Sunday, June 12, 2005

Evolution, Intelligent Design, and category errors ...

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit linked last week to a piece on Intelligent Design by Jim Pinkerton at TechCentral. This is one of the better discussions of ID theory that I have seen. Maybe I think that because it raises the same objection I have: that a metaphysical answer to a scientific question is no answer at all -- and that is what ID theory proposes. Of course, a scientific answer to a metaphysical question is no answer at all, either. Both wrong answers constitute what is known in philosophy as category error.

There is another problem with Intelligent Design theory. A couple of years ago I reviewed a book called The Probability of God by Stephen D. Unwin. In it I noted that Unwin, a theoretical physicist turned risk analyst, had raised "one of the more interesting objections to intelligent design theory: Given that we 'lack so much understanding of God,' the 'engineering notion of intelligent design' seems not only naive but also presumptuous." I have always thought it better to think that God as Creator has more in common with Michelangelo or Bach than with Edison or Ford.

Still, neo-Darwinian theory isn't without it's problems either. The question Michael Behe raises about irreducible complexity happens to be a good one -- and it is not answered by speculating about how such complexity could have come about in accordance with random selection. Factual data is what is needed, not a sequence of suppositions. The fact is we don't know how something like the eye developed. Saying God made it happen doesn't tell us anything, since God -- for those of us who believe in God -- makes everything happen. But saying it could have developed this way or that if such and such were the case, etc. doesn't tell us anything, either.
There happen to be very good, strictly scientific objections to the Darwinian model of evolution (I put it that way because I think that, except for those who think the world was made about 6,000 years ago in six 24-hour periods, most people think that life and species developed over time from simpler to more complex forms).
A pretty thorough overview of these objections -- and much else besides -- can be found here.
In the meantime, maybe it's worth taking another look at Teilhard de Chardin. Here's a piece in Wired about the Jesuit paleontologist and friend of Julian Huxley who saw evolution in religious -- indeed mystical -- terms.
Eugene Volokh also has some thoughts on evolution and religion that are well worth considering.


  1. Well, this topic ought to land you in a fine kettle of fish, Frank.

  2. That's the general idea, Melville. It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.

  3. Melville's quite right, Frank, this is quite the controversy you've put yourself in! Lots of emotion on this issues. is a blog that'll serve as a portal to one side of the controversy.

  4. Then let's stir that kettle o' fish for you a little, Frank. As a person who believes, rather vaguely, in God, and who has read about the topic to a fair degree, I find intelligent design to be little more than religico-pretentious twaddle. Its -- and Michael Behe's -- claims are rather well demolished in biologist H. Allen Orr's article in the May 30 New Yorker. After explaining the many flaws in ID, and the many ways in which Darwinism is "one of the best theories in the history of science," Orr points out that biologists are not alarmed by ID because they are all dedicated to atheistic materialism (many are religious believers, including traditional Christianity), but because ID is "junk science." Orr says, "As the years pass, intelligent design looks less and less like the science it claimed to be and more and more like an extended exercise in polemics."

  5. Hi Melville:
    I hold no brief for ID theory. Not because I don't believe in God -- I do believe in God -- but because, as I said in my post, I think ID is a form of category error.
    I also have no problem at all with evolution, if by evolution one means the development of species over time from simpler forms into more complex ones.
    I do not, however, think that Darwinism is "one of the best theories in the history of science." For one thing it has virtually no practical value: an astrophysicist cannot begin work without taking into consideration Einstein's coordinates. Biologists every day proceed to do their work without any reference whatever to Darwin.
    The problem with Darwinism is that it's really more of a hypothesis than a genuine theory. Note this passage from Orr's New Yorker piece:
    "As biologists pointed out, there are several different ways that Darwinian evolution can build irreducibly complex systems. In one, elaborate structures may evolve for one reason and then get co-opted for some entirely different, irreducibly complex function. Who says those thirty flagellar proteins weren’t present in bacteria long before bacteria sported flagella? They may have been performing other jobs in the cell and only later got drafted into flagellum-building."
    Well, it MAY be true and COULD happen that way. But I'd really like to know for sure. Knowing things for sure and not just supposition is what I expect from science. Otherwise I would just read science fiction.
    Again, I suggest looking at Gert Korthof's excellent Web site, which examines the controversy from just about every angle imaginable and is very reasonable and fair.
    My point is simply that there are real problems with Darwinism, scientific problems that ought to be addressed.

  6. Two things: irreducible complexity arguments can be made feasibly using science. Science doesn't answer questions of history directly either. So saying that science doesn't do such and such isn't consistently applied.

    Secondly, atheists have already conceded the battlefield to Intelligent Design. The war isn't over. The beachhead on Normandy has been taken. You will consistently hear them appealing to multiple universes in order to avoid the weight of evidence for design. People know design when they see it intuitively. And since you can't live any old way you want and be an atheists we better postulate multiple universes.

    I'll make a prediction. More and more complexity will be found to be needed to allow life, esp. intelligent life, to exist. Not less.

  7. Geoffrey:
    "People know design when they see it intuitively." That is the point that I think A.S. Byatt was getting at in the quote I cited in a more recent post titled "On blind chance." Thanks for the comment. Keep visiting.

  8. "People know design when they see it intuitively" is no better an argument for explaining how our universe got this way than "I can't define pornography but I know it when I see it" is for limiting freedom of speech.
    Willis Wayde

  9. Willis, that was not an argument for Intelligent Design. It was a statement about human nature. And an explanation of why many materialists have postulated their multiple universe theory in the face of laws of nature which are appearing increasingly fine-tuned to allow life.

  10. Wllis:
    I agree that it's no better than the porn statement, but it's no worse, either. I think Byatt's point -- which I talked to her about at length one very pleasant night -- is that the mind gravitates to order and that it therefore resists any explanation grounded in pure, blind chance -- which is, after all, tantamount to saying there is no explanation at all -- other than the old, childish one of ... just because.

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  12. One of the benefits of this national discussion is that it moves us to examine what we mean by "believing in God." Is God a person, with intentions and intellect? Does he reward and punish? Does he become wrathful? Do we believe in a God who designs and intentionally creates the world? Does God monitor and control the world?

    In Genesis 1:24, we read, "And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so." (KJV)

    For those who revere the Bible's words, it may be worth thinking about the implications of this passage. It doesn't say, "God made the living creature." Rather, God says, "Let the earth bring forth the living creature."

    Just as we understand that the six days of creation are "days" in the cosmic sense (the sun not having been created until the fourth day), we can understand that the earth could "bring forth the living creature" in an evolutionary way. In other words, intelligent design does not rule out evolution, and vice-versa.

    See for more discussion of this.