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

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Conceptual Illiteracy: Public Intellectuals and Intelligent Design

I just read an interesting post by a brilliant legal mind, Richard Posner, on the Ten Commandments decisions. His comments were interesting and worth your time. However, I stopped short when he made a side remark about intelligent design being nothing more than thinly veiled biblical inerrancy.

That's a seriously uninformed perspective and I'm surprised to see it from a thinking machine like Posner. I can only conclude he has failed to investigate ID for himself and trusts the characterizations of ID set out by opponents.

Intelligent design is primarily a critique of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. It looks at things like statistical probabilities and irreducible complexity to sharply question whether Darwinian evolution could have occurred as postulated. There is NOTHING. Read NOTHING in ID theory to harmonize with the content of the Bible with the exception of an agreement about likely creation of the complicated life on the planet. ID does not reference Genesis or any other book of the Bible to make its case. It has a real intellectual content to it that can be debated without reference to revelation of any kind. In short, it is absurd to describe intelligent design as "thinly veiled biblical inerrancy."

Now, I have no idea whether ID theorists are ultimately correct. I have read some of the books and articles and certainly do know that Posner's characterization is ridiculous, irresponsible, and unusually slothful in his case.

11 comments:

Scott Carson said...

I certainly agree with you that many of the opponents of ID are really opponents of religion generally, or of some particular religion specifically, and that is what motivates at least some of them (I have no idea whether this motivates Posner). However, I do not think that ID, in and of itself, is specifically intended merely as a critique of the Neodarwinian synthesis.

It is true, as you say, that much of the work being done on the ID side right now is highly critical of certain methods and inferences on the evolutionist side. (Indeed, this is probably not a Good Thing for ID folks, since it simply fuels the fires for those who want to claim that it "isn't science". Good science seeks confirmation of its own hypotheses rather than the refutation of others, though one hopes that the two will go hand-in-hand.) But this fact about current ID research masks the fact that the ID argument is at least as old as Plato. The version that we normally find is due, ultimately, to Cicero, but even among the Presocratics one finds similar sorts of arguments being made.

So why do folks want to associate it with "biblical inerrancy" or literalist fundamentalism? For you are surely correct that such is the inference drawn by most critics of ID. I suspect the reason is rather political than scientific--one naturally wants to know why someone would support ID in the face of the scientific evidence. Why be so critical of the results of biological science, while not displaying a similar degree of skepticism towards hypotheses in other scientific concepts.

For example, Evolutionary Theory is every bit as well-confirmed as Quantum mechanics, but one does not find anyone suggesting that some other physical theory be taught in the schools alongside QM. Just as evolution is "just a theory", so too the theory of universal gravitation is "just a theory", but one does not find anyone suggesting that we teach some competing theory about gravitation--say, old Aristotle's--in the schools alongside of Newton's. The reason cannot be that Newton's theory is better confirmed than old Aristotle's, since the empirical evidence for both is identical.

I suspect that the real reason is that nothing political hangs on what sort of theory of gravitation one subscribes to, but just as some block-headed scientists seem to think, without good reason, that evolutionary theory proves religion wrong, so, too, there are ID folks who think that if God exists then evolutionary theory cannot be right. In short, there are folks on both sides who are motivated not by any notion of scientific discovery and truth, but by a priori considerations that they believe force them to adopt one hypothesis or the other if they are to preserve their worldview.

I have no patience for dogmatic empiricists and materialists who think that science has debunked religion; but neither have I any sympathy for folks who find real science--the non-politically motivated kind--to be a threat to religion and who, as a consequence, want to support any old theory that comes along just so long as it gives Richard Dawkins a headache.

It may be the case, as ID folks seem to believe, that it is rationally warranted to infer like causes from like effects, and it may be the case that their committment to the rationality of that inference is what motivates their belief in ID. But I suspect that if one were to put those defenders of ID who are atheists or agnostics into one column, and those who are religious in another, one would find that one had two columns of very different lengths.

This, of course, does not mean that we are entitled to engage in the sort of ad hominem argumentation that Posner is obviously guilty of in the case you mention. And it is equally unwarranted to presuppose, without any empirical evidence, that all defenders of ID are out for nothing more than religious victory in the culture wars, or to suggest that any examination of ID as a hypothesis automatically establishes a committment to a religious principle. Certainly the argument against the study of ID in scientific contexts, if there is any such argument, will have to turn on something else in order to avoid begging the question.

Hunter Baker said...

Scott, I agree with you that ID attracts the support of people with an agenda. No question. However, that is not any kind of reason to refuse to pay any attention to it. In my mind, what Behe, Dembski, and others have done goes beyond Paley, Plato, etc. and merits further discussion.

Scott Carson said...

Hunter (if I may)

I wholeheartedly agree with you, at least about the work of Behe, that it deserves more attention. Whether it really goes beyond Plato--or Hume's analysis--is, I think, an open question. Certainly more data are available, data that are more relevant because they are grounded in contemporary biological knowledge.

But I think it is the inferential structure of ID that will, in the end, bring it down, because in most respects the data do not matter as much as the pattern of inference that those data are used to drive. In the ID argument, the inference pattern is argument by analogy, and the particular analogy that is required is from like effects to like causes. Much of Behe's work has been devoted to exploring possible exceptions to natural selection rather than to possible confirmations of intelligent design, and although his work is fascinating it is hardly doing anything to promote ID, if for no other reason than the fact that even if we grant that evolution by means of natural selection is false, it does not follow from that that ID is true--there are innumerable other competing hypotheses that could be put in place instead of ID.

My suggestion is that if we want people to take ID more seriously, and to pay it more attention than they do now and for better reasons, its defenders will have to start shifting their focus away from the struggle to falsify That Other Theory and start working a little harder on confirming ID. Presumably every confirmation instance in favor of ID will also be a falsification instance against ET.

Whether or not that will ever happen is, I think, also something that is open to question. But I do think that you are right to call attention to what Posner said, and I hope you will continue call people on these kinds of abuses.

Hunter Baker said...

No problem calling me Hunter. I should have called you Dr. Carson. Sorry about that.

I think your analysis is right on, but then again, aren't you a philosopher of science or a historian of science? You should know.

Jay D. Homnick said...

I'm not a philosopher or a historian of anything but I can smell a preening overweening hubristic bastard from a city block away and Posner answers to that description.

I once sat in a cab next to that guy Lerman or something that was Irving Howe's buddy and long-time editor of Partisan Review and just mentioning his name gives me a sense memory of the stink of arrogance. Posner, like Tribe, is of that ilk. Let's pray that God keeps them far away from the levers of power.

Scott Carson said...

Hunter--you can call me Dr. Carson, Scott, Scottie, or whatever, just remind me not to preen or overween too much when Jay Homnick is around. I don't actually know much about Posner, but I have to agree about Tribe. He gives me the willies, especially when he's talking about the use of torture.

Hunter Baker said...

Posner is one of the inventors of the law and economics concept. The idea is that costs and benefits can be "financialized" in almost any given case and we can thus figure out which way we should rule in order to have a jurisprudence of economic efficiency. It's interesting stuff. Has a strong following. Has an equally strong hate club.

Posner writes like a maniac and is a federal judge to boot. A candidate for high IQ of the century type guy. That's why I was so shocked by his dismissive characterization about ID as biblical inerrancy. I can tell he hasn't read it.

Kathy Hutchins said...

I have to agree about Tribe. He gives me the willies, especially when he's talking about the use of torture.

I thought that was Alan Dershowitz (torture warrants). Has Tribe been on about torture too?

It is pretty hard to tell these sorts of guys apart. They should make them wear jerseys, like baseball players.

Scott Carson said...

I could very well be mistaken, but I thought that Tribe had agreed with Dershowitz at the time. But short-term memory is one of the first things to go, they say, and I'm already long gone as it is.

Kathy Hutchins said...

I can smell a preening overweening hubristic bastard from a city block away and Posner answers to that description.

In Posner's favor, on the other hand, he seems to have gotten Bill Keller's goat in a big way.

xScottAllen said...

Dr. Carson states that "Evolutionary Theory is every bit as well-confirmed as Quantum mechanics." Information science, chemistry, microbiology, and the fossil record are also well-confirmed and all point to extreme weaknesses in "Evolutionary Theory." It would be good if Dr. Carson pointed to a book or publication that, point-by-point, refuted Intelligent Design.