Wednesday, 3 November 2010

How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism

This posting is based on the paper “How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism” by Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, Johan Braeckman, from here

The BCSE is concerned to ensure that scientists and educators use the most cogent and powerful arguments to defeat and expose the erroneous assertions of creationists and this paper shines a strong light on key aspects of the  arguments being made by the Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) and their “touring celebrity guest” Michael behe.

The C4ID and Behe are building most of their case on a foundation of misrepresentation about how science works and this posting will expose the fallacies behind this position and so effectively demolish the platform from which they are attacking science and science education.

First of all here are some examples of the creationist approach in action;

David Galloway the VicePresident of the C4ID;
“The nature of science. 
It is extremely difficult if not impossible, to imagine any scientific assessment which is not anchored in some way to a set of ideas commonly found in the cultural framework from which it arises. Scientists have been guilty of flavouring their approach with a set of assumptions which predictably have had a significant influence on the available or possible conclusions.
Within a modern naturalistic framework for example, we might well ask the following question. Is every possible mechanism for the origin of life allowable from the outset or is the very idea of a transcendent designer ruled “inadmissible?” For the open minded, any reasonable candidate idea would have to be available for the formulation of a hypothesis. Some would take the position right away that bringing a god figure into the field of play simply means that one can rely on some fanciful supernatural explanation when the difficulties arise - the so called god of the gaps."
Alastair Noble in a C4ID intro video;
“One of the key questions posed by the world around us is whether we are here by chance or by design.  There is a strident strain of science which insists that all the design in the world is apparent, not real, and that natural selection acting on random mutations is sufficient to explain it all.  That kind of science is derived from a view that the only explanations which are acceptable are those which purely on physical or materialist processes.  That is not a scientific finding that is derived from the evidence.  It is, in fact a philosophical position, and a biased one at that, which is brought to the actual evidence.  It excludes other types of explanation which the evidence may merit”

Methodological Naturalism (MN) is often described as a self-imposed or intrinsic limitation of science, which means that science is simply not equipped to deal with claims of the supernatural (Intrinsic MN or IMN).  It is a simplified caricature of this argument that provides a springboard for the Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) and is seen “in the field” in the examples given above.  

The C4ID tactics can be generalised as follows;
  • make a claim that ID “arguments” are unfairly excluded from scientific circles for philosophical reasons, that scientists appeal exclusively to natural causes and mechanisms.  NB plenty of mentions of “existing dogma”, and “underlying assumptions” will help
  • then go on to deny the evidence for evolution, common tactics include citing experiments that do in fact evidence one aspect of evolution and complaining that they don’t actually evidence other aspects
  • finally appeal to most people’s innate sense of fair play by making effective sounding rhetorical points about ID at least being worthy of proper scientific consideration and public debate and talk about how listening to both sides and letting people make up their own minds is usually considered a good thing

Whilst the C4ID simplifies and distorts the IMN position to better attack it, there are nevertheless firmer grounds on which to reject Intelligent Design/Creationism (IDC) both from a public relations and a scientific and philosophical perspective.

The paper cited above argues that the most widespread view in science, which conceives of MN as an intrinsic or self-imposed limitation of science, is philosophically indefensible and so is an ill-advised strategy to counter the claims of IDC and other forms of creationism, we agree.

Alternatively, MN can be simply and robustly defended as a provisory attitude of science based on the successful track record of natural explanations and the miserable track record of supernatural explanations, referred to as Provisory or Pragmatic Methodological Naturalism (PMN).  Supernatural claims do not fall beyond the reach of science; they have simply failed up to this point.  This explanation defuses the C4ID claims at their root and also has the benefit of being readily accessible to lay audiences.
“According to PMN, MN is a provisory and empirically grounded commitment to naturalistic causes and explanations, which in principle is revocable by extraordinary empirical evidence. According to this conception, MN did not drop from thin air, but is just the best methodological guideline that emerged from the history of science (Shanks 2004; Coyne 2009; Edis 2006), in particular the pattern of consistent success of naturalistic explanations. Appeals to the supernatural have consistently proven to be premature, and science has never made headway by pursuing them. The rationale for PMN thus excludes IMN: if supernatural explanations are rejected because they have failed in the past, this entails that, at least in some sense, they might have succeeded. The fact that they didn’t is of high interest and shows that science does have a bearing on the question of the supernatural.”  
(from the paper cited above)

A key issue here is the nature of the supernatural claim being made.  The claim needs to be specific enough to be testable by scientific methods.  Non supernatural claims can also fail in this way.
“In a famous study by Benson et al., for instance (Benson et al. 2006), the therapeutic effect of intercessory prayer in cardiac by-pass patients was investigated through a methodologically sound RCT-trial. Although the study failed to demonstrate any effect, prima facie it is an honest attempt to establish supernatural intervention by scientific means. If intercessory prayer really did help patients to recover from illness, one would expect this to become visible through carefully conducted trials like these.”

(from the paper cited above)
The simple fact is that the claim “it was designed, by someone, somehow, at sometime, for some reason” is not specific enough to be tested scientifically. 

Behe and Dembski have intermittently made claims that they can successfully and reliably detect design, but as soon as they divulge any details of their methodologies they have been widely criticised as mathematically unsound and logically invalid.

The ID movement needs to demonstrate that they have a method for design detection that is more than an expression of personal incredulity.  We sometimes hear claims that such a detection system or filter has arrived or is in development but so far it has not been revealed to the world. 

To be clear, science does not a priori take the view that design detection is impossible, that gods cannot exist and that creationism is wrong.  Science simply takes the pragmatic view that design detection has not even been shown to be theoretically possible let alone practical today.
“. . .Behe’s notion of irreducible complexity and Dembski’s criterion of complex specified information are simply very bad filters for detecting design, because they single out biological phenomena that present no problem whatsoever for standard evolutionary explanations. Thus, it is true that if we would allow the appeal to supernatural causation on so flimsy evidential grounds as the IDC movement wants us to do, in practice that would be an invitation for more spurious appeals to the supernatural. But this is a general logical point: if we allow a particular form of sloppy thinking on one occasion, we are left with no grounds for disallowing the same reasoning in other cases. Thus, the claims of IDC are invalidated by specific flaws of reasoning and by the simple lack of evidence, not because of some perceived intrinsic problem associated with supernatural explanations.”
“. . .when we consider that stopping the search for natural explanations in the face of biological complexity has always been premature, and that creationists have never grown tired of searching for new candidates of insurmountable ‘gaps’ when the old ones had worn out, we do have very good reasons to dismiss the current spate of challenges to evolutionary theory.”
“Critics have also pointed out that proponents of supernatural claims, notably IDC theorists, often make use of evasive manoeuvres that render their theories immune to empirical falsification. For example, in response to the argument from imperfection and bad design, Michael Behe has simply replied that we cannot gather any scientific information about the character and intentions of the Designer, that His reasons are unfathomable and that any speculation about them is pure metaphysics. Pennock has rightly dismissed this immunizing strategy: it provides the design argument with a virtually impenetrable shield […] Behe has successfully insulated the design argument against the imperfection argument. Equipped with such bumpers it can now withstand any impact.” (Pennock 1999, 249)”
(from the paper cited above)


To repeat our point above, “some one designed something, somehow at sometime, for some reason” is not specific enough to test, it is not falsifiable and so it is not science.

We agree with this comment from the conclusion of the paper;
“Evolutionary scientists are on firmer ground if they discard supernatural explanations on purely evidential grounds, and not by philosophical fiat.”
So science can in principle be persuaded that there is design in living things and the C4ID simply needs to produce the evidence.  It seems highly unlikely they or other ID proponents will ever do so, as they are not actually doing any experiments or observations that might produce it.  

The fact that they instead spend their time talking about IDC, producing books about IDC and taking superficially plausible sounding but empty pot shots at the evidence for evolution rather than backing up their religious convictions with evidence is perhaps the best piece of “meta-data” that IDC is not science.

To reinforce the pint that science would be open to any evidence if only IDC produced any, here are some suggestions for good evidence for Intelligent Design;
“Suppose that species just popped into the fossil record without any discernible traces of evolutionary descent and without demonstrable relationship to other species. Suppose that all available dating methods concurred on a 6000 year old earth and universe, and that all attempts to explain living systems by any combination of natural mechanisms consistently failed. To top it all, suppose that the letters of the book of Genesis were discovered to be encoded in human DNA (for a discussion of deliberate signatures from Designers, see Dennett 1996, 316-318). This may seem like a preposterous thing to imagine, but it does not involve any logical contradictions, and it is difficult to deny that it would constitute compelling evidence for the hypothesis of supernatural interference in the universe. (but for intrinsic objections to the design argument, see Sober 2008).”

(from the paper cited above)

So come on Intelligent Design proponents and creationists - go and do some science.

BCSE 3/11/10

1 comment:

  1. This same argument is developed further by Boudry et al in Science and education 2012 21 1151; "Grist to the mill of anti-evolutionism: the failed strategy of ruling the supernatural out of science by philosophical fiat

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