Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Dorf on the Constitutionality of ID

And no, I’m not talking about Tim Conway doing a video about evolution and intelligent design. I’m talking about Michael Dorf, professor of law at Columbia, and his latest article at FindLaw. Dorf examines the question of whether teaching ID in public school science classrooms is unconstitutional and concludes that it is. It’s an uneven article, with some arguments well reasoned and some poorly reasoned, but obviously I agree with the conclusion. In particular, I think he nails pretty well the question of whether ID is legitimately a scientific theory.

Dorf makes two arguments for why ID is not a scientific error. The first is that it conflates uncertainty with error:

First, insofar as it offers itself as a critique of standard Darwinian evolution, intelligent design cherry-picks uncertainties at the edge of our knowledge, and asserts that these undermine our core understandings. But the fact that some phenomena remain unexplained by natural selection hardly shows that natural selection–which provides a powerful organizing principle for vast swaths of biological data–will not eventually provide the best account of these phenomena.

Consider an analogy. Our best current understanding of gravity remains mysterious because the most ambitious efforts to unify gravity with other forces in the universe–comprising so-called superstring theories or M-theory–have not been empirically tested. Yet that hardly calls into question the principal analytical tools of modern physics.

If the intelligent designers were to apply the same criticisms to physics that they apply to evolution, they would have to say that gravity, too, is “just a theory.” However, the fact of Darwinian evolution is as real as the fact of gravity. To be sure, our understanding of each phenomenon is incomplete, but the scientific approach to plugging gaps in our knowledge is not to create a new-anti-theory that dismisses the underlying phenomenon.

This is virtually identical to one of the arguments that I made in my reply to Dean Esmay a couple days ago, that one could easily envision ID-type alternatives to any theory in science. In any complex theory, there remains gaps in our understanding which can be exploited with a God of the Gaps argument (which is what ID really is). In many fields of science we have a good but not perfect understanding of cause and effect (take meteorology for example) that allows us to accurately predict things most of the time, but not always. One could easily point to the imperfect predictions of meteorologists and present ID as an alternative:

Of course materialist meteorology appears to explain a lot of data, but there are areas in which scientists are unable to provide an explanation of how complex weather systems formed and cannot predict how they will behave. But because they are so dogmatically biased in favor of a strictly materialist theory, they refuse to even consider the possibility that an intelligent agent (God, perhaps, or aliens) is responsible for the astonishing complexity that we see in weather systems. But mankind for eons has known that there were forces beyond our human understanding that determine the weather and natural disasters such as floods. From the shamans who prayed to the gods for a good harvest to biblical texts that indicate that God sends bad storms as punishment for sin, this has been a major part of human understanding of seemingly natural events for thousands of years. It is only because of the a priori commitment to atheistic and materialistic explanations that today’s scientists reject this idea.

Dorf’s second argument for why ID is not science is also one that I have often made myself, most recently in my reply to Esmay – ID doesn’t actually explain anything:

Even if one is prepared to accept the possibility that science could, without sacrificing its essential premises, include accounts of supernatural phenomena, the concept of “intelligent design,” standing alone, is simply a label, not an account.

To press the physics analogy, in classical mechanics, Newton’s law of gravity–according to which the attraction between two bodies increases in proportion to the product of their masses and decreases in proportion to the square of their distance–was for many years viewed as problematic, because it described action at a distance. Scientists wondered: How did distant celestial bodies transmit their masses and positions to one another across space, such that they moved instantaneously in reaction?

To a substantial extent, Einstein’s theory of general relativity solved the action-at-a-distance puzzle, but suppose that prior to Einstein someone had proposed that gravity worked through the operation of an “intelligent agent.” It would have been a perfectly valid objection to this proposal that it isn’t an explanation at all, but merely a restatement of the problem. For now, we must ask how the intelligent agent accomplishes action at a distance.

In both biology and physics, in other words, supernatural phenomena may be conceivable. But for an account of such phenomena to qualify as science, it must do more than simply posit an intervention from outside the ordinary natural order. It must also explain how the intervening agent interacts with the natural world. Otherwise, it is simply an article of faith rather than a scientific explanation.

This goes back to the simple fact that ID is really just a sophisticated way of making a God of the Gaps argument. ID advocates accept that evolution is adequate to explain the development of all sorts of highly complex biochemical systems, but as Dorf pointed out above, they play at the edges of the theory, looking only at those systems whose development has not yet been fully explained (at least to their satisfaction, which adds a good bit of subjectivity to the discussion). They point to the bacterial flagellum or the blood clotting cascade and they say, “This is incredibly complex. It seems extremely unlikely that such a system could have developed through the kinds of evolutionary mechanisms that we admit are adequate to explain other complex systems. And since scientists have not (yet) provided a complete explanation of how it happened, we can only conclude that God did it….somehow.” But this is an argument that could have been made and has been made a thousand times before in a thousand different theoretical settings, and every single time it has eventually gone away because scientists ended up finding a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. It was once believed that earthquakes were sent by God as punishment; now we know that they are caused by tectonic plates pushing agaisnt each other. As the gaps get filled, the God did it “explanation” turns out not to explain much at all.

Additionally, it is important to note that there actually is no ID theory. Evolutionary theory presents a wide ranging and consistent natural history of life on earth, explaining how biodiversity developed, when and how new major taxa split off from old ones, etc. In many cases, by bringing together evolutionary theory with studies in paleogeography and paleometeorology, we can determine what change in environmental conditions prompted a change in selection pressures that led to the ascendance of one type of animal over another, or that precipitated the need to walk upright, or to survive in shallow marine environments, and so forth. There is no such ID natural history. They do not tell us the nature of the designer, when the designer might have intervened, what specifically the designer did, or why.

Did the designer “program” future traits into the genome of micro-organisms and then “turn them on” a billion years later when the trait specified was needed? Michael Behe suggests that as a possibility in his book, but it’s not terribly logical (if that is the case, a non-expressed genetic sequence would quickly become useless because natural selection cannot prevent harmful mutations from building up). Did he allow evolution to go along its merry until he suddenly had an epiphany and decide that he wanted to create birds, or amphibians? If so, how could that possibly explain the patterns of appearance in the fossil record?

ID not only doesn’t explain those things, it doesn’t even attempt to. It is a purely negative argument, based solely on the premise that if they can poke holes in evolutionary theory, or find a few places where our understanding is incomplete, they can then leap to “and therefore, God must have done it.” But this isn’t an explanation of anything, and it certainly isn’t a model that provides hypotheses that can be tested. Which means that from a scientific standpoint, it’s a sterile theory; it doesn’t actually do anything or explain anything. A statement of personal incredulity does not a scientific theory make. For the rest of Dorf’s analysis, follow the link.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave
    December 23, 2004

    Excellent discussion. I blog in response here.

  2. #2 Sang
    December 23, 2004

    “ID advocates accept that evolution is adequate to explain the development of all sorts of highly complex biochemical systems.”

    That depends on what audience they are in front of. Both Dembski and Johnson have come through my town in the last couple of years. What each said at the local university and then said at one of our fundie mega-churches was very different.

  3. #3 raj
    December 24, 2004

    This is an interesting post, but the lead sentence “And no, I’m not talking about Tim Conway doing a video about evolution and intelligent design” is a bit obscure to me. “Dorf” (as in “Michael Dorf”) is the German word for “village” (or “town”). Are you confusing it with “Doof” (which is loosely the German word for “dumb”), or the English word “dork”?

  4. #4 Dave S.
    December 24, 2004

    This is an interesting post, but the lead sentence “And no, I’m not talking about Tim Conway doing a video about evolution and intelligent design” is a bit obscure to me. “Dorf” (as in “Michael Dorf”) is the German word for “village” (or “town”). Are you confusing it with “Doof” (which is loosely the German word for “dumb”), or the English word “dork”?

    raj,

    Tim Conway was a regular on The Carol Burnette Show, a variety show, in the 70’s. One of his characters, developed later, was ‘Dorf’, where he dressed in foppish clothes and kneeled on a pair of shoes to appear very short. ‘Dorf’ made a number of sports themed comedy (and I use that word loosely) videos in the 80’s and 90’s; Dorf Goes Fishing, Dorf on Golf, Dorf on the Diamond, etc..

    He also appears as the voice of Barnacle Boy in Spongebob Squarepants.

  5. #5 raj
    December 24, 2004

    Dave, thanks. I’m familiar with Tim Conway and the Carol Bernette Show, but was unaware that he played a character named Dorf.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    December 24, 2004

    Ah, Dave beat me to the answer. You know, I read somewhere that Conway has made an absolutely staggering amount of money on the Dorf videos, like a hundred million dollars or something. I’ve never seen one, just the commercials, but they look horrible. But yes, that is what my reference was to. Dennis Miller, call your office.

  7. #7 davescot
    December 27, 2004

    ID is going to pass constitutional muster. One might reasonably attempt to label it pseudo-science but intelligent agents are not, in and of themselves, religious. A presumably intelligent agent created this blog but it probably wasn’t the God of Abraham.

    Of course I could be wrong.

    Would the real creator of this blog please stand up? ;-)

    All humor aside, out of curiousity I googled and found lots of teachers talking about SETI on public K-12 school websites. Will the ACLU be challenging these on the grounds that “intelligent” is thinly disguised code for “God” and doesn’t belong in public schools? Methinks not.

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    December 27, 2004

    ID is going to pass constitutional muster. One might reasonably attempt to label it pseudo-science but intelligent agents are not, in and of themselves, religious. A presumably intelligent agent created this blog but it probably wasn’t the God of Abraham.

    LOL. Except that those who advocate ID as an anti-evolution position admit, privately of course, that they aren’t really talking about generic “intelligent agents”, but about their God. They even admit that this choice of terminology is intended to hide their real beliefs for the specific purpose of avoiding constitutional problems. And they admit that their entire goal is really to “put God back at the center of our culture”, and so forth. The disguise isn’t terribly thin at all. And the SETI analogy is still bad.

  9. #9 DaveScot
    December 28, 2004

    Ed,

    You’re lumping all the ID advocates into one bible thumping camp. That is neither fair nor honest. I’m an agnostic yet I’m an ID advocate. I’ve no hidden agenda. I believe the bible is a human invention. I’m affiliated with absolutely no organized religions. I like to think that life has a purpose but I don’t know that it does or what that purpose is. Just to play it safe I try to be kind to all living things lest I discover the hard way that Hindu/Buddhists are right and I’ll be subject to karmic retributions in the future.

    Since I represent living proof that not all ID proponents are religiously motivated the court will (eventually I believe) have no choice but to cast aside hidden agendas and make a determination of whether or not talking about the possibility of extra-human intelligence in a public school science class is or is not a violation of the first amendment. I think it clearly is not but judges, lawyers, and politicians are not the most rational people that crawled out of the primordial mud so I won’t be terribly surprised at a contrary ruling. We shall see.

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    December 28, 2004

    Since I represent living proof that not all ID proponents are religiously motivated the court will (eventually I believe) have no choice but to cast aside hidden agendas and make a determination of whether or not talking about the possibility of extra-human intelligence in a public school science class is or is not a violation of the first amendment. I think it clearly is not but judges, lawyers, and politicians are not the most rational people that crawled out of the primordial mud so I won’t be terribly surprised at a contrary ruling.

    Legally, your stated motivation doesn’t matter. The motivation of the school board in passing the policy matters. That’s the whole point of the purpose prong of the Lemon test. If the law does not have a clear secular intent, it violates the Establishment clause. And given the numerous statements coming from the board, their intent was obviously to advance their religious views. One actually said that passing the policy was “standing up for Jesus”. More importantly, though, is the fact that the school board, after passing the policy mandating that ID be taught, can’t come up with anything to actually teach. They’ve discovered what the rest of us already knew – there simply is no “ID theory” to teach, there is only the attempt to poke holes in evolution so they can then say “Aha, god did it”.

  11. #11 DaveScot
    December 29, 2004

    May I then assume that if a school board states they’re ordering the inclusion of criticisms to neo-Darwinist dogma purely to give students a broader understanding of the subject you will have no objections on legal grounds?

  12. #12 Dan
    December 29, 2004

    May I then assume that if a school board states they’re ordering the inclusion of criticisms to neo-Darwinist dogma purely to give students a broader understanding of the subject you will have no objections on legal grounds?

    You can — and clearly do — assume whatever you wish. But you’d be wrong. Any such “order” would betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry. Science welcomes scientific criticism. It is the very nature of how science makes progress. An “order” like the one you propose would thus be motivated by: (i) ignorance of science; or (ii) a desire to advance a non-scientific agenda. Ignorance, in itself, is not illegal, but in the context of the evolution versus ID debate, it also isn’t likely. Such a stated secular purpose would be (and has been, by the 5th Circuit in Freiler), recognized for what it is: not legitimate.

  13. #13 DaveScot
    December 31, 2004

    Who gets to decide what criticism is “scientific” and what isn’t?

  14. #14 DaveScot
    December 31, 2004

    It took a LOT of good science to reveal that the combination of DNA and ribozomes resemble nothing so much as a computer controlled milling machine.

    It doesn’t take any science at all to show that most of the machines we know of, with the exception of the biological machinery of life, came about through intelligent design.

    There’s nothing that science needs to prove about the possibility that machines can come about through intelligent design. The challenge for science is to show a plausible mechanism where computer controlled milling aren’t all necessarily the result of intelligent design.

  15. #15 Dan
    December 31, 2004

    Who gets to decide what criticism is “scientific” and what isn’t?

    A clever, though altogether predictable, rhetorical question. Within the context of this discussion, the answer is: a judge, based upon the evidence, most likely presented on cross-motions for summary judgment.

    Now don’t go trying to move the goalpost, DaveScot.

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