Monday, June 13, 2005

ID and the fear of religion

Here is the Dembski quote I was looking for:

By the way, you may be wondering why I don't here simply provide a list of peer-reviewed articles by design theorists from the biological literature that support intelligent design. The reason is that I want to spare these authors the harassment they would receive if I listed their work in this book. Overzealous critics of intelligent design regard it as their moral duty to keep biology free from intelligent design, even if that means taking extreme measures. I've known such critics to contact design theorists' employers and notify them of the "heretics" in their midst. Once "outed" the design theorists themselves get harassed and harangued with e-mails. Next, the press does a story mentioning their unsavory intelligent design associations. (The day one such story apperaed, a close friend and colleague of mine mentioned in the story was dismissed from his research position at a prestigious molecular biology laboratory. He had worked in the lab for ten years). Hereafter, the first thing that an Internet search of their names reveals is their connection with intelligent design. Welcome to the inquisition. (Dembski, The Design Revolution, p. 305).

I'm sorry, Blue Devil Knight, but this is not the normal quality control engaged in in the normal course of academic life. If this is true, this is a deliberately conceived witch-hunt aimed and destroying ID by intimidation. It is treating ID not merely as a false idea (many false ideas have made tremendous contributions to the history of science) but as a disease that must be eliminated root and branch. Does science need to be kept "pure" in this way? I can assure you that tactics like these will not improve the relationship between science and the wider community. At the same time people like Richard Dawkins use the prestige of evolutionary biology to support a campaign for atheism, a campaign which seems to me to be simply loaded with specious arguments.

For most of my life I would have regarded myself as pretty much a theistic evolutionist. I have no truck with any attempt to say that good science shows that the earth was created 6000 years ago in 6 days. However, in studying the philosophy of science I wondered at some of the arguments designed to show that science is necessarily naturalistic. I decided those arguments didn't work, and interestingly enough my staunchly atheist philosophy of science teacher in grad school agreed with me. It reminded me of arguments by David Hume that there couldn't be enough evidence for a miracle. (Some people accept that argument, and then also say they don't believe in God because he didn't give us enough evidence for his existence).

Science is perfectly free to use heuristic principles, like methodological naturalism, in a defeasible way. But the idea that the universe is undetermined at the quantum level, and the idea that the universe had a beginning in time, are both claims that would have been proscribed by most versions of "methodological naturalism" that might have prevailed prior to the acceptance of Big Bang cosmology and quantum mechanics.

But methodological naturalism is sometimes held to in a dogmatic way. Consider the following quote by Richard Lewontin:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community of unsubstantiated just-so stories [in evolutionary biology] because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material causes, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who believes in God can believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that Miracles may happen. (1997)

As I pointed out in my book, what would happen if some Christian were to say the same thing about the inerrancy of the Bible?

Our willingness to accept biblical teachings that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between faith and unbelief. We take the side of Scripture in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the existence of unsubstantiated just so stories in Scripture, because we have a prior commitment to Scripture's inerrancy. It is not that the methods and institutions of biblical study somehow compel us to accept only interpretations which are in accordance with the Bible's inerrancy, but on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to biblical inerrancy to create a method of biblical study that [produces explanations that are consistent with inerrancy, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, our commitment to inerrancy is absolute, for we cannot allow doubt to get its foot in the door. For anyone doubting the Word of God in any respect will end up doubting it in all respects.

Why, it would make you want to use the f-word (the long one that is).

Are these ID attackers really just trying to uphold science? Or are they motivated by the fear of religion? As Thomas Nagel observes:

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper - namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God, and naturally, hope that I'm right about my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that. (1997)

Now I have no intention of explaining philosophical naturalism as a whole in terms of the fear of religion. But I think that some of the extreme responses by the enemies of ID, and the attempt to make methodological naturalism into an absolute instead of a defeasible heuristic, is a sure sign that the fear of religion, and not the love of science, is at work.


Blue Devil Knight said...

I agree that methodological naturalism, an important and useful heuristic in science, is sometimes transformed into philosophical naturalism or physicalism. Some even act as if any good scientist has to be a physicalist. This is bologny, and there exist plenty of theistic scientists who are counterexamples. That said, science is, and should remain, methodologically naturalistic unless someone comes along with a very good reason to abandon this successful strategy. So far, nobody has.

As for the inquisition claims, my previous post largely addresses that. As for specifics you mention in this new post, it sounds like Dembski has written a polemic, an inflammatory one-sided story. It would be very interesting to get the story from the people who purportedly did the firing. What would they say their reasons were for firing the person? Also, in (typically liberal) universities there are usually lots of avenues for wronged employees to take. Were such avenues taken? Dembski is not exactly an impartial source! Unless he has provided a detailed account answering questions like those above, it is impossible to judge how immoral the behavior toward the ID person was.

If ID creationists had good arguments from a scientific perspective, they would get more respect. No matter what their theoretical biases, most scientists will take data seriously, and this is what made them accept strange, counterintuitive theories like QM (one of the most predictevly fecund/well verified theories of our time).

So far, the creationists' weak arguments (e.g., Dembski's ridiculous 'explanatory filter') and counter-scientific behavior show that they are just trying to push their religious views on human origins into biology classes. Even if they are not consciously trying to do this, this is de facto what they are doing. If they just say their ideas are based on a faith that humans are not nomically determined, then I could respect that. I have no respect or patience for the specious arguments dressed up to influence legislation, but paraded around as science.

You have never really addressed the key point. Do you think there are good reasons to merit creationism as an alternative scientific hypothesis to evolutionary theory? What reasons are those? Are they strong enough to justify causing a fundamental shift in the naturalistic orientation of science? Would the type of reasons/evidence you have convince a physicist that F=ma is wrong (as Einstein did) or that the world is fundamentally indeterministic (as Bohr did)? The theoretical shift the creationists are requesting is larger than either of those. They should expect nothing less than the same kind of harsh, vituperative skepticism that greets any new theory.

Victor Reppert said...

But of course my claim was that the "inquisition," if (and I thought I always included that caveat) Dembski is reporting it accurately, goes far beyond, in kind and degree, the kind of quality control and skepticism that greets new ideas that travel outside the mainstream of science. It's one thing to say arguments are inadequate, it's another to go on a search and destroy mission against the academic credentials of anyone who is associated with Intelligent Design. Would you agree that if Dembski has his fact straight that this is excessive, and that it does long term harm to the very Darwinian positions it seeks to protect?

In the last analysis, there really isn't any thing as "science," there are simply scientists, and the community of which they are a part. And there's nothing wrong with those who, like yourself, believe in it, to pursue science according to the canons of methodological naturalism, and others to pursue it based on other canons. If science is really rational it can iron out the problems in the long run, not try to nip them in the bud in the short run with charges of pseudoscience. Science learns and benefits from bad ideas as well as from good ones.

As for public school classrooms, surely you can teach Darwinism as the primary paradigm, suggest that there are scientists who have doubts about it, and leave it up to students to make up their own minds. Statements of dogmatic certainty on the part of Darwinists do not help their cause, or the cause of science. Methinks the enemies of intelligent design protest too much.

I don't know if I'm competent to address the issues surrounding ID in science, though I very much like Angus Menuge's book Agents Under Fire (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), which does defend ID. In the area with which I am familiar, the philosophy of mind, I think that naturalistic solutions to the problems of intentionality, truth, the self, qualia, indexicals, the unity of consciousness, mental causation and the causal role of propositional content, the psychological role of logical laws, and the reliability of our rational faculties thus far leave a whole lot to be desired, and can only be accepted by someone who starts with a profound commitment to the idea that a naturalistic game is the only game in town. I don't share that commitment.

Blue Devil Knight said...

If the creationism/evolutionism debate had the hallmarks of authentic scientific debate, I wouldn't mind at all if they were both included in textbooks. However, for the reasons I've argued, this has all the features of a culture war being waged by the religious folk who don't like what science has to say about origins. If there were good arguments that didn't have obvious flaws (i.e., if the creationists' arguments weren't all basically of the form "I can't imagine how X could be explained naturally"), then I would be a little more sympathetic.

That said, of course I would agree that if people are on a witchhunt trying to hurt the career of anyone who believes in ID. I have a lot of respect for the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, and to the extent that going after creationists violates that, I would be opposed.

Victor Reppert said...

I think the rhetoric on both sides of the issue is unduly inflammatory. I just had a problem because I thought that you were bashing Dembski for his tactics when there was plenty of things to be said about the defenders of Darwinism that needs to be criticized, especially if you are on that side.

I don't like over-hyped rhetoric about anything (even the arguments that I have espoused in print), and I wasn't happy with the tone of the comment you references from Dembski. But if the rhetoric on the ID issue is overheated, then a good deal of responsibility has to be laid at the doorstep of people like Barbara Forrest and Richard Dawkins.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I agree. I once joined a Skeptics group and subsribed the the 'Skeptical Inquirer.' I was so surprised by the dogmatic arrogance in both that I quickly got away. A good deal of the people seemed to base their identity on their skepticism. They weren't freem from religion or pseudo-science: their lives were governed by it, their self-esteem grounded in it. It was a pretty intellectually shallow group of people.