Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Butterflies, science, and ID

There's an interesting post over at The Scientist in which Jack Woodall, billed as "director of the Nucleus for the Investigation of Emerging Infectious Diseases in the Institute of Medical Biochemistry at Brazil's Federal University of Rio de Janeiro," (pause for breath) uses the example of butterfly development and human-caused extinction patterns to poke holes in ID. The comments are about evenly distributed between evolution supporters, and ID supporters trotting out the usual argument-from-incredulity fallacies. I've chimed in, and am reproducing here a comment I posted in reply to another commenter, Jim Lord, who replied to my initial comment. Go have a look at the article and thread yourself, and if you can think of anything I missed, pitch in. They need more intelligent voices over there.

Jim Lord's comments are italicized, and we pick up our conversation already in progress. Many IDers in the comment thread attacked Woodall for making what they call straw man arguments against ID; they claim that just because design in nature may be, you know, horribly flawed, doesn't mean it isn't design. (Shades of Casey Luskin's immortal Ford Pinto analogy from a few days ago.) I pointed out this little detail:

On the face of it, this would seem a valid point. Until one butts up against the fact that Dembski and virtually every other ID proponent I've ever encountered is either Christian, Muslim, or some believer in a monotheistic god from the Abrahamic tradition. This God is said to be perfect in every way. So whence could come imperfect design?....

So I must now ask everyone slamming the article as attacking a "straw man" of ID because of the "imperfect design" approach: Are you people religious (whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim), and if so, do you believe your God is omniscient and omnipotent? If you answered "yes" to both those questions, and still think that ID isn't refuted by pointing out poor examples of design, then how do you reconcile imperfect design with a perfect designer? Or are you suggesting that God is, after all, imperfect? Or are you going WAY out on a limb and suggesting some designing agent OTHER than the God of your religion actually did all the designing (which would make you a polytheist)? And if so, how do you reconcile THAT with your religion?

Jim replies:

Therefore, true/inspired or not, religious texts such as the Bible and Qu'ran provide explanations for man's imperfection. (Else, why preach a need for a relationship with God?) The Bible describes man's fall and separation from God in Genesis.

Jim, what you call explanations I think can more accurately be termed rationalizations or justifications. It is a real problem for Christianity that it proposes, on the one hand, a perfect god, then must turn around and resort to all manner of tortuous rhetoric to explain how a perfect creator makes an imperfect creation. If God were truly omniscient, he'd have foreseen the imperfections in his creation and either rectified them or chosen not to make those mistakes at all. That he didn't either indicates this deity either isn't so perfect after all (then why worship it?), or, meant for all of life's imperfections, including evil (there goes omnibenevolence), to be part of the Grand Plan, or whatever.

This is the crux of the Problem of Evil that demolishes Christianity's O3G (omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent) concept of God. Despite two millennia of highly motivated theodicy, this dilemma has never been successfully addressed. And its ramifications do impact the validity of intelligent design as both a scientific and theological concept.

In the famous opening passage of the Gospel of John, the Bible makes an ontological argument for the existence of God, which is supported by other passages. "In the beginning was the 'Word'", the logos, the reason of itself.

The opening of John isn't an argument at all, but a series of tautological assertions that are hermetically sealed against rational inquiry. "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." Does that apply to God himself? If God belongs to the information set labeled "all things," then did God make himself? Or did something else make God? Or is God "unmade"? If so, whence came God, and what was he doing for the infinite span of time before he decided to create a universe? And, knowing via his omniscience he was going to create a universe someday, why not do so before he eventually did so? And if you are willing to accept the existence of at least one unmade thing, why stop at one?

You see how God fails scientifically as any kind of concept with explanatory power. The unanswerable questions are endless. Invoking God as the explanation for our universe is simply an act of trying to solve a mystery with an infinitely greater mystery.

Ancient holy books that attempt to define their deities into existence by rhetorical fiat do not exactly qualify as scientific treatises on the nature of life and the universe. After all, how does one look at the claims made in John 1 and decide they are any more or less valid a creation story as, say, this one?

Unfortunately, just as religious leaders turn to science to prove their faith, scientists often resort to half-baked theological arguments.

I actually tend to see more apologists using half-baked theological arguments than scientists, frankly. Not to mention holy books themselves — see John 1.

Faith cannot be fostered with fact, but just because it is faith does not necessarily mean it isn't true.

Maybe, but that is not a scientific statement. If ID supporters wish their alternative "theory" to be taken seriously by the scientific community, they're going to have to do better than "just because it's faith based doesn't mean it isn't true." They're going to have to make with the evidence for the Designer, and it is going to have to be evidence every bit as detailed as what science currently has for evolution across multiple disciplines. What nature of being is this designer? Is it bigger than a breadbox? Is it alive, in the sense we understand an organism to be alive? Does it have metabolic processes? Where does it live, if not in this universe? What exact mechanisms does it employ when it creates universes, and how does it employ them? Constantly attacking scientists for making alleged "straw man" criticisms of ID is pretty dishonest of the ID camp, when they aren't even beginning to try to address these questions and explain their designer in an intelligible way (except to say it isn't "necessarily" the Biblical God whenever they find themselves addressing a judge or school board).

Science, by definition, is a process of empirical study that can only draw conclusions based on observation of evidence. Faith is fine for religionists, but it just has no place in the scientific method. If you admit that "faith cannot be fostered with fact," which I take to mean that religion's claims cannot be examined scientifically, then you must agree that faith-based concepts like ID simply don't get to join the scientific fraternity...at least until some fostering facts come along to give it actual substance.


  1. I've just been reading James Hogan's Kicking the Sacred Cow, in which he offers a non-religious case for ID. He argues from statistics that the odds against enough favorable mutations to produce a new species are cosmically high, even on a geological time scale. He explicitly rejects a traditional God as the agent of intelligent design, but doesn't say what the intelligence might be. He doesn't address the question of what sort of intelligence would spend so much time tinkering with species creation, or whether that intelligence had to be designed itself. But his claim that standard evolutionary theory is statistically untenable deserves an answer.

    I'm wondering if anyone's taken up his arguments. That would be much more fruitful than answering someone who's using the words "intelligent design" as a cover for "Genesis."

  2. He explicitly rejects a traditional God as the agent of intelligent design, but doesn't say what the intelligence might be. He doesn't address the question of what sort of intelligence would spend so much time tinkering with species creation, or whether that intelligence had to be designed itself.

    That sounds like "god of the gaps" all over again. It appears Hogan is parroting Dembski (not a surprise, since there's a flattering blurb by Dembski in the front of Hogan's book), in which case, the responses are extensive.

  3. What are the odds that this piece of chewed up gum would come to be in this exact location--and who, 10,000 years ago, could have predicted such a thing as this gum on the ground behind this bench? How many other universes could have been where this gum wouldn't have ended up under this bench? What if the child who chewed this gum had had a lollipop that day instead? What if his great great great great grandparents hadn't decided to move here from Germany? What if his mother would have married someone else?

    That wad of gum on the ground is clearly design.

    I don't buy the "what are the odds?" argument--because you could apply it to any event in any environment.

    Things are what they are. If they were different than what they are, the odds they would be _that_ way instead would be...what? Who can _possibly_ say?

    Even if there were a way to calculate odds of an existent universe--_rare_ doesn't equal design. But the people on E-bay who bid on the "Virgin Mary" piece of toast think it does.

    Referencing the quote in your post about the "explanation" offered for the design imperfections of the world: The idea of "sin" as an explanation for design flaws is insane. A bird with wings, that can't function to fly is a design flaw. Adam ate a piece of fruit--and that's why we have ostriches?

    First of all, if sin is imperfection, then, according to the Bible, god created sin with full foresight. He knew he would create people. He knew people would "sin"--basically do what they chose to do instead of what he told them to do (how evil!) Then he killed them all for doing exactly what he knew they would do before he even created them. And according to Genesis, the reason for the flood was that God _regretted_ [or was "sorry"] he had made man. (Gen. 6:6)

    Really? An all-knowing, all-powerful god "regretted" something he did? Did he _not_ see it coming?! He did something that upset himself, then killed a bunch of people to right his own mistake?!

    That's very odd I think. In fact, it's completely senseless.


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