Monday, December 04, 2017

The Dishonesty and Sophistry of Stephen Meyer's Intelligent Design Theory

That Stephen Meyer is one of the four authors in Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design is fascinating, because these four authors identify themselves as biblical creationists, even though Meyer defends a position--intelligent design theory--that Meyer and its other proponents say is not creationist!

This dishonesty in intelligent design theory--both denying and affirming biblical creationism--is made necessary by the rhetorical strategy of the Discovery Institute, the leading organization promoting intelligent design, where Meyer directs the Center for Science and Culture.

The modern intelligent design movement in America originated with William Jennings Bryan, an evangelical Christian, and a three-time presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, who took the side of the "fundamentalist" Christians, who defended a literal interpretation of the Bible as the inerrant word of God against the "modernist" interpretation of the Bible as compatible with modern science, and particularly the modern science of evolution.  The modernists defended a theistic evolutionism, and Deborah Haarsma's evolutionary creation could be seen as belonging to that modernist tradition of thought.

Continuing the tradition started by Plato, Bryan developed the four arguments that constitute the rhetoric of intelligent design.  (I have elaborated these points in chapter 7 of Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question.)  His scientific argument was that the Darwinian theory of evolution was not truly scientific because it was based not on empirical evidence but on the dogmatic commitment to a materialistic naturalism.  His religious argument was that Darwinism promoted atheism by denying the truth of the Bible, and particularly by denying the biblical teaching that human beings were specially created by God in His image.  His moral argument was that the atheistic materialism of Darwinism was morally corrupting.  His political argument was that teaching Darwinism in the public schools was undemocratic, because it violated the wishes of the majority of parents, and because it denied the moral and religious principles of American political life as stated in the Declaration of Independence.

This fundamentalist attack on Darwinism led to the dramatic trial of John Scopes in 1925 in Dayton, Tennesse.  Scopes was tried for violating a Tennessee law that make it a misdemeanor for public school teachers "to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man had descended from a lower order of animal."  Bryan acted as a lawyer for the prosecution against Scopes, while Clarence Darrow joined the lawyers defending Scopes.  Scopes was convicted, although his conviction was overturned on a technicality by the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Many states continued to enact laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

The publication in 1961 of The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications by John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris sparked a revival of scientific creationism, which stressed Bryan's scientific argument against Darwinism--the claim that the biblical creation story was actually more scientific than Darwinian evolution, and therefore that biblical creation should be taught as science in public school biology classes.

Creationists supported "balanced treatment" laws dictating that creation science be taught as a scientific alternative to Darwinian science in public school biology classes.  Such a state law in Arkansas was struck down as unconstitutional in 1982 in a federal district court case McLean v. Arkansas, because teaching creationism was said to be an unconstitutional establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment.  The state of Arkansas did not appeal this decision, and so it did not reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1987, in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Edwards v. Aguillard, the creationists thought they had a better chance of winning, because the Louisiana law at issue in this case did not mandate the teaching of creation science, but it did require that if evolutionary science was taught in a public school biology class, creation science would have to be taught as an alternative.  In a 7-2 decision (with Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist dissenting), the Court decided that teaching scientific creationism did violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because the primary intent was to teach a particular religious doctrine.  It also held, however, that "teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction."

Creationists saw that this left an opening for a new rhetorical strategy: if they adopted Bryan's scientific argument and claimed that creationist science was a strictly scientific position that did not depend on biblical teaching, they might justify teaching creationism in public schools as "validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction."  Stephen Meyer and others who established the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture decided that the best way to do this would be to avoid the term "creationism" and, instead, to use the term "intelligent design," so that there would be no explicitly religious language of God as Creator.

The success of this rhetorical strategy depends on covering up the dishonesty of this strategy.  Meyer does this by insisting that his personal belief in biblical creationism is completely separate from his purely secular scientific argument for intelligent design, because the reasoning for intelligent design theory does not depend necessarily in any way on any belief in the supernatural.  And, therefore, he insists, the intelligent design argument of the Discovery Institute is not a deceptive rhetoric strategy of creationists to get around the decision in Edwards v. Aguillard , so that scientific creationism can be taught under the guise of intelligent design in the public school biology classes.

To support this conclusion, Meyer claims that a book by Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen--The Mystery of Life's Origin--"marked the beginning of interest in the contemporary theory of intelligent design" (198).  And since this book was published in 1984, three years before the decision in Edwards v. Aguillard, Meyer observes, this proves that the intelligent design argument was not devised as a disguised form of creationism to evade that decision (179).

Meyer points to the Epilogue of The Mystery of Life's Origin as presenting the "radical alternative" to evolution (198).  But Meyer is silent about the fact that this Epilogue explicitly appeals to the idea of "Special Creation by a Creator beyond the cosmos" (Thaxton et al., 188, 196, 200, 209).  So this book was explicitly a creationist book, in which terms like "intelligent cause" were terms for the Creator.  This is what I mean by Meyer's dishonesty.

Similarly, Meyer is silent about the biblical Creationism in the founding statement of the Center for Science and Culture--"The Wedge Document," which can be found online.  The cover page has a reproduction of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam fresco for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, which makes clear the Creationist doctrine.  The opening line of the document affirms "the proposition that human beings are created in the image of God."  Meyer is identified as the Director of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture.  And the primary goal of the Center is declared to be "to defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies," and "to replace materialistic explanation with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God."

Meyer is also silent about the evidence supporting the decision in 2005 in the federal district court case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Distinct that a public school endorsement of an intelligent design textbook--Of Pandas and People--as teaching an alternative to evolutionary science was actually an unconstitutional establishment of creationist religion.  The first versions of this book were written prior to the decision in Edwards v. Aguillard, with the hope that a favorable court decision would allow this book to be taught in public schools as a supplementary textbook promoting creation science.  But when the court decision turned out to be unfavorable to the public-school teaching of creationism, the manuscripts for the book were revised so that the words "creationism" and "creation proponents" were replaced by the words "intelligent design" and "intelligent design proponents."  When the evidence for this was presented at the Dover trial, this made it clear that using the term "intelligent design" was a rhetorical strategy for promoting creationism disguised as a purely secular science.

Even if one sets aside the dishonesty of this rhetorical strategy, and looks at Meyer's substantive arguments for intelligent design theory as a real science, one can see the fundamental sophistry in his reasoning.  Intelligent design reasoning depends completely on the fallacy of negative argumentation from ignorance, in which intelligent design proponents argue that if evolutionary scientists cannot fully explain the step-by-step evolutionary process by which complex living forms arise, then this proves that these complex forms of life must be caused by the intelligent designer.  This is purely negative reasoning because the proponents of intelligent design are offering no positive explanation of their own as to exactly when, where, and how the intelligent designer caused these forms of life.

For example, Meyer points out that building a new animal form requires not just new genes and proteins but also integrated networks of genes and proteins called developmental gene regulatory networks (dGRNs).  He then argues that building a new dGRN from a preexisting dGRN requires altering the preexisting dGRN in some way that is likely to be catastrophic.  "Given this, how could a new body plan--and the new dGRN necessary to produce it--ever evolve from a preexisting body plan and dGRN?  Neither mainstream evolutionary biologists, nor evolutionary creationists have answered this question." 

If evolutionists cannot answer this question, Meyer assumes, this proves intelligent design.  But notice that Meyer does not himself answer the question that he poses to the evolutionists.  Exactly how could a new body plan--and the new dGRN necessary to produce it--ever be created by the Intelligent Designer from a preexisting body plan and dGRN?  Meyer cannot answer this question, because he cannot explain exactly where, when, or how the Intelligent Designer achieves all of the miraculous effects attributed to Him by the proponents of intelligent design.  Meyer insists that the proponents of evolutionary science satisfy standards of proof that he and his fellow proponents of intelligent design cannot satisfy, because his sophistical strategy is to put the burden of proof on his opponents, while refusing to accept that burden of proof for himself.

Meyer admits that this argument from ignorance is a fallacy.  But he tries to argue that proponents of intelligent design theory do not really commit this fallacy, because they offer explanations with positive content:
". . . Proponents of intelligent design also offer design because we know that intelligent agents can and do produce specified information-rich systems.  As the information theorist Henry Quastler observed, 'Information habitually arises from conscious activity.'  Indeed, we have positive, experience-based knowledge of an alternative cause sufficient to have produced the effect in question--and that cause is intelligence or mind.  Thus, design theorists infer intelligent design not just because natural processes do not explain the origin of specified information in biological systems, but also because we know, based upon our uniform experience, that intelligent agents, and only intelligent agents, produce this effect.  That is to say, we have positive experience-based knowledge of an alternative cause (intelligence) that is sufficient to produce specified information" (204).
Notice Meyer's subtle use of the fallacy of equivocation here--in the equivocation between human intelligent design and supernatural intelligent design.  We have all had the experience of how human intelligent agents create artificial products by intelligent design.  But it does not follow logically from this that we have all had the experience of how supernatural intelligent agents create artificial products by intelligent design.

Consider a slight alteration in the last sentence in the passage quoted above.  "That is to say, we have positive experience-based knowledge of an alternative cause (human intelligence) that is sufficient to produced specified information."  Well, of course, we would all have to agree with that statement.  But what about this--"That is to say, we have positive experience-based knowledge of an alternative cause (supernatural intelligence) that is sufficient to produce specified information"?  There is no good reason for all of us to agree with that statement.  The fallacy of equivocation here is Meyer's implicit assumption that since we all have "positive experience-based knowledge" of human intelligent agency, we therefore all have "positive experience-based knowledge" of supernatural or divine intelligent agency.  The entire argument for the intelligent design explanation of the universe depends on this fallacious inference.

Consider also this remark by Meyer as illustrating this equivocation:
". . . We would not say, for example, that an archeologists had committed a 'scribe of the gaps' fallacy simply because--after rejecting the hypothesis that an ancient hieroglyphic inscription was caused by a sand storm--he went on to conclude that the inscription had been produced by a human scribe.  Instead, we recognize that the archeologist has made an inference based upon his experience-based knowledge that information-rich inscriptions invariably arise from intelligent causes, not solely upon his judgment that there are no suitably efficacious natural causes that could explain the inscription" (205).
Well, yes, again, we would all agree with this statement.  But what if we inserted "divine scribe" in place of "human scribe"?  That's different.  Because while we have "experience-based knowledge" of how human intelligent causes work, we don't have "experience-based knowledge" of how divine intelligent causes work.  The rhetoric of intelligent design theory depends on our not recognizing the equivocation here.

William Dembski has said: "The point of the intelligent design program is to extend design from the realm of human artifacts to the natural sciences."  This rhetorical strategy hides the fact that while detecting the design of human artifacts is a matter of common observation and logic, detecting the design of divine artifacts is not.

So what would have to be done to turn intelligent design theory--or any other form of creationism--into a real science?  Hugh Ross in Four Views provides a good answer:
"According to famed physicist Paul Davies, anyone presenting a model identifying the designer, citing specific dates, locations, and means of design, showing how their model could be falsified, and making short-range predictions of what scientists should discover (distinct from other models' predictions), has earned a seat at the science research and education tables.  Commitment to such a model opens doors to discussion in public universities.  It also elicits valuable critique from non-Christian research scientists and provides opportunities to draw them toward faith in Jesus Christ" (216).
As long as Meyer and other proponents of intelligent design refuse to offer such a falsifiable model of intelligent design for scientific explanation, their position cannot be taken seriously as real science.


Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

I have been involved in the creation-evolution debate since 2008. I'm surprised I have not heard of this blog before now. This is really good stuff Larry.

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

Anyway, the IDcreationist hypocricy concerning the burden of proof (and the hypocricy concerning the level of detail they accept as "sufficiently convincing") goes even deeper.

Even if evolutionary and molecular biologists come up with the kind of step-by-step account for the evolution of some complex biological entity, which IDcreationists claim do not exist, they immediately move the goalposts and declare that it's just some "just so story" that has little or no evidence for it.

They always fail to live up to and abide by the standard of evidence they require from the evolution side of this debate.
They want complete mutation-by-mutation world-histories, some times at the level of the individual physicochemical causes of mutations, including the putative selective pressures, population sizes, mutation rates and what have you, that would have been responsible for effectuating historical evolutionary transitions, some times hundreds of millions to billions of years ago, or it simply isn't detailed enough for them. And if they don't recieve this, then they conclude that since we don't know everyting then we don't know anything, and then completely reject the evolutionary account. And were we even to provide this, then well, it's "a just so story".

Yet, what are they willing to accept in turn from the creationist side? What amounts to the mere uttering of the word "created" or "designed". How did it comes to exist? It was created. Or, it was designed. The quintessential "God did it". That's it. And they believe this with a level of conviction bordering on mental illness.

Hypocrites, through and through.

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, in any debate over creation/evolution/intelligent design, the winner is the one who puts the other side on the defensive. If you can force your opponent into presenting a detailed step-by-step explanation of how some complex form of life arose in history, and then declare victory when he fails to do this, while refusing to accept that explanatory burden for your own side, then you win.

As I reported in a previous post a few years ago, when I participated in a week-long lecture series on intelligent design at Hillsdale College, I asked Michael Behe--repeatedly--exactly how did the Intelligent Designer create bacterial flagella? His answer? "A puff of smoke!"