Wednesday, December 15, 2004

ACLU vs. Antony Flew

The AP posted two (providentially?) related stories about the theory of intelligent design in the last couple of days. This morning I read this in the Greensboro News and Record:

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) --Two civil liberties groups . . . sued the Dover [Pennsylvania] Area School district seeking to block its introduction next month of "intelligent design" in the science curriculum. . . . The intelligent design theory, first advanced in the late 1980s, holds that the universe is so complex that a supernatural force must be at work. . . .The American Civil Liberties Union contends intelligent design is a more secular form of creationism - a biblical-based view that credits the origin of species to God - and may violate the constitutional separation of church and state. (Read the AP story.)
But when I searched the AP site for "intelligent design," I got this story, too:

Famous Atheist Now Believes in God

NEW YORK (AP) -- A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind . . . . At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature, Flew said in a telephone interview from England. . . . [B]iologists' investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved," Flew says
. (Read the whole thing.)
The article noted that Flew has not converted to Christianity, but rather is just an old-fashioned deist like Thomas Jefferson.

The theory of intelligent design is actually only a refinement of a very old argument, and it doesn't have any necessary connection to Christianity or to religion, though most of its modern proponents are Christians. You can find early versions of it in Greek pre-Socratic philosophers like Anaxagoras and Heraclitus, and it's much more fully developed by Aristotle and the Stoic philosophers Zeno and Cleanthes. It was also commonly held among French and American deists in the 18th century, like Franklin and Jefferson. Then in the 19th century . . . OK, I'm boring you.

Does intelligent design have a place in the science curriculum? Opponents say that intelligent design theory is pseudoscience. But the same charge is also laid at the door of theories of global warming, which is regularly taught in school science curricula. Ah, but you say most scientists believe in global warming and reject intelligent design. But that is a thoroughly medieval ipsi dixerunt argument from authority -- the antithesis of the scientific method.

In truth, school is precisely the place where students should be introduced to rough-and-tumble debates like these. I know from experience that they are intensely interested in these questions.

But does the ACLU want this debate to happen in school? Probably not any more than Jerry Falwell does. Fundamentalists don't like debate; they don't even like learning. They like indoctrination. And the ACLU are the fundamentalists of secularism.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Wharton,

Not to quibble with your post (I think your characterization of the ACLU is spot-on)... but don't you think there's a distinct difference between rejection of Intelligent Design, and debate over the causes/effects of Global Warming?

It might be argument-from-authority for you and me to talk about global warming, but that's because we're not climate researchers, right? Those researchers themselves certainly aren't arguing from authority -- they have the data, and they do the analysis. The rest of us either have to resign ourselves to quoting climate authorities, and try our best to make sure those authorities have done the specialized work themselves (i.e., have some scientific basis for their authority), or it becomes that of which we cannot speak, and must pass over in silence.

If it's the latter situation, then there's a lot beyond the esoteric subject of "climate modeling" that most of us should be silent about...

On the other hand, most objections to ID aren't that it's "bad science," (as some would claim about those who deny the existence or human causes of climate change) but rather that it's "not science." It's a metaphysical claim: no reasonable observation could be used to disprove the existence of a Designer, or His agency in the creation of that which currently exists on earth. It's not (as with climate change) a debate over data, technique, or modeling -- instead, it's as if someone was trying to teach the rules of volleyball in the middle of a music class. There's a place for volleyball, of course -- just not during music class.

Anyway, the vast majority of practicing microbiologists are pretty convinced, based on the sloppy evidence in front of them, that (a) if intelligent life was designed, it was a design that looks like a bunch of random revisions and edits, but more importantly (b) it's still far too early to claim we know enough about life to say it couldn't have happened in any particular way. Most semi-sophisticated arguments to the contrary devolve pretty quickly to hand-waving analogies to fields of mathematics that weren't designed for this purpose, and are too abstract anyway ('information theory' often gets misused here).

In Rumsfeldian terms, the "known unknowns" dwarf pretty much everything else. I suppose there could come a time when biologists will throw up their collective hands and say, "It's too much. We can't figure out a way to get from point A, to point B, with just evolution. We can't say it doesn't exist, just that we don't know what it is, and we've exhausted everything we can think of." (I doubt we'll reach that point -- all the basic pieces are there, we can understand a lot of the simple steps and we're making headway on figuring out the more complex stuff, and biologists are pretty inventive guys/gals). But we're not there yet, not by a long shot. Statements of "it's too complex" are vastly premature.

So I don't know about the ACLU's reasoning here, but I think this why most less-rabid advocates of capital-S Science object to ID's place in the 'science' curriculum.

I don't imagine most of them would have a problem with it being taught in another context; I can tell you I was present for a sanctioned classroom discussion of evolution vs. creationism vs. intelligent design in one of Greensboro's fine public schools. But it took place in a philosophy course, and that's probably the right place for it. It's definitely not empirical science.

I apologize for the long comment.

Lenslinger said...

David, er...Dr. Wharton,

Shoot me an e-mail address and I'll tell you what I know about wrapping text around images. Good meeting you last night. My e-mail is Seeya.

David Wharton said...

Anonymous, I find little to disagree with in your very thoughtful comment, although I'm mildly suspicious of keeping ID out of science curricula because it's "not science." It may not be, but I think we normally include things in science curricula that also tread close to, or cross, that line. I'm thinking of Big Bang cosmology, or the theory of one-time spontaneous generation on Earth that Darwinists have recourse to.

Don't get me wrong -- I think those things ought to be in the science curriculum. But what better place to explore the definition and limits of the scientific method than in a science class? And I think ID is a great jumping-off place for that debate.

The distinction between science and philosophy is less distinct that most scientists would make out. The scientific method, after all, rests on epistemological assumptions that are not themselves testable by the scientific method.

Anyway, using the law to keep controversial ideas out of the classroom just goes against my grain. It smacks of cultural turf warfare and power politics rather than education. I know, the ACLU's fundamentalist opponents are just as wacky. But that's still no excuse.

Lenslinger -- I'll shoot you that e-mail. Really enjoyed meeting you last night.

David Wharton said...

On Big Bang cosmology -- sometimes the reasoning gets a little too close to this:

Anonymous said...

Sigh... I've tried writing a couple different responses/elaborations, but they all end up being pages long, and sounding more argumentative than I actually feel.

I do disagree with bringing cosmology into it; I've seen the math behind several cosmological theories (theories that certainly make testable predictions)... but I'm no cosmologist, so I'm on the wrong side of the argument-by-appeal-to-authority thing again.

I will suggest that, in any empirical science, having a gaping mechanistic "Insert Miracle Here" hole in your theory isn't a situation that lasts for long... nothing is published until the hole is filled with something reasonable and testable. If the hole is never filled, then either the theory is discarded, or the researcher is.

So I'll leave it at this: we're probably in 99% agreement... science curricula shouldn't be legislated (although both sides are probably guilty here), and science-in-practice is a lot messier than science-as-philosophy. This stuff should be taught earlier, in high school even, but it requires enough grounding in math and logic that that's probably not a reasonable hope. Maybe in the end, scientists are getting worked up about something that's not too important -- there are worse things than having a mistaken idea of what science is, and the debate is probably useful anyway.

You have an excellent blog! I enjoy reading it... thank you for writing it.

David Wharton said...

And thank you for your very civil and cogent comments.

Sarah said...

Thanks to both of you for a bright light, little heat and a very funny cartoon.