Pharyngula

John Rennie deconstructs an IDist’s own definition of Intelligent Design. Here’s that definition:

ID is the claim that there exist patterns in nature that are best explained by intelligent agency. ID doesn’t claim to be a default explanation. It is claimed to be a legitimate hypothesis, supported by a large body of evidence, that deserves consideration without being rejected on principle because of a preconceived metaphysical bias.

Sentence by sentence, that definition is untenable. Read Rennie for the big picture, but I just want to focus on that last clause: the “preconceived metaphysical bias.” That’s a common creationist code phrase that you’ll hear a lot in this debate, and it can be translated as “scientists reject supernatural explanations.” That IDists claim to have a “best” explanation or that they actually have evidence in support of their beliefs becomes completely irrelevant when they cap their definition with the idea that you shouldn’t need rational, logical, tested explanations or any kind of empirical, natural evidence—the first part of the definition is a tacit admission of the need to meet the standards of our “metaphysical bias,” science, and that last bit is a rejection of science!

I think they need to cultivate a little more honesty and consistency, and lay out in detail what their metaphysical bias might be. Mine is that the processes of the natural world are sufficient to explain physical reality, and that what we require to understand the natural world are natural explanations. I’d like to see a summary of their biases and a list of the supernatural evidence that IDists want to use to support their contentions.

Comments

  1. #1 PaulC
    July 31, 2006

    The more I try to figure out ID, the more I think my head is going to explode.

    Let me start with a bold claim: There exist artificial “patterns” around us that correlate with human presence: buildings, electric transmission lines, automobiles, fields planted with the same crop in regular rows, etc. My intuition tells me that these patterns “are best explained by intelligent agency.”

    However, when I try to pin down the source of that agency, all I can find is the human brain, which by every measure appears to be composed of ordinary matter functioning in compliance with natural laws as we understand them. I would reject any explanation of the brain that has a “preconceived metaphysical bias.” If you think there is anything going on in there that cannot be reduced to natural laws, then give me at least one violation; surely at least one thing would have to be measurable. Otherwise, the best working assumption is that the functioning of the human brain is a consequence of natural laws.

    Now, let’s consider evolution. First off, evolution is not “randomness.” It is driven by random events, but so is the brain. An electrical signal cannot travel except as an overall bias of a stochastic process. For that matter, your indoor plumbing is a stochastic process. Turn on the faucet and water comes out, but viewed at a microscopic level, the molecules are jostling every way you can imagine.

    Biologists have some very detailed models of evolutionary processes, but let’s stick to a simple point. They (and laypersons such as myself) believe that evolution is responsible for all life on earth. Life is indeed composed of interdependent functional “patterns.” It is reasonable to infer from this fact that whatever process resulted in these patterns is computationally powerful and capable of producing very surprising and organized results.

    So, nobody (outside the ID/creationist community) thinks that evolution is like shuffling cards or pulling papers out of a hat. The evidence indicates otherwise. We believe it is a much more remarkable process than that, but like the human brain, there is also no reason to assume it operates outside the bounds of natural law. Depending on your definition of intelligence, you might call such a process intelligent (it’s a clearly lot smarter than a “smart bomb” or “smart card”). Granted, it does not look like a process capable of forming a self-description, but in terms of creative power, it still exceeds the power of human invention in many areas; no human has yet built a self-replicating machine, let alongeone as small and elegant as the cell.

    Hence, I conclude that all the remarkable patterns of life on earth are the result of an intelligent agency. That agency is evolution.

  2. #2 Chris Smyr
    July 31, 2006

    “The Hand of God need not leave Fingerprints, you silly scientists.”

    It’s not the logic of their words that throws you, it’s the spasmodic flinching that immediately follows after hearing it. Call it a defense mechanism for IDists, which they use to safely creep away from dangerous threats of empiricism and the natural world.

  3. #3 quork
    July 31, 2006

    It is claimed to be a legitimate hypothesis, supported by a large body of evidence…

    Uh-huh, And if I claim to have a zillion dollars in the bank, does that make me rich? Claiming to be supported by a large body of evidence does not mean you are supported by a large body of evidence, it only means you have made a claim. In this case it is a claim that cannot be backed up.

  4. #4 Molly, NYC
    July 31, 2006

    IDers like to pretend that real scientists reject ID because the scientists are in cahoots about what evidence they accept, they’re specifically anti-religion, or some other version of “Oh, they’re so mean to us!”

    A point they refuse to see (as it interferes with their “poor little us” position) is how supportive–and absolutely delighted–most scientists would be if IDers could come up with some convincing evidence for their beliefs.

  5. #5 QrazyQat
    July 31, 2006

    If IDers came up with evidence for their beliefs — real, decent, scientific evidence — pretty much all of science would jump in and investigate what would be one of — if not the — most potentially important findings in the history of science. If there were even hints that there might be something to ID there would be loads of research on the field being done by scientists. Look at the number of papers generated by cold fusion research, a field which has more hope than concrete results going for it so far.

  6. #6 Hal
    July 31, 2006

    Occam’s razor shaves off the metaphysical stuff at a very early stage in the making of a theory. Otherwise you would have theories containing assertions, with avenues of enquiry and verification, answering questions like How many designers? What is the mechanism of design? Who or what designed the designers? What conveys design to physical reality? etc. etc. It is hard not to notice that none of this begins to appear in ID speculations. Indeed, introduce such questions into an ID forum and you will be met with resounding silence or resounding, conflicting, babble. ID begins and ends with a plea to stop thinking.

  7. #7 Dan
    July 31, 2006

    My biggest problem with creationism (and the creationism in a cheap tuxedo that is ID) is that — independent of the utter lack of empirical evidence or intellectual apparatus, the pleas to stop thinking, the shameless dishonesty, the blissful ignorance, and the cynical politicking — the underlying claim itself is entirely devoid of content.

    “Only a supernatural being could have designed the universe. The fact that God designed the universe is proof of this.”

    It’s pure, unadulterated question-begging, in the most formal sense.

  8. #8 Scott Hatfield
    July 31, 2006

    PZ: I get this a lot, and I take the aggressive position that in science there is no metaphysical bias per se, as that would mean that this or that metaphysical view would be privileged. The opposite is the case: all metaphysical views are treated the same, which is to say that scientists may believe anything they want as a private matter but they may not invoke these views or untestable claims derived from them and remain scientists.

    Yet, IDevotees argue that the exclusion of metaphysics (and other things) is essentially a metaphysical position! This is misleading, since one can exclude the former without adopting the latter. Further, the methodological “bias” is not directed merely at metaphysics or religion: it is directed at all manner of untestable claims, including those with an alleged cause which is both natural but non-falsifiable. This last observation also gives the lie to the more general, Johnson-inspired claim that science is guilty of promoting an uncritical naturalism.

    At the root of the problem is the commitment the IDevotee has to a belief system. This leads him or her to perceive anything that makes claims, including science, as a rival to their beliefs. But science is not a belief system; it is a value system. We value natural explanations, which derive their explanatory and predictive power from the fact that they can be held provisionally and falsifiably. There is no commitment to the idea that only falsifiable or provisionally-held claims are real; that would constitute a belief. It is just that science chooses to value those sorts of explanations!

    As for those who complain that this methodological naturalism (mN) impinges upon their liberty to investigate every possible cause, I like the observation of a fellow teacher, John Bannister Marx: “that sense of fairness to which they appeal does not exist in science.”

    Peace…Scott

  9. #9 DragonScholar
    July 31, 2006

    Metaphysical bias?

    Translation: They want sciene to involve throwing up our hands and saying “I dunno” as a legitimate end to inquiry (and end OF inquiry, really)

    Frankly, I think science well could and can acknowledge gaps in knowledge and understanding, but our record of filling those suckers in is pretty good.

  10. #10 Bronze Dog
    July 31, 2006

    I beat that dead horse a while ago.

    “The Hand of God need not leave Fingerprints, you silly scientists.”

    The same is true of the ninja in your house. Trust me.

  11. #11 PaulC
    July 31, 2006

    Bronze Dog: The ninja in the house argument makes more sense than ID. To believe in ID, you have to start with a “designer” who went to heroic effort to conceal every trace of his activity (like a ninja) but then you have to add that his ninja-like stealth is still no match for the “Isaac Newton of Information Theory” who can infer his existence through mathematics alone. Unless the designer is dumber than Dembski, don’t you think he would have removed the traces of indirect evidence as well?

  12. #12 Scott Hatfield
    July 31, 2006

    PaulC wrote: “I conclude that all the remarkable patterns of life on earth are the result of an intelligent agency. That agency is evolution.”

    Paul, I agree with what you appear to be getting at, but I’m cautious about the conclusion as phrased above. Please correct me if I misunderstand you, but what you appear to be getting at is that stochastic processes (like fractals) generate complex patterns, and that evolution (similarly a stochastic process) generates patterns that carry information.

    I certainly don’t disagree with that. I like to tell ID types who adopt information theory arguments against natural selection that tree rings carry information about the climatic conditions when they were formed, but the source of that information is definitely not the genome alone. Similarly, the stochastic process called evolution is sufficient to generate the complexity that they attribute to ID.

    Here’s my caveat, though: if we describe ‘evolution’ as such as the agency which generates information or intelligence, we are in grave danger of ‘supernaturalizing’ evolution itself. This is the evolution of the capital ‘E’, of metaphorical language that speaks of evolution as if it was itself an intelligent agent. It is a small step from ‘agency’, which in your usage I take as a process, to ‘agent’, which becomes something like a person—or deity.

    So I’d watch out for that. Also, from the perspective of a high school teacher, I find that students have a hard time discriminating concepts like ‘evolution’, ‘natural selection’, ‘speciation’ and ‘origins of life.’ Granted that people have used the word evolution in many ways, in my pedagogy I’ve found it helpful to define it simply as genetic change in a population, and to discourage any other usage as muddying the waters.

    Scott

  13. #13 Pete
    July 31, 2006

    That’s not even the worst aspect of ID. Those qualifications on what you need to believe about the designer (concealing its activity, yet being seen by Dembski) are nothing compared to the big whammy that a complicated designer also calls for an explanation. At this point IDists typically do not give an explanation, and start mumbling about supernatural things.

  14. #14 PaulC
    July 31, 2006

    Scott Hatfield: I wouldn’t want my final sentence taken out of context. It is half tongue in cheek, but only half because it holds depending on what you mean by “intelligence.”

    Here’s my caveat, though: if we describe ‘evolution’ as such as the agency which generates information or intelligence, we are in grave danger of ‘supernaturalizing’ evolution itself.

    If we ascribe intelligence and agency to the human brain, are we “supernaturalizing it”? That’s really my whole point. The human brain has everything we normally associate with intelligence, and there is no reason to believe that it is supernatural. Evolution produces remarkable outcomes that we might be tempted to associate with intelligence, though apparently has nothing like conscious agency. If the human brain is not supernatural, then why would such a characterization put us in any danger of supernaturalizing evolution?

    Note that the IDers almost certainly do want to supernaturalize human intelligence, which is why I’m certain that AI and cognitive science are way up on their s—list, but they’re just not forthcoming enough to admit it outright.

  15. #15 Owlmirror
    July 31, 2006

    Note that the IDers almost certainly do want to supernaturalize human intelligence, which is why I’m certain that AI and cognitive science are way up on their s—list, but they’re just not forthcoming enough to admit it outright.

    Actually, they are. Citing from the response to the Wedge Document:

    We also have supported research that challenges theories (such as behaviorism, strong AI (artificial intelligence) and other physicalist conceptions of mind) that have portrayed humans as completely determined animals or machines.

    I wonder what they’ll do when neurology advances far enough to show that “physicalist conceptions of mind” are all that’s necessary? We’re practically there now, but the research hasn’t percolated out into broad public awareness, I think.

    See also Soul Made Flesh, by Carl Zimmer

  16. #16 PaulC
    July 31, 2006

    I’m starting to think that the analogy I’ve been trying to make is potentially very strong. Consider these two statements, which are hardly controversial among scientists:

    (a) The phenomena that we associate with human intelligence are the product of an organ, the human brain, composed of ordinary matter obeying natural laws.
    (b) The phenomena that we associate with life on earth are the product of a process, evolution, that occurs in large populations of living things composed of ordinary matter obeying natural laws.

    Note that even someone like Penrose who doubts the possibility of AI could probably agree with (a) but would insist that the relevant natural laws are not Turing-computable. That is, (a) is not the “strong AI” hypothesis; there could be something the brain does that a computer does not do, but it just wouldn’t be supernatural.

    I cannot think of any sense in which (b) is a bolder claim than (a). Actually, I would say that (a) and (b) have very similar scientific status:

    1) There is a proponderance of undisputed evidence that backs them, and no undisputed evidence that contradicts them.
    2) There are computational models that lend plausibility to both statements, though neither that can fully replicate the results of the real processes.
    3) We do not understand either the brain or evolution completely; both are the subject of continued research.
    4) The individual components look much simpler than the overall outcome: one firing synapse gives little intuition about how a spoken sentence is formed; a single generation of natural selection by inself gives little intuition of how a new organ comes into being.
    5) Both claims were preceded historically by “ghost in the machine” assumptions. People believed the brain housed a soul and that some sentient creator was responsible for life on earth.

    I would add a conjecture that ID/creationists also lump both of these claims together, and prefer “ghost in the machine” explanations. This is significant to me, because I see that entire line of “reasoning” as not only wrong, but potentially damaging to progress in some of the most exciting areas being opened up in science. It is not just a rejection of evolution, but a failure to appreciate any emergent progress and an insistent on the ignorant assumption that complex things never appear from simple things but can only be attributed to some kind of unspecified spookery.

  17. #17 PaulC
    July 31, 2006

    Sorry, got distracted when proofreading:

    “by inself” should be “by itself”

    The last sentence should say: “[ID/creationism] is not just a rejection of evolution, but a failure to appreciate any emergent process and an insistence on the ignorant assumption that complex things never appear from simple things but can only be attributed to some kind of unspecified spookery.”

  18. #18 Scott Hatfield
    August 1, 2006

    Actually, Paul, I think as you’ve developed the idea here you’ve made my point for me. I agree that IDevotees and other creationists lump both of those claims together; it’s precisely to forestall that linkage that I try to avoid ascribing anything like intelligence to evolution proper.

    Even though there is a sense that is true, it’s not helpful. From there it’s a small step to that lazy metaphorical language where Evolution wants this or that, and it looks as if we’re talking about a succedaneum for deity. We aren’t, of course, but if you were in my high school classroom you would appreciate why I want to go out of my way to avoid that usage. I wouldn’t try it in an introductory bio college course, either. Your argument as phrased is too clever, and requires more understanding that the students are likely to possess, and in the process might be misunderstood in a way that it isn’t helpful. Just my opinion, for what it’s worth.

    I am very glad, though, that I had the chance to see you develop the analogy. Or is it an analogy? Perhaps, at the deepest level, it shows the beginning of a pattern, the sort of pattern we would expect if brains are the product of evolution. With that in mind, I’m wondering what you think about Conway-Morris’s claim that convergence toward something like the human mind is probable?

    Thanks again…Scott

  19. #19 Alex Clarke
    August 1, 2006

    Paul, I very much like your line of thought, especially that last paragraph, which has helped me to a conclusion that I have been working towards for a few weeks now. It seems to me that one of the biggest problems is that IDevotees have no appreciation for the idea of emergence. Indeed most of them ignore it altogether.
    In a way this is not surprising, as it is very difficult to grasp emergence. It is the slipperyest of concepts in science, and is poorly understood by the general public.
    In contempory scientific understanding, chemistry is an emergent property of physics, and biology is an emergent property of chemistry (to simplify things somewhat).
    Methodological naturalism has no need for supernatural explanations, it is simply accepted that a bunch of agents on one level can produce novel results on the level above. But to many people this just seems like magic, or the hand of God.
    Perhaps by increasing awareness of emegence as a perfectly rational, natural phenomenon, people will be less inclined to invoke God to explain the beauty and harmony of complex stuff like life? Or maybe this is too much to hope for?

  20. #20 PaulC
    August 1, 2006

    Scott: You might be right about what to teach in high school. I think it would depend on the individual student.

    But I still wonder if you think that ascribing intelligence to the human brain puts us in danger of “supernaturalizing it”? I can think of two reasonable answers. One is that most people already supernaturalize the brain even if they shouldn’t, so it is bad to use it as a basis for comparison. The other is that by “supernaturalizing” evolution, you just meant ascribing intent to it even if that intent would still be a consequence of natural laws. I think both are reasonable concerns, but I’m curious if I’m following you.

    I don’t think that the “pattern” of the brain in any way reflects the “pattern” of evolution that produced it. Both appear to me to be very powerful distributed computational processes that produce highly organized results. But I think the similarity ends there, and even if there is more, that would be coincidental.

    I also don’t know Conway-Morris’s view. I would not use the phrase “convergence towards” because it sounds suspiciously like an arrow of progress. Clearly, many successful living things are not very intelligent (ants, for instance). I would personally expect the biomass of unintelligent organisms to outweigh intelligent ones by many orders of magnitude no matter how long an ecosystem evolves. On the other hand, I think that some sentient living thing is a likely outcome of a robust ecosystem because some increased intelligence will often provide advantages that outweigh the resources need to sustain it. So my hunch would be, for instance, that if we were to start finding other planets capable of supporting life, some reasonable fraction (1/2, 1/10, 1/1000 are all reasonable to me but 10^(-100) is not) would have intelligent life. However, I’m not willing to call that more than a hunch until we begin to collect at least some positive evidence.

  21. #21 Scott Hatfield
    August 1, 2006

    Paul:

    You’re following me just fine. I was actually more concerned about the second than the first. If people conflate supernaturalism regarding the brain with that regarding evolution, I can ignore it by focusing only on the single claim. It’s the second item that concerns me, because there’s no way to escape it. Once you start using metaphorical language for evolution, things get dicey. And popularizations of science are filled with this sort of thing, always have been, back to Julian Huxley and G.G. Simpson.

    I’m in the process of digesting Conway-Morris’s latest book, “Life’s Solution”. It’s massively footnoted and his prose style is not all that user-friendly, but there are some nuggets in there. He is essentially attempting to use the phenomena of convergence to argue for a progressive interpretation of evolution. Reviewers have tended not to focus on the merits of his actual argument and instead upon his well-known feud with S.J. Gould, inasmuch as the thesis Conway-Morris is promoting is directly opposed to the contingent historical interpretation associated with Gould. I realize that the notion of ‘progress’ is anathema to many biologists for exactly that reason. I’m not endorsing the book’s conclusion, but I definitely think it’s worth a read by anyone interested in evo-devo.

    Thanks for your feedback…Scott

  22. #22 Keith Douglas
    August 1, 2006

    Owlmirror: IMO that’s been true for 50 years or so. Now it is to the point that I think materialism is so firmly established that we can conclude its necessity for science. (See, e.g. Bunge’s Treatise, vol. 3 and my own website.)

    (And yes, it is important to separate materialism from the possibility of AI. The brain might not be computational in the relevant respect, after all, and yet one still defends a materialism. Penrose, and more soberly, Bunge, have defended versions of this hypothesis. Also, it is important to distinguish physicalism from materialism. The former suggests a denial of emergence.)

  23. #23 Keith Douglas
    August 1, 2006

    Owlmirror: IMO that’s been true for 50 years or so. Now it is to the point that I think materialism is so firmly established that we can conclude its necessity for science. (See, e.g. Bunge’s Treatise, vol. 3 and my own website.)

    And yes, it is important to separate materialism from the possibility of AI. The brain might not be computational in the relevant respect, after all, and yet one still defends a materialism. Penrose, and more soberly, Bunge, have defended versions of this hypothesis. Also, it is important to distinguish physicalism from materialism. The former suggests a denial of emergence. Some authors use the terms interchangably, but there are some who deny emergence above the physical (as opposed to the chemical, biological, psychological, social, etc.) but are still materialists. Their view needs a label, so I adopt “physicalism” for it.

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