5 August 2012

Cardinal Pell: "Could you explain what non-random means?"

In April 2012, the Australian TV hosted a Q&A session with Richard Dawkins and George Pell (Catholic Cardinal of Australia) as respondents. I watched the 1-hour programme on youtube. I recommend it, as an exercise to spotting a large number of rational mistakes by Pell. The most interesting misconception of Pell is that he does not understand the term "random". This is a serious mistake, because he has been all along thinking been basing his belief system on the following:
non-random =[equivalent to] having a purpose
And, therefore, that
random =[equivalent to] not having a purpose
I'll leave aside whether one can always be asking about purpose, and proceed in seeing, exactly, how the Cardinal reveals his inadequacy, clearly and wittingly. He starts by saying that religion is not science (correct) but people can use reason in religion, that they can they have, for example, to reason about the parts of science regarding evolution.The excerpt of the dialogue goes like this:
  • Pell: People have to ask whether they believe that random selection is sufficient. Most evolutionary biologists don't believe in this crude fundamentalist version of random selection that you propose.
  • Dawkins: I do not propose it. I strongly deny that evolution is random selection. It is non-random selection.
  • P: Oh, so there's a purpose to it?
  • D: No.
  • P: Could you explain what non-random means?
And then Dawkins goes on to explain that, in evolution, there is random genetic variation and non-random reproduction, which is why, as time goes by, animals get better at doing what they do. Natural selection, Dawkins says, is quintessentially non-random. And then he explains the obvious: that, in hindsight, it may appear that things (a bird's wing, a human's eye) have a purpose but this is a pseudo-purpose. Darwinian evolution is non-random evolution.

Ok, so Pell has had a misunderstanding of what evolution is about. But this is not his most serious mistake. After all, he claims, that a Catholic may believe in evolution if he or she likes. (Notice how he uses the verb "believe", as if there is a choice to believe or not a scientific fact; for instance, I have no choice in believing that gravitational force varies in inverse proportion of the square of the distance between two bodies, because it is so--period; whether I like it or not.)

His most serious mistake, which can (and I'm surely does) affect all his belief system is that he thinks that non-random is equivalent to having a purpose. It is so simple to realise the falsity of this, that it is painful to have to explain it, so I will leave it as an (easy) exercise. Pell makes this mistake because he badly wants to justify his views, so badly that he alters the meaning of things. Assigning purpose to concepts (such as "randomness") and to natural things (such as "the Earth") is an attempt to anthropomorphize Nature and the kind of Language we use to understand Nature. "God is created in Man's image" is what Pell's belief system is all about, and, therefore, he seems to believe that everything behaves in the same way that humans behave. The purpose found in human actions cannot be transferred to natural objects and concepts (teleology).

Not only the formula "non-random = having a purpose" is wrong because one can show that the two sides are unequal, but it is one which, simply, cannot be written down, like one cannot write down the formula "2+5 = the Moon's beauty".

A similar fallacy can be seen in John Lennox's Pie Argument, of which I'll say something next.



  1. I will never be able to look at that mini-transcript of the little exchange (esp where he says most biologists don't agree with Dawkins?) without groaning...

  2. I understand...

    Pell appears to be totally uninformed about matters scientific (except his ability to quote phrases verbatim from books, also giving the page numbers--this is probably a reflection of his concept of learning). And he tries to debate a biologist who clearly has spent time in understanding the concepts of his domain.

    How would Pell react if Dawkins told him: "God is a random process."



What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant