well. George Wald, Nobel laureate in chemistry, proposed the "organic soup" hypothesis, thereby allying himself with the "Neptunist" faction by suggesting that life began in the sea, the idea being that when a sufficient concentration of organic molecules accumulated, a living, evolving entity would spontaneously arise.

Sidney Fox became a sort of latter day Vulcanist when he demonstrated that one could make artificial proteins simply by heating a mixture of amino acids, the heat serving to drive the reaction in the direction of a dehydration synthesis. I was present in the early 1960's as a faculty member at Florida State University and witnessed the production of these "proteinoids" in Sidney's laboratory. You can imagine the enthusiasm which was generated when he showed us the proteinoid spheres under the microscope, some of which had assumed a dumbell form suggesting that they were dividing!

Of course we now know that neither of these two alternative hypotheses have in any way clarified the great mystery of the origin of life or its subsequent evolution.

Another example of the futility of debate is offered by the "debate" which developed in the early days of the microscope. The early lens systems, which were capable of large magnification, were plagued by the absence of correction for both spherical and chromatic abberation. The result was that it was easy to imagine structures that actually were not present. One of these was the "homunculus," literally little man, and there developed two factions, the "Ovists" who "saw" the homunculus inside the egg and the "Spermatists" who could "see" him hunkered down inside the much smaller sperm! It is hard to believe isn't it? Once again we witness the futility of debate as both sides proved to be wrong. However it is important to recognize that there is no question that all the information necessary to produce a normal organism is present within the unfertilized egg. In that limited sense the "Ovists" were closer to the truth.

The present controversy between the Darwinians and the Creationists has distilled down to the question of "Intelligent Design," a notion anathema to the Darwinian mindset.

William Paley claimed that where there is design there is a designer. It is my conviction that is an unnecessary and unjustified conclusion. What cannot be denied is that where there IS design there WAS a designer. That is all that need be assumed. Furthermore, I can't imagine why anyone would question a designed universe in the first place. We see design in everything from the Bohr atom to the solar system so why would one question that everything in between was not designed as well? A designed universe is a tacit beginning assumption upon which all of science has always depended. Design is implicit in Einstein's lifelong determinism. That which is "determined" MUST have been "designed." For all practical purpose "designed" and "determined" are synonyms.

"EVERYTHING is determined…by forces over which we have no control."
Albert Einstein (my emphasis)

And so I have illustrated the futility of debate as a device suitable for the resolution of differences. All debate really does is further cement congenital convictions which are immune to reason in any event. I recommend William Wright's book "Born That Way" for the scientific evidence supporting that well documented conclusion.

Shakespeare recognized this weakness in the human condition long ago with a perfect definition of debate.

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signfying nothing."
Macbeth, Act 5