Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Darwin vs. Design: Final Thoughts

I've had a little while to digest the experience of seeing the best arguments of the Discovery Institute which advocate for the position of Intelligent Design, and I'd like to offer some final thoughts on the matter.

First and foremost, I don't think that this is a scientific debate. Now, I realize that most of the readers will consider such a statement to be a foregone conclusion- Intelligent Design has long been regarded by the scientific community and most educated people as clearly unscientific. But I really wanted to go to this event with as open a mindset as possible, wondering if perhaps there was something that would be presented in a live event that might have been left out of the relevant DI publications.

There wasn't.

This is a philosophical debate. That conclusion was as clear as day the whole weekend, albeit perhaps clearer for myself to perceive, having perhaps a better conception than the rest of the audience what science sounds like. And I think that by now, I have a pretty good idea what a scientific presentation sounds like- aside from all the papers I read and wrote as a graduate student, I've both attended and given presentations at national and international scientific meetings. My career now is in scientific and medical communication- I literally digest and create scientific presentations on a daily basis.

The weekend's proceedings were couched in scientific language, to be sure. As I've already remarked, Stephen Meyer's explanation of molecular biology was completely accurate, and Michael Behe's explanation of other molecular pathways was also sound (I can't speak with authority on Jay Richards' explanation of astronomy). But there was a key component missing, and one which belied the motivation of the entire event.


However science is defined, there is one thing which it must have: uncertainty. Science is driven by the desire to find answers to questions, and not the other way around. The engine of science may be human exploration, but that exploration is futile without a Great Unknown. It's this sense of wonderment at the vast gaps in human knowledge that drives scientists to perform their craft, and it's this same wonderment that makes a good scientific story. Any scientific presentation follows a clear narrative structure:
  1. this is what we know
  2. this is what we don't know
  3. this is what we tried to find out
  4. this is the new information we got
But this is not what the Discovery Institute presented. Their narrative structure followed this pattern:
  1. this is what we know
  2. this agrees with what we know
Scientifically, it goes nowhere. Philosophically, it's a different story- this is what you would expect from a philosophical argument: a central thesis, and then a number of arguments which support it. And that's basically what was given- arguments, not evidence.

(I think that before I say anymore I should comment on the issue of "evidence." The DI presenters talked a lot about presenting "evidence for Intelligent Design." This is not technically the case. Evidence is neither "for" nor "against" any particular theory, but instead, any given theory has to incorporate all the available evidence. This is accomplished by interpreting the evidence within the context of a particular theory. During the course of scientific discovery, new evidence often comes to light, and its interpretation is usually immediately seen as compatible with a particular theory. For example, when Tiktaalik was discovered in 2004, it was interpreted most easily in the context of evolutionary theory, and thus could be considered "evidence for evolution," after a manner of speaking. Nothing that was presented by the Discovery Institute was new evidence like Tiktaalik- neither Meyer nor Behe had discovered some new gene or new nucleotide or new protein that directly contradicted evolutionary theory. What they were doing, instead, was pointing to evidences which have already been discovered long in the past, and insisting upon a reinterpretation of them within the context of Intelligent Design. So to say that the DI presented "evidence for Intelligent Design" is inaccurate in my opinion- it would be more proper to say that they presented "new interpretations of the evidence which is consistent with Intelligent Design." A small point, perhaps, but one with a rhetorical advantage which has been used extensively.)

I think that Stephen Meyer is acutely aware of the fact that he's promoting a philosophical, not a scientific argument. When Lee Strobel was "interviewing" Meyer on the first night of the conference, he brought up the "ID is not science" criticism, and Meyer took quite the exception. Critics of Intelligent Design try to "define it out of existence," he said, making it seem as if scientists were so impotently incensed by the idea of ID that they would play semantic games just to preclude Meyer & Co. from having their time on stage. This is, of course, a reference to the methodological naturalism that science uses to prevent graduate students from claiming that a tiny invisible gremlin lives in the spectrophotometer and makes all the absorbance values randomly higher or lower than they should be. But I don't think it's a fair complaint of Meyer's- after all, why does the Intelligent Designer have to be supernatural? It doesn't, of course, and avoiding Richard Dawkins' obvious next question (who designed the Designer?), the design of all life on this earth by a natural designer is clearly a logical possibility, and one that science should be able to detect if true.

Which is probably why Richards was there. It seemed strange enough for a conference on the scientific merits of evolutionary theory to have been sponsored by a religious legal club, but it seemed far stranger for such a conference to include someone whose arguments are based on astronomy. Again, I can't think of a single scientific conference I've attended or even heard of where an astronomer (not that Richards is an astronomer, mind you, but that was his topic) was asked to speak on the subject of evolutionary biology. The only sensible reason why Richards spoke was to seal the primary contention of the Discovery Institute: not only was there an Intelligent Designer, but this Designer was supernatural. For if, as the argument goes, the Designer also designed the Universe (as Richards' Fine-Tuning Argument attempts to prove), then the Designer would have to be, by definition, supernatural.

And thus we arrive back again at the central thesis of the Discovery Institute: that there exists a supernatural Designer. Again, it's a philosophical, not a scientific position- there's even a handy philosophical name for this thesis: the teleological argument. It's always been the weakest argument for the existence of God, but it is admittedly one of the most popular and persuasive, and is usually the one most cited by theists when asked for reasons why they believe in a deity (as Bill O'Reilly did when he recently interviewed Richard Dawkins). At any rate, the Discovery Institute fellows think it to be a wonderful argument with a long and glorious history throughout the development of philosophy, and was unfortunately derailed by the Materialism (a dirty word to the DI crowd) of the 19th century and the "Darwinism" which arose within it.

(As another aside, I did want to mention that I think I understand more fully why the Intelligent Design advocates insist on using "Darwinism" when criticizing evolutionary theory. On the one hand, painting the theory as the singular creation of a lone person, while ignoring the continued discovery of confirmatory evidence and scientific development that has occurred since Darwin is an obvious rhetorical strategy. On the other hand, I think it's clear that Meyer and Behe aren't really opposed to evolution per se- just the idea that evolutionary theory is completely naturalistic. Behe and Meyer's arguments, for example, do nothing to contradict the idea that humans and chimpanzees are descended from a common ancestor- nor do they claim to. In fact, both Behe and Meyer seemed to grant everything in modern evolutionary theory up to the point of abiogenesis, which is arguably evolution in toto. And this, of course, has the ironic consequence of making Behe's position indistinguishably close to that of Kenneth Miller's, the evolutionary biologist [and practicing Catholic] who argued against Behe in the 2005 Dover trial, and yet also accepts an ultimate theistic origin of life, the Universe, and everything. What Meyer & Co. mean when they use the word, "Darwinism," is really a stand-in term for Materialism, which is incorrect, but at least makes their use of the term more understandable.)

Thus, people like Meyer view Intelligent Design as a return to the philosophical tradition of Plato to Paley, a rescue of society from the side-track begun by Darwin which, rather than guiding human discovery closer to reality, removed God from the Hypothesis. And it is truly this removal of God which so irks the Discovery Institute- as Meyer said, the interpretation of evidence which results in the acceptance of either evolutionary theory or Intelligent Design obviously has "theistic implications," which he just so happens to believe are important for society as a whole. Given that, the use of the so-called "Wedge Strategy" to infiltrate society with ID as a Trojan Horse of sorts to overthrow Materialism and reinforce those "theistic implications," is, quite understandably, "a good thing."

But good or not, these implications are not scientifically relevant. In a rented hall full of sympathetic Christians, underlining his thesis of supernatural-friendly science with a plea for a return for morality might go over like a bucket of cream in a room full of cats...

...but it doesn't go over as science.

Post a Comment


At 4/26/2007 7:18 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

Excellent essay Zach. This deserves wider publication.

At 4/26/2007 10:20 PM, Blogger Nick declaimed...

Hi Zach,

This is great stuff. I have an obscure question or two about the Darwin & Design meeting, I wonder if you could email me at (I can't find your email address anywhere obvious.)


At 4/27/2007 8:52 AM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...


Sure- surprisingly enough, although my name is plastered all over the place, I haven't really promoted my email address. I'll give you a buzz.

At 11/27/2010 12:40 PM, Blogger Michael declaimed...






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