"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Response to Dick on Intelligent Design

National Review Associate Editor Anthony Dick has an article up today
praising a new documentary about Intelligent Design and Evolution. I got
hung up on the part where Dick starts talking about the concept of irreducible
complexity:
Olson’s exposition of this first point hinges on what has become the
biggest buzzword in the ID movement: “irreducible complexity.” This concept is
the golden calf of ID advocates, who argue that there are some biological
structures that are so complex that they could not possibly have evolved through
the Darwinian process of genetic mutation and natural selection. The proper
functioning of these structures, they claim, requires the simultaneous operation
of numerous different components. These components supposedly could not have
been of any use to an organism if they had evolved individually on a gradual
timescale, so it is not clear how they could have evolved together to form the
larger structures.

And so? Do IDers modestly conclude from this that they may have found
an interesting challenge that should be the topic of further discussion and
investigation?

Well, not exactly: They conclude that, because we can’t presently think
of a way that some complex biological structures evolved naturally, these
structures must have been fashioned by an intelligent designer. Here you will
want to fire up your camcorders: Rarely will you see a logical long-jump that
hurdles so many acres of careful reasoning with such soaring ease. If ever there
was a record-breaking flight of fallacy, surely this is it.

Olson correctly identifies this “irreducible complexity” canard as a
textbook example of “God of the gaps” reasoning, whereby one finds a gap in
human understanding of the world, and then immediately plugs this gap by
invoking divine intervention. It is by the same thought process that the ancient
Greeks deduced the existence of an angry Zeus hurling thunderbolts.


Mr. Dick appears to have done some easy leaping of his own. If it is the case that there are some biological structures that are simultaneously too complex and too irreducible in function to have had some predecessor (and we don't mean the eye, but a flagellum), then the entire evolutionary theory is on the rocks waiting to be spelled out by a more capable theory. Such a finding would not be modest, but would be foundation shaking. Dick's "god of the gaps" is Behe's "find a new theory, don't worry I'll wait."

Once again, as an observer of the debate rather than as a participant, I can't help but feel that one team is desperate to knock the other one of out the arena by pure scorn rather than by engagement.

I'm particularly intrigued by the accusations about "god in the gaps." It is quite true that one of the great achievements of science is to explain how certain things work, how they happened, or how they might have happened in such a way that we can go beyond, "God made it that way." And we should all applaud. I can imagine some good Calvinists out there thinking that scientific exploration is exactly the sort of role God envisioned for man right from the beginning.

However, the joy of learning, explaining, and naming shouldn't mean that we are incapable of admitting a need to go back to the drawing board or to make a major revision. I think that because the issue of evolution has been so charged with atheist and Christian fervor, there are many who believe evolutionary theory is a battlefield of honor on which science must prove itself to be the master narrative with the best chance of explaining "life, the universe, and everything." And on the battlefield, you don't admit weakness, even if it's real.

When I watch the way this battle is conducted. I see weakness and its not with the IDers. It's with the guys who conduct little inquisitions in colleges and universities when they find a colleague whose orthodoxy is suspect.

4 comments:

Jay D. Homnick said...

Mr. Dick deserves to be called a name, but we won't resort to name-calling. Suffice it to say that he misses the point.

Irreducible complexity does not rely on 'gaps' to make its point.

'Gaps' in fossil development were used to argue that evolution was helped along by an intelligent force. It's not a bad idea, but it does have the flaw in that it argues from a space, from an absence. "How did we get from here to there? That leaves a blank space. Fill God's name into the blank. Good, it is blank no more. No gap."

In summation, 'gaps' are a more intuitive and less philosophical (and, consequently, less scientific) proof.

Irreducible complexity, on the other hand, argues from a presence, a thing that exists and is observable, rather than from an absence.

For example, if you see a nail in a wall where there was none earlier, it might have been blown there by a tornado. When we see a screw with a wing nut and a washer securing it, we can consider it proven that it was placed there by an intelligent agent. It is the presence of a compilation of compatible entities that accomplish a particular function together that they could not do apart that proves intelligence.

In a word, you are seeing 'design'. Assuming a designer from design is almost a tautology.

In closing, let me suggest an exercise for approaching this type of thought. Ask yourself this: what would constitute scientific proof that a human being had made something? Figure out an honest standard: say, the difference between a pile of straw, even a neat one, and a scarecrow with buttons for eyes and a coat with patches. Then ask yourself if the standard that Dick and his compadres are setting for the basic proof of 'intelligent design' reflects an honest spirit of inquiry?

Hunter Baker said...

Jay, you have clearly thought about this a lot. Excellent thoughts for the cud-chewers to salivate over.

Ed Darrell said...

It is not "the case that there are some biological structures that are simultaneously too complex and too irreducible in function to have had some predecessor (and we don't mean the eye, but a flagellum)," however, and so it is also not the case that "the entire evolutionary theory is on the rocks waiting to be spelled out by a more capable theory."

Mr. Dick gets it right. We would do well to listen.

Tlaloc said...

"Mr. Dick appears to have done some easy leaping of his own. If it is the case that there are some biological structures that are simultaneously too complex and too irreducible in function to have had some predecessor (and we don't mean the eye, but a flagellum), then the entire evolutionary theory is on the rocks waiting to be spelled out by a more capable theory."

IF that were the case then you;d have a point but since that proposition is inherently UNPROVABLE it makes no difference. You absolutely cannot establish that something is universally impossible like that logically.

It's the old there are no black swan's problem if you've ever taken a simple course in logic.

So while your statement is accurate it relies upon a condition that can never be shown to be true, and is therefor garbage.



"However, the joy of learning, explaining, and naming shouldn't mean that we are incapable of admitting a need to go back to the drawing board or to make a major revision."

Certainly but that desire to go back to the drawing board must be motivated by an actual problem with a theory not a problem with people who can't accept it. There is no reason not to accept evolution other than religious mysticism getting in the way. All of the ID proponents are in fact creationists, although a few lie about the matter. ID itself is nothing more than creationism because inevitably the "intelligence" has to be god (or you just ask who designed the preceeding intelligence).



"And on the battlefield, you don't admit weakness, even if it's real."

There are certainly questions about the mechanisms of macroevolution. But the weaknesses you speak of are based upon fraud.



"When I watch the way this battle is conducted. I see weakness and its not with the IDers."

...due to your personal prejudices. Those of us in science have no problem seeing where the weakness lies because we know how science works.