Re: [asa] ID/Miracles/Design (Behe vs. Behe)

From: Randy Isaac <>
Date: Wed May 20 2009 - 21:39:36 EDT

Cameron, you certainly are a clear thinker and good writer. A few rejoinders
if I may.
You wrote:

> 1. I agree with you that the ideal situation for design detection is one
> in which we know something about the potential designer and the potential
> techniques.

Not just ideal but necessary. Without some degree of knowledge of the
characteristic of the designer or the methodology, there is nothing to

> 2. I'm not sure, however, that these conditions are strictly necessary.
> At least it is debatable whether they are. Some biological systems seem
> not only so complex, but so integrated with other complex biological
> systems (in such a way that they all adjust to each other in intricate and
> nuanced ways), that it seems almost beyond imagination that these
> overlapping systems could have come into existence without the aid of
> intelligence (the possessor of that intelligence -- aliens, God, etc. --
> being a side-question). The living cell is a more complex and more
> integrated set of sub-systems than any man-made computer, and none of us
> would think of arguing that the integrated complexity of a computer came
> about by chance and necessity, without the aid of intelligence.

This is an argument from incredulity which is extremely attractive to all of
us but not as scientists. And no, the analogy of the complexity of a
computer to a living cell doesn't hold up--certainly not about its origin. I
spent my career designing and building computers and I can easily assert
that computers are nowhere near the complexity of a living organism. We know
how computers are designed so we know it has a designer. Many of them,
actually. For living systems, we have no comparable indication of design.

> You will perhaps respond that this does not amount to a formal proof.
> Well, I agree. But does science always require formal proofs? Does it
> not sometimes settle for "the best available explanation"? And isn't "the
> best available explanation" in the case of a cell that some sort of
> intelligence has been at work? Couldn't design be accepted, not as proved
> by science, but as a provisional explanation, and as the best currently
> available explanation? This would leave open the possibility that a
> better explanation for the origin of the cell, couched entirely in terms
> of chance and necessity, might come along, in which case the design
> explanation could be abandoned.

No, this is not an issue of formal proof. It isn't even a "best available
explanation." The claim that an intelligent agent is "the best available
explanation" is not accurate on several counts. One, it isn't an
explanation. With no known agent and no known methodology, there is no
explanation to provide. Secondly, if that intelligent agent is
"supernatural" or "non-natural" then there is no plausible reason why such
"explanations" are in the same category to be compared. It seems that it
would be a category error to say that it is a better explanation. It may be
complementary but the "best?"

> 3. I agree with you when you say this:
>> Yet the argument hangs solely on the inability to find an alternative
>> (natural) explanation for this so-called "information content."
> True; and ID people sometimes overstate their case, when they say that
> Darwinian processes (or other naturalistic processes) *can't possibly
> have* produced the blood clotting mechanism, or the flagellum, etc. But
> on the other hand, Darwinians overstate their case when they say that
> Darwinian processes can explain such things.

Indeed, all sides of the debate unfortunately overstate their case to make
the strongest statement possible.

>The fact is that, to date, Darwinian
> processes haven't explained (in anything like rigorous detail) any major
> macroevolutionary change. And if the Darwinian processes haven't been
> able to do this to date, how do we know that they ever will be able to?

It doesn't seem to me that this is a "fact." And who is the arbiter of what
level of "rigorous detail" is required to explain "any major
macroevolutionary change." Are you? Is the ID community? Is Dawkins?
Scientific methodology is hardly that stringent. The relevant "fact" in this
case is that evolutionary (note I'm replacing your term "Darwinian" with
"evolutionary" for obvious reasons) processes have explained so many things
and successfully predicted so many discoveries and is so surprisingly
consistent in so many ways that the scientific community sees it as
plausible. No, not proven in a rigorous sense. But scientifically profound.
And that is what counts. No other theory has come anywhere close. Hasn't
even left home plate.

> Let me put this in another way. It is unwise of anyone to try to prove a
> negative. In trying to say that "Darwinian processes couldn't possibly
> have ..." ID people put too great a burden on themselves. Instead, they
> should be arguing like this: "OK, we'll grant the possibility that the
> camera eye could have arisen by Darwinian processes. Now give us a
> hypothetical account -- *with details*." Now the onus is on the
> Darwinians, and they are in the hot seat. (Note: this more cautious
> approach is the one taken in *The Design of Life*, by Dembski and Wells,
> which does not argue that Darwinian mechanisms *cannot* explain the
> apparent design of life, but only that they have not come anywhere near to
> explaining it.)

Here I must object. This is not scientific methodology in the least. And who
is the authority demanding of "evolutionists" to have the "onus" of a
hypothetical account "*with details*"? There's no hot seat. Indeed, there is
a tremendous amount of detail to be discovered. That is the exciting part of
doing science. In grad school, my thesis advisor used to say that the answer
to a good scientific question gives rise to three more good questions. It
may be self-satisfying to always be demanding more and more details before
one is convinced, but the level of explanation is so productive to this
point that there is no reasonable point in demanding "more details" before
the big picture is allowed.

> 4. I think that this approach (#3 above) would lead, in essence, to a
> stalemate, in which the Darwinians would have to admit that they are
> nowhere near being able to explain any major macroevolutionary change in
> an adequate manner, and whereby the ID people would have to admit that
> they haven't disproved the Darwinian thesis or confirmed intelligent
> design. So where would that leave the matter? I think your own words
> capture it: "we don't know". And that's essentially David Berlinski's
> position. He's a strong critic of Darwinism, but doesn't endorse ID. He
> says that we simply don't know how all these complex systems could have
> arisen. We don't know for sure that intelligence was involved, but we
> certainly aren't in the position to say that intelligence couldn't
> possibly have been involved. The proper position, he says, is
> agnosticism.

Agnosticism of what? From a scientific perspective, it's pretty clear that
no natural intelligence was involved. As for any other metaphysical
perspectives, that's a different realm.

> 5. But note that agnosticism regarding the macroevolutionary capabilities
> of Darwinian mechanisms is *not* the official position of the NABT, the
> AAAS, the NCSE, etc. It is not the position of Dawkins and Coyne. It was
> not the position of past influential popularists like Asimov and Sagan.
> It is not the position of some theistic evolutionists, who seem sure that
> Darwinian means are God's chosen means for bringing about evolution. The
> very strong impression conveyed to the general public, by people who claim
> to speak in the name of "science", is that Darwinian mechanisms have been
> proved capable, beyond a reasonable doubt, of explaining the incredible
> complexity we see in life, and that it is only some of the clean-up work,
> the fussy details, that are not yet understood.

There is indeed much too much arrogance in the way science is often
portrayed in the media. Perhaps it is a characteristic of scientists who
write popular books and materials. Indeed, many successful scientists are
far too arrogant. Maybe that helps them be successful. But I think most
scientists have a great degree of humility, knowing all too well what we
don't know. Unfortunately, most scientists don't know how to convey this to
the public.

> If the official position of "science" were "We cannot explain -- in
> anything like the rigorous, detailed manner commonly expected in modern
> sciences such as physics and chemistry -- the origin of complex integrated
> biological systems, and therefore those origins remain a mystery", the
> creation/evolution debates would lose much of their explosive character.
> And if the teaching of biology in the schools reflected that healthy
> agnosticism, many of the constitutional and legal debates would go away as
> well.

Actually, I think the explanation is indeed comparable to the rigorous and
detailed manner commonly expected in physics and chemistry. But not as
detailed as detractors might demand. But we could benefit from more humility
in the presentation.

> 6. The problem as I see it, Randy, is that people like Eugenie Scott and
> Ken Miller and Francis Ayala and Barbara Forrest and Daniel Dennett and
> Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins are never going to accept your
> intellectually modest and cautious position. What would you say to these
> people about the limits of "science" regarding the question of
> evolutionary mechanisms? Should it not be something roughly equivalent to
> what you have said to the ID people?

I would hardly put those names together in one sentence. Their views differ
widely. I have far harsher words for Dawkins and Coyne and Dennett than any
brother and sister in Christ striving to understand God's providence in our
world, whether they be ID or YEC or whatever. They inexcusably use science
as a means to convince people that their metaphysical views are true. Scott
and Miller and Ayala have their own respective issues but they have a more
credible attempt at building bridges than the other three.


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Received on Wed May 20 21:40:06 2009

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