Saturday, November 19, 2005

Unintelligent Non-Design

The “intelligent design” movement has been criticized as just the old theological creationism dressed up in bogus science. I think this is unfair – the observations of the natural world that intelligent design promoters rely on are just as empirical and careful as that of most scientists. They make a compelling case that some natural structures are so complex and functionally integrated that it would seem impossible for them to arise solely by small incremental mutations of previously existing structures. One possible explanation is that they were designed by a Designer. This sounds like exactly what the Bible says God does, but there are other possible theories of how there could be a Designer which was not the biblical God.

The science of intelligent design is good and modest, as most real science is. The possibility of design and a designer that it opens up is suggestive and interesting. Intelligent Design theory cannot prove that there is a Designer. And no other kind of theory, no matter how good its science, can prove that there is not a Designer.

Paul Bloom, a psychology and linguistics professor at Yale, has an intriguing article in the current Atlantic, “Is God an Accident?” He reports on fascinating research that he and others have done on how children understand physical things and psychological things. Little children understand that the body dies, but believe the mind lives on. Even infants seem to understand basic physical processes, like falling. Intriguingly, infants seem also to grasp basic social processes, like helping. These ideas do not arise simply from teaching and socialization.

Bloom has a theory of what to make of these empirical findings, which he expresses in this metaphor:

Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a baby’s brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks.


From this metaphor, he develops a theory of the origin of religion. Our brains rightly understand the physical actions of physical objects, and the psychological actions of psychological objects. We then accidentally cross the two kinds of understanding, and infer the existence of two other kinds of phenomena: the psychological actions of physical objects, and the physical actions of psychological objects. From the first kind of inference, we make the error of anthropomorphizing, seeing intentions, will, and meaning in the actions of non-human, and even non-living objects. From the second kind of inference, we make the error of believing that things we imagine have physical existence. In other words, as Bloom says in conclusion, God is an “accidental by-product of our mental states.”

This is an intriguing idea. I can see its appeal as a way to solve the intellectual puzzle of why we believe in beings we cannot see. But Bloom distorts the possible alternatives to make his theory seem true and scientific. The only alternative theories for the origins of religion that he considers are that it is the opiate of the masses, a lie told by the powerful to bolster their power, or that it is a socially functional fraternity, based on an arbitrary set of beliefs enforced to hold a social group together. In other words, Bloom simply assumes that the only serious explanations for religion are secular ones. Is that a scientific conclusion? No, it is a premise, a belief statement. Does Bloom’s theory of the origin of religion rest on compelling new science? No, it rests on a metaphor – “akin to two distinct computers in a baby’s brain.” This is also a belief statement, one that we are not even meant to take literally.

As I noted at the outset, “intelligent design” has been criticized as just the old theological creationism dressed up in bogus science. Bloom’s “unintelligent non-design” is just the old atheism dressed up in bogus science.

Let’s keep the real science. And let’s stop pretending that it can explain things it can’t.

6 comments:

Ampersand said...

They make a compelling case that some natural structures are so complex and functionally integrated that it would seem impossible for them to arise solely by small incremental mutations of previously existing structures.

With all due respect, their case is not at all compelling to the vast, vast majority of biologists. Nor have I ever heard an example of a natural structure "so complex and functionally integrated" that it couldn't arise by natural selection.

The science of intelligent design is good and modest, as most real science is. The possibility of design and a designer that it opens up is suggestive and interesting.

How does ID "open up" the possibilty of a designer? Believing in natural selection does not foreclose belief in God; since the belief in God is already open without ID, ID can't have opened it.

Intelligent Design theory cannot prove that there is a Designer. And no other kind of theory, no matter how good its science, can prove that there is not a Designer.

Your argument is is a false dichotomy, because it incorrectly implies that science tries to prove there is not a designer. No evolutionary scientist I know of claims that science proves there is no designer; on the contrary, it's obvious that the theory of evolution says nothing, one way or the other, about if God exists.

ID, in contrast, claims that it can prove there is a designer of some sort. So although real science is modest on the designer question, ID is not.

Gruntled said...

Some proponents of intelligent design believe that their theory proves that there is a designer. Some proponents of evolution, and especially of natural selection, believe that their theory proves the non-existence of a designer. Neither conclusion is good science. Paul Bloom does not prove that God does not exist -- he just assumes it.

ampersand said...

Regarding Paul Bloom, nothing you've quoted from him establishes that he thinks that natural selection disproves God. You established that Bloomo fails to consider God a possibility; that doesn't logically show that Bloom considers God disproven. And even if Bloom does consider God disproven, you haven't shown that he considers God disproven by natural selection theory.

Besides, even if you were right about Bloom - and you certainly haven't come close to showing that you are -that wouldn't disprove what I wrote. As I wrote earlier, "No evolutionary scientist I know of claims that science proves there is no designer; on the contrary, it's obvious that the theory of evolution says nothing, one way or the other, about if God exists." I don't think Paul Bloom is an evolutionary scientist as I intended the term; I don't think he's even a biologist.

Some proponents of intelligent design believe that their theory proves that there is a designer.

Name one who doesn't.

ID's main claim is that designed objects are empirically recognizable; complex biological forms are such objects; and therefore, complex biological forms were designed by a designer.

It is not possible for someone to believe in the central tenets of ID and at the same time, to not believe in a designer. The entire theory of ID is incoherent if it doesn't refer to a designer; hence the name, Intelligent Design.

Also, to follow up on my previous post, what is an example of a natural structure that could not have come about "solely by small incremental mutations of previously existing structures"?

Gruntled said...

My main point is that science cannot prove the existence or non-existence of God. I don't think Bloom claims he has disproven the existence of God; he assumes it, and offers a theory of why we believe in a non-existent God. I do think he implies that his scientific approach lends authority to his theory; I dispute this point.

As to intelligent design theorists not believing in a designer -- well, you are obviously right. They have been careful to say that the designer they envisage is not necessary the God of the Bible. Some go beyond that cautious stance; I would dispute that, too.

As to whether "science disproves God," I think it is rare for actual scientists to make such a claim. I think it is not at all rare for secular ideologues -- "scientismists," perhaps -- to make exactly that claim. I dispute that, and I gather you would, too.

Michael W. Kruse said...

The most frequent example of irreducible complexity is the development of the human eye. Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box” goes into this as well as other issues relating to i.c. I found this article by Behe written 11 years ago. www.arn.org/docs/behe/mb_mm92496.htm

I don’t view ID as a scientific theory. By definition, science is about explaining and predicting natural events. It is impossible to prove a negative. You can’t prove that something supernatural (didn’t happen naturally) happened because, by definition it is not of the natural world. You can’t formulate any testable hypotheses that positively demonstrate your claims are true. All you can say is what is not true and that you may be without explanation. ID is not empirically open to verification and therefore not a scientific theory. It has not predictive value.

There are ways of “knowing” other than science. Science cannot be the sole arbiter of many questions precisely because it is limited to the empirical! I don’t believe in God or an Intelligent Designer because irreducible complexity. Tough issues in the past once seemed irreducibly complex only to be understood later by new paradigms. My belief in God comes from other ways of knowing. One who is outside the empirical has entered into the empirical to tell us who is behind it all.

Therefore, I have no problem believing in the God of the Bible and accepting the strictures of science that only empirical evidence counts. Science is critically important but it is only one limited way of knowing.

Gruntled said...

Amen.

I think Behe's argument about the eye is pretty good, but my belief in God, or that God guides evolution, does not rest on it. I think the irreducible complexity argument is like the punctuated equilibrium argument. They both fit readily into a theistic evolutionary theory, but are more like epicycles on a materialist evolutionary theory. Still, science can't prove one or the other.