Monday, November 14, 2005

Irreducible Stupidity

The WSJ today (subscription required) had a front page article on the progress of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement in infiltrating our education system, from K-12 and now the University system.
Intelligent-design courses have cropped up at the state universities of Minnesota, Georgia and New Mexico, as well as Iowa State, and at private institutions such as Wake Forest and Carnegie Mellon...professors with evangelical beliefs, including some eminent scientists, have initiated most of the courses and lectures, often with start-up funding from the John Templeton Foundation
The article itself somewhat meandered through this minefield, to no clear point. To also help set the record straight, it is really the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, not the John Templeton Foundation, that is the primary backer of the spread of ID. (In fact the John Templeton Foundation put out the following statement in response to the WSJ article. While I can't support the precepts of this foundation myself, I do think there are more insidious institutions out there who are not as clear in their purpose as this one).
The John Templeton Foundation has provided tens of millions of dollars in support to research academics who are critical of the anti-evolution ID position.
I'm all for debates of this nature in our college system. That's what colleges and universities are nominally for - the crucible for the refinement of ideas, which supposedly can burn off the dross of muddled thinking and allow the purest of tested ideas to emerge.

But when the players attempt to change the rules of the debate so that there are no longer any agreements as to even what the rules are, then its clear that they are no longer interested in the pursuit of truth - their goal is merely evangelism of their point of view.

To provide some background, the debate between Creationism (er, I mean Intelligent Design) and Evolution has been moved from the halls of philosophy to the halls of science. Advocates of Intelligent Design identify a number of areas of evolutionary theory where there is debate as to specifics, and said that because there is doubt in some area, there should be room for alternative theories which would explain these "gaps".

That alternative is the "theory" that there was a Creator that designed and implemented certain biological features (such as the basic "cell"), and that these features did not emerge from the mutation/selection forces of evolution. From the article:
With a magician's flourish, Thomas Ingebritsen pulled six mousetraps from a shopping bag and handed them out to students in his "God and Science" seminar. At his instruction, they removed one component -- either the spring, hammer or holding bar -- from each mousetrap. They then tested the traps, which all failed to snap.

"Is the mousetrap irreducibly complex?" the Iowa State University molecular biologist asked the class.

"Yes, definitely," said Jason Mueller, a junior biochemistry major wearing a cross around his neck.
What make a discussion the province of science vs. the provice of some Humanities discipline (such as comparative religion, sociology, philosophy)?

Any theory should be consistent with currently known facts. The primary characteristic of a scientific theory is that it must be testable, and testable in a way that it can be proven to be false. If you can't come up with some test of your theory that can be implemented by today's level of technology, then it isn't science - it is speculative fiction. If the test is designed to "prove" the theory, rather than disprove it, then it isn't a scientific test - it is a P.T. Barnum stunt to amaze and amuse (and to empty the pockets of the gullible public).
"No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American Public" - H.L. Mencken
(Mr. Mencken covered the "Scopes Monkey Trial" and developed a thorough disgust for Mr. William Jennings Bryan, Esq. during his attempt to embody the previous incarnation of Intelligent Design (i.e. Creationism) into our code of laws).

The primary problem with Intelligent Design being even discussed as a scientific theory is this - it isn't testable. Proponents use arguments like the above "irreducible complexity" argument to "prove" that there must have been a creator involved in the design and construction of cells (or eyes, or other "irreducibly complex" organisms).

The first question to ask is - what test can we make of ID that could prove it wrong? And therein lies the truth - we can't. This is the fundamental flaw with all "God Did It" arguments. There is no test that can be designed to possibly prove them wrong. ("So therefore, they must be right!: argue the illogical and irrational - and distinctly unscientific - scientists of ID).

I can posit an idea that says that a genetic structure that give rise to light sensitivity can mutate to provide a finer gradation of resolution. I can then take genetic structures that provide this biological feature, and attempt to show the mutation (or steps of mutation) that cause this to happen (usually something like a genetic sequence repeating multiple times, or the genetic sequence for the reading of that section of the DNA mutating to cause it to be used multiple times).

If I can show how this works, I have a theory. The theory is consistent with the facts that it can happen this way, and is a theory because it may explain how it happened in the past. If I can't even show this much, I don't have a theory. And if I can demonstrate that it isn't even possible to get from step A to step B, then I have a disproven theory. But this is all within the realm of science.

"God Did It" arguments are a cop out. This is an argument that, if we wanted to be lazy, we could invoke at any step of scientific investigation to call a halt and say "we're done. No more work to be done here." This is the equivalent of a map maker saying "Beyond Here There Lay Dragons", throwing up his hands, and saying "I'm sorry, Drake old boy, but that trip to explore beyond the known world just doesn't make any sense - there are just some things man was not meant to know."

Now, the explorers may get it wrong. Christopher Columbus couldn't do math, and couldn't even calculate a circumference that Erastosthenes has calculated thousands of years earlier. But he did explore, and he did "publish his results", and other (smarter) men used those results to develop theories of the world that were testable, and true.

Evolution has gone through similar tests through time, primarily because some of strong but ignorant faith find the concept an affront to their published doctrine. In fact, one could probably safely say that evolutionary theories have gone through more testing and scrutiny than most scientific theories, due to this very conflict.

And while there are still gaps in knowledge, and there are still healthy debates regarding aspects of evolutionary theory, the underpinnings of evolution are rock solid.

The underpinnings of Intelligent Design are rock solid as well, but not on a foundation of scientific theory. These are built on the pillars of faith, and are best left to the debating corner where they still discuss how many angels would fit on the head of a pin.

The scientific corner will hopefully continue on to identify working, testable theories upon which we can extend lives and the quality thereof through medicine, engineering, and biology.


At Tuesday, November 15, 2005, Blogger Rick Fisk said...

I think it's unfair to claim that Intelligent design = Creationism. There are plenty of organic systems that obviously require intelligence and evolutionary sub-theories imply intelligence must exist by definition.

That intelligence has to come from somewhere.

You take cheap shots where none are necessary. People who notice intelligence in the many systems that exist in the universe are not prone to poking needles in effigies or sacrificing chickens.

At Wednesday, November 16, 2005, Blogger A Muser said...

1) While I try to be factual, I make no attempt at being "fair" (whatever that is) - this blog is to state my biased positions, not to attempt to report both sides of some debate.

2) It would probably be more correct if I had said that Creationism is a subset of Intelligent Design (and which carries a lot of other baggage, like a 6000 year old timespan). From the ID advocates own words, though, ID advocates the "theory" of an intelligent creator rather than natural physical processes (even though said creator isn't named). My point was primarily that it couldn't be considered a scientific theory, because it didn't meet the test of being falsifiable.

3) I'm not sure what you mean when you say that some organic systems obviously require intelligence, or that said intelligence must "come from somewhere." It isn't clear to me that any organic system "requires" intelligence. That there exists intelligence (sentience, directed consciousness, whatever we choose to call it) isn't in question. The two questions addressed here are a) Can ID really be called a "theory", and b) Does ID really help us in any way understand the way the universe works? My answer to both of these questions was no.

4) There are absolutely open questions as to how physical processes form biological processes that form evolutionary processes, in greater orders of complexity. I write about this a lot in my blogs (see some earlier postings from the late April 2005 archives for my views). Some people who notice intelligence, or who are looking for answers, may have all kinds of interesting habits, but I don't remember bringing those into the argument. And if you think a statement is "cheap" (which I assume means without merit), please highlight it so we can debate the point in contention.

5) Could an intelligent designer exist, and could said intelligent designer have manipulated biological processes in the distant past to result in what we see around us? Yes, there is a non-zero probability that this is true. But I'm not sure how to test this idea. I do know how to test (or at least, smarter people than I who do this for a living know how to test) various evolutionary theories which posit no intelligent designer (Dawkin's Watchmaker). And this process has led to more useful and practical results in the past, so I think I'll stick with that for now, instead of calling it quits with a "God Did It" argument.

At Tuesday, November 29, 2005, Blogger Rick Fisk said...

I wouldn't suggest that you had any obligation to report both sides of the debate. I simply pointed out that equating ID to Creationism is a smear.

Creationism typically suggests that the earth was created in 6 days by a genocidal God the Hebrews called YHWH.

It would seem by your definition that evolution is also not a valid theory since it cannot be falsifiable. Nobody could live long enough to witness the end of any experiment designed to disprove much of what passes for evolution theory.

That there exists intelligence (sentience, directed consciousness, whatever we choose to call it) isn't in question.

Then we agree. This begs questions that evolutionary theory doesn't address well. Where does intelligence originate?

I do not think man has ever been able to create anything that contained intelligence not derived from the creator.

At Tuesday, November 29, 2005, Blogger A Muser said...

I still believe Creationism is a subset of ID. The "theory" of ID is so broadly stated that if Creationism were true, it would be consistent with the claims of ID.

Evolutionary theories (since there isn't just one Theory of Evolution) have been posited and tested, with some being shown to be false. The rest, the ones that are consistent with known facts, are still held by science as credible possibilities as to what happened in the past.

Your last statement is a tautology. By definition, man cannot create something that wasn't created by man. The more interesting question is whether man can model and test alternate ways that complexity (and intelligence) can arise from known physical processes. It is this approach that leads to applicable advances in knowledge.

Could a vastly powerful entity have created everything we see - including geological strata, fossils, micro-evolution, common DNA, etc? Sure.

Could said being have created all of this yesterday, including creating us with false memories that time and the universe actually began earlier than yesterday? Sure.

But these "theories" don't lead to anything useful, or applicable.


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