Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On the Evidence for Evolution (2): Mark Isaak & the Creation/Evolution Debate

The best way to judge the evidence for evolution is to study the creation/evolution debate, because this allows us to see whether evolutionary science can be persuasively defended against its most relentless opponents.

High school students and college students could benefit from studying the creation/evolution debate, because this could show them how debating science ultimately raises questions in morality, politics, philosophy, and religion. Isn't this the purpose of liberal education--to see how the deepest questions of life cross all of the intellectual disciplines?

One can see this rich interdisciplinary thought in the creation/evolution debate by looking at Mark Isaak's The Counter-Creationism Handbook, which was published first by Greenwood Press in 2005 and then reprinted by the University of California Press in 2007. The book is the printed version of Isaak's online text--"An Index to Creationist Claims," which has helpful internet links.

Isaak's book is a meticulous collection of the over 400 most common claims made by creationists, along with brief answers to these claims. The creationist claims range over the full spectrum of creationism, including Biblical creationism and intelligent design theory. A point-by-point rebuttal from the Biblical creationists can be found at the "Creation Wiki", which is the online "Encyclopedia of Creation Science." Rebuttals from the proponents of intelligent design theory can be found at various sites, including the website for the Discovery Institute's "Center for Science & Culture."

Looking over Isaak's collection of creationist claims and his responses, one can see how the creation/evolution debate touches on many of the biggest questions in ethics, epistemology, psychology, mythology, religion, and history, as well as the life sciences, anthropology, geology, astronomy, cosmology, physics, and mathematics. One can almost imagine devising an entire curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences organized around this creation/evolution debate.

From my experience in debating creationists, Isaak is remarkably acute in stating their claims and in recognizing the flaws in their reasoning. Generalizing from Isaak's work, I see five fundamental flaws: (1) the implausibility of Biblical science, (2) the equivocation between human design and divine design, (3) negative argumentation, (4) the problem of ultimate explanation, and (5) the yearning for a Platonic cosmology of Mind and Purpose.

(1) The Implausibility of Biblical Science.
The Biblical creationists treat the Bible--and particularly the opening chapters of Genesis--as a science textbook. So, for example, they take the story of Noah and the flood as a literal account of a world-wide flood. Consequently, they explain geology and the fossil record as showing the effects of that flood; and they even look for Noah's Ark in Turkey. They also assume that the creation story of six days is a literal account of origins over six days that occur ed about 4,000 years ago.

Isaak is meticulous and rigorous in responding to the hundreds of scientific claims that come from this literal reading of the Bible as a science textbook and in showing how scientifically implausible they are.

The fundamental mistake is the failure of the creationists to see that the Bible is a book about the relationship of human beings to God, for which the natural history of the Earth is largely irrelevant.

One can see this in the creationist assumption that the Bible shows us everything being created in 4,004 BC. In fact, this date is nowhere to be found in the text of the Bible. This date was calculated in the seventeenth century by Bishop James Ussher based on some dubious assumptions about the dating of Biblical history. Creationists have to read this into the Bible.

(2) Equivocation Between Human Design and Divine Design.
Proponents of intelligent design theory--like William Dembski and Michael Behe--try to escape the implausibility of Biblical creationism by setting aside Biblical arguments and appealing to a logic of design inference as truly scientific reasoning that does not depend on the Bible.

Dembski claims that "intelligent design is detectable; we do in fact detect it; we have reliable methods for detecting it; and its detection involves no recourse to the supernatural. Design is common, rational, and objectifiable." (Here I am drawing from my chapter on intelligent design in Darwinian Conservatism.) The problem with Dembski's logic of detecting design, however, is that it depends on equivocation in the use of the term "intelligent design."

Both Dembski and Behe speak of "intelligent design" without clearly distinguishing human "intelligent design" from divine "intelligent design." We have all observed how the human mind can cause effects that are humanly designed, and from such observable effects, we can infer the existence of human intelligent designers. We might also infer that some nonhuman animals are intelligent designers. And we might search for extraterrestrial intelligence by looking for evidence of some human-like intelligent design. But insofar as we have never directly observed a disembodied, omniscient, and omnipotent intelligence causing effects that are divinely designed, we cannot infer a divine intelligent designer from our common human experience.

(3) Negative Argumentation.
Creationists and intelligent design proponents employ a rhetoric of negative argumentation, in which they point to gaps or difficulties in evolutionary science and then assume that any such incompleteness or uncertainty in evolutionary explanation must demonstrate the truth of creationist intelligent design. Of course, this doesn't follow. Scientific knowledge will always be incomplete or uncertain, but this by itself does not prove that the proper explanation must be supernatural design. "The Intelligent Designer did it" is not an explanation. It's a confession of ignorance.


To substantiate their position, creationists and intelligent design proponents would have to explain exactly when, where, and how the intelligent designer intervened to create the irreducibly complex forms of life that we see in the world. But they generally don't do that, because that would be a burden of proof that they could not satisfy, and they benefit from enforcing standards of proof for evolutionary scientists that they themselves can never satisfy. Actually, the Biblical creationists are better than the intelligent design theorists in offering specific causal explanations--such as Noah's Flood--but then they expose themselves to refutation when the empirical evidence doesn't support such claims.

(4) The Problem of Ultimate Explanation.
In Scientific Creationism (1985), Henry Morris defends the creationist view of God as First Cause. "An omnipotent Creator is an adequate First Cause for all observable effects in the universe, whereas evolution is not an adequate cause. The universe could not be its own cause" (20). Of course, the evolutionist could ask, "But, then, who made God?" Morris answers:

Such a question of course begs the question. If the evolutionist prefers not to believe in God, he must still believe in some kind of uncaused First Cause. He must either postulate matter coming into existence out of nothing or else matter having always existed in some primitive form. In either case, matter itself becomes its own Cause, and the creationist may well ask, "But, then, who made Matter?"

In either case, therefore, one must simply believe--either in eternal, omnipotent Matter or else in an eternal, omnipotent, Creator God. The individual may decide which he considers more reasonable, but he should recognize this is not completely a scientific decision either way. (19)


Here's how Isaak answers this argument:

1. The assumption that every event has a cause, although common in our experience, is not necessarily universal. The apparent lack of cause for some events, such as radioactive decay, suggests that there might be exceptions. There are also hypotheses, such as alternate dimensions of time or an eternally oscillating universe, that allow a universe without a first cause.

2. By definition, a cause comes before an event. If time began with the universe, "before" does not even apply to it, and it is logically impossible that the universe be caused.

3. This claim raises the question of what caused God. If, as some claim, God does not need a cause, then by the same reasoning, neither does the universe. (262-63)


This debate over how to understand the First Cause of everything, including the laws of nature, points to the deepest problem for human understanding--the problem of ultimate explanation. All explanation depends on some ultimate reality that is unexplained. To the question of why nature has the kind of order that it has, we might answer that we must just accept this as a brute fact of our experience. That's just the way it is!

The response of the creationist is that it is very unlikely that the universe would exist uncaused, and it is more likely that God would exist as the uncaused cause of everything.

In our search for ultimate explanations, we must appeal either to nature or to God as the unexplained ground of all explanation. Thus does the natural desire to understand lead us to this most fundamental of choices--nature or God, reason or revelation. Philosophy cannot refute revelation, and theology cannot refute philosophy, because any attempted refutation would have to beg the question at issue. As Leo Strauss observed: "All alleged refutations of revelation presuppose unbelief in revelation, and all alleged refutations of philosophy presuppose already faith in revelation. There seems to be no ground common to both, and therefore superior to both."

(5) The Yearning for a Platonic Cosmology of Mind and Purpose.
One of the most common arguments from Biblical creationists and intelligent design theorists is the appeal to the "anthropic principle": the cosmos is fine-tuned to permit human life, because if any of several fundamental constants in the universe were slightly different, human life would be impossible. The claim is that this shows that the cosmos has been intelligently and benevolently designed by a cosmic Mind to sustain human life.

According to Plato's Phaedo (97c-99b), Socrates was attracted to this kind of intelligent-design cosmology in which a cosmic Mind orders all things for the best. In the Laws and the Timaeus, Plato elaborated the intelligent-design cosmology that came to dominate Western culture for almost two thousand years. A fundamental claim of this Platonic cosmology was that the supremacy of the contemplative life could be sustained by the thought that the human mind could participate in the intelligible order of the universe as designed by a cosmic Mind. Biblical religious believers could infer that this cosmic Mind was the Creator God of the Bible. The anthropic principle seems to offer modern scientific support for this Platonic/Biblical cosmology.

But rather than refuting evolution, the anthropic principle can be understood in a way that supports evolutionary reasoning. As Isaak suggests, evolutionary thinking proposes not that the cosmos is fine-turned to life, but that life is fine-tuned to the cosmos, because life has evolved in adaptation to the cosmos, which includes the adaptation of the human mind for understanding the cosmos. Of course, this evolutionary adaptation is imperfect, and therefore we have no reason to think that this is the best of all possible worlds. The human mind is fallible in ways that we can explain as a product of evolutionary history. But even with its fallibility, the human mind is capable of endless exploration in striving to satisfy the natural human desire for understanding.

So even if the natural world was not made for us, we were made for it, because we are adapted to live in it. We come from nature. It is our home.

Or, as Strauss once wrote: "Becoming aware of the dignity of the mind, we realize the true ground of the dignity of man and therewith of the goodness of the world, whether we understand it as created or uncreated, which is the home of man because it is the home of the human mind."

A few of the many related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here,here, and here.

18 comments:

Greg R. Lawson said...

As you state,
"The Intelligent Designer did it" is not an explanation. It's a confession of ignorance."

That is true, but so is the reverse. Just because previously unanswered questions have been answered by science, does not necessarily mean all unanswered questions can or will be. In other words "Science will prove an Intelligent Designer did not do it" is just as much a confession of ignorance and just as pregnant with hubristic expectation as “the Intelligent Designer did it.”

Leo Strauss hits this on the head as you state:

"As Leo Strauss observed: "All alleged refutations of revelation presuppose unbelief in revelation, and all alleged refutations of philosophy presuppose already faith in revelation. There seems to be no ground common to both, and therefore superior to both."

This is our fundamental tension that encompasses epistemology, ontology and, quite probably all forms of knowledge both conceived and merely conceivable.

We do not know and never will know the totality of reality unless we actually transcend mere humanity. Ironically, in order to ever answer all of these questions through knowledge rather than faith, one would have to become a God. This would be seemingly against both the Creationist/Intelligent Design and the purely Evolution schools of thought.

Humans cannot become God because we are not God. Humans also cannot become God if there is no such thing as a God.

So we are perpetually stuck with faith. The question then becomes what is that within which one chooses to have that faith.

Grant said...

"That is true, but so is the reverse. Just because previously unanswered questions have been answered by science, does not necessarily mean all unanswered questions can or will be. In other words "Science will prove an Intelligent Designer did not do it" is just as much a confession of ignorance and just as pregnant with hubristic expectation as “the Intelligent Designer did it.” "

Of course the point is nobody who understands science would make that statement. Since the "Intelligent Designer" in question is supposed to be some inscrutable all powerful supernatural entity there is no possible test or observation that could ever prove it wasn't responsible, it is a completely unfalsifiable hypothesis.

And it is rejected by science *on those grounds*, as are all unfalsifiable hypotheses for very good reason.

expeedee said...

The following facts convince me that evolution is true and there is an absence of intelligence design:

1. Humans, fruit flies, chimpanzees, blue-green algae share many of the same genes. The HOX gene in a fruit fly that organizes the development of the head, thorax and legs is the same as in humans. All life shares many of the same genes.

2. The overwhelming majority of all species that had ever evolved on earth are now extinct. Thus any intelligent designer is obviously guilty of capricious and malicious experimenting with precious life.

3. There have been at least four major extinctions of life on earth, one of them nearly destroying all of life. Obviously the creator was using his eraser in a pretty cavalier manner.

4. Humans are a very recent addition and like most species will eventually become extinct. So we as a species cannot be the acme of creation.

5. Many diseases are simple chemical screw ups and and an organism's success or failure is nothing more than genetic mutations that either work out or not. There's a lot of hits and misses going on, a lot of pain and suffering, and many more misses than hits. That should tell you all you need to know.

Troy Camplin said...

I reject intelligent design on logical grounds. If the intelligent designer were in fact all powerful, then the intelligent designer could have created a universe that didn't require his constantly having to intervene. It would have been able to evolve complexity without his constant interference in the creation. So if there is an intelligent designer, it could not be an all powerful God. It would have to be an incompetent boob. Or an alien race that periodically comes in to intervene -- but then that only begs the question of how they became complex all on their own. So intelligent design requires either an improbable alien race or a not-very-intelligent designer.

The creationists don't believe in that kind of idiocy!

Greg R. Lawson said...

As Grant above states,

"Of course the point is nobody who understands science would make that statement. Since the "Intelligent Designer" in question is supposed to be some inscrutable all powerful supernatural entity there is no possible test or observation that could ever prove it wasn't responsible, it is a completely unfalsifiable hypothesis."

That is true. But it reflects my point. Science has its limits. Knowledge of the totality of reality requires us to transcend science (and all forms of bounded knowledge which is the only knowledge finite creatures appear capable of). How this is done is a perplexing and probably unanswerable question, but it is also a perennial question.

With respect to Troy who stated,

"So if there is an intelligent designer, it could not be an all powerful God. It would have to be an incompetent boob."

How does your conclusion necessarily flow from the premises? It would seem you are applying human moral and ethical constructs to something ultimately unknowable. Or at least you are applying human perceptions of what logic must be. Just because an all powerful creator should be capable of creating a universe that does not require its interference, does not necessarily mean it would choose to do so. We might expect it to do so, but if we do, aren’t we applying our own, humanistic assumptions at that point?

Why could an all powerful designer not create something that would allow it to tweak its creation as it may desire, even if it is out of capriciousness as opposed to benevolence?

Of course, I am falling into my own trap of applying a humanistic perspective to judge something that is, at least, theoretically unknowable. But it raises the question as to whether our logic chain can even be applicable when dealing with this question.

Why can’t “Intelligent Design” theory encompass a God that directly interceded (and/or continues to intercede) in this world just as much as any legalistic “Creationist” theory does? We simply have no way to really know the “why” it might choose to do so. Its decision to implicitly not act through its own omnipotence when designing its initial creation, does not imply it’s not omnipotent. It could merely be a choice.

Therefore, while we may not be able to “prove” “Intelligent Design” we can’t dismiss it as a possibility.

We return to Leo Strauss’ fundamental tension. As Prof. Arnhart paraphrases,

“Philosophy cannot refute revelation, and theology cannot refute philosophy, because any attempted refutation would have to beg the question at issue.”

We are stuck not “knowing” any of this. We are stuck with faith. On one extreme, we can be atheists. At the other, we can be Christians. Along the continuum there is much variety. We could be Deists or mere Platonists. But at the end of the day, there is no final point where humans can or will ever fundamentally “know.”

Grant said...

"That is true. But it reflects my point. Science has its limits. "

Of course science has it's limits, but those limits are not what are relevent to a discussion of a supposed "intelligent designer", this is a common and frankly extremely aggravating misconception. Science knows how to deal with that particular hypothesis perfectly well. Science does not reject unfalsifiable hypotheses simply because it can't figure out what to do with them, it rejects them because they are pointless and void of any information content whatsoever. Any proposed explanation that can acount for *any possible* observational data explains nothing at all. This is what is meant when people make statements, as in the original article, that hypothesizing an "intelligent designer" is simply an admission of ignorance... it is taking an observation or piece of data for which the person in question lacks an explanation... slapping a name on a hypothetical cause (in this case, we'll call it "God") and then pretending that the act of asigning responsibility for the event is the same thing as explaining it when no explanation has occured.

Does callling evolution the result of "Intelligent Design" tell us how it was "intelligently designed"? No. Because an omnipotent inscrutable supernatural being could have used any imaginable means.

Why it was done? No. The designer is inscrutable remmeber?

How it will progrss in the future? No. Anything at all could happen and it could be attributable to some supremely powerful supernatural influence because, heck, why not?

It tells us *nothing*.

So it is rejected. The question of whether there is an intelligent designer is not a question that is "beyond science", it is a hypothesis that is discarded by science as being without utility.

Larry Arnhart said...

Greg,

Are you disagreeing with the scientific creationists and intelligent design theorists?

They claim that science can prove the existence of a creator or intelligent designer.

You seem to say that this is a matter of faith that is beyond science, and therefore the whole idea of creationism or intelligent design as science is mistaken.

Greg R. Lawson said...

I do have skepticism about the limits of science as it relates to the ultimate questions of how things began. I think science can take us to to a point where we can make reasonable assumptions as to what may be the truth, but it will still only be an approximation. That is why I tend to agree with Strauss' observations.

I think we really have to make an existential choice as to what we will believe. In this science and theory (Intelligent Design, Creationism, secularized Darwinism, whatever) can take us to a cliff, but we have to jump. I suppose it is almost Kierkegaardian.

Grant said...

Greg, I appreciate you were most likely using the term in the general layman's sense... but in the context of a discussion about scientific methodology it is inappropriate to refer to Creationism or Intelligent Design as theories. They do not meet the qualifications. They are hypotheses, and as already discussed... badly constructed hypotheses that don't take us *anywhere* due to the fact that they are unfalsifiable and thus useless for any practical purposes. They are fodder for the imagination and nothing more.

Roger Sweeny said...

"Science does not reject unfalsifiable hypotheses simply because it can't figure out what to do with them, it rejects them because they are pointless and void of any information content whatsoever."

That may be what textbooks say but it is untrue regarding what scientists actually do. If scientists refused to consort with unfalsifiables, the NSF would have stopped funding string theory years ago.

Grant said...

". If scientists refused to consort with unfalsifiables, the NSF would have stopped funding string theory years ago."

Nonsense, they are still debating whether string theory can be falsified. IF they arrive at the conclusion it can't be THEN it will be discarded.

There is no such debate surrounding appeals to inscrutable all powerful supernatural entities.

Roger Sweeny said...

At the moment, there is no debate about whether string theory can be falsified. In its present form, everyone agrees it cannot.

Most of the people who work in string theory hope that with enough money and enough work, somebody will come up with something falsifiable. However, that hope is looking somewhat forlorn and there is a lot of disappointment in theoretical physics.

There is even a geeky backlash to its inscrutable entities:

http://xkcd.com/848/

http://xkcd.com/171/


For more than twenty years, most smart young theorists have done string theory and while they have come up with some interesting math, their falsifiable physics has been nil.

Grant said...

"At the moment, there is no debate about whether string theory can be falsified."

And yet the debate is occuring among people well informed in the field:

http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=428469

Curious.

That little detail aside, this is the actual important part of your statement:

"Most of the people who work in string theory hope that with enough money and enough work, somebody will come up with something falsifiable. However, that hope is looking somewhat forlorn and there is a lot of disappointment in theoretical physics. "

And why is there dissapointment Roger? If in practice science doen't care if a hypothesis is falsifiable then string theory being found to be unfalsifiable would not be cause for concern, right?

They're dissapointed because if they do decide it's unfalsifiable *they need to reject it*, and they know that. I consider my point proven.

Roger Sweeny said...

I'm afraid my snark has made it look like I'm saying something I am not. Scientists care about falsifiability.

However, they are willing to go for long periods without trying to falsify a theory. They may even be willing to stick with it for long periods without getting any sort of testable prediction at all out of it. This has been the case with string theory.

Why? For one, hope and faith. More than two decades ago, string theory looked like such a contender. People had great hope that it would answer some of the most intractable questions in physics. And they had faith that it would do so. Alas, it hasn't worked out that way. Creationists have a similar hope and faith. They haven't come up with any falsifiable predictions either.

Second is fear and desperation. There isn't anything else on the physics horizon that looks like it will be able to answer the questions, either. If not string theory, what?

Creationists have a psychologically similar fear and desperation. If evolution is true, then isn't the universe just cold and meaningless atoms? How can we say anything is right or wrong? It just is. To paraphrase Ilya Karamozov, "If there is no intelligent designer, all is permitted."

I'm not trying to insult science. It's the best way we have to understand the universe. But it's a very human, imperfect endeavor.

Grant said...

Alright, fair enough in broad terms on the first point. However any time the word "faith" is employed in the context of a science and religion discussion I feel compelled to insist on clarity of definitions as the word has importantly different usages. The type of faith we are talking about there is of the type where they have confidence (perhaps misplaced, perhaps not) that they're going to be able to figure out the falsification criteria while keeping in mind that until they do so their hypothesis hasn't cleared a necessary hurdle and it definitely needs to be properly tested as soon as they work out how, and if they can't work out how it's back to the drawing board. That is miles removed from the type of faith we're talking about in a religious context which is generally invoked to declare that testing and confirmation are irrelevent because they "just believe and have faith".

Not buying anything you're saying on the second point. Science doesn't do "fear and desperation" over unknown quantities, science thrives on unknown quantities. It's all ABOUT the unknown quantities, that's where everything fun and interesting happens. That's where the scientific method *lives*. Investigating the as yet unexplained.

There is no analogy to be drawn between scientific and creationist attitudes on this.

I have never encountered a scientist who has an actual *fear* of not being able to currently explain something. An anxiety about how to figure it out, sure. Afraid of it? Then why be a scientist?

Roger Sweeny said...

Scientists certainly want to venture into the unknown but most don't want to venture too far from home and they want to bring their stuff with them. It is NOT fun to be lost in the woods. They want to be able to use the tools they've been trained to use and think within the models they've been trained to understand.

Psychologically, it's sort of like music and art, where people enjoy things that are different but not too different, familiar but not too familiar.

Very few scientists enjoy a situation where, "this just doesn't make sense; I don't know how to analyze it."

Scientists are generally good people, but they are people, not some superior sub-species.

"Science" may not do fear and desperation but scientists certainly can feel it.

Physics theorists right now are like modern-day boxing promoters. None of the fighters look like champions but you've got to back one of them. This is your life; this is what you do. So you hope, and you try not to give in to fear and despair. And maybe you delude yourself, "This one is going to go all the way."

Troy Camplin said...

Here is how to not get lost in the woods:

http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1526147315351&set=a.1017431477773.2002771.1284706811

You have to blaze a trail by first making a blaze, then venturing. Then you won't get lost.

Grant said...

"Scientists certainly want to venture into the unknown but most don't want to venture too far from home and they want to bring their stuff with them. It is NOT fun to be lost in the woods. They want to be able to use the tools they've been trained to use and think within the models they've been trained to understand. "

Perhasps I'm just missing how deciding string theory is unfalsifiable would lead to this result. The primary tool they're trained to use is the Scientific Method, how does that become unavailable to them if the method itself tells themn to jettison String theory?

And again, I feel compelled to call attention to the difference between feeling a certain level of professional anxiety over solving a problem you maybe don't know how to approach at the moment which you are describing here... and fear over having immortality ripped from your grasp and dying forever which is the kind of thing we're dealing with on the creationist side.

Drawing parallels between the two by referring to them as "a psychologically similar fear and desperation" is just not on.