Seven More Views on Intelligent Design (Physics Today, September 2002)

Date: Wed Sep 04 2002 - 10:11:16 EDT

  • Next message: Rich Blinne: "RE: Biomass Hydrogen Paper in 29 August Nature"


    Seven More Views on Intelligent Design

    Mano Singham makes several valid points about the role of philosophy
    in demolishing the intelligent design position (Physics Today, June
    2002, page 48). However, his final and most provocative point
    concerning the irrelevance of truth to science is not well-taken. In
    a human-based philosophy devoid of deity, "truth" simply means
    conformance of human mental contents, specifically concepts and
    propositions, to reality. Truth that requires omniscience and
    infinite accuracy with no contextual delimiters is a pseudoconcept
    that has no referent in the real world. By using "truth" only in that
    way, the author implicitly grants the creationists' premise that such
    a pseudoconcept has meaning. Singham's final point is only
    provocative or meaningful if the reader falls into the trap of
    thinking that that usage of "truth" does have meaning.

    Humans constantly are discovering truths about the world, some of
    them comprehensive enough to constitute a scientific theory. A truth
    is contextual: It refers to a specific domain, a specific level of
    measurement accuracy, and the like. Newtonian physics was true when
    created and is true today. It was constructed and tested within a
    context of objects having a certain range of speeds and of
    measurements having a certain degree of accuracy; within that domain,
    it continues to be a true theory. Special relativity is true within a
    more extended context, and has led to new and broader conceptual
    understanding. However, special relativity in no way invalidates
    Newtonian physics within the latter's contextual domain.

    "Science" has two meanings. It is a valid methodology that can
    generate both false and true theories; that some theories are found
    to be false and are ultimately rejected is a vindication, not a
    criticism, of the method. Science also refers to an accumulating body
    of contextually true statements and theories about aspects of the
    world; the "truth" and the "validity" of these theories are
    synonymous. The value of science as a methodology lies strictly in
    the fact that it is an extremely successful means of arriving at, and
    expanding, true theories about the world.

    Ralph Linsker
    Millwood, New York

    Both essays on intelligent design make good points. But I take
    exception to Mano Singham's reduction of the scientific quest to the
    mere process of answering "the immediate questions of interest to
    scientists," as opposed to seeking some truth. That reduction is as
    misguided as it is dangerous; it devalues science by placing it at
    the same level as social criticism and is essentially a repetition of
    the muddle-headed postmodernist arguments.

    Granted, to a certain extent, the point is obviously true for some of
    the minor scientific theories that are in debate at any one time. But
    it completely fails to account for the major theories and advances.
    Were Johannes Kepler and Galileo simply engaged in some kind of
    inconsequential quest to answer the fashionable questions of their
    time? Did they discover some truth about planetary motions, or did
    they simply answer those questions to please the sensibilities of
    their contemporaries? Was Charles Darwin similarly engaged in a quest
    for some truth or for some fashionable theory? And where would
    Singham place the present search for extraterrestrial life? Is that
    also merely a question of present interest to scientists, or is it a
    quest after some momentous truth that can change us forever?
    Pronouncements such as "to be valid, science does not have to be
    true" merely serve to demonstrate how far common sense can be
    confused by words.

    Revolutions in science are ultimately revolutions in how we see
    ourselves as humans, so the progress of science is, to a large
    extent, the progress of humanity. That is the core fact that
    creationists and postmodernists find so difficult to accept. Although
    they start from different premises, both groups have a need to reduce
    science to an enterprise that has only some relative value within its
    own limited circle of practitioners. When they have accomplished
    that, they can promulgate their own views--free of evidentiary
    support--as if those views were equivalent to what science has to

    So, although Singham's essay appears to be supportive of science, I
    submit that science would be better off without such support.

    Pantazis Mouroulis
    ([PARA]Glendora, California

    Mano Singham's Opinion article "Philosophy Is Essential to the
    Intelligent Design Debate" emphasizes both the importance of "the
    demarcation problem"--that is, the unambiguous distinction of science
    from nonscience--and the nature of "origins science."
    Science deals with the physical aspect of reality; its subject matter
    is data that, in principle, can be collected solely by physical
    devices. If physical devices cannot measure something, then that
    something is not the subject matter of science. Of course, the whole
    of reality encompasses more than the physical.

    Physics is the prototype of experimental science, which yields laws
    of nature based on data collected from repeatable experiments. In
    contrast, origins science is more akin to forensic science, because
    it deals with unique, nonrepeatable events. Nonetheless, for origins
    science to qualify as science, extant evidentiary data must also be
    collectible by physical devices.

    Human consciousness and reasoning summarize all physical data into
    laws and create the mathematical theories that lead to predictions.
    However, the human element that creates the theories is totally
    absent from the laws and theories themselves. Accordingly, human
    consciousness and rationality are outside the bounds of science since
    they cannot be detected by purely physical devices and can only be
    "detected" by the self in humans.

    Unraveling the mysteries of nature requires conscious, intelligent
    beings. But no humanly conceived theory of nature, however complete,
    can ever encompass all that exists or the creation process that
    brought everything into being. This ontological problem is best
    answered by supposing the existence of a Creator, which must be
    conscious and intelligent to an infinitely higher degree. I believe
    this idea is the underlying rationale for advocates of intelligent
    design to infer an Intelligent Designer.

    Human reasoning cannot avoid the fundamental question of origins,
    which is outside the purview of science. John Wheeler (Physics Today,
    May 2002, page 28) said it best: "Philosophy is too important to
    leave to the philosophers, and I had better get busy on the most
    important question: How come existence?"

    Moorad Alexanian
    University of North Carolina
    at Wilmington

    Singham replies: Scientific knowledge is the most powerful and
    reliable source of knowledge that we have. Naturally, we ask why that
    is so. The response that it provides us with true information about
    the world is strongly entrenched in the scientific community as an
    obvious truth. Predictably, then, challenging this assertion
    generates objections similar to those raised by Ralph Linsker and
    Pantazis Mouroulis.
    Is there anything intrinsic in the subject matter or methods of
    science that justifies the belief that science is progressing toward
    the truth? Historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science have
    investigated this question; they have looked at how science is
    practiced and how scientific communities form, operate, arrive at
    consensus views, and make judgments about theories. What emerges is
    that the case for "truth" is hard to sustain (see references 2-6 and
    9 in my original article). This is not some recent postmodern idea,
    as Mouroulis implies. The earliest substantive critique originated in
    1906 with Pierre Duhem;1 his thesis has since withstood spirited

    The idea that advances in scientific knowledge are not inexorably
    leading to the truth may strike many as weakening the case for
    science against its critics in ID. I believe that the converse is
    true and that the admittedly limited view of scientific knowledge
    that I have advocated--as being useful, predictive, and naturalistic,
    but not necessarily true--completely undermines the case for the
    inclusion of ID in the scientific framework. But I don't espouse this
    view in order to oppose ID; it is a mistake to define science just to
    use that definition as a weapon in ideological wars. I arrived at my
    views regarding the nature of science long before ID came onto the
    scene, because I found the research of historians and philosophers of
    science to be very persuasive.

    Those who hold the more expansive view that science is revealing the
    truth about nature must be prepared to defend their position with
    more robust examples and arguments than those usually offered.
    Linsker wants to restore the concept of truth by limiting the domain
    of applicability of theories and cites the relationship between
    Einsteinian and Newtonian dynamics. The weaknesses of that oft-quoted
    argument were highlighted a long time ago.3

    The personal motivations of individual scientists are also not at
    issue. I have no doubt that most scientists, not just the ones
    Mouroulis names, see themselves as seeking some fundamental truth
    about the universe. But believing does not make it so. The search for
    truth may be a mirage, an illusion. A mirage can serve a very useful
    purpose by encouraging people to move forward and make real progress;
    the search for truth may play this role in science and may have led
    to some of its spectacular successes. (Incidentally, I applaud
    Mouroulis for decrying views that are "free of evidentiary support."
    But where is the evidentiary support for his own assertions?)

    Moorad Alexanian puts forth another popular view: that a reality
    exists, apart from the physical one, "which cannot be detected purely
    by physical devices," and states as examples that "human
    consciousness and rationality are outside the bounds of science."
    This view may or may not be true, but what is the evidence for it?
    How would we know what is and is not part of physical reality?
    Neuroscientists and other brain researchers explore the very
    questions that, according to Alexanian, lie beyond physical reality.
    Are they operating outside science?

    We cannot arbitrarily prescribe what science is. We can only infer
    its characteristics by examining how, in actual practice, its
    knowledge is created. The work of historians, philosophers, and
    sociologists of science, although not necessary for the practice of
    science, become important when dealing with claims such as ID.

    1. P. Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, P. Wiener,
    trans., Princeton U. Press, Princeton, N.J. (1954).
    2. S. G. Harding, ed., Can Theories Be Refuted? Essays on the
    Duhem-Quine Thesis, D. Reidel, Boston (1976).
    3. T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, U. Chicago
    Press, Chicago (1970), chap. 9.
    Mano Singham
    ([PARA]Case Western Reserve University[PARA]Cleveland, Ohio

    As I scanned through the June 2002 issue of Physics Today, the
    Opinion articles on intelligent design caught my eye. I had read a
    couple of books on the subject and had thought the material
    interesting. Because the title said "two views," I guessed that there
    would be two opposing views like I typically see in newspaper
    editorials. Instead, when I read the articles, I found that both
    oppose the idea of intelligent design.
    Here is my complaint: It's great to have opinion articles on a
    subject, especially if there is controversy or unresolved issues, but
    give both sides airtime. I typically disagree with one side or the
    other when two opposing opinions are expressed. But let's have both.
    As a scientist and engineer, I was expecting this. Usually, plenty of
    people on either side of an issue are willing to write a short
    article defending their side. Did you try to get one from both sides?
    Claud E. Lacy
    Painted Post, New York
    [We did not. Physics Today's goal is to inform our readers about
    science and its place in the world, not about alternatives to
    science. The Editors]

    I was disappointed to see that your Opinion articles on intelligent
    design were, in fact, two negative views of the controversial theory.
    I expected a more balanced approach from your magazine. If, as Adrian
    Melott asserts, "adherents are engineers, doctors--and even
    physicists," then it would have been appropriate to have a
    counterpoint from a scientist or doctor presenting a positive view
    for ID.

    Furthermore, I thought the negative views, particularly those of
    Melott, to be more personal opinion than scientific refutation. Even
    the title of Melott's article--"Intelligent Design Is Creationism in
    a Cheap Tuxedo"--is, frankly, a cheap shot, and Melott distorted the
    views of people espousing ID. I have read Michael Behe's book
    Darwin's Black Box (Free Press, 1996) and Michael Denton's book
    Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Adler & Adler, 1986). Both authors
    make some strong, some weak, and some erroneous arguments. However,
    nowhere in either book did I find any indication that "geology and
    physics are within [ID's] blast zone." Denton, for example, clearly
    recognizes geologic time and the antiquity of fossils. For Melott to
    suggest that geology and geologic time are targets of ID indicates
    either that he has not read these books or that he is intentionally
    misrepresenting ID.
    James C. Adamski
    ([PARA]Orlando, Florida

    Melott replies: I agree with James Adamski that the title of my piece
    is a cheap shot. A cheap shot is exactly appropriate with respect to
    ID. I agree that I wrote an opinion piece, not a scientific
    refutation: See the references. It is also true that Michael Behe,
    Michael Denton, and others are careful to restrict their attacks to
    evolution. This is part of the "Big Tent" strategy to unify
    old-Earth, young-Earth, and other kinds of creationists while
    splitting the scientific community. Phillip Johnson, another IDist,
    is careful in his presentations not to offend young-Earthers: He
    maintains that the issue of Earth's age isn't important. What is most
    revealing, letters to the editor seen here and in Ohio have shown
    considerable blending of ID rhetoric with issues that impact geology
    and cosmology.

    In his book No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be
    Purchased without Intelligence (Row-man & Littlefield, 2002), William
    Dembski has invented a "conservation of information" law. This is
    unsupported new physics that is not treated as a hypothesis. He
    reports that the theory of inflation is explanatory but does not
    possess "independent evidence for its existence." The past several
    years have seen well-publicized experimental data confirming the
    extreme flatness of cosmological space and a nearly scale-invariant
    spectrum of density perturbations, both key predictions of inflation.
    There are also data that suggest the universe may be entering a new
    inflationary expansion. Dembski is either ignorant or has selectively
    deleted parts of existing physics. The preceding are but two examples
    of the "blast zone," drawn from ID's leading "design theorist."
    Adamski and Claud Lacy both fall prey to the fairness fallacy; Lacy
    even mentions newspapers as a positive counterexample. One of the
    reasons the formulation of public policy encounters such terrible
    problems is that newspapers present "both sides" on matters of
    evidence as if they were matters of opinion, even when the evidence
    is strongly one-sided. This practice gives the public the impression
    of a serious scientific controversy. A fair representation of the
    views of working biological researchers should contain 2 or 3 ID
    advocates for about 10 000 presentations opposing it. Thus, having
    two essays opposed to ID creationism, with none supporting it, as
    seen in the June issue of Physics Today, is entirely appropriate.
    Adrian L. Melott
    University of Kansas

    After I read the Opinions by Adrian Melott and Mano Singham, it
    occurred to me that ID is not only bad science but it's bad religion
    too. Such a "god of the gaps" as postulated by ID only becomes
    smaller with time as science moves on and solves mysteries that were
    formerly "explained" as miracles. Unfortunately, the proponents of ID
    blur the distinction between logos and mythos,1 between asking how we
    came to be and why we came to be. Arguably, humans need both logos
    and mythos to make sense of the world; both questions deserve our
    profound attention.
    1. K. Armstrong, The Battle for God, Ballantine, New York (2001)
    Megan Donahue
    Space Telescope Science Institute
    Baltimore, Maryland

    The Opinion pieces by Adrian Melott and Mano Singham make clear the
    scientific and philosophical problems with the intelligent design
    movement and with attempts to insert ID into public-school science
    curricula. Moreover, the ideas of ID proponents are also in conflict
    with the views of many theologians who are engaged in dialogue
    between science and religion.
    The notion that science should invoke supernatural causes to explain
    currently puzzling phenomena such as the origin of life is popular
    but theologically na‘ve. Discussions of divine action by participants
    in today's science-theology dialogue1 are generally in accord with
    the dictum of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian hanged by
    the Nazis in 1945: "We are to find God in what we know, not in what
    we don't know."2 God is active in the world through the natural
    processes that science studies. This is not an entirely modern idea.
    In Genesis 1, God is pictured as commanding the earth and the waters
    to bring forth living things. Many teachers of the early church
    understood that to mean that God had given the materials of the world
    the ability produce life when God willed it.3
    The contents of science curricula must, of course, be argued for on
    scientific grounds. But those engaged in public debates about science
    education would do well to realize that ID proponents are out of
    touch with mainstream work at the science-theology interface.
    1. See, for example, I. G. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical
    and Contemporary Issues, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, Calif.
    (1997); N. Murphy, G. F. R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the
    Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics, Fortress Press,
    Minneapolis, Minn. (1996); J. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence:
    God's Interaction with the World, New Science Library, Boston, (1989)
    2. 2. D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed.,
    Eberhard Bethge, ed., Macmillan, New York (1972), p. 311.
    3. 3. E. Messenger, Evolution and Theology, Macmillan, New York (1932).
    George L. Murphy
    Trinity Lutheran Seminary
    Columbus, Ohio
    (c) 2002 American Institute of Physics

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Wed Sep 04 2002 - 12:19:28 EDT