A Review of Dean L. Overman's A Case Against Accidental and Self-Organization (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997)
by Roger E. Bissell

Dean L. Overman is an international lawyer and the author of a number of books on legal and other topics. In this book, he takes on the secular theorists in cosmology and biology by maintaining that neither the universe, nor life, nor knowledge, nor morality could arise or continue to exist without a God to create and maintain them. He does so by attempting to argue that neither life nor a universe hospitable to life could have formed by accident and that living matter could not have arisen by a process of self-organization.

What set Overman off on his polemic was an article in Telecom. (This is the journal of the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry, a sort of super-Mensa group whose entry requirement is scoring at the 99.9 percentile in standardized reasoning tests—which figures out to be 20 times as restrictive as Mensa's requirements!). The article claimed that because the Miller-Urey experiment works in demonstrating how life could have begun without a personal supernatural force to guide it, there is no supernatural source for ethics either, and people are thus "free to select their own purposes and goals without regard to any standard."

Obviously, there are false alternatives running throughout all of Overman's book. In metaphysics and science, there is either conscious, supernatural design or blind chance. (An example: "Let us assume for a moment that life emerged from a gradual scenario; the first question presented is whether the origin was guided, or accidental and by chance.") Since the experiments purporting to show life arising naturally and (supposedly) by chance are all (he claims) shot through with fudging and question-begging by the experimenters, the (supposedly exhaustive) alternatives reduce to God's conscious design or the experimenters' attempts at designing life. Consciousness is all-potent metaphysically. Existence/matter is powerless to form anything (especially life), except as the raw material for some creative consciousness.

(A fascinating example of this notion that consciousness creates the patterns observed in nature is found in Overman's discussion of Fibonacci numbers. He points out how the Finbonacci sequence (1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21...) "pervades many portions of the physical world," such as structures in flowers, plants, branches of a bee's family tree, etc. He says, "the sequence almost appears to be a mathematical code in nature left by an intelligence... In this sense, the Fibonacci sequence can be interpreted as evidence against accident as a cause for these natural structures in the physical world." But again, please note, it is a code imposed on nature by an intelligence (God) or accident, the latter argued to be less plausible.)

The alternative, that it is in the very nature of reality for inanimate matter to organize itself under certain conditions into living matter, is dismissed by Overman. None of the advocates of this view have yet given a satisfactory explanation of how the genetic code could have formed. There is, he says, no apparent way to get all the information found in the genetic code out of processes based in the laws of physics and chemistry—and not enough time to have done it without conscious, purposeful direction of the processes. Thus, he rejects, quite prematurely it would seem, the possibility that self-organizing processes are at the root of the order we see in nature.

In ethics, the false alternative Overman presents is more transparently an issue of God's consciousness or will vs. that of individual human beings. Again, Overman places no stock in nature as a guiding factor in ethics—i.e., in the concept of an objective, reality-based morality that humans can discover by consulting the facts. Instead, he sees morality as being either arbitrarily ordained by a Supreme Being—or as arbitrarily asserted by human whim. It's either: submit to God's law, or: every man for himself. In ethics, as in metaphysics and science, the ruling premise for both Overman and his straw man, super-genius opponents in the ISPE is the Primacy of Consciousness. Without some ruling consciousness, there is no morality, no life, no universe, nothing at all.

The antidote to this traditional false dilemma is found in ideas based on the radical alternative perspective known as the Primacy of Existence. In ethics, the Primacy of Existence can be found in the rational egoism of Ayn Rand's Objectivism, as set forth in books such as The Virtue of Selfishness, and in the Biocentric views of psychologist Nathaniel Branden. In metaphysics, the Primacy of Existence is expounded in books such as George Smith's Atheism: the Case against God. In science, the Primacy of Existence is continually verified by each advance in understanding as to the true, natural causes of things formerly thought to be miraculously, divinely caused by God (or gods).

Overman approvingly quotes Hubert Yockey in saying that "no valid scientific explanation of the origin of life exists at present." Even conceding Overman's arguments against the current thinking as to the actual origin of life, his endorsement of this quote quite clearly shows the limitations of what he can validly claim. At most, Overman can only claim that we are presently in the same situation in regard to explanations of life and the physical universe as the human race was for much of its history in regard to valid scientific explanation of the origin of lightning or disease.

This casts a whole different light on Overman's adamancy against contemporary life science's seeming over-enthusiasm about its explanatory progress. The fact that Overman weighs in so vigorously against early efforts to explore the nature and cause of such a complex phenomenon as life is powerful testimony not just to healthy skepticism, but to the desperation of Overman and other theists to defend this last bastion of the supernatural against the steady advance of reason and science.

Scientists and philosophers of science may wish to analyze Overman's arguments in detail to ascertain for themselves whether he is completely justified in his rejection of the status quo in life science and astrophysics. For the remainder of this review, I will focus on the methodological issues Overman discusses in Part II (the first section after his two-page introduction). There are enough problems there to cast serious doubt on the overall soundness of his critique, even if he does at times have a valid point.

One of the useful aspects of Overman's discussion of verbal and mathematical logic is his warning that false and unproved assumptions "can lead to inaccurate conclusions." He gives examples of algebraic formulas that purport to prove that 2 = 1 and that 1 = 2, by means of hidden assumptions that division by zero is possible and that negative numbers have square roots, neither of which is true.

Even with faultless premises, however, one still may be taken in by hidden "contrivances" where a person appears to use "an unbiased formula using arbitrary numbers to produce a desired result...consistent with a philosophical presupposition." A simple example is the trick by which a series of mathematical calculations will always produce the number 7 as the result. A more complex example uses the Fibonacci sequence referred to above, beginning with any "secret" number (known only to the person doing the computations), going through a specific set of divisions by 3, 5, and 7, a set of multiplications of the remainders by 70, 21, and 15, and an addition of those products, subtracting 105 from that product if it is over 105, which arrives once more at the "secret" number. It is most impressive if the calculator tells the remainders to the trickster, who then proceeds to do the remainder of the calculations himself.

Yet another example of assuming what one wants to prove is Stephen Hawking's use of imaginary numbers and imaginary time to derive a theory that there was no beginning to the universe.  Hawking's assumption of no temporal boundary to the universe is thus supposedly ruled out, because (as Hawking admitted) "it cannot be deduced from a principle already known to be true."

As Overman says, this approach does not verify truth, but only serves to assist one's thinking in the attempt to discover truth. Working backward from a result one wishes or assumes to be true is only legitimate if "one moves backwards to something already known to be true." The flaw in Overman's perspective is the undue emphasis on deductive logic. He has no place in his system for negative demonstration or reductio ad absurdum. He does not realize that certain things can be proven true by assuming their falsity and the truth of their contradictories, and then seeing the false conclusions that result. The idea that there was a time "before" anything existed, i.e., before a first moment of existence, is such an idea.

Whether the initial form of existence was some form of matter or, instead, a spiritual, creative being, is quite another issue. Occam's razor comes into play, advising us that positing a spiritual being as the causal source of the material universe does not solve the problem of where existence came from, since one then has to explain where the spiritual being came from. And if it is argued that the spiritual being needs no cause, one may rightly wonder why we can't simplify the issue by granting that the material universe needs no cause, and concluding that a creative, spiritual being as source of the universe is a superfluous notion.

Overman asserts that we must be humble in our attempts to use logic and thought, because "logical systems contain imperfections." He begins with a tortured example of how discovery of a red dress confirms "the probability of two contradictory hypotheses (i.e., all crows are black versus all crows are yellow)," and he claims that this shows the scientific method to be imperfect and logic applied to it to lead to logical inconsistencies.

His basic epistemological error in his treatment of this example is confusing non-evidence of disconfirmation with evidence of confirmation. The fact that a red dress is not a crow is not evidence disconfirming either hypothesis (all crows are black, and all crows are yellow—which are logically equivalent to all non-black things are non-crows, and all non-yellow things are non-crows). The discovery of the red dress cannot confirm the universal hypotheses stated above; at most, it can only confirm the particular versions of the contrapositives: some non-black things are non-crows, and some non-yellow things are non-crows.

Two points about this: (1) It does not rule out the possibilities that some non-black things are crows, and that some non-yellow things are crows. And as long as these possibilities are not ruled out by evidence, neither of the initial universal hypotheses in question is confirmed, no matter how many red dresses are discovered! (2) The particular versions of the contrapositives are logically equivalent to some crows are black things, and some crows are yellow things, and if either of these is confirmed, that still does not confirm its universal version, and if both are confirmed, their universal versions cannot be confirmed.

Overman then introduces various forms of the Cretan liar's paradox, which also supposedly reveals limits on the efficacy of logic. Bertrand Russell and others have attempted to solve the paradox "by rejecting all statements that produce vicious circularity as meaningless and neither true nor false." However, Overman says, not "all mathematical propositions are capable of proof or decidability given sufficient time and intelligent thought," and he bases this assertion on mathematician Kurt Goedel's supposed discovery that Russell's system could not be proved consistent. His Incompleteness Theorem alleges that it is impossible to prove "all true statements within a formal logical system," and that "in any deductive system there is a sentence which asserts, 'This sentence is not provable,'" which is another form of the liar's paradox.

The full argument against this tangled mess is found in Henry B. Veatch's Intentional Logic, and also in my essay "To Catch a Thief," which is posted on my web site at: http://www.rogerbissell.com/CatchThief.html. In brief, however, "This sentence is not provable," is not a valid sentence, and is thus meaningless. At the time the subject-term "this sentence" is uttered, there is no sentence in existence for the predicate to apply to. Even when completed by the person uttering or writing it, it is just a string of words. No amount of verbal gymnastics can get around this fact. (And I have been witness to numerous prodigious attempts to do just that.) But again, for more details, see the above-mentioned items.

Overman is troubled by the very specter of the untrustworthiness of logical thinking, if it is the product of accident. He asks: "Is it probable that accidents will accurately describe other previous accidents?" If the universe and our own existence are the result of accidents, then "all of our thinking is merely the accidental result of accidents....How can we trust thought if it is an accident?" He need not worry. Consider the following analogy: even if a broken arm results from an "accident" (i.e., the absence of someone's deliberate intent) it still occurs and heals according to the same lawful patterns, which are not the result of chance/accident, but instead of the Law of Causality, which is the principle governing the changes undergone by entities of specific natures.

Overman further claims that using logic to investigate whether life emerged accidentally, by chance, requires us to assume that logic is valid, even if it may be the product of an accident. Of course, Overman is plugging for the idea that God (not accident) is the cause of the order in the universe, and the guarantor of the validity of logic. But this hypothesis is as unnecessary today as it was in the time of Aquinas and others who argued for the existence of God from the existence of Design. We need not "assume" the validity of logic. We need merely to assume that logic is not trustworthy, that it doesn't work, and see the contradictions that result!

This form of indirect argument for the laws of logic is known as Reaffirmation through Denial, and was first introduced over 2000 years ago by Aristotle in his validation of the Law of Contradiction. It has subsequently been reformulated as the antidote to what Ayn Rand terms the Fallacy of the Stolen Concept, in which one can see basic ideas to be true insofar as one has to assume them in the very attempt to disprove them. This common-sense approach to validating logic is all that is needed, not the extraneous positing of a supernatural Master Logician.