Thursday, May 28, 2009

Skeptical Christian on Intelligent Design

The blogger Skeptical Christian wrote up a rather interesting post on ID which I thought I'd comment on. His words are italics, mine are not.

First of all, I view the whole issue as somewhat unneeded as far as a defense of Christianity is concerned. From my perspective, even the truth of full-blown evolutionary theory is fully consistent with theism and is quite possible on Christianity. Indeed, many great Christian philosophers, theologians, scientists, pastors, and laypeople believe the evolutionary account. Although this may bring up questions of interpretation concerning the book of Genesis, it seems to me that this difficulty would hardly prove fatal to the entire Christian worldview. Christianity, at root level, requires the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ for our sins.

I agree.

It is my thesis that none of the philosophical and polemical arguments raised against Intelligent Design are successful, so that the debate must lie in the realm of scientific facts. Please note that this does not constitute an endorsement, for I am mostly agnostic on this issue. But this debate must be resolved using scientific reasoning.

I disagree: As Richard Dawkins has argued, ID could never explain organized complexity because the designer's organized complexity is unexplained. Dawkins has, of course, been criticized, but I've found that the criticisms of his argument are weak. Although it might be possible to avoid this dilemma by positing alien designers, their existence would still have to explained ultimately (such as through some form of evolution).

One of the most common criticisms is that Intelligent Design does not count as science. If Intelligent Design is not even a scientific theory, than it simply is not a contender, it is disqualified from competition. Does this claim have any merit?

...First, let’s consider the criterion of falsification. Many critics claim that a theory must be capable of being falsified if it is to count as a scientific theory. The philosophy of falsificationism, according to which theories are never really confirmed but can only be falsified by contradictory evidence, is usually identified to have originated with Karl Popper, a philosopher of science born in the early 1900s. But is it true that a theory must be falsifiable in order to be scientific?

Although Popper has been very influential, his thesis has not gone unchallenged. For example, Carl Hempel has argued that falsificationism fails with regard to certain scientific claims, such as the following;
“For every metal, there is a temperature at which it will melt.”

This statement cannot be either falsified or justified by any possible scientific observation. Yet, it certainly seems to be a scientific hypothesis.

I agree completely. However, I still believe that falsificationism is useful. If a theory is falsifiable, it makes a negative prediction: A prediction about what we won't find. Although negative predictions add to a theory's strength, I don't believe that theories which only make positive predictions are not science (For example, the theory that a meteor hit the earth 65 million years makes no negative predictions, to my knowledge, but it does make positive predictions like: We may find an impact site from about that time) nor do I have a problem with theories that are simply inferences to the best explanation, such as endosymbiotic theory, which explains a wide range of facts yet is not (at least to my knowledge) falsifiable.

In any case, Intelligent Design theory is eminently testable, easily satisfying this criteria of science. All it takes to refute ID theory is to demonstrate that a plausible naturalistic account of irreducibly complex structures in biological organisms is available. In fact, many critics of ID argue that this has been done! This would obviously nullify the charge that ID is unfalsifiable. Indeed, many critics seem to claim both that Intelligent Design is unfalsifiable and actually falsified by the evidence. You can have one or the other, but you cannot have both. Scientific criticisms of ID are implicit recognitions that the theory is testable.

I think SC is confusing falsification with vulnerability to refutation. Falsification, as I understand it, has to do with making some observation which proves a theory wrong. Refutation is broader: Refutation is simply showing that someone's reasoning is incorrect.

In fact, ID seems to be, in this regard at least, much more falsifiable than Darwinian evolution. In order to falsify the Darwinian hypothesis, you would have to prove the universal negative that no naturalistic, evolutionary pathway could possibly lead to the development of the irreducibly complex structure. Proving a universal negative like this is obviously impossible. On the other hand, the Darwinian can refute Intelligent Design merely by offering one possible and plausible naturalistic, evolutionary explanation for the irreducibly complex structure.

Think about this: If I were to give a plausible, step-by-step account of how the bacterial flagellum evolved, would that disprove intelligent design? Not at all. IDers have plenty of other structures they claim are irreducibly complex, and if defeat all those they would simply go looking for another one. How can I refute irreducible complexity when doing so could potentially mean drawing up a plausible naturalistic pathway for every complex biological system on earth? And even if I refuted irreducible complexity, it's not like that would totally destroy intelligent design.

Allen Orr wrote a critique of Darwin’s Black Box, in which, among other things, he compared the development of an organism to the writing of a computer program. He says,

“Indeed, because the very act of revising a program has a way of wiping out clues to its history, it may be impossible to reconstruct the path taken. Similarly, we have no guarantee that we can reconstruct the history of a biochemical pathway. But even if we can’t, its irreducible complexity cannot count against its gradual evolution any more than the irreducible complexity of a program does—which is to say, not at all.” 3

Thus, under Darwinism, the inability to find any sort of plausible reconstruction for an organism or a biological feature is no evidence against the theory. Therefore, when it comes to explaining the actual development of organisms, Intelligent Design theory is remarkably more falsifiable than Darwinian evolution. But as mentioned before, this is largely irrelevant, because falsifiability is not required of a good scientific theory, particularly historical theories that attempt to reconstruct the past.

Agreed, with the addition that ID suffers similar problems because it can always take a seemingly inexplicable fact under the theory of evolution and claim it as evidence for ID. If the "inexplicable" fact is explained, is does not falsify ID, or even refute it. I also agree that this discussion is somewhat irrelevant since we both agree falsification has been overrated as a criterion for science.

SC goes on to talk about methodological naturalism: The idea that science is restricted to natural explanations. I agree with him that there are possible scientific proofs of God (finding the King James Bible written in the genome) and therefore science is not restricted to the natural. However, until rock-solid evidence for the existence of God is demonstrated, it would violate the empirical principles on which science is based. I'm not going to rule out the possibility of the supernatural, but so far all we have observed is the natural, and we shouldn't appeal to anything else as an explanation until rock-solid evidence of the supernatural exists.

He also mentions "Directed Panspermia"; The hypothesis that life on earth was sent over by an intelligent alien race:

Crick and Orgel mention the possibility that life was seeded on the planet earth over 4 billion years ago. This may strike many people, myself included, as absurd and contrived, but it is hard to deny that it is a theoretical possibility. If Crick and Orgel are allowed to mention this possibility, why cannot Intelligent Design advocates do the same?

I think this misses the point that natural designers are already empirically verified while supernatural designers are not. By the way, I have been writing an article on "Directed Panspermia" and I must say that the paper on it said nothing about explaining "complexity" or "information". Why is that? I suspect that Crick and Orgel, being the staunch Darwinists they are, understood that natural selection explained that much already. So Crick and Orgel moved on to other things that they thought design might explain. For example, take a look at what they said in their classic paper:

“The chemical composition of living organisms must reflect to some extent the composition of the environment in which they evolved. Thus the presence in living organisms of elements that are extremely rare on the Earth might indicate that life is extraterrestrial in origin.

“Molybdenum is an essential trace element that plays an important role in many enzymatic reactions, while chromium and nickel are relatively unimportant in biochemistry. The abundance of chromium, nickel, and molybdenum on the Earth are 0.20, 3.16, and 0.02%, respectively. We cannot conclude anything from this single example, since molybdenum may be irreplaceable in some essential reaction-nitrogen fixation, for example. However, if it could be show that the elements represented in terrestrial living organisms corelate closely with thosethat are abundant in some class of star molybdenum stars, for example-we might look more sympathetically at 'infective' theories."
-- FHC Crick and LE Orgel, “Directed Panspermia” Icarus 19 341-346 (1973)

Dawkins offers a classic objection in his book The Blind Watchmaker. He claims that “[To explain via] a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like ‘God was always there,’ and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there,’ or ‘Life was always there’ and be done with it.”

...The main problem with this argument is that it makes a fundamental mistake about the nature of explanation. In order to offer a good, compelling explanation of some phenomena, one does not need to offer an explanation of the explanation. If you think carefully about this, then you may notice that we could never explain anything using the Dawkins approach. Such an approach leads to an infinite regress. Any explanation you offer would need an explanation, that explanation would require an explanation, and so on forever. It would literally be impossible to have any knowledge.

Not quite. As I discuss in chapter 7 of my book, "Atheism and Naturalism": When we posit an intelligent designer to explain an arrowhead, we implicitly understand that we have not explained everything: The indian who fashioned the arrowhead needs to be explained, and we do not deny that he (and the whole human race) need to be explained. The same goes for alien designers: They still need an explanation. However, when it comes to God, there could never be an explanation: If god evolved, or was designed, he would not be god. The only way to 'explain' God is to say that his existence is logically necessary (I have examined the arguments for the necessity of God in chapter 2 of my book and find them severely lacking, and I believe most philosophers agree). The very thing God is summoned to explain (organized complexity) is something which God himself possesses and therefore could never 'explain'.

[I]t seems false that Intelligent Design theory makes no predictions, or at least it is false that Intelligent Design cannot make any predictions. For example, ID predicts that some biological organisms will have features that exhibit irreducible complexity and specified complexity. ID predicts that no plausible naturalistic account of irreducibly complex mechanisms will be forthcoming. This is an extremely risky prediction, as noted above, all it takes is one plausible naturalistic account and ID is overturned, while a Darwinian may rest easy in his convictions because nothing short of a logical disproof of the possibility of evolution will suffice to overthrow his paradigm.

No, ID does not predict 'irreducible complexity'. A designer could have easily created life in a simple and effecient way that did not involve "irreducibly complex" arrangements or "specified complexity" (whatever that is). As for the alleged vulnerability to falsification due to the fact that someone might find a naturalistic account of irreducible complexity, please see my previous comments for a refutation.

Now, to wrap up: What merit does ID have? The most common answer I hear is that ID has the power to explain the 'information' in the genome or the complexity of living things. Yet Darwinian Evolution explains this just as well: Computer Simulations of Natural Selection as well as real life observations show that evolution can and does produce complexity.

So Evolution and ID, it would seem, are neck-and-neck right now. Unless one can explain much more than the other, or unless one has made far more verified predictions than the other.

So what might ID predict? Well, that depends very much on what the goals, desires, and means of the designer were. I was tempted to say that ID might predict that everything would be designed as efficiently as possible, but Michael Behe has already addressed that argument by replying that, essentially, efficient design would assume that we know what the designer's goals were.

So what could ID explain? Well, if you are thinking of an alien designer then it might explain one or two of the peculiar biochemical properties Crick and Orgel mentioned (and even this does not challenge evolution, but only an unguided origin of life). But a supernatural designer could not explain anything except complexity and information, which evolution already explains.

So, the question is, can evolution explain more than ID? Absolutely:

Charles Darwin predicted we would find human-ape intermediates. We did. He said they'd be in Africa, since according to evolutionary reasoning, they were unlikely to be anywhere else. We did. Scientists used the theory of evolution to predict that the genetic code would be universal (with the possibility of a few minor variations). It is. Evolutionary theory predicts that we will not find animals with adaptations not directly or indirectly beneficial to their own reproductive success. 10 million species later, we haven't. See here:


The Stallion said...

Great post, but I find it unclear what you are saying here:

"Not quite. As I discuss in chapter 7 of my book, "Atheism and Naturalism": When we posit an intelligent designer to explain an arrowhead, we implicitly understand that we have not explained everything: The indian who fashioned the arrowhead needs to be explained, and we do not deny that he (and the whole human race) need to be explained. The same goes for alien designers: They still need an explanation."

So are you saying that we need an explanation of the Indian's origin, culture, race, etc. in order for the explanation "An Indian designed the arrowhead" to be valid?

AIGBusted said...

Oh no. I'm saying that when we hypothesize that a Native American created the arrowhead we found, in doing so we do not deny that the Native Americans have an explanation, we simply decide to set aside that question.

However, when someone hypothesizes that God did something, they aren't choosing to remain agnostic about his origins, they claim he has no origins (That's the definition of most gods).

Saying that something so complex has no origin makes no sense (For saying he is eternal does not explain his complexity). Theists obviously would not want to say that some complex things don't need explanation, since that would undercut their argument from design.

So if complexity requires an explanation, and God is complex, then God requires an explanation. But if God has an explanation (if he was designed or he evolved) then he's no longer what we define as "God". Therefore, God does not exist.