Evolution and the Indian Rope Trick
by Lenny Esposito
Last month, I was privileged to be a part of the Great God Debate II: The Origin of Life, which pit atheist Michael Ruse against intelligent design advocate Fazale Rana. In Dr. Ruse’s opening statement, he made an argument on what he has labeled the “fallacy of selective attention or illicit focus.” It was probably Ruse’s most powerful point and he admitted it carried the bulk of his reasoning for why the idea of intelligent design can be dismissed.
Ruse showed a picture of an Indian guru climbing a rope suspended into the sky. This is a well-known illusion called the Indian rope trick. He then states:
“You look at this and you say ‘Oh my God! Newton was wrong! Gravity doesn’t work.’ Hang on a minute, hang on a minute. Of course gravity works. We don’t just look at the Indian rope trick in isolation. We take it in context. We ask ourselves, ‘Why would we say that the Indian rope trick must be a trick and not magic?’ Why do we think that Newton’s laws do hold in a case like this? Why do we think that there’s something fishy going on here? And the answer of course is that we’re not just judging the Indian rope trick on its own, but against the background knowledge that magic simply doesn’t work and that Newton’s laws do.”
(You can see Ruse make this argument here.)
Ruse follows up this analogy by summarizing his argument thusly:
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- We don’t just look at it (the cell) and say “Oh my goodness, it is so complex and works so well. It must be designed in a hands-on fashion.”
- We judge the cell against all our knowledge, and that includes our knowledge of evolution through natural selection at the macro level.
Now, I think Ruse is onto something here. He’s right that we cannot take the cell in isolation. However, I think when studied carefully his argument actually works against him.
Ruse assumes that when judging the Indian rope trick, all we need to do is appeal to Newton’s laws. That’s not exactly true. We appeal to our past experience of the world and we find that we never experience a violation of gravity…
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