Thursday, March 30, 2006

ID debates

I have been reading some excellent arguments from a biologist who believes in God and has been engaged for many years in debates against prominent creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design. His name is Kenneth R. Miller. His essay, "The Flagellum Unspun", is the best single rebuttal of ID that I have come across, by which I mean that it is accessible to the layperson but still technical enough to demonstrate specifically where ID is wrong, from the point of view of science. A more philosophical overview and rebuttal is offered in this excerpt from his book, Finding Darwin's God. But also see his home page, and particularly his page for Evolution Resources. All the links on the latter page will be useful to someone interested in this subject, but I can particularly recommend his PBS debate, for anyone seeking a place where the strongest arguments on both sides are laid out against each other succinctly.

I particularly appreciate him because he sees no necessary conflict between science and religion. This is a badly needed voice in our cultural wars.

As for my own recent debates on the subject, I can say that my position remains the same, if not stronger: ID does not offer a scientific theory, but it can be appreciated in some ways (but not others) as a social movement.

I have found this position to be easily misunderstood, so let me try to put in on record briefly.

Intelligent Design tells us that the known mechanism of genetic mutation and natural selection cannot fully account for either the complexity or the diversity of living organisms. There is nothing wrong with this claim in itself. But a scientific theory must propose another mechanism. A mere criticism of the theory of evolution as insufficient does not amount to a rival theory, unless a rival mechanism can be proposed. When it is merely proposed, as in ID, that an Intelligent Designer must be responsible for the natural features of life that we cannot account for, this does not tell us at all how the Designer worked. It only tells us that a Designer is responsible. And that would be no different from non-ID, non-creationist theism, which tells us that a Designer is responsible. All theism which is reconciled to the theory of evolution tells us that the Designer worked via the mechanisms identified by Darwin and later generations of scientists. ID and creationism tell us that the Designer did not work through these mechanisms at all, but that the Designer's work can be detected wherever these mechanism fail to explain what we see. In what way the Designer worked is left undescribed. If it was described scientifically, we would have a scientific theory. Therefore, ID is not a scientific theory. It is not a scientific, mechanical description. It is an inference from scientific work, and this is commendable in that good inferences may be made from good science -- but it is a philosophical inference. It is not a theory about the mechanical, material workings of the world. It is a theory about something un-material and, presumably, unexplainable.

If such a philosophical inference were to become widely regarded as a scientific theory, it would stop scientific research wherever current explanations are deemed unsatisfactory. Some of Kenneth Miller's essays above demonstrate the answers that genetic scientists were eventually able to give to ID's questions about evolution, precisely because they kept at it. Had they merely invoked an indescribable process, they would surely have stopped looking for the scientific description that they were eventually able to obtain.

That is the danger, as I see it, of having science schoolclasses pronouncing ID to be a rival scientific theory. ID does not propose a rival mechanism/description. It proposes instead that when students have questions, they think only the thought that an Intelligent Designer is responsible for the mystery.

Now, I do appreciate some aspects of ID as a social movement. It is a movement of dissent, and as I grow older, and more aware of my own dissent from orthodoxy, I've grown to appreciate dissent. Part of the reason is that debate often moves me to understand problems more deeply. ID, strange as it may seem, moves me to understand the theory of evolution better than if there had been no challenges at all. And surely any truth that never experiences challenge will stagnate; so challenge almost always has some good benefits.

On a slightly different but related note, I can appreciate ID for challenging scientists and telling us, for instance, that scientists are not a uniquely self-critical species, and that science itself is not a uniquely self-critical enterprise. Religious faith can be extremely self-critical; and scientists can be dogmatic. Certainly, like all of us, they're inherently resistant to being challenged on basic points.

And that is where I seem to get in trouble with some opponents of ID, probably because it seems I am merely repeating the implication made by ID, and by conspiracy theories, that the establishment is resistant only, or especially, to good ideas. I actually cannot say that this is true. Human beings are often resistant to bad ideas. I've seen that in both religion and science.

My only claim is that ID and, yes, even creationism, can be viewed as complex things. As science they do not pass muster, but they also represent the public faces of millions of ordinary people who are not loonies and who have philosophical opinions on reality worth listening to, and even valid political views. (The latter is much harder for me to affirm, but I still affirm it). When such theists tell us, for instance, that they see evolution being used to push atheism, it is time to enter the conversation constructively, not time to dismiss them. That is a must in a society that values religious freedom; and it is the best basis upon which to ask for the same freedom of thought in return.

For this reason and others, I think it's wrong to refute ID by telling others that it is already rejected and not worth looking at. One of the ways that this gets done is by saying that ID is merely creationism, as if to say, that was already rejected, and this is no different. I don't object to the claim, in itself, that ID is creationism; that is a claim that can be discussed, and tested against observation. I find it to be a questionable claim, given the formal acceptance by ID of the earth's old age and the lack of any focus by ID on Genesis. But it's okay to debate ID's relationship to creationism. What is not okay is to make the claim as a way to make the refutation of ID easier or automatic.

My recent debates have been a profound learning experience for me, because I have been known to dismiss dissident theories in politics and religion by saying essentially, "This has already been discredited." As I note above, such a claim may or may not be true, and it's worth debating. But what I've learned is the degree to which such a claim is unconvincing in itself. It certainly braces you when you hear that something was discredited long ago. It is, in that sense, a very powerful way to induce good debate and deep learning. But that just makes it the start of the conversation, not the end. As an answer, "This has already been discredited, and all its questions have been answered," is astoundingly unsatisfying. You long to find out for yourself what actually happened; and you long for the actual answers to the questions raised by the dissenting theories. Hearing merely that the answers were given long ago does not cut it. Hearing it too often positively induces suspicion, even hostility.

In my debates I ran into an opposition to ID that was so automatic that I was assumed to be making conspiracy theories in support of ID. Even though the misunderstanding occurred with only one person and was cleared up, it was not easy to clear up, and it has left me somewhat unnerved -- all the more because, as one isolated event, it is merely anecdotal and not something that I can draw general conclusions from. What I mean is that I remain uncertain as to what happened, and to what degree I am myself to blame. What I do know is that because I was misheard in such a basic manner -- more basic than in any misunderstanding that I can recall being a part of -- I felt for the first time in my life the barest twinge of discouragement with regard to studying the theory of evolution. It was an emotional reaction, and a logical fallacy: you cannot associate a theory with the personal interactions that you have in debating it. Maybe you can judge people as people, but that is not the factor upon which the theory that they hold should succeed or fail in your judgment -- not if you mean to study it intellectually. And all of us should study the theory of evolution. I remain committed, as a Christian, to truth, which would make it impossible for me to stop listening to true science; and I remain blessed with a happy enjoyment of scientific discovery and literature. Yet I'm troubled by an experience where I sought to learn about ID, making it plain repeatedly that I did not buy ID as a scientific theory, but was told just as often that I had no cause to regard ID as science, and no cause to regard its questions as having foundation anymore.

I've learned that a sure way to drive people away from solid mainstream knowledge is to tell them that their questions are already answered, instead of simply giving the answers, and to imply in any way that their questions are merely hostile challenges akin to conspiracy theories. This is a failure to acknowledge that people have good questions. A teacher who actually knows the detailed answers is certainly free to tell his or her students that their questions are no good, or to suggest that their questions arise from something other than curiosity and a love of learning, discussion, and debate; but such a teacher would be profoundly wrong to do so. I say that if you have questions about gaps in the fossil record, then you have a good question. If you wonder why there are no stars in the photographs of the Apollo astronauts standing on the moon, you have a good question. If you want to know more about Marx's critiques of his society, you're asking good questions. And I have said this before in personal debates, but it should be worth repeating here: if you want to know why Jesus Christ had no biographies written in his own lifetime, I say you have a good question. My having good answers to these questions does nothing to make your question bad. If I take my own knowledge as evidence of your own ignorance, bad faith, or stupidity, I guarantee that I will have contributed to the perception among conspiracy theorists that elite purveyors of knowledge are controlling access to the truth.

The only bad questions are those that occur when the answer is sitting right in front of the questioner; or when the answer is sitting in a place that is easily identified and accessible. And I mean very easy, for even the slightest inaccessibility, however temporary, can warrant a friendly question or request. What is truly objectionable is when good answers are given, and people persist, usually in some open or unidentified bias, in the kind of conspiracy thinking that allows them to conclude that answers are impossible, withheld, or irredeemably tainted. That, frankly, is an attitude in whose shoes I have not been able to walk. Creationism seems to have walked there in many of its claims, and I suspect the same of ID.

For now it is simply enough for me to know that in some very important debates in my life, I now understand how unconvincing I must have been at those moments when I merely and heatedly insisted that the challenge had already been answered, as if to say, we need not look at it anymore. Anything that stops inquiry rather than encouraging it may be called a mistake.

The Bad Astronomy and Universe Today Forum (BAUT), where I had my recent debate, has Forum Rules that link to a certain thread as recommended reading for anyone arguing alternative theories (they're called ATM theories, or Against The Mainstream). The whole thread is useful and interesting, but this short post especially.

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