Saturday, September 17, 2005

On the credibility of ID

I think my interest in the question of the icons has gotten obscured. I'm not trying to get people to accept ID. In my present state of knowledge I don't consider myself competent to determine whether ID is correct or not.

The question at hand is whether the textbooks present an overblown case for evolution based on the "icons." When I went to the DI website, I didn't see them claiming that we should teach ID and evolution, didn't see them even use the phrase "teach the controversy," all I saw was an insistence that evolution not be supported by faulty evidence. If that's what they're asking, then isn't that kind of a fair request? If the evolutionists are right, then why should they even want their position defended by bad arguments in textbooks?

The scientific consensus on evolution seems to me to be less than absolute; I take it Michael Behe's scientific credentials are superior to everyone posting on this blog, with maybe the exception of Meyers. In my view, it's going to take years before ID is developed in its strongest form.

At one time the climate in philosophy in favor of atheism was one of almost total domination. There were few Christian philosophers working, and it was thought to be commonplace that intelligent philosophers rejected theism as a matter of course. Now, since the Society of Christian Philosophers was founded, we know that this picture of academic philosophy is false.

Evolution is the paradigm people work with. So even if it suffers from a all sorts of anomalies, there's plenty of normal science to be done within that paradigm, and I don't blame anyone for not taking a serious look at ID. Academic inertia is understandable.

There are certifiable cases of academic hardball that have been played. Can some good evolutionists please remonstrate with the people who play this kind of hardball and let them know that it doesn't help Darwin's cause any? Darwinist Michael Ruse is doing it, bless his heart. He also wrote the preface to Menuge's Agents Under Fire. Now whatever you think of his Kansas testimony, AUF is a tremendous challenge to philosophical naturalism, in many ways better developed than my own book, containing serious arguments which cannot be dismissed as quackery even if you disagree with them. This I can say based on my own expertise in the same field.

I never said that the academic hardball cases prove that there is a conspiracy of silence. What I said is that these cases make it harder to make the case based on academic consensus. If I had a lot at stake on the naturalistic evolutionist side I would be telling my own side "Please, if it's really wrong we don't need to declare academic war on it."

What I think I do know how to do is separate issues and keep confusions from getting in our way. If a defender of ID (or an opponent of ID) thinks that evolution entails atheism, then we need to point out that that confuses issues. Conflating ID with creationism is, I think, a big mistake even if ID advocates really believe in Young Earth Creationism.

The central claim of ID is not simply that intelligent design exists. You can believe, as many Christians working in the field believe, that there the universe was intelligently designed, but at the same time believe that the design is invisible to science and its methods. That's the real issue. We don't even need to say that the designer has to be God. Perhaps what science has to say is that there was a designer, but that we do not know who or what the designer is.

SETI seems to assume that we can discover design without observing the designers, although the kinds of design they look for give us a high antecedent probability that the designers are finite, evolved beings, but at least we don't have to have the evolved beings on hand to make the design inferences, and they could turn out not to be evolved beings.

ID theory, as I understand it, helps me, at least identify some important questions. I have always thought of myself as pretty evolution-friendly, but I have always wondered "Couldn't science figure out that that there was design behind speciation, if the design was there?" I've never wanted to defend a young earth or even attack common ancestry. (I'm just not going to get dismissive of people who do).

If you have an established paradigm, the question is how much tension is it working under. How many anomalies are underneath the surface of the theory. I think attacks on the part of YEC advocates have caused a problem, because it used to be that frank admissions of difficulties with the theory, (which go all the way to Darwin's own chapter of Origin by that very title), are often used to argue that the evolutionists themselves don't really believe in evolution. So I get the impression that evolutionary biologists sometimes engage in more triumphalistic descriptions of their work than is really warranted.

When Jason made a statement in an exchange with BDK that evolutionists were exercising faith at a certain point, I think he was misunderstood. Faith, as Jason was using the term, isn't an irrational leap in the dark, it is facing up to a difficulty with one's own overall convictions without abandoning ship, because of one's overall confidence in the strength of the belief system. I'm sure evolutionists do it, Christians do it, anyone who has a world-view has to engage in faith in just this sense.

I'm thoroughly convinced that ID theory will eventually make a very significant and interesting contribution to our understanding of the world. And they can do this even if there is no designer, or that designer is scientifically invisible.


Ahab said...

You know Victor, it doesn't really matter how convinced you are that ID is going to make a valuable contribution to science, or if academics are playing too much hardball, or if the issue is confused by calling ID creationism, or whether or not evolution entails atheism, etc., etc. In real life the issue of ID is going to be decided by the people working in the science of evolution.

When you start off a post saying you don't think you are competent to decide the issue of ID and then end it by stating that you are "thoroughly convinced that it will eventually make a significant and interesting contribution to our understanding of the world", I get the impression of a real disconnect. There seems to me to be some real confusion on your part over this whole issue.
As I suggested before, I honestly think that my best advice to you is to break open the science books and get a better foundation in what is really involved in the present theory of evolution. That is the only way you are going to be able to understand whether or not ID's criticisms have any validity.

In any case, I am going to be bowing out of future participation on this blog.

Though I am a layperson and not a scientist like BDK, I have come more and more to share his view that my time is not going to be well spent rehashing these issues of ID over and over. Much better to spend it breaking open some of those science books myself.

Everyone here has been very civil, and I appreciate that.
Good luck sorting things out.

HV said...

Victor, you said ID helps you to identify some important questions. For me, ID has raised some questions not directly related to evolution. They have perhaps more to do with physics and math. For example, is there such a thing as irreducible complexity? Is it possible for there to be a physical structure that is too complex to be realized by any incremental process of construction? It seems to me there is no such structure, but it seems equally possible that some clever mathematician could come up with one. That would be an interesting discovery.

Anonymous said...

Good luck with your studies Ahab.

With this comment: “The scientific consensus on evolution seems to me to be less than absolute; I take it Michael Behe's scientific credentials are superior to everyone posting on this blog” you make wonder if I have anything to bring to this discussion. But before you dismiss my position I’d like to bring Ernst Mayr, William Aird, Robert Pennock, and all of the signatories of project Steve in on my side.

It occurs to me that where you see an established paradigm, struggling under immense tension, I see a profoundly robust theory supported by observational and experimental evidence from all branches of biology. Sure there are limits to our understanding but Rome is not burning. Scientific research continues to yield information that still needs to be incorporated into our understanding of evolutionary theory. For example we just discovered siRNA, how does that fit in? It helps explain why there is so much non-coding DNA in the genome and it is a blow to the central dogma, but biology will survive, and we will continue to deepen our understanding of the world as we do.

How do we resolve this difference in our perception of the state of the science? If we can’t, where does this discourse go from here?

One final question, how will IDT contribute to our understanding of the world? It does not fit the scientific paradigm, so where and how can it contribute?

Victor Reppert said...

A theory which is in the end not successful can make legitimate contributions by asking important and valuable questions, by pointing out difficulties with evolutionary theory, amd by discouraging undue triumphalism. Advocates of all sorts of strange theories have made contributions to science without being right.

Look, even when it comes to heliocentrism, I think good science education should teach the controversy. When I was young I remember a high school friend of mine told me that her physics class had a debate on the issue, and the overconfident heliocentrists lost!

I will not endorse ID without a close look at the science on both sides. At the present all I am in a position to do is to point out some distinctions that tend to get overlooked in the course of the discussion, and to make the case that the overzealous defense of evolution against ID is in many case doing its own cause more harm than good, especially if it turns out that ID is, in the last analysis, a crock.

Saying that some arguments against ID are bad is different from saying that ID is correct.

To really have defeated ID, it is necessary, I think, to correctly pose the questions that ID is raising, at least the most interesting ones.

Jason Pratt said...

Hey, Victor!

Keeping out of comments for a while so I won't be too distracted from other duties elsewhere; but thought I should say--yes, you're right about what I meant. {s!}

Even though I thought (and still think) BDK was making (perhaps inadvertently) a circular argument, I also perceived that there might be a good point behind his methodological mis-step, that would be worth my attention and possibly my assent. _Rationally_ speaking (and all my own faith is rational), if we believe that a belief-system (whether scientific or otherwise) is strongly grounded and coherent, then to whatever extent that is true, we may be confident in believing the logical implications of that belief, even if we cannot yet see (and perhaps on the terms of the truth of the system may never be able to see) a particular reality implied as a logical consequence from the coherency of the system.

If the problem I was mentioning is one such implication, then it _would_ in fact be improper of me to bring up its evidential lack against the viability of the basis system. Even though I was critical of the form of BDK's attempts (taken in sequential combination), I figured this might be what he was (not very eptly {s}) trying to say.

Now, as it happens (somewhat ironically), my further occasional checks into my question over the past couple of weeks, tend to indicate that proponents of the theory are no longer typically expecting those mediant interbreeding subspecies populations to be there at all: the clearest cases of speciation all involve isolation of populations from each other completely in practice (even if their territories could technically overlap); in which cases there never would be the sort of mediant interbreeding populations which the basis theory otherwise would predict as a necessary consequence--and which seem notably absent, even in attempts to describe speciation cases in practical overlapping populations.

But that doesn't obviate the original implication: _if_ speciation normally occured a particular way, _then_ those mediant interbreeding populations _would_ be there. Since we find they aren't, then the basis theory says the evidence should be read another way (i.e. speciation normally occurs in total practical isolation of population groups.)

As far as I can tell (so far), the only real problem with this, is the question of whether this could possibly happen often enough to provide the sort of proportion of speciation instances which the data seems (at the moment) to be indicating. (The 'orthodox majority', up until recently apparently, would have said 'no'.) But that's much less of a problem, at least on the face of it. I can certainly say it's much less of a problem to _me_ anyway. {g}

But again in this case, as in the case of the previous (and to my mind more serious) problem (under the previous orthodox understanding of speciation): _if_ the basis theory is _otherwise_ soundly grounded according to rightly understood evidence (where evidence is available), _then_ we may be confident that (having eliminated an option by deductive inference) this other situation (speciation almost always occurs in practically isolated populations of a species) must be true instead--even if we can't strictly confirm it by evidence yet. (And even if it turns out we never _could_ strictly confirm it evidentially.)

And in principle, I have no problem with that.

(But proponents should still be very careful _not_ to make a circular argument out of this.)


Anonymous said...


The part of your comments I find the most difficult to respond to is your accusations of triumphalism and overzealousness. At least some of what you see is defensive in nature. The defenders of NS are not the ones spending gobs of money to employ public relations firms to popularize their position. If I myself am guilty of either, I think the former stems from my sense of awe at how well NS explains the processes we observe around us, while insistence on scientific rigor could be mistaken for the latter.

As for the rest of your post, you fail to put forward any real role for ID.

The concerns raised seem to continue to rely on the idea that the controversies within evolutionary theory are rampant. Let me say it again, there are no great controversies. Of course there are limits to our knowledge but the paradigm is not under intense tension. My understanding of scientific revolution as put forward by Kuhn makes me think that a science is not necessarily ripe for revolution just because it does not succeed in explaining everything about a field. For a revolution to occur, the tensions have to run very deep. Also, these tensions need to be able to be relaxed by the introduction of a new paradigm that better explains all of the available observational and experimental evidence. Proponents of ID offer no such new paradigm, so ID does not bring anything to the table in that regard. We can easily discuss the challenges facing the NS without invoking ID (Darwin did).

As for looking into the science behind the argument, please do. I have had little exposure to philosophy in my academic career and have learned much by lurking in this and other blogs. I value that a great deal. If some science knowledge flows in the other direction, all the better. But I can not resist pointing out that looking into the science behind ID won’t take very long, because there is none, while you could devote the rest of your life to the study of the science in support of NS and not exhaust it. You could also devote a considerable amount of time exploring the limits of our understanding of NS without ID. Arguments against NS on the grounds that the probability of certain events occurring is fleetingly small did not originate with ID. The developers of ID simply thought up an arbitrarily stringent set of rules with which to argue that these issues are fatal to the theory. Few believe they are and methodological naturalism still has much left to reveal in this regard.

I support highlighting the limits to our understanding when teaching complex subjects. Pitting one theory against another is good pedagogy but your heliocentrism example does not make an argument for a role for ID. In your example, heliocentrism is clearly being put forward as a foil, an obsolete, fully refuted paradigm in order to demonstrate the superiority of a new paradigm. Such a debate is clearly designed to highlight the strengths, not the weaknesses of the current paradigm. ID is not a scientific paradigm so its its use in such a way would only confuse maters. A better application of your idea would be to pit the earlier works of Linnaeus or Lamarck against the ideas of Darwin. Again I do not see any role for ID.

Victor Reppert said...

So, for example, the punctuationists and the gradualists have resolved their little spat?

Anonymous said...

Mayr on punctuationism: “such speciational evolution, because it occurs in populations, is gradual in spite of its rapid rate and therefore is in no conflict whatsoever with the Darwinian paradigm” (One Long Argument 1991, p154). He also addresses this in his in his 2001 book as does Gould in his 2002 book.

Maybe the more relevant question is if any of the scientists on either side of that debate feel that their dispute calls into question the basic paradigm. My suspicion is the answer would be no. No controversy, just limits to our current understanding.

Victor Reppert said...

But isn't this because the people in the debate accept the "only game in town argument?" In this conflict we are supposed to expect a whole lot of transitional fossils which didn't show up. Mayr can say there's not conflict; that doesn't mean there isn't one. There is certainly nothing here that's logically inconsistent with Darwinian theory; still I suspect that biologists would be interested a basic theoretical innovation that resolves the difficulties if one could be had at less ontological cost.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is the only game it town and for good reason. People have been attacking the theory since before the ink dried on the first edition of Darwin’s “Origins”. The ideas have stood up pretty well. Bringing in competing sets of ideas is good for any field. Eldredge and Gould’s ideas focused a lot of attention on gaps in our knowledge and that is a good thing. In that Behe has focused attention on the limits to our understanding, he has also done a good thing. But so far, that is where his contribution has stopped. No usable competing theory has been introduced. There remains only one game in town.

Let me try to give you another perspective on this. I am doing a postdoc, meaning I do not have a permanent position. So, independent of my credentials as a biochemist, ecologist, microbiologist or bread maker (I make a killer sourdough) I am at the point in my career where I should be (and am I hope) very open to new ideas. Someone coming up with a set of ideas that appeared to explain all of evolution better than NS or even just some aspect we don’t understand would be absolutely, hands down, the best thing for my career. NSF would throw money at the field. Universities all over the country would open new positions to remain on the cutting edge of science. I’d get a job, I’d get independent research grants and by the time the dust settled in favor of one set of ideas or the other, I’d have tenure and could happily settle into early curmudgeon-hood. Within science, this happens all the time. The formalization of the theory of plate tectonics in the 1960’s resulted in a renaissance for geology. In the 1980’s the realization that there is an incredible amount of as yet unexplored microbial diversity on this planet resulted in increased interest and funding that is still going strong today (much to the chagrin of many non-microbiologists). The lack of ideas competing with NS is not due to hardball attacks, it’s due to the robustness of NS. NS is not so robust that it explains absolutely everything (thus the uncertainty) but it does a much better job than any other set of ideas yet proposed. To borrow some words from another post on this blog, I am not hankering after certainty, but I do see value in working within the framework of a theory or theories that best explain the available data.

As for your question regarding ontological costs, my first reaction when I read it last night was ‘sure there are biologists that would be interested in such ideas, but does science as currently practiced allow for it?’. Is this last bit at all meaningful? I am defiantly unclear on what it would mean to establish a new metascientific framework centering on ID and how this would result in tractable although non-scientific hypotheses.

Anonymous said...

oops 'definitely' not 'defiantly'