Thursday, September 29, 2005

Unintelligent design, Part 1

The comment by Berend and the landmark US trial have prompted me to delve into the subject of so-called 'Intelligent Design,' a title that seems to me to beg the very question it seeks to prove. 'Intelligent Design' is Creationism in a lab coat: this idiocy was once thrown out the front door of intelligent debate; it now tries to come back in wearing new clothes and some slick shades, but the same old hand-me-down quality is still evident.

Why do these fundamentalists bother? They do so because fundamentally they haven't gone past the primitive explanations of primitive man.

Several Millennia ago, primitive man saw lightning, floods and other phenomena he couldn't explain and decided that the explanation for what he didn't understand was that 'a god -- or even several gods -- caused it, organised it or was otherwise responsible for it. This 'explanation' simply gave him a name for that which he couldn't yet explain, but by pushing explanation back for another day it brought into being the psychological phenomena of supernaturalism.

And pushing it back caused another problem: if a god was the cause of the lightning, then who or what was the cause of the god? Another god? And the cause of that god? Seemed like this wasn't an explanation so much as an infinite regression; an excuse for not simply admitting, when faced with utter ignorance of the seemingly incomprehensible, "I just don't know." Nothing wrong with not knowing, but an awful lot wrong with just making stuff up to cover your ignorance.

The explanation provided by primitive man to 'explain' things is still with us -- God did it! -- even as the reasons for honestly saying "I don't know" have diminished exponentially. Proponents of so-called Intelligent Design today claim for example that "there are natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural forces and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence." William Dembski for one believes that "an object must be the product of intelligent design if it shows'“specified complexity'.” 'Complexity' supposedly confounds explanation, and opens the door for idiocy.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of intelligent minds around to combat the idiocy. James Watson of Watson-and-Crick fame -- the chaps who discovered the secret of DNA -- had this to say recently on how science liberates us from the supernatural :
One of the greatest gifts science has brought to the world is continuing elimination of the supernatural, and it was a lesson that my father passed on to me, that knowledge liberates mankind from superstition. We can live our lives without the constant fear that we have offended this or that deity who must be placated by incantation or sacrifice, or that we are at the mercy of devils or the Fates. With increasing knowledge, the intellectual darkness that surrounds us is illuminated and we learn more of the beauty and wonder of the natural world.

Let us not beat about the bush — the common assumption that evolution through natural selection is a "theory" in the same way as string theory is a theory is wrong. Evolution is a law (with several components) that is as well substantiated as any other natural law, whether the law of gravity, the laws of motion or Avogadro's law. Evolution is a fact, disputed only by those who choose to ignore the evidence, put their common sense on hold and believe instead that unchanging knowledge and wisdom can be reached only by revelation.
He's right, you know, and his article provides sound argument for Darwin's Law, and an acerbic criticism of the New Creationism. Have a good read. As he says, "We can only hope that a time will soon come when rational, skeptical thought renders the creationists' stories as what they are — myths." Too true.

This is Part 1 of a three-part piece. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.
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8 Comments:

Anonymous Robert Winefield said...

The entire debate in the USA has missed one crucial point: How the F**K can something (Intelligent Design or Evolution or anything else for that matter) be taught to children against the express wishes of their parents?

The answer: Because the State owns the education system and what it says goes.

Separate Education from the state (and Science too for that matter) and the whole Bruhaha will evaporate into a Circus side-show.

9/29/2005 05:58:00 am  
Blogger PC said...

Excellent point, Robert. I don't make that point in ~this~ piece --and it's curious no-one has been making it publicly in the States -- but I felt sure at least one of my intelligent readers would make it for me. Ta. :-)

Hope you and your colleagues enjoy the cartoon, Robert. ;^P

9/29/2005 08:58:00 am  
Anonymous Sam Vilain said...

This is all well and good, and I am certainly not in favour of fundamentalist stances or disputing evolution as a process. However, you seem to have fallen into the same fundamentalist trap that you are lamenting against.

Defining God as "that which the uninformed used to explain that which cannot be otherwise explained" seems tempting, but in a way is a nihilistic denial of a fundamental question - wherefrom existence?

Just because you manage to simplify the starting point to just require a set of laws and a single large burst of energy to spring into existence, perhaps even simpler than that, you are dodging the real question - because obviously, it is "too hard" to answer. How can anyone say they can answer that question? Yet it still begs no matter how cleanly you shave the cruft off it with Occam's Razor.

"On the first day, he dropped a pebble of 10^80 MeV into the pool, and this fell down in the shape of Maxwell's Wave Equations"

It is certainly a step forward from the systems based on gospel; however it is still a supernatural ask of us to just accept that is the way things are and that this somehow just makes sense and does not leave any questions left over. And so we realise that there can never be absolute knowledge (except in defined worlds, like mathematics).

Similarly, Darwinism is a fantastic starting point that created a baseline for evolutionary theories, but on its own simply fails to cover the mechanisms for large, novel mutations. This is the situation where hundreds of "chance mutations" are required to happen over generations and somehow provide enough biological advantage for the being to be more successful, even before the new mutation is fully developed. Again this is a pill we are supposed to just swallow, and it becomes a fundamentalist scientific theory.

However, this is a surmountable challenge - for instance, we know that reproductive DNA varies over a person's lifetime. If you are to add the idea that a feedback loop exists from organisms' conciousness to their DNA, and that this is one fundamental feature of life as we know it, then the anti-Darwinist arguments (such as, "how did the eye evolve?") can easily be explained. We simply face problems, dream a solution, and it fanifests itself in the dreams of its offspring and slowly "grows".

Scientists should never try to say that they have or can have an answer to fundamental questions; however slowly chipping away and reducing the overwhelmingness of the questions is perfectly acceptable.

But any time that you say that one way is "correct", you are becoming fundamentalist - be it in the guise of science or religion.

I do think that schools should teach evolution as a concept, but they should always also teach kids the limits of our knowledge, the counter-arguments that are yet to be solidly refuted, etc. Because otherwise you get a whole bunch of kids growing up thinking that science has all the answers to everything - and that has to be counter-productive to real exploration of knowledge.

9/29/2005 10:57:00 am  
Blogger PC said...

Hi Sam, you do make some good points, and I'd like to think I answer most of them in the next two parts. Please let me know if I don't. :-)

Let me address a few of your other points here, though.

"Scientists should never try to say that they have or can have an answer to fundamental questions..."

Indeed they should, when they have them. And indeed they ~can~ have them. The scientific method is not just one among many ways to determine what is what; it is amongst the top four methods human beings have devised doing so. (What do you think the other tree are?) When the scientific method ~has~ determined what is what, perhaps in league with one of the other methods. I'd like to think he'd make that knowledge available. :-)

"...any time that you say that one way is "correct", you are becoming fundamentalist..." Well, no you're not. For instance, it's not 'fundamentalist' in any way to say that the only way to pass an exam is to get most of the answers right. Or that the only way to read that statement on your screen is to turn it on and to open your eyes.

Saying 'this is correct' is not necessariy to take a position amongst which there are equally compelling alternatives; it's a process of identification: it's saying 'I identify so and so to be the case, and I have these observations and/or these reasons for saying so.' Certainly, to say 'this is correct, and I know that because a god wrote it down over here on this stone tablet' would be 'fundamentalist' in the way that you mean, just as it woudl be 'fundamentalist' to say 'this is correct because But to say 'this is correct for these reasons' is simply a way of sharing knowledge. If the reasons are wrong and the reasoning incorrect, then the error can also be seen; if not, not.



Further, to say that "no way is correct" or "all ways are equally correct" would be to mire yourself unnecessarily in relativism and uncertainty, when both are unecessary and dangerous. In any case, to even make the judgement you made is an attempt to say that "one way is 'correct'," isn't it. :-)

"I do think that schools should teach evolution as a concept..."

I'm with Mr Watson: it should be taught as a Law. I'm also with Mr Winefield, of course: what's taught in schools should be a matter between schools and parents, not a matter for you, me, the Minstry of Education, Trevor Mallard, or the Dover Area School District Board of Education. It's the State's involvement in these issues that makes it everybody else's business when it really shouldn't be.

"...but they should always also teach kids the limits of our knowledge..." Indeed. It is an enormous oversight that education curricula exclude the teaching of the subject 'how we know what we know,' so that youngsters can understand what things we ~do~ know with certainty (and how we do), and how to know and counter nonsense when they see it.

"...the counter-arguments that are yet to be solidly refuted..."

Let me just clarify here that it would be wrong to say that Intelligent Design, to use the current example, is a 'counter-argument' to anything. ID is myth; there is nothing in it to counter anything. AS I was suggesting above, if schools were to teach the methodology of thinking, then one could be confident that students themselves (and maybe even their parents) woud be able to counter the nonsense themselves in their own time.

- For instance, I would like to think that an intelligent student might think like the following upon examing your suggestion that: "If you are to add the idea that a feedback loop exists from organisms' conciousness to their DNA..." Where would this 'idea' come from? From an examination of the evidence and an understanding the causal processes involved in the evolution of species? Or from the idea that science is 'just another way of seeing things'; one way amongst many equally valid alternatives. If they thought the latter, then anything is possible, anything goes, in which case you would no longer have science, or knowledge, or much else. If however they thought the former, then they'd have to conclude, I suspect, that an examination of the evidence woud fail to support such a desire.

- "Because otherwise you get a whole bunch of kids growing up thinking that science has all the answers to everything..."

I suspect very few kids at present grow up thinking that, sadly. I'd like to think they would grow up understanding how science finds its answers, how philosophy finds its answers, how both philosophy and science need each other, and how ~none of us~ need the crutch of religion.

Sadly...

9/29/2005 12:53:00 pm  
Anonymous Sam Vilain said...

I look forward to hearing your reasoning about how the fundamental question of existence can be answered by any process of discovery within that existence, and what these other three methods of discovery are.

Your observation that this argument is circular is spot on - the answer to this apparent duality is that it simply depends on which arguments you use as a starting point as to which ones come out correct at the end. If you start with Occam's Razor, then the relativistic outlook comes out incorrect. If you start with the Relativist principle that there can be no absolute reference frames, then you can blunt Occam's Razor. So, they are both correct, and incorrect, depending on which direction you come from. To pick either of them exclusively is almost certainly a mistake, though.

Yes, call evolution a law if you will. If "Murphy's Law" deserves to be called a law, a simple concept as evolution deserves that title, too. Even the bible contains examples of evolution; each day of Genesis is an evolutionary step from the one before that includes the previous, yet transcends it.

But back onto Darwinist evolution, we have detailed fossil records that show a very fine level of evolution along many lines of species; however we cannot recover very many of the gaps, and sometimes there are some very novel concepts being added in there. So we can be almost certain that evolution is happening, and that broadly, and in the short term, Darwinism can definitely be said to exist (apply suitable wrappers to this statement as per above, of course) - but chance mutation of DNA from cosmic rays leading to great evolutionary leaps and bounds does not really match up with what we can reproduce in a lab with high doses of radiation and short lived species or bacteria. This is the primary counter-argument I refer to.

Until you have observations that demonstrate otherwise, it is a mistake to presume that all the details have gone away. I don't think this is "miring yourself in relativism"; all science is by its very nature empirical - but that's fine, if you define enough of your system relatively then you have enough for a working vocabulary to describe things as far as you need to. You don't need to find the "basic" or "primordial" level, which might not even exist.

My idea, has every bit as much validity as Creationism/ID as things stand, and of course has no scientific credibility. And the fact that such a simple idea can exist on a par with ID that fills gaps perceived by some in Darwinism, adds weight to the argument against teaching ID in the classroom.

There is probably quite a simple answer to this. That is, Darwinist evolution does not attempt to answer the question about where existence comes from, only how complex creatures can arise from simple creatures. By avoiding the temptation to bundle it all up into a big "this is where everything in the world comes from" class, you might be able to dodge the issue entirely.

Perhaps this is a way that ID can be excluded from the classroom - to be taught, it requires an assumption about the fundamental question that no teacher should pretend they know the answer to. To me, this is one aspect of 'removing the crutch of religion'.

9/29/2005 06:14:00 pm  
Anonymous michael fasher said...

the best book on evolution i would recomend is The Blind Watchmaker.
Privatising and deregulation of the education system is the surefire way to limit the loopy ideas not just creationists but also islamic fundementalists in countries such as france or the netherlands or turkey.
These peaple (creationists and islamists)feel justifiebly pissed off by paying taxes and having the values of left wing liberals forced upon their children.
A small minority of activists in a christian activists can gain political traction by exploiting christian joe publics anoyance with the compulsary education system

9/29/2005 10:16:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

Sam, you want me to tell you "how the fundamental question of existence can be answered by any process of discovery within that existence."

Well, first off, I didn't offer that. I said, "The scientific method is not just one among many ways to determine what is what; it is amongst the top four methods human beings have devised [for] doing so." I was assuming that you might like to have a go yourself. However, I'll tell you below what I would include in that little list.

Second point: I'm sure you and I would both have issue with what we would consider the "the fundamental question of existence" to be. Douglas Adams was right: it was 42. :-)

That's a joke by the way. Ahem. No, in all fairness, ask me again tomorrow, because I do go down that road somewhat tomorrow in Part 3 of this little series. But I'll give you a clue: It involves the use of axiomatic concepts, i.e.., irreducible primary facts of reality, that 1)cannot be reduced to other facts, or broken into component parts, and 2)that are implicit in all facts and all knowledge. Anyway, hang around tomorrow and ask questions if you wish.

Anyway, here's the four methods humans have devised of determining what's what, (there is naturally some overlap between them; I'm not a reductionist):
1. Having a look.
2. Legal examination.
3. Philosophical Inquiry.
4. Scientific Method.

For the most part, they've worked pretty damn well. In order to answer those fundamental questions, philosophical inquiry is the one method -- indeed, that's what the essence of philosophical inquiry is: answering fundamental questions. It's just unfortunate that too many philosophers have defaulted on that task.

"That is, Darwinist evolution does not attempt to answer the question about where existence comes from, only how complex creatures can arise from simple creatures."

Quite so.

"Perhaps this is a way that ID can be excluded from the classroom - to be taught, it requires an assumption about the fundamental question that no teacher should pretend they know the answer to. To me, this is one aspect of 'removing the crutch of religion'."

Perhaps. Or perhaps, as Michael suggests, we just get the State out of the classroom and leave it up to parents?

9/30/2005 02:48:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Raelian version of intelligent design is much more fun, as long as you don't take it too seriously, and you get more bonking of the consensual adult sort within that particular alternative religion.

Craig Y.

11/12/2005 11:58:00 am  

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