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

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Wed May 27 2009 - 22:48:25 EDT

I thank Don Winterstein for his response. It is clear and straightforward. I don't really disagree with anything in it, but I would like to add a few comments to push the discussion further.

First, I am *not* advocating that scientists stop trying to explain evolution in terms of unguided causes, or that they stop trying to explain the origin of life in terms of unguided causes. I just want both the scientists and their champions (journalists, textbook writers, propagandists, high school science teachers, etc.) to be absolutely clear to the public, to students, etc. what the task is that they are undertaking when they do this, and what the limitations of scientific knowledge and scientific method are regarding these questions. If they were always as explicit as Don is below, I think a lot of social tension could be avoided.

For example, it's clear from what Don writes that he acknowledges the possibility that "science", as he defines it, may simply be unable to explain the origin of life, or macroevolutionary change. I think this is an important thing to make clear to students in, say, ninth-grade Biology. So, while I'm not endorsing the heavy-handed and religiously motivated approach of the Dover School Board, I think that in an awkward, confused, and illegal way, the science-uneducated (and mostly generally uneducated, from what I could see) trustees there were trying to express the limitations of science. The clumsy "theory not a fact" language wasn't the right way of putting it, but what they, in an uneducated way, rightly sensed was that modern macroevolutionary theory proceeds from the "working assumption" that evolution can be explained in terms of unguided natural causes (and ditto for origin-of-life research). So what they should have aimed for in their science curriculum was not an attack on evolution as such, but guidelines to their teachers to make clearer the "working assumptions" of scientists in the evolutionary biology and origin-of-life fields.

Remember that the average ninth-grade biology student is liable to regard the science teacher and science textbook as authorities, and the pronouncements of "science" as unquestionable results. Young students are not well versed in questions of methodology, philosophy of science, metaphysical assumptions, etc. They tend to regard "science" as a body of factual knowledge which teaches "the way nature actually is", that is, as a photographic image of nature of sorts. After all, the scientists have put spaceships on the surface of Mars, cured diseases, etc. They surely must know how nature "really works" and what it "really is". So if the biology teacher leaves them with the impression -- which could easily be done merely by omission, not with malicious or anti-religious intent -- that "macroevolution via Darwinian means" is an unassailable fact of nature, already worked out with the precision which lands spacecraft on Mars, rather than a research-project-in-progress based on the working assumption that unguided causes will provide a sufficient explanation, the student is liable to think that the teacher is saying that science *knows* (i.e., has already "proved" somewhere) that the Cambrian explosion *can* be fully explained without any reference to design, purely in terms of unguided causes. And if origin of life comes up at any point, the student is again likely to come away with the impression that science already *knows* that it is possible for a cell to form by accident, and that it is just a question of reconstructing the hypothetical steps -- a task which scientists are eagerly working on and making great progress toward.

Thus, even if I were to accept the view that design could not be detected -- a conclusion which I don't grant out of hand -- even if I were to work entirely within the conception of "science" that Don has outlined here, I would *still* say that it is important for all teachers of evolution and of the origin of life to issue appropriate disclaimers. What I am pleading for is for the science teacher (and the textbook, and state education guidelines) to say something like this:

"No one knows how the first life began. The cell, as revealed by the tools of modern science, is an incredibly complex array of integrated biochemical systems, which work together in such a way as to suggest to many people some sort of design or plan. The question is whether this "design" is real, or is only only apparent, that is, whether the first cells actually required intelligent guidance of some kind to come into existence, or whether they could have been formed by natural laws and chance alone. The approach of modern science, which is the approach we will take in this course, is to investigate the latter possibility only. This may strike you as narrow, and as unfairly ruling out the possibility of design.

"It is in fact narrow, and deliberately so, but it is not meant to unfairly rule out the possibility of design. Science cannot rule out the possibility of design, and there is nothing irrational in the conclusion of design, and in fact many scientists personally believe in design. However, the tools of science are crafted to deal with explanations in terms of natural laws, not in terms of design. We know how to detect when two molecules are adhering due to electrostatic forces; we have no idea how to catch a designer in the act of making a cell. And generally speaking, in almost all branches of the study of nature -- chemistry, physics, astronomy, etc. -- the restriction of scientific attention to unguided causes has proved extremely fruitful. It seems sensible, therefore, for scientists to maintain this restriction when investigating the origin of life. There is no guarantee that unguided causes are a probable or even possible explanation, in advance of doing the research to find out. So science proceeds on the assumption that unguided causes are a possible explanation, and turns up what it can. The best that science can do in the question of the origin of life is to push the investigation of unguided causes as far as it can possibly go, to see how much explanatory power they have.

"I want to make it clear that in doing this, science cannot deny the possibility of design, and that scientists are stepping outside the bounds they have imposed on themselves if they say that science can "prove" that there is no design, or that design is a false or wrong explanation for the origin of the first life. As I have already said, the working assumption of science -- that an unguided, law-bound explanation is possible -- does not disprove design, but rather, tentatively excludes it from consideration. And then, by pushing the non-design explanation as far as it can go, science puts another explanatory option on the table. The final judgment, however -- the judgment regarding which explanation for the origin of life is more probable, more sensible, more rational, etc. -- is a judgment which science by itself cannot make. It can contribute important data to render the judgment more intelligent, but it cannot conclusively pronounce. Therefore, do *not* infer from our absence of discussion of design, designers, intelligence, etc., that we are trying to force you to believe that there is no design, or are appealing to the authority of science to convince you that design is some sort of primitive, uneducated, superstitious conclusion. We are simply trying to present to you the state of a particular research program based on particular working assumptions which most scientists in the subject area deem sensible. It is possible that the origin of life may prove to be one area where these working assumptions are inadequate. And you will not be required to accept that they are adequate in order to get an "A" in this course. All that you are required to do is to understand and (on assignments, tests and exams) explain the assumptions, the methods, the reasoning processes and the evidence that are involved in this research program. The final judgment regarding the plausibility of design and non-design explanations for the origin of life rests with you, and no one will be trying to put pressure on your judgment."

My language might be a little grand for ninth-grade students, but it could be adjusted "downward", while maintaining the same essential contents. And surely it could be used "as is" for twelfth-grade science students or university freshmen.

My goal, of course, is to come up with language which (a) does not tilt the public school system in an anti-religious direction, however subtly; (b) indicates to students the epistemological difference between working assumptions that facilitate a research program on one hand, and what has been "proved" by science on the other hand.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Don Winterstein
  To: asa ; Cameron Wybrow
  Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 10:37 AM
  Subject: Re: [asa] ID/Miracles/Design (Behe vs. Behe)

  CW: Can "science" claim to *know* that the first cell could have arisen via random chemical evolution?

  DW: "Science" makes no such claim but investigates the possibility as if an undesigned solution were possible. If a designer was in fact necessary, the scientific investigation is to that degree irrelevant. But as you know, science has had lots of successes by assuming that "undesigned solutions" are possible and then proceeding to find such. If scientists were to assume at the outset that a designed solution had been necessary, any search for undesigned solutions would obviously be foolish and would not be undertaken. Bottom line: Why assume angels are pushing the planets? Why give up without trying?

  CW: I asked...for the basis of...confidence in evolutionary theory...[and] why there was such a dearth of books on macroevolution....

  DW: "Science" asks what the best model involving no "multiplication of entities" is for a collection of events. The events of evolution are primarily the fossils in their sequences. The best existing model that involves no outside entities is that there's a genetic connection among all fossils, that later ones came from earlier ones, and that this emergence of later from earlier happened in the absence of intervention by outside entities. There's no scientific reason for saying that outside entities were not active in these processes--and indeed they may have been--other than that, if such entities were thus active, science would be unable to explain the processes. Science has had some success in explaining the processes, so the assumption among scientists is that, given enough info and enough time, all such processes are explainable. Once again, because past efforts to explain the world's phenomena apart from outside entities have succeeded, why give up on evolution without trying?

  Few descriptions of macroevolution are as believable as other facts of science because of the paucity of info on evolutionary processes. The explanations that exist are in the category of plausibility arguments--which are something less than hard facts. Most human scenarios not tested are found wanting if and when tested. Much of the power of science derives from experimentation, so if you can't do the experiment, you're limited, and your proposals are open to question.

  Those who emotionally assert that unguided evolution can explain it all are vigorously defending the scientific method but otherwise are not on solid ground. On the other hand, those who say ID is obvious are begging the question. Furthermore, it's questionable whether anyone can come up with criteria for design that scientists will agree on. Science makes progress only if and when scientists can agree on criteria for scientific truth.

  CW: Scientists are doing science "the way it should be done" when they accept "with so little questioning" a theory whose "detailed explanatory power" is "very limited"?

  DW: Science is done within the constraint that entities should not be unnecessarily multiplied. Historical geology & evolution have emerged from intensive studies of rocks and fossils, but because of the nature of the materials being studied, formidable information gaps remain. These gaps, scientists believe, are largely responsible for the limited nature of explanations. Scientists accept the limitations of evolution as if such limitations were more or less ignorable because they understand how limited their raw data are and assume that, if the data were not so limited, the science would not be so limited. The gaps in the knowledge do not imply that the science is in principle not possible. Much evidence, in fact, points in the opposite direction.


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Received on Wed May 27 22:49:20 2009

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