Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Philosophy of Intelligent Design

The existence of God is a perfectly respectable topic for a philosophy class. In fact, I'd go a step further and say that it's an essential topic, if not the essential topic. No survey of the philosophy of any era or country is conceivable without it.

That being the case, I'll cheerfully concede that Intelligent Design is a valid and even a valuable subject to discuss in a philosophy class, so long as the discussion is put in its historical perspective, and revolves around questions of inference, authority, justification of truth claims, logic, and so forth. Ideally, such a class would acknowledge every individual's right to a personal belief or disbelief in an intelligent creator, while demolishing false arguments for (and inferences from) those beliefs wherever possible. The argument that evolution couldn't have happened because there are still monkeys living on earth, for instance, would be revealed as fallacious, as would the more general belief that the theory of evolution stands or falls depending on whether or not God exists.

In the real world, of course, things aren't that simple. As PZ Myers reports, A "Philosophy of Intelligent Design" course under discussion in California seems poised to fail as theology, philosophy, and science:

This class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid. This class will discuss Intelligent Design as an alternative response to evolution. Topics that wlll be covered are the age of the earth, a world wide flood, dinosaurs, pre-human fossils, dating methods, DNA, radioisotopes, and geological evidence. Physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old, not billions. The class will include lecture discussions, guest speakers, and videos. The class grade will be based on a position paper in which students will support or refute the theory of evolution.
I've bolded the last sentence because I find it particularly chilling. The person who'll grade these position papers, Sharon Lemberg, is a soccer coach and special-ed teacher with no background in science or philosophy. Even if she had those credentials, I think it's quite safe to say that no student who takes her class is going to "refute" the theory of evolution - assuming that "refutation" is defined as "disproof" or "falsification" - and that any student who thinks he or she has refuted it deserves a failing grade and a kick in the slats. We can put aside, in this discussion, the question of whether evolution is true or false; a more basic issue for a philosophy class is what would comprise a legitimate refutation of it, and what wouldn't. A Creationist video asserting that the earth is 6000 years old isn't a refutation of evolution; it's a product of ignorance, stupidity, or guile.

One of the many things that IDiots don't seem to grasp is that making or accepting a vacuous, illogical, pseudoscientific argument for God doesn't glorify His name; on the contrary, it misrepresents science, degrades religion, and makes believers look ignorant and insecure. People like Ms. Lemberg want to have their cake and eat it too; they want the scientific gravitas that comes from invoking DNA and radioisotopes, but they also want to ignore the norms and standards from which science derives whatever authority it has. As such, they remind me of Renaissance figures like Athanasius Kircher, whose "miraculous" devices surreptitiously exploited scientific principles in order to demonstrate, by analogy, the operation of occult powers. Except that Kircher was a genius, and these people are fools.


Anonymous said...

Hello -
A very disappointing post from an otherwise interesting writer. I don't think the writer has done any research in Intelligent Design. May I recommend that he read Norman Macbeth's "Darwin Retried,"(1971) Michael Denton's "Evolution: A Theory in Crisis," (1986) and Michael Behe's "Darwin's Black Box" (1996) and then come back to discuss the subject more intelligently.

Phila said...

Hi Caryl,

Thanks for the tip. I've actually read the Denton and Behe books, as well as Overman's "A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization"; Dembski's "No Free Lunch" (twice); Johnson's "Darwin on Trial"; and Wilder Smith's "The Natural Sciences Know Nothing of Evolution." And probably some others I can't think of right now (there was a big book of essays edited by Dembski, but I can't recall the title).

I'd be happy to debate you on the claims and merits of ID, as set forth in those books; I think you'll find that I'm very familiar with them. As it stands now, you neither address my argument nor make one of your own, so I really don't have much interest in your criticism.

Anonymous said...

Let's look at the definition of "science" for a moment (if we may, Phila), just to make things clear for Caryl or any other IDers hanging about:

1. The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.
2. Such activities restricted to a class of natural phenomena.
3. Such activities applied to an object of inquiry or study.

Now an IDer might say, "See, 1. says that it's a 'theoretical explanation of phenomena'. That's what ID is." Uh, no. Notice that there is an "and" just prior to that, not an "or". One cannot observe, identify, describe or conduct experimental investigations on this "designer". And any time you cross that line from what is observable or inferable from available data that can be collected either directly or through the use of sensory-supplementary tools, you have left the realm of science and entered the worlds of metaphysics and philosophy.

You want to believe in an intelligent designer? Fine. Need to believe that there is some purpose to your existence in this crazy, beautiful, complex, horrific environment other than "be excellent to each other" while you're here? That's OK by me too. Just understand that it isn't science.


Anonymous said...

> As such, they remind me of Renaissance figures like Athanasius Kircher, whose "miraculous" devices surreptitiously exploited scientific principles in order to demonstrate, by analogy, the operation of occult powers. Except that Kircher was a genius, and these people are fools.

you know, i was just thinking the same thing!

no, i wasn't. my god, where do you come up with these things?

Phila said...


I have to admit, It's a pretty pedantic reference, which I should've and normally would've explained.

I don't quite have the hang of blogging, in some ways. I sometimes end up tossing in these off-the-cuff comments, more to myself than anyone else, without thinking about how they come across. It makes me seem like kind of a goon, I'm afraid. And somewhat inhospitable, to boot.

As for Kircher, here's a pretty good bio. One of the most interesting people ever!

My reference was to a "sunflower clock" he built, which contained a hidden magnet. Some commentators have stressed that this wasn't necessarily a fraud, so much as an "illustration" of how God ran the universe. Thus, KIrcher was basically trying to refute mechanical philosophy by means of mechanism, and trying to use science as a weapon against certain aspects of rationalism, which is why I thought he was a bit similar to the ID crowd.

But really, the comparison's unfair to Kircher, and it was way too pedantic and laborious beyond that.

Cervantes said...

I have maintained that the entire ID and Creation Science phenomenon demonstrates that on an important level, science has "won" the epistemological debate. If you have the stomach for it, you can check out the Institute for Creation Research, which uses a lot of scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo to prove that the earth is 6,000 years old, geologic features were created by the flood, yadda yadda yadda. That they feel it is necessary to create these arguments proves that faith just doesn't cut it any more.

Of course, if you actually know anything about the relevant scientific fields, you will immediately see that it's all nothing but double talk. It's doubtful the authors even believe it, they're just trying to bamboozle the credulous.

Phila said...


I do know the ICR, and I think you're right. Although I'm also reminded of friends I had as kids whose parents didn't allow them to listen to secular rock music, and instead gave 'em albums by rather tepid Christian bands like Petra. There's this imitative and substitutive tendency in fundamentalism, where they try to create their own versions of mainstream things...and to some extent, I think ID is just a way for credulous and lazy people to have a "science" to which they can resort. Which I guess dovetails with your point.

You know I'm not given to scientism, for better or worse, and that I'm not particularly hostile to metaphysics. And I don't devote a lot of time here to attacking religion per se. What pisses me off most about ID is its attempt to make epistemological nihilism a badge of courage. There are enough real barriers to knowledge, without pulling phony and pointless ones out of thin air.