Sunday, March 23, 2014

Intelligent Design

It should go without saying that God is able to influence the material world, including lifeforms, any way He so chooses. If God were to make Himself objectively known to the world, He would instantly become the best scientific explanation for many unknown issues, like the question of how life began.

Unfortunately, some people seem to feel that science has taken a side on God. This is simply not the case. Science says nothing about God - and that means science does not declare that the "truth" about existence must exclude God. God is not a scientific concept, but that has everything to do with the limitations of science, and nothing to do with the probability of God.

This post however is not about God. This post is intended to dispel the myth that science has ruled out the idea of guided evolution (i.e. the possibility that intelligence played a role in the formation of life). This is relevant to God in the sense that one can fully accept science and also accept and entertain ideas related to God governing the particles of existence. And there may be evidence that certain features of existence are only explainable by either appealing to extremely unlikely scenarios, or to invoking fundamentally different paradigms.

Science - real science - should be open to discussing and ascertaining those instances.

The relevance here to the LDS Church is in simply demonstrating the fact that science is not capable of challenging or contradicting religious ideas - but, importantly, religious ideas can at times coincide with areas where science has difficulty reaching plausible solutions.

Unguided evolution may in the end be adequate to explain everything in biology. I don't know. But it is certainly true that it can explain some things better than it can explain other things. The question is, how "much" better can it explain some things than other things?

Standard definitions of Intelligent Design are similar to this accepted one: "The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause."

Evidence supporting this purported theory, like all inductive evidence, is a matter of probability. One might therefore expect debate over the theory to center on robust mathematical analysis.

Unfortunately, one would be mistaken. Rather than fostering rigorous debate over the potential merits of intelligent design (ID), some scientists have refused to "dignify" ID with a response.

Bruce Alberts, while in his formal capacity as President of the National Academy of Sciences, stated, "Because 'Intelligent Design' theories are based on supernatural explanations, they can have nothing to do with science." Many voices of the scientific establishment have similarly echoed such sentiments. Nevertheless, Alberts' statement is puzzling for two reasons.

First, the only "explanation" relied on by ID is "intelligent cause," as seen in the definition of Intelligent Design above. Therefore, Alberts is either saying "intelligent cause" is necessarily a supernatural explanation, or he is rejecting the definition of Intelligent Design and attacking a straw man. So we must assume he is referring to intelligent cause. But how can intelligent cause not be recognized by science when science itself is the product of intelligent cause? Alberts seems to be confusing "supernatural" with artificial.

Second, even if one believes that "intelligent cause" is necessarily supernatural, most scientists are more than eager to test claims of the supernatural and are eager to assert that supernatural claims can indeed be tested by science. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) boasts a long list of distinguished scientists as present and past fellows (including noted antagonists of Intelligent Design, Richard Dawkins and Eugenie Scott), and devotes itself to such "scientific inquiry." Particularly of note is that any "scientific test" of psychic abilities is inherently open to the possibility that the psychic may actually possess supernatural abilities. Indeed, CSI explicitly states as part of its mission that it "Does not reject claims on a priori grounds, antecedent to inquiry, but examines them objectively and carefully."

In other words, the CSI considers valid the possibility of scientifically inferring supernatural powers through probability-based scientific testing of psychic claims.

Alberts no doubt is a brilliant man. But he and other scientists seem to be looking for reasons to avoid discussing the potential merits of ID as a theory. Or, possibly, they may believe they can read the minds of ID proponents and thereby discern a hidden meaning intended in the words "intelligent cause" - in which case they may want to contact the CSI and arrange to have their supernatural ability tested.

If these scientists had lived hundreds of years ago and heard someone hypothesize that unseen creatures were causing disease, these scientists may very well have claimed that the one making the hypothesis was appealing to ghosts and monsters. They may have declared that science ought not to dignify such a hypothesis with a response. Nevertheless, as we now know, the hypothesis would have been correct.

One can only conclude at this point that there is no actual debate. One side offers arguments while the other side makes claims while refusing to engage in dialogue. So let us examine each of these claims and debunk them one by one in hopes of eliciting a response and driving some intellectual curiosity concerning the discussion of ID.

  Claim: "Science only looks for natural explanations"

What is nature?

When we think of nature, we think of life. But can science show that life is natural, as opposed to artificial (intelligence caused)? Science does a great job documenting the nature "of" life, but that is not the same as showing that life itself is "of nature," however one might define "nature."

For instance, science observes that life "reproduces." But this does not make life natural. For the same reason, we would not consider flying saucers to be natural by documenting observations about their nature. If flying saucers were to descend into earth's atmosphere, extract natural minerals from the earth and use those minerals to make parts and assemble additional flying saucers, and science documented all of this, that would not make the flying saucers natural. The observation of life existing and reproducing makes for interesting world history, but the existence of life cannot be assumed to be natural.

If everything in existence is natural, then intelligent cause is also natural. If, alternatively, science acknowledges some things in existence as natural and some things as artificial, then science acknowledges artificial as well as natural explanations. Either way, intelligent cause is a scientific explanation.

  Claim: "A designer would have to be even more complex and improbable than its design"

First, the raw natural complexity of the designer is unknown and is only one piece of the equation. Humans 10,000 years ago were just as "complex" and intelligent as we are. But they didn't design much of anything compared with our technology, because intelligence requires tools and knowledge in order to design. Tools and knowledge are separate factors from raw individual complexity.

Second, to assume that a designer would be more improbable than the probability of the designed item arising through means other than design, is to assume that the circumstances by which the designer came to be were hostile to the designer's existence. However, we do not know the circumstances by which a designer would have come into existence, and, therefore, cannot assess the probability of it happening. There is no reason to assume that even if the designer is far more complicated than the designed item that it would have been more difficult for the designer to come into being than for the designed item.

Third, the central implication of the claim is that the existence of the designer must be more improbable than is the existence of the designed items arising without the aid of the designer. But this is contradicted by the very people making the claim. Opponents of Intelligent Design will readily acknowledge that a modern computer could never arise naturally. Yet these same people assert that the designers of the computer did arise naturally. Therefore, they are asserting that the existence of the designer is more probable than is the existence of the design.

  Claim: "When ID proponents say 'designer,' they are referring to God"

A police captain may personally believe that a particular person started a fire. But when detectives determine the cause of the fire to be arson (intelligent design), their theory has nothing to do with and does not rely on the captain's personal belief. And when the captain holds a press conference referring to "the arsonist" he is not injecting his personal beliefs or making reference to the individual he believes started the fire.

So, no. ID is not "referring" to God. Those who happen to believe in God may suspect their God is the designer. But that is not a matter of ID theory. The fact that one that is omnipotent and omniscient would be capable of design does not mean that one who designs is necessarily omnipotent or omniscient. This is logic 101. ID does not throw away the possibility, but good science is not about throwing away possibilities.

  Claim: "Evidence for evolution is overwhelming"

The concept of life evolving does not contradict ID. Many ID proponents believe in both, viewing ID as a mechanism for some instances of evolution.

  Claim: "A designer had nowhere to come from" 

We live on a tiny rock floating around. We base our ever-evolving scientific understanding of existence on a short period of observations made from this limited vantage point. Why would anyone suppose that we have a complete enough view of reality to rule out other designers?

Does science say we should impose limitations on where things may have "come from?" Consider a child raised on an isolated desert island by his grandmother, who lived just long enough to teach the boy to care for himself, then died. As the boy grows older and considers his existence, should he believe that the island is all that exists, since it is all he can see and all he has ever known? Or is it more logical for him to suppose that his scope of existence is limited? Is it logical for him to suppose that the number of things that exist that he has not encountered is likely to exceed the number of things that exist that he has encountered?

If the boy creates a theory that other people exist - and other animals, resources, and technology that he has never encountered, is it a scientific theory? Or does science insist that the boy only acknowledge the existence of things to which he has been exposed? Is the boy supposed to explain his existence using only what is on the island? At what point is it OK for the boy to say "the island is insufficient; there has to be something more?" At what point is such a statement scientific?

  Claim: "Very little money is spent on research for ID"

How much money did Einstein spend on relativity research?

  Claim: "A judge declared ID is not science"

Is the government an authority over science? No. The government creates institutions to foster networking and categorizing, but science is a matter of individual thought. "Science" did not think up the laws of Newton. Newton did.

The judge essentially ruled that the public may not set its own curriculum at a local level, at least on this issue. Since the judge is not an authority on science, opponents of ID are committing a logical fallacy in appealing to his authority.

  Claim: "Knowledge of a designer is necessary before it can be a scientific explanation"

Science does accept that unknown designers can exist.

Consider the words of Carl Sagan in his universally acclaimed scientific treatise on the "Quest for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" - which led to millions of dollars in science funding:

"It is easy to create an interstellar radio message which can be recognized as emanating unambiguously from intelligent beings. A modulated signal ("beep," "beep-beep," ) comprising the numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 1 7, 19, 23, 29, 31, for example, consists exclusively of the first 12 prime numbers-that is, numbers that can be divided only by 1, or by themselves. A signal of this kind, based on a simple mathematical concept, could only have a biological origin. No prior agreement between the transmitting and receiving civilizations, and no precautions against Earth chauvinism, are required to make this clear.

"Such a message would be an announcement or beacon signal, indicating the presence of an advanced civilization but communicating very little about its nature..."

Clearly, prior knowledge of a potential designer is not necessary to identify the existence of design, at least not by accepted scientific standards anyway.

One scientific discipline devotes itself to ascertaining whether rocks are actually artifacts. Based on such things as angles of fracture too improbable for nature to have made, scientists can determine that someone used a rock as a prehistoric tool. Prehistoric man is a good candidate. Now suppose we were to find such artifacts on Mars. Relying only on rocks with fractures, and using the same standard of design inference accepted in the mainstream of science, we would be able to infer intelligent design - with no knowledge of the designer.

  Claim: "Nature can create complex things, like snowflakes"

Inference of ID is not about complexity, but probability and artificiality.

The argument that nature can create whatever is in question falls apart when one is forced to compare probabilities. For instance, if someone is presented two snowflakes and told one of them was designed and the other was not, and their life depended on determining which one was natural and which was artificial, it would be a random toss-up. But if the person is presented a finely chiseled statue and an ordinary rock and told one is designed and the other is just a rock, it would not be a random toss-up. They would favor the statue over the rock. They would not maintain that the fractures in the statue are just a naturally caused coincidence. But they would be forced to concede that the statue is more likely to have been designed than the ordinary rock. In conceding this, they admit that probabilities are not equal in nature.

  Claim: "To accept design is to give up looking for other explanations"

As a matter of science, that is not true. The search for new and better theories never ends. Accepting design as the best explanation does not mean we will never find an even better explanation.

  Claim: "Probability is irrelevant after something has happened"

Scientific evidence (inductive evidence) is always about probability. This includes things that have already happened, and evolutionary science relies on probabilities for things which happened in the distant past. If we throw away probabilities of things that "already happened," we have to throw away evidence for evolution.

For instance, consider endogenous retrovirus (erv) evidence for a common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees. Humans and chimps have ervs in the same places in their DNA. This is often cited as strong scientific evidence. However, if probabilities of past events are irrelevant, one could argue that this correllation in DNA may have simply been a coincidence. Human DNA could have mutated on its own in such a fashion as to give the impression of a retrovirus, without a retrovirus having ever actually implanted itself. But does science treat both possibilities equally? No. That's because probabilities for events which have already happened are still relevant.

  Claim: "Intelligent Design is not testable"

You have to understand how ID theory works. It uses a set of standards defining how science infers design. Science has always inferred design but previously did so in an intuitive, arbitrary fashion. ID sets an objective standard. The validity of the standard can be tested by confirming through independent means whether a given thing was intelligently designed. For instance, a set of several dozen large rocks on a beach in the shape of "Rescue Me Please" would receive a "positive" from ID. If we confirm that a person did indeed intelligently lay the rocks in that design, it is inductive evidence confirming ID.

ID can be falsified by showing a better explanation. Someone might propose that waves tossed rocks around the beach and they ended up in that alignment. One would have to show that the probability of waves doing that is better. Waves themselves are probable, but waves putting the rocks in a formation which generates information is not probable.

Whether the standards proposed by ID are accurate or need tweaking and adjustment remains to be seen. But adjustments are not new to science. It's certainly an endeavor which should be encouraged and debated.

  Claim: "Behe's mousetrap analogy fails"

Michael Behe has defended his mousetrap analogy, but whether or not the mousetrap analogy has flaws when applied practically is irrelevant. The mousetrap and irreducible complexity are simple illustrations to help people understand a larger principle. Evolution without design would require not only direct but also indirect pathways. Behe argues that indirect pathways are improbable coincidences.

In a direct pathway to a complex function, the mechanism starts with a simpler version of the function and improves it. Natural selection weeds out unproductive changes that occur to the mechanism, and preserves productive changes.

In an indirect pathway, a highly specialized mechanism for a function is built in the background of whatever else might be going on in the organism. In other words, as the mechanism is being built it does not serve the function that it will serve when it is complete. The more proteins which are necessary and the more precise their placement, the bigger the coincidence it is. Natural selection does not weed out unproductive changes or preserve positive changes to the mechanism under construction, except by coincidence (further coincidence).

Some have proposed that "scaffolding" takes away the problem. Scaffolding means that other mechanisms are in place to perform the function until the highly specialized mechanism is complete. The scaffolding solution is only an illusion however, as scaffolding in no way changes the coincidental nature of the construction of the highly specialized mechanism.

Others have proposed that parts of the mechanism may have their own functions and therefore are preserved by natural selection. However, this does nothing to change the coincidental nature of the construction of the highly specialized mechanism.

Even without adding up the math, we intuitively realize that indirect pathways are improbable. This is why Richard Dawkins started with light sensitivity when he proposed a very nice pathway for the evolution of the eye. From there, he proposed a series of additions with each one improving the function of the light sensitivity until finally the organism had a highly specialized sight mechanism. If Dawkins had proposed that light sensitivity was the last step instead of the first step, it would have been a terrible explanation. He may have tried to temper the problem by proposing that as the eye was built, the individual parts of the eye served functions other than sight, but even if he could think of such functions, the coincidental nature of the construction of the eye would be evident for all to see.

What Behe has shown is that some mechanisms do not have the luxury of putting the function first the way Dawkins did with the eye. Critics have no choice but to use indirect pathways and claim disingenuously that the indirect pathway is no less probable than a direct pathway would have been.

  Claim: "Ken Miller refutes ID"

Ken Miller doesn't understand ID. What Miller calls "the heart and the soul of the intelligent design movement" is actually a total misrepresentation of the ID argument.

Miller put up a quote from Behe which read:

"An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly by numerous, successive, slight modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional."

Miller read the quote aloud, but he substituted the words "the way that evolution works" in place of the word "directly." Apparently he thought his phrase was inter-changeable with "directly."

Do you see what Miller did wrong? He did not understand that Behe was only addressing the relationship between direct pathways and the definition of irreducible complexity. Miller was so confused that he went on to propose an indirect pathway, thinking he was disproving Behe's statement about direct pathways.

Miller also failed to understand Behe's use of the word "nonfunctional."

Despite the fact that Behe specifically put the word "nonfunctional" in the context of the definition of IC (meaning Behe was referring to the "primary function" of the whole), Miller insisted on ignoring the definition and pretending that Behe was claiming that individual parts of an IC system can't have any function of their own of any kind.

So Miller falsely claims that "if irreducible complexity is right, then the parts of these machines should be absolutely useless."

  Claim: "ID proponents are trying to advance religion"

Opponents of ID can't find anything religious in ID, so they point out that many proponents of ID believe God is the designer. And certainly, that is a religious belief. Also, some ID proponents try to use ID as part of a strategy to convince people of their religious beliefs. Certainly, that is a religious strategy. But neither of those things are descriptions of ID itself. They are descriptions of what people are doing with ID.

But we can say the same about evolution.

Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous and accepted advocates of evolution in the science community, uses common descent as part of a strategy to advance atheism. Does that mean the theory of common descent is pro-atheism?

Sir Isaac Newton, the founder of modern science, wanted to use his scientific advances to convince men to believe in God. Does that mean Newton's laws themselves are religious?

Newton's exact words were:

"When I wrote my treatise about our systeme I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the beleife of a Deity and nothing can rejoyce me more then to find it usefull for that purpose." (Letter to Richard Bentley, a supporter of Newton's who wrote papers arguing that Newton's theory was evidence of God)

  Final Thought

How great is the probability divide between possibilities of different things evolving? I don't know. But that's the point. Science is supposed to attempt to generate answers to such things. But too many scientists are not even willing to treat this question as though it exists at all. Apparently they are concerned that any answer to the question will lend credibility to Intelligent Design. But that's a personal pet peeve of theirs. Science does not need personal pet peeves but objective scholarship.

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