Saturday, December 22, 2007

How about some (relatively) intelligent discussion about "Intelligent Design"?

I wrote this awhile back-- when and just after I had prepared for a debate on-campus. The debate was between relatively educated lay-people: me vs. a physics professor, (and if I remember correctly) a high school science teacher, and a lawyer for the Indiana version of the ACLU.

But this seems appropriate to add to the blog with my posting last night on Evolution and ID...

I suspect that very few on either side of the public debate have any idea what Intelligent Design actually proposes. In all of the froth, I’ve heard a lot of what seemed to be reflexive and hyperbolic responses. I’m just an economist (although I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night), but the summaries of ID that I’ve read sound compelling to me. Maybe it’s my ignorance—or maybe it’s my liberal mind. On the other side, maybe it’s their knowledge—or maybe it’s their conservative minds.

Evolution vs. Intelligent Design

It seems to me that the term “Evolution” refers to two different but related areas within science. (In the public arena, scientists often conflate the two—either because they are, in fact, not all that different, or because it is troubling to admit the distinction.)

On the one hand, Evolution is a fully observable mechanism by which life evolves in modest increments over time. In this manifestation, Evolution is an indisputable scientific theory, eminently supported on empirical grounds.

On the other hand, Evolution is also used to refer to a largely unobservable process by which today’s range of life supposedly developed from the earliest days on the earth. In this case, Evolution is a hypothesis, proposing that the origins and development of life have been an unguided process (or a process guided by the mechanism of natural selection). The masses often see Evolution as powerful [in varying degrees] but not comprehensive—compatible with theism in a mix often called “theistic evolution”. As such, Evolution uses pieces of scientific explanation to draw inferences and construct a compelling story—as a proposed interpretation of history.

As Ernst Mayr put it: “Darwin introduced historicity into science. Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science—the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place. Laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. Instead, one constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain.”

“Intelligent Design” fully accepts Evolution in the former sense. But it proposes the alternative hypothesis to the latter sense—that some chapters in the development of life were a guided process, caused by an intelligent designer of some sort. This too is intuitively compelling. When one sees something complicated and meaningful (e.g., Mount Rushmore), it is easy and reasonable to infer that it was designed. As today’s most famous evolutionist, Richard Dawkins, has said: what we see today has “the appearance of being designed”. So, the question is whether the apparent design is a reality or merely an illusion.

Scientific endeavors routinely use evidence of “intelligent design” in many accepted contexts—from code-breaking to the search for life outside our universe (are the data in patterns or random?), to arson and murder investigations (was it an accident or intentional?), and to archaeology (is the rock a tool or merely a stone?). Economist Steven Levitt’s recent best-seller, Freakanomics, contains another set of relevant examples. And some scientists are busy in a search for intelligence outside our universe. So, it does not seem at all unreasonable to posit the existence of other unseen agents that may have operated in the past.

Interestingly and ironically, Steve Walsh and Thomas Demere (in their brochure for the National Center for Science Education—from what I can tell, the primary educational arm defending Evolution), write that “Scientists who investigate the past must proceed in the same way that detectives work when solving crimes without witnesses. In such cases, detectives must assume that no supernatural forces were involved.” True enough, but they also look for evidence of design!

What Is “Intelligent Design” Theory?

Dembski argues that all events are explained by chance, necessity (law), and/or design. Sometimes, an event is influenced by all three. For example, a coin flip is a function of design (e.g., the decision to flip the coin in a certain manner), law (e.g., the impact of gravity on the flight of the coin), and chance (the outcome). Chance is determined by applications of the laws of probability. Law is determined by various (and sometimes competing) laws of nature. Design, when it occurs, relates to the actions and impact of an intelligent being’s choices. Design theory seeks evidence for design while ruling out chance and law.

To find evidence for probable design, Dembski discusses “specified complexity”. First, does the seeming pattern have “specification”—possessing a meaning as a whole that extends beyond its parts. For example, EVOLUTION fits this criterion more easily than VLOUOENTI. Second, what is the likelihood that the pattern developed by chance? A simple pattern is more likely the product of chance than a complex pattern. And to the extent that the pattern can be explained by “law” (e.g., does one letter necessarily follow another?), then design cannot as easily be inferred. (E.g., if every word that begins with E also ends in VOLUTION, then that pattern provides little or no evidence of design.) As a closing example, “SaDF865afa2;5’twls./>:” is complex but lacks specification; EVOLUTION has specification but is not especially complex; and the U.S. Constitution has both complexity and specification.

Two areas where this relates to science. First, what is the likelihood that DNA involved a designer? DNA has specification, is not based on law, and is staggeringly complex. What is the likelihood that DNA assembled by chance in the first cell? Essentially zero. If not law or chance, then it is most probably the alternative hypothesis, design. Second, Michael Behe has propounded the idea of “irreducible complexity”—that some systems will not work unless all of its parts are together at the same time. If chance is highly unlikely and if law is not operative, again design emerges as the most compelling hypothesis.

The Debate on Teaching ID and Evolution

With the recent election results in Kansas and Delaware, the debate continues to intensify over teaching Evolution and “Intelligent Design” in the public schools. The stakes are more intense than they ought to be because of the way in which our country delivers educational services. Scientific considerations aside, this issue provokes such controversy because the dominant provider of education has such strong monopoly power—and most consumers have little ability to avoid its dictates. Let’s see why this is the overarching problem—and how we could avoid it.

Imagine that the government decides that food is important, so everyone can eat for free at the government-run restaurant in their neighborhood. The subsequent government bureaucracy, the manager of the restaurant, and a local “Food Board” would determine the menu. And passionate constituents would try to influence their choices. Proponents of the Atkins Diet would clamor for “all meat”; vegetarians would argue for “all veggies”; and other people would want a range of options in concert with their various tastes and preferences. This is a recipe for turmoil. For example, if the Atkins people were politically persuasive, the vegetarians would be deeply offended and the others would not be wholly pleased either.

The solution is as easy as the problem is silly. The government would allow different types of restaurants to arise and compete, based on consumer preferences. Or better yet, the government would get out of the business of operating restaurants and leave that to the private sector, intervening only as necessary to help the needy afford food through vouchers or other subsidies to the individual.

The same is true with education. If one group wants their children taught sex education with cucumbers and condoms in the fifth grade, then that should be their prerogative. But that shouldn’t be forced on other people. Another contentious example is school prayer. Some parents want a prayer to Jesus Christ. Many parents want a prayer to the lukewarm deity of civil religion. Others want no prayer at all—or prayer to other gods. By providing options, school choice deals with such issues in a far more effective manner than a government entity with significant monopoly power. (I have a separate but related essay to this topic.)

Who doesn’t want this freedom for others? Elitists and theocrats don’t. They are content to wage battle within the monopoly, hoping to capture the process and force their view of truth down the throats of others. (It’s ironic that these two groups despise each other, but they’re more alike than they realize!) More importantly, the special interest group that enjoys its monopoly power is not interested in such freedom. All producers prefer as little competition as possible—and the market for education is no different.

Science, religion, and politics. Real wars and now “culture wars” have been fought in their name. Let’s put down our weapons and give all American parents the freedom to educate their children as they see fit.

Three closing thoughts

First, it is a commonly expressed fear that the acceptance of ID would mean the end of science. This is a (rhetorical?) strawman. When scientists are trying to discover how life might have evolved, it is inappropriate for scientists to invoke a supernatural explanation. But to assert that intelligent forces did not play a role in the origins and development of life is clearly a presupposition—one that cannot be tested by experiment or verified by observation. And although assuming away supernatural cause/effect can be a helpful supposition in scientific endeavors, it should still be recognized as an assumption in the determination of Truth. In fact, if life arose from the actions of an intelligent designer, then the truly intelligent response would be to take that as a given and intensify our efforts into determining how life works.

Second, Evolution is an amazing theory and should be taught in the schools, insofar as it truly explains stuff. But if one wants to teach Evolution as a comprehensive story, then its gaping holes should be aired as well. Beyond that, Intelligent Design seems equally scientific in the few areas in which it speaks—and a better scientific explanation in those areas. In any case, it is true that ID and Evolution are mutually exclusive (and equally falsifiable) stories/explanations for any given event. But they are fully compatible within a comprehensive explanation of the development of life.

Third, I’ve discussed this topic with colleagues ad nauseum over the years. And they often note that the scientific process is effective because it refines theories. As Richard von Sternberg said (after government investigators determined that he faced “discrimination and retaliation” for editing an article on ID for a conference proceedings): “I am not convinced by ID, but they have brought a lot of difficult questions to the fore. Science only moves forward on controversy.” If the controversy is completely unscientific, then it should be dismissed. But if the controversy is merely discomfiting to the status quo, then Science demands that the theory should be properly aired.


At December 23, 2007 at 12:11 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

Eric, have you read any books that explain why evolution is compatible with Christianity? One I can recommend is Finding Darwin's God, by Kenneth Miller. He is a prominent biologist and biology textbook author, who is also a devout Christian (a Roman Catholic). He explains why ID is bad theology as well as bad science; in particular, he pretty much rips apart Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box.

A book I haven't read, but which I think should be very helpful, is The Language of God, by Francis Collins. He also argues the compatibility of evolution and Christianity, but from the perspective of an evangelical Christian who is also a leading geneticist (he directed the Human Genome Project).

At December 23, 2007 at 1:36 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

As a result of your earlier recommendation, I have ordered Miller's book-- and plan to move it well up the reading list. (I probably won't get to Collins' book. Assuming that his views are more in line with mine, there would not be as much value-added for me.)

Assuming a Creator God who may have used evolution as a significant (but not complete) piece of establishing life as we know it, I don't see any conflict with Christianity and evolution.

My problem is when Evolution is taken (with much unrecognized or unmentioned hand-waving) as an comprehensive *explanation* for the development of life.

And if there is a Creator God, there might well be objective or probabilistic evidences for His existence and work, right? How would we detect that?

At December 24, 2007 at 11:49 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

I think you'll find the Miller book very interesting. Yesterday, I noticed a copy of the Collins book at my Mom's church, and thumbed through it a bit. It looked like a decent book; the part I looked at was a primer on what we know about life and the history of the planet. It was pro-evolution: I don't think his views are that close to yours. That is, you sound like an intelligent design supporter, while he is a theistic evolutionist. (Evolution happened and is pretty much the sole explanation for the development of life, but this was intended by God. That's my own belief.)

As far as testing for design or intentionality in life, this is one of the goals of the intelligent design movement. William Dembski is the one working on this problem; you are probably aware of his philosophical/mathematical research on probability theory and design. I don't think he's advanced his work to the point where it can be used to test design on actual natural systems. (The specific examples of design given by Michael Behe, such as the bacterial flagellum or the vertebrate immune system, have proven less than convincing, as Miller describes in his book.)

At December 24, 2007 at 11:58 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

I meant to say one more thing. Mainstream scientists don't see evidence for intelligent design in biology (instead, they see lots of contingency). But the evidence for design in the universe that is more convincing, to many mainstream scientists, is in cosmology and physics. This is the well-known observation of "fine-tuning": if the constants of physics (the mass of the electron, the strength of gravity, etc) were changed even slightly, the universe as we know it (capable of supporting life) would be impossible. This has been a topic of active discussion in cosmology and physics since the 1970s. Some scientists frankly see this as evidence of design; others refuse to accept that (they propose that our universe is but one of countless many, and therefore by chance we inhabit one of the occasional universes than can sustain life).

Anyway, I should wish you a merry Christmas!

At December 25, 2007 at 3:51 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Merry Christmas to you as well!

On ID and TE (theistic evolution), how broad is the latter's tent? Taking the label at face value, it would seem to include anyone who believes in God and sees some significant role for evolution. If so, ID and TE would not be mutually exclusive at all-- and I'd say that most people would describe their views in a manner consistent with each.

I'm certain that people pigeon-hole ID too much, but I don't know if TE is a pigeon-hole or a constraining "box" or a big tent. Any ideas here? Is there a semi-official definition of TE?

At April 20, 2008 at 4:42 PM , Blogger Joel Harris said...

Eric, what is the source of your concluding Sternberg quote? That is great.

At April 21, 2008 at 9:58 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Not sure, but I'd guess it came from Dembski's book.

In any case, after googling, I found it here:


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