Sunday, August 28, 2005

Back to Idea Blogging: Intelligent Design and Science

I am not a creationist, nor a proponent of Intelligent Design. And yet I marvel at how rare it is to find a reasonably intelligent piece on the subject in the media. For one thing, too often the two beliefs are often confuted- young earth creationism and ID- with the aim of dismissing ID out of hand as a purely sectarian critique*. While the vast majority (not all) of ID proponents are in fact creationists, and while ID is often used as a sort of scientific justification for belief in creationism, the arguments must still be confronted; for though I do think it is reasonable to doubt a statement based on the motivations of those who believe it, we cannot in all honesty reject the validity of an argument for simply that reason. (That, for example, would be like rejecting an argument that poverty is too rampant in the United States, for the sole reason that the postulator is a Communist.) And many outraged commentators have done precisely that to ID. Rather than arguing that the evidence for it has been tried and found wanting, many editorial pages have charged that we should treat the arguments of Dembski et al as without merit from the outset because they are a smokescreen for creationism.

The argument for Intelligent Design is, in my limited understanding, that there are many features of Earthly life so complex that the chance of them arising from a long process of mutation and natural selection is practically nil (the weak anthropomorphic principle aside). Thus, the argument goes, the evolutionary mechanisms and blind chance cannot by themselves lead to the world we know; there is either some kind of directed impulse governing evolution in such a way that it causes these features to arise, or there is some process entirely different from natural selection accounting for the natural world we see today.

Of course, there are at least five questions of significance:
(1) Is this argument correct?
(2) Is this argument compelling for a reasonable person (given current knowledge)?
(3) Is it reasonable to believe this argument (given current knowledge)?
(4) Is this a scientific theory?
(5) Is ID fit to be taught alongside evolution in public school science classes?

I'll concentrate on the last four, as (1) is a question of another kind. By "compelling" I mean that it would be intellectually dishonest to disbelieve such an argument, for one who can understand it and has the amount of evidence presumed. By "reasonable" I mean that such a person may believe the argument and be intellectually honest, under the aforementioned conditions. I think it is clear that Yeses to (2) and (4) together imply a Yes to (5), and also that a No to (3) or (4) implies No to (5).

An article in today's New York Times by Daniel Dennett argues a No to (4), that ID fails to properly make testable scientific predictions, is not a scientific theory, and ought not be taught in science classes. And Dennett, whose work I have respect for, does in fact confront ID as it really is, and I agree with his conclusion. ID thus far has made no claims of what we ought to find in further research, nothing that would empirically distinguish its interpretation from that of natural selection. Evolutionary theory has made several predictions that were later verified in certain cases: that mutations happen in reproduction, natural selection works to bring out traits (look up the "peppered moth" in this context), and that the fossil record would provide examples of "missing links" between species (e.g. the many gradations between the coelurosaurs and the birds). If in the future, the Discovery Institute published serious papers demonstrating the unlikelihood of certain features evolving randomly, taking into account all possible chains of intermediate stages (though I have no idea how this could be done in an empirical manner), then perhaps ID could be a scientific theory. At present, it is simply not a scientific theory as we understand the term; it is rather a philosophical assertion about a scientific theory, an interpretation of observed reality.

However, a No to (4) does not imply a No to (3). The last sentence of my previous paragraph can quite honestly be applied to many theoretical frameworks within the humanities and the social sciences. (NOTE: I am not putting ID on par with these others. Cool your jets.) We simply don't require everything we believe to be the consequence of a scientific theory, and for good reason. Not only are some subjects of inquiry (like history) not amenable to completely reproducible experimental conditions, but the very assumptions of the scientific method are not themselves scientific theories. I'll explain later, I hope. I just wanted to point out that although, again, I do not subscribe to ID, I believe that a reasonable person could accept the Intelligent Design argument, even given our current state of evidentiary support for evolution. (I don't see what hermeneutic of Scripture the semi-creationist account reflects, in which God goes right up to the point of letting the Universe unfold according to the physical laws He ordains, then changes His mind and mucks about directly with the DNA. If He was going to let nature run its course in most things, why not in natural selection? If He was going to suspend physical law anyway, why not just make Genesis 1 literal? But that's another matter.)

My answers, in short, are that:
(1) I don't think so.
(2) No.
(3) Yes.
(4) Not yet, at least; perhaps never.
(5) No.

However, there is a place in public education where we ought to confront such matters: a discussion of the philosophical principles underlying the scientific method. By all rights, this should be taught, but it rarely is; most moderns aren't even aware that there are such principles (foremost among them the inductive principle), which cannot be themselves demonstrated by scientific experiment but are philosophical postulates. They were widely discussed in the era of Bacon and Galileo, but I fear that with the many useful goods science has provided us, we've forgotten to keep considering the most fundamental questions: What is the scope of science? What do we mean by the 'scientific method'? What assumptions are necessary to apply the scientific method?

Later, I want to get to these questions. But I've already written a lot, and classes start tomorrow. Eesh.

*This is the idea underpinning the Flying Spaghetti Monster satire, which would be spot on if the Kansas School Board had mandated teaching creationism.

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