Saturday, March 18, 2006


On Whistling and Graveyards

Keith Pennock has posted a critique of an article by Robert Pennock, "Pennock's Dover response," on the Discovery Institute’s blog, Evolution News & Views. The point of Robert’s article might best be summed up by the subtitle: "The battle to get intelligent design into school books was lost in Dover, and it is time for proponents to lay down their swords." Keith isn’t beating anything into plowshares, however, and, at one point, he says that Robert is "out of [his] league . . . in understanding the current nature of the debate over the demarcation criteria of science."

Now, I did a search on "Keith Pennock" on the Discovery Institute’s own website and the most I could discover about what "league" Keith plays in is that he once was a "Program Administrator" at the Center for Science and Culture and that, as of the publication of the "Winter 2006" issue of the Discovery Institute Views, he commands the exalted title of the "D.C. Office Manager" for the Institute. The only other obvious qualification he has for writing what he did is that he has the same last name as Robert.

Amusingly, Keith, in his jeremiad, extols Alvin Plantinga’s article on the subject of Dover that, like Robert’s, appeared in Science & Theology News. But in his article, Plantinga says:

[T]aking these notions [of verification or falsification] in a rough-and-ready way we can easily see that propositions about supernatural beings not being verifiable or falsifiable isn’t true at all.

For example, the statement "God has designed 800-pound rabbits that live in Cleveland" is clearly testable, clearly falsifiable and indeed clearly false. Testability can’t be taken as a criterion for distinguishing scientific from nonscientific statements. That is because in the typical case individual statements are not verifiable or falsifiable.

Well, no kidding!
First of all, even Popper didn’t assert that falsifiability was a sufficient criteria for something to be called "science," merely a necessary one. But, contrary to his contention, Plantinga’s example doesn’t test whether or not anything, including 800-pound rabbits, is designed. It merely tests whether or not there are 800-pound rabbits, particularly in Cleveland. The real trick would be to devise a way to refute the mysterious intervention of an unknown designer in the origin of bacterial flagella. Michal Behe took a shot at it but failed. Behe suggested:

To falsify design theory a scientist need only experimentally demonstrate that a bacterial flagellum, or any other comparably complex system, could arise by natural selection. If that happened I would conclude that neither flagella nor any system of similar or lesser complexity had to have been designed. In short, biochemical design would be neatly disproved.

Besides being ridiculous from a practical standpoint (rather like saying the way to test whether or not pixies created the sun is by gathering a lot of hydrogen and seeing if its own gravity causes it to undergo fusion), Behe’s "experiment" doesn’t test the proposition. Even if a flagellum-carrying bacteria crawled out of our petri dish, how could we know that an unknown designer, with unknown abilities, working through unknown methods, at unknown times (all issues ID advocates refuse to address about their "hypothesis") didn’t sneak in and stick a flagellum or any or all of the "irreducibly complex" steps leading up to it on one of our subjects? If we cannot, as the ID advocates assert, know anything about who or how it is done, we can never say that it wasn’t done that way.

And, of course, even if we could overcome those obstacles, it would merely falsify the design of flagella and the ID advocates could (and, based on past behavior, would) simply move on to the blood clotting cascade or some other feature that their ingenuity could describe as too complex to evolve. Maybe we could take Behe at his word that he, at least, would give up the claim under those conditions but, if so, it is only because the idea of testing the actual hypothesis is not important to him in the first place.

So, at best, Keith’s paragon of philosophy is torching a strawman of "naive falsification" that Popper himself abandoned. It is, as Plantinga says, entire theories or, at least, bundles of hypotheses, that have to be testable and ID is clearly not, something that Plantinga never quite gets around to discussing. He merely asserts that "whole theories involving intelligent designers also make verifiable or falsifiable predictions" without any sort of example. You just have to wonder then what criteria Keith uses to judge philosophers knowlege about the demarcation issue.

But what do I know? I’m just a lawyer, not an Office Manager . . .
P.S. See my continued discussion of Keith Pennock's article here.

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