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Friday, February 11, 2005

"In the Case of Science vs. Nature . . . "

The title, perhaps, is a bit misleading, but it makes me giggle. In any event, this post at Dialogical Coffee House led me to this article at ReasonOnline, which in turn led me to the Times Op-Ed that engendered this latest round in the ongoing debate.

The Times piece, by Michael J. Behe, a professor of biological science at Lehigh University, aims to dispel what he argues are popular mis-associations of so-called "Intelligent Design" theory with those who would have public schools reject Darwin's natural selection as, at best, "just a theory," if not omitting to mention it entirely (sadly, something plenty of people in this country would prefer, as the most recent spate of attempts to do just that plainly illustrates). He speaks to the premises on which Intelligent Design is based, and emphasizes that these principles are not (or should not be) in themselves objectionable to scientists of an Enlightenment / scientific method bent.

In Reason, Ronald Bailey takes issue with Behe -- particularly, Behe's founding the notion of intelligent design on the premise that "there are no research studies indicating that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell." Behe's claim is that these molecular machines, or in some cases the cellular machines in which they function are irreducibly complex, and that absent some sort of intelligent design -- which, to be fair, he at least concedes might not be a deity but rather something in nature (a claim the coherence of which exceeds my grasp just now, and one that Bailey explicitly rejects and DCH commenter, Joe Kearns, implicitly rejects, but let's grant it for argument's sake) -- they could not have arrived at their levels of complexity since to remove any one component of the cellular / molecular mechanism would bring the organism's life to a screeching halt. If these irreducible cellular machines were not made of whole cloth, all at once, then they would never have come into being, is the proposition that Bailey ascribes, I think correctly, to Behe. Bailey is, in some sense, quibbling with Behe's attempt to distinguish his ID theory from a purely dogmatic creationist account, and perhaps suggesting that it's a trojan horse.

As a good, the-first-amendment-can-never-be-strong-enough liberal, I'm wary of Behe's arguments for precisely this reason. After all, glazed with a patina of Enlightenment science, religion can become palatable, or rather it can become difficult to persuasively resist by those who recognize it for what it is. It is difficult rationally to object that Darwinism is the Alpha and Omega of life on earth, although that's what ID attempts to do. Darwinism is the best account offered yet, in my opinion and (more importantly) in the opinion of many people smarter than I. But so was Newton's account of mechanics until Einstein came along. And Einstein, for that matter, roundly rejected much of quantum theory that has now been verified or at least appears to be true.

Nevertheless, I fear that this aspect of Bailey's critique is unfair. I'll confess that the phrase Intelligent Design recalls to mind those religious network shows that attempt to mathematically square the prodigious evidence in support of Darwinism with the biblical math favored by their particular Christian denominations to pinpoint a date for the first day of Creation. And I feel like Behe's account clarified some things for me. Moreover, I'm not unfamiliar with Behe's (stated) orientation toward this issue. One of my physics teachers in college, a man who could carry a full tenure-track load in advanced physics and still attend law school at night (which, by the way, makes for an awful professor, since on more than one occasion he used his fastidiously tidy law school notebooks and study methods to illustrate why our note-taking and organizational skills as well as our study (non-)habits were abysmal, and largely to blame for our fate, one and all, as failures at grasping all things electromagnetic), and who was surely in virtue of his background of a devoutly logical inclination, was quite comfortable on one occasion opining -- with a hand-wave and in an astonishingly curt and cursory way -- "Natural selection doesn't get us here from there. Something's missing."

Brian at the Dialogical Coffee House, meanwhile, focuses on two paragraphs in Bailey's piece, in the first of which Bailey asks why ID shouldn't be acknowledged side by side with natural selection as a competing scientific account of life's terrestrial lineage. In virtue of this debate, my answer is less certain than it was, although the second Bailey point Brian highlights has something to do with my feeling that the scientific basis for ID is in some sense beside the point. Bailey observes, "Intelligent design theorists and their claims to scientific legitimacy aside, the only reason the vast majority of people who want intelligent design taught in high school want it is because they believe it will undercut the corrosive effects of evolutionary biology on the religious beliefs of their children." The obverse of this proposition, however, and one Bailey only implicitly acknowledges much earlier in his piece, is that the only reason the areligious or otherly religious would have it kept out of school is their fear that it is a trojan horse in the belly of which it bears scripture, as the Leviathan did Noah.

I should tip my hat on this point to Joe Kearns for his similar comment at DCH. And a propos, Kearns also writes that

[t]he "irreducible complexity" problem pointed out by Behe is philosophically and practically insurmountable, and would deep-six the whole [NS] edifice EXCEPT that there is no god-less alternative theory. Intelligent design is promising because, though it involves a Designer, it does not rely upon any revelation or authoritative knowledge about that Designer, but works outward from the world-as-found, from the material of the world. It therefore avoids the issues of "whose revelation?" In my opinion, this is why you actually find more believers in the science faculties than in the humanities faculties in the secular academy. The physicists are finding themselved forced, by the facts, to consider the existence of God as a compelling inference. ID is the same process, occurring in Biology.

The question, I suppose, is whether both sides are simply doing their respective jobs in pushing against each other from the extreme perimeters of the positions they defend, locked in battle over radically opposed ideas that do not represent the more moderate views of many of the people in whose name such battle is done to much fanfare and distraction (sound familiar)? Should both sides behave, as they have behaved, like lawyers, testing the extremes in hopes that the final result will incrementally favor their clients in direct proportion to the zealousness of their advocacy? When it comes to teaching our children, is an adversarial approach to curricula development appropriate?

I suppose that while my intention here has been more exegetical than critical, I am intrigued by Kearn's choice of words regarding "the existence of God as a compelling inference" (my emphasis). Is that all any scientific conclusion is, "a compelling inference"? I suppose there's a level of brute epistemological truth to this, but when, as Bailey notes, even the Pope grants a certain legitimacy to natural selection (I'm taking Bailey's word for this), I'm not sure that the ID argument for God is as compelling as the NS argument for Darwin's account of evolution, much as Kearns is unconvinced by Bailey's ascription to others the critique that if ID can be taught so should be astrology, phrenology, etc. (oddly, Bailey throws psychoanalysis in there with water-witching; while psychoanalysis may not lay claim to the sort of scientific validity that special relativity does, I don't think I'd file it with a list of debunked quackery that might as well include alchemy for all its validity). But then at the end of the day if it's only a matter of competing likelihoods -- to be reductive, say, Darwin's account is 65% likely to be true and ID's 22% likely to be true -- how do we decide which likelihood prevails, or at what level of likelihood we draw the line (after all, to the extent the teaching of ID is linked to religious creation, how do we draw the line as to which creation stories (and there are probably more of those in the world than there are discrete ethnicities, faiths, etc.) between what we should teach and what we shouldn't.

Which leads me to again don my lawyer hat, and speak to this from a (necessarily abstract) First-Amendment point of view (caveat: I'm woefully underqualified to do so, but hopefully more qualified than at least some of you): If we grant Kearns' point that ID favors no specific religion's creation story, but instead simply posits some designer based on the evidence of the "world-as-found," as he elegantly describes it, does that protect it from First-Amendment scrutiny? Should it? Perhaps. To the extent any one religion's account is barred by First Amendment jurisprudence (and, at least for now, it mostly is), one shouldn't be able to do an end-run by simply taking the specific references to a particular God or source of scripture out of the story. If no proponent of ID can escape the inference of some designer qua deity, than ID has no place in the schools. Why? Because the First Amendment doesn't bar reference to Christianity or Judaism or Islam, per se; rather, it precludes the presentation of scriptural material in public classrooms generally.

On the other hand, public-school history books certainly account for the role of religion in the formation of the modern world, and the religious framework for certain works of art also can be acknowledged and addressed for their contextual relevance. Which might be the saving grace for ID in the schools: the reason those other accounts are permissible, is because they're not scriptural in nature, in no material way construable as proselytizing, but are, as already dubbed, exegetical, contextual. Similarly, one might understand the likely religious overtones of any presentation of ID as incidental precisely because they don't favor any particular creation story's designer. And this is where Behe makes a convincing case: I have trouble seeing, either from a legal or a moral position, how in itself the teaching of ID would be problematic assuming it would be presented as a school of thought that challenges natural selection's most controversial assumptions and argues from the scientific material that undergirds the work of the Behes of the world, as opposed to the naked dogma of, say, a Falwell's account, or, for that matter, the Old Testament's account.

Which brings me back to where I started: Behe presents a fairly persuasive case that ID as understood by its more sophisticated advocates and researchers may well not be terribly religious (in the sense of denominational) in itself. Unfortunately, Bailey also is correct that this issue, rightly or wrongly, has become another battleground for the left and right (by and large), and thus in practice is heavily politicized. The problem is that not only do ID's avatars in many cases have ulterior motives; I think many of those administrators who line up in support of it are no different in their ends, are no more likely to read Behe's scientific defense of ID as a legitimate theory than their leftward opponents. And if battle necessarily pits those sides against each other (yet again) on the text of the Establishment Clause, and ejects from that field those people who make the scientific cases pro and con, well then the goal has to be to minimize the damage either by finding independently minded scientists to provide the ID account and ensure that individual teachers don't stray (an impossible task), or by omitting it altogether. It appears to me that the courts have reached a similar conclusion, though perhaps not by such a tortured path: faced with cases like this, of great moment to the social fabric and with profound First-Amendment implications, judges are hard-pressed to disregard entirely what will really happen in the schools in the event of one or another ruling. And I think that, more than anything else, is why the ID advocates are faring poorly in the courts. I probably agree with this outcome, but more as a pragmatist than as a dyed in the wool lefty.

UPDATE: I realize the title quote is wrongly stated. But I don't want to mess with the permalink. It should read, "In the Case of Science vs. Religion," or something like that. It's a Simpsons quote (of course). Anyone who wants to correct me feel free.

UPDATE 2: This discussion continues here.

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5 Comments:

Blogger brian said...

I don't have the time to say more at the moment (and expect another post at the DCH at least further highlighting your post), but here's my quick reaction...

First, if you are at all interested in this, read Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box. I reckon that if Behe had left any mention of Intelligent Design out of the book and focuses strictly on the current scientific limitations of Darwinism, he would be lauded as a brilliant scientist by both sides of the argument.

Also, I agree that most proponents of ID know little about the theory behind it. Christians simply see "anti-Darwinist" and assume "Creationist." I'd reckon that some of the folks in the current legal battles over ID in schools haven't even read Behe's work. They would probably be shocked to learn that Behe isn't trying to disprove micro-evolution (or even most elements of macro-evolution), but he's really arguing against origin of life theories that have us starting at a single cell.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Moon said...

Part of why I qualified myself so carefully when addressing Behe's theory is that I recognize the limitations of the Op-Ed format in which I read him. I'm sure the book would be illuminating, and certainly nothing in the Op-Ed conflicts with your account of Darwin's Black Box though I'm still dubious how Behe's idea of "Designer" is in any material way different than some deity. it seems like a hedge to suggest otherwise, though perhaps he fleshes out the alternative explanations more persuasively in DBB.

12:37 PM  
Blogger brian said...

Well, it's been awhile since I've read it, but I think he uses the generic "watchmaker" deity. Interestingly, a few of IDs loudest voices (who actually under the science of ID) believe that our designer wasn't God, but a race of aliens. Go figger.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Joe Kearns said...

Great blog. Thank you for your kind treatment of my ideas. I would strongly recommend that you actually read Behe's book. It is written so that a non-scientist can understand it, as was "the Origin of Species". Some thoughts.
Any truly atheistic assertion in the sciences is a religious assertion. If the purpose of science, the "telos" or final end, is the truth about How Things Are/Work, then all leads must be followed. There is obviously a deep debate going on about this among scientists (my education, till recently, is entirely in the sciences.) Some believe that the modus operandi of science must be to exclude all "God did it" explanations, as such an explanation can be entered at any point and ends the inquiry. I actually agree with this. Nevertheless, this is an operational concern, an issue regarding how scientific inquiry is carried on, and what "likely accounts" (for fun, read Plato's Timeaus) will be accepted as complete, finished accounts by the scientific community. How to communicate the status of the inquiry to outsiders or newcomers is a different concern, and the one that involves education of the young. In this case, if elements of the inquiry are suggesting a factor that does not fit the current paradigm, this is critically important information, and in fact the very thing that drives the scientists. It was the completely incomprehensible results of the Michealson-Morley experiment and the photoelectric effect that underlay the paradigm shifts that were Special Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Read the physicists Davies and Hawking; the former is led by his astrophysics to suspect the existence of a Creator; the latter is so plagued by the God-inference in his work that he has to deny it on almost every page. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much." To teach science as if it were Truth is a violation of the spirit of science, which is always aware of its unanswered questions. The teaching of the "time plus chance" paradigm of Darwinism as "received fact" leads the young non-scientist to believe what ain't so...that "scientists believe" this answers all the origin questions. They do not. There is a real problem with the paradigm, and that problem raises a real question whether we live in a "closed system" (the a-theistic view) or an "open system" (the someone/something else is out there messin with us view.) You might find it interesting to note that Francis Crick, along with several other atheistic scientists, believe in "panspermia", the idea that life evolved outside our planet and was planted here, precisely because of problems with the paradigm like those pointed out by Behe. To say with the authority of a teacher or a textbook, "science has found no need for a creator in its explanations of the world" is a religious statement, and simply untrue to boot.
Can we really interpret the 1st Amendment to disallow the discussion whether a creator exists? Especially when our scientists are haveing precisely that debate?

9:53 AM  
Blogger Shar said...

I'm also going with the "race of aliens" idea. Dismiss it as crazy if you wish, so did I at first. But it's no crazier than believing in a "God" nobody has ever seen, based solely on a Book that is "a collection of writings of unknown date and authorship rendered into English from supposed copies of supposed originals unfortunately lost."

4:14 PM  

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