Monday, May 23, 2005

Fisking Robert McHenry on Intelligent Design

You can read his piece at TechStation here.

I should preface this by making the point that I do not consider myself a subscriber to intelligent design in the narrow sense of its inclusion as a scientific paradigm or theory. I have very much been schooled in the mode of methodological naturalism and I remain unconvinced that such a presumption does not serve the progress of science well. However, I do consider myself a critic of Darwinists...though I'm agnostic as to most proposed alternatives. That said, I find much merit and interest in the intelligent design arguments and I have read them vociferously. As such, I am often looking for considered and thoughtful critiques of and responses to their arguments. Sadly, many efforts as of late do not qualify (see Mr. Derbyshire's article in National Review, for one). Mr. McHenry's piece is an illustrative example of these efforts and provides a nice demostration of how *not* to argue against intelligent design.

The ID party holds that certain aspects of the world, especially details of the anatomy and biochemistry of living beings, are simply too complex to have evolved without guidance. The approved phrase is "irreducible complexity," a "concept" to which we will return.

This is a caricature of the ID central argument regarding intelligent design. First, 'irreducible complexity' is *not* the point that some things are 'too' complex to have evolved without guidance. That suggests some gradation and an unspecified tipping point where before we had some complexity that could be explained by evolution but, now that we have more of it, evolution can't explain it. This is not an argument that is made by ID'rs today as far as I know, and it certainly isn't what irreducible complexity is about. Furthermore, I don't know who he thinks does the 'approving' of what 'phrases' are to be used...but irreducibile complexity is a defined concept developed by Michael Behe. Not all proponents of Intelligent Design have signed on to this concept, and there certainly are some variants. Dembski, for example, suggests something called 'specified complexity.' But the important point is that none of these concepts hinge on a tipping point. It isn't amount of complexity but rather kind. The argument directly addresses one of the tenets of Darwinism: Darwinist evolutionary processes operate gradually. So it must be able to create 'complexity' gradually. Critics of Darwinism do not argue that evolution is capable of producing some complexity but not all. Rather, they argue that is is *completely* unable to produce complexity of a particular kind.

ID partisans have trained themselves not to be too specific about the Designer, either, for they have learned the lesson left by the political failure of their predecessors, the Creation Scientists, namely, that too much frankness in the matter of Who the Intelligent Designer is does not pay. So, carefully avoiding anything that sounds like theology, while all the time the butter remains quite firm in their mouths, they simply aver that there is a Design and that it prima facie evidences Intelligence. "God? Oh, heavens, we're not talking about God. It might just be his next-door neighbor Wilson."

I have difficulty crediting this with a substantive response. Boil it down, it isn't much more than sneering ad hominem. How these devious ID'rs are getting together (mind-numbed robots all, don't ya know) and planning how to disguise what they are really on about: injecting religion into science...with a veneer of scientific gloss. I won't go too much into this, but just a few points. Intelligent Design advocates are NOT creationists. Creationists are not predecessors to intelligent design theorists anymore than flat-Earthers are predecessors to modern astronomers. Different theories, different texts, different paradigms. No succession. Creationists believe in the literal interpretation of events laid out in the Bible. As I have argued elsewhere, intelligent design has nothing to do with the Bible. It doesn't rely on Christian teachings. The only thing the two approaches share is a disbelief in Darwinistic explanations and the possibility of the supernatural as an impetus to creation. That's it. Calling those the same thing is like saying Taoism and Juadism are the same thing because they both accept the supernatural.

McHenry can sneer all he wants, but part of making a serious investigation of design means divorcing oneself from assumptions regarding the designer. Indeed, this is classic cake-and-eat-it-too-ism. He wants to slander ID'rs as warmed-over creationists, but then criticize them for NOT being true creationists by asserting that the Designer must be the Christian God of the Bible.

Philosophically this is old ground, of course. William Paley's argument for the existence of a watchmaker, given a watch, is the best known example of the type. Not surprisingly, Paley assumed in his analogy that the watch in question was well made and actually kept time. So the naturalist's response to this form of theism has taken a standard form. He points to the very considerable amount of relevant contrary evidence: black flies, killer asteroids, the vermiform appendix, acne, tsunamis, hiccups, and Jerry Springer, not to mention death and disease and a hundred other varieties of human depravity, all of these suggesting if they do not prove that ours is perhaps not the very best of all possible worlds.

I'm sure most ID'rs are rolling their eyes here. This is like trying to take down a neo-Darwinistic argument regarding the micro-evolution of hemoglobin by attacking On the Origin of Species. While Paley certainly argued for intelligent design, his naturalistic arguments aren't merely rejected by Darwinists...they are rejected by most modern ID'rs as well. Paley actually makes a gradualistic arguement regarding complexity...perhaps that's where McHenry got his notion in the first place. But knocking over 100 years-dead strawmen doesn't suffice as a cogent rebuttal to intelligent design as a thesis in its current form and as advocated by current proponents (none of whome get much consideration from McHenry). Of course, McHenry really doesn't do a good job of knocking it over. For example, I'm unconvinced as to how the presence of killer asteroids in the universe tells me that watches aren't designed by watchmakers. It doesn't, you say? Well, then how do they tell me that the universe isn't designed? That the biological mechanisms we depend on were not? All killer asteroids tell me is that were not living in Paradise. Thanks, Mr. McHenry. I wasn't aware. The illogic of this argument should be apparent. Since intelligent design doesn't require 'perfection' as conceived by humans to be the only form of hardly rebuts intelligent design arguments by noting that not everything is perfect from this imperfect human's point of view. We're happy to admit that Mr. McHenry has adequately illustrated that we aren't living in the 'best of all possible worlds.' When I find an advocate of that position, I'll be sure to let him or her know.

"But -- correct me if I'm wrong -- this is creation as we actually know it. Any objective observer must report that the universe, if it is the product of conscious design, is clear proof that the designer is incompetent, a blunderer, an all-thumbs amateur who should not be allowed back into the workshop. (As a lad I read a science fiction story whose premise was that the universe is the product of a young Being-in-training, a kind of test piece by an apprentice not yet ready for journeyman status. For the life of me I can't recall the title or author of the story.) Unfortunately, however well Not-Quite-Bright Design might fly as an intellectual position, it lacks market appeal."

If the universe was supposed to be paradise from a human perspective, then Mr. McHenry might have a point. Of course, I think he's rather too hard on the designer. I marvel at the beauty and order of the natural universe. But Mr. McHenry seems unimpressed. Great. Fine. As I mentioned earlier, this is all beside the point. If Mr. McHenry really thinks all this is is warmed-over theology, then what's with this point anyway? The Bible hardly suggests that Creation was Perfect. The Garden of Eden was Perfect. We were cast out, remember? I suspect that even Mr. McHenry doesn't buy his slander of the ID'rs. He's accidentally slipped into given them a modicum of respectable seperation from Creationists. Of course, in so doing, he demonstrated the paucity of his position. His assessment of the universe from a design perspective is subjective and unrelated to any particular thesis. He's inserting moral and cultural value judgements into that assessment. Disease obviously argues against the designer, because preventing disease wouldn't be beyond a designer, and hence a designer would have prevented disease. The circularity of this reasoning should be apparent. Note, this is exactly oppossite of what design theorists attempt to do. They are attempting to articulate an objective measure of design and then assess it in terms of empirical evidence. Not, as much as Mr. McHenry thinks it is, to play "What would We have Done if We were God?" Intelligent design has NO preconception regarding the nature, purpose, or perfection of design. It merely suggests that design exists and it is detectable. Disease and killer asteroids may present interesting philosophical dillemas for relgions that posit a good God who cares about humanity and individuals in particular (though not for religions that take a more jaundiced view of the supernatural, such as the ancient Greeks)...but it isn't even in the same ballpark as intelligent design.

Nor is Mr. McHenry only sneering arrogantly at ID'rs here. He's sneering at anyone who believes in a directed whatever means and with whatever involvement in biological life. Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. who accepted Dawrin and evolution fall afoul of Mr. McHenry's rejection of the possibility of an 'imperfect' creation by a perfect God. Mr. McHenry is welcome to his athiesm. But I'm curious to hear about the scientific discovery that proves the non-existance of God. He seems to think this is so much common knowledge.

The duplicity of the ID party as to theology is all quite transparent. What seems to be less so, at least to some, is the violence the ID party does to the work of the intellect. Consider "irreducible complexity." What does it mean to say that a given degree of complexity is irreducible? And who gets to say it? Has the ID party discovered a scale by which this question can be answered? Up (or down) to a certain point complexity is open to naturalistic explanation, but beyond that point it is not? "We don't know this yet, therefore it is unknowable." And further, "If you do happen to find it out anyway, don't tell me, because if you do I'll stick my fingers in my ears and go La-la-la-la-la really loud." The "debate" whose current installment is playing out in Kansas is a debate in just that sense and no other.

Sun Tzu warned in "The Art of War" that you must "know thine enemy" in order to conquer him. Clearly Mr. McHenry has ignored this advice. What is evident from the above is that *all* Mr. McHenry knows about the ID argument of irreducible complexity is that irreducible complexity is an ID argument. Perhaps he should have considered the sage advice of Lincoln and had "better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." Because his questions reveal his ignorance. Irreducible complexity is not about a scale of complexity at all, as I mentioned above. He would *know* this if he had ever bothered to read the intelligent design theorists he is mocking.

The definition of irreducible complexity begins with Darwin himself. It was Darwin who suggested that "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." And hence the author of IC got his inspiration. An example of irreducible complexity would be a biological mechanism that could *not* be produced through numerous and gradual modifications. You'll note the absence of any concept of gradation. As I said before, it isn't amount of complexity but a particular kind. A kind that *must* be explained by evolutionary principles if Darwinists are correct. ID'rs say that it can't and produce cogent arguments as to why this is. If McHenry would like to read them and respond to them and write a new article that actually has some substantive critique...well, I look forward to reading it. He can start his education here. Next time he might want to try doing this *before* he writes his dismissive.

You'll also notice an absence of the "God of the Gaps" argument, to which McHenry alludes. This isn't an argument from ignorance. Dembski, for example, argues that specified complexity can be detected. That it is most decidedly "knowable." And may I suggest that it is Mr. McHenry who is sticking his finger in his ears, by completely failing to read and understand the arguments he is dismissing...and most certainly *not* the ID'rs...who make it a point to respond in detail to their own critics and to Darwinists in particular.

Then there is the simple fact that the "theory" of ID is no theory at all, not in the sense that the word is used in science. It is not based on the best available evidence; it enables no predictions; and it is thus not testable. It is, at best, a paltry substitute myth that incorporates some of what actual science has learned or theorized but spurns not only scientific rigor but any intention to perform science. It is not, as claimed, a legitimate criticism of a scientific theory but a criticism of having such a theory at all. No less than the Creation Scientists, and no less than dear Bishop Wilberforce in 1860, though far less forthrightly, the proponents of ID wish to draw an arbitrary line and use the force of the state to declare that science shall not cross it.

I see no reason to bother with unsupported and blatantly inaccurate assertions. Mr. McHenry declares that it isn't based on the best available evidence, that it has no predictions, and that it isn't testable (he better be careful on the testable front...given certain evolutionary concepts and their resistance to testing). Since he doesn't justify these claims with one iota of argument or reference to ID arguments, I'll leave it at that. For you, dear reader, I suggest this as a brief glimpse of the philosophy of science issues regarding ID and the ID'rs response.

I won't bother with a fisking of the least two paragraphs since one is a silly effort at an analogy and the other is merely more ad hominem attack. For folks who seem to think they have the weight of empirical science and hundreds of years of successfull scientific effort on their sides, they sure do seem to be inclined towards attacking the motives of their critcs rather than the arguments these critics mount. As we have seen, Mr. McHenry fails to address *at all* the modern argument of intelligent design. His piece, instead, illustrates a profound ignorance of that which he is sneering at. Now, while some critics of ID seem to think that their ignorance is a badge of honor , I for one think a prerquiste for scoffing at something is first knowing what you are scoffing at. Hence Mr. McHenry's piece is destined to convince only the already converted. It certainly fails to persuade...even fence-sitters...on the great debate. D.GOOCH


I'm still hammering away here and here.


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