Monday, April 18, 2005

The Religious Debate


Much like actors being unwilling to name Macbeth, preferring to refer it to "The Scottish Play", I find myself bringing up Intelligent Design with a sense of extreme distaste.

I have everything about the I.D. argument - the way it enters into public debate laden with associations of persecution, religious fervor, anti-science sentiment, elements of dogmatic justification, irrationality and ... well, you get the idea.

The I.D. design argument is an age-old philosophical idea, described quite adequetly by William Paley with his analogy of the watchmaker. Roughly, it boils down to "But it's obvious, really!". Paley's primitive hero wanders along and sees a rock, thinking "Oh look, a rock", and picks it up. Then (and I paraphrase) he finds a watch sitting on the ground. He can't work out what it does, exactly, apart from ticking and wiggling a bit, so he hits it with the rock. (The primitive equivalent of doing a science experiment). The watch breaks, and bits of it fly out everywhere - springs and hands and broken glass at all. The cave man is so astounded by this reaction (most things are either animals which roll over and die, or other rocks which just go "clunk") that he is driven to conclude that the watch isn't natural.

This wonderful argument pulls itself up by its own bootstraps in a very impressive way - the analogy is designed to prime our intuition that watches are obviously so astoundingly interesting that they can only get built by an intelligent designer. But, ultimately, what it boils down to is nothing *more* than intuition. After all, no cave man has ever really seen a watch - the cave man had to build it himself. The thing about the watch which makes it somewhat a poor example is that there really is no way for nature to evolve a watch. Watches just aren't very fit, evolutionarily speaking. They keep falling into swamps and breaking.

So the argument is all well and good, and the debate turns to the search for a watch in the real world. Is there anything out there which we can look at, and say "we think this is an example of design, and not of evolution". Which is more or less where the debate rests. The finger is pointed at consciousness, reality itself, humans, bacteria, life, and a host of other things as examples of something too improbable and too complex to have evolutionary origins.

People who deny evolutionary processes *at all* are in my opinion basically nuts. Anyone asserting that nothing evolves, ever, is just not open to rational debate. The entire "evolution is just a theory" motto put forward by dogmatic zombies screams of ... well. This is a family program, so I won't go into it.

However, there are good arguments against evolution for some things. History is replete with examples where evolution isn't as obviously demonstrated as one might hope. These are sometimes referred to as "Great Leaps Forward", and held up as examples of development that must have some other non-accidental cause.

Inevitably, some people see a candlestick while others see two old women. I haven't reviewed all evidence available everywhere, so there is always someone who could insist to me that their example is different, it really *is* a candlestick, and the two old women are nowhere to be seen (presumably they are fumbling for change at the supermarket), but I have reviewed some of it. I believe in evolution, and for me the gaps in the evolutionary sequence are not sufficiently challenging for me to throw away a perfectly good theory. Evolution is a *good theory* which explains a lot of things. Throwing it out, for me, is a much greater leap of faith than believing that Great Leaps Forward are perfectly possible.



Blogger Illusive Mind said...

I agree.
I wrote an essay a while ago poking the numerous holes into
Michael Behe's argument for Intelligent Design

4/19/2005 01:29:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Being basically familiar with where the essay is going, I didn't finish reading it, but it looks like great work. It's in very accessible language, reads well, and from what I saw covers the ground well.

It may be because you are responding to a particular essay, but I think I.D. has got better arguments than the ones you were refuting. Basically, I think there really are some "missing links" which pose pretty big problems for evolution.

The argument from irreducible complexity is also only one argument for I.D.

In short, I think you refuted the essay well, described the arguments clearly, but concluding that *all* I.D. arguments are just as bad as Behe's would be a mistake.

4/19/2005 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger Illusive Mind said...


I don’t think that the shortcomings of evolutionary theory in of themselves add any weight to the ID argument. It also is probably unfair to regard ‘evolutionary theory’ as one consistent doctrine when in fact it is made up of competing and often contradictory schools of thought which each in themselves probably don’t give the whole picture anyway.

To my mind Irreducible Complexity and Improbability are the two foundational arguments of ID. Things are so complex that the process of evolution can’t account for them, or it is too improbable that evolution can account for life.

I think there is more to the probability argument than many critics give credit for, but if it is true it leads to the acceptance of a biofriendly universe and not a creator.

4/21/2005 12:28:00 PM  

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