Intelligent Design


{I’ve added an update below.}

As a follow up to my previous post on this topic, I want to point out that the bloggingheads.tv discussion between Michael Behe and John McWhorter is now back up at bloggingheads’ web site. But as a result of disagreements over what sorts of interviews bloggingheads should air, cosmologist Sean Carroll and science journalist Carl Zimmer have decided not to participate in bloggingheads any more. This despite the fact that the editor in chief of bloggingheads, Robert Wright, said:

1) Both of the diavlogs in question had been arranged without my knowledge.
2) I would certainly not have approved both of them, and probably not either of them, had I known about them.
3) The Behe diavlog, in particular, was blatantly at odds with guidelines I’d laid down to my staff more than a year ago in discussing the prospect of Behe appearing. Namely: Behe should only appear in conversation with someone who is truly expert in the relevant biological areas, and since most such matchups would yield a conversation unintelligible to a lay audience, it was hard to imagine a Behe pairing that would make sense.
4) Since these two diavlogs were arranged, I have told the staffers who arranged them that in the future they should make sure to clear diavlogs of this sort with me before arranging them.

What was Carl Zimmer’s reason for not continuing to take part in bloggingheads? It seems to boil down this this:

My standard for taking part in any forum about science is pretty simple. All the participants must rely on peer-reviewed science that has direct bearing on the subject at hand, not specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty. I believe standards like this one are crucial if we are to have productive discussions about the state of science and its effects on our lives.
This is not Blogginghead’s standard, at least as I understand it now. And so here we must part ways.

I take it Zimmer is implying that Behe’s arguments are specious, and sound fancy, but are actually scientifically empty. I guess I disagree — while I’m no expert on biology, I find Behe’s arguments interesting and worth discussing, even though I ultimately think he’s wrong. There’s are some wrong ideas that aren’t worth discussing (like the claim that the moon is made of green cheese), but I think Behe’s arguments are on the other side of the line. (And even with the moon claim, it is interesting to think about what evidence we have for the claim that the moon isn’t made of green cheese, and what the moon would look like if it were.)

I’m obviously not the only educated person who thinks that Behe’s arguments are worth discussing (even though I think they’re wrong). So the question becomes: how should those who think that they aren’t worth discussing behave? Should they intellectually distance themseves from those who think that they are worth discussing? Or should they adopt more of a live-and-let-live attitude, and recognize that it’s worthwhile for those smart people who think that the ideas are worth discussing to be able to discuss them?

The latter strikes me as the right answer. Given that some smart educated people think that they are worth discussing, those who disagree should nevertheless be happy that the ideas are being discussed. Science is full of episodes where a certain idea looked silly to most all the scientists, but that idea ended up being right (or at least, widely accepted). We have to be careful about restricting discussion to what’s based on peer-reviewed science. The revolutionary ideas come first, and peer-review comes later. In my opinion, a forum like bloggingheads should be a place where the revolutionary ideas can be discussed. This means that wrong ideas will end up being discussed too, but that’s a necessary consequence of open-minded intellectual inquiry. And isn’t that the best kind of inquiry?

UPDATE: For a thought-out, but wrong, reply to this post of mine, see what Joshua Rosenau has to say.

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An interesting interview with Michael Behe was recently posted on bloggingheads.tv, by atheist John McWhorter, who expressed some sympathies with Behe’s positions. A summary of the interview is available in comment 9 here, and the interview can be watched here. If bloggingheads.tv had their way though, we wouldn’t be able to watch the interview, because it was pulled a few hours after it was posted. One obviously wonders what sort of pressure was put on bloggingheads.tv and/or McWhorter. Here is the bloggingheads.tv explanation of why the video was pulled:

John McWhorter feels, with regret, that this interview represents neither himself, Professor Behe, nor Bloggingheads usefully, takes full responsibility for same, and has asked that it be taken down from the site. He apologizes to all who found its airing objectionable.

Behe’s take on all this is here.

Sadly, this seems to be another example of open intellectual debate and discussion being suppressed because of the worry that such open debate and discussion could end up supporting intelligent design. As I argue in my book, it’s a mistake for intelligent design opponents to behave this way. What they should do instead is engage in the debate openly and honestly. Engaging in suppression tactics is just going to make it look like they have something to hide, and that they’re trying to win the battle for public opinion in ways that don’t depend on the merits of their arguments.

Robert Park’s new book Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science (Princeton University Press, 2008) is unfortunately disappointing. I read Park’s book Voodoo Science years ago, and I remember liking it, but this new one does way too much jumping from topic to topic, which makes the whole discussion rather superficial. Some of the topics are admittedly interesting. But when it comes to important controversial issues, Park just asserts his views; there’s almost nothing by way of argument.

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{I’ve added two updates to the end of this post.}

William Hasker has a new paper out in Philosophy Compass on intelligent design. He’s mostly critical, but I think that some of his criticisms are unfair.

He claims that most intelligent design proponents believe in Special Creation — that the Designer has created many forms of life from time to time, and that these forms of live undergo only micro-evolution. He doesn’t say what his evidence is for attributing this view to most intelligent design proponents; he just writes:

Pretty clearly, the majority view among prominent ID supporters is progressive creationism. Michael Behe, the most highly regarded scientist associated with the movement, is an intelligent design evolutionist, but on this point he is somewhat isolated; it is my understanding that he is the only one of the Senior Fellows of the Discovery Institute who affirms universal common ancestry.

I don’t have definitive evidence the other way, but I was surprised to hear him say that Behe’s the only one who doesn’t endorse Special Creation. (If anyone does have definitive evidence one way or the other, please email me.)

Anyway, if someone like Hasker is going to criticize intelligent design, I think that, to be charitable, one should focus on the most plausible formulation of intelligent design, and that’s Behe’s position. (Behe, as I understand it, says that he has no problem with common descent, but he doesn’t say that he definitely believes in common descent; I take it his position is that he just doesn’t know.)

So what does Hasker have to say about Behe’s position? Hasker writes:

Accepting [Behe’s position]   … would require a major change of viewpoint on the part of most ID supporters; in particular, it would require them to swallow what many find to be the indigestible fact of human evolution. There is also a particular problem [Behe’s position]. He proposes that the origin of life and many other crucial developments in the history of life are the result, not of intervention by a designer, but of ‘fine tuning’ that carefully adjusted the initial conditions of the universe with a view to producing just those results. He writes,

“Those who worry about ‘interference’ should relax. The purposeful design of life to any degree is easily compatible with the idea that, after its initiation, the universe unfolded exclusively by the intended playing out of the natural laws.” (Behe, Edge of Evolution 232)

One difficulty with this proposal is that it seems very doubtful that information present in the initial configuration of the universe would be conserved sufficiently to guarantee the occurrence of highly specific events billions of years later. (This difficulty is especially acute if, as is generally believed, the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is a real feature of nature.)

Hasker then moves on to a different criticism of Behe.

But the above quoted criticism strikes me as quite unfair — or at least, it needs a lot more defense. Let’s assume with Hasker that the universe hasn’t been in existence forever, and hence there is an initial configuration. If the laws of nature are deterministic, and there’s no outside intervention, then there’s a unique future the the universe compatible with the laws of nature and the initial conditions. If the laws are deterministic, then there’s just no basis for saying that it’s doubtful that the information present in the initial configuration would be conserved.

But what if the laws of nature are indeterministic? Note that that doesn’t have to be the case, even given quantum mechanics — there are deterministic versions of quantum mechanics, such as Bohm’s theory. But what if the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is a real feature of nature?

Well, it would be surprising if quantum mechanics turned out to be true, given that it conflicts with general relativity, and that physicists are working on coming up with theories (such as string theory) that will supplant both quantum mechanics and general relativity. Given that we don’t have such fully-worked-out theories yet, we’d be hard-pressed to say how exactly indeterminism would work in such a theory. So let’s just assume, contrary to fact, that the theory of quantum mechanics is true. Could God set up the initial conditions of the universe such that God can guarantee that some outcome in the future will obtain (without intervention)?

I think this is an interesting question, and I haven’t seen it addressed in the philosophy of quantum mechanics literature. My tentative answer is “yes, God could do that — at least, God could make it arbitrarily highly probable that a future outcome will obtain, as long as the desired future outcome is an outcome that he wants to take place in some arbitrary region of spacetime in the universe, not the universe as a whole”. If God desires a particular future for the universe as a whole, he might not get that, given quantum indeterminism and God’s choice not to intervene — the chancy events could go a different way than how God wants them to. But if God just wants something to happen in an arbitrary region of the universe — for example, if he just desires for there to be a planet with intelligent life, without caring much where in spacetime that planet occurs — then God can achieve that, even given quantum indeterminism. The way God can achieve that is by having a large number of trials (perhaps an infinite number). As long as the probability for God’s desired result is non-zero, then with a large enough number of trials the result is likely to happen.

Because Hasker seemingly ignores this sort of response to his argument, I maintain that Hasker’s criticism is unfair — or at least, it needs a lot more defense.

An aside: Al Plantinga has a paper coming out on the possibility of God intervening in the universe without violating the indeterministic laws of quantum mechanics. I looked for the paper to link to, but I don’t think it’s available yet. Anyways, I get quoted in that paper, as do other philosophers of physics — it turns out that there’s a debate amongst philosophers of physics on some of these technical issues. This provides a bit more evidence that Hasker is moving way too quickly here.

See more for an update:

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As an atheist who’s giving a partial defense of intelligent design, I’ve sometimes been accused of being intellectually dishonest. I want to assure you that I’m not — in academic contexts, at least, I try very hard to ensure that everything that I say I believe. Steve Fuller is another apparent non-theist who has tried to defend intelligent design (most notably when he testified on behalf of the school board at the Dover trial). Fuller, unlike me, is intellectually insincere. 

Given that I try to avoid the name-calling and emotional rhetoric that is disturbingly common in the intelligent design debates, how do I justify calling Steve Fuller insincere? Well, he admits it himself, in this article. For example, he writes:

I take seriously the idea that holding beliefs, understood as informed mental dispositions, is only one among several ways at our disposal to access, however fallibly, the truth. Another, occasionally more effective, way is to defend a position one does not believe. Needless to say, you will find it hard to accept my argument, if you regard a Romantic virtue like sincerity as part of the MO [modus operandi] of a truth-seeker.

And in case that’s not clear enough for you, he also writes:

for purposes of truth-seeking, what really matters is that we are willing to defend, or ideally justify, whatever we say – regardless of whether we believe it.

And, in case Fuller hasn’t made it completely clear, there’s this:

So, then, how do I determine what to say? Here is a handy step-by-step procedure:

  1. What has been already said – especially said well and recently?  Whatever you do, don’t say those things.
  2. What could you say of significance that hasn’t been said?
  3. Of those things, which ones could you get away with saying?
  4. Of those things, which ones are you willing to develop further in the face of various forms of resistance?
  5. Of those things, which ones come with a pretext likely to promote maximum exposure, participation and impact?
  6. That’s what you say – and Godspeed!

To be honest, I find this this sort of intellectual insincerity to be appalling. (I’m not sure how much more I can say without getting into what might be perceived as emotional rhetoric.)

Fuller has recently been blogging at Uncommon Descent, the main blog for intelligent design proponents. I wonder if they’re really aware of who they’re bringing on board?

Is it problematic that biologists will reject ideas in biology because they “might open too broad an avenue to the supporters of intelligent design”? I think it is. The worry is that “sociological pressures can impose a form of self-censorship in Academia”, as Mike Gene argues in this fascinating post.

Gene starts out by talking about me, but the post gets really interesting once he starts talking about Eric Bapteste’s critical review of Eugene Koonin’s model for the origin of life by chance. Both Koonin’s piece and Bapteste’s review are available on Biology Direct. Here is an example of what Bapteste says:

Koonin bravely tries to tackle such a deep conceptual issue, using metaphysics where, according to him, science does not seem to work, but I am afraid his present (and arguable) solution, although fairly underlining one of the limits of traditional evolutionary thinking, could open a huge door to the tenants of intelligent design.

Bapteste goes on to call Koonin “very naive”, and says that Koonin should make his own views on intelligent design “clearer in a revised version of this manuscript”. 

Koonin, in his response to Bapteste, writes this:

The possibility that the ID crowd interprets this paper as support for their cause is one of Bapteste’s main concerns. Will they, actually? No doubt they will! However, the only way to prevent them from doing so is to stop publishing research on any hard problem in evolutionary biology and somehow declare these problems solved. 

Koonin, to his credit, stands up to Bapteste’s pressure not to open the door to supporters of intelligent design; what’s interesting is that Bapteste was putting that pressure on Koonin in the first place.

PS — I have written a paper that’s related to Koonin’s, called “Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”.

I discussed Tom Nagel’s interestingly nuanced piece on intelligent design previously here. In this post, I want to point out a key passage from the paper, the passage where Nagel suggests how intelligent design should be taught in public high school. He writes:

What would a biology course teach if it wanted to remain neutral on the question whether divine intervention in the process of life’s development was a possibility, while acknowledging that people disagree about whether it should be regarded as a possibility at all, or what probability should be assigned to it, and that there is at present no way to settle that disagreement scientifically? So far as I can see, the only way to make no assumptions of a religious nature would be to admit that the empirical evidence may suggest different conclusions depending on what religious belief one starts with, and that the evidence does not by itself settle which of those beliefs is correct, even though there are other religious beliefs, such as the literal truth of Genesis, that are easily refuted by the evidence. I do not see much hope that such an approach could be adopted, but it would combine intellectual responsibility with respect for the Establishment Clause.

In my forthcoming book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, I argue that it could be helpful for many students to have intelligent design discussed in biology classes. I don’t go as far as Nagel does in specifying how it should be taught, but Nagel’s line of thought is compatible with what I do say. Telling the students that the empirical evidence may suggest different conclusions depending on what religious beliefs one starts with seems to me like a perfectly reasonable approach to take. What I emphasize in my book, though, is that it’s important to also explain to the students why most all scientists reject intelligent design.

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