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

Monday, November 14, 2005

Finding the Designer

An anonymous commenter asked the following in the comments about evolution at the polls below:

But I do have a question for any critic of ID: do you believe that is even possible that any kind of evidence could exist that would prove ID? If so, what sort of evidence would that be? If not, then it is irrelevant to the question of whether ID should be taught, if there is no scientific evidence to support it; for if science is incapable of proving ID even if it is true, then we should not be interested in limiting ourselves to science. What matters is the truth about the world, not just a limited portion of truth selected by some arbitrary principle.
I think this highlights one of the important reasons why ID has such a popular following among those interested in Catholic apologetics, and I think it deserves an good answer.

The first issue in dealing with his question is to figure out what exactly he means by "ID". There are two things which people often mean by the term, and they are frequently switched back and forth, adding confusing to an already difficult debate.

First, "Intelligent Design" refers to the body of theories supported primarily by fellows of the Discovery Institute. These theories generally center around the theory of Irreducible complexity first described by Behe and the theory of Specified Complexity described by Dembski. While these theories suggest that some sort of intelligent being or force was involved in creation/manufacturing certain biological systems, these theories do not attempt to say who this designer might have been. Indeed, in the attempt to make ID "science not religion" its proponents have insisted that although their theories show that someone designed certain elements of life, it could have been aliens, angels, demons, God, gods, or some other thing which we cannot imagine.

Second, "Intelligent Design" is used to refer to the idea that the world and/or life specifically was created by God. When Mark Shea says, as he does every couple of weeks, something along the lines of:

It *does* sound rather like Benedict is re-iterating the old apostolic teaching that "Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made."

And that, in turn, sounds rather suspiciously like a precise for Intelligent Design.

This is why I just don't get the problem. I'm beginning to suspect I never will.

Shea clearly isn't talking about something that could have been created by any old intelligent creature sitting around with a flagella-making machine of an evening. He's talking about clear evidence of the existence and nature of God of the sort St. Paul said the pagans would be held eternally accountable for ignoring.

Now, to get back to the question that Anonymous asked: I think that you might possibly be able to prove that the first definition of ID was true scientifically, but you could not prove that the second is. To prove ID in the sense that Behe, Dembski and co. talk about it, they would first need to make a prediction that both they and their opponents were willing to agree followed from their proposal (that some intelligent being was responsible for making certain biological systems "by design") and then that prediction would have to be shown to be true. The problem is that right now there isn't agreement that their predictions (only objects of design will ever display specified complexity or irreducible complexity) follow. I tried to cover a bit of that here and here.

However, the latter definition of ID (which I think is the one that most Christians are actually interested in) is not something that science can address. Modern science is not capable of proving that God exists, or even that God did something in particular. (When scientists are brought in to verify a miracle, they verify that they cannot explain how it happened, not that God did it or that it was in fact a miracle.)

Anon says "for if science is incapable of proving ID even if it is true, then we should not be interested in limiting ourselves to science." To which I can only say a big "Amen!" Science is a useful discipline for telling us lots of useful and interesting things. But in the truly important things in life, science is totally useless.

Which of the following can be answered by science:
  1. Is this the person I should marry?
  2. What happens to us after death?
  3. Is there such a thing as 'good' or only that which someone prefers?
  4. If you drop a six pound weight from a 200ft building, with what force will it hit the ground?
  5. Does God love us?
  6. Is it wrong to wage nuclear war?
Science can only address question number four. And while that's interesting to know, it's certainly not the most important question in the list. The theology and philosophy can answer questions 2, 3, 5, and 6. For number one, you're on your own.

So in answer to Anon's question, of course we shouldn't limit ourselves to science. Limiting our knowledge to what we can know from science is one of the greatest heresies of our age. I'm dead against it. Indeed, one of my problems with Intelligent Design is that it seems to grant science too much power -- giving the impression that science could prove or disprove the existence of God. Science can do some amazing things, but it just can't answer questions like "Is there a God?" or "Did God make this?"

Why? If God made the world, doesn't it make sense that we could find something that we could prove God made? The thing is, science isn't strictly speaking in the "truth" business. Science is in the business of making descriptive observations and verifiable predictions. Science can't speak to God's involvement in things because science can't observe how God does things or predict what He will do. Without knowing how God does things or what causes Him to do things, science could not look at a biological structure and say, "Ah, God must have created this, because God always does things this way" or "God always creates new things under the following conditions, therefore God was probably responsible for that piece of creation which took place under similar conditions."

Even if it were the case that God specifically created an adam and eve creature to start every single species in the history of the earth, and all of these species had unique, totally unrelated DNA (no signs of common descent) science still wouldn't be able to say "God created each species" is a positive fashion. The best science could say is "We are absolutely unable to find any kind of physical process that could produce the species we see."

Instead of putting all this effort into intelligent design, let's get Plato put into every high school curriculum. Then students will have real tools to tackle the question of who they are and where they came from.


Jenny said...

YES! And I would love to see more science, theology, and philosophy taught in schools. The average American is woefully unprepared to begin to address any of your six questions (including #1!). Ooh, and finance! people need to understand better how money and markets work.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the response. Still, it seems that you haven't addressed the most crucial question of my post (at least, the one which interests me most)--namely, what sort of evidence would be needed to prove ID (even in the first sense you give)? What sort of prediction would you suggest, the fulfillment of which could be taken as verification of ID?

Also, this post makes me suspect that what lies at the root of our disagreement is the question of the definition and scope of science. Do you understand science to be strictly empirical, in the sense that it can assign only physical/material causes? Your comment on miracles seems to suggest this.

Finally, what I would really like to see, at some point, would be the commentary of a Catholic opponent of ID on the fifth Way of St. Thomas: We see that non-intelligent things act for an end, which is evident from the fact that they act always or most of the time in such a way as to produce the best result. Non-intelligent things cannot act for an end unless they have been directed toward that end by an intelligent thing; therefore, etc.

I apologize if this sounds demanding. I really would like to understand the reasons motivating the opponents of ID. Right now I don't think I understand the position well enough to know exactly where I stand.