Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Intelligent Design Over-reaches

John Farrell has a post up on Behe's testimony in the ongoing Dover case (on whether Intelligent Design should be taught as science in public schools). Farrell criticizes Behe for likening Intelligent Design to the Big Bang Theory (because both initially faced rejection from scientists who objected for religious and philosophical reasons).

Having recently written a book on Georges Lemaitre, the priest/scientist who convinced Einstein of the accuracy of the Big Bang Theory, Farrell is clearly in a position to point out the differences between ID and the Big Bang. Although both represent large scale attempts to address the origins of the universe, one was clearly implicated by the laws of physics, while the other is at best a philosophical gloss on evolutionary theory.

13 comments:

Bernard Brandt said...

I am minded to view Intelligent Design in the same light as most of String Theory: both appear to be philosophies which tend to close off scientific inquiry. Would that either of them were susceptible of proof, or could lead to hypotheses testable by experiment.

I suppose that the main value of ID is that it is intended as a corrective to the infernal notion (held by more scientists, and even more pseudo-scientists, than is entirely understandable): that somehow science, and the theory of evolution in particular, have disproven the existence of God.

I think that Dorothy L. Sayers has the perfect refutation of the above notion: the holders of such a belief have merely mistaken a material cause for a final one.

zippy said...

Farrell is right and Behe is wrong inasmuch as ID is a narrative inference and the Big Bang is implied by the mathematics of general relativity applied to observations. But underneath that lies the fact that evolution is a narrative theory, not a mathematical theory. So Farrell's criticism applies not just to ID but to evolution as well.

Darwin said...

I think Farrell's criticism was essentially two fold: Firstly that the Big Bang theory had been arrived at because the evidence pointed that way, rather than because it's originator was looking for a proof of a creator, secondly that the Big Bang theory has proved scientificially fruitful (i.e. has allowed people to make predictions which can then be tested through observation or mathematical analysis) while ID is essentially a dead end.

Unless Behe, Dembski and co. have had something up their sleeves for the last ten years they have yet to reveal, there's not really much you can do with a design inferrence once you make it.

Having made the inference, one cannot investigate further how the design took place, who did it, or when the designer will intervene again. Indeed, the only thing one may do, scientifically, is keep investigating the possibility that it was not in fact the product of design.

In this sense, even if Behe is correct that certain systems such as blood clotting and the bacterial flaggellum were designed, all science would be able to do is keep investigating those parts of the history of life that were the result of evolution or some other natural process while saying about the designed elements "something we don't understand yet happened here".

zippy said...

It is not clear whether you are denying that evolution is narrative science as contrasted to general relativity (and thus the Big Bang extrapolation) as mathematical science; or if you are denying that that distinction is essential to Farrell's criticism of ID vs. the Big Bang. If the former then that is manifestly wrong. If the latter that is wrong too, though perhaps not as manifestly so.

Having made the inference, one cannot investigate further how the design took place, who did it, or when the designer will intervene again.

Why assume that?

...while saying about the designed elements "something we don't understand yet happened here".

Every science has that sort of epistemic bookend, though. In the specific case of the Big Bang, all we can say before the Planck time is "something we don't understand yet happened here."

Darwin said...

I'm denying the latter.

I can see how one could take Farrell's primary complain about the Big Bang analogy to be that the basis for the Big Bang was mathematical, but it seemed to me that his wider point was that there was compelling evidence for the Big Bang (in this case, mathematical and also eventually observational) that convinced others not pre-disposed to believe it.

His criticism of Behe struck me as being:
1) There's not enough evidence to convince his peers.
2) 'Such scientific fecundity cannot be attributed in any way, shape or form to the patchwork pseudo-philosophizing that goes by the name of "Intelligent Design." The "theory" has not inspired a single scientific paper or experiment.'

Anyway... To your points:

Having made the inference, one cannot investigate further how the design took place, who did it, or when the designer will intervene again.

Why assume that?


It seems to me that if Behe is right that what we are seeing here is essentially the hand of God, that modern science is simply not equiped to examine those questions. Now, maybe the ID proponents have something in mind, though I certainly haven't heard of anything. I'd be curious to read any work that they're doing that attempts to go down this road.

Every science has that sort of epistemic bookend, though. In the specific case of the Big Bang, all we can say before the Planck time is "something we don't understand yet happened here."

Agreed. Now, as a believer, I believe that God very much had something to do with the creation of the universe: that before the "day without a yesterday" I AM.

However, that belief as to what lies beyond the 'bookend' isn't something that can be investigated scientifically. (Science is, after all, an intentionally limitted field, it is far from being the sum of all human knowledge and reason.) What I'm getting at is that even if Behe is right that, say, blood clotting is the result of a divine intervention rather than a gradual evolutionary development, all he's saying from a scientific point of view is "you aren't going to figure this part out".

To which scientists with other assumptions will rightly respond: "well, we'll just have to try it and find out."

zippy said...

It seems to me that if Behe is right that what we are seeing here is essentially the hand of God, ...

Maybe Behe has said something like that, but if so I've never seen it. There seems to be a methodological presumption that if we understand an object to be designed, that calls a halt to learning anything else about it (including its origins). That strikes me as prima facie ridiculous. I had a number of projects in my engineering career where I started out with objects I knew to be designed and proceeded to methodically find out all sorts of things about them, including their origins.

I'd be curious to read any work that they're doing that attempts to go down this road.

Bioinformatics and computational biology are very, very new fields. It seems to me that it is far too soon to pronounce as DOA any convergence of that nascent field with some of the nascent philosophy of science concepts employed by Meyer, Dembski, and Behe. Unless of course we are ruling it out of line a priori rather than following wherever evidence and reason lead.

...all he's saying from a scientific point of view is "you aren't going to figure this part out".

I keep seeing this asserted as an assumption, but I have no idea why. In the first place, discovering that something was designed, if in fact it was designed, is finding something factual out about its physical origin. In the second, if an object was in fact designed that in no way implies that nothing more can be learned about it.

John Farrell said...

What worries me, Zippy, is that according to the testimony, apparently Behe supports a definition of science so broad...that astrology would qualify.

zippy said...

That is a legitimate worry, and I don't mean to endorse everything Behe says without qualification. I think his critique needs to be taken seriously, but his positive conclusions are just a sort of Sherlock Holmes maneuver ("I have eliminated explanations A through F, Watson, therefore the answer is explanation G"). And Dembski's attempt to take the next step has some interesting features but it is unsatisfactory as presently constituted for a number of reasons.

If what Behe means by that specific comment is that astrology can in principle be scientifically investigated, and possibly even scientifically applied, then I agree. We can certainly find out if astrology correlates to anything physically real, just as (for example) we can find out if acupuncture corresponds to anything physically real. If acupuncture produces physical results then I don't have any problem stipulating that the employment of acupuncture is scientific, and the same would go for astrology at least in principle. (Of course I expect that astrology doesn't correlate to anything in particular, or that even if it does that correlation can be explained other ways, e.g. by placebo effect, tides and seasons, etc). But I also wouldn't be surprised to find that Behe had been lawyered into saying something dumb, or that Behe in fact held some dumb beliefs, neither of which would discredit everything he says on every topic.

I tend to be somewhat impatient when people approach science as though all of the issues in the philosophy of science have been resolved, though. Especially when they want the courts to rule on their side in local cases in order to establish universally applicable precedent. As near as I can tell most very smart philosophers of science have largely given up on solving the demarcation problem, and the keystone cops really ought to stay out of it.

Darwin said...

There seems to be a methodological presumption that if we understand an object to be designed, that calls a halt to learning anything else about it (including its origins). That strikes me as prima facie ridiculous. I had a number of projects in my engineering career where I started out with objects I knew to be designed and proceeded to methodically find out all sorts of things about them, including their origins.

Perhaps I'm letting too much of my overall impression of the ID movement creep into my analysis. (Dembski specifically discusses a return to natural theology, at least in his early books, but Behe has, to my knowledge, been pretty good about not saying what exactly he things did the designing.)

You're right that if you know something is designed, it is still possible to study who and how, but only to the extent that one knows roughly what sort of creature did the design, and what sort of tools he had at his disposal. If you go to figure out how something was engineered, you do it with the assumption that it was engineered by human beings using available technology. That gives you the context in which it is possible to make learn about the object.

But say you are a biologist and someone hands you a ferret and says, "Contrary to appearances, this ferret was not born of another ferret, it was artificially created by an unknown being of unknown type using unknown technology. Could you please figure out how it was done and who did it?"

You might reasonably reply, "Look, I know of only one way to make a ferret, and that's by getting to ferrets together and playing some mood music, then waiting four months. If you give me something to go on, like what sort of technology might be used to make a ferret, or who you think did it, or why you think the ferret was made, then perhaps I can help you. But as it stands, I have to think this ferret has a mother ferret and a father ferret."

The thing that makes me wonder about the ID folks sincerity is that no one seems to be searching for evidence on who created blood clotting and how -- they just seem to be interested in showing it was created. Which gives at least the impression that what they believe is that these ID elements of the cell were added ex nihilo at some point by God. Which, if it is the case, is something science really can't find out much about.

zippy said...

... if you know something is designed, it is still possible to study who and how, but only to the extent that one knows roughly what sort of creature did the design, and what sort of tools he had at his disposal.

What is the source of this limit? We can study the universe without knowing exactly how and why the big bang came about.

I don't think the ferret analogy works, because we know at least proximately where ferrets come from. We don't know where precambrian prokaryotes came from, or where the genetic code for the cilia came from. With the ferret a known process of proximate origin is denied as the actual proximate origin: a different matter entirely from the case of precambrian prokaryotes and the phylogeny of a particular cilium.

The thing that makes me wonder about the ID folks sincerity is that no one seems to be searching for evidence on who created blood clotting and how -- they just seem to be interested in showing it was created.

Which is insincere precisely why? Frankly, the penchant to see ID as all lies and insincerity, rather than arguing against it as though one believes it to be sincerely proposed but wrong, is one of the most repugnant things about the debate.

Which gives at least the impression that what they believe is that these ID elements of the cell were added ex nihilo at some point by God.

It may give that impression to someone intent on reading that into it, but I haven't see any objective implication of that in either Behe's or Dembski's work. Perhaps the same positivist philosophy which sees it as impossible to scientifically describe what happened without a comprehensive explanation of how it happened is at the root of this suspician.

John Farrell said...

Which is insincere precisely why?

Zippy, I do think Behe is sincere, and wrong. However, when I see things like this about the Discovery Institute, I have to wonder about the overall movement. If the Thomas More Law Center has a problem with DI's sincerity, what are the rest of us to make of them?

I've been reading through Kenneth Miller's testimony for the Dover case, and if what he says about the Panda book is accurate--then clearly there is intellectual dishonesty on the part of the people who put out that book.

zippy said...

That is fair enough John. I think Miller is sincere but wrong (at least in _Finding Darwin's God_). And I am more than willing to concede the possibility that the DI (which I know very little about) may be a front for protestant creationism, though even if so I would protest the use of the police and courts to enforce universal conformity against the wishes of local parents and school boards.

John Farrell said...

I would protest the use of the police and courts to enforce universal conformity against the wishes of local parents and school boards.

I would agree with that too, Zippy. Indeed, that's the part of this whole thing that is--if not tragic--farcical.