Friday, February 22, 2008


Of Apples and Eden

There was a fine example on February 13, 2008 of the fact that the Discovery Institute was, for once, being completely truthful when it said of its "blog," Evolution News & Views:

The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site.
The piece, entitled "What They Didn't Tell You about the National Academy of Sciences," by Cornelius Hunter, does its very best to confuse several different concepts and, in the process, to confuse those all too willing to accept confusion if it will conform to their religious beliefs. The topics Mr. Hunter wants to jumble include philosophical naturalism, the methodological naturalism of science and the tentativeness of science (as opposed to the dogmatism of religion). Mr. Hunter's complaint is with the supposedly "dogmatic naturalism" of "evolutionists," as exemplified by the National Academy of Sciences' recently revised booklet, Science, Evolution, and Creationism.

Evolutionists have always been dogmatic about naturalism. They believe that science must, in principle, be absolutely constrained to naturalistic explanations. This is a philosophical position — there is no scientific evidence that could make evolutionists think twice.

Like the creationist who mandates a particular interpretation of the scientific evidence (according to scripture), the evolutionist also mandates a particular interpretation of the scientific evidence (according to naturalism). All explanations must be thoroughly and completely naturalistic, no matter how contorted those explanations become.
It is, indeed, part of the philosophy of science that only natural causal processes can serve as scientific explanations. However, as Eugenie Scott points out, in the selection I quoted yesterday from her article, "Creation Science Lite: 'Intelligent Design' as the New Anti-Evolutionism," in Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond, this insistence on natural explanations is a methodological one, applied only within the scientific enterprise, not a commitment to philosophical materialism, "the belief that matter, energy, and their interactions comprise the universe; no gods or supernatural powers exist." Of course, not a few scientists are also philosophical materialists and claim support for their philosophy from science. But it is equally true that many fine scientists, including biologists such as Ken Miller, Francis Collins, R.A. Fisher and Theodosius Dobzhansky, have been and are devout theists.

Mr. Hunter asks "how did life evolve?" and then presents chopped up phrases from the NAS booklet exhibiting the tentative state of research into the chemical origin of life (or "abiogenesis"). He then leaps precipitously to the conclusion "this hardly constitutes 'compelling' evidence for the 'fact' of evolution." But Mr. Hunter manages to jump over this part of the statement:

But the principles underlying life's chemical origins, as well as plausible chemical details of the process, are subject to scientific investigation in the same ways that all other natural phenomena are.
In other words, if a scientific explanation is to be found for the origin of life, we must look for it the only place that science works -- among the natural processes that are "amenable to solution" by science.

Mr. Hunter, though, cavils:

While [the claim that history shows that even very difficult questions may become amenable to solution as a result of advances in science] certainly is true, scientists also need to evaluate theories according to what is known. We can always hope our favorite theories will be saved by future findings, but this is no substitute for accurate theory evaluation according to the known data. It is simply misleading and irresponsible to state that it is a scientific fact that life evolved from non-living chemicals.
Of course, Mr. Hunter somehow conveniently forgets that, contrary to his claim that the NAS is presenting abiogenesis as a "scientific fact," he had, just a paragraph or two above, quoted all the tentative language in the NAS booklet. More importantly, Mr. Hunter is trying to convince the unwary that the very tentativeness he highlights one minute and denies the next is a basis for changing the very fabric of science. Mr. Hunter is backhandedly trying the maneuver that is well described in Robert T. Pennock's (author of the excellent Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism) contribution to Scientists Confront Creationism, entitled "God of the Gaps: The Argument From Ignorance and the Limits of Methodological Naturalism":

... ID creationists (e.g., Meyer, "The Return of the God Hypothesis") promote [the design argument] under a second interpretation, discussed by philosopher of science Elliott Sober ([Philosophy of biology,] 1993) as what is known as an inference to the best explanation. This form of confirmation works by weighing the explanatory merits of competing hypotheses and concluding that the hypothesis that best explains the data is the true one.

Ordinarily, when a scientist infers a certain "best explanation," the inference draws on contrasts among different causal hypotheses grounded within a strong body of background knowledge. Under certain conditions, ... we can sometimes make a good case that a human being designed something. However, this interpretation of Paley's argument is even weaker than the [watchmaker analogy] when explanations are not constrained by natural causal processes. The moment one rejects the evidential requirement limiting appeal to lawful causal processes and opens the door to supernatural interventions -- which is what creationists do when they reject methodological naturalism -- explanatory chaos breaks loose. Since there are no known constraints upon processes that transcend natural laws, a supernatural agent or force could be called upon to "explain" any event in any circumstance; that is what miracles supposedly can do. However, the concept of a transcendent designer or other miraculous force that can explain any event under any set of conditions is no explanation at all (Pennock, [Tower of Babel], chap. 6). Moreover, because such a hypothesis neither makes any specific or general predictions nor rules out any possibility, no observation could count for or against it; it is in principle untestable. Thus, if the design inference is construed as the best explanation while rejecting methodological naturalism (as ID creationists do), it cannot possibly win in a comparative assessment of hypothesized explanations.
In short, no matter how "contorted" Mr. Hunter may find science to be, within science itself, there is no reason to choose his preferred "explanation" of a putatively unknown "Designer," with unknown powers, operating at unknown times and by unknown means, over the best explanations we have of how known natural processes, like chemistry and physics, might have resulted in what we see around us in the natural world.

Just as our knowledge of how life began is limited but our evidence for the evolution of that life over time is massive, our understanding of how gravity actually works across distances is tentative at best but its connection to mass is obvious. Would Mr. Hunter have us stop accepting the "dogmatic naturalism" of physicists and believe that apples will fall up unless some mysterious "Grappler" pulls them down?


You know, I presented the idea of Intelligent Grappling back in June of 2002 on talk.origns. I'm still waiting for the Disco Institute to invite me to become a fellow of that prestigious think tank.

Of course, I also used the term "IDiot" in the same post. Maybe that's why I have not been contacted.
Ladies and Gentleman, I freely admit that I did not come up with the concept of an Intelligent Grappler. That honor belongs to the great Elf Sternberg!

And if the DI doesn't make you a fellow, Elf, it is only because they are afraid you'd suck all the air out of their room!
But John, I'm not Elf, though he followed up with a great FAQ, see Wikipedia
I should know better than to rely on my Swiss-cheese memory. Based on the Wikipedia article (and on a further search), it looks like the great Jeff Stubbs was the first to use the phrase "Intelligent Grappling."

Am I close?

ID is correct, adjective is not. Just another foot soldier resisting the approaching endarkenment with a little sarcastic humor. (grin)
You have been awarded the highly prestigious "E for Excellence" award in blogging (otherwise known as the latest blogosphere meme). Seriously though - I thought your blog worthy of recognition.
Thank you, Ian, for the overly kind words there. And I would just like to say that there's good reason you're in my blogroll.
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