Tales of Tadeusz

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Hohenwald News: Intelligent Design's Opponents

I am a layperson in this field. Probably more well versed than the average bear, but definitely no expert.

I am also a Christian, which tilts me toward liking this theory. However, I don't feel that that is disqualifying as some people would have it. I remember seeing a television show which said that Nobel prize winners went into laboratories seeking to find proof of their theory, rather than simply letting the data speak for itself.

I rather suspect that this is necessary. We don't simply reason from data. At least I don't.

On the opposite side, we can't be like the people who find a theory, and then stick to it no matter what, and still call it science. Paul Johnson, in the beginning of his awe-inspiring history, Modern Times, talked of the difference between Freud and Einstein. Freud could twist his theory to whatever new facts came out, but Einstein supposedly said that if these specific things don't happen, then his theory was wrong.

Now throat-clearing aside, let me get to my question. I've recently read another book, by another Johnson, Phillip Johnson, supposedly the father of ID, and he alleged that most evolutionists of note such as Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawson started from an a priori assumption of a materialist universe. That is, they said "If the universe is purely material, then how could all life have arrived?" And Johnson admitted that if that was the correct question, then indeed, they had arrived at roughly the right answer despite what he felt was an awesome lack of proof.

If this a priori assumption-izing is true, then it is pretty destructive of the credentials of the pro-evolutionary side, or at least of those who hold such a view. And that is my question. Is this a fair assessment of the worldview of Gould and Dawson and the typical evolutionist who we assume follows them?
I've occasionally read someone describe another's action or attitude, and then went and read the source material of the controversy myself, and been less convinced. I don't have time or energy, or inclination to wade that deep into Dawson's work to find out this question, but I would be interested in seeing a just and fair to the other side treatment of this point.


  • The answer to your question is "Yes, no, and it doesn't matter." Some scientists like Dawkins do hold to an atheistic/materialistic worldview. Others, however, are Christians, Jews, Muslims, and so on. It's good to be aware of the personal bias of the scientist whose writings you read, because it will color some of their pronouncements, however it doesn't matter in the long run for science as a whole, because the essence of the scientific method is to look for results that are verifiable. The findings of the atheistic scientists have to be verifiable by the believers, and vice versa. Regardless of the worldview of the person doing the research, in the final analysis, the numbers have to add up no matter who does the adding.

    What we call the "natural sciences" are an investigation of Nature, an exploration of what Nature is and how Nature works. To the extent that science is able to find meaningful and verifiable answers about what nature is and how nature works, it is finding scientific answers. Broader questions, like "Is God's hand at work guiding the flow of natural forces?" and "Is there really such a thing as 'random chance,' or do all things happen according to God's will?" -- these are questions outside the scope of science. Science isn't saying that God is not involved, science is saying that questions about God are outside the scope of scientific investigation. Some people take that as a sign that science considers God to be irrelevant, especially when some atheistic scientists (e.g. Dawkins) express their personal opinion that God is irrelevant. But that's not science speaking, that's atheism speaking; science is strictly neutral on the topic.

    Phillip Johnson has an axe to grind: he cannot believe that God would create or control evolution, even though there's nothing in the Bible that says God should be regarded as being incapable or unwilling to give life on earth the ability to evolve new species. Indeed, this would be a fairly sophisticated and ingenious design, considering how well it would equip life to survive in the face of catastrophes like asteroid strikes and climate changes. A design that failed to allow species to evolve would be an inferior design, which would imply that God was an inferior Designer. But that's Phillip Johnson's problem--he'll have to take that up with God.

    Theistic evolutionists have been talking about intelligent design for years, and have been proclaiming God's glory and the amazing genius of God's design and purpose for life for as long as there's been a theory of evolution. They've done so without having the kind of biased worldview that Johnson talks about and without losing their professional integrity and objectivity. Some of them have made significant, tangible contributions in the fields of medicine and genetics and biology that benefit all of us today.

    So the bottom line is that the accusation of a priori assumptions of materialism is a misleading accusation. Our current scientific understanding of origins is based on the question "What can we learn about the origin of life without appealing to things that are inherently impossible to verify?" There is a certain selectiveness in this approach--it eliminates theories like "We were poofed into existence by an invisible magical giant pink elephant" and so on. Some might argue that it also eliminates the theory that life was created by God. And it might--but only as a scientific theory. That's not the same as saying it's necessarily untrue, it just means that science is limited to studying things that are verifiable, and IF it were not possible to verify divine creation scientifically, then we would have to rely on something other than science to learn about it.

    Science does have its limits.

    By Blogger Mark Nutter, at 11:22 AM  

  • I've reread your reply at least four times trying to understand ALL your points. Let me go with the most basic.

    You almost seem to agree with Johnson. ID is not science in your view. However that view leads inescapably to the view that Science is a useless and broken tool in the question of Origins.

    But more precisely, your view does allow for the possibility of ID being science. In which case, one then argues and experiments, and balances evidence, and so on as usual.

    And of course, your description of ID as strictly Divine makes it harder than necessary for them to prove their point for it is a long step from Marvel Comics' Celestials and Star Trek Progenitors to Yahweh, but any of them would suffice.

    By Blogger Eric, at 2:31 PM  

  • The problem is that there are really 2 kinds of ID: there's genuine ID, which seeks to discern intelligent design scientifically, and there's "ID-in-name-only," which makes a token effort at doing genuine ID, but which really devotes the bulk of its effort to creating a monopoly for creationism by trying to eliminate evolution or any other theory which competes against creationism. Phillip Johnson wrote a book called "Defeating Darwinism By Opening Minds." The title alone tells you what Johnson's bias is: he wants to defeat "Darwinism." The so-called "opening minds" is just a means to an end. "Objectivity" means reaching the conclusion Johnson wants you to reach(!).

    However, even if some ID advocates are biased, the Design itself is there, and has long been noticed by theistic evolutionists, even if it's not entirely within the scope of natural science to document it scientifically. Science can go much of the way, and science can do a lot as far as documenting how nature works and how amazingly sophisticated (and yet fundamentally simple) it all is. Beyond a certain point, however, it becomes a metaphysical/theological/philosophical question more than a scientific one.

    So the situation is, as I see it: Many of the loudest ID advocates today aren't doing real ID, but are just using ID as a front for their real agenda which is monopolistic creationism. This does not mean that ID per se is bogus or unscientific, however, nor does it mean that they're necessarily wrong about the cosmos having an Intelligent Designer. They're just taking a misguided and counterproductive approach, and failing to observe the highly intelligent design of evolution itself, to their own loss. I think a less biased and more scientific approach to ID would be more productive, but while it would lead to a better understanding of how nature worked, ultimately it would also lead one to turn to metaphysics and/or theology for answers to ultimate questions about the meaning of what science discovers.

    Is it theoretically possible science might be able to detect intelligent design in nature itself? Yes, but personally I think it unlikely. That would involve some aspect of nature being inherently unnatural, out of place, inappropriate in a way that would clearly distinguish it as not belonging. It's hard to describe concisely, but such a thing would be like finding a mistake in God's design for nature--"Here's something that's supposed to be part of nature, and it's unnatural." Like dry water or an unmarried spouse, it's something that just shouldn't be, and every time someone has thought they've found one, it's turned out to be natural after all. I don't think we'll ever find a real one, is my personal guess. God don't make no junk.

    By Blogger Mark Nutter, at 4:27 PM  

  • I'll try to be extremely brief, but I hope that will not be confusing.

    First, Johnson is not a scientist. He's a lawyer, and it appears to me (as a former practicing scientist and a lawyer) that he does not understand or appreciate how science works. He makes no scientific proposals, but instead complains about what he interprets (erroneously, I find) to be a bias in science.

    To claim Gould started with a "materialistic view" in his studies is to fail to understand how science works. I dare anyone to find one of Gould's actual science publications which betrays any bias. Science is more careful than that, scientists are more careful than that, and juried science journals have better editors than that. (I think there is some bias shown in Gould's popular writings, especially his 25 years of columns for Natural History magazine; but the bias is pro-Bible. He clearly knows scripture, and he respects it.)

    Second, Nobel winners usually have a pile of data to work from in developing their hypotheses. Of course they go into their labs trying to disprove their hypothesis -- that is exactly how science works. For more than a few of them, however, it was the data they found on the way that won them the prize; Feynman wrote about how his inspiration finally struck when he was trying to explain the wobble of the plates spun by the Chinese acrobats on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was a bias for the facts that allowed Feynman to find the answers for Quantum Electro Dynamics (QED) in such a forum.

    Johnson is the one who uses the a priori "assumptionizing," and he projects his error to others. The others don't do that.

    Have you read the real research papers on these issues? They do not show the bias Johnson claims.

    By Blogger Ed Darrell, at 9:08 PM  

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