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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Orson Card and Kurt Vonnegut: You Bet There's Design

Orson Scott Card weighs in on the controversy around intelligent design in his essay, "Creation and Evolution in the Schools." I think he makes some great points in clarifying what the debate is really all about. Sadly, the real argument behind intelligent design has been largely mischaracterized and prematurely dismissed as if it were just a repackaged form of fundamentalist creation in six 24-hour days. It certainly is not.

Over the weekend I also heard part of an NPR interview with Kurt Vonnegut. While he's far from Christian, he said that teaching intelligent design in the classroom is something worth thinking about, for it's absolutely obvious that this amazing experience of life on earth is not just a random accident, but that something is going on here, something that demonstrates design. Kurt, you've got that right.

I marvel at the hysterical fear of using the "D word" in some educational and scientific circles. How those poor children would be wrecked for life if they graduated from our schools thinking that science hadn't absolutely eliminated God.

I recognize that complex interactions can arise through random processes, and that complexity in a system per se is not sufficient evidence of external design. However, the universe, earth, and life itself appears to have been permeated with level after level of design to even allow natural selection or other engines of change to operate in the first place. To me, the argument from intelligent design about the weakness of the Darwinian model in accounting for the origins of complex biochemical processes and for the origins of many aspects of life is analogous to the difficulties one would face in mapping out an evolutionary rise of the modern bicycle from an ancestral tricycle. There is no pathway that connects the two with a series of minor mutations, each of which offers an incremental advantage. For example, a mutation that removes the pedals from a wheel will fail unless a chain is also added to engage the pedals with a wheel, and the chain will do no good unless there are teeth on both the pedal assembly and the wheel to engage the chain. In fact, for almost all key features of the bicycle, manufacturing mutations leading to those features would be harmful to the overall marketing success of the product unless multiple mutations occurred at once to achieve a useful end. For this to happen over and over by chance stretches credulity.

Bicycles and tricycles are vastly more simple than proteins, cells, mammals, orchids, and the relationships between the various properties of matter. When someone proposes a reasonable series of manufacturing mutations to create - or evolve - a bicycle from a tricycle or both from a common ancestor (the early Michelin stone wheel, perhaps?), wherein each mutation offers an incremental advantage in customer satisfaction or at least marketability, ensuring that the mutation will be rewarded with higher market share, then I think those who dismiss intelligent design will have a slightly stronger case. Until then, I'm staying away from randomly-generated vehicles.

38 comments:

will said...

Jeff says: ...it's absolutely obvious that this amazing experience of life on earth is not just a random accident, but that something is going on here, something that demonstrates design.

The fact that something is "absolutely obvious" to most people doesn't make it true. For most of human history, it was absolutely obvious that the world was flat.

The irreducible complexity argument has an intuitive appeal, but it doesn't hold up to scrutiny. In fact, a federal court, after days of expert testimony, found it to be specious. (See Kitzmiller v. Dover, search for irreducible complexity)

annegb said...

Jeff, thank you for saying what I think, but am too dumb to say. Good job.

Craig Atkinson said...

No educated person since as far back as the Greeks has thought that the earth is flat. This is a myth propogated by an author at the turn of of the 20th century who wanted to highlight Columbus' accomplishments by making seem as if he had overcome some ancient belief. The fact is all educated people during Columbus' time knew that the earth was round.

Ryan said...

Will:

The fact that "a federal court, after days of expert testimony," found something to be "specious" definitely doesn't prove it false. Call me a cynic when it comes to lawyers, lobbyists and rhetoric, especially on controversial subjects. Remind me again which Supreme Court ruling determined that black people were not citizens and had no rights?

However, I agree that real I.D., while not the thinly veiled revival of creationism it's been painted as, is a philosophy and should not be taught as science. I also happen to believe it's a much better philosophy for the origin of species than Darwinism.

Science makes a lousy philosophy, in my opinion.

Ryan said...

Years ago (before ever hearing of I.D) I took a college biology course that delved into all kinds of gory details about cell makeup and chemistry, among other things, and was repeatedly struck by how unsatisfying an explanation Darwinism is for, say, the electron transfer chain.

Does anyone know of a not-dumbed-down explanation of how that particular bit of chemistry might have arisen incrementally, or what selective pressures could have developed the pieces latently so that they could be assembled in one shot at a later point?

Ryan said...

Sorry for the spam... last thought:

People started taking Einstein seriously when he showed he could correct a well-known shortcoming of Newtonian physics -- explaining certain orbital behaviors of the planet Mercury.

It would be nice if those preaching Darwinism were willing discuss its shortcomings (or at least the fact that they exist) in science classes. The scientific method is based on the idea that insights come when we examine the weak spots in a theory. Dogma is dangerous because unwillingness to consider weaknesses or contradictions prevents a theory from progressing.

John said...

When I was back in school, I was struck by the beauty of one of the unique attributes of water-- to expand when it freezes. This is a property very few other substances exhibit, but one which is extremely important. The buoyant force keeps the less-dense section of ice at the top rather than the upwelling which occurs in other substances which leads to a solid mass throughout. Animal life is, therefore, enabled to survive in the liquid beneath the ice sheet. I'm so greatful that evolution can explain water's steady adaptation over the thousands of years to change it's physical properties to allow all manner of life to survive. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Ryan outlines what scientists biggest problem with ID is, namely that it is a philosophy that has not been experimentally proven. I know plenty of scientists who believe that God was intimately involved in the creation of man and the world but in the world of science what you can reproducibly demonstrate is currency, what you believe counts for nothing. ID is psuedo-science, it may be true but until it can be proven with the scientific method leave teaching it out of SCIENCE classes. I also agree that the weaknesses of Darwinian evolution should be eloborated on in greater detail than they currently are.

emarkp said...

Sadly, the real argument behind intelligent design has been largely mischaracterized and prematurely dismissed as if it were just a repackaged form of fundamentalist creation in six 24-hour days. It certainly is not.
Actually, in the case of "Of Pandas and People" it very much is. When I read it, I told my wife "it's like they did a search and replace of the entire book and replaced 'creationism' with 'intelligent design'". I later found out that court documents determined precisely that.

jeff g said...

Well, if two fiction writers who are totally unqualified in the scientific and philosophical issues at hand say so, it's good enough for me. ;-p

Bookslinger said...

Evolution has not been experimentally proven either.

I forget the details, but I remember hearing from my high school biology teacher that scientific evidence against evolution is ignored all the time. And in the medical field, many doctors who believe that God was intimately involved in creation, also have pointed out that evidence against evolution is constantly ignored, and not given press.

Capt. Obsidian said...

Evolution does make claims that can be experimentally proven or disproven. Talk Origins has a great page that lists several of these claims.

Personally, I think that evolution can stand on its own merits as an explanation for how life has diversified into what currently exists (note: evolution does not deal with the origins of life). The fossil and DNA evidence in favor of evolution is certainly overwhelming.

That said, there is nothing in evolution that prohibits God from having a hand in it (in fact I believe He probably did). The problem arises when you try to invoke some sort of deity as the cause (such as with ID) in a public school. Doing so means that the government (which runs the school) is endorsing one religion (or set of religions) over others.

Capt. Obsidian said...

Also, Jeff's little analogy about the bicycle is a classic example of the "irreducible complexity" (IC) argument. When looked at critically, IC does not hold up, as done in this article.

Bookslinger said...

"Evolution does make claims that can be experimentally proven or disproven."

No, we have NOT seen proven claims of evolution since Darwin.

Only random mutations and small variablity, in which favorable changes can be passed on. We've seen "selectivity" and survival of the fittest. But evolution, per se, of one species evolving ever so slowly into another, has NOT been proven, or observed.

"The fossil and DNA evidence in favor of evolution is certainly overwhelming."

When you apply assumptions over a wider base of observation points, you are still assuming.

And, there is still no proof. Fossil evidence consists mainly of lining up fossils in a row such that they represent a pattern of progression, and then ASSUMING that one descended from the other.

There is evidence and there is interpretation of the evidence. Evolution is merely one interpretation of the fossil record.

Since we have no human (or otherwise intelligent) written record from the times that the fossil records appear to have been laid down, any theories are merely educated guesses.

It's fun to guess. I like pondering the complexities of "life, the Universe, and everything," and coming up with ideas.

My problem is that evolution is taught as fact, when it is but a theory.

Honest geneticists and cellular biologists also admit that much has to be assumed on the genetic level to believe that organisms of one species can be descended from, no matter how far removed, organisms of an entirely different species.

The studies of DNA and cell nuclei that generate doubts about the plausibility of evolution don't get much publicity in the media or get mentioned much in academic texts.

"Doing so means that the government (which runs the school) is endorsing one religion (or set of religions) over others."

I think that's a good case for getting government out of schools.

Clark Goble said...

I marvel at the hysterical fear of using the "D word" in some educational and scientific circles. How those poor children would be wrecked for life if they graduated from our schools thinking that science hadn't absolutely eliminated God.

This seems a misunderstanding of the situation. What scientists fear is people changing science to fit political whims and having no understanding of science. They feel that science education and understanding and worry, justifiably, that this trend will make things worse.

The way things are God simply isn't mentioned and frankly God hasn't been eliminating, just not referenced. The problem is that if the concern is over eliminating God, that presupposes that science class is the place to discuss God. If you feel it is, then which God? And don't you then, by extension, have to give atheism the same right? In other words won't the effect actually make discussion about how science might eliminate God (the position of Dawkins and others) suddenly taught in school whereas before it wasn't?

Clark Goble said...

No, we have NOT seen proven claims of evolution since Darwin.

My problem is that evolution is taught as fact, when it is but a theory.

Not to repeat the oft made discussions, but this fundamentally misunderstands science. Science doesn't prove anything. So evolution hasn't been proven but neither has gravity, the laws of electromagnetism nor the solar-centric solar system.

To say evolution is a theory is true, but unless you explain what a scientific theory is (as opposed to how the word is used in common discussions) it doesn't mean much. For instance to differentiate between theory and fact illustrates this problem since all facts are theories to a scientist.

Walker said...

I know nothing of science (I've put off taking Bio 100 for a long time).

But a political solution (a cuss word for this discussion, but a necessary one nonetheless) would be to include a simple proviso, one paragraph long in the front of the textbook. It could simply say that "some scientists do not believe that the earth's complexities have come through evolution but through a higher power."

Just a thought.

Clark Goble said...

Walker, the problem then becomes (among many) mixing religion and state. i.e. I think most courts would take this as unconstitutional.

Walker said...

I hear you. To me, I guess (and I'm certainly no court), that is not mixing but simply a recognition of a pluralistic society, e pluribus plure at its best. The paragraph could even weight the statement in favor of evolution ("there is much evidence supporting evolutionary theory; however, some scientists see this evidence as...) It's acknowledging the presence of another school of thought, and then letting them duke it out in a "survival of the fittest" (I crack myself up), which is what I thought an education was all about.

But ah well, I guess with the current legal climate, folks will have to teach that in the home (and with more academic rigor than the schools, lest the kids begin believing the teacher over mom and dad).

Bookslinger said...

"Not to repeat the oft made discussions, but this fundamentally misunderstands science. Science doesn't prove anything. So evolution hasn't been proven but neither has gravity, the laws of electromagnetism nor the solar-centric solar system."

You're ignoring my points.

Gravity, electromagnetism, and the solar-centric solar system are OBSERVABLE. We've SEEN them and measured them.

Noboday has ever SEEN evolution. Like I said, the closest anyone has come to "seeing" evolution, is lining up fossils in a pattern, pointing a finger, and saying "Aha! There's evolution!"

Not so, says I. That's a bunch of fossils that you've lined up. Yes, I see a pattern formed by how you've lined them up. But you have nothing to justify pointing to one and saying "That's the daddy," and pointing to another and saying "That's the baby."

Bookslinger said...

" For instance to differentiate between theory and fact illustrates this problem since all facts are theories to a scientist."

I think most of the public understands the difference between theory and generally accepted facts.

The problem is how text-book writers, teachers and journalists present evolution.

Ask 1000 high school students who've just finished a biology class whether evolution is a theory or a fact, and I'd bet 95% of them will say it's a fact.

Ask 1000 college students who've just finished a college level biology class and I'd bet 98% of them will say evolution is generally accepted as a fact.

The problem are :
1) that schools, at all levels, are teaching evolution as either fact, or generally accepted fact.

2) "exculpatory evidence" or evidence against evolution is not presented.

3) that evolution is presented as the only possible explanation for the diversity of life forms on the planet.

Clark Goble said...

Two points Bookslinger.

1. No one has seen gravity. People have inferred gravity from falling objects. People have inferred that gravity is universal despite not having seen the entire universe.

2. One doesn't have to "see," as you put it, to know. If you think science does then you simply have an erroneous view of how science functions. Most scientific knowledge is indirect and inferential. As such evolution is simply not unusual.

Clark Goble said...

I think most of the public understands the difference between theory and generally accepted facts.

Unfortunately I don't think the general public has the foggiest notion what constitutes a scientific theory.

Ask 1000 high school students who've just finished a biology class whether evolution is a theory or a fact, and I'd bet 95% of them will say it's a fact.

Actually I'm very confident that they wouldn't say that. Indeed I'd be extremely surprised if the number who call it a fact were much different than the number of believe in it according to national surveys. Those polls suggest that the majority don't believe in evolution.

I wish it were otherwise because I think the education level in all science in the country is horrible. Which is why many scientists are so concerned about activists trying to assert (wrongly) what is or isn't science into science curriculums.

that evolution is presented as the only possible scientific explanation for the diversity of life forms on the planet.

I added that bolded "scientific" because that's the issue. ID isn't science.

But as I recall I've been through this with you before. So I'll not get back into the circular debate. The fundamental issue is what is or isn't science.

Jason said...

"Survival of the fittest does not explain arrival of the fittest."

Another thing: if science was allowed to assume that there was indeed an unobservable designer, think of the possibilities of questions! Scientists would no longer be restricted to the narrow focus of things that have no need for God. The horizons of possibilities would expand: is all life descended from one common source? Or are there several basic sources from which all the variety of life descends, and if so, what might those be? Is there really a spiritual life force in all living things? How might that work? How might we observe the spirit? If there is such a spirit, when does it enter the physical body? When does it leave? What causes it to leave? Can it come back if it hasn't been gone for long? Is this solar system random? Or was the solar system designed to be a precise system to keep the earth aligned? Or does it go beyond that, maybe as a precision time-piece for the measuring of certain "special" days and epochs. What are those special days, and how often do they occur?
The possibilites are endless.

Science could greatly benefit if we were just able to get rid of the atheist extremists running it. (same thing could be said about our government)

Jason said...

Another comment that has nothing to do with evolution vs creation. (I guess it kind of does)

The first ammendment never says that religion (and the press) has to stay out of government. It only says that government can't control religion (or the press).

Nowhere in the constitution is there even a hint of any "high and impregnable wall between church and state," whithout which "all the evils of humanity would be unleashed."

God does not need to be kept out of schools for whatever reason. It's not like God is evil or anything. What's evil is politcal correctness. I think I'm arguing a mute point though, so anyway, good day.

Ryan said...

I agree that the general public tends to be ignorant of what makes a "theory." A lot of people do understand the fact that a theory must be falsifiable (risk conflicting with observations) but there's a subtle assumption behind it:

The scientific method does not try to discover Truth in the philosophical sense. By definition it cannot. A theory only seeks the simplest explanation or model that fits the observed data well enough to do its job.

Take classical Newtonian gravity. Whatever the Truth behind gravitation might be, we know it's not Newton -- it has gaps and relativity fills most of them in. But, it works just fine for most normal situations, so we still use it.

Similarly, the theory of evolution cannot claim to be the Truth behind speciation; that would be dabbling in philosophy. It is an observational tool that does its job well enough for the moment.

Ryan said...

When we start releasing HCP (hexachlorophenol) into the environment -- assuming the stuff exists -- evolution predicts that some organism will eventually begin metabolizing it.

Great. When? Who knows -- probably a while. How? Probably using similar proteins to the ones for PCP, but you never know -- it could turn out to be something completely unexpected.

This lack of lack of predictive power is frustrating. Evolution does fine at cataloguing what we've already observed, but doesn't precisely predict, say, previously unknown branches (not links) in the fossil record, or the rise of new disease strains. I can't count the number of surprises and nonevents bird flu has thrown at science's predictions over the last couple of years.

Maybe that's the price to pay for basing the whole thing off of random processes -- you can only extract statistics from it.

Clark Goble said...

Ryan, the issue of truth in science is a tad more complex than you let on. I'd also dispute whether there is a scientific method. The simple view taught in High School and to Freshmen really isn't terribly accurate.

I think many scientists will talk contradictorily about scientific theories. Some will say they aren't true but are the best explanation. But simultaneously many will take established theories as "true" in the typical sense.

What I think ends up happening is that truth isn't taken to be universal in application. That is that scientists are cautious about stating laws with universal application. I think the problems with Newton's laws taught them that.

Yet in every day language we use truth in a more limited sense as well. We sometimes talk in absolute universalist terms, but we rarely mean it, from what I can see. Generally by true we mean true in the significant cases we encounter.

Clark Goble said...

Ryan, I think evolution theory makes numerous predictions. The fact it can't make accurate specific predictions of the sort you describe isn't necessarily a bad thing. And I don't think any scientist would argue evolution ought make those sorts of predictions.

To make an analogy, quantum mechanics in the double slit experiment can't predict everything you might ask. It doesn't mean it can't make predictions.

It seems odd to criticize a theory simply because it doesn't make the predictions some might wish. When theories involve probabilities in serious ways (whether quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, evolution or even economics) then absolute prediction is impossible. However the absolute determinism that I think characterizing scientific thinking or at least ideals in the 19th century has largely been rejected in the 20th.

I think one problem evolution has in the public is that it goes against those kinds of Newtonian assumptions. (And realistically it was in opposition to it socially amongst scientists even in the late 19th century)

As I pointed out in my answer to "Bookslinger," many people critique science for not being what they think science ought be. However it seems that if we are to deal with science we have to at least deal with how science presents itself. And science simply never claims that truth (or accuracy) arrives out of absolute deductive observation and prediction.

jeff g said...

Clark and all,

"Science doesn't prove anything."

Actually, it does. It can prove can a given claim is not true. This is very important for all attempts at covering the appearances explained by evolution by some other means have all failed. Many of these attempts are not only unsatisfactory but have infact been disconfirmed, or in other words PROVEN wrong.

Plain and simple, most persons who are not guided by motives or emotions do consider evolution (not necessarily its paths or mechanisms, but its fact) to have been sufficiently established to really be beyond doubt.

The hypotheses known as Young earth creationism, Special creationism and Intelligent design have all been disconfirmed. In other words, the most straight forward versions of these theories have been DISPROVEN. Perhaps the last one can be saved in some, as of yet unseen, form, but this does not change the aforementioned fact.

Clark Goble said...

Jeffrey, wasn't the whole point of Kuhn's work to argue against that position (which was largely Popper's)?

I think in practice of course we do think we falsify. But then in practice we think we can prove close enough as well. (i.e. verify) But I'm not at all convinced that falsification is easier or more possible than verification.

jeff g said...

Well, I do think that falsification is easier than confirmation, as well as more informative, I do acknowledge that the issue is far more complex than Popper's notion of falsification suggests. That is why I acknowledged that some form of ID might still be salvaged.

That said, however, pretty much any form of Young earth creationism and Special creationism really have been disconfirmed beyond any reasonable doubt. The most straight forward version of ID also has been disconfirmed.

My position is that these falsifications are not merely apparent, but actual.

ltbugaf said...

Jeffrey: As a nonscientist, I want to make sure I understand your position: You're saying the idea that the earth and the life on it was brought about by an intelligent being has been DISPROVEN?

Ryan said...

Clark:

"I'd also dispute whether there is a scientific method. The simple view taught in High School and to Freshmen really isn't terribly accurate."

I'm using the view taught to graduate students (I am one) for guiding in experimental methodology. The approach stems from John R. Platt's landmark article "Strong Inference" (Science, 1964). He asserts there most certainly is a scientific method, and I believe him.

See http://256.com/gray/docs/strong_inference.html

"What I think ends up happening is that truth isn't taken to be universal in application."

There was a reason I wrote "Truth," not "truth." My whole problem with the current trend in evolution is that it is taught as if it disproved what I consider to be a universal Truth -- the existence and continuing oversight of God.

I don't believe the actual theory of evolution does that -- just the philosophy of evolution. Like I said before, it's a tool, and very useful at what it's meant for.

Ryan said...

"When theories involve probabilities in serious ways... then absolute prediction is impossible."

Of course. I was just pointing out the theory is likely incomplete. Other theories -- including quantum mechanics -- make very strong predictions about what missing things (particles, types of stars, reactions) have not been observed and how to look for them. My limited understanding of evolution is that it does not provide this.

This also illustractes the fact that a theory can't be universal Truth, because it doesn't give all the answers. We dont' want it to -- too complicated for everyday use!

Ryan said...

Itbugaf:

What they proved was that completely unscientific statements were being passed off as science.

Clark:

As an aside, randomness is just a cop-out (more scientifically, a "negative property") we use when faced with complex phenomina.

It means either "I don't (completely) know what's going on" or "I don't care to (completely) model what's going on."

Two exceedingly useful things to be able to say, but let's not forget we're saying them. By definition we can make no scientific statement about the pattern behind the randomness, even if we have suspicions (or beliefs) about it.

jeff g said...

Itbugaf,

To be completely accurate I said that young earth creationism and special creation have been about as disproved as we could ever hope anything to be. ID leans in that direction, but not quite as far. My position is that the most straight forward version of ID has been disconfirmed to an extent that really leaves little room for doubt as to its insufficiency.

I take the 'most straight forward version' of ID to be:

1) The quantity and quality of complexity which we observe in the world could only be the result of intentional design, not mindless processes or algorithms.
2) This design requires, or at least strongly suggests a designer, an intelligent designer.
3) This designer is God.

I know that the ID movement doesn't say (3), but I've never heard any IDer ever suggest that the designer was anybody other than God.

Not there are certain flaws in such reasoning and there have also been disconfirmations of some of these hypotheses.

flaws in reasoning:

A) (1) is an argument based in ignorance and personal incredulity. It amounts to saying "I don't believe that X could have been created without a designer" or "We haven't yet discovered how X could have been created w/o a desinger." This is simply a designer of the gaps argument.

See here for a host of other methodological flaws which I listed in a recent post:

http://mormonevolution.blogspot.com/2006/01/failure-of-argument-from-design.html

Now for the disconfirmations:

I) Simulations have shown that what in hind sight appears to be irreducible complexity CAN be created through totally mindless processes.

II) Many of the designs which we observe in nature, many of which seem just as complex as the examples which IDers favor, do not manifest intelligence at all. Instead they manifest a significant degree of anticipatory blindness. No intelligent person would ever design our eyes the way they are.

III) Many of the designs display a significant amount of cruelty. While may of these designs might serve their purpose well, they do it in a way which no loving intelligence would have ever choosen to design. I one will deny that the designer is responsible for these complex designs they have undermined their own argument to a very large degree.

IV) Related to (1) the paths of evolution for many of the preferred examples of ID have since been discovered to a degree which disconfirms the ID hypothesis. Many of Behe's examples from his book (wherein the whole argument is based on "in the journals exactly zero articles describe the evolution of X) have since got by the way.

V) Behe's suggestion that the genes for 'potential design' that were alway present but only later 'turned on' by a designer is simply untenable. Luckily most IDers don't mention it, but at Behe had the guts to actually put forth a positive account of ID unlike anybody else.

Perhaps most importantly, as I said in my above comment, ID is pretty much just as much in conflict with Genesis as is neoDarwinism. According to ID, human do descend from earlier hominids, there was death before the fall, there was no original Adam, kinds are not seperate and distinct, the earth and the life upon it are VERY ancient, and so on. Given this, why are religious people so anxious to buy into ID? Why don't they insist on some form of "God-directed" gravity, divine chemistry or intelligent earth centrism, for the secular alternatives to these call upon a creator just as often as does evolution?

My conclusion is that while I suppose that some form of ID can be salvaged from the rubble, the most straight forward version has to a large extent been disconfirmed.

Suchaad said...

The real question isn't about which Intelligent Design or creationist theory is right but whether or not a science book for use in our schools should mention them as theories.

I believe that science books must mention other explanations of life including ID to give the students a well rounded approach to the debate. While many say that science classes should not deal with the "un-proven", the fact remains that no US junior high school or high school has a "philosophy" requirement for graduation. Science class is the only time for a text book or science teacher to bring up the debate.

If we close our childrens eye's how will they see?