Sunday, 30 August 2009

The importance of information in the evolution debate

Creationists often mention the concept of information as a challenge to the grand theory of evolution.

Information as a concept has long been recognised. It is something all people agree exists even if there is debate about how it is categorised. Archaeologists discovering inscriptions know there is a meaning even if they do not know what the meaning is, and most people would not dispute this. People recognise several things that are designed. Though one could say they do so because they already know these things are designed, such as a car or computer; there are examples of things we are not previously aware of, but we would still recognise intention.

As I have mentioned previously, information is not composed of, nor derived from matter. Of course it can be stored in matter.

There are several concepts of what information is, at least in terms of how we should represent information theory mathematically.

The application to evolution centres on the connection to DNA. DNA is recognised as carrying information. It has meaning. It resembles a blueprint, and metaphorically is one.

We can study how information originates. If the source of all information can be shown to be greater information (that is intelligence), then this conclusion also applies to DNA.

There are 2 potential ways that one could show information cannot be produced by itself. It may be possible to show this mathematically, in which case we can be absolutely certain (or essentially certain if the proof is statistical).

If not mathematically, it may be possible to show this empirically: that is, in investigating all the billions of examples of information that have been directly observed; if all are shown to have come from higher information sources and zero are self producing, then we can be extremely confident of our thesis.

Therefore the impossibility of information coming from non-information, mathematically or empirically, disproves Darwinism. Rather than being a red-herring as is sometimes claimed, information theory is absolutely central.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Disregarding the rule of law

Since 1961 until recently the law in New Zealand stated that parents could use physical discipline for the purpose of correction but it was illegal to assault a child. The law was both intrinsically reasonable, clear in its intent, and effective in court. In 2007 the law was modified at the behest of a politician who has a philosophical opposition to the use of corporal punishment.

There was significant citizen opposition to changing the law at the time.

The new law is regarded a shambles. Persons on both sides of the debate have variably stated that it allows and forbids smacking children. Some have even claimed that it forbids using non-physical discipline on a child. And legal scholars have stated that the wording is a mess.
This is not clear legislation. In creating this law, Parliament abandoned its constitutional responsibility to say with clarity just which conduct is criminal.
Here is the wording of the law.

In response to the new law there was a referendum to which the vast majority (88%) of New Zealanders (who responded) voted that: A smack as part of good parental correction should not be a criminal offence.

The current government claimed to oppose the law when it was enacted 2 years ago. They were not in power at the time. Their response to the recent referendum is to say that the current law is working and there is no need to change it. They have also suggested that they will reinforce to the police not to prosecute minor infractions of the law.

I am not certain one can say the law is working when over 200 people have been investigated by the police for smacking since the law came into place (~2 years). And it hasn't prevented 15 children from being murdered. (The population of the country is 4 million.)

Telling the populace that the police will not prosecute them even though the law states their behaviour is criminal is a request from the state for us to trust them. But a request for trust can only be made by someone that has proven themselves trustworthy. The refusal to change the law despite saying that they didn't like the original law, despite the fact that the vast majority of New Zealanders want it changed, and despite the fact they are asking the police to disregard the law; proves they are not worthy of the trust they are asking for.

However the major problem here is not about parents being able to physically discipline their children for corrective purposes, as important as that is. What is incredibly pernicious is the idea that actions should be criminalised while the investigators of such actions are told to ignore these actions. Such thinking is stunningly foolish for any person, and malevolent for a politician. It utterly disregards the rule of law. It resembles the monarchy of a vacillating king; where men are praised or condemned at his whim.

The government needs to decide what behaviour they consider criminal and make the law clear. Unclear law where people are uncertain whether or not their behaviour breaks the law, and law that criminalises people but denies it will prosecute them (most of the time), are both unacceptable.

Some may claim that the police often use their discretion in prosecuting crime. This is true. There are several reasons why this may be the case.
  • A crime is identified but there is insignificant evidence against the perpetrator.
  • The criminal has committed several crimes and the police want to concentrate initially on the most severe.
  • Delay is being used to identify further perpetrators.
  • Police lack staff to adequately investigate all crimes so choose to focus on what they consider the most important.
The difference in the above examples are that decisions are being made based on what is possible, or practical. It is not the choice to deliberately ignore criminal behaviour.

This kind of approach to law could eventually lead to all citizens being guilty of criminal behaviour and the state arbitrarily prosecuting individuals it finds inconvenient.

Wisdom supporting liberty

Image source

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Optimising a health system

It could be argued that the state has no place involving itself in healthcare. And I have sympathy with that view. Government should focus first on its primary responsibilities such as justice and national defence. But many governments are involved in healthcare; and the promise to deliver health will attract votes in a democracy. So here are my thoughts of how I think government involvement could be useful and deliver good, cost contained (for the government) healthcare. This is based on my ideas in the previous post.
  1. I think that people should be responsible for their own health care including funding.
  2. I think the proportion of people needing reasonable funding at some stage in their life means the concept of sharing risk via insurance for most illness is meaningless.
  3. I think if people do not take care of their health, they will likely still get care and others will advocate for them; but there will be costs that someone has to cover.
The second point means that individuals each need to save roughly the average amount of money spent per person in their lifetime. If most people use a moderate amount of money in health and that is say $200,000 on average, then every person should be encouraged to save, say, $400,000 over their lifetime, much of which will be used in their later years.

The third point is important because the situation occurring as the result of people making bad decisions will be used to argue for socialised government in the name of caring.

I think the Singaporean system, or a model based on it, is worth considering.

Here is some reading on the Singaporean system as it is.
My proposal is essentially: government enforced compulsory health saving. Because under this proposed system the government will remove itself from the funding, there will be a decreased requirement for tax monies; and the savings will be cost neutral for the individual. The basic rules would be:
  1. All workers are to pay 5% of their income into an individual, managed, low-risk health account.
  2. There is a tax cut of the same amount so individuals have the same take home pay.
  3. Employers are not required to give any money toward their employees account, nor can unions force this issue. This prevents people being locked into jobs because of the health benefits.
  4. The money is yours, it cannot be taken by the government, it can be passed on in a will at death to other healthcare accounts, hospitals or medical research; or possibly as cash to the beneficiaries of the will.
  5. Compulsory insurance is paid from the account to cover rare, unexpected, high-cost events (eg. kidney failure requiring life long dialysis).
  6. You can use your account to pay healthcare costs. The potential healthcare and the costs are determined by government; that is, both what you can get medically and the maximum amount you can pay. It would include doctor, nurse, hospital visits, etc. It would include prescription and immunisation costs. It would cover dental care.
  7. You can only cover your own and your dependants healthcare costs.
  8. You can purchase a higher level of care, or medical services outside normal practice, but this is unable to come from your healthcare account.
  9. All provision is by private providers who can charge what they will, though adequate competition should keep costs down.
This solution intends to do several things. It means that people pay for their own medical care which, while being somewhat unpredictable, is able to be planned for. It intends to minimise government actually paying for individual health. It prevents people making poor decisions from becoming an unsustainable financial burden. It doesn't add to the burden of employers who do not have a responsibility to the personal health of their workers other than the provision of a safe work environment. Of course employers are free to offer benefits as they wish as part of valuing employees, but there is no financial incentive to do so, nor the need to increasingly complicate tax law. It limits other family members from pressuring individuals to pay for their care. It still allows people to purchase any extra healthcare they wish as money allows (unlike the Canadian system).

There are problems. It does not deal to those who are not employed. It does not deal well with congenital conditions. It does not cover visitors to the country such as tourists. And it does not offer a solution as to how a different system can be transitioned to this. But with medical costs increasing rapidly because of new and better diagnostic and treatment modalities, it is impossible for governments to sustain future expenditures. And when individuals see how much an intervention really does cost, then they may consider whether the benefit is worth it.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Responsibility and costs for healthcare

There is much in the news about healthcare due to the current political tinkerings in the US. I have my ideas about structuring a health system, somewhat based on my experience and what I have learnt about the Singaporean system.

There are probably several reasons why costs are so high in the US (and elsewhere). One significant reason is litigation. Until the legislators are willing to cap "compensation" payable then things are unlikely to get cheaper. The argument that someone is entitled to such extreme amounts of money because he suffered harm neglects that these costs will be recovered from future patients. Indemnity insurance in Western, non-US health is significantly less. Consider perhaps $NZ 1000–2000 per annum in New Zealand to > $US 100,000 in the United States.

This aside, if one is to judge healthcare proposals there are several issues around health and economics that need consideration.

Who pays?

I care little if you wish to spend your money on Kopi Luwak? I am content with the brew at the local cafe, or even instant coffee. But I care a lot if you spend my money on such. It doesn't matter if nationalising health is cost neutral. If that cost is now paid by government and not individuals, then the government obtains that money from individuals via tax. Thus I am forced to cover your health costs, even if I made health choices intended to save me money long term. But the government payment of costs is even more complicated. There is no fixed amount of money. Individual payments to healthcare have different effects on the economy to government payments. Government removal of money from the economy decreases productivity; thus even a cost neutral program will leave the economy poorer in production, thus individuals worse off.

Who gets sick?

It is said that 75% of health expenditure is spent in the last 5 years of people's lives. Now that is not every person, but it is a lot of them. We don't know when we are going to die, and the increased medicalisation of our lives means that much is spent as we age and become increasingly infirm and near the end of our life.

This may be money well spent. It may maintain people's independence. And if it is your own money then do as you will. But as one becomes increasingly unwell he should be assessing his life and making plans for when he dies. And increasing medical possibilities potentially means increased costs. Yes you can spend the last 15 days of your life half conscious hooked up to a respirator in the Intensive Therapy Unit (ITU) with metastatic cancer that has failed 3 previous therapies, but I am not certain this is a gain over symptom control at home or in a hospice. Don't get me wrong, these things can be hard to predict, and ITU is often appropriate, even if ultimately unsuccessful. And these are decisions for individuals, and we all weigh different options differently. But people need to think about their own mortality.

How many people have high costs?

Following on from costs occurring at the end of life, it needs to be remembered that this is a cost that a high proportion of people will face. Rare expensive events can be covered by spreading the risk, that is how insurance works. But if events become common then every person has to cover their own cost. If we are spending $400,000 over the final years of life for say every second person (the other dying in their sleep after a long healthy life incurring minimal costs), that means we need to collect ~$200,000 per person to cover end of life expenses. People in countries with socialised medicine talk of how they have paid their taxes all their life, and this is true (though some goes to education and roading, and some is frivolously wasted), but I think they are unaware of how quickly the tax that they have paid is used up.

Personal responsibility

Our own health should be something we take responsibility for. It is true that many things happen that we have no control over: accidents, infections, diseases, poor genetics. But much is known about healthy lifestyle. Debates around increased risks of the order of 10–100% are difficult to confirm. But it is clear, for example, that smoking tobacco, morbid obesity, and base jumping do not usually improve one's health. Healthcare provision should take into account personal responsibility. (Though I think this intrinsically, I am aware that it can become politicised with claims that "politically incorrect behaviour" is "unhealthy").

The problem with this is people often don't take responsibility. And when they subsequently get unwell it seems unkind to leave them to suffer the consequences of their decision. Mercy is toward the undeserving.

Isn't health provision caring for those who are suffering?

Yes, and no. It is true that we should think of caring for those who suffer, at least from a Christian perspective. But previously this has been about providing food and shelter, giving clothes, comforting people in pain. This is something that most individuals can give to another. But modern health care is more extensive. We can diagnose and treat many illnesses, often at significant monetary cost. It is not something that most individuals can do, and it is hard for many individuals to cover the cost of doing so for others. I applaud hospital and charity work in the third world. I think these are excellent endeavours, frequently they do much good for minimal cost. But I am cautious when people say that everyone is entitled to healthcare irrespective of cost. Someone does have to pay and there are competing claims to money. The statement that no cost is too great for good health is just not true.

Health insurance?

People need to rethink this. Healthcare costs are somewhat foreseeable. We can budget for routine doctor visits, prescription costs, spectacles, regular dental care. It should be possible to assess approximately how often people and families need to attend to their health, and budget for this, with a moderate margin. Insurance is not about these costs.

You don't get insurance to cover the cost of your mortgage each month. If you did, the company would pay your mortgage, and your premiums would cover that plus an overhead. It would be more expensive. Health insurance should be insurance. It is to cover that which you do not expect to use it for. Insurance should have a high excess (save up the excess in discounted premiums and keep it in a bank account) and cover rare (and expensive) events that do not happen to most people. That way you have cheap insurance as an insurance, and you don't pay overheads for costs that you know are going to be regular.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Critique of my Young Earth Creationism post

My post on young earth creationism raised several responses here and at Vox Popoli where it was originally posted. See also here and here. As well as a response on theologyonline.

These responses suggest some further aspects need to be discussed.

It is important for me to clarify what I was trying to do. I deliberately chose to give a scientific/ philosophical defence rather than a scriptural one. I thought it would interest a broader audience. And it is important to realise the issues in this debate are philosophical.

There were 2 main points I wanted to make.
  1. There is a fundamental difference between operational and historical science. Thus historical science can be challenged by types of knowledge (such as testimony and documentary knowledge) in a way that operational science cannot be challenged.
  2. Evidence against YEC that presupposes evolution is true is invalid. (In fact evidence against any theory presuming a priori that it is false is invalid).
So if people came away unconvinced yet more aware of their own preconceptions, and they could see that YEC is a valid philosophy that can be considered—and either accepted or rejected—then I am content with this.

The main complaints were the lack of positive evidence for YEC and the lack of exegetical support given for the YEC position.

Addressing the lack of positive evidence first. This complaint is reasonable, especially given my title. However the reasons given above are why I was cautious to discuss specific issues. Until these issues are dealt with, debates are frequently at cross purposes. YECists are forever pointing out the assumptions that non-YECists hold.

I had considered that too much discussion on the merits of, say, helium diffusion dating (and why evolutionists disagree with it) would miss the point that evolutionists are assuming ancient dates because they have a prior commitment to such, and thus they are judging other dating methods by their agreement, or not, to radiometric dating. Whereas my position is that the questioning of all dating methods is legitimate. As it was, the debates in the comments still frequently assumed the validity of old earth dogma.

Do YECists not also have a prior commitment to younger dates? Yes, they do. But they admit their commitment to a biblical timeframe. Evolutionists frequently deny their prior commitment and pretend they are somehow more objective, when in fact they are choosing the clocks that suit their purposes.

Nevertheless, the inclusion of more positive evidence of a young earth would have improved the post and it may be something I could address at a later stage.

My choice to avoid a scriptural defence on why the Bible demands YEC was deliberate, as mentioned. I laid out the basic beliefs for the benefit of those who did not know what they were; to clarify what YECists believe and also what they do not believe despite accusations to the contrary. However the responses and a conversation I had with a friend a few weeks ago has suggested that I should probably give the scriptural reasons for the YEC position at some stage.

Friday, 21 August 2009

New Zealand voters do not wish to criminalise smacking

Following from my recent post on whether or not parents who smack should be criminals. The preliminary results to the recent New Zealand citizen's initiated referendum are available. To the question:
  • Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?
1.6 million of an eligible 3.0 million people (54%) voted by postal ballot.

Vote Yes
  • A smack as part of good parental correction should be a criminal offence
got 12%.

Vote No
  • A smack as part of good parental correction should not be a criminal offence
got 88%.

Results of referendums are not binding for New Zealand government.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Dog food?

Auckland resident Paea Taufa killed and cooked his dog this past weekend. He was visited by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) but not prosecuted as his actions are legal.
He rendered the dog unconscious with a blow to the head before slitting its throat, which is regarded as humane.

Under the Animal Welfare Act it is legal to kill a dog in New Zealand if the animal is slaughtered swiftly and painlessly.
That did not stop several persons from condemning him and calling for a ban on the consumption of dog meat in New Zealand. SPCA Auckland chief executive Garth Halliday said,
Although we appreciate the difference of cultures that exist in a place like New Zealand, the SPCA finds this sort of treatment of any animal to be totally unacceptable,... Even though the law says you can humanely kill an animal, you should not be treating any animal like this.
And SPCA chief executive Robyn Kippenberger said,
The slaughtering, roasting and eating of a dog or other companion animal is simply abhorrent to our culture as New Zealanders.
Korean Garden Trust spokesman Stanley Park was surprised it was legal in New Zealand. He also stated,
Dog eating may be part of our history, but most Koreans today would consider eating dogs totally barbaric - and our culture actually forbids us making a meal of animals that are considered companions.
Save Animals From Exploitation voiced objection as well. Hans Kriek said,
While we are opposed to the killing of all animals for eating, banning the consumption of dog meat would be a good start.
And a variety of others have expressed their thoughts on this, many of the opponents calling for a ban.

Now I have never tasted dog meat. I don't have a strong desire to facilitate my consumption of it at a later stage, though I would be prepared to try it, or eat it if offered it in a culture where my refusal would be seen as offensive.

But why the call for banning? You don't like the idea of eating a dog, don't eat one.

Kriek's comment is revealing. He opposes all meat eating and just sees this as a step in eventual banning of all carnivory. It is, however, probably the most consistent position among the opponents.

When people find something icky what makes them strongly desire to prevent everyone else from doing it? These same people would likely strongly object if I imposed bans on their preferred behaviours. I am not a particular fan of tattoos or body piercing, but I do not support calls to make it illegal.

I am all for debate, and some things should be illegal. But the speed at which people are prepared to jump from "I wouldn't do that" to "no one should ever be allowed to do that" is phenomenal. This in an age when the call for tolerance is greater than at many other times in history.*

* I am not suggesting I support this age's call for tolerance, just noting that we are in it—though rapidly moving away from it.

Friday, 14 August 2009

A defence of Young Earth Creationism

Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is multifaceted. It is a metaphysical framework; a scripturally informed philosophy of nature which includes a scientific model that seeks to evaluate and explain the world. Thus it touches a variety of topics. There are limits in what can be accomplished with a short blog post, but I think that some clarity can be brought to the debate, specifically identifying the source of the conflict and the domain in which the debate needs to occur.

Antagonism to YEC is predominantly philosophical, rooted in naturalism. Opposition to the YEC position is frequently made using suppositions antagonistic to YEC; the proof of error is therefore in the axioms not the conclusions.

YEC has a long history. It has been the predominant position throughout most of the history of the West, until the introduction of uniformitarian interpretations in the 18th and 19th century by the non-catastrophic geologists. These geologists influenced Darwin and although Darwin didn’t publish his theory till the 19th century, evolutionary-like philosophies have a much older history, somewhat similar ideas proposed by some Greek philosophers. And YECists have good company with the likes of scientists such as Kepler, Newton, Pasteur, and Maxwell. But the issue is not a tradition game or a numbers game, it is: Does YEC accurately describe reality?

The underlying reasons for specific YECist concepts are: the rules of logic as applied to the Bible and science, and the grammatical historical hermeneutic applied to the Bible. YECists take most of Genesis to be historical narrative including the creation, fall, and flood. They think that most occurrences of the word “day” in Genesis 1 mean a usual day because of contextual considerations.

YEC touches several fields including theology: hermeneutics, theodicy; philosophy: philosophy of science, logic; science: biology, genetics, palaeontology, astronomy, geology, climate, thermodynamics; information theory; archaeology; history. (Hermeneutics and logic would be better classified as fields that form YEC belief rather than result from it, as mentioned above).

I wish to cover the following about YEC
  • What young earth creationists (YECists) do and do not believe;
  • The nature of evidence and science; and
  • A discussion focusing on a single aspect of YEC: the age of the earth.

What YEC is

YEC can be summarised as follows:
  • The universe is not eternal, it was created by God who is external to the world, self existent, and eternal
  • God created the world in 6 usual days
  • Nature was corrupted by the Fall of Man
  • The earth is about 6000 years old
  • The earth was deluged by a global flood about 4500 years ago
  • The Bible is inerrant and should be interpreted in a straightforward manner (according to genre)
There are several corollaries from this, though the specifics may vary. The creation model includes:
  • Most of the sedimentary layers of rock and enclosed fossils that occur worldwide were formed during the Noachic Flood.
  • The earth likely contained a single continent that broke up during or after the Flood
  • There was a single ice-age caused by the post-Flood climate
  • All land and air animals (of significant size) are descendants of the animals that were on the Ark
  • Man has coexisted with all animals that have ever existed
  • Natural selection (an analogue of artificial selection) occurs
  • Speciation is rapid. It occurs through allelic separation, genetically induced variation, or detrimental mutation (loss of genetic information).
  • There are genetic limits to the amount of speciation, diversification, adaption, or breeding that can occur
  • Information content of the biosphere cannot increase. Matter cannot create information.
  • Information is always the result of an intelligence
  • Loss of information can mean improved fitness within a specific environment, that is loss of function can result in improved likelihood of survival.
  • Lost information cannot be recovered without reintroduction of the same information (save trivial examples) by breeding or design
  • Archaeological artefacts post-date the Flood, which limits their age to a maximum of 4500 years
There are several accusations that are charged against YEC which proponents of YEC do not support or promote; such as
  • God (or Satan) created the fossils in situ as a test of our faith
  • God created things with false appearance of age (this needs qualification)
  • Animals were created how they look now and no new species of animals have developed
  • Entropy was a result of and did not exist before the Fall of Man
  • The earth is flat

On evidence and science

While much could be written in defence of the specific YEC beliefs, discussion can be difficult if foundational issues are not identified.

Modern science was originally a systematised process of categorising our observations to make further inferences and reduce our observations to consistent laws. While hypothesis testing is a usual method, data gathering to create a hypothesis was seen as legitimate. Thus, multiple measurements of the planets led to Kepler proposing elliptical orbits, which could then be further tested. Francis Bacon is frequently credited with formulating the scientific method. Written as:

observation → induction → hypothesis → test hypothesis by experiment → proof/disproof → knowledge

Popper’s falsifiability criterion has had a clarifying influence on the understanding of scientific theories. Therefore negative evidence was seen as disproving a theory whilst positive evidence is merely consistent with a theory, not proof of such.

Notice that Bacon’s definition is necessarily limited to observable phenomena. This is classic operational science (also called empirical science), which helps us infer laws about things that are demonstrable and repeatable. This is an enormously important distinction that frequently goes unrecognised. In contrast, inferences about previous events are not repeatable. This does not mean that the scientific method cannot be employed, rather that it is limited in what it can say.

Consider the science of identifying a criminal via a DNA sample. This science is not being done to discover how DNA binds to itself (i.e. hydrogen bonding), it is attempting to establish an event such as a murder.

So a fragment of the DNA is identified and then matched to a specific person. The samples can be run several times and in several different ways; both the forensic sample and the suspects’ samples. And we can establish that the forensic sample and a suspect sample match. This part of the process is operational science.

However establishing a particular suspect as the murderer is not observable. We cannot do an experiment several times to show that he did indeed murder the victim. Intrinsically it is impossible; the event happened in the past. And even if we establish he is capable of murder, it doesn’t prove he committed this particular murder. This kind of science is called historical science.

It has been claimed that scientists do not discriminate this way when practising science. This may be the case. When one does historical science there is usually an element of operational science as seen in this example (though the converse is not necessarily true). But whether actual scientists discriminate like this is irrelevant to the philosophy of science, what matters is whether this distinction exists. And it clearly exists because a methodology that relies on repeatability cannot be applied to singular past events.

The reason for this discussion is to show that historical science competes with other evidences in a way that operational science does not. If I claim my house is so high, I can invite you to measure it. Testimonial evidence doesn’t play a part. We don’t ask a range of people their opinion as to what they think my house height is. 3 measurements by several engineers using differing methods that all agree trump the opinion of a dozen opinions and guesses. This is not the case with historical science.

Returning to our murder investigation with DNA sampling, all we have established is that a suspect shares a DNA fingerprint with a crime scene sample. This may be because it is a limited test, say a portion of DNA with a limited number of polymorphisms. Even if we can be certain the DNA matches by performing adequate sequencing, there may be a identical twin brother we do not know about. Or the DNA may have come from the suspect, but at another time; a meeting earlier in the day. Now I am not trying to imply that DNA testing is inaccurate or inappropriate for criminal investigation, I am illustrating how its use in proving crime is intrinsically different from operational science.

Testimony of others meant little in the height of my house, but it means a great deal in identifying a murderer. Not because murder is more important that house height, but because it is not testable in the way that heights and widths of objects are. A claim that the suspect has a twin brother is a competing claim against the DNA test. A claim that the suspect was seen elsewhere at the time of the murder is a competing claim. A claim that the blood type does not match despite the DNA matching is a competing claim.

Note that competing claims against historical science can be both scientific and non-scientific (eg. testimonial).

Also note that scientific claims do not automatically trump non-scientific claims. The testimony of a thousand witnesses is not overturned by a DNA match just because the latter is scientific. We weigh several competing claims and people will be variously convinced depending on how reliable they regard each piece of evidence.

YEC is a competing claim about the history of the world. It is predominantly a competing claim to the historical sciences of biological macro-evolution, abiogenesis, stellar evolution, and uniformitarian geology.

Some of the YEC disagreement with evolutionary theory is due to consideration of non-scientific fields such as documentary evidence. However much of the disagreement is from a competing but different historical science. For example, consider the age of the earth.

How old is the earth?

YECists claim that the earth is about 6000 years old (though anything below 10000 years would fall into the same range). This is phenomenally different to the uniformitarian geological claim of 4.5 billion years. But note that any usual clock cannot calculate the time since the formation of the earth. We cannot go back, set our stop-watch, and mark off the aeons until now. We are considering a past event (or several past events). Compare this to measuring the time it takes a horse to run 1 km. We can do this measuring the starting and finishing time, and we can do this repeatedly, thus giving us the time (on average) the horse takes. For this we observe established clocks.

For past events we need to establish a historical clock, say radiometric-dating. Experiments can determine the amount of various isotopes of uranium and lead in a particular sample. One can do this part of the experiment over and over. We can satisfy ourselves to the limits of experimental accuracy that the sample contains a certain amount of uranium. This part of the investigation is operational science. All parties generally agree on the number of atoms identified in the sample and their ratio.

This ratio is then keyed into a formula based on a specific theory with a variety of assumptions to get a date for the formation of the mineral it was derived from. Now the theory is radioactive decay, which is reasonably well established, and an assumption is, say, no daughter isotope was present when the mineral formed.

The problem is that these calculations do not always give the answers that are thought to be correct (as established by other historical clocks or underlying evolutionary theory); so sub-theories are added, such as leaching of isotopes, addition of isotopes, incomplete melting at time of formation of mineral in rock. Creationists have also suggested a modification to the theory: the variation of decay half-life, though this modification is often disparaged.

Rather than discuss the merits of these sub-theories or, if you prefer, alteration of assumptions (all of which are reasonable); I would simply like to note that since radiometric dating is a historical science, there are competing claims.

There is the competing documentary claim, that the world was created 6000 years ago according to the Bible. This is a claim that YECists take seriously, much like the testimony of someone who witnessed an event. But documentary evidence is not restricted to the Bible. A variety of cultures have given an age of the earth much less than 4.5 billion years and more in keeping with the biblical figure, such as the Mayans and the Greeks. This particular competing claim is less convincing to agnostics and some theists, including some Christians. There are, however, other documentary claims and historical scientific claims that are worth mentioning.

Staying with radiometric dating, we have reliable documentary evidence for the age of some volcanic episodes. It so happens that rocks from lava flows within recent history that we know the real age of (via operational science) are consistently dated much older by radiometric dating, frequently hundreds of thousands of years or older. Explanations are offered up as to why this is the case, but the greater point is the model is reliably incorrect; it doesn’t matter how good this theory is or should be, the fact is the model doesn’t work.

If radiometric dating cannot get dates correct when we do know the true age, why should we trust it when we don’t know the true age?

We also have competing scientific claims. Radiometric dating is not the only historical clock. There are a large number of clocks. And even radiometric clocks vary depending on the isotope used.

Historical clocks often give maximum ages. This does not mean that the calculated age is the actual age, rather given the most favourable assumptions this is the longest a particular process has been going on. In constructing a clock based on sodium in the ocean, a maximum age would be established by assuming no sodium in the ocean when it formed, the lowest reasonable estimate for sodium influx, the highest reasonable estimate for sodium outflux, with the current concentration identified by measurements of salinity. The maximum age identified may not equal the true age, as the ocean may have started somewhat salty for example.

Within radiometric dating we have carbon dating competing with metal dating. Pretty much all carbon containing materials that have been tested contain carbon-14. This places an upper bound on their age. This includes diamonds embedded in rock supposedly millions of years old.

Other historical clocks include: diffusion rates of helium; decay of the magnetic field; decay of DNA and protein from dead organisms; elements in the ocean; recession of the moon, starlight travel from distant stars.

Objections can be raised against these other clocks (though the carbon-14 data is hard to surmount), but this is hardly the point. The point is that there are competing claims here. Radiometric dating of metals is favoured by the evolutionists because it gives a time frame needed for evolution. But it is one piece of historical scientific evidence. One person may find it convincing, but with so much riding against it, it is not unreasonable to weigh the other evidences heavier.


YEC is a worldview. It recognises a variety of evidences. It clearly understands the difference between operational and historical science. YECists do not dispute any significant operational scientific finding. Investigating past events is philosophically distinct from investigating repeatable events and YEC views past events differently, and in a way that I think makes more sense of the data.

YEC theory on the age of the earth is more parsimonious. It is consistent with much of the documentary evidence. It is also consistent with many of the historical scientific clocks. Modifications to the starting conditions and rates give ages consistent with a young earth, including radio-carbon. Radio-dates of metals less so, but these are known to be inaccurate, and YEC proposals concerning rates of decay may resolve other well recognised difficulties of radiometric dating. Ancient earth theory is unable to easily reconcile non-radiometric clocks or even radio-carbon clocks.

Thanks to Paladin and AndyM for their suggestions.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Limitation does not equal causation

J.C. Thibodaux gives a useful illustration.
God’s choices being constrained by His nature doesn’t amount to His choices being entirely determined by His nature. The difference between constraint and determinism can be described with a more physical case: The shoulder socket constrains how far and in which directions one’s arm joint can move (without really getting hurt anyway), but it would be silly to say that the socket itself ‘determined’ which directions one’s arms moved and when, since the joint moves freely within the range of the socket. Likewise, the constraint that God cannot lie doesn’t preclude Him from having other options, since choices don’t always come down to only the two options of ‘be dishonest or don’t be dishonest;’ there can be more than one choice within the range of honesty and Holiness.
I think this is a helpful analogy for Arminians to use in explaining their position.

While it is true that actions have consequences and thus certain choices make others logically impossible—if one muscle on the shoulder contracts to move the arm then for movement to occur other muscles must relax—the constraint of possible actions does not prevent all choice. Free will means that we can make real choices within limits of the ability we have been given.

Note also that some choices will be theoretically possible but may be limited in some men by their lack of awareness of the possibility.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

On the provocation defence

For those outside New Zealand there has recently been a widely publicised trial on the murder of Sophie Elliot by Clayton Weatherston. I did not follow this trial, nor did I follow the high profile murder retrial a few months earlier. However it is of course difficult to avoid knowing about it with frequent items in the newspapers and on television.

Weatherston admitted to killing Elliot but went to court in an attempt to have the murder charge downgraded to manslaughter invoking the defence of provocation. This defence was not successful and Weatherston was found guilty of murder.

According to the New Zealand Herald on the defence of provocation:

The defence is covered under section 169 of the Crimes Act 1961.

The provocation defence allows for a killing that would otherwise be classed as murder to be downgraded to manslaughter if it can be proven that the person who caused the death was provoked.

The provocation must have some relation to a characteristic of the offender.

It must cause the offender to lose the power of self-control of an ordinary person and have induced the offender to kill.

I am not certain whether the defence solely applies to verbal/ written provocation, or also physical provocation. I assume both. Though physical provocation may also lead to self defence.

It is important to note that provocation does not remove all culpability, it merely reduces the blame; and also, perhaps, affects sentencing.

There has been a significant amount of controversy following the verdict because the court case allowed Weatherston to reveal a significant amount of private data concerning Elliot. Complaints along the lines of continuing to persecute the family, insult Elliot from the grave, etc.

2 well written responses have been made by Glenn Peoples and Madeleine Flannagan. I just wish to make a variety of comments.

1. Murder is a horrible situation. It is horrible when it happens, it is horrible being reminded of it, it is horrible going through court, it is horrible on the anniversary of the victim's death. In a broken world we have horror and while we can try and minimise it, it cannot be removed. Decisions about justice must be made on the principles of justice and mercy, not on the basis of preventing bad feelings. Else the law will become unjust and cause more, and even worse horror.

2. The provocation defence was not successful in this instance. Thus the law worked correctly. It is questionable that people consider changing the law based on a wrong case outcome, but to change it after a correct conviction?

3. Evil people do evil. They try and misuse the law to their advantage, they lie, they murder. Law changes do not affect evil men, they disregard them anyway. Removing this defence will not prevent evil people being evil, but it will damage those less evil. It will prevent legitimate provocation from being taken into account. It will also mean that criminals will falsely use other defences such as self defence and insanity to get reduced sentences or acquittal.

4. Culpability is not a dichotomous variable. People have partial blame. To disallow the discussion of events around a crime denies that there are considerations that need to be taken into account and can prevent justice being fully accomplished.

5. Much of this debate would be a non-issue if we did not allow the courts to be treated as entertainment. It is true that open courts have their benefits. Perhaps family court should be more open for example. But allowing anyone to attend a court case is a far cry from broadcasting audio or video. People may have a genuine interest in a case, but most people watching from their living rooms would not put in the effort to attend court daily and listen to the arguments. Allowing media into courts means that the case is effectively served up as entertainment, and it allows the media to sway public opinion by what they show and what they leave out.

I think that the courts should probably be open, but disallow the videoing and recording of cases, save what the courts wish to do for their own purposes. Reporting of cases should be forbidden until after the event. I even wonder whether defendants should be routinely given name suppression, as much as practical, with maintenance of this in cases that are successfully defended.

If this had been in place, then many of the things said by Weatherston about Elliot would have not be known by the public.

That being said, as the situation played out, most of New Zealand hold Weatherston in contempt, and probably more so than had the events not been played out in the media.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Random quote

Never put passion before principle; even if win, you lose.

Miyagi (Karate Kid)

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Should parents who smack be considered criminals?

My voting papers arrived yesterday. The national postal referendum asks the question:
Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?
Much has been written about this so far. Those who have argued "no" I think have put up a good case. The vote NO site explains the issues well and has some nasty stories concerning families who have be negatively affected by the previous law change.

The Yes vote campaign have done less well as their presentations have been disingenuous rather than informative. To constantly use the term "hit" in preference to "smack" intentionally muddies the waters. To talk about parents punching their children, or hitting in anger is irrelevant as their opponents agree with them that this is inappropriate.

Referencing the statements of various organisations seems reasonable, until one realises that many members of any organisation disagree with official positions. In fact organisations should be very careful about supporting any cause outside their field, and even at times inside their field; but that is another post.

Of course one could argue that I find those who I agree with reasonable and those I disagree with unreasonable. There is probably some truth to that, but I am fully capable of dismissing poor arguments that favour ideas actually I agree with; doing so is important as poor arguments are detrimental to good causes.

But what I really wanted to focus on is what the question actually asks and an appropriate Christian response.

If one answers "yes" to the referendum question then they are saying
A smack as part of good parental correction should be a criminal offence.
If you are tempted to answer yes, do you think that parents who use corporal punishment should be criminals? It is not so important whether you would choose to smack in answering this question, rather whether you think that such behaviour should be considered criminal. Are you willing to label a large number of parents criminals because they smack? And it does not matter whether you think they will or will not be prosecuted, it matters what they are considered.

There are things I do not choose to do, but I don't think they are criminal. There are things that I consider morally wrong but I do not want them criminalised. I think smoking is a minor moral failing, but not one that should be criminal. I think drunkenness is a moderate moral failing, but I don't think police should be allowed to arrest men passed out on their couch at home. I think laziness is a significant moral failing, but I don't want laws that fine people who don't pull their weight.

If you answer "no" to the referendum question then you are saying
A smack as part of good parental correction should not be a criminal offence.
And many who would choose never to smack their children can reasonably hold this position. Consider the position of those who do smack. Many of them do so because they think it effective. I think a good case can be made that parents should smack in many situations. Let's assume that smacking is the most appropriate punishment in many situations to maximise the chances that one's child grows up well behaved and well adjusted. Even if this were the case pro-smackers would not argue that parents who refuse to smack their children should be considered criminals. Pro-smackers may think them unwise, but to enforce such behaviour through legal methods is inappropriate.

How should Christians approach this referendum?

I think the Bible argues for corporal punishment. This is seen in several proverbs (Proverbs 13:24; 19:18; 22:15; 23:13–14; 29:15, 17). The use of physical discipline as punishment of adults in the Mosaic Law would support this. And the incomprehensible danger of things such as roads and water would argue that smacking is the most appropriate form of discipline for the very young. Reasoning doesn't work.

However I think another passage is also appropriate. James says
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. (James 3)
James warns us that teaching others means facing a stricter judgment by God. The reason is we stumble in our speech. It is one thing to have incorrect opinions, it is another to teach others wrong doctrine. If we kid ourselves this has negative consequences on our behaviour, but if we mislead others then the damage is much greater. This applies to everyone, including what I write here.

While voting is not teaching, I think the principle is similar. Voting in a democracy affects others. It may only have a small effect, but we are responsible for whether we vote, how we vote, and who we vote for. And God holds us responsible for the same. Thus we should pray about voting, and vote with a humble attitude.

We see from above that voting "yes" is saying that one thinks smacking should make a parent a criminal. If you oppose smacking, do you think it so bad that the state should have the right to intervene in the lives of families where it occurs? If I were to smack my child in a controlled manner as a method of teaching them not to step onto the road, do you think that government officials should be allowed effect changes in my family as they see fit?


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