Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why I disown the de facto Intelligent Design Movement

Be careful who you associate with
Be careful who you yolk with
I thought it might be a good idea to bring together the major reasons why I’m not enthusiastic about the de-facto intelligent design movement.

Firstly, let me say that as far as I can tell the gurus of de facto ID are generally nice enough people. (And their followers? That’s another story!). They are mainly, I think, moderate evangelical Christians with a scattering of other traditions. It would be wholly wrong to compare them to the temperamentally dour fundamentalists who speak censoriously about all those who don’t follow their views (including other fundies with whom they disagree).  As I always say: Fundamentalism is 1 part doctrine and 2 parts attitude, mostly bad attitude; ID leaders don’t usually share the latter I’m glad to say. And yet it is the fundies who often parrot the conclusions of the ID gurus.

Secondly, I must also make it clear that I think it likely that intelligence is fundamental to the workings of the cosmos. But I differ radically from the de facto IDists in that my investigation into the subject proceeds on the basis that the intelligence concerned is both eminent and immanent to the cosmos. I am developing and exploring this theme in my Thinknet and Melencolia series.  I must emphasise, however, that this is a highly speculative blue skies project and it is no basis on which I can badger people into “belief”.

As I have said before the de facto IDists have been a big disappointment to me: They have managed to botch a variety of important theoretical themes, themes which I collect together below:

The explanatory filter epistemic
Many of de facto-ID’s problems trace back to the epistemic method of their explanatory filter, an epistemic which assumes a sharp distinction between intelligent agency and so-called “natural forces”.  This may work in archaeology and SETI  (although I qualify that statement below) but it is bad for theology. It has helped polarise further an already polarised debate and the effect has been to widen the divide between so-called "naturalists" and "supernaturalists", although of course the "surpernaturalists" prefer to identify as "IDists".  See here for more:

The God of the gaps trap
The explanatory filter epistemic favours god-of-the-gaps thinking. When de facto IDists attempt to explain their position it seems that they just can’t help but fall into the god-of-the-gaps-trap: Here are some examples:

Vincent Torley:
Kirk Durston:
William  Lane-Craig and Paul Nelson
Barry Arrington:

ID = design detection only?
Some of the IDists I have read will tell you that ID is all about “design detection” and that the nature of the designer is secondary, if not beyond their brief.  And yet IDists in practice make interpolations about the nature of the intelligent agent concerned. The latter is inevitable because one must have some inkling about the intrinsic nature of intelligence if one seeks to not only identify the works of intelligence but also to make predictions. Here are some examples of IDists making implicit assumptions about the intelligent agent they posit:

Here we find Vincent Torley claiming to be reluctant to say much about the designing intelligence:
And yet here Vincent Torley interpolates a “minimum effort” principle:
Homunculus ID: ID is inevitably saturated with implicit assumptions about the designer:

A very negative science
Taken together, the IDists explanatory filter, their belief that the nature of intelligence is secondary to ID detection and their God-of-the-gaps theology all adds up to a very negative kind of science. Its epistemic method largely involves trying to shoot down current evolutionary explanations. And when they think they have achieved this IDists will conclude, using the explanatory filter, that “intelligence did it”.  It is almost as if these IDists are endeavoring to operate with an apophatic definition of intelligence – that is, intelligence is defined in terms of what it is not. The ambivalent behavior of IDists where on the one hand they claim to withdraw from identifying the nature of the intelligence concerned and yet on the other hand must grasp something about intelligence in order to identify its works, seems to be an outcome of the defensive position that is the unenviable lot of the de facto IDists.

In view of this, I may actually be doing archaeology an injustice when I sometimes compare it with ID: More often than not archaeology doesn’t have much trouble identifying the works of human intelligence; the lion’s share of the problem in archaeology is identifying the human meaning of what it digs up – and to do that requires knowledge of human beings; that is, knowledge of the intelligence behind the artifacts. So it is no surprise to find IDist Vincent Torley admitting that ID is a negative science. In a post on the ID website Uncommon Descent entitled Larry Moran commits the genetic fallacy, dated October 20th we read:

As for Professor Moran’s claim that Intelligent Design proponents’ focus is primarily aimed at discrediting unguided evolution rather than building a positive case for design, I can only reply that a design inference in ID can only be made after other explanations have been ruled out, so as a matter of necessity, much of what ID researchers do will be negative, and aimed at eliminating conventional explanations, before any positive conclusion can be reached that a given object was designed.

If from science’s third person perspective we manage to trace all human activity back to the operation of the “natural causes” of neural communities we cannot then conclude that intelligence isn’t involved; human intelligence is a high level system feature which is not easily observed down at the low neural level. Neurons are "things" and not sentient personalities; it takes a very large organised group of them to possess the property of conscious cognition.  From this example we can see how artificial it is to drive a wedge between "natural causes" and intelligence to the extent that they are thought of as all but mutually exclusive. Moreover, I would expect any genuine science to be interested in the workings of the intelligent agent and how it relates to the ontology of our world. It is almost as if IDists are trying to create a space of spiritual quietus where they can worship in peace and where the role of ID science is protective rather than proactive. The quasi-apophatic approach of de facto ID looks suspiciously like a rear-guard defence of theism rather than a presentation of positive evidence

Irreducible Complexity
This is actually not a bad idea if formulated properly: Potentially the idea of irreducible complexity is a killer concept as far as evolution is concerned. But the de facto ID community continues to use Michael Behe’s inadequate low resolution rendering of IC which talks only about interdependent functional parts. The loop hole in Behe’s concept of IC is found in the fact that the functional parts he talks of are themselves made of smaller parts, all with the potential to morph  molecule by molecule, atom by atom into other sets of interdependent parts. This allows the imaginative devil’s advocate to conceive of ways in which each interdependent function morphs in unison with all the other functions in such way that the whole conglomerate remains functional. Anti-IDists have attempted to do just this (see the first link below). The remedy is to use a concept of IC formulated at the particulate level; such a formulation would amount to a denial of the existence of the “sponge” structure in configuration space (The spongeam), a concept I describe in the second two links below. Having said that let me express my suspicion that the spongeam doesn’t exist, so the IDists may actually have the last laugh here!

The Second Law of Thermodynamics
IDists continue to be seduced by the erroneous argument that the second law of thermodynamics contradicts evolution. The basis of this argument clearly fails in the case of the growth of living organisms which organise matter in huge quantities without violating the second law by using the information in their genes and associated mechanisms. Likewise, if evolution does in fact work, it would be using the implicit information present in the spongeam of configuration space and which presumably is in turn implicit in the laws of physics. Although I doubt the existence of the spongeam, nevertheless if it is present it would effectively guide evolution just as molecular configurational information guides the annexation and organisation of matter in the growth of life. In this latter context local decreases in entropy are more than compensated for by an overall increase in entropy.

Creating Information
Many clients in the fundamentalist and ID communities will offer up the cliché like “natural processes cannot create information”.  This belief is supported in part by William Dembski’s “conservation of Information” but without regard to the terms reference and limitations of Dembski’s otherwise interesting and thought provoking work. And yet natural processes can quite obviously create information: Viz: Consider for example the human brain; it creates information in any practical sense of the word and yet, as far as we can tell from the third person perspective of science, human activity is a “natural process”. However, the issues surrounding the creation of information are somewhat technical and so I will be dealing with them in more detail in a separate post. I have partially dealt with the matter here, but further clarification is needed in the light of the work I have done in  the Thinknet project.

In the meantime here is a quote from fundamentalist Ken Ham as he makes dogmatic assertions about a subject he doesn’t understand:

For example, evolution requires the addition of huge amounts of brand-new information into the DNA of a creature in order for new features to arise. But there is no known process that adds brand-new information into the genome of a creature.)  But without new information you absolutely cannot turn an amoeba into an astronaut no matter how much time you have! Evolution just cannot happen.

As I’ve already said we do know of a natural process capable of adding brand-new information into a genome - namely, human activity.  As for "Evolution just cannot happen" Ham has no notion of the spongeam and the crucial question of whether or not it exists; he is never likely to come anywhere near addressing this question.

The Christian Right and Fundamentalism
The ID community are too close to the right wing and the anti-science Christian fundamentalists. I see this in part as due to the common conceptual ground afforded by the epistemic filter which favours a form of dualism: Viz: A broad spectrum of evangelicals, fundamentalists and cultists think in terms of a God vs. natural forces dichotomy. And yet within this spectrum there is in fact a huge spread of ideas all the way from Flat Earth to the quasi-theistic evolution of William Dembski.  This creates tensions within the movement. See for example this post by Vincent Torley on Uncommon Descent where in the comments section Torley is accused of supporting “Darwinism” (Sic; See comment 86).

So, what other factors might bring together this disparate diversity of opposing opinions?  Probably even more pertinent than the philosophical dualism implicit in the explanatory filter is the common political cause of communities who otherwise find it difficult to get on. That common politics, I propose, is that they all reside to the right of the political fault line which runs between government and the private sector; especially in the USA.  In particular, both fundies and the de facto IDists find themselves alienated from the public sector academics who one fundie talks disparagingly of under the rubric  "the main stream science community".

As a further illustration of the academic alienation and marginalisation of IDists we find evangelical atheist Larry Moran and public servant scientist trying (probably vainly) to hand an olive branch to the less extreme IDists. In a post entitled  Intelligent design needs to clean up its act if it expects to be taken seriously he says:

I hope that the knowledgeable, informed, members of the ID community will abandon the ridiculous path they've taken where they try to make a scientific case for ID knowing full well that the majority of their supporters disagree strongly with their premises (e.g. common descent). That's an untenable position.

We've seen recently that some ID proponents are attempting to do this. I'm thinking of Jonathan McLatchie and Vincent Torley right now but there are others. How is it working out? Look at the Torley post on Uncommon Descent where he's trying to explain evolution to IDiots: Human and chimp DNA: They really are about 98% similar. It's an uphill battle. The kooks are accusing him of becoming a Darwinist.

But that's exactly what the ID community needs to do in order to gain credibility. They need to shed the kooks and the IDiots who make them look silly. When they do that, they may find that more of us are willing to have a serious discussion about science

And there’s also this:

We also judge [ID] by the people who post comments on blogs and Facebook and by those politicians who support it in the public sphere….

Wouldn't it be nice to see a scientific debate between Michael Behe and David Klinghoffer on the meaning of evolution? Not going to happen as long as ID is primarily a religious movement.

Along the lines of the latter comment, I’ve never seen the ID community engage Dembki’s statement which I showcase here. But would an evangelical atheist like Moran ever entertain anyone who entertains the notion that intelligence is fundamental to the cosmos without being tempted to make recourse to appellations like “superstition” and “IDiot”? The converse is not going to happen either: The ID gurus will not be prised apart from their followers; they owe those followers a huge debt: It is those followers who have given them their platform, their accolades and the market for their books and conferences.

Forget it!

No comments: