Monday, June 27, 2011

On Bachmann and Intelligent Design

Okay, not one of my best titles

In light of the supposed dust-up between presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann and anchor Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday," I fully expect the liberal media to start dredging up all the things that she has said that they find “flaky.” Among those I bet will be her statement in support of intelligent design (ID) theory being taught in classrooms.

It just so happens I was was defending Bachmann’s statement on another forum lately. Of course I had to start from behind, first having to correct my opposition’s understanding of ID:

Problem is… “intelligent design” is a RELIGIOUS theory, not a scientific one. It absolutely belongs in a classroom… religion class.

I considered editing my response into a proper article, but I decided against it.

Should I blame you for not checking your facts? On one hand, the history of ID has been thoroughly revised since the 1980′s. However, I suspect your interpretation of ID has more to do with your opinions of Bachmann than the theory itself.

Naturally, ID theory has gained favor with various religious groups because it reflects what they have already believed for centuries. However, ID should in no way be construed to be a religion or even to have religious origins.

Strictly speaking, it is not the usual function of religion to produce theories. Religion tends only to answer questions, sometimes with explanation, sometimes without. In its purest form, dogma is the antithesis of theory, even to the point of persecuting the latter. Theories about religion come from the areas of theology or anthropology, but religion itself does not present theories. 

ID theory does not address metaphysical and religious questions such as the nature or identity of the designer, let alone promote reverence or worship for it. It merely suggests that intelligence best explains the origin of living systems based on the empirically-testable assumption that complex systems are more likely the result of directed actions than undirected forces. In spite of many people’s reactions, an intelligent creator is a separate concept from a divine one.

This idea is not new. Plato and Aristotle contended that a higher mind was necessary for the origin of life. That is not to say that they did not have their detractors, but simply to say that the postulation has been offered along with the very foundations of Western thought. And as you can imagine, on through ages the debate has continued. Being an irreligious theory, ID has shown compatibility with evolution, itself an incomplete theory. F.C.S. Schiller, an early supporter of evolution, once wrote “it will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of Evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.”

I say that evolutionary theory is incomplete for good reason. One of the greatest problems with evolutionary theory is that it does not adequately address the problem of irreducible complexity. Here is an area where ID theory steps up. Again, that is not to say that ID theory does not have its own problems, but only to illustrate where it provides solutions that its counterpart cannot.

Still, one might take issue with ID as a scientific theory on the basis that it is not observable. That is simply not true. One can observe the complexity of an automobile and note that it did not spring forth by chance. By contrast, evolution is far less observable at the same scale. 

So, the better question is whether evolution ought to be taught in public schools. If the assumption of the theory (and assumption is at the heart of scientific theory) is too audacious to consider in the classroom, then naturally its converse must be equally audacious. If one is inappropriate, so too must be the other.

Here is the response I got.

Plato and Aristotle were metaphysicists at best, philosophers more accurately… not scientists.

Intelligent design is not a scientific theory precisely because it gives a non-answer to a problem that evolutionary theory hasn’t been able to prove. Take god out and put in anything you want, and it still is a non-answer, because you can’t measure it. We know evolution is happening, and has been happening, we just don’t understand the mechanism. Maybe it is some god or metaphyiscal force, but until you figure out a way to quantify and measure that, then any theory with that in it is not a scientific theory.

Evolution is quite observable. Most species evolve too slowly to see in a lifetime, but things like viruses and bacteria do not. All evolution is is mutation, adaptation, etc over generations. You can even see it in humans… people who grow up in hot areas have bodies that conserve moisture better, and their children do the same, but people who move into a different climate don’t adapt as well. Different subsets of the human race have evolved adaptations that help them with different climates, diets, altitudes, etc. Evolutionary theory sees this happening and provides an explanation that has SOME evidence to support it, with some holes, while intelligent design says… “you can’t explain that, so it must be god”.

I can see how one might believe this, believe otherwise, or in my case… choose not to believe either. We don’t know what it is until we can really prove it. But what we *do* know is that injecting a metaphysical answer into a scientific theory does, in fact, make that new theory a non-scientific one, and as such it does not belong in a science class. Metaphysics or religon, sure… but not science.

And my reply:

I do not mean to suggest that the Greek philosophers were scientists. Their approach to understanding the natural world was in many ways antithetical to the modern scientific method. However, their influence on Western thought, in particular the fundamental notion that existence can be ascertained in rational terms, cannot be overstated. Their philosophies and the descendant philosophies are irreligious. To that end, it matters not whether Plato and Aristotle were scientists in the modern sense, only that the supposition that intelligence is behind the design of living things is coincident with secular thought since its foundations were laid. Incidentally, this also goes to show that counter-theories to evolution did not simply spring up in response to Darwin.

I think perhaps it is best to draw focus toward what exactly evolution and ID theorize upon. Yes, evolution within a species is observable, so far as we are able to define “species.” Darwin himself established the fact at the same time he upset the word. But Darwin went beyond the observable and postulated an explanation for the complexity and diversity among all organisms as an extension. ID is an alternate theory of the same, but extended from the observation that complex systems arise through deliberate action, be they ant colonies or airliners. Thus it is not a “non-answer” to some aspect beyond evolutionary theory. (I think it worthwhile at this juncture to point out that I would be saying very nearly the same thing right now had you declared evolutionary theory to be the handiwork of the devil and ID the inspired work of God.)

Sure, both theories have been extended to further degrees by numerous thinkers from diverse disciplines. But the last time I checked, it is core Darwinian evolution that is being taught in schools. The metaphysical implications are rightly left out of classroom discussion. If ID can be isolated from its metaphysical implications (and indeed it can) why should it not be given equal stead in the classroom? And by that I do not mean equal stead in a religion course, as it is not religious philosophy. It is not because ID is any less plausible, observable, or rational, but because of the religious stigma it bears.

Perhaps the proponents of ID (who likely understand ID theory little better than they understand evolutionary theory) do the greatest disservice when they take it up as a moral cause. Certainly the typical secular abhorrence of anything remotely religious entering the schoolhouse pretty much guarantees the idea will not receive a fair hearing so long as it is so backed. But the whole “religious vs. secular” thing masks what is really at issue. What is the purpose of education? Is it to train and exercise the mind to eventually think rigorously and agilely on its own? Or is it to stuff the brain with approved rote?

If it is the former, then so much the greater is the case for allowing ID into the science classroom. After all, as science discovers more and more about the natural world, other challenges to Darwin’s theory will arise; challenges requiring a nimble mind to address. Or perhaps creative intellect will ultimately conclude that one is no challenge to the other whatsoever. After all, when both theories are taken to the extreme—evolution with endless eons to exhaust every remote possibility; ID considerate of the most nebulous, abstract conception of intellect—is it not possible that time itself is the designer?

I can only assume that the lack of any further response is because the other party cannot refute me.

 * * *

Aside:  I have watched the original interview, Wallace’s apology, and Bachmann’s supposed rejection. I don’t think there is a tiff between the two. It seems to me that Bachmann understood the nature of Wallace’s question and answered it admirably. It was only because a number of Bachmann supporters didn’t like way the question was put that Wallace felt compelled to apologize. Guess what, Bachmann fans; your candidate is a big girl. She can handle herself, and a Fox News anchor is the least of her worries. In spite of the Jonathan Karl’s interpretation, the Good Morning America interview tells me that Bachmann has already moved on.


Anonymous said...

In general, you write well and seemingly convincingly... Your opening observation that ID should be taught in religion class was spot on.

With respect to this paragraph, I am not sure where you get your evidence...

"I say that evolutionary theory is incomplete for good reason. One of the greatest problems with evolutionary theory is that it does not adequately address the problem of irreducible complexity. Here is an area where ID theory steps up. Again, that is not to say that ID theory does not have its own problems, but only to illustrate where it provides solutions that its counterpart cannot."

The theory of evolution can explain blood clotting and the eye quite well. These examples are often offered as examples of irreducible complexity.

Besides, in religion class nothing has to make sense or stand the test of even common sense... it is simply faith that counts.

Calmoderate said...

Hey dude. Are you interested in editing my stuff or not? An interest was my impression from your comments @ RotC. If not, that's fine. Just let me know as a courtesy. If so, please let me know that too. I thought that's what you were suggesting.

You know how to get hold of me - send an email. Sorry, I can't find your contact info on your blog and you didn't contact me.

Your drinking bud and snarling savage of quasi-erudite civility,

(at gmail snot (a/k/a dot) commercial domain)

tryanmax said...

Sorry, I just got this comment. I only realized today that my comment notification was turned off (apparently some time ago.) I must have done that when I updated the template last. I'm still up for it if you aren't p/o'd at me now.

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