Quote of the Month: Cornelius Hunter on the Unfalsifiability of Evolution

This month’s quote is by ID proponent Cornelius Hunter. Hunter is the author at the blog Darwin’s God. I used this quote myself in my article ‘Jeffrey Koperski on Good and Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent design (Part 2): The ‘Good’ Ways’, and I have seen it used in ID literature quote often. This quote is taken from Arsenic-Based Biochemistry: Turning Poison Into Wine.

Being an evolutionist means there is no bad news. If new species appear abruptly in the fossil record, that just means evolution operates in spurts. If species then persist for eons with little modification, that just means evolution takes long breaks. If clever mechanisms are discovered in biology, that just means evolution is smarter than we imagined. If strikingly similar designs are found in distant species, that just means evolution repeats itself. If significant differences are found in allied species, that just means evolution sometimes introduces new designs rapidly. If no likely mechanism can be found for the large-scale change evolution requires, that just means evolution is mysterious. If adaptation responds to environmental signals, that just means evolution has more foresight than was thought. If major predictions of evolution are found to be false, that just means evolution is more complex than we thought.

I think that at face value, Hunter’s point is undeniably true. It seems that there is little that can be discovered that would overturn evolution. That’s not to say that evolution is entirely unfalsifiable, it just demonstrates that it’s extremely difficult to falsify. Perhaps one might respond by saying that the erratic data we often encounter is the result of many different factors and mechanisms that nature utilises. Nonetheless, this response seems very ad hoc and contrived to me.

I don’t think a theory necessarily need be falsifiable to be considered scientific or true. Some theories are more difficult to falsify than others (evolution being one of them). The way I see it, testability and verifiability are more essential. Having said that, a theory that is falsifiable and verifiable is stronger than one that is merely the latter. 

What do you think?

Jeffrey Koperski on Two Bad and Two Good Ways to Attack ID (Part 2): Two ‘Good’ Ways

In part one of this series looking at Jeffrey Koperski’s paper, Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Good OnesI focussed on the two arguments he thinks fail as good critiques of design. The first argument, if one could call it that, is the claim that ID is merely repackaged creationism. The second was the claim that ID fails to meet the criteria of science because it doesn’t adhere to methodological naturalism. I considered Koperski’s criticisms of those arguments and found them to be persuasive. In the second part of the paper, he takes a look at two more arguments. He sees these as being good reasons to reject ID. In this article I’ll be considering the two arguments put forward, suggesting that they fail as affective counter arguments, concluding that ultimately, the four arguments looked at in his paper all fall in to the category of bad arguments against design.

Soft and Hard Anomalies

After affirming the scientific status of design, Koperski explores the possibility of whether it is good science. He sees ID as having two main strands. The first strand includes ‘examples that are problematic for neo-Darwinism'(1) like concepts such as specified, and irreducible complexity, pioneered by William Dembski and Michael Behe. This description is partially accurate, however it neglects to include a crucial distinction, and that is that the arguments mentioned aren’t merely negative, problematic examples for neo-Darwinism, but they’re also advanced as positive confirmations of design. Formulating ID as a negative critique doesn’t do it justice. ID theorists recognise that neo-Darwinism’s failure is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a scientific case for design. Michael Behe writes that ‘irreducibly complex systems such as mousetraps and flagella serve both as negative arguments against gradualistic explanations like Darwin’s and as positive arguments for design.'(2)

Focussing on specified and irreducible complexity, Koperski makes an interesting distinction between soft and hard anomalies. Soft anomalies are mysterious and improbable observations that are still consistent with the theory in question, despite them being puzzling. Hard anomalies are cases where theories are strictly contradicted by evidence and they ‘cannot be explained in terms of the reigning theory.'(3) His contention is that a theory should only be overturned if one encounters hard anomalies (data that defies possibility). This is essentially what Darwin himself argued when he wrote ‘If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.'(4) Koperski claims that cases of specified and irreducible complexity fall within the category of soft anomalies, and therefore don’t require us to adopt a new theory. 

My first response to this argument is to question the distinction between soft and hard anomalies. In theory and practise, what would a hard anomaly look like? Koperski draws on an example from physics when our models of the atom were proved to be deficient by black body radiation and the photoelectric effect. But we’re talking about biology here. What one considers a soft or hard anomaly seems highly subjective. If a soft anomaly is an observation that is improbable, yet not directly contradictory, how improbable does an observation need be to become a hard case? Of course, individually improbable and mysterious objects can be reconciled within a theory, but when many such cases accumulate and remain unexplained for a long period of time, with little hope of being resolved in the near future, scientists must begin to at least consider alternative explanations. And it seems that this is the situation we’re in with biology. Though I don’t wish to be too pessimistic about the progress of much research within modern evolutionary theory, it is no secret amongst more candid biologists that there are some grave explanatory deficiencies within the current paradigm, hence the need for an extended evolutionary synthesis and a ‘third way’ that has been receiving more attention in recent years.(5) I’m aware that this fact on its own does little to help ID, since those who are pushing for a reconsideration of evolutionary mechanisms still believe these anomalies can be accounted for in naturalistic terms, but as I will argue later, these attempts also encounter the same pitfalls as the classical neo-Darwinian accounts.

To draw a black and white distinction between soft and hard anomalies seems unrealistic in theory and practice, especially in biology. It is better to view biological systems as existing on a spectrum of probability. In responding to Darwin’s own claim that one must provide an examples of a system that “could not possibly” have been formed by natural selection, Peter S. Williams points out that:

…he was wrong to set the evidential bar quite so high (demonstrating the existence of a system that is highly unlikely to have been formed by numerous, successive – and unguided – modifications would cause a sufficiently catastrophic break down in his theory)… (6)

There comes a point when examples become sufficiently improbable to call into question the current theory, especially when multiple examples mount a cumulative case. This isn’t to say that there isn’t the possibility of a more direct disconfirmation within certain theories, but such knockdown observations are rare. Scientific theories need a greater sensitivity to evidence than such extreme categories as possibility and impossibility. In biology at least, it is difficult, to come up with examples of such theory-shattering hard anomalies that could conceivably be discovered. In practice, evolutionary biologists are remarkably adept at rationalising counter-evidence and explaining away anything that’s discovered. Cornelius hunter explains this point well:

Being an evolutionist means there is no bad news. If new species appear abruptly in the fossil record, that just means evolution operates in spurts. If species then persist for eons with little modification, that just means evolution takes long breaks. If clever mechanisms are discovered in biology, that just means evolution is smarter than we imagined. If strikingly similar designs are found in distant species, that just means evolution repeats itself. If significant differences are found in allied species, that just means evolution sometimes introduces new designs rapidly. If no likely mechanism can be found for the large-scale change evolution requires, that just means evolution is mysterious. If adaptation responds to environmental signals, that just means evolution has more foresight than was thought. If major predictions of evolution are found to be false, that just means evolution is more complex than we thought.(7)

Robert Laughlin makes a similar point when considering the ease with which biologists use theories of evolution to explain every possible outcome:

Your protein defies the laws of mass action? Evolution did it! Your complicated mess of chemical reactions turns into a chicken? Evolution! The human brain works on logical principles no computer can emulate? Evolution is the cause!(8)

Koperski is convinced that critics of design have shown that ‘although complex systems like the bacterial flagellum are improbable, they are still consistent with neo-Darwinism.'(9) This point depends upon the success of the replies Behe’s critics have made, but that’s a complex issue that requires an in-depth analysis of the biological data. From my reading of the literature at least, it’s far from clear that Behe has been adequately answered(10). The debate goes on. For the purposes of this article at least, it’s enough for me to assert that Behe and Dembski are arguing that the biological data, though perhaps theoretically/logically consistent, is practically inconsistent with modern evolutionary theories. The irreducibly complex structures that Behe talks about are special cases of specified complexity that block any logically direct Darwinian pathways. And though they leave open the possibility of indirect routes, these hopes lie beyond the reach of chance and exhaust the probabilistic resources of the universe. Critics often come back on this point and say that one or two exceptions to Darwinian accounts aren’t enough to warrant a drastic theory change. But we aren’t talking here of just one or two slightly puzzling systems that are exceptions to an otherwise successful explanatory theory, rather, as Dembski puts it’s a case of ‘global disciplinary failure…and gross theoretical inadequacy.'(11) Making a similar point he writes that, ‘It’s not just that we don’t know of such a (naturalistic) pathway for, say, the bacterial flagellum…It’s that we don’t know of such pathways for any such systems. The absence here is pervasive and systemic.'(12) Furthermore, the biological systems that tenaciously resist these naturalistic accounts bear all the hallmarks of design.

Heuristic Value and Peer-Review

The second strand in ID’s scientific case is its heuristic value. Much of the science that design theorists utilise to make their case, is often work that has been done by scientists that aren’t sympathetic to design. Their work just happens to make more sense within a design paradigm. As Koperski points out, they have focussed on things like the functionality of junk DNA and biomimetics. He argues that ’What critics rightly clamour for, however, is peer-reviewed research in which design has a more than heuristic role.’(13) Having said this, Koperski doesn’t fall in to the trap of claiming, as most critics do, that there are no peer-reviewed papers supporting design. He recognises that ‘To be fair, there are more published papers out there than most people realise.'(14) He’s also privy to the fact that many theorists who have tried to publish in journals have been discriminated against, taking away much of the incentive for further attempts. The bottom line is, ID critics have produced some substantial peer-reviewed work.(15) And though it can’t be denied that this output is meagre, the reasons for this seem to be combination of lack of incentive due to the possibility of damage to the scientists career and reputation, and the efforts of those hostile to design preventing its inclusion in journals. Nevertheless, Koperski puts some of the blame on the ID community for getting too distracted by the culture wars and focussing on public relations. Here I can agree, at least in part. It’s a balancing act. ID must maintain a healthy public appearance, but not before it has held its own in the scientific community. Sometimes certain ID advocates have emphasised the former over the later, primarily because they’re more interested in using ID as a means to an ideological end. Others, though, have been very clear about the primacy of ID’s scientific case over its broader cultural impact. Dembski makes this clear:

Unless intelligent design is an intrinsic good-unless it can be developed as a scientific research program and provide sound insights into the natural world-its use as an instrumental good for defeating ideologies that suffocate the human spirit becomes insupportable. Intelligent design must not become a noble lie for vanquishing views we find unacceptable.(16)

There is now a strong scientific core to ID, and a small group of dedicated researchers who are doing the theoretical and experimental benchwork. Granted, it’s a tiny minority. But it’s a growing minority. The main challenge for ID is to attract more scientists willing to work, despite the possibility of discrimination and ridicule. Though the peer-review output from ID folks is small, they have at least produced work that critics can grapple with, that isn’t, as Koperski puts it, merely heuristic, re-interpretive science. In 2005, the Biologic Institutewas set up, along with its ID friendly peer-reviewed journal, BIO-Complexity. A few years later, in 2007, the Evolutionary Informatics Lab also started. Most ID research has come from these two organisations, yet in his 2008 paper and 2015 book The Physics of Theism, he fails to mention these key developments in the ID community, yet they constitute the scientific core of design. There is plenty of scientific substance for critics to engage with. I’m not saying that the output from the ID crowd couldn’t and shouldn’t be more, but this depends on ID attracting more scientists  and a more open and gracious attitude on the part of those hostile to design with regard to it being allowed in journals.

The main complaint here is that there is little in the way of a research program. Even though he notes some possible lines of research outlined by Dembski, he laments that ID has failed to really get off the ground and that ‘the average design-friendly scientist still does not know quite what to do.'(17) Perhaps this is the case for some but overall I think most ID theorists know very well what to do, they just need more manpower and funding. And there have been many other detailed outlines of possible avenues of research in other books and papers.(18) But as I have already said, more research has been done then Koperski lets off and I’m convinced the ideas and potential are there for much more fruitful development, if more interest is gained. A further point he makes in The Physics of Theism is that design struggles to construct a research programme because ‘There is no way to know precisely how the Designer might have gone about his business. Turning out concrete predictions will therefore be difficult and perhaps impossible.'(19) This is a common objection to design, however it is a concern design advocates have wrestled with and they’ve formulated ways in which different aspects of ID can have predictive power. Though we can’t make blanket predictions about when, exactly, a designing intelligence acted, or might act in the future, we can make predictions about what sort of features we might find in living systems, were they designed. Before noting a dozen ID-inspired predictions, Stephen Meyer notes:

 …intelligent design hypotheses may generate several distinct types of predictions: predictions about causal powers, or lack thereof, of various mechanisms; predictions about the structure, organisation, and functional logic of living systems; predictions about what evidence will show about the history of life; and predictions about the causes of putatively bad design.(20)

Concluding my analysis of the Koperski’s argument that ID is at best a fringe science, I have argued that his distinction between soft and hard anomalies is too vague to be of much use, and sets the bar too high for falsification. Furthermore, ID theorists have brought to light sufficient cumulative evidence to put modern evolutionary theory into serious question, and make a good case for design. He underplays much of the more recent  scientific work done by design theorists (peer-reviewed work that isn’t merely heuristic science), and by extension underestimates the fruitfulness of a design framework and its potential as a research programme. I agree with him that much more work needs to be done, but I have argued that the main obstacle to ID’s fruitfulness is due to sociological   factors rather than a lack of scientific potential. In the end, this argument against design turns out to have little force.

Does ID Violate the Principle of Conservatism?

Though it has been established that ID’s alleged violation of methodological naturalism is of little consequence to its validity and scientific status, Koperski claims that there is another, more fundamental, shaping principle that ID violates, namely, scientific conservatism. This is the view that ‘when faced with anomalous data scientists prefer incremental change over more revolutionary change.'(21) The argument here is that ID is an unnecessarily radical proposal, and to accommodate anomalies in biology we needn’t make such a drastic change. The first aspect of this principle is epistemic conservatism, the view that unless a better explanation is available, one should remain within one’s current belief system. The other part of conservatism is Quinn’s principle of minimal mutilation which states that when accommodating new data one should make the smallest change possible. Here my aim isn’t to dispute the principle of scientific conservatism, because I believe it to be a sensible rule to adhere to. However, I will argue that ID doesn’t violate scientific conservatism.

With regard to epistemic conservatism, the idea of only changing theory if a better alternative is on the table, this is exactly what ID theorists are proposing. They are claiming that modern, naturalistic theories of evolution should be abandoned, or at least supplemented, because design offers a better explanation. Koperski’s main point though, is that ID ignores Quine’s minimal mutilation concept and goes a step too far. He notes that there is a live debate going on between biologists about the mechanisms of evolution. Though at first glance this provides support for the ID claim that neo-Darwinism is an inadequate theory, Koperski argues that this actually raises a serious problem for ID because it shows that there is a broader range of views to consider. The choice isn’t between Darwinism and design because there are many naturalistic, non-Darwinian proposals that have been advanced. Because these alternative proposals are said to explain the data that neo-Darwinism doesn’t, and still retain a naturalistic approach, these theories are to be preferred because they don’t introduce superfluous explanations of a different category. He points out that ‘Even if orthodox neo-Darwinism collapses, design obviously is not the only alternative.'(22) If one has a very specific definition of neo-Darwinism, then this is true. However many would argue that broadly speaking, neo-Darwinism is the only game in town, and no theory can be successful without natural selection being the primary mechanism. ID theorists such as William Dembski take a black and white approach to the options on the table. He writes ‘there are in fact two games in town…Darwinism and intelligent design.'(23), though to him the word ‘Darwinism’ is highly qualified. His contention is that any naturalistic biological theory must contain hereditary transmission, incidental change, and natural selection. These categories are broad enough to include novel ideas such as symbiogenesis, self-organisation, and genetic drift and various other mechanisms that have been proposed more recently. At the end of the day, it is natural selection that must be included in any theory for it to truly explain biological systems. This is a point that many neo-Darwinists would agree with. For instance Richard Dawkins proposes that ‘Darwinism is the only known theory that is in principle capable of explaining certain aspects of life.'(24) Ultimately this is down to a matter of how one defines neo-Darwinism. ID advocates do focus more on attempting to refute classical neo-Darwinism, mainly because it is historically and presently the most widely accepted theory. However they have still acknowledged the existence of alternative naturalistic theories, especially in more recent years. Koperski gives the impression that design advocates are ignorant of these views but this is not the case. Most alternative theories have been considered and rejected by ID theorists. In Darwin’s Doubt Stephen Meyer dedicates several chapters to examining alternative theories of evolution, finding them wanting. He concludes:

Clearly, standard evolutionary theory has reached an impasse. Neither neo-Darwinism nor a host of more recent proposals (punctuated equilibrium, self-organization, evolutionary developmental biology, neutral evolution, epigenetic inheritance, natural genetic engineering) have succeeded in explaining the origin of the novel animal forms that arose in the Cambrian period. Yet all these evolutionary theories have two things in common: they rely on strictly material processes, and they also have failed to identify a cause capable of generating the information necessary to produce new forms of life.(25)

Michael Behe writes that ‘A few scientists have suggested non-Darwinian theories to account for the cell, but I don’t find them persuasive.'(26) Other ID theorists have also surveyed the post-Darwinian world, and found it unsatisfactory to say the least. More recently many design proponents attended the widely reported ‘New Trends in Evolutionary Biology’ conference at the Royal Society, where evolutionary biologists debated different theories of evolution. Subsequently this provoked much discussion amongst ID theorists (27) I think it’s clear that they have a sufficient understanding of the various options out there. They argue that any theory of evolution that doesn’t include design is bound to fail, and that alternative naturalistic theories suffer similar problems to neo-Darwinism. Contrary to Koperski, these alternative proposals aren’t problematic for ID.

The main reason given for rejecting ID though, is not just that alternative views exist, but that they are more conservative. According to him ‘if any one of them is capable of resolving the problems posed by complex structures and macroevolution, ID is a more radical solution than is needed.'(28) This is of course true, but it depends on the ‘if’, and Koperski has not made the case that these theories succeed. More importantly, as I have pointed out, design theorists contend strongly that they don’t because they fail to account for the origin of complex specified information.

As to the claim that ID violates conservatism, I would argue that it is in a sense a scientifically conservative position, at the same time as being quite revolutionary. Marcus Ross argues that ‘ID is classified as a philosophically minimalistic position, asserting that real design exists in nature and is empirically detectable by the methods of science.'(29) As many have pointed out, ID is a broad tent, carrying with it very little metaphysical baggage, despite the fact that it might sit better within a theistic framework than a naturalistic one. Furthermore, ID does not require us to completely throw out the insights of evolutionary biology. Benjamin Wiker notes that ‘Darwinism is too small to fit the facts it claims to explain, and ID is large enough to include a modified form of Darwinism.’(30)

To say that scientists must make the smallest possible theory change to accommodate new data is not to say the change must necessarily be small. Though the jump from naturalism to design may be significant, it could be the case that this is the smallest possible change of theory we can make to successfully account for the data. Essentially, though naturalistic theories are more conservative, they turn out to be too conservative, sacrificing simplicity for explanatory adequacy. In a sense, scientific conservatism as a normative shaping principle is a form of Occam’s razor. Only in the case of all things being equal can we prefer the simpler hypothesis. In this case, all things aren’t equal because ID theory is the only theory that contains the essential ingredient necessary to accomplish the explanatory task. Though conservatism is a sensible approach to take, the history of science shows that sometimes science is forced to make drastic changes. The biological data us now pushing us to make the change from naturalism to design.

Coming to the end of his paper, Koperski advises scientists to frame biological mechanism in terms of an irreducible teleology. He points out that scientists use concepts of teleology quite freely now. Simon Conway Morris is one scientist that sees a purposeful pattern in evolutionary convergence for instance. Koperski contends that more modest, general theories of teleology are consistent with design, yet advocates refuse to include these ideas within their theories. I think proponents like Dembski would say that in principle they aren’t excluded, but they aren’t rigorous enough to tell us about design. Any view that holds that design is empirically detectable can be welcomed. But it is unclear how Conway Morris’s view can actually be said to detect design. He himself wouldn’t argue that it does either, only that it vaguely hints at some sort of teleology. Koperski complains that Dembski conceives of design too narrowly because he believes design must be empirically detectable. But surely for us to have a scientific theory of design it must be detectable by definition. Nonetheless, though Conway Morris and Dembski have their disagreements, they aren’t as opposed as they may seem.(31) Koperski writes that  ‘If ID really is about science, why not opt for a bigger tent, even if it is occupied with those of less conservative theology?'(32) ID doesn’t necessarily exclude theistic evolutionists, but it is often the case that the dissociation is wanted by theistic evolutionists themselves. Views like those of Simon Conway Morris are, as Dembski allows, perfectly consistent with ID, but consistency isn’t enough for a scientific theory. The tent is open, but whether or not theistic evolutionists like Conway Morris want to step inside is another question.

Conclusion

Koperski ends his paper with good and bad news. He recognises there is much more to ID than most critics think. However, to him the science is lacking sufficient bite and he finds alternative theories preferable to ID. I have argued that these reservations are misplaced and that design theorists have successfully formulated a broad scientific theory of design that just needs additional detail filling in with more interest and help. Though I agree with Koperski on many points, and think he offers a thoughtful and constructive critique of ID, I disagree that ID is little more than fringe science, and that shaping principles like conservatism and fruitfulness are problems for design. I conclude that on further inspection, the four arguments presented in his paper turn out to be bad ones. 

References

  1. Jeffrey Koperski, Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Good Ones(Zygon, vol.43, no.2 June, 2008),p.441.
  2. Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (Free Press, 2006), p.263.
  3. Koperski, op cit, p.442.
  4. Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, (1872), 6th edition, (New York University Press, 1988), p. 154
  5. To keep abreast of the recent work by those focussing on the extended evolutionary synthesis I recommend the websites Extended Evolutionary Synthesis and The Third Way of Evolution.
  6. Peter S. Williams, Intelligent Design Theory – An Overview, Available at: http://www.arn.org/docs/williams/pw_idtheoryoverview.htm
  7. Cornelius Hunter, Arsenic-Based Biochemistry: Turning Poison Into Wine, Available at: http://darwins-god.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/arsenic-based-biochemistry-turning.html
  8. Robert B. Laughlin, A Different Universe (New York: Basic Books, 2005), pp. 168-169.
  9. Koperski, op citp.441
  10. Jonathan McLatchie, Michael Behe Hasn’t Been Refuted on the Flagellum, Available at: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/03/michael_behe_hasnt_been_refute/
  11. William Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (InterVarsity Press, 2004), p.214.
  12. ibid, p.296.
  13. Koperski, op cit, p.442
  14. Ibid, p.442
  15. Koperski’s article was published in 2008. Since then, many more peer-reviewed papers have been published since that year: http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?command=download&id=10141
  16. Dembski, op cit, p.306
  17. Koperski, op cit, p.443
  18. Dembski has delineated several detailed research avenues in No Free Lunch and The Design Revolution. Also in Signature in the Cell, Stephen Meyer discusses many research questions in the epilogue and appendix.
  19. Jeffrey Koperski, The Physics of Theism: God, Physics, and the Philosophy of Science (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015),p.216
  20. Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (Harper One, 2009), p.482-483.
  21. Jeffrey Koperski, Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Good Ones, p.443
  22. Koperski, op cit, p.444
  23. William Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (InterVarsity Press, 2004), p.266.
  24. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (Norton & Company, Inc, 1986), p.287.
  25. Stephen C. Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2013), p.337.
  26. Michael J. Behe, Darwin Under the Microscope (New York Times, 1996), Available at: http://www.discovery.org/a/60
  27. At Evolution News there was extensive coverage of this conference.
  28. Koperski, op cit, p.444.
  29. Marcus Ross, Intelligent Design and Young-Earth Creationism: Investigating Nested Hierarchies of Philosophy and Belief, http://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2003AM/finalprogram/abstract_58668.htm
  30. Benjamin Wiker, Does Science Point to God? Available at: http://www.arn.org/docs2/news/doessciencepointtogod040903.htm
  31. Dembski and Conway Morris have had some correspondence and public interaction. And Dembski’s beef is not mainly theological: ‘Conway Morris’s fault is that he does not follow his position through to its logical conclusion. He prefers to critique conventional evolutionary theory, with its tacit materialism, from the vantage of theology and metaphysics. Convergence points to a highly constrained evolutionary process that’s consistent with divine design. Okay, but there’s more. If evolution is so tightly constrained and the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection is just that, a mechanism, albeit one that “navigates immense hyperspaces of biological alternatives” by confining itself to “thin roads of evolution defining a deeper biological structure,” then, in the language of conservation of information, the conditions that allow evolution to act effectively in producing the complexity and diversity of life is but a tiny subset, and therefore a small-probability target, among all the conditions under which evolution might act. And how did nature find just those conditions? Nature has, in that case, embedded in it not just a generic evolutionary process employing selection, replication, and mutation, but one that is precisely tuned to produce the exquisite adaptations, or, dare I say, designs, that pervade biology.’ (William Dembski, Conservation of Information Made Simple (2012), Available at: https://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/08/conservation_of/). Dembski interacts further with Conway Morris’s work in Conway Morris’s Solution.
  32. Koperski, op cit, p.446.

 

Jeffrey Koperski on Two Bad Ways and Two Good Ways to Attack ID (Part 1): Two Bad Ways

In the next two (potentially three) articles I’ll be taking an in-depth look at an excellent paper written by Jeffrey Koperski, a philosopher of science at Saginaw Valley State University. Koperski has written about ID in several publications (1), which I highly recommend, and he takes a balanced and sensible approach to this topic. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t accept ID, but takes a constructively critical stance, so his work is well worth engaging with.

As one can tell from the title of the paper, Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Goods Ones(2), Koperski critically analyses two common criticisms of ID, suggesting that they are highly dubious lines of argument. He then goes on to suggest two better ways of trying to refute design. In this first part, I’ll be taking a look at what he sees as two bad arguments. In the next article I’ll then turn to what he sees as two better arguments, and find out whether or not they withstand scrutiny.

Guilt by Association & Motive Mongering

The first faulty line of reasoning that gets examined, is an argument commonly used by philosopher Barbara Forrest and many others. According to Forrest, ID is little more than stealth creationism. The arguments used in favour of design are highly suspect primarily because the major figures in the movement have religious motives and therefore don’t genuinely care about science. However, the blanket label “creationism” or “creationist” is too vague to be meaningful and only serves as a rhetorical slur. In one sense, all theists are creationists because they believe a god created the universe. However, as Koperski notes, this entails the absurdity that Christian neo-Darwinists such as Kenneth Miller are creationists but ‘No one familiar with the debate would consider him a creationist.'(3), (at least in the sense that Barbara Forrest means). To confuse matters further, there are ID proponents such as Paul Nelson, who are young earth creationists and also proponents like Michael Behe who accepts an old earth and common ancestry. Whatever the label “creationist” refers to, it’s clear that it is something religious, and to most people creationism conjures up images of religious fanatics who deny an old earth and other scientific evidences, based on literal readings of Genesis. Koperski essentially argues that this tactic is ‘what some logic texts call “stereotyping”.'(4) It could also be said that, as a response to the arguments ID advocates make, critics commit a type of ad hominem fallacy known as guilt by association, in effect saying that ID arguments fail in virtue of its advocates being creationists, and having theological motives.

The key problem with the appeal to motives, is that it tells us almost nothing at all about the quality of the arguments in question. No matter how much ‘dirt’ ID critics dig up, in the form of allegedly revealing quotations by ID theorists about what’s really driving them, it does nothing to rebut their specific arguments. Koperski writes ‘Lysenko’s theory of inheritance was not bad because the Communist Party in the Soviet Union promoted it: it was bad because the theory was an experimental failure.'(5) He also rightly calls attention to figures like Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce who were explicitly motivated by their religious views. In his book The Physics of Theism, Koperski points out that most of the founders of modern science were unequivocal about their religious motivation. He includes a quote by Isaac Newton that sounds similar to the ‘incriminating’ quotes by ID supporters that critics wield to show ID theorists are merely religiously motivated fanatics:

When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme… I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the beliefe of a Deity & nothing can rejoyce me more than to find it usefull for that purpose.(6)

Does Newton’s admission here mean he was really a covert creationist, and therefore his work should be kept out of science? Of course not. And it’s telling that we never hear critics make the same accusations toward these other scientists and their work. Apparently, one is permitted to have a religious motive, unless you’re an ID proponent. Koperski concludes:

Newton had a religious motive for this work. The same goes for Boyle, Faraday, and many other scientists past and present. This fact does not make their work nonscience or bad science. Good science can be produced from a variety of motivations, including religious ones.(7)

Motive mongering gets the argument nowhere. If ID critics obsessively point to the theological motives of their opponents, those on the other side can do likewise, and it’s a relatively easy thing to do. Richard Dawkins remarked that ‘Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.'(8), and therefore allies his atheism to his views on evolution. Similarly, ID critic Eugenie Scott signed the third humanist manifesto.(9) Perhaps her aversion to ID is merely a cover for her atheism? One can find similar atheistic associations amongst many other ID critics. Let’s just focus on the arguments because ‘…it seems “guilt by association” is a game that each side can play.'(10)

Methodological Naturalism: A Ground Rule or A Metatheoretic Shaping Principle?

The dispute over biological design raises a plethora of issues. One area of disagreement at the heart of considerations of the scientific status of ID, is methodological naturalism, a ‘metatheoretic shaping principle.'(11) Critics such as Robert Pennock, and in fact most critics, fall back on this objection, alleging that ID violates an essential ground rule of scientific explanation, because it appeals to non-natural concepts like intelligence. It is often claimed that methodological naturalism purifies science by keeping supernatural explanations out of the explanatory toolbox. This claim, however, has little historical support as it seems to be the case that that ‘historical confrontations between naturalism and design hypotheses were settled by inference to the best explanation…'(12) That is to say that the reason that design hasn’t been appealed to, is not because it circumvents a rule of science, but because it lacks explanatory power.

If methodological naturalism is not, after all, a logically necessary pillar of science, it could still be seen more as a provisional guideline. But as Koperski argues:

A crucial assumption in all of this is that once a concept achieves the status of a shaping principle it becomes an immutable axiom for all future science. That is a false assumption, if the history of science is any guide. Almost everything in science has been subject to change, from data and models to theories and laws.(13)

Koperski helpfully documents many cases in the history of science where various rules and shaping guidelines have been violated and changed drastically. There is no in principle reason why methodological naturalism should be exempt from similar revisions, should the evidence necessitate it. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to see why design, supernatural or otherwise, could not count as a scientific explanation. If there are good reasons why such explanations should be excluded, Robert Pennock has neglected to provide them.

One reason that is often given is that if appeals to intelligence and supernatural agency are  permitted, what is to prevent scientists from falling back on these explanations on a whim? Surely it would hold back genuine scientific research and ignore better naturalistic explanations? Koperski sees this as a plausible objection. Of course, such worries are always a risk, however this would not be a problem for scientific explanations per se, but a potential problem for the conduct of certain scientists. Furthermore, it’s important to look to history to see whether this is a legitimate worry. Is it historically the case that scientists who were theists, and didn’t formally affirm a doctrine of methodological naturalism, became lazy and quickly resorted to supernatural explanation? It certainly wasn’t a problem for Isaac Newton and ‘The history of science remains uncooperative on this point…'(14). To sum up, Koperski argues strongly that methodological naturalism isn’t an inviolable law of science. When viewed more wisely as a provisional shaping tool, it takes away the luxury of excluding design explanations in principle, and forces us to consider the biological evidence on its own grounds. If our scientific study of the natural world cries out for an explanation that appeals to design, so be it.

Conclusion

Critics of ID ‘often use fallacies that should be familiar to any logic student.'(15) This is a curious tendency that I have often found in my reading of the critics also. Of course ID proponents aren’t always blameless, but logical fallacies (informal ones at least), amongst ID critics seem conspicuously pervasive. The two arguments examined in this article are just a couple of examples of the weak argumentation that are used to refute ID. In the next article I will examine the two additional arguments which Koperski reckons are more promising lines of attack.

References

  1. Koperski has written about ID in Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Good Ones(Zygon, vol.43, no.2 , June, 2008), Intelligent Design and the End of ScienceAmerican Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 77 (4):567-588 (2003), The Design Revolution (book review)American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 78 (4):674-679, (2004), Motives Still Don’t Matter: A Reply to Christopher Pynes (co-authored with Andres Ruiz), Zygon 47 (4):662-665, (2012), Teleological Arguments for God’s Existence (co-authored with Del Ratzsch), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015), and in chapter 5 of his book The Physics of Theism: God, Physics, and the Philosophy of Science (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015)
  2. Jeffrey Koperski, Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Good Ones, (Zygon, vol.43, no.2 June, 2008).
  3. ibid. p.434
  4. ibid. p.435
  5. ibid. p.436
  6. Edward B. Davis, Newton’s Rejection of the ‘Newtonian World View’: The Role of Divine Will in Newton’s Natural Philosophy (In Facets of Faith and Science: The Role of Beliefs in the Natural Science, edited by Jitse M. van der Meer), Vol. 3, 75–96. Lanham: University Press of America (1996), p.78

  7. Jeffrey Koperski, The Physics of Theism: God, Physics, and the Philosophy of Science (Wiley-Blackwell 2015), p.207.
  8. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (Norton & Company, Inc, 1989), p.6.
  9. Katy Hall, Eugenie Scott, Available at: http://skepticsonthe.net/eugenie-scott/
  10. Francis Beckwith, How to Be An Anti-Intelligent Design AdvocateUniversity of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy 4.1 (2009-2010), p.39.
  11. Jeffrey Koperski, Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Good Ones, p436.
  12. ibid.p437
  13. ibid.p437
  14. ibid.440
  15. ibid.434

William Dembski Moves on From ID: Some Reflections

Everyone who has taken part in the intelligent design debate will know of William Dembski. For those who aren’t familiar, Dembski is the primary architect with regard to the theoretical underpinnings of ID. Since his involvement with the movement, he has published extensively in books, papers, and blogs, and has vigorously championed his ideas in many public lectures and debates.(1)

Back in 2005, Dembski wrote a sarcastic blog post on Uncommon Descent, announcing his retirement from ID, due to the ‘rancour and daily vilification'(2) by many critics of his views. Fast forward to ten years later, and again, Dembski announces that he is retiring from intelligent design, only this time it’s no joke.

In November 2015, he refurbished his website and in his first post noted that ‘In the last few years, my focus has switched from ID to education, specifically to advancing freedom through education via technology.'(3) In a revealing interview with Christian apologist, Sean McDowell he also noted that:

With regard to my research, it has shifted quite a bit these days. I’m largely retired from intelligent design. My last serious writing effort on intelligent design was my 2014 book Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information. It encapsulates my two decades work on intelligent design, and I’m not sure I have a whole lot more to add.(4)

Finally, in a post in the following month, he clarified that:

I really am retired from ID. I no longer work in the area. Moreover, the camaraderie I once experienced with colleagues and friends in the movement has largely dwindled.(5)

Dembski has held many formal associations with ID organisations, including his Discovery Institute fellowship, but he notes further in the post that he has also resigned from these.

What to make of Demski’s decision? Soon after these remarks were made, inevitably there were several responses from hostile ID bloggers. In one post, the blogger at The Senuous Curmudgeonnot a particularly sensible ID commentator, attempted to speculate about the reason behind Dembski’s decision. The author ponders whether there had been a fallout with the Discovery Institute, financial problems, or he just realised that ID is a dead end. Some even more unsavoury speculations can be found in the comments section, should you wish to torture yourself. Of course, given the hatred directed at Dembski by many critics of this ilk, nobody is content to take him at his word and be happy with the fact that he might have just moved on because he wants to focus on other matters.

There’s no evidence to suggest a fall out or that Dembski thinks ID has had its day. In fact he has stated, ‘I’m not talking about any falling out. It’s simply that my life and interests have moved on. It’s as though ID was a season of my life and that season has passed.'(7) He reiterates that most of the action in ID is in a two-pronged approach, with the information-theoretic work at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab and the molecular biology research at the Biological Institute. As to the state of his work and the ID viewpoint as a whole, he still sees it as being in very good shape, at least in terms of its scientific validity:

I would say that we have by far the better argument. Indeed, the Conservation of Information results described in my book Being as Communion (cited in the last question) and developed at length by me and my colleagues at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab seem to me to show that Darwinism cannot succeed as a complete theory of evolution, and that it requires hidden sources of information that it must smuggle in and that are best conceived as the product of intelligence. So I would say we have shown (as in demonstrated and not merely gestured at) that naturalistic evolution is a failed intellectual and scientific enterprise.(8)

It is clear that Dembski’s ‘retirement’ from ID is fairly mundane. He simply wishes to move on. He gives no indication of repudiating his work or thinking that ID’s present and future prospects are negative. As he notes in some of the posts and the interview I have cited, he’s not completely done yet, and still has a few things yet to be published including second additions of The Design Inference and No Free Lunch, and a new book on evolutionary informatics with Winston Ewert, and Robert Marks. So, still something to look forward too.

Finally, in terms of my own reaction to hearing Dembski’s statements, I have to say that I was a little disappointed. Dembski was almost single handedly responsible for rigorously developing the theoretical foundations for design theory. I for one have enjoyed reading Dembski’s work for several years now. Whether or not you agree with his work, I don’t think it can be rationally denied that he’s produced some highly original, and thought provoking arguments in favour of design. Though he won’t be publishing much else on this topic, he has left behind a pretty substantial body of work that will continue to be argued over for years to come.

References

  1. Dembski’s primary works include his first book, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (Cambridge University Press, 1998), No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (IVP,2004), The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, 2008), and Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information (Routledge, 2014). Much of his other work can be found in various articles and papers, including his more technical work with The Evolutionary Informatics Lab
  2. William Dembski, My Retirement From Intelligent Design, Available at: http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/my-retirement-from-intelligent-design/
  3. William Dembski, A New Day, Available at: https://billdembski.com/a-new-day/
  4. Sean McDowell, How is the Intelligent Design Movement Doing? Interview with William Dembski, Available at: http://seanmcdowell.org/blog/how-is-the-intelligent-design-movement-doing-interview-with-william-dembski
  5. William Dembski, Official Retirement From Intelligent Design, Available at: https://billdembski.com/
  6. The Senuous Curmudgeon, William Dembski is “Moving on”, Available at: https://sensuouscurmudgeon.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/william-dembski-is-moving-on/#comment-96947
  7. Dembski, op cit
  8. McDowell, op cit

Critic’s Corner: Kenneth Miller

Ken Miller is a cell biologist at Brown University. Miller is probably the most well known critic of ID, in part, due to his books Finding Darwin’s God and Only a Theory, his participation in the Dover trial, and his skill as an entertaining and charismatic science communicator.

Miller has vigourously sparred with many key ID proponents in print and in person for over a decade. Most of his response to ID has been directed at Michael Behe and his claims about the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum, the blood clotting cascade, and the limits of neo-Darwinian mechanisms.

Miller’s criticisms of ID seem very strong on the surface, and are often cited as knockdown arguments. However, a closer examination of his critiques reveals a lack of substance and some deep misunderstandings.

Here are Miller’s published and recorded responses to ID, followed by responses to his work from ID theorists and others:
Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution

Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul

Articles/Papers on ID 

YouTube Playlist: Ken Miller’s Lectures and Debates

Reasonable Doubts Podcast Episode: Darwin Day With Ed Brayton and Ken Miller

Testimony transcript from the Dover trial: Part 1/Part 2/Part 3/Part 4

Responses

 

A List of Selected Responses to Kenneth R. Miller

Responses to Ken Miller at Uncommon Descent

Responses to Ken Miller at Evolution News and Views

Responses from Cornelius Hunter

Responses from Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Researchand Creation Ministries International

Bradley Monton’s Responses to Ken Miller

Denyse O’Leary’s Responses

Michael Behe’s Responses

Kenneth Miller Resists Chloroquine Resitance

How Did We Get Here? (A written debate between Kenneth R. Miller and Philip E. Johnson)

Banana-Eating Moth Evolved in Less Than 1000 Years?

A Date With Ken Miller

Kenneth Miller’s Best Arguments Against Intelligent Design (accompanying lecture by Sean D. Pitman)

Truth or Dare with Dr. Ken Miller: A Lecture Guide to the Anti-Intelligent Design Claims by Dr. Kenneth Miller 

Mutilating Miller

Miller’s Meanderings: Only the Same Bogus Contentions

Dr. Kenneth Miller: Ignoring the Facts?

In addition to the above material, you can also find various points of response in most works of ID proponents.

Quote of the Month: William Dembski on the Process of Design

Each month I’ll be selecting a quote that’s relevant to the ID debate. The quote I pick could be supportive or critical of ID. Accompanying each quote will be a few of my own thoughts, but ultimately I’d like it to be a chance to focus on it and get some thoughts from readers.

This week’s quote is taken from William Dembski’s 2002 book, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence. Here Dembski attempts to give us a general account of the design process, beginning from the designer’s initial end goal and ending with the designed object:

How a designer gets from thought to thing is, at least in broad strokes, straightforward: (1) A designer conceives a purpose. (2) To accomplish that purpose, the designer forms a plan. (3) To execute the plan , the designer specifies building materials and assembly instructions. (4) Finally, the designer or some surrogate applies the assembly instructions to the building materials. What emerges is a designed object,…

(William Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence (Langham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), p.xi.)

Dembski notes that this process is uncontroversial in cases of human design at least, and that one of ID’s main objectives is to provide a criteria that we can use to infer design in cases where we lack knowledge of this design process, affectively using effect to cause reasoning.

What do readers think?

Are there additional steps that could be added to this?

And is this a good approximation of the process of design?

Does our knowledge of human design processes permit us to infer it in cases where we know that the designer wasn’t human?

Giving the Critics a Fair Hearing

It goes without saying that ID isn’t the most popular idea in the world. Since its development and increased prominence in western culture, it has been widely derided and criticised. It has many, many critics.

Among those critics are people from a wide range of disciplines including biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and journalism. ID also has the misfortune of being disliked not only by atheists and naturalists (as one might expect), but also many theistic evolutionists, and even more surprisingly, many young-earth Creationists. There are of course many within those particular groups who take the design view, or are at least sympathetic towards it, but by and large it has critics from pretty much every discipline and metaphysical position out there.

In my own research, I have examined the work of most of the main opponents of design, that is, critics who have publically tried to refute it in books, papers, articles, and debates. My tentative assessment in light of the many criticisms, is that though there are a few minor points that critics get right on rare occasions, the main pillars of ID still stand unrefuted. It’s also clear that most people just don’t even understand what ID is. They fail to make basic yet important distinctions and cannot even represent ID in a manner that truly reflects the theory. Most detractors dismiss it out of hand and don’t engage responsibly with advocates of design. Having said all that, I don’t want to give ID advocates a free pass either. I’m not always happy with the way some ID supporters engage with the opposing side. Some on the pro-ID side can overstate their case and dismiss the modern theory of evolution without fully understanding it. I will be the first to admit that I don’t fully understand all aspects of evolutionary biology, though I have a fairly decent grasp of it. I’m still learning. I think the key is humility and understanding. The fault can often be on both sides of the debate.

As I’ve said, the majority of the critics do bad job of trying to refute design theory. Are there any serious critics? Yes. But I can count the number of serious, responsible critics (those who offer very strong objections to ID), on one hand.

Though I am an ID proponent, on this blog I aim to take a balanced and honest look at this issue. The last thing this debate needs is a one-sided polemic. The arguments on both sides need to be considered fairly. One way to help aid this spirit of self criticism is to really listen to what the critics say. To make the views of the critics easily accessible, I had the idea of feature a ‘Critic’s Corner’ series on this blog. Each post will focus on a specific critic of ID, and tell you a little about them. More importantly, it will document their published work, providing links to their work relating to this topic. In addition to this I will also document some of the responses from ID theorists to the critics. This, I hope, will make it easier to follow the threads of the debate. Some may object that this will give too much space to those hostile to design. But we must first listen to, and understand them (and in some cases learn from them), before we can refute them. This can only help to improve ID and move knowledge forward.