A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Intelligent Design Redux

I have added a new blog to the roll--The Evangelical Outpost--run by a genial and intelligent fellow from Texas, Joe Carter, and winner of the Weblog 2005 award for best religious blog. When I went over there recently, there was a lot of fast action on the comment pages about a critique by Joe of mainstream science in the context of its refusal to admit the possibility of Intelligent Design.

Now I have had some hard things to say about Intelligent Design, but the critique is stimulating and well worth reading:


For now I want to take a closer at methodological naturalism (hereafter abbreviated as MN). In a Scientific American article titled “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense” , editor-in-chief John Rennie claims:

"Creation science" is a contradiction in terms. A central tenet of modern science is methodological naturalism--it seeks to explain the universe purely in terms of observed or testable natural mechanisms..."

If Rennie is correct then MN should lead to correct conclusions regardless of the observer. By simply examining the evidence at hand and, when necessary, expanding “scientific inquiry” we should find that MN can consistently lead to true conclusions and do so without resorting to question begging and special pleading. Needless to say, I’m skeptical that this is possible.

To show why let me present the following thought experiment:

Imagine that an alien race, one that has never had contact with the human race, discovers the following items:

(1) 12 foot of nylon rope (2) A Tungsten Palm Pilot (full of addresses and other information) (3) A genetically modified tomato(4) Two CD’s - P. Diddy and Mozart (but not CD player) (5) A book written in Braille(6) A black and white photograph of a Salvador Dali painting(7) The synthetic element Fermium (8) A freshly groomed poodle with a red bow in its hair

Assuming that the aliens are able to use any test or posit any theory that is consistent with methodological naturalism, how would they explain how each of these items developed in the way that they did?


So, of course, I took him on:

You are confusing the method with the evidence. MN can only lead to relatively correct conclusions, not absolutely true conclusions, because having all the existant evidence is impossible. Not all observers [either in location or in time] are operating with the same set of evidence.

But science is collective and cumulative--constantly recomparing conclusions against new evidence and achieving correspondingly better relative fit with its MN method.

This is why your example is fundamentally flawed. Let's take it from one vantage point and assume that this is all the evidence available and our aliens have little or no a priori standpoint on what the evidence might mean.

That would place them roughly in the same position as Darwin on the Beagle. From that standpoint you have simply not provided enough evidence to apply the MN method reliably.

We forget very quickly that the better half of Darwin's work, as with most scientists until the middle 19th century, was that of observation and not explanation. Reliable explanation was simply not possible until you had sufficient evidence.

The strength of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection [or any good scientific theory] is not its abstract "correctness" in the absolute, but its power to explain an incredible amount of observed evidence in precise detail. Intelligent Design has essentially one explanation for any observed fact: the "designer" did it.

If we look at this from Darwin's vantage point of trying to make sense of all his different finches, we can see why he rejected ID [in its Biblical form] for something else. ID didn't tell him anything of substance about why the finches were different from one another. As far as I can see, it still doesn't. "The designer did it," is really not that informative about the world.

Now, actually, the mere fact that you have chosen an "alien race" as your observers means that they will bring a considerable amount of a priori science with them. They wouldn't even get here if they didn't.

So even though they have had no contact with us, they will still share much of the same science that made the manufacture of the CD's, the photograph, the Fermium, and the Palm Pilot possible. They are also likely to have some form of abstract symbolism such as language, mathematics, and music.

With this much prior evidence, they are very likely to come to quite accurate conclusions about at least some of the evidence, and to make relatively educated guesses about most of it. The Braille, the organized digital bits on the CD's and the memory of the palm pilot are very likely to be pegged as abstract symbolism, for example.

Having said this, I'll propose a counter-example. Suppose we take our ID proponents to Alpha Centauri and show them eight random objects of the Centauriods.

I would be willing to bet that they would come to far fewer relatively correct conclusions about those eight objects than any scientist starting from the approach of Methodological Naturalism.

So let's examine matters further.

Let's start with a question: What do we want from our science?

It cannot be "certain truth", as I have suggested above, because we cannot get this, the best we can achieve is "approximate correctness" ["All exact science is dominated by the idea of approximation"--Bertrand Russell].

The proponents of TENS who exaggerate the theory's capacity to "scientific certainty" justly deserve your criticism. They are championing the philosophy of "Scientism" rather than science. The more formal and better argued version of this same position is Logical Positivism.

What we can ask of our science is a consistent and coherent explanation of all of the evidence available, and not just part of it. Particularly, parts that are specific in detail ought to be explained.

We are not just interested in the question, Where did Life, the Universe, and Everything come from? We also want to know things like Why do we have Kestrels, Gerfalcons, Cooper's Hawks, and Red-Tailed Hawks, if one Generic Raptor would do?

I, at least, am perfectly willing to assume that ID is a scientific explanation.

This would turn Thomas Aquinas into a scientist, since in fact, the notion of ID actually derives from him. I have some qualms about that for other reasons [I think it badly distorts Western intellectual history]. But I can put them aside as irrelevant and make the assumption.

If ID is science, then for it to be good science it must be able to explain why we have my specific set of Raptors above. TENS does so with ease. As far as I can see, ID does not. If it does so, I would challenge any proponent of it to demonstrate this.

On those grounds ID is simply bad science attempting to replace good science, if we assume it to be science at all. It is bad science in exactly the same sense that the Ether Theory of Space is bad science. The Ether Theory does not explain the fact that the speed of light is constant, General Relativity Theory does.

Ether Theory, however, is bad science explictly replaced by good science. So ET is relevant to GRT and has a place in the scientific curriculum as part of the development of GRT. ID is both irrelevant to the formulation of TENS and simply a bad scientific replacement for it. It tells us nothing coherent about raptors, or, indeed, about any issue of biological diversity, which was Darwin's main question in the first place.

When the bad science is an irrelevant a posteriori challenge to good science, it has no business being taught in schools as science. If we assume it to be science at all, ID is exactly this.

Further, let's consider both "design" and "intelligence" for a moment.

I perhaps expose my ignorance, but I am completely bewildered by the belief that phenomena in the natural world are somehow "designed". Many people on both sides of the issue of ID seem to take this for granted, but it frankly doesn't make much sense to me.

When I design something, or when I see something designed by my fellow men and women, I am fairly clear that I know what that verb means: it embodies a nexus of localized human intention, human choices, and human fabrication [directly or by proxy] of some kind of artifact.

So when I see the Israeli flag, for example, I am perfectly aware that it is a fabricated human artifact that has been designed with a six pointed figure on it. I am aware of this because I know a great many things about cloth, heraldry, flags and banners, and the use of flags as official symbols of nation states.

With this knowledge I can make reasonable guesses about the structure of a whole host of human causal relationships which resulted in that flag. But the six pointed figure alone, detached from the context of those other causal relationships, tells me virtually nothing about where it came from.

Snowflakes are also six pointed figures. In this they bear a mild resemblence to the Israeli flag. But I see no reason because of this to believe that the causes behind the occurance of snowflakes in any way resemble the causes behind the occurance of the Israeli flag.

Quartz crystals, and honeycomb chambers, are also six pointed figures and resemble both snowflakes and the Israeli flag, but there is no a priori necessity for any of them to share any of the same causes, either. There is also no self-evident reason to assume that any of these objects but the Israeli flag embody intention, choice, or deliberate fabrication. So on what rational basis can it be claimed that snowflakes, quartz crystals, or honeycomb chambers are "designed"?

This is the first thing, I think, that proponents of Intelligent Design need to be called upon to explain and defend, and if they have done so adequately, I have not heard of it.

It seems to me that to speak of the natural world as "designed", and to take your words literally, is merely to misunderstand, and be deceived by, your own metaphors, which are drawn from the mere resemblence of snowflakes to the Star of David.

In a similar way, I'm fairly confident that I can recognize "intelligence" in human beings when I see it, but I am by no means so confident that I know exactly what intelligence consists of. I am also confident that I can recognize something similar to human intelligence in some animals, but it is not immediately clear exactly how much "intelligence" in animals is the same as "intelligence" in you or in me.

Nor can I see any a priori reason to believe that "intelligence" [whatever that may actually be] exists anywhere but in humans and perhaps in some other species--dogs and dolphins maybe, but probably not sharks and crabs.

It seems to me that, given the weight of scientific evidence methodically accumulated over centuries, none of which supports a teleological view of human origins, the burden of proof for it is with the holders of the teleological view themselves.

Negatives cannot be proven, because we cannot know all possible cases. So application of the scientific evidence to the problem cannot disprove a teleological human origin, but it can [and it does] show that there is no particular reason to believe it, based on the evidence. Presumably we are to take the existence of an Intelligent Designer on more than just faith. The controversy would be pointless otherwise, and people like Judge Jones would be perfectly correct: ID is monotheism covered in a false cloak of empiricism.

There should be some reasonable argument to be made from the biological, chemical, and physical information we already possess to support the teleological origin of the Universe, or of Life, or of Human Intelligence.

Now I am not deeply read in the ID side of this controversy, and cannot address the technical details presented by its proponents. But, broadly, I think the argument runs that the Universe or Life or Human Intelligence is too complicated to be anything but the product of an Intelligent Designer, and this is really the only argument drawn directly from the same empirical evidence as ID's opponents. As far as I can see, this argument requires logical premises that are hidden under the ID proponent's coat and not shared with the rest of us.

For example, how complicated is too complicated? Is galaxy formation too complicated? Is 92 natural elements in the universe too complicated? Are planets with large amounts of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen too complicated? Are one-celled organisms too complicated? Warm-blooded animals with mammary glands? Primates whom we are pretty sure now can communicate with us in American Sign if we teach it to them? Walking upright with opposable thumbs, vocal speech, and communal living? Living beings of this ilk who finally stop flaking flint and start casting bronze? Where do we draw the line? And, more importantly, just why do we draw it there? This is not self-evident.

It seems to me that this is a question which really ought to have a relatively simple answer, not cloaked in complicated theoretical gobbeldygook, to be convincing. If there is one out there, I have not seen it.

Why have I not seen it? Very simply because this is well-trodden ground in the discipline of Philosophy [from whence the Argument from Design came in the first place] and a simple answer would have to confront David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature and Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason which taken together refute quite thorougly the notion that we can argue for teleology from the physical world through the use of reason.

This is a very solid wall which even so emminent a theologian as Pope Benedict [writing as Cardinal Ratzinger] has not found easy to penetrate or climb over. Hence the gobbeldygook. The controversy really cannot be settled while the premises behind the ID view remain hidden and their application to the vast accumulation of empirical evidence remains occult.

Now, of course, there are post-Kantian philosophies, such as Logical Positivism, which assert that only empirical experience supplies evidence about reality, and that teleological and metaphyical notions are empty of real content. These are open to the reasonable critique that this notion itself is a metaphysical view. But if anyone has any alternative sources of evidence about reality, it is incumbent upon them to bring these to the table for examination. ID, as far as I can see, does not do this.

Empirical experience does supply evidence, and it is evidence about which we can all come to some agreement concerning what it means. It may be incorrect to assert [as Logical Positivism does] that no other source is possible, but in the absence of some positive alternative to empirical experience, to be examined to see if we can agree on it, there is simply no reason to take the mere possibility of other sources seriously.

Monotheistic religions [Christianity, Islam, Judaism] assert God's existence and His involvement in our world dogmaticly. They also each assert slightly different dogmas about His nature and His attitude toward the world.

Any of these may be true. And science cannot demonstrate that they are false. In that sense science has very little to say about any "reality" beyond empirical experience and science does not lead to "certainty" about anything. What it does do, however, is organize empirical experience into a system which allows us an approximately correct view of that experience as a whole without reference to anybody's dogma.

It still does not give us absolute certainty even about this. The most we can expect is more precise approximations in the future than we have had in the past. Thus the constant picking at so-called flaws of TENS, or its neo-Darwinian modifications, by the proponents of ID has little point. No scientific theory promises certainty, all can be improved, and the goal of them is an organization of our experience which we can use, not one about which we can be absolutely certain of every detail for all time. For some 500 years or so, science has fulfilled that expectation and that goal with spectacular success and without having to bother with teleology to achieve it.

Do we really need absolute certainty? I think it perfectly plain that approximate correctness about our empirical world is something that most of us can live with and agree upon, independently of our religious attitudes toward it. Moreover, we can easily sustain our religious attitudes with science or without it because it is also perfectly plain that science has totally transformed the world inhabited by all these various dogmas, without in the least having to address whether any of them may or may not be true.

The problem with ID is that it is an attempt to shoehorn the a priori conclusions of dogma into an empirical system that was perfectly fine without it.