Monday, August 15, 2005

(un)Intelligent Design updated

Derb posted a link to this long piece in TNR(free registration required) by Jerry Coyne. Derb's comments include
I sometimes use the following argument with people who ask about ID.

You are walking in your home town when you see a building on fire. You call the fire house. They ask the location of the fire. You tell them. They say: "Oh, we don't go out to fires there. The city has decided that block is to be left in God's hands. God has His own plan for the block, and whatever happens there is good, far as we are concerned. The fire is God's will. We can't interfere."

What can be said about the fire house's point of view? Well you can say this: It might be based in truth. God certainly behaves in mysterious ways, and it's not inconceivable that He might take into his charge a particular city block, and be angry at attempts to interfere with His will there, and code all that into scripture so that it can be reasonably deduced by those who take the scripture as His word. So our fire house, and the city council, might be on metaphysically firm ground.

I think you can also say this, though: The fire house's attitude IS NOT A PROPER ATTITUDE FOR FIREFIGHTERS TO HAVE. Firefighters ought to fight fires, and leave theology -- theirs, yours, and mine -- out of their work.

So with science. The work-a-day business of scientists is to investigate the natural world, and come up with naturalistic explanations for observed phenomena. A scientist who says: "There isn't a naturalistic explanation for this. Can't possibly be. Must be God's will," is just not being a good scientist. [Though an ID-er, for reasons to do with US law and the Constitution, and with the fundamental dishonesty of the ID project, would say "the designer" rather than "God."]

Even if, in some hypothetical long haul, it turned out that there actually *is* no naturalistic explanation for the observed phenomenon, that scientist would still have been behaving in a way that scientists ought not behave. He would have been in breach of professional ethics, just as much as a firefighter refusing to fight a fire. This accounts for much of the contempt and ill-will that working scientists feel towards the ID folk... though in his article, Jerry Coyne keeps those things pretty well under control.
I think Derb's hypothetical is excellent. And, as he says, Coyne's article hits all the essential points. It's the most cogent I've read on the debate, and has pretty much put the kaibosh on ID in my mind.

He's flat-out wrong in many of his constitutional points, though. The First Amendment does not prohibit schools teaching religion, nor does it prohibit a state religion. It only takes congress out of the religion business. Coyne seems to believe in the mythical "separation of church and state". Having said that, I agree with his underlying point that ID is not science, and that it shouldn't be taught as one. He also makes the best defense of evolution as a science that I've yet read.

He does less cherry-picking and straw-man battling than I've seen in other attacks on ID. There are a few moments where he pretends to know the mind of the unseen Designer, but he even manages to make some valid points later on.

Where Coyne is correct in seeing how certain religions have latched on to, nay - invented, ID, he underappreciates their vision of evolution as destructive to their moral view. It's correct to state that if evolution is correct, this seriously undermines the special "in His image" idea of creationism. But it's also true that, unfortunately, Darwin's work was also hijacked by that most destructive of pseudo-sciences, Marxism. It was convenient to socialist utopians to kill God, and in evolution they found their bunker-buster.

But, as I keep saying, evolution doesn't necessarily deal the mortal blow. As Coyne properly points out, there are very religious people who still believe in it. They can reconcile their views with the "mysterious ways" explanation, and God stays in the picture. I love tossing out this quote from Darwin just to keep the pot stirred:

"Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none
exceed in subliminity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand
of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are
predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and Decay
prevail. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of
the God of Nature:--no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved,
and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of
his body."
"The Voyage of the Beagle", 1839, page 436
Political observations and differences aside, Coyne does a very good job at addressing "Irreducable Complexity". That was the first thing that gave ID any credibility with me, and with that pillar gone I no longer consider it science.

There are some things science just may never know. A big one is the origin of life. Even evolution doesn't attempt to answer that one.


Here's the last word on the subject.