Saturday, 6 December 2008

Intelligent Design and Creation's Order (Creation or evolution, chapter 14)

The chapters looking at how to harmonise Darwinism with a biblical theology are now over. For me they were the most interesting and revealing part of the book, and the only ones where consistently DA makes a serious attempt to answer some difficult questions instead of neatly side-stepping them with word games. What remains is more patchy - some left overs that didn't fit elsewhere. If you want to read the meaty portions of this blog-review, skip this and scroll down to the previous 5 or so chapters!

The purpose of this 19-page chapter is to have some discussion of the "Intelligent Design" movement, associated with such names as Philip Johnson, Michael Behe and William Dembski. I got the feeling in reading it that DA felt obliged to include something about it, but was a bit tired (or just contemptuous) by this stage, and the chapter is a bit of a damp squib because it neither goes here nor there, but remains  content with some rather general arguments and statements - except for some more detailed discussion of the bacterial flagellum. It's all a bit of a damp squib, because packed into these 19 pages DA wants to survey the history of the movement, its personalities, its claims, and then comprehensively refute them such  that he can conclude that the whole thing's a waste of time. That's a book-length project in itself. There's no problem with brief discussions of these things that skim the surface, but in these days of avalanches of free articles available from the Internet, you need to do a bit more than the kind of surface-level chatty repeating of talking points that this chapter is mostly made up of. It's rather disappointing that so many of those talking points seem to have been cribbed from village atheist websites - we expect better, particularly from someone who spends a few pages opining on how proper scientific research is done. We even get a celebrity appearance of the Pennsylvania school board court case and "Judge Jones, a practising Lutheran and Republican appointed by President Bush", the claim that ID does not fall within the definition of science (though DA concedes that it is in principle falsifiable) and such gems of self-delusion as the claim (made earlier in the book in the context of creationists) that editors of science journals would be falling over themselves if anyone had any legitimate criticisms of Darwinism and would gladly make any scientist who had them an overnight star! Puh-lease.

I was hoping that DA might take a step back and answer a certain key question, which he never does. Let's grant, for the sake of argument, that the present ID movement isn't close to what he wants to see. Fine. But, is, in principle, it a legitimate scientific endeavour to investigate the distinctive signatures of intelligent agency and self-determining minds? And if so, is it legitimate to apply whatever the outcomes of such research are to the study of nature - which, after all, DA agrees is the product through whatever mechanism of the mind of God? These are the key questions which expose the philosophical bias inherent in contemporary origins science, with its presuppositional exclusion of any idea of intelligent agency. That's what ID proponents mean when they criticise reigning "materialist" paradigms, but DA never discussses this (an earlier part of the book discussed the idea of "naturalism", but in the straw-man form of "the absence of God language" rather than in terms of the presuppositional exclusion of the idea of intelligent agency). The nearest AD gets to answering the question of the legitimacy of "design detection" is when he addresses the point that such detection is common-place in other scientific fields - e.g. forensics, cryptography, archaeology and SETI (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence). If we scan radio waves from outer space looking for patterns which we would conclude indicate intelligent life, why can't we scan the genome to see if its patterns indicate intelligence? DA's very lame answer is that "these are all examples where we already know that purposive human behaviours, or purposeful actions by potential little grreen men, are involved, so we are not surprised at finding evidence for such behaviour". Pardon? We know that certain radio signals would be purposeful actions by potential little green men? This is the most egregious and obvious begging the question. But, to take a step back... actually I, and every other Christian, already know that life is the product of a supernatural intelligence. DA conceded that in the first sentence of chapter one. He seems to have changed his mind now, though, put on his white coat and become the epitome of the Enlightenment scientist, who goes into his lab believing nothing except what he sees down the microscope. Does he know that DNA is ultimately the work of an intelligent agent or not?

Leaving aside this brief and weak argument, what we do get in detail is an argument that the bacterial flagellum does not constitute an irreducibly complex system, though DA only actually examines one small aspect of this question, and concludes that time will bring solutions to the missing parts of his argument. The major argument against the possibility of irreducible complexity is a circular one. DA argues that (and this is another village atheist talking point), as time goes on, science is able to provide answers to things we didn't know, filling in the gaps, and if ID relies on identifing irreducibly complex systems in biology, then as science continues to provide these answers then the gaps will inevitably shrink, and any "designer of the gaps" who was relying on the empty spaces will soon vanish. That's a circular argument, because it assumes in advance that ID is already known to be false, that irreducibly complex systems don't in fact exist and that the small, gradual steps of Darwinism will be able to explain everything. What, though, if in fact they can't? What if Darwinism isn't true, and IC systems do exist? In that case, increasing scientific knowledge will increase the "gaps" that exist between Darwinian explanations and reality as we know it, and the evidence for the designer becomes larger. Darwin himself knew nothing of DNA and the methods of inheritance. He knew nothing about the origin of life - and what we've discovered since his time has progressively shown the overwhelming improbability of a non-intelligent cause for life. Darwin imagined a little warm "pond"; now we know that the conditions for life are so many and so complicated that Darwin was indulging in day-dreaming. The gap between his speculation and reality has opened right up. DA, though, simply rehashes an Internet atheist circular argument which assumes the final outcome of what he's arguing in advance.

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