Friday, November 6, 2009

Darwinism vs. Intelligent Design: The Second Shot



As promised, Luke “The Common Sense Atheist” has begun to tackle the Intelligent Design controversy. In his first major post on this issue, Is Intelligent Design Creationism?, Luke wrote...


Here’s how I like to think of Creationism and Intelligent Design. I tend to use “Creationism” to refer to theories informed by the Bible or Christian (or Muslim) theology. For example, a theory including a 6,000 year old Earth is obviously Creationism.

In contrast, I tend to use “Intelligent Design” to refer to modern attempts at natural theology, which are not dependent on scripture or doctrine. The method of natural theology is to make an inference from observations of public, natural evidence to the existence of some kind of Designer or First Cause. This method does not allow you to assume any properties at all about the Designer that cannot be inferred from the observations of public, natural evidence...

Under this proposal, it is quite possible (and common) for someone to accept Creationism but argue for intelligent design. Indeed, it may be unlikely that someone would defend intelligent design without first personally accepting Creationism. But one may argue for intelligent design without any reference to Creationism.

I responded...

Luke: This is a pretty fair opening essay, and I’m glad that you’re validating my original hope that you were an honest seeker of truth. I don’t agree with everything you wrote, course, but I agree with your most important point: There IS a distinction between Creationism and Intelligent Design. Usually, in my previous discussions with Darwinists, if they tell me that “I.D. and Creationism are the same thing,” I have to reluctantly end the debate. Why? Because they are not even familiar with the most basic terms in the debate.

I do want to point out though that when people say the “Pandas” book is a smoking gun that ID = Creationism, they’re allowing their bias to influence their judgment. Why? Because they’re playing semantic games. In the early 1980s, the word ID hadn’t been invented yet; the word “Creationism” was a general term to denote that mind (intelligence) was a better explanation for the origin and diversity of life than the mindless, random form of evolution advocated by Darwinists. While I appreciate the history lesson, in the year 2009, the terms Creationism and Intelligent Design mean separate things (as you noted). Today, Creationists believe the account of life found in the Bible. I.D. is an outgrowth of the Scientific Method. I.D. looks at the evidence we’ve accumulated, and makes judgments based on that. It is separate from Creationism. I hope – thanks to you – that more Darwinists will appreciate that.

This did not sit well with "Hermes," who wrote...
Todd, consider that by using the word ‘darwinists’, and exacerbating it by making it a proper noun by using a capital “D”, you’re guilty of what you object to.

In short: If you yourself are an honest broker, and want a conversation, then cut it out.

I responded...
Hermes: It’s not clear to me what’s objectionable about the term “Darwinist.” Darwinists are people who advocate Darwinism in the same way Christians advocate Christianity, conservatives advocate conservatism, etc, etc. “Darwinist” is a clear, factually correct term.

Then, after a bit more back and forth, I wrote...

Herm: For the sake of being a nice guy, if you honestly find the term “Darwinist” offensive, I will not describe your views in that way.

Herm replied...

Sorry, not good enough. If you want special considerations from everyone, you should be willing to do so for everyone as well. If not, then you are coming up short morally and ethically...

Will you not use “Darwinist”/”darwinist” now that you know it is incorrect as well as a prerogative term? I’d like your assurance on this so that I can see I am dealing with someone who has honor and integrity and is not asking for special treatment for them and them alone.

Todd White, do you have that honor and integrity or not?

I replied...

Hermes: I have enough “honor and integrity” to say that I can’t go beyond the compromise I suggested earlier.

To ask me to accept that “Darwinist” is an “incorrect term” would be a violation of Reason and Reality – and Reason and Reality are my only 2 absolutes.

Again, I don’t know what else to say. You seem like a decent guy, though, so I’m disappointed that we couldn’t resolve this matter in a more satisfying way.

Then "Fortuna" jumped in. I responded to her as follows...

Fortuna: I appreciate that you directly answered my question (the first person so far).

You wrote: "We don’t ’support’ the theory of evolution in any meaningful sense I can think of; it’s quite well supported in terms of being the most powerful explanation available.”

Yes, I think we’ve getting closer to the nub of the matter.

Consider if I said the following…
“I don’t ’support’ Christianity in any meaningful sense I can think of; it’s quite well supported in terms of being the most powerful explanation available.” That’s bizarre, right? Well, that’s how I feel about your comment (although in fairness, I think you just haven’t really thought about how it comes across to people like me).

Bonus: These days, the vast majority of Christians would never make the statement I just did; they’re mostly tolerant of other people’s faith – even though they’re 100% convinced that Christianity is true. That’s probably one of the reasons they wouldn’t object to the term “Christian.” It’s just a logical way to distinguish those who accept Christ from those who don’t. The same applies for Darwi – I mean…whatever y’all want to call yourselves ;)

Fortuna replied (in part)...

It’s not so much that I object to it, or find it inappropriate.

I find it inappropriate as a descriptor, especially in contexts where it is being used to imply that evolution is equivalent to a religious doctrine. Which is, like, 95% of its use on the internet.*It fails to describe the position we hold, and is inappropriate in that sense; it’s not that it hurts our poor little feelings.

This led to my response...

Fortuna: “It fails to describe the position we hold, and is inappropriate in that sense.”

TW: See, again, that’s something I have to disagree with. It goes back to my “A is A” argument above.
To say that “Darwinism fails to describe the position we hold” strikes me as along the same lines as 2+2=5.

Sorry to be a stickler, but on some level, this has actually become a very interesting and revealing debate. Our inability to find a consensus on defining the most basic terms shows what a major epistemological gulf exists between your side and my side.

Luke - to his credit - interjected with 2 useful posts...
I’ve never had a problem with being called a ‘Darwinist.’ Perhaps it implies too much emphasis on the man rather than the theory of common descent by natural selection as it has developed in accord with the evidence, but it is useful to distinguish ideas as ‘Darwinian’ rather than, say, ‘Lamarkian...’

I read the terms ‘Darwinist’ and ‘Darwinian’ in scientific and philosophical literature all the time, and it’s obviously not being used pejoratively there.
Eventually, though, when the topic turned to Darwinism itself (and not just semantics), the conversation went downhill fast - so downhill, I wrote something I almost never write...
Guys, I’m out. I’ve been commenting on this website for a few days and all I get is name-calling, projection, semantic games, and misinformation. In fairness, a few people (like Luke and Josh) seem knowledgebale (and mostly) open-minded. But overall, this just ain’t worth my time.

If you need to reach me, you can do so on my website.

Later.

To that, Luke said...
Todd, I don’t blame you. This thread has been insane.

I guess we'll have to try again sometime in the future, Luke.


**UPDATE, NOV. 7, 2009**


Note: This is not a full transcript. See Fortuna's comment in the Comment Section.

11 comments:

Fortuna said...

Hello Todd;

I'd just like to note that I tried to address your responses to me in that comment thread to an extent not indicated in this post.

In particular, I replied that I would not find it bizarre if a Christian claimed that "support" of Christianity is not their defining characteristic; I'd expect a Christian to say they believe it's the most powerful explanation around (and thus very likely, if not certain, to be true).

In other words, I expect Christians to say that they're defined by their belief that Christianity is true, not that they support Christianity.

I'd also like to point out that we do not have an epistemic gulf betwixt us, in my humble opinion. My very first comment to you acknowledged that your use of the term "Darwinism" can be both appropriate and uncontroversial. What I was trying to get at from there on out was the fact that there is a different, dishonest use of the term, and unfortunately it's far more common on the internet.

Todd White said...

Hi Fortuna,

Thanks for your comment.

In creating my post, I tried to take the comments that I thought most elucidated the issues at hand. If I selected comments that distorted your position, I apologize. I've made 2 changes to the original text. Instead of "Fortuna replied" I now have "Fortuna replied (in part). Also, I've added an update at the end,
"This is not a full transcript. See Fortuna's comment in the Comment Section." If you think other changes are necessary, let me know, and I'll probably make them.

As for your other points...

Fortuna: "I replied that I would not find it bizarre if a Christian claimed that 'support' of Christianity is not their defining characteristic; I'd expect a Christian to say they believe it's the most powerful explanation around (and thus very likely, if not certain, to be true).

TW: Fair enough. But why would "advocates of mainstream science" want to have the same sloppy attitude towards "Truth" as Christians? You're saying both Christians and AMSers (for short) can't "support" something because "support" is too timid a word.

To quote your comment at Luke's website...

"We don’t 'support' the theory of evolution in any meaningful sense I can think of; it’s quite well supported in terms of being the most powerful explanation available."

That's one of the reasons I said there was an "epistemic gulf" between your side and my side.

Most AMS have the following positions...

1) ID isn't science, and its been disproven anyway, and it's creationism in sheep's clothing, and...and...and that's why it's not worth talking about.

2) Darwinism is such a "there ain't no doubt it" form of Truth (like the fact the Earth revolves around the Sun) that to say that I'm a Darwinist is to say I'm a "Copernican" and it's illogical.

Obviously, I reject both statements, and as it pertains to Statement #2, in particular, Darwinism just hasn't reached the level of proof yet to warrant such a "holier than thou" attitude held by at least 90% of its advocates.

The facts we have about evolution don't warrant such statements as, "We don’t 'support' the theory of evolution in any meaningful sense."

Of course, as I said, unlike most AMSers, I won't let disagreement on this issue prevent further debate, unlike Hermes, who needed to know I thought the term "Darwinism" was "incorrect" before he could continue the conversation.

I'm still not convinced that "Darwinism" is a pejorative term; even after all this discussion, I still think it's the clearest and most accurate term to describe those who support the current evolutionary paradigm. But Luke - or someone else - made the point that people should be able to choose their own label, and I'm cool with that (within reason).

Right now, though, I'm not aware of any other labels. I guess we could go with AMS for short. What would you suggest?

Fortuna said...

Hi Todd;

No apologies necessary. To address your comment;

Fair enough. But why would "advocates of mainstream science" want to have the same sloppy attitude towards "Truth" as Christians? You're saying both Christians and AMSers (for short) can't "support" something because "support" is too timid a word.

I didn't mean to imply that one can't support something one thinks is true, merely that one's support is not the defining characteristic when we're differentiating people by their beliefs. To paraphrase something I said on Luke's thread, if one identifies as a Christian I don't just expect you to support Christianity in some sense, I expect you to believe (with whatever degree of certainty) that it's a true description of the real world.

Furthermore, I tried to express my opinion that what one supports is volitional, but what one believes is not. I say it's not meaningful to distinguish me by mere support of evolutionary science, because I feel obligated by the evidence to believe that it's true, with a high degree of confidence. Whether I support it in some way may be interesting or not...but either way, my hackles raise when I read people suggesting that Darwinists are distinguished by their "support" of Darwinism. It often presages an attempt to deflect the conversation away from the reasons for believing evolution is factual, and towards the supposed nefarious purposes that scientists are trying to advance.

That of course is not your fault, I just wanted to make you aware of the baggage some creationists have loaded the discussion with.

The facts we have about evolution don't warrant such statements as, "We don’t 'support' the theory of evolution in any meaningful sense."

Obviously I disagree.

Right now, though, I'm not aware of any other labels. I guess we could go with AMS for short. What would you suggest?

Don't know. That'd be fine I suppose.

Todd White said...

Hi Fortuna,

Thanks for your patience in walking this through with me.


Fortuna: "It's not meaningful to distinguish me by mere support of evolutionary science, because I feel obligated by the evidence to believe that it's true, with a high degree of confidence."

See, I just can’t see how someone in my situation could agree with that (or could be expected to agree with that). After all, I’ve looked at a lot of that evidence too, and I certainly don’t think the evidence is good enough to give those who back evolutionary science the right to say things like “I shouldn’t be distinguished as a mere supporter of evolutionary science.”

If I can say – quite comfortably – that “I support the Intelligent Design paradigm,” it’s not clear to me why my opponent shouldn’t be able to say, “I support the modern evolutionary paradigm.” It puts them in an elevated position that isn’t deserved I don’t think.

Let’s say I went to North Korea to advocate for democracy, and said something like, “I shouldn’t be distinguished by mere support for democracy, because I feel obligated by the evidence to believe it’s the best political system with a high degree of confidence.” Wouldn’t people – even my allies back in America – be scratching their heads? At the end of the day, how is any good-faith discussion improved by any statements like that? See what I’m getting at?

Having said all that, I’m OK with moving the discussion forward even though we might have slightly different interpretation of words like “support” and “believe.”

Fortuna said...

Hi Todd;

Thanks for having me on, as it were.

See, I just can’t see how someone in my situation could agree with that (or could be expected to agree with that). After all, I’ve looked at a lot of that evidence too, and I certainly don’t think the evidence is good enough to give those who back evolutionary science the right to say things like “I shouldn’t be distinguished as a mere supporter of evolutionary science.”

I don't think it's a matter of one's evaluation of the evidence. I mean, I said earlier that I wouldn't distinguish Christians by their "support" for Christianity, which could mean a lot of things. I distinguish them by their beliefs in a triune God and so forth, beliefs about what's true. For that purpose, it's irrelevant how strong I think the evidence for their beliefs are.

If I can say – quite comfortably – that “I support the Intelligent Design paradigm,” it’s not clear to me why my opponent shouldn’t be able to say, “I support the modern evolutionary paradigm.” It puts them in an elevated position that isn’t deserved I don’t think.

Well, there's really no avoiding that we think it's deserved. We're not kidding around when we discuss evolution as a fact, and we certainly haven't forgotten the thorough, repeated public drubbings that have been administered to every ID-related proposal that was concrete enough to be falsifiable. Before we could even discuss elevated positions, we'd need an established position for the ID advocate to argue from.

And I still stand by what I said about finding it bizarre to even speak about my "support" of evolution, since it's just not how I think about its epistemology. It strikes me as no less weird than it would be to talk about supporting heliocentricism.

Let’s say I went to North Korea to advocate for democracy, and said something like, “I shouldn’t be distinguished by mere support for democracy, because I feel obligated by the evidence to believe it’s the best political system with a high degree of confidence.” Wouldn’t people – even my allies back in America – be scratching their heads? At the end of the day, how is any good-faith discussion improved by any statements like that? See what I’m getting at?

I don't think your example is quite analogous, since it incorporates a normative judgment, rather than a purely descriptive, factual statement. If you had said that you shouldn't be distinguished by your support for democracies' existing...a proposition about our world that is either true or false without respect to what we judge to be best...then it would be analogous. In that case, it would be bizarre to speak of your "support" for democracy's existence, would it not? Your stance is presumably beyond support, you're as certain as can be that there exist such things as democratic governments.

Todd White said...

Fortuna: “I still stand by what I said about finding it bizarre to even speak about my support’ of evolution, since it's just not how I think about its epistemology. It strikes me as no less weird than it would be to talk about supporting heliocentricism.

TW: See, here’s the thing: Heliocentism was proven by observations of celestial bodies. There are no equivalent observations which validate modern evolution theory. That’s why I always have to scratch my head when evolutionists say, “Evolution is a fact, and since it’s a fact, I.D. by definition must be wrong.” I don’t think this is a valid statement from an epistemic perspective. We’ve accumulated “clues” about evolution, and evolution itself is – to quote the Pope – “more than just an hypothesis,” but I would never say it’s “proven.”

What would be the evidence for modern evolution that make it as “true” as “heliocentricism?”

Fortuna said...

Spare time; scarce. Google-fu; weak.

I hope to adress your question this weekend. For now, I wish to point out that the positive versions of contingent, empirical propositions in science are never considered to be proven true deductively, the way we would use the term "proven" in a mathematical or logical sense. Technically, they are considered to be either unsupported, supported (to various degrees), or disconfirmed (the negative formulation is proven true). It is perhaps one of the ironies of the philosophy of science that negatives are really the only things that are ever truly proven; we are engaged in a search for truth by seeking out what we can know to be false.

Formally speaking, I wouldn't say either heliocentrism or evolution are proven, they're simply both so well-supported by observation that it would be very perverse to reject them as most likely true.

Colloquially speaking though, they're both proven. Just kind of a nitpick, I suppose.

Oh, and about this;

That’s why I always have to scratch my head when evolutionists say, “Evolution is a fact, and since it’s a fact, I.D. by definition must be wrong.”

I wouldn't say that as a blanket statement; technically it's a fallacy. ID doesn't have to be regarded as wrong simply because evolution is factual.

Where I think ID starts to fall down is where it makes specific predictions that are unsupported, or that are flatly contradicted by the evidence. Witness Dr. Michael Behe's assertion during the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial that the human immune system could not have evolved naturally (ie. without intelligent interference). Under cross-examination, he was forced to admit that he was not actually familiar with the vast body of work detailing precisely how that evolution could have occured, and subsequently became the laughingstock of the interwebs (for that and other reasons).

Todd White said...

Fort: I hope to address your question this weekend.

TW: Cool. No worries.

Fort: Formally speaking, I wouldn't say either heliocentrism or evolution are proven, they're simply both so well-supported by observation that it would be very perverse to reject them as most likely true. Colloquially speaking though, they're both proven.

TW: Whether “formally speaking” or “colloquially speaking.” I think heliocentism is about as “proven” as a scientific fact can be (given our knowledge of astrophysics and our observations of the solar system, etc). In contrast, evolution is a good hypothesis about the diversity of life, but so far from proven that statements like “evolution is a fact” (used by Dawkins, PZ Myers, et al) is misleading at best, flat-out wrong at worst.

Fort: “I wouldn't say that as a blanket statement; technically it's a fallacy. ID doesn't have to be regarded as wrong simply because evolution is factual.”

TW: Hmm, well that’s good I guess. But I think that most folks on your side of the debate would disagree. They would say evolution by definition rules out I.D.

Fort: “Where I think ID starts to fall down is where it makes specific predictions that are unsupported, or that are flatly contradicted by the evidence.”

TW: The issue of junk DNA is interesting. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the scientific consensus was that “junk DNA was…well… “junk.” Those supportive of I.D. predicted that junk DNA would be nothing of the sort, and now we’re finding out that’s true.

Fort: Witness Dr. Michael Behe's assertion during the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial that the human immune system could not have evolved naturally (ie. without intelligent interference). Under cross-examination, he was forced to admit that he was not actually familiar with the vast body of work detailing precisely how that evolution could have occured, and subsequently became the laughingstock of the interwebs (for that and other reasons).

TW: I never read a transcript of Dr. Behe’s testimony, but I know the conventional wisdom is that he was a lousy witness (and that’s probably true). Even so, I doubt other scientists would have done much better. Daniel Dennett, for instance, is one of the so-called “Four Horsemen of Atheism,” a proud Darwinist, but yet his background is in philosophy, not biology. In other words, while I’m sure Dr. Behe may have harmed himself in that testimony, it’s not clear to be why a strong pro-I.D. lawyer could have made someone like Dennett look easily foolish.

Fortuna said...

In contrast, evolution is a good hypothesis about the diversity of life, but so far from proven that statements like “evolution is a fact” (used by Dawkins, PZ Myers, et al) is misleading at best, flat-out wrong at worst.

I disagree, but you know that already. Knowledge drop is inbound.

Hmm, well that’s good I guess. But I think that most folks on your side of the debate would disagree. They would say evolution by definition rules out I.D.

It rules out the kinds of ID that make incorrect predictions, which is understandably what most of us focus on.

I wouldn't make the blanket statement that evolution rules out ID period because there are formulations out there, or so I gather, that are vacuous enough to be compatible with virtually anything.

For instance, I was discussing ERV's with a Christian gentleman who disbelieves evolutionary biology. I pointed out that the distribution of ERV's across taxa is precisely what we'd expect to see if they were being inherited through common descent (ie. in nested hierarchies), and indeed, there isn't any other viable natural explanation for how they could've gotten there, in that telling pattern.

To which he replied; so? There's no reason an omnipotent designer couldn't have distributed them that way for purposes that shall go unexplained.

See that loopy double negative, and the shirking of burden of proof? Basically what he was saying was that whether the evidence looks like common descent or whether it doesn't, it was still ID all along, unless someone can shift him away from his ad-hoc, consistent-with-everything beliefs (which is obviously impossible). In principle, nothing can falsify his beliefs.

Basically, evolution doesn't rule out ID that looks exactly like evolution, which I really can't say redounds to IDs credit.

The issue of junk DNA is interesting. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the scientific consensus was that “junk DNA was…well… “junk.” Those supportive of I.D. predicted that junk DNA would be nothing of the sort, and now we’re finding out that’s true.

You mean they predicted that all junk DNA performs a vital function for the host organism? I'm afraid they're quite mistaken. We know that mice can have 3% of their genome removed and suffer no apparent ill effects.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15496924?dopt=Abstract&holding=npg

I'd also point out that the "no junk DNA" hypothesis makes very little sense in light of the vast divergence in genome size between organisms for which there is no apparent need for such a difference.

http://www.genomicron.evolverzone.com/2007/04/onion-test/

As far as I know, ID does not at this time have a cogent answer to the "onion test".

On the other hand, if all you mean is that they predicted that some regions of junk DNA, unspecified by them and with no rationale provided, would turn out to have been misidentified as junk, well, I can't see how that props up ID. Anyone could have made that prediction with a good chance of being right. Genomics is a field in which our knowledge is rapidly evolving (har de har har).

In other words, while I’m sure Dr. Behe may have harmed himself in that testimony, it’s not clear to be why a strong pro-I.D. lawyer could (not) have easily made someone like Dennett look foolish.

ID is Dr. Behe's self-proclaimed specialty, though. He wasn't even asked anything tricky or arcane, just to back up his assertions. I really would encourage you to read up on the whole affair when you get the chance, if only as an example of how not to self-immolate in public.

Todd White said...

Thanks, Fortuna. You're challenging me in a constructive way, and I like that. I'll reply to your latest post very soon.

Todd White said...

FTA: "See that loopy double negative, and the shirking of burden of proof? Basically what he was saying was that whether the evidence looks like common descent or whether it doesn't, it was still ID all along, unless someone can shift him away from his ad-hoc, consistent-with-everything beliefs."

TW: To be honest, I’m not very familiar with the issue of ERVs, so I’m reluctant to weigh in with a judgment before researching the issue more deeply.

However, I would say 2 things:

1) The term “common descent” has a habit of getting stretched beyond definition in these kinds of debates. When TOE advocates say something is “evidence of ‘common descent,” it should not only mean ‘things are related’ (which even most Creationists would agree with, given the account in Genesis). They should also show that the descent happens in a way that would accord with TOE. Specifically, we should see a progression in which we can use natural selection as an explanation for why that progression took place.

Also, my 2nd point: It should be noted that the concept of “Common Descent” is controversial within the I.D, community. Behe, for instance, supports it. Personally, I think both sides have good arguments, and I’m essentially agnostic. I would say, though, that the issue of “Common Descent” is the most well-supported aspect of TOE.

FTA: "You mean they predicted that all junk DNA performs a vital function for the host organism? I'm afraid they're quite mistaken. We know that mice can have 3% of their genome removed and suffer no apparent ill effects."

TW: That’s a good rebuttal, but given the history of science in this area, I wouldn’t say the case is closed by any means. Consider that for hundreds of years, biologists considered the appendix to be useless, and now – only in recent times – do we see the error of that conclusion.

http://www.arn.org/blogs/index.php/literature/2007/10/16/the_human_appendix_a_from_rags_to_riches

FTA: "As far as I know, ID does not at this time have a cogent answer to the 'onion test'".

TW: Just out of curiosity, do the TOE advocates have a cogent answer?

FTA: "If all you mean is that they predicted that some regions of junk DNA, unspecified by them and with no rationale provided, would turn out to have been misidentified as junk, well, I can't see how that props up ID. Anyone could have made that prediction with a good chance of being right."

TW: I won’t agree or disagree, but at the very least, I think this is a useful rebuttal to those TOE advocates who say ID proponents don’t make accurate predictions.

FTA: "ID is Dr. Behe's self-proclaimed specialty, though. He wasn't even asked anything tricky or arcane, just to back up his assertions. I really would encourage you to read up on the whole affair."

TW: That’s a fair point. Behe should be held to a very standard. I know the consensus in the I.D. community is that Behe did a poor job in his testimony. However, as you probably know by now, I like to do my own research and make my own conclusions. So I should definitely read the testimony at some point. Heck, maybe I’ll do it today!