Intelligent design news and discussion for August 10th to August 18th, 2011.
This week, the Discovery Institute did something rather strange. Well, actually, it’s been leading up to it for a while, but it was only in the last week that this trend became completely apparent: Evolution News & Views, its main blog, is now devoting serious amounts of space in its written output to posts on religion and atheism. Often these posts have seemingly little or nothing to do with the stated purpose of the blog, which is to “[provide] original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research”: it’s had a “Faith and Science” category for a while now, but the intensity of posts has reached a somewhat amusing level, most of them coming from the supernaturally-inclined mind of DI Senior Fellow David Klinghoffer.
So, in this edition of TWiID, I’ll be touching on many of the religious posts over the last week on ENV, as well as more on the bacterial flagellum (again!) and the supposed design and inspired beauty of butterfly wings.
Yes, David Klinghoffer has been rather busy of late, this week in particular, writing blog post after blog post about various religious topics: some tangentially related to ID and science, some not. Here’s an example, all about Tisha b’Av, a significant day in Judaism:
Today is the 9th day in the Hebrew month of Av, a mourning day in Judaism called Tisha b’Av, meaning simply “9th of Av.”
It’s a fast day, meaning one without food or drink for a little over 24 hours. We’ve got another few hours to go and I am thirsty. Generally, the day is explained as commemorating the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, which both fell on this day centuries apart, along with other tragedies like the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 which also occurred on Tisha b’Av. Something I realized this year, however, bears on our discussions here and particularly the veiled way that the world’s design gives witness to itself.
Now, I’m trying not be snarky, but I’m at a loss to think of the relevance of David’s Judaism to the audience of ENV. Sure, there might be a few religiously Jewish people who read the blog, but the proportion must be small indeed, at least compared to the number of Christians. But what if he’s talking about Judaism as a placeholder for other religions, other worldviews that allow for a supernatural Designer? It’s possible. He certainly uses a lot of language relatively specific to Judaism though.
Anyway, this is beside the point. How does the Discovery Institute think people will react to a piece like this? No doubt the religious members of the ID community (read: pretty much all of it), Jewish or not, would brush it off as an ID proponent’s theological interpretation of the “scientific information” ID supposedly brings to the table, but to non-religious or moderately religious people who aren’t a part of the ID movement? To them, surely this is another manifestation of the Discovery Institute’s traditional religious bias.
In other words, it’s bad PR for the DI. They’ve tried to maintain a secular image for a while now, at least since the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture changed its name to simply the Center for Science and Culture and they denied religious inspiration for the culture surrounding the ID movement and some of its arguments (even if the fundamental, core concept of ID does not necessarily have to be interpreted in a supernatural way). It’s unclear why they would allow David to write about these topics in one of their prominent online spaces.1
David confronts another religious topic – this time secularism, for some reason – in a brief post on an essay by James Wood:
A thoughtful and honest essay (“Is That All There Is? Secularism and Its Discontents”) by James Wood in The New Yorker confronts the anguished disappointment of secularism, which, it’s implied throughout, is disproportionately a gift of our Darwinian cultural heritage. I take away from the piece that much as Darwinian apologists would like us to think that the view they evangelize for includes its own comforts and sources of awe, enchantment and illumination, this is largely bunk for anyone who’s honest with himself:[…]
And he does it again in response to astrophysicist Ethan Siegel:
I propose this as a rule of thumb: You can say you’re an atheist if you want, but the rest of us have no warrant to call you that until you can show some evidence that you know something about the God you claim to reject. Perhaps there should be some sort of qualifying exam.
I’ve long been struck by how reliably the self-described atheists among our professional scientists turn out, on inspection, to reject not belief in God — no God that I would recognize, anyway — but a cartoon of God, distilled to an absurd cliché from long-ago Sunday School, or Hebrew School, lessons. Now theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel does a valuable service by writing about his beliefs and actually publishing a cartoon, by Gary Larson, representing the God he does not believe in.
Dr. Siegel teaches at Lewis & Clark College down in Portland. He writes about how he clings to his Jewish identity despite spurning belief in the “Hebrew God” because of the way Jews have been persecuted in history and wouldn’t it be small and cowardly to disavow his ancestors under those circumstances. Hm, maybe or maybe not. I don’t see how, under strictly secular assumptions, he’s doing his great-great-greatparents a favor. (Under Jewish assumptions, it’s a different matter: He’s Jewish now and forever whether he likes it or not.)
There are many other examples, but I don’t want to clog up with post with what is ostensibly irrelevant material to what the ID blogosphere should be discussing: scientifically (and philosophically, to an extent) justifying intelligent design as a viable alternative to modern evolutionary theory. What is David doing? Does anyone have any ideas? Please, let me know if you do.
This next post by Jonathan M. caught my eye (and returned it promptly). Sure, it’s nothing really all that new, just more of the same about the bacterial flagellum, intelligent design’s favourite proton-powered propulsion system. But, as with a number of pro-ID posts, if you read to the end (and I know, I know sometimes that’s a little hard to do) something interesting comes up.
Since all of the purported naturalistic “explanations” of this system fail, and since we have positive reason (i.e., our uniform and repeated experience of cause and effect) to suspect that this system might really be the product of intelligent causality, it seems to stand to reason that the design inference be regarded as a scientifically plausible point of view.
The flagellum is a system that has been regarded by many as irreducibly complex — that is to say, it requires a minimal cohort of its parts in order to retain functional utility. For example, without a protein called FliK, both the ability to switch and export filament and the hook-length control are completely lost. Likewise, in the absence of the cap protein FliD, the flagellin monomers are lost from the cell.
Since there is essentially no evidence that a system as complex and sophisticated as flagellar assembly could have arisen by virtue of a mutation/selection mechanism, how can we be so sure that it did evolve in that fashion? If the flagellum gives the overwhelming appearance of having been designed by an intelligent agent, are we not justified in inferring design until a more compelling candidate explanation (which better explains the data) is offered?
I honestly sometimes think that I could write a whole book about paragraphs like that last one. It’s fascinating, you know, because it’s a strange error that’s made. On the surface, the claim sounds somewhat reasonable, yet… there’s just something that seems not quite right, even to someone without any formal or informal training in the philosophy of science. The claim is near the heart of the core set of ID arguments, yet it rarely gets articulated fully. And there’s probably a reason why proponents prefer to subtly imply it.
“Inferring design until a more compelling candidate explanation is offered”. If ID were any other hypothesis – better yet, any scientific hypothesis – this line of reasoning wouldn’t be a problem. I mean, all science is provisional, so it’s necessary for hypotheses – and even theories – to be temporary inferences that hold until the time potentially comes to give way to better ones. So what’s so special about ID? Well, the problem is that it doesn’t really do much apart from inferring “design”. The major DI names pretty much all agree (from what I can tell) that ID doesn’t have a place discussing the motives, qualities, abilities or character of the Designer. It can’t tell us how the Designer did anything at all, just that design happened and some nebulous, nondescript Designer did it.
This means that ID is a one-point idea, the period at the end of a sentence that just says: “Design.” It doesn’t build up from that initial speck, and therefore it doesn’t lead anywhere. In contrast, evolutionary theory is not a one-point idea. It goes into detail about evolutionary processes and mechanisms, the likely outcomes of these processes, how they affect organisms in the present, how they affected them in the past and how we can expect them to affect life in the future. We can draw on information from supported evolutionary models to complete conceptual pictures of biochemistry, genetics, developmental biology, ecology, etc. – the list goes on. Evolution is not an unchanging idea with no consequences: it underlies much of what we currently know about biology and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.
So when a philosopher of biology says that a certain evolutionary model is, technically, a placeholder for a potential future explanation that explains the data better, it doesn’t devalue that model. But when an ID proponent claims that ID should be inferred as a placeholder hypothesis until a potential future explanation based on evolutionary theory comes about, ID suddenly looks very weak. With no predictive power or ability to contribute to our knowledge of biology, it has nothing with which to compete when an alternative hypothesis is suggested.
There are maybe some parallels to draw here with the “God of the Gaps” reasoning used by some theistic apologists, but I don’t think I need to spell them out, they’re fairly obvious. As much as they love to deny it, ID proponents really are pushing for a Designer of the Gaps.
The last post this week, by the ever-anonymous Evolution News & Views, is another interesting-last-paragraph case. What if ID could be inferred from the beauty of an organism? How about butterflies and their wings?
The paper was published in Angewandte Chemie (Wiley Online Library) on July 21. The summary stated, “This approach converts complicated natural 3D bioorganic structures into various otherwise unavailable metal structures with optical, electronic, magnetic, thermal, or catalytic applications.” We can look forward to amazing color-changing materials in days ahead, thanks to the design in butterfly wings.
Implicit in these efforts is the assumption that natural designs are good and useful. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” it is often said. But in this case, who is being imitated and flattered? The butterfly? No insect has the capacity to plan out its photonic crystals, wings, antennae, compound eyes or other elaborate structures. Much less does natural selection or any other unguided natural process have such a power.
Designs with functions as effective and beautiful as a flashing butterfly wing point to a designing intelligence that understands both function and beauty that other designing intelligences would appreciate and would wish to imitate.
Now, is our eponymous friend really suggesting that the beauty of butterfly wings is evidence for design? Or is beauty a characteristic of organisms that allows us to learn something about the Designer? Either option doesn’t sit well with me. The first option is problematic because beauty is somewhat of a subjective quality (perhaps the most subjective quality of human experience), so drawing solid, logical and supposedly scientific conclusions from it is probably not the best idea.2 The second option is problematic because beauty is not a predictively useful characteristic unless you already know of a candidate Designer who has beautiful design inclinations, and if you’re not using beauty to predict, then it’s useless in terms of informing you about the nature of the Designer until you actually establish that the Designer exists and is responsible for the particular biological trait deemed beautiful.
Plus, as I mentioned earlier, don’t most ID proponents agree that ID cannot tell us anything about the Designer, except that it exists? So what does this make the design argument from beauty? External to ID? Theology? Superanthropology? Dembski, Behe, Luskin, Meyer: let me know.
Rapid fire ID news!
- Darwinists hate Cars 2! Some ID proponents can’t identify satire!
- Want some rather pleasant prose about why determinism seems a bit wrong? VJ Torley has you covered. Don’t expect real arguments though.
- In which Denyse O’Leary comes off a bit paranoid.
- “Lizzie”, eh? That nickname’s a bit too cute for my liking.
- It has even been suggested to me by a friend that the Discovery Institute may be asking David to write about religion. If that’s true, the mind truly boggles. ↩
- The design argument from beauty (as it shall now be known) smacks of Christian apologetics. Am I the only person to think this? Surely not. ↩