Sunday, November 15, 2009

Theistic evolution and intelligent design (part 3b): what is Intelligent Design?

Last time, I introduced the generic idea of intelligent design, contrasting it with the higly political Intelligent Design Movement (IDM). To be perfectly up front, I have problems with the IDM, mostly because they offer no testable/falsifiable hypotheses, yet they want their "theories" taught in high school biology courses. This is a no-no.

But what should the IDM do differently if it wants to get into the classroom? (As I said in my previous post, I personally have no problem with ideas of intelligent design being taught at the high-school level, but only if these ideas have been shown worthy of scientific merit.)

First, stop focusing so much negative evidence. At this point, you cannot overturn naturalistic evolution as an explanatory hypothesis by saying that it can't do something. I'm not saying that negative evidence never overturns hypotheses, but it won't overturn evolution. Evolution is not quantitative enough, and itself isn't testable/falsifiable enough to be challenged in this way. If the IDM wants to go up against evolution, it needs to show that it has more testable/falsifiable explanatory power than evolution does.

Here's an example. The bacterial flagellum (a whip-like structure attached to bacteria that allows them to swim) is an "icon" of intelligent design. The basic IDM argument is that the flagellum is so complex, there's no way that evolution can produce that. It's beyond the limits of what evolution can do. Evolutionists respond with, "no, that's not true, and we can imagine ways in which evolution can do this." Notice that neither of those assertions are actually testing anything; in essence they are just hand-waving arguments. It is extremely difficult to overthrow a scientific paradigm using hand-waving arguments, even if that's all that the other side is doing.

Second, the IDM really should try to move to another field (ie, besides biology/biochemistry). I don't know why, but for whatever reason, biological evolution is different from other scientific theories. Most disciplines (such as astronomy, physics, geology, chemistry, etc) tolerate or even welcome challenges to long-standing scientific theories. This is not true in biology; challenging the veracity of naturalistic evolution meets you with ridicule and disdain. Evolution is somewhat sacred to biologists, and to go up against it is sort of like going up against the premise that the bible can be trusted. Weird, but true. Perhaps this is a direct outgrowth from the whole "Scopes monkey trial" fiasco...and now anyone who disbelieves evolution is perceived as being either ignorant or brainwashed.

The other motivation IDM proponents should have in focusing on other scientific disciplines is that almost all other theories are infinitely more quantitative than biological evolution, and thus are also more testable/falsifiable. One problem with the theory of evolution is that we have no idea what the limits are to its explanatory power (if any). Because of this, we can attribute almost anything to evolution. (By the way, this is an interesting twist on the God-of-the-gaps fallacy, which I have written about several times.) In addition, using negative evidence to demonstrate that God created (ie, showing that naturalistic forces could not account for some phenomenon) is actually possible in a quantitative field, such as cosmology. In that case, the classical arguments coming from the IDM camp become less like hand-waving arguments and more like testable hypotheses.

Finally, the IDM should drop the facade about being religiously neutral. They see the past failures to get religious ideas taught in science classrooms (such as young-earth creation) as stemming from the religious content. So, IDM proponents make the claim that the movement is completely secular. They refuse to identify the intelligent Designer, and thus say that they have no religious affiliation. Note that this tactic is not working. No one in the scientific community buys that; most have linked the IDM to conservative Christianity, and rightly so in my opinion. After all, where else has the opposition to biological evolution come from? This has the unintended consequence of galvanizing the opposition to Christianity and has given intelligent design (note the lowercase letters) a bad name. At the beginning of my last post, I said that affirming "intelligent design" in the most generic sense should not subject one to ridicule. I didn't say does not. Now nearly any discussion about any kind of intelligent design links you to the IDM, which links you to a political agenda of anti-science and ignorance, which brings you ridicule. Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but the IDM has given Christianity an uphill battle.

At any rate, the proponents of the IDM have had a fallacy in their political thinking. It wasn't actually the religious content of creationist ideas that blocked their introduction into science classrooms, it was the scientific merit. The rulings of the courts in the mid-to-late 20th century regarding the teaching of young earth creationism rested on academic merit, not religious content. Furthermore, if the IDM were following the "proper route" into classrooms, rather than try to force their way in via court rulings, there wouldn't be any issue anyway. Secularists and atheists might be upset about the fact that scientific theories promote a Designer, but what we would prefer shouldn't matter anyway. In summary, instead of trying to be fake and subversive in their agenda, why doesn't the IDM simply come clean? At this point, the IDM gives most people an untrustworthy vibe.

But there are some good things about the IDM. Some of their arguments, such as regarding the bacterial flagellum, I find to be intellectually compelling, just not scientifically defensible. (Notice a trend? I'm saying that a lot these days.) What Christians need are good scientific minds developing Christian apologetic arguments (or even better: research plans) that are both compelling and testable/falsifiable.