Re: [asa] Four myths about I.D.; four myths about T.E.

From: Loren Haarsma <lhaarsma@calvin.edu>
Date: Tue Jul 01 2008 - 19:29:04 EDT

Reply to Merv and PvM.

Merv wrote:

> I do have a question regarding the ID Myth #1 (which you address by
> recognizing that we need to differentiate between the parts of ID
> that are science and the parts that aren't.) Here is an excerpt of
> one part you give as an example of where ID IS science.
>
> * Scientific claim: It is extremely improbable that first life
> could have self-organized via known natural processes; it is
> extremely improbable that certain subsequent increases in
> biological complexity could have evolved via known natural
> processes.
> Won't the ID detractors simply answer that the phrase "*known*
> natural processes" (emphasis added) will become a crux of
> determination about whether this is a scientific claim or not? I.e.
> Everybody would agree that this is indeed science if the speaker is
> then willing to proceed by saying, "Okay, so let's try to discover
> unknown processes that *would* explain this." or "Let's keep
> working on how existing known processes might explain it in ways we
> haven't yet understood."
> But if we conclude that it is so improbable and MUST remain so, so
> that we say an outside intelligent agency is therefore responsible,
> then (even if we all agree to include this on the 'acceptable list')
> doesn't this qualify as a science stopper? If not, where would
> science proceed with that conclusion?
> ... Can you elaborate on
> how science might proceed with such a ID finding hypothetically
> accepted? I like your comparison of such things as being
> "placeholders" in science. That is a helpful way to view it -- and
> it does acknowledge a potentially temporary status that invites more
> scrutiny.

   Good questions, thanks. (I had considered writing all of the following
in my original post, but it was getting long enough already.)

   Let's imagine a future where the scientific community really was
reaching a concensus that the self-organization of first life, and the
evolution of certain kinds of biological complexity, were extremely
improbable via known natural mechanisms. In that case, I have no doubt
that many critics of I.D. would say something like the following: "If you
keep looking for explanations of first life and biological complexity in
terms of new, currently unknown, natural mechanisms, then you're doing
science. If you invoke chance or multiple universes, you're doing fringe
science. If you invoke space aliens, you're doing pseudoscience. If you
invoke God, you're doing religion."

   However, I would argue that these critics would be at least partially
confusing their worldview beliefs with "science." All of these
"placeholder" explanations, while very different philosophically, serve
nearly identical roles in scientific explanations to get us past the
"unexplainable" bit so that we can do ordinary science on either side of
it.

   However, I would also say that these critics of I.D. would have a valid
concern. Even if we reached a scientific consensus that first life and
biological complexity are unexplainable in terms of known natural
mechanisms, we should not give up the search for "unknown natural
mechanisms" too quickly. It might be the case that people who choose
"chance," "God" or "space aliens" as the most likely explanation would
give up doing scientific research on the question of first life and pursue
other scientific questions instead, while people who choose "unknown
natural mechanism" as the most likely explanation for first life would
continue to work on this question -- and they might turn out to be right!
In that case, everyone who chose "chance," "God" or "space aliens"
wouldn't have stopped doing science altogether (because they worked on
other scientific questions), but they would have given up too soon on that
particular scientific question.

   The history of science gives us examples of the importance of pursing
the "unknown natural mechanisms" option. Interestingly enough, I have
asked a few I.D. advocates this question: "If you were alive in the late
1800's and were aware that the energy source of the sun was unexplainable
by known natural mechanisms, would you be inclined to think that God was
doing a miracle or that som unknown natural mechanism was responsible?"
To my recollection, every one chose "unknown natural mechanism."

   For this reason, even though I am content theologically to say "God did
it" about the Big Bang, I have no objections to pursuing unknown-natural-
mechanism explanations for the Big Bang. And I'm glad that there are a
few Christian cosmologists and string theorists pursuing this.

   We can push this speculation a step further. Suppose there really was
an genetic engineer who long ago created the first living cell on Earth,
and subsequently tinkered from time to time throughout biological history
to create novel things and increase biological complexity. (Maybe God,
maybe a big black obelisk in orbit around Jupiter placed by space aliens.)
And suppose the scientific community began to reach a consensus that the
scientific evidence pointed in this direction. How would science proceed?
At a minimum, science would use the "Earth-history-genetic-engineer"
hypothesis as a "placeholder" when necessary, and then do its best to fill
in everywhere else in biological history with explanations which rely only
on natural mechanisms. But science might be even able to do more than
that. If this Earth-history-genetic-engineer acted multiple times
throughout biological history, recognizable patterns might show up. As an
analogy, if you examined a dozen paintings all by the same artist, you
might be able to start making verifiable-or-falsifiable predictions about
additional paintings by this author that you haven't yet seen.

   This is of course speculative. But this is why I said, "While I.D.
used unthinkingly could act as a science-stopper, I.D. at its best does
not threaten to stop science whether the claims of I.D. turn out to be
true or false."

On Mon, 30 Jun 2008, PvM wrote:
> I appreciate the attempt even though it misunderstands much of
> Intelligent Design's short comings.

   You might want to gather more data. I've studied it quite a bit over
the years, and I believe I'm pretty familiar with I.D.'s actual
shortcomings. In other books and articles and posts, I've written more
extensively on what I believe those shortcomings are. See for example
http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2007/PSCF3-07Haarsma.pdf
pages 58-59 for a critique of I.D.'s scientific claims. Or Chapter 13 of
Keith Miller's "Perspectives on an Evolving Creation" for an even longer
critique.

PvM wrote:
> I still see some common confusions with what ID is and is not. Myth #
> 1 is not that ID is not science but rather that its foundation in
> ignorance prevents it from making scientifically relevant
> contributions.

    Actually, "I.D. is a science stopper" is, indeed, a common myth. It
needed to be addressed.

    You raise a different issue in the second half of your sentence
above. But I can't quite figure out what you mean by "... its foundation
in ignorance."

    Perhaps you meant something like this: "I.D. has not made
scientifically relevant contributions because the scientific arguments it
has been making thus far are flawed. I.D.'s models of evolution are too
simplistic and ignore some important natural mechanisms which could help
explain the evolution of complexity." If that's what you meant, then I
agree with you. I wouldn't call that a "myth" about I.D. because I happen
to believe that it's a valid criticism. (The good news is, a few I.D.
advocates are begining to accept this criticism and are working on making
their evolutionary models more accurate.)

    But perhaps you meant something like this: "I.D. says that we can't
find a natural mechanism, gives up, and fills in the gap by calling
it 'design,' without giving any additional reasons for calling it
'design' beyond ignorance of natural explanations." If that's what you
meant, then I don't think this is a valid criticism of I.D., for reasons I
outline below.

PvM wrote:
> The problem is that ID is not clear what 'design' means when in fact
> it represents a lack of identifiable pathways for something to have
> been 'created' by natural processes.

    If my reading of Bill Dembski and other I.D. authors is correct, the
I.D. argument is a two-step process. (1) Scientific: Not only must we
say that we currently have "a lack of identifiable pathways for something
to have been 'created' by natural processes;" we also have to positively
show that first life and complexity are highly improbable (unexplainable)
given known natural processes. (2) Philosophical: We have to argue that
these things are not merely improbable, but "specified" in some way --
that is, it has to be the sort of improbable event than an intelligent
agent is likely to do.

PvM wrote:
> In fact since intelligence is a
> natural process, this seems to suggest that ID is indeed about the
> supernatural.

    Well, theists believe that there are at least two kinds of intelligent
agents: natural and supernatural. If theists are correct, then there are
certain common features of those intelligent agents, such as the ability
to communicate linguistically (to give just one example). So I don't
think that I.D. advocates are out of bounds to reason in this sort of way:
"This (creating life, increasing biological complexity) is the sort of
thing that a natural (albeit alien) intelligent agent like us might do;
therefore, this is also the sort of thing that a supernatural intelligent
agent might do."

PvM wrote:
> Worse, without any reason, the philosophical claim is
> made that an intelligent agent is more plausible than other processes
> in terms of chance (and regularity).

    Some I.D. advocates are guilty of this, but others do try to explain
exactly why an intelligent agent is more plausible than other processes.

    I.D., presented in its most scholarly way, however, gives a sort of
two-step argument like I outlined above. The first half is the scientific
argument is that complexity can't evolve. The second half is a
philosophical argument that, if the scientific argument is correct, then
the most plausible explanation is the action of an intelligent agent.
This second half is what Dembski's "specification" argument is all about.
I don't particularly like how his argument is constructed, so as a
friendly critic of I.D. I tried my own hand some time ago at outlining how
a similar argument might go:
http://www.asa3.org/archive/ASA/199810/0092.html
(I wrote that was 10 years ago. If I was re-writing it now, I would
combine the "payoff" and "pattern" criteria into a single criteria.)

PvM wrote:
> Since we lack any estimates for
> the probability of said intelligent agent, and since the concept of
> agency is detached from the concept of design, such a philosophical
> claim requires a bit more detail.

    This is a valid point, which is frequently ignored by I.D. advocates.
If someone finds the ideas of "God" "miracle" and "genetic engineering
space aliens" implausible, then the "design" conclusion is also
implausible even if one grants the scientific claims of I.D. (It's worth
noting that a few atheists who are worried that origins-of-life will turn
out to be scientifically unexplainable are starting to toss around
multiple-universes-to-dilute-the-improbablities as a solution. They do
this, of course, because they find the "God" hypothesis implausible.)

Loren

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Received on Tue Jul 1 19:29:35 2008

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