August 21, 2005

A Riff on "Intelligent Design"

“Intelligent Design” (“ID”) is in play.

President Bush, no authority, and Sen. Bill Frist, who might be, have advocated the teaching of ID in the schools, not really endorsing it as such, but taking the view, plausible on the surface, that students should be exposed to all sides.

The seculars reacted with characteristic scorn, as in this piece by Henrik Hertzberg, who annoys me almost as much as Frank Rich, but has a better style.
Looked at one way, this colloquy is an occasion for national shame, albeit with a whiff of the risible: here is our country's leader, the champion-in-chief of educational standards, blandly equating natural science and supernatural supposition as “different schools of thought.”
The religious anti-evolutionists such as the Rev. Al Mohler were not far behind.
Professor Haught is upset with the statements made by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna [see previous posting] to the effect that the neo-Darwinian doctrine currently at the heart of evolutionary theory is incompatible with a Christian view of life. Haught, like so many others, wants to claim that evolutionary theory is compatible with Christian faith. In order to do so, he assumes an argument much like the late Stephen Jay Gould's concept of "non-overlapping magisteria." The problem with this concept is now clear -- these magisteria inevitably overlap.
Incidentally, unlike Hertzberg, Mohler both quotes from and links to people on both sides of the issue.

Analysis of the issue of whether ID should be taught in public schools, and if so, in science or social studies classes, begins with an evaluation of the relative merits of ID and Darwinian evolution.

ID is in a way, simply a modern version of the old Deist idea that the existence of God can be discerned from the orderliness of the Creation.
The spacious firmament on high,

With all the blue, ethereal sky,

And spangled heavens, a shining frame,

Their great Original proclaim.

Th’unwearied sun from day to day

Does his Creator’s power display,

And publishes to every land
The work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail,

The moon takes up the wondrous tale;

And nightly to the listening earth

Repeats the story of her birth; 

What though in solemn silence all

Move round the dark terrestrial ball?

What though no real voice nor sound

Amid their radiant orbs be found?

In reason’s ear they all rejoice

And utter forth a glorious voice,

Forever singing as they shine,

"The hand that made us is divine."

-- Joseph Addison
When I attended liberal Protestant chapel in boarding school, this poem was sung, set to Haydn's “The Creation.” They knew how to move you (although today's church vogue is rock music, which doesn't do it for me).

The notion is that the complexity of nature, the universe, man (take your pick) bespeaks a Creator, though not necessarily the Creator of Genesis or John I in the literal sense, and mere chance cannot account for the glory, or at least the improbability, of the universe.

The usual scientific objection to this is not to deny it, but to point out, in the tradition of Karl Popper that the propositions of ID are not capable of being negated, and therefore as a scientific hypothesis, they are meaningless. What fact or observation or experiment would make it less or more likely that ID is true?

None comes readily to mind, and therefore we tempt neither God nor science with a scientific evaluation of the concept. Acceptance or rejection of ID, then, is decided in some way distinct from science. This view is not dissimilar from Stephen Jay Gould's, as described by Dr. Mohler in the quotation above.

The converse of this argument from non-negatablility also follows from this reasoning. Science has nothing to say about ID, and therefore the Hertzbergs who rail against it are not ranting based on validated scientific knowledge, but from atheistic faith.

The notion of an Intelligent Designer is no stranger than the latest iterations of string theory, which for the mathematically lame such as I, require just as much acceptance of “the evidence of things not seen” as does ID. On the other hand, an acceptance of ID tells us exactly nothing about how the Designer went about making this improbable universe happen, or whether D has made or will make myriad other universes, or is about to destroy this one out of boredom or anger at the maleficence of its inhabitants.

Nor is the evolution of life through the operation of chance so hard for me to accept. There is a fundamental principle of statistics that if one has enough trials, the happening of even a very improbable event—at least once—becomes more and more probable. If you flip a nickel five times in a row the chances of getting five heads in a row is fairly low (1 over 2 to the fifth power, or 1 out of 32 times). If you flip it five hundred times the occurrence of a run of five heads, sooner or later, becomes a virtual certainty. Thus from the age of the universe and the number of solar systems, the emergence of life somewhere, although dependent, perhaps, on many coincidences (the right combination of gravity, presence of water, temperature, mix of elements, absence of planetary collisions, and so on) becomes probable.

Applying Occam's Razor (“don't multiply entities needlessly,” paraphrased as, use no more concepts than you need to analyze things), I'm not convinced that the fundamental notion of ID—the arrangement of the universe and of life is so complex and elegant that its emergence by chance is impossible.

The bottom line is that ID isn't science, but science can't disprove it, either.

The unspoken agenda behind ID derives from Supreme Court decisions on the Establishment Clause. The courts have concluded that “Creation Science,” a predecessor of ID which was essentially an attempt to present the Genesis story as science so that teaching it would not run afoul of the Establishment Clause, did in fact constitute religious teaching constitutionally forbidden in a public school. The creationists have adopted ID with its scientific trappings and lack of explicit connection to Genesis's version of Intelligent Design, in the hope the Supreme Court will not find its teaching to be an establishment of religion. It's weak tea, compared to God's voice speaking to Job out of the whirlwind, but it has a purpose in our strange political-legal system.

Whether an unelected Supreme Court should be using the Constitution to impose élite views of what's scientifically true and what's not is another question. Ideally, perhaps, the government would subsidize education but not provide it, allowing parents to choose whatever schools they wanted, within limits, and the constitutional issue would go away.

Meanwhile, students should learn Darwinian concepts, which are fundamental to biological science. They should also learn the Bible, which is a fundamental text of our culture, but not, in public schools, as a source of religious truth. (I'm always surprised how little of the Bible fervent Christians and practicing Jews in fact know.) There's no prohibition on teaching about the Bible as long as no particular doctrine about it is imposed.

I also understand and sympathize with the Christian and Jewish view that the special creation of human beings by God is what endows them with worth, provides the basis for moral conduct, and offers them hope of eternal life. I'm equally skeptical that a secular culture, once it's spent the moral capital inherited from traditional belief and practice, and traditional families, can avoid moral degeneration. Hence the passion with which traditional believers hold to their beliefs and take offense at seeing them ignored and denigrated, is very real and quite understandable.


Luke said...

Hi! I just linked from your comment over at Sailer's blog.

On the ID thing, I agree with just about everything you say, but would add the point that chance and design are not mutually exclusive (or maybe you already knew that?). For example, dice are designed, and determine the chances of various outcomes. Likewise, it is possible that the chemical elements are the designer's dice.

But the real point I wish to make is that the distinction between science and such issues is itself not only fundamental, but fascinating -- and important. A complete discussion of it should be included in all our science textbooks -- much better (and more defensible) than presenting ID as an alternative hypothesis, which is what the ID movement is all about. This is not really teaching the controversy, since there is nothing controversial about delimiting the area in whioh science can speak. The problem is that the scientific community, just as much as the ID crowd, doesn't won't to admit the limitations of science.

Hans Lundahl said...

"blandly equating natural science and supernatural supposition as 'different schools of thought.'"

But they are different schools of thought.

That he choses to call one "science" and the other "supposition" does not change that.

let me, in this context, make publicity for my anti-Darwinism series: 1 Creationism vs. Evolution, considering Thomism, Biology, Church Fathers 2 Chromosome numbers (first published on Communities dot com) 3 Ancient Sea Scorpion ... (news with comment) 4 Update on chromosome numbers 4b Speciations observed - but not in mammals. 5 Citing (again) Ian Johnston 6 Non-replies