Science & Faith
2/4/13 at 10:56 AM 18 Comments

The Future of Intelligent Design: Attention Students

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Now and then I interact with my Science & Faith Blog commenters in a separate posting. For that purpose, today I picked a reader who goes by the name of "Skeptic NY" (I shall refer to this person as SNY). We shall analyze some SNY remarks and consider the future of intelligent design, about which SNY is skeptical. Graduate students and advanced undergraduates (and others who qualify) may wish to continue this conversation at Discovery Institute's Summer Seminars on Intelligent Design (apply here), which is aimed at "the next generation of scientists and scholars." A few years ago I spoke at the inaugural offering of the second of two tracks within this annual seminar series: The C.S. Lewis Fellows Program on Science and Society. I enjoyed interacting with some bright students and hope that they, in turn, will engage persons like SNY in deeper conversations than the blogosphere typically facilitates (I always prefer face-to-face discussion). I should like to meet SNY in person too. The human condition is fascinating.

My most recent post at Science & Faith, Half a Million DVDs in Your DNA: Technology Borrows Intelligent Design from Biology, included this (I'm setting the scene SNY's response):

Whenever large amounts of functional information are present, and we know the causal processes that led to their origin (as is the case with human technology), such processes always trace back to intelligent agency as their point of origin. The DNA code in organisms is also functional information. It codes for proteins that perform life-critical functions. Recent advances in technology and the natural sciences help us to better grasp the relevant properties that are shared in common between objects of biological and technological endeavor. Welcome to the information age. Intelligent design is the future of biology.

In this post I was celebrating the recent news of new breathtaking digital DNA storage capacities. We now can store the last decade of worldwide Facebook images and text in a few grams of artificially encoded DNA. But, in human technology, we are still far beyond the information processing capabilities that take place routinely in every cell of SNY's body.

SNY commented:

Again Mr. Keas you show a complete lack of understanding of evolution and science in general. Your article is another classic example of the "argument from ignorance."

SNY, after two decades of teaching and publishing about "evolution and science in general" (that is precisely my specialty) I am still endlessly curious about this field of knowledge and how it relates to one's worldview, whether a person's worldview is religious or not. Although historians of science spend most of their time studying dead scientists, since earning a Ph.D. in this field I have also found it rewarding to participate in contemporary discussions about science in light of the history and philosophy of science. A true "generalist" in science studies will pay attention to the technical details of particular sciences, as well as study the human investigators themselves, and their own culturally tainted orientations. I hope this approach will be apparent in my present post and the essay I cite.

What about that SNY remark about "argument from ignorance"? When I teach college students about the "argument from ignorance" informal fallacy to which SNY might be referring, I explain that it is fallacious to argue merely that a lack of evidence against a theory makes it reasonable to accept it. But if one can also cite extensive positive evidence for that theory, then its acceptance is reasonable. Is the argument for intelligent design based on ignorance or is it based on what we know about the present cause and effect structure of the world? My students grapple with this question alongside me both in my Logic course (in general terms) and in my two science courses (with many specific examples from the history of intelligent design going back to Plato and Aristotle, and from contemporary work in cosmology, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology). Although we don't have space on a mere blog to plumb these fascinating depths, I recommend to SNY an essay by Stephen Meyer (a historian/philosopher of science like me) that includes this paragraph near its end (read the whole thing to appreciate Meyer's nuanced argument). If intelligent design theory were based merely on ignorance (rather than knowledge of nature), it would be a science stopper. Meyer concludes:

The above considerations suggest that allowing the design hypothesis as the best explanation for some events in the history of the cosmos will not cause science to grind to a halt. While design does have the required logical and syntactic features of some scientific (i.e., historical) explanations, it cannot be invoked appropriately in all scientific contexts. Furthermore, because effective postulations of design are constrained by empirical considerations of causal precedence and adequacy and by extraevidential considerations such as simplicity and theological plausibility, concerns about design theory functioning as a "theory of everything" or "providing cover for ignorance" or "putting scientists out of work" can be shown to be largely unfounded. Many important scientific questions would remain to be answered if one adopted a theory of design. Indeed, all questions about how nature normally operates without the special assistance of agency remain unaffected by whatever view of origins one adopts. And that, perhaps, is yet another equivalence between design and descent [i.e., neo-Darwinian evolution].

In short, there is a future to intelligent design (ID) as a scientific theory. I had this future in mind when I posted two reviews on the Top 10 Evolution & Intelligent Design Stories of 2012 (part 1 and part 2), to which SNY responded:

ID is NOT a theory and is NOT on the rise. "Darwinism" is NOT a term used in science but a term used by religious fanatics to make evolution sound like some type of "religion". If by "Darwinism" you mean evolution it is in NO way in decline, but is verified on a daily basis by virtually all fields of science. If ID were a theory then the person proposing it would be the most famous person on the planet.

SNY seems to have in mind the advice of Darwin lobbyist Eugenie Scott:

Evolutionary biology owes much to Charles Darwin, whose discussions of common descent and natural selection provide the foundations of the discipline. But evolutionary biology has expanded well beyond its foundations to encompass many theories and concepts unknown in the 19th century. The term “Darwinism” is, therefore, ambiguous and misleading. Compounding the problem of “Darwinism” is the hijacking of the term by creationists to portray evolution as a dangerous ideology—an “ism”—that has no place in the science classroom. When scientists and teachers use “Darwinism” as synonymous with evolutionary biology, it reinforces such a misleading portrayal and hinders efforts to present the scientific standing of evolution accurately. Accordingly, the term “Darwinism” should be abandoned as a synonym for evolutionary biology.

Many scientists (especially in the UK) use "Darwinism" as shorthand for what has traditionally been called "the modern synthesis" or "neo-Darwinism." When I use the term "Darwinism" I mean today's leading version of evolutionary biology (universal common descent by unguided natural processes), which includes the "modern synthesis" of the 1940s and everything since. It is hard to think of the 1940s as "new" (neo), so that is why many scientists drop the "neo" of neo-Darwinism. Why not just use the term "evolution" (or evolutionary biology) instead of "Darwinism," as SNY and Scott suggest? It is better to avoid such loose vocabulary in order to avoid the fallacy of equivocation (conflating the different meanings of evolution) that often comes with it. Such equivocal confusion, and a way to clarify evolutionary biology terminology, is explained in the essay The Meanings of Evolution (Meyer/Keas), which surveys the following meanings:

  1. Change over time; history of nature; any sequence of events in nature.
  2. Changes in the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population.
  3. Limited common descent: the idea that particular groups of organisms
    have descended from a common ancestor.
  4. The mechanisms responsible for the change required to produce limited descent with modification, chiefly natural selection acting on random variations or mutations.
  5. Universal common descent: the idea that all organisms have descended from a single common ancestor.
  6. “Blind watchmaker” thesis: the idea that all organisms have descended from common ancestors solely through an unguided, unintelligent, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations; that the mechanisms of natural selection, random variation and mutation, and perhaps other similarly naturalistic mechanisms, are completely sufficient to account for the appearance of design in living organisms.

When SNY insists that evolution "is verified on a daily basis by virtually all fields of science," he could only accurately mean that this is true about the first four meanings of evolution of the six listed above. To cite evidence that supports evolution in any of the first four senses, and to claim that this is also evidence for evolution #5 and #6, is to engage in the fallacy of equivocation, as our essay above explains. Eugenie Scott's advice to educators, followed by SNY, does not help clarify the many meanings of evolution.

Students who participate in the Summer Seminars of Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture will learn much more about Darwinism than textbooks typically cover, including the evidence both for and against universal common descent by unguided natural processes. They will also learn about the positive evidence for intelligent design (particularly in the first study track of the seminars--Natural Sciences). These students are part of my vision of the future of science. They will learn to be skeptical of any scientific theory that is often defended by excessive rhetorical flurries and equivocation, rather than one that is defended consistently by evidence-based argumentation.

"We're fully aware that ardent defenders of long-entrenched ideas like Darwinism aren't likely to change their minds," says CSC senior fellow Dr. Jay Richards who oversees the Summer Seminars. "So we are investing in the next generation of scientists and scholars. This year we'll welcome 40 students from all over the world." Since the program's inception in 2007, over 170 students have graduated from the Summer Seminars, which are held in Seattle. All seminar students attend free of charge. They are college juniors or seniors or already in graduate school and have come from a number of prestigious universities such as Cambridge University, England; University of Turin, Italy; National University, Argentina; St. Petersburg State University, Russia; and American schools including Duke, UC Berkeley, and the University of Washington. This is the future of intelligent design.

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