Thursday, August 04, 2005

ID and persecution

Ahab wrote: I'm not sure I understand why you want to keep dwelling on these ad hominem sort of attacks, Victor.
VR: Because I want science to address the issues that ID raises in an open and honest way, so that at the end of the day, if they are wrong, we will all see that their ideas were fairly considered. Some people, like Michael Ruse, whose Darwinist credentials are impeccable, seem to realize this; he is the co-editor with Dembski of Debating Design and wrote an introduction to Menuge's Agents Under Fire, which supports the ID position.

Other people, such as Paul Gross and Barbara Forrest, seem not to realize this; their book is centered around a conspiracy theory that tries to connect the ID movement with the lunatic-fringe of the religious right, the Christian Reconstructionists; people who want to enact blasphemy laws and make the government fully and explicitly religious. (Not even people like Dobson and D. James Kennedy, people with whom I have enormous bones to pick, take it this far).

Forrest and Gross mention the fact that someone on the board of the Christian Reconstructionists has contributed financially to the Discovery Institute. So? The Bush campaign bought Nader ads during the 2000 election. Does that mean that Bush's people really support the ideals of the Nader Campaign? I don't think so!

Now if someone really thought that ID was the scientific arm of the Christian Reconstructionists, then I can imagine them doing whatever it took to keep ID "barefoot and unpublished." Are people keeping scientific views in the closet for fear of the science police? If so, this trivializes the argument from the lack of peer-reviewed support.

It seems like Sternberg's supervisors are responding to the charges put by Sternberg with flat denials. But I really do think that there is a wing of the pro-Darwinist movement that is going over-the-top in the way they deal with anyone who drifts too close to ID, and I think this is doing a lot of harm. These things do not inspire me to put a lot of confidence in Darwinian theory. My reaction is that if they have to go this far to suppress ID, there must be some merit in ID. I support reasonable quality control, but we don't need the science police, and I would believe this even if I was in no way tempted to think ID had some merit. Do you really think that the IDers are just making this up????

Look, the atmosphere in the discussion of ID-related issues has gotten just plain venomous. I don't know why it has, but it has. When I went on talk-origins to discuss what I thought were misinterpretations of my views I got the "Whose side are you on" reaction which turned me off. I don't like it when show up at Christian groups and am given shibboleths to determine whether are not I am really a Christian or not. (Did you really accept Christ as your Lord and Savior? Do you really believe that the Bible is the Word of God? If you were to die tonight.....)

There was a double review in Christian Scholar's Review (Spring 2005) of Dembski ed. Uncommon Dissent, and Forrest and Gross's Creationism's Trojan horse. CSR is not a hotbed of pro-ID stuff; the contributors are Christians but take different positions on evolution. The author of the review, Michael Buratovich, in biology at Spring Arbor College, gave both books a mixed review. He saw some good criticisms of Darwinism in the first volume, but thought that other criticisms didn't really understand the theory. As for F and G, he thought they had correctly identified instances in which they "provided examples where the public activities of the most active promoters of ID theory were less than stellar," but he criticizes them for implying that the ID people support the goals of the Christian Reconstructionists. He describes the book as follows:

"Furthermore, ID has ties to a larger right-wing movement called Christian Reconstructionism that seeks to replace democracy in America with a theocracy where blasphemy is punishable by death and women are restricted to having babies and cooking dinner for their families." This strikes me as the ultimate in scare tactics. These are push-button words for non-Christians in America--shoot I would be scared if the CRs took over.

The reviewer also maintains that ID defenders have to do more serious science before they start petitioning the public schools about including their materials. At this point, I'm inclined to agree. While the public schools should show some sensitivity to religious beliefs in presenting evolution, but while it is the primary paradigm, it should be treated in the public school as the primary paradigm.

I think the ID advocates are hurting their own cause in the long run by insisting on so much airplay in the public schools while their movement is scientifically in its infancy, but I also think there's a search-and-destroy mission on the part of Darwin's rottweilers that is hurting its own cause in the long run. I don't think this can reasonably be denied.


Jason Pratt said...

I think a lot of the counter-persecution comes from the fact that Christians have not always been responsibly critical about their own position. Or, rather, the notion of what counts as responsibility, among many Christians (past and present), even self-critical responsibility, is very different from the sort of responsibility required of, say, accountants. (Which is rather ironic, given the several parables of Christ about the responsibility of accountants for a liege... {g})

This stems from the common belief, that what counts most (or even at all) in saving a person from hopeless permanent maximum torture (or temporary hopeless maximal torture before annihilation), is the purity of their ideology--something hardly confined to Christians, of course.

Consequently, when someone questions the ideology, even with an intent to improve its accuracy, the shibboleths begin--not because the ideology police are being irresponsible, but because this _is_ the highest responsibility they can recognize.

It isn't surprising to find very similar pogroms happening on the other side of the aisle, too (both within ranks and against opponents).

First, they're trying to protect themselves (and others) against people promoting a highly threatening worship-of-ideology (which always tempts to do the same thing in reverse).

Second, many of the non/alt-believers originally came out of our side of the aisle, and so are very used to thinking in such terms (even when they recognize, in other regards, the perniciousness of it), so there's a built-in habit to do it anyway for the new ideology. The methodology _is_ very effective at promoting and protecting the idea, after all. (Memetic theory isn't totally bogus; it actually does have a lot going for it. The process represented by the theory just isn't capable of accomplishing what its atheistic proponents most want from it.)

Third, I think we can all agree, that as far as anything remotely resembling _positive_ evidence of the non-necessity (or even outright absence) of a Creator goes, biological evolutionary theory is pretty much it. If this goes down, then atheists (and various shades of negative agnostics) are reduced to only being negatively critical of whatever theories and doctrines are being proposed by *-theists. Worse!--the level of effective complexity we now recognize in biology (though not restricted to that discipline), is whole warp-factors higher than what Paley ever was able to call attention to, when he was so successful (for a while) in promoting the theistic Argument from Design. If it turns out that no conceivable version of the b.e.t. can fully account for our existence, then all the inquiry and study in the past 200 years will have _strengthened_ the apparent force of the AfD, by roughly the same degree. (I say 'apparent', because I know that no amount of evidential value can really be justified by circular argumentation, which I've found so far to be endemic in AfD/ID conclusions toward theism.)

So, yeah, there are some intensely strong (and in many ways mirror) factors, on both sides of the aisle (generally), which would tend to push the parties toward the shibbolething (let us say {g}) which can be found around _this_ particular topic (among others in the broad dispute).

Victor Reppert said...

Ahab: We should probably be a little careful not to overemphasize our differences, since at this point I think that ID advocates are probably not in a position where they should be pushing their materials into the public school curriculum, as I indicated. Pushing the public school side of the agenda too hard is resulting in scientific people being turned off.

For many, methodological naturalism is a deeply held belief, and I would expect a lot of resistance before its rejection became widespread. I expect that this thing will be debatable for a long time, and that it would be a mistake for both sides to rush to judgment.

I was mainly going from the Christian Scholar's Review review of the Forrest and Gross book, which, unless it was a really inaccurate review (and the less than enthusiastic support for ID as a whole suggests otherwise), it sugested to me that the book went out of its way to "push people's buttons" by bringing up the Christian Reconstructionists and other religious right figures. A lot can be gained when people go to their own side and say "I like what you're doing, but cool your jets before you start getting in your own way."

I'd probably want to distinguish between the claim that scientific evidence could support the claim of intelligent design from the claim that ID advocates have in fact figured out how to do that.

I'm a Bayesian subjectivist in the philosophy of science. I believe that people begin with a set of intellectual predispositions which can't be eliminated, which results in some people being disposed to accept certain claims more than others. Science then proceeds by setting up observational situations which turn out to be more like what we should expect if theory A is true, or more like what we should expect if theory B is true. I'm disinclined to be concerned about what the content of the beliefs is, natural or supernatural; if you can come up with observational situations which are more like what you expect if A than not-A, then evidence can support it or not regardless of whether the supernatural is involved or not. So I'm inclined to resist all the untestability arguments against ID.

Blue Devil Knight said...

This discussion is moot without some evidence that the ID folk have something worth listening to. I have spent a lot of time investigating their claims, and they simply don't pass the muster. Their arguments, almost all of them, amount to arguments from ignorance (e.g., 'irreducible complexity' stuff). Those that aren't arguments from ignorance involve lack of understanding of basic scientific principles (e.g., the thankfully decreasing in popularity second law of thermodynamics arguments against evolution that showed their ignorance of physics).

To expect scientists to take seriously a theory which would undermine one of the most important guiding principles of science (methodological naturalism), they are going to need something really good. Strong, positive evidence. This won't work: "OOoohh, look at this complicated Rube Goldberg-eque structure. How could THIS have happened in evolution?"

Also, they bring on the ire of scientists not only by giving stupid arguments, but by confidently giving stupid arguments, with lots of invective thrown in. I have seen Behe, Dembki, and Johnson speak: let me tell you, that was no scientific presentation but polemics piked on apologetics.

In addition, they are trying to change public policy using these stupid arguments, rather than go through the established channels of scientific scrutiny. They go through channels that no real scientist would ever considering. What would anyone expect but scorn, annoyance, and impatience? That their motivations are not those of normal scientists is on their sleeve, and again, this is something that makes scientists suspicious.

And then you act as if they are being persecuted unjustly, acting as if it is a violation of religious rights. In this country, you can have pretty much any religious belief you want. But you can't have any old scientific belief and expect the respect and job security of a real scientist.

The ID people need to GET OVER IT. Your theology is flawed if it makes you act this way. Instead of thinking that science needs a new revolution from religious quarters, perhaps your theology needs a revolution. The Catholics survived Darwin. You will too.

Blue Devil Knight said...

In my post, I forgot to mention that it was refreshing to see Victor say that he thinks the attempts to change people's minds via school boards etc is a mistake.

If there were more IDers with his restraint and desire to focus on the research (rather than pushing policy based on some rather shoddy work by apologists like Behe and Dembski), then things would bode better for the ID movement's credibility.

Victor Reppert said...

But people do have prior probabilities about what is more likely and more unlikely for God to do. People can consult their own prior probabilities; its the only probabilities they have. I think that if God raised someone from the dead, it is more likely to be Mother Teresa than Adolf Hitler. I need no further justification for this than that these are my priors.

There is no objective method for deetermining what is antecedently probable. None. You have to live with the fact that different people are going to find different things antecedently probable.

Blue Devil Knight said...


I think your epistemological claims about prior probabilities are right, in broad strokes. In science, methodological naturalism is central in the working scientists web of belief. In fact, I'm not sure of anything more central except, perhaps, the view that there is an observer-independent world (e.g., methodological realism) that we are investigating and discovering.

But note, calling them prior probabilities in a Bayesian sense is something of a misnomer, if this would imply to you that they are a priori beliefs. These core beliefs have slowly, and sometimes violently, gravitated to the core due to their incredible usefulness and fedundity as guiding principles.

When the IDers say that methodological naturalism is a "dogma" or "a priori" (and note Victor has not said that) they believe incorrectly. They are trying to effectively erase the hundreds of years of evidence that has pushed methodological naturalism to the center of the scientific mindset. They are trying to overcome this justified epistemological inertia by ignoring it. They try to act as if, for every novel biological structure, we should treat it sui generis, with no assumptions about how it got there. In other words, they want us to go back in time intellectually for over a century.

As I've said, to overcome the useful and explanitorily fecund methodological naturalism, the IDers need powerful, positive, observable evidence. Their cagey, imagination-based arguments that were the same arguments Darwin responded to, their general attacks on naturalism, will simply not work. It is amazing that we are wasting so much time on this topic.

Victor, you have probably used at least 3 posts to discuss the "persecution" of IDers, but no posts discussing the purported merits of the position (other than waving at consciousness, but that itself is a contentious issue metaphysically so is probably not the best example). Doesn't this seem ridiculous? Would you be so concerned if the position were geocentrism or phlogiston?

Your priors are showing.

Victor Reppert said...

Oh no, we have to figure out what we should expect experientially if the theory is right, and then the theory, supernatural or otherwise, is either confirmed or disconfirmed. But even disconfirmed theories can survive.

It's probably easier to look at these "persecution" cases than it is to go over some of the central ID arguments to see how well they work. The fact is, my position on the ID movement is that the there is nothing inconceivable about ID as science, but that I do not know how successful they have been in actually defending their claims scientifically.

I believe the history of science suggests that people can make all kinds of contributions to science while having some pretty weird motivations and antecedent beliefs, so long as evidence is gathered. I think evolutionary biologists, if they were honest, would admit that even the challenges posed by old-fashioned creationists can be scientifically useful (their redeeming value, in many minds, is cancelled out by their legislative challenges to the teaching of evolution.)

I have the feeling that in addition to the main ID defenders, you have a group of ID "fellow travelers" who think that ID is an idea that may work in principle but that the most visible advocates are jumping the gun in all sorts of ways and are claiming that ID has proved what it has not proved, and also believe that the backlash against themselves, while regrettable, was at least in part brought upon themselves.