Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Friday, April 20, 2007

Darwin vs. Design: Michael Behe

After Stephen Meyer, we were permitted an hour and a half for lunch. Unlike Knoxville, where Jason Rosenhouse was left with no other option to argue with creationists in line at Subway, the dining options around SMU were much more diverse, including a sushi place just across the street. Even though I didn't get the opportunity to interact with the flawed philosophy of Intelligent Design proponents while I ate, I was finished quickly enough to return to the conference early, and chat with some people there, including one fellow who was really impressed with Stephen Meyer's articulation of the argument from specified complexity. Thinking that he might be able to explain it better than Meyer, I posed to him the questions which had risen immediately to mind while I was listening to him (such as how one could actually measure it), but he seemed at a loss. Whenever he was unable to answer a question, he just referenced Meyer's talk, telling me that Meyer had explained it so well and didn't I remember what Meyer had said? I replied that it was the deficiency of Meyer's presentation that had given rise to my questions, and he admitted that he wasn't sure what to tell me, although he still thought it made sense. Another fellow that sat next to me agreed that Meyer's argument from specified complexity was severely flawed, and although he didn't think the Intelligent Design arguments held much water, he insisted that there was some kind of ultimate Truth in the universe.

Because of his delay at Subway, Jason Rosenhouse didn't make it back to the conference center in time to catch the beginning of Michael Behe's talk. I'll fill in the rest.

Behe was the only one in the room (outside of myself, to my knowledge) with actual academic credentials in the field of biology. I got the sense that this was acutely known by the others sharing the stage with him- Stephen Meyer, in particular, seemed especially protective of Behe and his arguments whenever both were on stage together- almost as if Behe was a tottering older relative who had meant a great deal to him at one time, even though now he just ate animal crackers and talked about how the government stole his liver. Although I say that facetiously, there's some truth to that- what Behe talks about is scientifically nonsensical, and in fact he showed a disclaimer (which I suspect is required by his employer) at the beginning of his talk which states that his opinions are not shared by Lehigh University or any of his colleagues. Behe seemed strangely at peace with this fact- I can't imagine any other academic being quite so "aw, shucks"-y and chucklingly accepting of something like this whenever they gave talks outside their university. For anyone else, this kind of academic embarrassment would be enough to cause significant isolation from their peers, but I guess that Behe's found a new group of friends to play with, and he seems quite happy with the attention.

The main thrust of his talk centered around the concept that proteins, especially enzymes, function as machines. While this is a helpful metaphor for the understanding of many aspects of molecular biology, Behe essentially fell into the same fallacious trap as Meyer did in discussing information- while some things that perform a function are designed to perform that function (Behe brought up the example of Borg nanotechnology from Star Trek), other things can perform a function without having been specifically designed (such as my lightning-strike stump aquarium example). Therefore, it is not valid to assume that anything that appears designed was actually designed.

Interestingly, Behe did the most to actually define what is meant by "design." Design, according to Behe, is the "purposeful arrangement of parts." But this is a serious problem, because how is this purpose to be inferred? Just as with my Mount Rushmore example, for Behe to be able to reliably detect design, he would have to have some way to tell that the pile of rocks that I placed at the bottom of the mountain was designed for some purpose (albeit unknown to him), but he does not. The only thing that he can point to are things which have clear conceptual similarities to human-designed machines, which does nothing to advance the idea of a supernatural designer.

But Behe was insistent that we can infer design whenever we see an appearance of function. And he quoted Richard Dawkins at length talking about how nature is fully of things which have the appearance of design- to press the point that even "Darwinists" concede that biological phenomena can appear designed. This was the primary bulwark in his central argument:
  1. If some biological phenomenon appears designed, then unless another explanation obtains, it was designed.
  2. Molecular structures and pathways appear designed.
  3. Evolution cannot explain this origins of these phenomena.
  4. Therefore, molecular structures and pathways were designed.
That third premise is where his thesis of irreducible complexity comes into play, and that's about where Jason returned, so I'll leave off here.

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