Sunday, August 26, 2007

Creation? Darwin? Intelligent Design?

An interesting brouhaha has been taking place between the American Spectator's Tom Bethell and National Review's John Derbyshire over the scientific credentials of Intelligent Design theory. The link below takes you to Bethell's original article:

The following link takes you to Derbyshire's response, followed by Bethell's response to that:

This has been a running battle. They've exchanged volleys at National Review Online, and Derbyshire has written contemptuously about Intelligent Design theory on the National Review Online site, in a manner which a friend of mine has stated "puts space between them and their conservative readership." Though an avowed Episcopalian (he is English, after all), Derbyshire is dismissive of the idea that, through scientific observation, we can build a case for the existence of a "Designer" -- that is, a creator of life.

You would think that the idea of a Designer would resonate better with someone like Derbyshire, who surely must believe there was a Creator with a purpose in mind. (Episcopalians still believe that, don't they?) Or perhaps his objection is not to the concept of a Designer per se, but is aimed at the question of whether we can objectively perceive him through science?

Fine, then, but why the hostility? Personally, I see Intelligent Design as a very interesting thought experiment. No, our scientific instruments and paleontological digs cannot perceive a supernatural being. However, the ID folks seem well aware that God cannot be deduced; that is why they are trying to infer God, based on the clues that we can observe; in other words, they are building a circumstantial case. So the question becomes, can a circumstantial case be scientific? Is there anything inherently unscientific about using inferential reasoning? If so, someone had better tell the Darwinists; they use inference all the time -- e.g., when they compare fossils of extinct animals and infer, based on taxonomic similarities, that one species must have begat the other. They must infer; they certainly cannot observe the evolution as it took place (until we invent a time machine), nor can we really test what happened so long ago.

It would seem that there are two hurdles for ID to be considered science. The first is the question of epistemology: could a circumstantial case ever be good enough, and if so what would constitute a good case? The second hurdle would be mathematical: how unlikely is it that random happenstance produced the results we see? (Darwinsts don't like it when Darwin's critics use that word, "random", but if evolution wasn't designed, there aren't a lot of other options.) Can a Designer's existence be proven, not absolutely, but beyond a reasonable doubt?

I have yet to read anything weighed in on this subject by a philosopher who specializes in epistemology, or a mathematician who has examined the odds. But I do know, in the practical world, we humans make a lot of decisions based on circumstantial evidence. E.g., we can send someone to jail with it. Is criminology considered scientific?

To me, these are interesting questions. However, in Derbyshire's opinion, these are absurd questions, and anyone who asks them needs to be greeted with hostility, sneered at, belittled, and -- if you're an academic -- tossed outside the city walls with the burnt offering. I don't get it. Why the rancor? Why the putting on of airs? Keep in mind, Intelligent Design does not challenge the notion of evolution; many of the ID folks seem to agree that some sort of evolution did in fact occur. All they are saying is, when evolution happened, it was not a random process; someone, a Designer, must have nudged things along.

Darwinists dismiss this as the "God in the gaps" line of argument, and insist that the presumption must always be in favor of the physical/material perspective.

Problem is, materialism is just that -- a presumption. Presumed, not proven. Evidence is a two-edged sword. If no amount of evidence can prove a supernatural presence, then no amount of evidence can disprove it, either. Presuming there was never any supernatural involvement in the universe is no more scientific than presuming the truth of the biblical account of Creation in Genesis; in Darwinism and Creationism, both world views are brought to the evidence, not carried away from it.

The ID folks are saying, hold on there, not so fast with the presumptions. Let's calculate the odds, if we can, and then we'll see what it makes sense to presume.

Presuming a materialist explanation is fine, whenever it can be done safely. But I think some folks not only presume materialism, they worship it. Darwinism, as Richard Dawkins has exulted, has made atheism intellectually respectable. Darwinism renders God discardable. When God is not around, man tends to worship himself. To exalt himself. To exalt his own powers of reasoning. 1960s hippie singers used to gild their drearily earnest lyrics with such ideas. King Solomon, on the other hand, dismissed man's wisdom as "vanity". Solomon's words, written 3,000 years ago, are still being studied today. Let's see how long "Mellow Yellow" lasts. (What? You've never heard "Mellow Yellow?")

So, boiled down, the argument is about presumptions.

I don't know what motivates Deryshire's hostility toward ID, being that he is not an atheist. Regardless, Darwinism is a bulwark of atheism, and -- rest assured -- anything that criticizes or challenges it will face withering fire. Certainly, from atheists. Apparently, even from erstwhile allies such as Episcopalians. Is C. S. Lewis turning in his grave yet?


Glen said...

I listened to the debate at this link.

Derbyshire claims to be a lapsed Episcopalian. His Catholic friends chide him, claiming that's like falling out of a first floor window.

Lee said...

He talks more like a lapsed Christian than a Christian, I suppose. But I do seem to recall some snarky responses from Derb in National Reviews "The Corner" when someone had apparently challenged his belief in Christianity. Recently, I read a response to his review of one of Robert Spencer's books ("Religion of Peace?"), and Derbyshire apparently referred to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as "preposterous". I guess I was a little hasty in reasoning that, since he's Episcopalian, he must therefore believe in God. Or at least in the Christian version.

Glen said...

I thought the debate was interesting, but they got a little off the intended track. Their thesis was "Is Darwin good for Conservatives?" Motivated by Larry Arnhart's and John West's books both pro and con.

Derbyshire was right on the money when he said they don't really intersect. I also agreed with (I think it was) John West who said that social Darwinism is pliable enough to support any conclusion you prefer to draw and is, therefore, really useless.

But a lot of the debate really just boiled down to is ID science?

George Gilder's point that chemistry and physics can tell you a lot about the makeup of DNA but not how to produce the information was a good one. It's like analyzing a book to determine how paper and ink are made but failing Literature Appreciation.

English is a fairly rich language, but try to write down a paragraph describing how to tell the difference between a dog and a cat. DNA has only 4 letters in its alphabet and it can describe the differences between a dog and a cat as well as the differences between two related cats!

Pretty amazing stuff.