Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Against intelligent design.

[Aside: Most links are to Wikipedia articles. I'd rather link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, because of its relative breadth of scope, but the SEP doesn't have articles on what I need and is adding them far too infrequently. This is a function of its greater academic rigor, but if the articles ain't there, no one's going to use the Encyclopedia.]

This will be the obligatory anti-intelligent design post. The first two points I want to make are not original, but the third I don't recall seeing anywhere.

Point the first.
  1. Intelligent design is neither a scientific theory nor a scientific concept.
The reasons for this are myriad, but there's one that stands out, which is that intelligent design doesn't explain anything (the first horn), and it isn't backed up by anything that would explain (the second horn).

I'll take it as definitional that a set of scientific propositions that fail to explain anything at all are not any sort of a theory. So, insofar as intelligent design does not explain, it is not a scientific theory. And that intelligent design does not explain is almost self-evident. Upon confronted with the mysterious "box" containing all the biological processes and assorted "stuff" that produced biological creatures like us, evolutionary biologists try to suss out what's inside the box; while, on the other hand, intelligent design "theorists" put the word "GOD" on the box and call it a day. Naming is not explaining (I trust that is obvious!). Hence, on the first horn, intelligent design is not science.

Of course, even if intelligent design is just a name, it might be part of a theoretical apparatus that gave it explanatory power. Let me illustrate with an example: fibromyalgia syndrome. We might then construct a putatively scientific proposition involving it: "Anyone who exhibits more than 12 of 15 tender points has fibromyalgia syndrome." This, in itself, does not offer an explanation of why the tender points constitute a pathology. And, it seems that no explanation is forthcoming. That doesn't, in itself, refute (in the strong sense) the claim that fibromyalgia syndrome is be part of science, but it is very good reason to doubt it -- it shifts the burden of proof onto the defender of FMS. I can't, off the top of my head, think of a scientific concept that, if it does not make up a theory in itself, is not backed up or supported by a structured theory.

So, if intelligent design is supposed to be a concept, and not a theory, it must have a theoretical apparatus to give it explanatory power. I don't know what that apparatus could look like. If biological reality is a result of the intelligent works of a more powerful being, then the only way we could lend explanatory power to the concept is to find that being. This is analogous to the case of a watch -- with apologies to Paley. If I find a watch, and I call it "watch", this concept "watch" cannot be used to explain anything -- such as why the watch tells the time -- unless I either know how the watch works, or I find the person who made it (and who can thus assure me that it will work). Note that I'm setting the bar lower in the case of biological life than in the case of the watch -- I'm only suggesting that we need to find the intelligent designer, not that we need to be able to ask for and receive reassurance from the designer that things will work as we take them to.

Since intelligent design "theorists" don't have God in their back pockets, it follows that there is no theoretical apparatus that backs up the explanatory power of the concept. Hence, it is not science on this horn, either.

Point the second.
  1. There seems to be a residual hatred of expertise driving the intelligent design movement -- a claim that biology is very easy and no one really needs training in it before they can be qualified to speak on it. (Note that nothing I'm saying here constitutes a biological claim -- this is all purely philosophical.)
If this is not the case, I am at a loss to explain why no reputable biologists have defended intelligent design. I can't for the life of me think of a field of human knowledge in which one can be taken seriously without passing through the "gatekeeping" processes. In the case of biology, at a minimum, this would involve some kind of graduate education in biology. That gets one through the "gate", but, if biology is anything like philosophy, I would suspect that it only allows one to hear the conversation, and not participate. In order to participate, one has to prove that one deserves to -- that one has something original and interesting to say and that one understands the important work that has gone before. Again, though, how many intelligent design proponents have actually done any of that?

This is bad enough for the laity, but reprehensible for the academically-trained defenders, and, for that matter, those who are qualified as priests and the like. The academics would never take seriously an attack on the founding principles of their own disciplines by an uneducated outsider; furthermore, the priests would never listen to a biologist's words (as expertise) on the Gospels. And the laity, in their own special areas of expertise -- the filing system in their offices, the precise combination of key strokes to slaughter end-bosses in Halo 2, or what have you -- would also not tolerate non-experts trying to declare themselves knowledgeable. Hence, the motivation behind intelligent design is likely incoherent.

Finally, point the third.
  1. There is a philosophical confusion underlying intelligent design -- a presumption of metaphysical or ontological naturalism, as opposed to methodological naturalism.
This might seem an odd thing for me to say intelligent design proponents claim, given their general hostility towards naturalistic explanations of biological creatures qua biological creatures, but let me try to make it make sense. If everything that is biological about us can be explained naturalistically, then, plausibly enough, we do not need to invoke supernatural agents (such as God) to explain them.

Now, that's really all that follows from just the naturalistic explanation of biological reality. In order to conclude more, and justify claims about other orders of reality -- say, the mental/intentional or the moral -- we have to make reductionist or eliminativist or identity claims between the levels. That is, for example, we'd have to claim that the mental is just the physical, or the moral is just the socially beneficial (and the socially beneficial is just what leads to reproductive advantage). In short, we'd have to make a stronger commitment than methodological naturalism, a commitment that looks a lot like a kind of (limited) ontological naturalism.

Intelligent design "theorists" don't seem to question ontological naturalism, however; there's a thought running underneath the view that, if the naturalistic explanation of biology works, then the mental and the moral are entirely off the table as God's provinces. But, as I've just argued, that won't follow from methodological naturalism -- it'll only follow from the much stronger, and much more controversial, ontological naturalism. Now, ontological naturalism may indeed be true (I doubt it, but I have been wrong before), but its truth will not be established (although it might be suggested) by the presence of naturalistic explanations in biology. For intelligent design proponents to think otherwise is for them to accept ontological naturalism.

Edit: Format.


Tom Clark said...

Re your point about methodological vs. ontological naturalism:

Some IDers think that science, for instance as it's taught in public schools, presumes naturalism, and therefore should be "balanced" by considering supernatural causation. But of course science does no such thing, it simply applies its criteria of explanatory adequacy, and says nothing about ontology. Some, like Dembski, think that even methodological naturalism infects science with a bias (against intelligent causation). For a good deal more on all this, check out www.naturalism.org/science.htm , for instance "Dembski, Naturalist?".

The commitment to ontological naturalism is as you say an extra step beyond what science does, but one that I think is justifiable (not that I have a knock down argument for that).

Thanks for your blog and keep up the good work!


Tom Clark
Center for Naturalism

ADHR said...

I find Dembski to be a bit of a twit, honestly. I don't get why some people take him seriously. If he does claim anything as stupid as "methodological naturalism infects science with a bias (against intelligent causation)", then, clearly, he just doesn't know what he's talking about. Methodological naturalism can only tell against intelligent causation if everything that exists is amenable to naturalistic explanation -- i.e., if ontological naturalism is true (which would entail the explanatory adequacy of methodological naturalism). As I said, this suggests that Dembski himself is implicitly conceding the point on ontological naturalism. Or he's just an idiot who can't see the difference. Whichever.

Incidentally, if you ever come up with that knock-down argument in favour of naturalism, I'd love to see it. As is, I tend to think that human action is not amenable to naturalistic explanation because of its ineliminably normative character. But, then again, I'm writing a dissertation on that sort of idea, so I'd better think that!

I looked over the articles on the page you linked to. I think you're tending a mite close to scientism, honestly! Science is great and all, but, as I said in my first post on this blog (here), there's a lot science can't do for us. One of the realms it's not very good at handling is, I maintain, the normative. One reason for that to follow in the next paragraph but two.

I note in perusing your blog that you comment about Kant's Categorical Imperative being an "enshrining" of an evolutionarily-derived strategy as not simply be a fact but also a norm. This is unfortunately a confusion, both on what Kant is actually committed to, and what evolutionary stories about morality are actually able to do.

With regard to the first, Kant doesn't recognize that there are any natural laws binding the consciousness of the agent -- the autonomous rational agent that can accept or reject norms like the Categorical Imperative. This is because, from the perspective of practical reason, there are no strict causal laws. From the perspective of pure reason, of course, there are -- but from the perspective of pure reason, the Categorical Imperative doesn't exist. Basically, Kant's trying to have his deterministic cake and freely will it, too. He can get away with it because, for him, the only world we know anything about is the world as we experience it -- there is no world beyond our experience that can be known. So, since we can experience the world in two ways -- from the perspective of pure reason, as a causally determined, naturalistic world; from the perspective of practical reason, as a world of freely-willed agents -- we can know the world in two, otherwise incompatible ways.

Secondly, an evolutionary story about any x only tells us about where it came from; it goes no way towards justifying it. To claim otherwise is to commit the aptly-named genetic fallacy. Indeed, it's perfectly consistent to maintain both that the behaviour recommended by the Categorical Imperative is, somehow, evolutionarily-derived (a descriptive statement) and that it is a universal moral law (a normative statement). This is not a contradiction unless you're antecedently committed to some physicalist/naturalist understanding of morality (which, shockingly, I'm not).