Tuesday, June 19, 2007


As Science Does

Michael Egnor is over at the Discovery Institute's Ministry of Misinformation dragging out the bones of one of its favorite examples of sophistry to carry 'round the public square in the reliquary of ID's intellectual pretentious: If scientists say that ID has been scientifically disproven, that means that it must have been a scientific proposition in the first place. If ID is not science, then the scientists' claim that it is false must be the result of some sort of non-scientific analysis.

This time, the long dead trope involves an editorial in Nature (only available in full by subscription) that takes Senator Sam Brownback to task for his attempt to cast evolutionary theory as "atheistic theology posing as science." The editorial points out that the way we think reflects our evolutionary ancestry every bit as much as much as does the way our limbs are articulated, our immune system deals with viruses and our eyes process light. In turn, the way we think "reflects not just cultural training, but also biological evolution." Acknowledging that our current theorizing about the specifics may be wrong, the editors nonetheless conclude:

... its basis in the idea that human minds are the product of evolution is not atheistic theology. It is unassailable fact.
It is that conclusion that Egnor alleges demonstrates that ID is science. The obvious first question is whether we really need to elevate astrology (à la Michael Behe) to science in order to say science has debunked it?

Jerry Coyne, in his article "Intelligent Design: - The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name" in Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement (2006), pp. 3-23, responds to this argument well. First he points out:

The theory of intelligent design oscillates between two poles that I will call the "weak" and "strong" forms. The weak form is how advocates of ID present their views in court, and the strong form is what most IDers really believe and admit to religious audiences ... The weak form of ID is untestable and tautological, while the strong form is testable in part and false. Both forms criticize neo-Darwinism for supposed flaws, but these criticisms have been shown to be misguided.
He then goes on to explain:

The weak form of ID consists of four assertions: First, some features of organisms don't just appear designed but were designed by an intelligent agent. Second, these features are "irreducibly complex" -- that is, they could not have evolved in a stepwise fashion with each step conferring an adaptive advantage, so they cannot be the result of natural selection. Third, other features did evolve by natural selection; organisms are mixtures of some traits that were produced by intelligent design and others that evolved by natural selection. And fourth, nothing is known or can be known about the nature of the designer or the designer's goals and methods.
But does the weak form of ID qualify as science?

Consider first the evidence. If any truly "irreducibly complex" adaptations exist, then any adaptations that could not have evolved just by natural selection are obvious candidates for design. Using this strategy, IDers can then point to any adaptation whose evolution we do not yet understand and deem this to be "proof' of design. (This is what Richard Dawkins, elsewhere ... calls "the argument from personal incredulity.") But many structures that creationists once thought irreducibly complex -- the vertebrate eye; the mammalian jaw; even that superannuated poster child of ID, the bacterial flagellum -- now have a scientific explanation. The argument from irreducible complexity boils down to the obvious fact that such features are always unexplained until they have been explained.
As to being subject to scientific testability:

Weak ID asserts that organisms contain a mixture of traits, some designed and some evolved. The designer is not limited to irreducibly complex traits; he, she, or they could have created any trait, even those that look as if they had evolved. Add to that the further declaration that the designer's motives and methods (and, indeed, even attitude and mental capacities) are unknown, and anything goes!
As William Dembski has said, "design can accommodate all the results of Darwinism." It can, indeed, accommodate all the results of science. While Dembski denies the implication, the simple truth is that there is nothing that can show ID is wrong for the basic reason that any unknown agent with unknown powers and unknown motives can, like the omnipotent God the "Designer" is standing in for, literally be used to explain anything and everything. Therefore, it explains nothing.

As to the strong form of ID:

[It] shares the first three assertions of weak ID but reverses the fourth and makes some additional claims. According to strong ID, the identity of the designer is not a mystery. ... He is very definitely identified as the Christian God. Moreover we do know something about the designer's characteristics and methods. He is intelligent, naturally, and being the Christian God, also wise and benevolent, generally bestowing on organisms the best possible features. ...

As for those cases of poor design, they can be attributed to the biblical fall of man. It's hard to believe that IDers think features like our appendix can be traced back to the misdemeanors of Adam and Eve, but it's true. ...

As for the designer's methods-why, miracles, of course! In strong ID, the mechanism for producing designed features is explicitly supernatural. ... But how are these miracles supposed to take place? Without an answer, ID lacks any mechanistic basis comparable to neo-Darwinism's natural selection. In any case, neither this tenet nor the previous three are scientific claims; they are theological suppositions that cannot be tested.
That is enough to show that this version of ID is not science. But, as Coyne points out, strong ID also makes four claims that have been scientifically debunked: the "abrupt appearance" of organisms in the fossil record, the limitation of evolution, particularly H. sapiens, to change within "kinds," the unknowability of the age of the Earth (particularly when young-Earth creationists are being wooed to the "big tent") and the supposed inability of natural selection to build complex organisms.

Thus, while at its heart ID is structurally unscientific, in its attempts to drape itself in science's mantle ID makes claims about the world that can be shown to be scientifically false.

Ultimately, ID's central claim is an argumentum ad ignorantium without any positive evidence in its favor. Stephen Meyer's article "Not by chance," is regularly trotted out by the DI as an example of positive evidence for a designer, but it contains no such evidence at all. In point of fact, Meyer's contentions are a classic argument from ignorance layered over what Judge Jones rightly called in his decision in Kitzmiller a "contrived dualism":

1) "Either life arose as the result of purely undirected material processes or a guiding intelligence played a role."

2) There is an "appearance of design."

3) This appearance is "unexplained by the mechanism -- natural selection -- that Darwin specifically proposed to replace the design hypothesis."
The only "positive evidence" the article advances can be summed up in this analogy from Meyer:

DNA functions like a software program. We know from experience that software comes from programmers.

Indeed, Casey Luskin has defined ID itself in those very terms:

Luskin said the media often misidentifies intelligent design. He offered this definition: It's "a scientific theory that says some aspects of nature are best explained by an intelligent cause because they are identical to objects we commonly know were designed by human intelligence."

And yet no evidence, peer-reviewed or otherwise, has ever been offered to show that this analogy is coherent on its own terms, much less that it holds in the case of biology. Unsupported and unsupportable analogies do not constitute science. It's disguised philosophy at best, dishonest theology at worst.

To paraphrase a well-known critical bon mot: "what is scientific about ID has been falsified; what hasn't been falsified is not scientific."

"best explained by an intelligent cause"

In order to be best explained, there would have to be an explanation. And I can't think of anything that ID has to do with explanations.

At least the old-time "natural theology" had aspirations of finding out something about the Mind of God. Poor designs, we are told, are still designs - just to take one example of their backing away from anything like an explanation.
Poor designs, we are told, are still designs - just to take one example of their backing away from anything like an explanation.

Yep. We can't know the Designer's motives in doing "bad" design. That's "theological." Except when we can know that the Designer wouldn't make functionless things ... whenever any "junk DNA" is found to have a function.

ID is nothing if not flexible!
Oh, and apropos their denial that bad design counts against the existence of a Designer, I happened across this blast from the past where the DI's chief gofer delivered himself of the Pinto argument for God. Vintage stuff!
I did a post yesterday at theDesignInterference (under the heading "Justifications") that overlaps a bit with your one. I didn't use the terms soft and hard ID, but the meaning was much the same. My argument was basically that, since the choice of assumptions about the designer (when going from soft to hard ID) is completely arbitrary and purely down to personal choice, ID is very hard to distinguish from postmodernism.

I finished with:
Because of this, when someone makes assumptions about the designer, as Behe has done, that someone has gone beyond simply advocating ID. Given that there is no justifiable reason to make one assumption rather than any other about the designer, Behe's view should not be called ID as much as "Beheism" just like those that interpret the biblical genesis literally should be called creationists.

IDists sometimes like to distance themselves from creationsists - they should also distance themselves from Beheists. If they were consistent, that is.

If they were consistent, that is.

What and give up their flexibility?


Larry Arnhart, the philosopher who advocates "Darwinian Conservatism," has noted that Behe's book is something of an attack on biblical creationism. There may well be an attempt by some in the big tent to distance themselves, if not to send Behe to the outhouse outright.
Silly, contrived analogies appear to be the best the IDcreationists can come up with in terms of "evidence."

Of course, rational people understand that, in fact, analogies are not evidence at all..
Of course, rational people understand that, in fact, analogies are not evidence at all.

Well ... not quite!

Analogies can, in fact, be quite persuasive arguments (what constitutes "evidence" is itself a difficult question). Take Darwin's analogy of natural selection to artificial breeding of plants and animals. It's no accident that Darwin's first argument in favor of his theory comes from pigeon breeding.

The trick is choosing a apt analogy and then providing evidence that it is, in fact, understandably similar in method and effect. Darwin did that at length, including explaining the differences resulting from human aims in breeding against those from unconscious selection by differential reproductive success.

The IDeologists just throw human designers out there, denying that they have to know either the method or intent of the "Designer." In fact, it is not an analogy as such, because the human design they appeal to is so dissimilar to the "Designer's" actions in occasionally "tweeking" naturalistic evolution (as far as the weak form of ID is concerned). It's is merely an invitation to fill in your preferred name in place of "Designer."
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