Sunday, May 01, 2011

A Sincere Question about Intelligent Design and Science


Why is it permissible from a scientific standpoint for thinkers such as Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking, based upon empirical data and observations, to infer that the design we observe in nature is an illusion, but when thinkers such as William Dembski or Robin Collins make inferences, based upon empirical data and observations, that the design is a reality, they are being unscientific?

Please feel free to share your answers via the comments.

Courage and Godspeed,


Caleb Epnett said...

Sadly, the present scientific paradigm is controlled by a naturalistic worldview that pushes God out of the equation before any investigation or observation has even begun. It says "This cannot be designed or divine or supernatural in any way because all that God stuff is just childish nonsense and unenlightened gobbledygook." They begin with the dogmatic presupposition of anti-supernaturalism and every piece of evidence they come across is sifted through that filter. But we must follow the evidence where it leads us, not beat and mold and drag the evidence into arrogantly unalterable preconceptions.

g0thamite said...

It is permissible because Dawkins, et. al. have a prior committment to scientific naturalism (thus closing off their explanatory options) while Dembski and Collins et. al. do not.

Luke Nix said...

It seems that the allowance is based in the definition of the word "science". One definition excludes the super-natural from possible direct testing or possible conclusions. If we use this definition, then postulating a God that is outside the universe is unscientific, but so is a multiverse. A

nother other definition of "science" does not limit direct testing or possible conclusions to only the "natural" (inside this universe). This definition must be adopted if the multiverse hypothesis is to be considered "scientific"; however, that would make the "God hypothesis" just as scientific.

It all comes down to the definition. Last month I blogged about this specific issue and example here:

Vince61 said...

It is because evolution has a demonstrable mechanism, experimental data and observational evidence. It is accepted by scientists worldwide.

ID is a philosophical position which is attempting to get accepted by claiming to have the same scientific rigour as real science. It fails for two big reasons (among others) -
1. The proponents of ID have an agenda which is nothing to do with scientific reasoning.
2. ID requires the intervention of a supernatural being(s) which cannot be demonstrated.

Steve said...


Jason Bishara said...

@Caleb Epnett & Blogger g0thamite
Can you not see how this reasoning can easily be flipped around? Dembski and Collins are both Christian (I assume you are as well?), one could make a similar argument that their own dogmatic presupposition that there must be a God is filtering their view of the evidence. You can’t just say naturalistic scientists are blind to the evidence because they hold to a pre-supposed idea; everyone does, (Including you and me). The reason science rejects supernaturalism has nothing to do with “childish nonsense”. Science is about understanding the world through testable and falsifiable experiments and observations. There is no way to prove something is supernaturally created. The best “evidence” you could give is “look how complex this is, I can’t think of how it could have been done naturally, therefore (insert whichever God you want) did it”. This doesn’t cut it in science. You need to offer something more, something that we can test and objectively asses through observation and experimentation. Changes and adaptation through natural selection can, and have been observed. We can test this over and over again in controlled experiments. ID has some interesting ideas, but it belongs in the philosophical and theological discussion category, not the scientific one.

Hope you and your family are well Chad :)

Caleb Epnett said...

@ Josh
I agree with you that we all have presuppositions, but what best accounts for the incredibly complex and intricate design we see in the biological and especially molecular world? What presupposition is more true to reality?
It is not just a "God of the gaps" explanation as you seem to think. I direct your attention to this article:

I would grant that the existence of God is a philosophical question, as is the origin of the universe itself. But there are certain pointers in science that make an observer conclude that a designer best accounts for the processes and detailed information we see. This evidence is so rich that it has convinced strident atheist scientists to doubt their atheism and has even convinced many of them to abandon naturalistic assumptions altogether because naturalism cannot account for everything, even in biology.

I would also like to add that science has only observed micro-evolutionary processes and has not once ever observed or conducted experiments to prove macro-evolution. There is a significant difference between natural selection producing variations of breeds in dogs and natural selection and adaptation producing and changing entire species, for instance, birds emerging from reptilian species and such as that.
And since what I have heard and read from most evolutionists is we cannot observe it b/c it is such a slow, gradual process, then by definition, macro-evolution cannot be scientifically verified either.

Caleb Epnett said...

Sorry, I meant Jason. Do not know where I got Josh from!

Metric Ton said...

Nobody has actually answered the question that Chad asked. Why do we consider one statement to be scientific and the other to be unscientific? Or look at it this way...

If we remove the names associated with each statement, and also remove the conclusion that each came to, why is one scientific and one is not? How is it even decided which one is which? Why is it acceptable to draw inferences in one case but not the other? Is it dependant on the result (aka if we like the answer) if we allow the process to be considered scientific?

As a scientist myself (I have a degree in Physics) I would really like to know. Most of the time it feels like people decide if something is scientific based on the "lable" of the person who says it, not on the merrit of the statement. A lot of times I feel that Hawking can say anything he wants with no scientific evidence to support it, but it is considered scientific simply because Hawking said it.

Non-scientists can say scientific things. Scientists can say very unscientific things. Just because someone isn't a "scientist" doesn't mean that they can't come to a scientific conclusion. And just because a "scientist" comes to a conclusion doesn't mean that it's scientific (especially if they already drew their conclusion before analyzing the data).

So now can we discuss the actual question that was asked? Why is one considered to be scientific and the other not, when it's quite obvious that they both must be the same thing?

CVaughn said...

I have enjoyed reading the dialogue in response to Chad’s question. I went back to a section of the book entitled “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?” It is written by Dr. John Lennox who is a professor of mathematics at Oxford University. The excerpt can be found on pgs 12-13:
“The oft repeated question whether intelligent design is science can be rather misleading, certainly if we understand the term ‘intelligent design’ in its original sense. Suppose we were to ask the parallel questions: Is theism science? Is atheism science? Most people would give a negative answer. But if we were now to say that we are really interested in is whether there is any scientific evidence for theism (or for atheism), then we are likely to be faced with the reply: Why, then, did you not say so?
One way to make sense of the question whether (intelligent) design is science or not is to reinterpret as: Is there any scientific evidence for design? If this is how the question should be understood, then it should be expressed accordingly in order to avoid the kind of misunderstanding exhibited by the statement made in the Dover trial ‘that ID is an interesting theological argument, but it is not science. Indeed, in the film Expelled (April 2008), Richard Dawkins himself appears to concede that one could scientifically investigate whether the origin of life reflected natural processes or whether it was likely to be the result of intervention from an external, intelligent source.
In a fascinating article, ‘Pubic Education and Intelligent Design’, Thomas Nagel of New York, a prominent atheist professor of philosophy, writes: ‘The purposes and intentions of God, if there is a god, and the nature of his will, are no possible subjects of a scientific or scientific explanation. But that does not imply that there cannot be scientific evidence for or against the intervention of such a non-law governed cause in the natural order.’ Based on reading of works such as Michael Behe’s Edge of Evolution (Behe was a witness in the Dover trial), he reports that intelligent design ‘does not seem to depend on massive distortions of the evidence and hopeless incoherencies in its interpretation’. His considered assessment is that intelligent design is not based on the assumption that it is ‘immune to empirical evidence’ in the way that believers in biblical literalism believe the Bible is immune to disproof by evidence, and he concludes that ‘ID is very different from creation science.’
Professor Nagel also says that he ‘has for a long time been skeptical of the claims of traditional evolutionary theory to be the whole story about the history of life.’ He reports that it is ‘difficult to find in the accessible literature the grounds’ for these claims. It is his view that the ‘presently available evidence’ comes ‘nothing close’ to establishing ‘the sufficiency of standard evolutionary mechanisms to account for the entire evolution of life’.

Daniel Schealler said...

I'm not entirely happy with the question.

Firstly, a personal reason: I'm not familiar with Robin Collins, so I can't comment there. With permission, I'd like to neglect Collins simply on grounds of my unfamiliarity.

I am a little familiar with Dembski, though - so I can get a handle on the question there.

Secondly, I think that there is an unstated tacit assumption in your use of the word 'infer' and 'inference'. To my reading, your usage is more in line with 'validly infer' and 'valid inference'.

Which highlights to me the shape of a response: For while Dembski certainly does infer from empirical data, I think he does so invalidly.

Take Dembski's concept of specified complexity. I find the usage of this concept to be an invalid inference because it is founded upon arguments from analogy that turn out to be fallacious when subjected to critical scrutiny.

The problem lies in how we can determine whether or not a given example of complexity was in fact specified.

In the case of man-made objects this is quite easy. I'm a software developer. I engage with my clients to determine functional specifications for new product features all the time. I write up the spec, and they sign it. Evidence of customer specification is always important in the billing cycle, as well as managing feature creep.

So the specification document is a form of evidence that the complexity in the applications I design was specified.

The issue with Dembski is that no such specification document (or an appropriate analogue - exists for the biological components he wishes to say are examples of specified complexity. Note that I don't insist on an actual written document - that would be silly in the circumstances. But it is still necessarily to have some kind of indication of the specification itself, as well as the mechanism by which the specification was enforced, that can be shown to exist before the phenomena in question. A post-hoc 'but see, it does X, therefore X was specified' simply won't cut the mustard.

In the absence of such a demonstrable prior specification, Dembski's arguments reduce down to a pattern of naive analogies.

1) It can be demonstrated that humans design and manufacture synthetic* engines.

2) Therefore, the complexity of synthetic engines demonstrates specification.

3) The bacterial flagellum is organic^ and not synthetic, but otherwise looks and functions very much like a synthetic engine.

4) Therefore, the complexity of the bacterial flagellum demonstrates specification.

Part I of II

Daniel Schealler said...

The problem here is that the analogy between mechanical engines and organic engines internally assumes the shared property of 'specified complexity' that the argument sets out to conclude - a quintessential fallacious analogy.

I'm yet to see an argument from Dembski that doesn't resolve down to a similar form of false analogy or an otherwise tacitly presumed conclusion.

To provide a contrast to the bacterial flagellum, consider protein folding†. Protein folding is a Genetic Engineering technique that allows the growth of specified shapes, such as smiley faces.

Protein folding can be demonstrated to show specified complexity because we have access to the specification documents in the form of the methods by which the eventual designs were planned and implemented. But unfortunately here, the intelligent designers in question were human beings.

Note that I do not, indeed cannot claim that a smiley-face-shaped protein is specified simply because it is a smiley face. Consider the Heikegani crab, which has an extremely human-like face pattern on its back. There is a very good evolutionary reason why this should be so: That human fishermen are less likely to retain captured crabs that demonstrate human-like facial patterns‡. But note that in Japan there is a legend around the pattern of the crab-backs that is founded upon history, myth and superstition - and also carries within it the exact same kind of fallacious argument from analogy that rests at the core of Debmski's arguments.

This to me would be the core reason why Dawkins and Hawking's inferences are considered scientific, but Dembski's are not. While both share the property of being drawn from empirical data, this property alone is insufficent to qualify the inferences as scientifically valid.

In Dembski's case it can (to my knowledge) be shown that his inferences are logically unsound. Alternatively, Dawkins and Hawking are (again, to my knowledge) sound in their inferences - or, in the case that their inferences are unsound, they should be rejected or updated accordingly, by exactly the same high standards.

That's the reason.

I also think that this is why Dembski tends not to publish in peer-reviewed journals. Because if the peer-review committee is doing their job, flawed inferences shouldn't make it through to publication. Dembski is forced to pursue other channels to publish his work.


* Synthetic in the sense of being manufactured from synthetic materials such as alloys and plastics, and also typically existing on a human or near-human scale rather than on a micro-scale.

^ Organic here is used as a contrasting term to synthetic, meaning something that is constructed from complex protein chains rather than human-manufactured alloys and plastics.



Part II of II