Thursday, February 10, 2005

Dangers of Dismissing Design

Memorial of St. Scholastica

In the last week there's been a big debate in Kansas over changing science standards, noted evolutionist Ernst Mayr died, and the school boards in Dover, PA and Cobb County, GA, among others, have faced resistance to their challenging the exclusivity of evolution in understanding creation. This confluence of events recently has brought us pieces by Rabbi Gerald Zelizer and Dr. Michael Behe (NYT free registration req'd) centered on the renewed alternative theory of intelligent design. Many dismiss this out of hand as a case of religion meddling where it has no business, where a new face has been put on the "disproved" idea of creationism. They are quite mistaken.

Rabbi Zelizer correctly notes that there are commonalities between evolution and intelligent design:
In both, life emanates from the sea. In both, the composition of human beings shares much with the dust of the Earth. In both, the end result is a human species capable of contemplating its own life and death and making moral choices. In both, creation of forms also results from a process and not exclusively from a sudden event.
He then goes on:

Yet, the gaps between the theories of evolution and intelligent design overwhelm any overlap. Evolution makes specific propositions that are testable, provable and disprovable through a measurable and observable process that takes place in nature. That categorizes it as a science.
So far, so good.

Intelligent design, on the other hand, cannot be proved or disproved by natural evidence because its design is supernatural. That categorizes it as religion.
Say what? Granted that the framework of intelligent design appears to beg a question, but as Dr. Behe, one of the primary proponents of design as an explanation for biological systems and author of Darwin's Black Box, notes:

[T]he theory of intelligent design is not a religiously based idea, even though devout people opposed to the teaching of evolution cite it in their arguments... Intelligent design proponents do question whether random mutation and natural selection completely explain the deep structure of life. But they do not doubt that evolution occurred. And intelligent design itself says nothing about the religious concept of a creator.
Here is the crux of the matter. Evolutionists have been nearly uniform in their responses to the concept of design. Their absolute resistance makes initial legitimate sense because of the concern whether design and non-design can be demarcated reliably. In particular, scientists worry that one day they may ascribe something to be of design only to have that assessment overruled sometime later. They cover their concern, however, by attacking intelligent design as being inherently subjective and inaccessible to the scientific method. Well, as described by Dr. William Dembski, author of Uncommon Dissent, they have been called:
There now exists a rigorous criterion--complexity-specification--for distinguishing intelligently caused objects from unintelligently caused ones. Many special sciences already use this criterion, though in a pre-theoretic form (e.g., forensic science, artificial intelligence, cryptography, archeology, and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). The great breakthrough in philosophy of science and probability theory of recent years has been to isolate and make precise this criterion.
Explicating the criterion is quite involved and more than I want to get into here. A full account is presented in Dr. Dembski's book, The Design Inference. The general method to detect design includes observing choice among competing possibilities, noting the possibilities that were rejected, and being able to specify the possibility selected. The competing possibilities rejected must be sufficiently numerous, real (live) possibilities to provide complexity so that the possibility chosen cannot be dismissed as nothing more than chance.

Now, hold on. Wait a minute. An objective criterion... that means... A research framework to investigate cosmological and biological origins. Accessible to empiricism and the thought experiment. Repeatable, reproducible hypothesis testing. Hmmmm... Sounds a lot like the Rabbi's definition of science.

So do we throw evolutionary science away? Definitely not. Intelligent design has hardly been developed enough to supplant it as the new paradigm for workaday investigations of origins. But there are areas in which to begin.

There are weaknesses regarding complexity in evolution theory, which relies on undirected, random mutation. Weaknesses that can be addressed by a science of intelligent design. Sure there are explanations offered within the evolutionary framework, but today's invocations of complexity and self-organization theories strike me as eerily similar to the epicycles on epicycles of Ptolemaic orbits. Is intelligent design "correct?" Who knows? I do know that there will be a shift away from Darwinism. Perhaps not in my lifetime, but bank on it. The current establishment's denial will only serve to delay the inevitable, natural selection.

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