The Intelligent Design Debate: Dogmatists Keep Out

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Note: When I learned more about the subject of this piece, courtesy of the Kitzmiller case, I changed my mind about most of my conclusions here.  I revisited the subject in Intelligent Design Revisited (October 29, 2007).  Don’t read this piece withour reading the followup. 


The Intelligent Design Debate: Dogmatists Keep Out


          You’re a scientist, given the unique opportunity to visit a faraway planet.  You are told that eons ago, someone visited the planet and left a tribe of chimpanzees and an infinite supply of typewriters and papers, and that no one else has been there since.  When you get there, you find that all the chimps over the generations have been playing with the typewriters.  Papers filled with random letters and punctuation marks are strewn everywhere.  There are occasional words, but they appear to be accidents.  You are soon satisfied that none of the chimps has become capable of speech or abstract thinking.  But then you find one typewriter next to which sits a neat stack of papers.  You see a chimp at the keyboard, just typing the words “THE END” and taking the sheet out of the platen.  The typist proves no more intelligent or literate than any of his peers.  But the papers in the stack, together with the last page that you have just taken from the typist, prove to be a novel, alive with characterization, social observation, wit, plot twists and suspense.  The book is a coordinated work of art in which every piece works with every other piece.


          How could this be?  As a good scientist, you profess allegiance to the principle of parsimony: that is, you go for the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions.  But applying that principle here is difficult.  Which is more parsimonious: the notion that sheer random activity happened to produce a literary masterpiece, or that some intelligent force of which there is no other evidence was guiding the typist’s actions?  As applied here, the first assumption requires the conclusion that random activity can, with something far less than an infinite number of tries, duplicate the effects of high and sustained intelligence.  The other requires the conclusion that such an intelligence is at work from outside the typist chimp, even though the mechanism by which such an intelligence could have imposed itself on the chimp is unknown and perhaps unknowable.


          That is the dilemma which has given rise to Intelligent Design theory.  In observing the differentiation of species on Planet Earth, scientists confront what many believe are coordinated changes as one species evolves into another: several things happening apparently at once and in tandem.  Evolution may well require simultaneous changes in several parts of a creature’s body.  Such coordinated changes may be akin to the complex interrelated choices that lead to the plotting and phrasing of a novel.  What then is more likely: that somehow the random effect of cosmic rays or similar influences on one specimen’s DNA simultaneously made that specimen and presumably a mate each have all the required changes, or that there was a coordinating intelligence at work?  Traditional Natural Selection theorists hold for the former explanation, Intelligent Design theorists for the latter.


          This would seem like grist for a traditional scientific dispute.  But it has become far more.

          From time to time since the dawn of modern Western science in the Renaissance, men and women attempting to explain nature have been told they cannot research or teach along certain lines because it clashes with governing dogma.  Galileo’s work on heavenly bodies was badly interfered with by the Inquisition because it challenged a Ptolemaic cosmology which had been embraced by the Church.  John Scopes’ right to teach Tennessee children about Darwinian evolutionary theory was challenged in the famous Monkey Trial because it was inconsistent with the (themselves inconsistent) stories of creation in the Book of Genesis.  And non-Lysenkists were purged, sent to the Gulag, and shot in Stalin’s Russia because their views of plant mutations conflicted with Soviet ideology.  Dogma is historically an enemy of science.  And in the recent disputes over Intelligent Design theory, we see the unedifying picture of Dogma vs. Dogma.


          Intelligent Design adherents think that there is some kind of design, either “front-loaded” into lifeforms from the time of the beginning of life on this planet, or manipulated over history by some external, possibly Providential, force.  Intelligent Design is not Creationism, which maintains that the world, life included, in all its complexity was simultaneously brought into being as described in the Bible.  Intelligent Design is compatible with, not contradictory to, the predominant scientific consensus that this planet is billions of years old, and that life on it developed over time.  Those who oppose Intelligent Design seem as worried by the identity of those who support it – not the scientists but the social forces behind them – as by the theory itself.  It is an open secret that the Religious Right is much taken with Intelligent Design.  And given the frequent hostility of the Religious Right to much scientific research and teaching, to the free thinking fostered by political diversity, and to the separation of church and state, this is no surprise.  What is surprising and distressing is what appears to be uncharacteristic dogmatism on the other side.


          The confrontation between the Religious Right and much of the scientific community has largely played out so far in fights over the school curriculum. In resisting Intelligent Design the Natural Selection adherents sometimes seem as closed-minded as the Inquisitors who put down Galileo or Trofim Lysenko and his followers who set back Russian biology for half a century.


          The typical knock on Intelligent Design is that it is not science, but faith.  This remark is typically followed by the statement that science deals with what can be proved.  Actually science is about forming hypotheses to explain the natural world and attempting to come as close to proof as possible – which may not be very close at all.  Whenever we hypothesize about origins of the universe or of life within it, for instance, we are probably far from ever being able to prove anything.  We may be able to rule some things out – Creationism, for instance.  Creationism is so inconsistent with everything we know about physics, paleontology, geology, anthropology, and cosmology that the only way we can possibly reconcile it with science is to say that a God who created the world the way the Bible states planted a lot of false clues at the same time He was fashioning the firmament.  Creationism truly is not science but faith, in fact a faith that contradicts science.


          But ruling some things out is not the same as proving other things.  Natural Selection (to the extent it rests on random, undirected changes), is certainly widely accepted, but not proven.  And Intelligent Design is not only not disproven, as Creationism is, but seems intuitively to make much sense.  Intelligent Design merely suggests that random mutation is hard to reconcile with the complexity of the biological world, and that the existence of a directing intelligent force is a more probable and satisfying hypothesis.  This is not a matter of faith but of confronting the evidence without preconceptions.


          The false argument that Intelligent Design is faith is often followed by the argument that, in the alternative, Intelligent Design is metaphysics – the extrapolation of scientific data deep into the realm of the unprovable.  That is, if there is in fact a “watchmaker” assembling organisms in all their complexity, it is not something we can ever establish, and the organisms will be the same whatever the roots of their differentiation.  This would be fine if those who made the argument did not then turn around and state that Natural Selection is not metaphysics.  Actually it is just about equally metaphysical.  Its proponents assert that it is more “parsimonious” than Intelligent Design.  I am not a scientist, and cannot deeply evaluate this argument.  I would observe, though, that Natural Selection is a theory that nature took the long way around – that it went through a laborious process of uncoordinated trial and error and still arrived at a coordinated whole.  In other words, order arose from massive amounts of entropy rather than from smaller amounts of order.  So where does the parsimony really lie? 


          Let us assume for the sake of argument, however, that natural selection truly is more “parsimonious.”  It still does not make Natural Selection theory different in kind (i.e. non-metaphysical) from the Intelligent Design theory.  And scientific method with an inclination for parsimony is itself an unprovable metaphysical construct.  We cannot teach science without teaching a generous helping of metaphysics, or pursue science without making major metaphysical assumptions.  So the metaphysics stick is not really a good one for beating Intelligent Design with, either.


          This is all somewhat academic, so to speak, until it really becomes academic in the technical sense – a fight over the curriculum.  There was a celebrated fight recently in Montana leading to a contested school board election.  The Natural Selection-only candidates won.  But the issue will resurface.


          The separation of church and state mandated by the First Amendment means that the Biblical account of Creation cannot be taught in public schools except as a cultural and literary artifact.  Intelligent Design reportedly strikes much of the Religious Right as the next best thing, and professedly strikes much of the scientific community as a Trojan Horse for smuggling religion in.  But in fact Intelligent Design does not hypothesize a God at all — certainly not the Christian one; the intelligent force could just as easily be beings from elsewhere in the Universe or outside of it such as Arthur Clarke envisioned in 2001.  It could be something unthought-of and indescribable.  To treat Intelligent Design as if it were nothing more than disguised religious fundamentalism seems pretty fundamentalist itself.  And yes, there is such a thing as fundamentalism of the academy.  As a former academic I can attest to that.


          School systems should not be concerning themselves overmuch with which side of the culture wars wins or loses.  Instead the relevant question be whether Intelligent Design is such transparently bad science that it should not be taught, even as an alternative theory.  When I was a student, there were those who thought that the origins of the Universe lay in a “Big Bang” and those who thought that the Universe held to a “Steady State.”  And I was taught both theories.  More recent developments have reportedly left the Big Bangers in sole possession of the field, and my understanding is that Steady State is no longer taught, and that this is appropriate.  Likewise, in college geology I was taught Plate Tectonics as a theory, and I understand it is now simply taught as fact.  So there is continuing precedent for the proposition that merely allowing a theory into the curriculum does not guarantee any particular outcome to the scrutiny it receives once it arrives.


          There are those who say that Intelligent Design is such bad science that it belongs with Steady State and with whatever preceded Plate Tectonics and should not even be allowed in the door.  Because this issue is so culturally and emotionally freighted at this point in time, however, I would be suspicious of those in the scientific community who are so vociferous in insisting that the matter is closed.  The supporters of Intelligent Design certainly seem to include real scientists as well.


          Surely the better course would be to let Intelligent Design in for a while – and let the teachers and students have at the debate.  Maybe in a generation Intelligent Design will be as dead as Steady State — for the right reason, namely that the consensus of the scientific community is that not enough evidence supports Intelligent Design.  Maybe not.  But until that day arrives Intelligent Design deserves a fair hearing, no matter who supports it.


          What the whole process needs most of all is an absence of closed minds.  And among the things minds should be open to is the notion that there may be simultaneous and coordinated jumps in the evolutionary process, and these may be among the handles by which something intelligently steers the evolution of life.  That something may resemble or even be the traditionally-understood God — or something else entirely.  The discomfort of certain scientists with these possibilities should not deter us from inquiring whether the coordinated jumps on which Intelligent Design is based actually exist, and as to what may have caused them – without preconceptions.


          Science is supposed to consider possibilities and not rule them out because of a priori assumptions.  The Pope should not have allowed the Inquisition to silence Galileo in order to prevent the raising of questions about Ptolemaic cosmology, and scientists should not follow that regrettable papal example in order to silence those who claim there is evidence of a guiding force in the Universe.  Maybe the facts really do constitute evidence.  Letting all reasonable views be debated is good religion, good science, and good First Amendment policy.  When it comes to curriculum, it is intelligent design.


Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn


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