Shifting the goalpost

When researching Intelligent Design and evolutionary biology for my recent post on the subject, I came across a tactic that I'm increasingly discovering is ubiquitous in the theological community. When your argument is thoroughly demolished, don't admit it or try to learn from your mistake; instead, just claim that your original argument wasn't really that important, and it's some other argument that is really the issue. This is called shifting the goalpost, and it's pretty damning evidence that when their beliefs are held up to critical scrutiny, theists simply don't know what they're talking about.

Francis Collins shifting the goalpost

Morality is one of those big issues that theists like to hang their hats on. It's the old, "without God, everything is permissible" nonsense. Francis Collins is, in some ways, a really nice asset for the scientific community because he's both a devout Christian and a guy who knows a lot about evolutionary biology and goes through great lengths to debunk the pseudosciences of intelligent design and creationism. If the Discovery Institute's infamous Wedge Strategy is any indication of the evils that ignorant people associate with evolution, it may be more palatable for some believers to learn about evolution from a fellow believer rather than someone like Richard Dawkins, who is similarly adept at explaining evolution but conversely delights in ripping religion to shreds.

But one thing I worry about with Christian scientists like Collins and, say, evolutionary biologist Kenneth Miller (author of "Finding Darwin's God"), is the fact that while they clearly accept evolution because the evidence is both overwhelming and experimentally verifiable, their religion might place them more firmly in the company of creationists when it comes to other scientific theories. Case in point: evolutionary models for morality. Collins bases a good deal of his theology, as described in his book The Language of God, on the notion that morality is derived from the divine. So what is he to make of the fledgling field of research that examines morality from cognitive and evolutionary models?

One of my favorite authors, the primatologist Frans De Waal, in an essay for the Templeton Foundation, writes:

To explain human behavior as a “mere” product of evolution, however, is often seen as insulting and a threat to morality, as if such a view would absolve us from the obligation to lead virtuous lives. The geneticist Francis Collins sees the “moral law” as proof that God exists. Conversely, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that “If there is no God,
I am free to rape my neighbor!”
Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed to form a livable society, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked rules of right and wrong before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need or complain about an unfair share? Human morality must be quite a bit older than religion and civilization. It may, in fact, be older than humanity itself. Other primates live in highly structured cooperative groups in which rules and inhibitions apply and mutual aid is a
daily occurrence.  

Does Francis Collins explicitly reject the idea of an evolutionary account of moral behavior? No; he's a scientist, and he perhaps realizes the folly of steadfastly rejecting such an idea out of his own credulity. Rather, he shifts the goalposts, saying in his own essay:

A deeper question raised by this debate is the fundamental nature of good and evil. Does
morality actually have any foundation? To be consistent, a committed atheist, who argues that evolution can fully account for all aspects of human nature, must also argue that the human urge toward altruism, including its most radical and self-sacrificial forms, is a purely evolutionary artifact. This forces the conclusion that the concepts of good and evil have no real foundation, and that we have been hoodwinked by evolution into thinking that morality provides meaningful
standards of judgment.
This is an invalid argument for a host of reasons, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether morality can in fact be explained by evolution. This is an argument about meaning and purpose, not an argument about the validity of scientific concepts. This is a classic theistic dodge: evolutionary models of morality are rapidly advancing, and once confronted with the folly of their appeals to the supernatural, theists will just say that unless the facts are interpreted through a lens of a theological world view, we don't have any reason to take them seriously.

An analogy might be to imagine a staunch creationist who lived a hundred years ago. As the evidence for evolution poured in, he conceded that indeed, evolution does explain the complexity and diversity of life without need for special creation. But then he would try to preserve his argument by suggesting that unless God was somehow involved in the creative process, our existence can't have any meaning. Whether the new argument is fallacious or not (it is) is irrelevant; it has nothing to do with the original issue.

It happens all the time

Francis Collins is actually a relatively benign offender in this regard. Worse are ID and Creationism advocates, who are constantly pummeled with scientific evidence and simply reformulate their arguments so that they are immune from the evidence in question. When Collins himself, writing for MSNBC, debunked the stupid creationist claim that evolution cannot produce new information by pointing out that the bacteria that produces the enzyme nylonase could not have had that gene 100 years ago (since nylon is a synthetic material), IDiot William Dembski responded that it the question was whether the mutation in question qualified under his home-cooked, and widely rejected concept of "specified complexity".  He simply shifted the goalposts, because now the question is what his "specified complexity" really is, whether it is valid and testable (it's not) and what fits the definition. Since the whole concept is bogus, he can basically define "specified complexity" as whatever he wants and then claim that nylonase doesn't fit it; the reality though is that the bacteria did evolve a gene that served a specific function that the organism didn't have previously.

The more theists run out of good arguments, the more they will resort to these kinds of tactics to avoid conceding the issue and facing a great deal of humbling and possibly emotionally trying introspection. But don't be fooled – shifting the goalpost is nothing but a shallow tactic theists use to avoid a dent in their pride.


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