Sunday, February 22, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 9: Is ID Science or is it Heresy?

Well, it can’t be global warming can it now Dave?

Instituitionalised science is a vital component for an advanced and advancing culture. Today’s scientists, like the priesthoods of old, have high status as custodians of essential practices and knowledge that are often arcane to the general public. Given this status then, to hear establishment scientists accuse ID theorists of not practicing science has all the connotations of exclusion, dispossession and grievous sin once associated with the cry of “heresy!” Since ID theorist’s careers and reputations are being put on the line here, it is only fair that I give this matter some thought before I proceed. It hardly needs be said that the charge of ID not being science depends very much on just what science is. Is it possible to sharply distinguish between science and non-science? Does the science category have boundaries so clear cut that there is no ambiguity in deciding what is and what is not science?

As I have said before there is a very general epistemology that covers a wide domain of human epistemological activity and this epistemology is based on the human instinct which seeks to resolve the tension in the dialectic between experience and concept (see my side bar). This dialectic is epistemology at its most general and out of this dialectical ferment emerges, either for good or bad, our views about life. Within this very general epistemology science is a special case, a special case that is the formalization and institutionalization of the experience vs. concept dialectic. The big problem science faces, however, is that not all objects in this world have a comparably similar ontological complexity or accessibility. My usual illustration of this fact is to compare the complex social objects of history with the simple objects of say, the school physics laboratory like springs and pendulums. The disparities in the complexity and accessibility of these classes of object considerably impacts their epistemological tractability and in turn our ability to arrive at unequivocal conclusions.

Historians and sociologists propose and test hypotheses and theories, but historical and sociological objects are so complex and so suffused with adjustable variables that it is impossible to test historical theories with anything like the rigor and precision possible with simple objects like springs and pendulums. Historical and sociological objects have so many degrees of freedom and impinging variables that quite diverse historical explanations can simultaneously complete in the face of the same historical evidence. Moreover, historians who differ in their knowledge and experience of the humanities are themselves one of those impinging variables. As historians attempt to throw light on history they will naturally enough use their shared humanity with the people of the past in order to interpret that past. But historians themselves are complex beasts; their judgments grow out of an enormous background of life experience and study, a background that may be very difficult to articulate. Similar problems are faced when expert systems programmers interview an expert in order to download his knowledge into computer readable format. With expert knowledge the frame problem looms large; the experience set that impinges upon a problem’s solution is open ended. Consequently since two experts in the same subject are likely to have differing experience sets, it is quite possible for them to disagree on some of the more complex judgments and yet not be able to easily articulate why. History and sociology at the low end have resemblances to more elementary science, but on more complex issues where judgments by historians and sociologists bring to bear a wide knowledge of life and study and where the frame problem looms large, those judgments shade imperceptibly into opinion and sometimes sheer guesswork. At this point the firm conclusions of test-tube precipitating and spring extending science are left far behind. But note that there is no sharp a cutoff here; it is a fading of science’s ability to cope in the face of an increasingly complex and less accessible ontology.

Prehistoric archeology layers on another level of difficulty caused by the absence of written records. The artifacts of prehistory have no accompanying written voice. Structures like Stonehenge and Silbury Hill have enigmatic meanings and experts decisions about their purpose and methods of construction can but tap into the resource of the common humanity they share with the builders of these structures. But even so, it may very difficult to make unequivocal decisions about what in the final analysis amounts to trying to guess what was going on in the minds of our remote ancestors. An archeologist may be left with his imagination only. Although modern archeology makes use of hard science nowadays (e.g. geophysics and carbon dating), anyone who thinks the mistier realms of archeology can be reduced to an exact and rigorous science akin to physics and chemistry is living in cloud cuckoo land.

ID theorists often bring a comparison between their studies and archeology in as much as they consider biological structures to be silent artifacts like Stonehenge or Silbury hill, hinting at design and purpose. However, for the ID theorist there is yet another level of obscuration layered on top bringing with it yet more difficulties; for the ID theorist claims to be dealing with artifacts contrived by intelligence in the abstract, an intelligence that is unlikely to be human, thus removing a natural source of human connection. If ID theorists are right about the origins of biological structures then they have their work cut out trying to understand the history of living taxonomy; interpretation of purpose, meaning and method of construction is going to be difficult to piece together and prediction is going to even more difficult. For example, I have heard ID theorists predict that junk DNA does not exist: but how do they know that? An unknown intelligence might have an inscrutable purpose for junk DNA beyond our comprehension, or perhaps it is some form of “front loading”. Who knows? In fact ID theorist DaveScot, in the discussion thread of this post on Uncommon Descent, limits the terms of reference of ID and claims that ID theory is really only about design detection and hang all the rest:

Go ahead and ask who, how, when, where, and why living things were created. Just be aware that design detection provides no guidance in that regard. This exercise with the Google Ocean is an example of that. Design was detected but after that other means of investigation must be utilized to learn more about the design. ID doesn’t answer all questions but neither does it inhibit further investigation by other means. Why do critics have such a difficult time accepting this limitation? General relativity won’t lead to a cure for the common cold. Do you have a hard time accepting that too? Plate tectonics won’t give us guidance to build faster microprocessors. Is that a problem for plate tectonics? Design detection won’t tell us how the design was accomplished. Is that a problem for ID?

ID theorists are at their most prolific in their attacks on evolution and this is what they are best at. Exactly why is easy to comprehend. Essentially their case is built on the logic of what they call the “explanatory filter”. The explanatory filter states that what cannot be explained as a product of natural laws and/or randomness has only one other possible explanation – intelligence. Hence, if ID theorists can eliminate natural law and randomness from the inquiry then according to this logic there is only one possibility left; intelligent design. Thus, using the explanatory filter much effort is expended by ID theorists to show that evolution is impossible, therefore leaving only one other possibility: Intelligent Design. It is here that ID theory does in fact emerge into hard science, albeit a science of negation, an assertion of not what has happened but what has not happened. Using the explanatory filter this negative science can be morphed into a positive statement of what happened – namely that life is a special dispensation of intelligence in the abstract – although the details of why, when, where and how are necessarily sketchy. However, and this is important, ID theorist’s claims that standard “chance and necessity” evolution is impossible can be investigated empirically and logically. Moreover, the explanatory filter is also a concept that can be investigated. These things I hope to do in my future posts and in due time throw some light on these questions, at least to my own satisfaction. As we shall see a key concept in this area is the concept of Irreducible Complexity and this crucial concept arises again and again in ID Theory. In fact I think you will find that the whole of ID theory pivots on it.

So my verdict on the question of whether ID theory is science is “Yes and No”. Yes because claims about the impossibility of evolution can be empirically and logically tested. No, because if ID theorists try to go beyond this point, beyond the terms of reference hinted at by DaveScot, they soon find that they have made a rod for their own backs by moving into an area that science finds tricky. DaveScott plays safe and suggests that ID theory is about design detection and design detection is carried out using the explanatory filter; if you succeed in showing that bog-standard “chance and necessity” evolution can’t happen you have automatically detected design, and after that you can drop it. But if one wants to go any further one will face interpretation problems far worse than that faced by archeologists.

Standard evolutionary theory, whether right or wrong, has one obvious heuristic advantage over ID theory: it only presumes to make use of two tractable explanatory objects. These objects are found at the opposite ends of the order-disorder spectrum; respectively simple algorithmic laws and randomness. If ID theory is right and biological structures are the result of the manipulations of a super intelligence, then this introduces an a priori complexity of patterning intermediate between simple algorithmic laws and the high disorder of randomness. Science as rule finds it difficult to cope with objects of intermediate complexity especially if they are buried in the mists of time, as per the experience of archeologists. But we must wary that we are not rejecting intermediate patterning simply because it is epistemologically problematic.

My own feelings at this stage, and I stress that they are only my feelings, is that God has providentially provided us with a comprehensible world, a world that can be rendered using the patterns described with simple algorithms and statistics. If this is true then we won’t have to wrap our heads round physical systems that use, for example, large or infinite numbers of axioms. However, I would be first to admit that my feelings might be wrong here and that the ID theorists may have it right. If they have got it right then for the sake of the truth they have had the courage to stick their necks out and bring upon themselves accusations of the modern equivalent of heresy. As I have tried to show science and non-science do not have a clear cut demarcation, and science imperceptibly shades over into domains of study that are not easily handled by standard science. However the heretic hunter is not happy with such fuzzy graduated categories because he needs black and white categories in order separate out the innocent from the guilty, thus enabling him to identify and burn heretics with a clear conscience. How primitive.

Coming soon .. William Dembski's "Active Information".

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