Friday, May 10, 2013

North American Origins of Life Science: Deadlocked!

In a deadlock nobody can budge because a resource lock means that no party is able to give any ground. The resource we are talking about in this post is kudos, reputation, status, pride....

The content of this post by vjtorley on Uncommon Descent typifies why I have ambivalent feelings toward the North American Intelligent Design community. It is a post summarizing some interesting research on the evolution of proteins: Using the work of ID researchers Torley challenges a recent “skeptic” web post which advances some sketchy scenarios on how complex protein molecules might have emerged from simpler precursor proteins - the motive here is, of course, that simpler objects would have a much greater chance of appearing spontaneously and that these elementary antecedents would then gradually elaborate into something more complex. The gradualist evolutionary/OOL academic establishment has rather burnt its boats in that it has all but irreversibly committed itself to finding continuous lines of incremental development (or “emergence”) of life from homogenous matter. But conversely the North American ID community has burnt its boats as well: They are thoroughly committed to finding road blocks to any proposed evolutionary/OOL scenarios. The academic establishment believe those paths of development exist but the North American ID community are convinced they don’t!

At the bottom of this standoff is the God did it vs. Nature did it” dichotomy.  The incremental evolutionary/OOL philosophy appeals to a broad-church of establishment scientists from Christians to out-and-out atheists; to the latter in particular evolution/OOL is absolutely indispensable as in their minds it appears to dispense with those awkward and inexplicable discontinuities in development which smack of “supernatural” interference. If they can get rid of these then the intuition is that they can attribute life to Mother Nature rather than Father God. For these evangelical atheists anything other than evolution/OOL is therefore an utterly intolerable, unthinkable anathema. Conversely, the North American IDists are anxious to show that evolution/OOL is impossible; they need those configurational discontinuities in order to give place to God Intelligent interference in Mother Nature’s gestations. In doing so they have taken on-board the atheist concept that Nature and God are two very opposite scenarios of creation. As Torley says in the very first sentence of his post:

Could proteins have developed naturally on Earth, without any intelligent guidance?

The connotation here is that “Nature” goes together with “unguided” and “unintelligent”, the subtext being that an Homunculus Designer is necessary to “guide” an otherwise random or overly regimented “Mother Nature” in the act of creation! I've recently come across a far more extreme IDist put down of “Darwinism” (sic):

Darwin persuasively taught that life is the product of blind, meaningless, purposeless churning, making all life, not just human, hardly anything more special or dignified than cosmic refuse. Indeed in a Darwinian worldview, life is cosmic refuse. While accused abortion butcher Kermit Gosnell may be an outlier, he is an emblematic personality in our Darwin-tutored culture.1*

Because North American IDists are so against the idea that “Nature” might generate anything worthwhile some really stupid ideas sometimes do the rounds in ID circles; one of them is the belief we've just seen; namely, that “mother nature” goes together with “blind meaningless, purposeless chance”; either that or an idiot level of so-called “necessity” which manifests itself in the generation of elementary crystalline-like structures. Another stupid idea is the belief that the Second Law of Thermodynamics contradicts evolution. Both of these ideas I have critiqued in this blog. However, in spite of these lapses I otherwise welcome the ID community that Torley represents and I don’t want to be counted among their enemies.  They are, in my opinion, doing valuable research and Torley’s article is an example of this. Moreover, I think we should at least be prepared to entertain the idea (even if not accept it) that replicators may be one of creations givens. But whether or not this can be demonstrated either way with a satisfactory level of experimental rigor, I have my doubts: Establishment evolutionists have on their side the epistemic advantage of proposing a concept that is actually a non-falsifiable existential proposition. (i.e. that evolutionary/OOL routes exist)  On the other hand the North American IDists have the epistemic advantage of falsifiability on their side (One case will falsify their assertion that no evolutionary/OOL routes exist).  The consequence is an epistemic deadlock:  Evolutionists can keep coming up with imaginative gradualist scenarios and as a last resort can always claim that somewhere out there gradualist evolutionary/OOL routes may exist. The North American IDists, however, can continue to do their best to knock down these suggested scenarios as they are proposed. So, one party has the advantage of appearing to engage in imaginative and positive science, whereas the other party can appear to play the role of the rigorous skeptic engaged in a negative debunking of many cheerfully proffered evolutionary/OOL scenarios. There is a tremendous irony in this epistemic deadlock!

I would love to see the North America IDists talking to Christian organizations like Biologos and the Faraday Institute, but it’s not going happen: The IDists have a too high a stake in non-gradualism whereas Biologos and Faraday have a too high a stake in the gradualism of the scientific establishment and above all they have an eye on their scientific reputations! Moreover, the sharp and acrimonious American political divide that makes an anti-christ out of one’s opponents is an important polarizing factor, particularly as the academic establishment veers toward the left*2. In this connection we also note that gradualism serves the purpose of evangelical atheism in eliminating logical gaps, at least on the surface.

It is at this point that the North American IDists exploit folk science: If self-perpetuating/replicating organisms are one of nature’s givens then this is far more intuitively compelling to the folk mind than is the knowledge that nature, of necessity, harbors, deep down, a Grand Logical Hiatus (GLH).  But this abstruse GLH doesn’t cut much ice in folk science, however; after all one can always wave one’s hand, shrug one’s shoulders and claim that one day the GLH will somehow be “explained away”. The GLH is too obscure in its import to be compelling at the folk level.  The North American IDists are exploiting this folk position and therefore are able to get away with an unarticulated theology of creation that stresses the eminence of God over his immanence.

*1 This was Larry Moran quoting IDist David Klinghoffer.  See “An Example of IDiot “Civility”, May 10th.  I actually agree with Moran’s point here; The IDiots are taking a leaf out of the fundamentalist’s book and insulting their opponents by morally impugning them. IDists are unhealthily close to fundamentalists.

*2 On Politics: I'm not a particularly politically conscious animal myself, but I suspect that politics is more deeply involved in this divide than I'm really aware of. In this connection I note that the North American ID community don't support the anthropogenic global warming theories. Is this something to do with the big government vs. big business dichotomy?  It's so easy to see this whole thing reflecting a divide between techno-business interests and government control. The former want a free market and recruit (in the sense of  subsidising) a class of intellectuals such as we see in the North American ID movement who place a very "engineering" slant on biology and who are also anti-anthropogenic global warming. Set against them are the left-tending government sponsored academic establishment who support a more socialist form of government and want to fight anthropogenic global warming.

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