Saturday, December 10, 2005

Groothuis on Intelligent Design

Speakout: 'Design' critics often employ straw men

By Douglas Groothuis, Special to The Rocky Mountain News December 10, 2005

Ever since President Bush advocated that the intelligent design critique of Darwinism be allowed in public schools, a riot of public pronouncements has condemned the design perspective as retrograde, unscientific and downright ominous.

A number of logical fallacies are routinely employed in efforts to debunk intelligent design. In such cases, intelligent design is criticized and dismissed on the basis of an argument that is illogical and therefore false. One need not be an expert in Darwinian biology to sniff out these basic blunders. In this brief space I will note just one: the straw man argument.

In the straw man argument a position is made to look ridiculous and then the caricature is knocked down. Intelligent design is repeatedly presented as a plan to institute religious and unscientific dogma in the public schools. The facts, however, speak otherwise. Intelligent design's think tank, The Discovery Institute, says this: "The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." The controlling premise is the effort to discern the best explanation for a natural phenomenon, given the available empirical evidence: a fundamental precept of scientific investigation. Unlike creationism, intelligent design makes no appeal to religious texts, but invokes empirical evidence, as well as the principles of design detection, which are already used in sciences such as cryptography, archaeology, forensics, and in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Mathematician and philosopher William Dembski argues that certain features of the natural world exhibit patterns that are best explained on the basis of design (or intelligent causes), rather than on the basis of mindless nature (or unintelligent causes).

For example, even if we didn't know from history that an eccentric artist was responsible, we would identify the presidential faces carved into Mount Rushmore as designed because natural patterns of erosion cannot explain them. The complexity of the phenomenon fits a specifiable pattern: the faces of the presidents, which we recognize from other sources. Similarly, archaeologists distinguish ancient artifacts from naturally occurring objects on the basis of design detection. The complexity discovered in certain objects fits a specifiable pattern indicating that intelligent causation was at work.

Intelligent design proponents argue that some organisms indicate specified complexity, and that these organisms are better explained by intelligent causes than by natural law and chance alone. The DNA code is an example of specified complexity. It contains a language that is not reducible to the laws of chemistry and physics, which do not specify its content. The odds against all the factors required for DNA to come together through the operations of mere matter and chance are vanishingly small.

Similarly, biochemist Michael Behe argues in Darwin's Black Box that certain molecular machines are irreducibly complex, which means that all of its basic parts are required for its function, as with a mousetrap. The bacterial flagellum, for example, is a highly complex outboard motor attached to a bacterium. A gradual process of mere chance and natural law is insufficient to explain this irreducible complexity, Behe argues, since the motor function could not exist in evolutionary predecessors that lacked any of the many necessary parts.

However, Darwinists insist that intelligent design invokes God to cover ignorance of natural processes. This is exactly wrong. The design inference is not based on ignorance, but on increased knowledge of the microscopic realm and on the well-established principles of design detection. When Darwinists refuse to admit intelligent cause as a possible explanation for specified complexity, this only reveals that they define science such that intelligent causes are disallowed in principle. But this approach is not a discovery of science itself. It is rather a philosophical commitment to materialism (the belief that reality is reducible to impersonal physical laws).

May these few considerations spur readers to assess rationally intelligent design's actual arguments and to avoid the logical fallacies so often employed in place of intelligent thought about life's origins.

Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary.
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13 comments:

Ted Gossard said...

I know I'm insufficiently "schooled" to really bring much to this discussion. But I'll try.

So the data observed cries out for some metaphysical considerations. In science we arrive to considerations outside the scope of the physical data itself.

I wonder if this is the crux of the matter for the status quo. That they will not retreat from their naturalism which seems inherent to science. That any such retreat would become unscientific in their eyes.

I'm wondering if within a post-modern influence there may evolve more of an openness to surrendering naturalism while retaining good science.

ScienceFindsGod said...

The straw man argument is a great way of summarizing what they attempt to do. I don't understand how people can look at the numbers and still think this the universe could have just formed by chance. Even Antony Flew recently changed his mind after investigating the odds. They actually made a documentary of this and sent it to AP news which is how the story came to be.

I find it funny that people that believe in the odds of life randomly forming would never actually take those odds to Vegas.

I found a great quote that I think summarizes why:

"I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption ... For myself, as no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneous liberation from a certain political and economic system, and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom."

(REPORT, June 1966. "Confession of Professed Atheist," A. Huxley)

Frank Walton said...

Great article, sir! Though I doubt it'll change any evolutionist's mind. After all if they assume materialism how much more would they assume with your article? BTW, I actually replied to a blog by an evolutionist who straw manned ID.

David said...

frank walton,

I think you're right that Doug's argument won't change the mind of any evolutionists. But perhaps the greater intent is to provide an alternative perspective to the anti-ID rhetoric that permeates our news sources these days. People need to know that ID is not a veiled form of creationism, and that it is based on the empirical evidence and should therefore count as bona-fide science.

Chuck said...

Good post, Doug. As always, thanks for the insights.

I believe this ties in to an issue you raised in a post made in November regarding character and the knowledge of God. As someone with a degree in the biological sciences, I can affirm the truth that scientists, as fallen human beings, have a vested interest in adhering to an antisupernaturalistic and materialistic worldview. Whether one is willing to admit it or not, there exists a pervasive hostility towards the idea that the creation may point to a Creator to which we are accountable to. The efforts to debunk intelligent design are driven by an animosity towards biblical theism and its implications.

david.g said...

Contrary to your belief, there is a Theory of Intelligent Design which is supported by evidence which can be found at Intelligent Design Theory . It is interesting that such a theory has been ignored in the recent debate and the court case. Then again the proponents of intelligent design may be unaware of it and think that it is just creationism!

Dignan said...

I am wondering if Christians are not shooting themselves in the foot by supporting ID. Here is why I think so.

Hoopy Frood said...

Another point of confusion in the debate has been this:

Some people on every side assume ID means special creation of each species. I think Behe believes in guided, common descent of species. Most of the "overwhelming scientific evidential support for evolution" is nothing more than fossils, which are irrelevant if Behe believes in common descent.

Mike Musselman said...

While much that is posted here is good and true, I think it would be only fair of us to admit that not so long ago, a very vocal segment of the so-called "religious right" would happily have used the political process to strip the schools of biology texts that mentioned evolution, and made no bones about their desire to establish a theocracy, were they to get the chance. And they saw advocacy of "intellingent design" as a first step towrd their goal.

That was no "straw man." I met people such as these and they were real. Just as real as the Aldous Huxley's who jumped at the chance to use Darwin's theory to promote their own ends. And these Zealots were sometimes mean-spirited and ... well, unchristian, too. (They certainly scared the wits out of me.)

While the theocrats certainly don't speak for the rest of us (they no more represent all of the church than Huxley speaks for all evolutionists), I think we have to "own" them to the extent that we certainly did not stand up and cry with one voice that they were not our representatives.

I guess I think "they" came by their fears fo "us" somewhat honestly. Perhaps if we admitted that evolutionists fears are not entirely groundless, and that we had some understanding about why they might have them, then some might grow ears to hear?

Douglas Groothuis said...

I have little idea what Mike Musselman is talking about. There is a group called Reconstructionists (or Theonomists) who want to make "biblical law" the law of the land. The patriarch was the prolific R.J. Rushdoony, who died a few years ago. The leading theorist and theologian was Greg Bahnsen, who died in the late 1990s. Gary Demar is a present writer and speaker of this persuasion, as is Gary North.

However, these folks are extreme conservatives (almost libertarians), and oppose the institution of public education entirely. See Rushdoony's, "The Messianic Character of American Education," for example. They never wanted to ban the teaching of Darwinism from the public schools and insert creationism. They wanted to ban publish schools. Moreover, these people did not support the creationist push of the 1980s for just this reason, although they are creationists. Their emphasis has always been on private education. And, no, I am not of their number, although I have learned much from them over the years.

The Institute for Creation Research folks pushed for the "two model" approach until some decisive legal failures in the latter 1980s. But they never wanted to keep Darwinism out of the public schools. They wanted creationism taught along with Darwinism. And, no, I am not of their number, but I have learned some things from them as well.

So, I have no idea what Mike is refering to. The ID movement is scientifically quite sophisticated and legally savvy. For the reasons why ID is not banned under previous legal rulings against creationism, see the brilliant book by Francis Beckwith, "Law, Darwinism, and Public Policy."

Doug Groothuis, ID cheerleader

John Stockwell said...

I find it interesting to read the writings of philosophers who encounter scientific matters, but who possess little understanding of either the practical or the philosophical side of science.

Dr. Groothuis clearly falls in this category. First of all, in no place in scientific definitions or discourse is there really any requirement that science be restricted to the "natural" or that it eschews the "supernatural", not because of some open-metaphysics policy, but because neither of these terms have any scientific meaning.

Scientists often say that they are working in the realm of the natural, but what they really mean is that they are working in a highly restricted realm, whose ontology requires objectifiability, uniformity, causality, and persistence of phenomena, such that regularity may be observed and codified in descriptions that scientist call "natural law".

Scientists by all practicality are restricted to dealing with those objects of their experience that are apprehensible to human senses (possibly augmented by instrumentation), to ideas and explanations that are comprehensible to human intellect (possibly augmented by computational aids), and to phenomena and theorizing that can be communicable in human language (possibly augmented by technology and mathematics).

The fundamental flaw in many of the the traditional approaches to philosophy, such as those of the Ancient Greeks, is that their basic approach was to try to guess details of a worldview ontology and then try to make sense of the observed world from that ontological worldview.

Scientists over the centuries discovered, via the school of hard knocks, that it was better to consider any worldview pictures as temporary "big picture" summaries of where science is at a particular time, rather than guiding worldview philosophical systems.

Of course, the end result of scientific investigation has modified our general worldview to one in which large-scale aspects of the universe turn out to be amenable to scientific methods that involve the comprehensible, the apprehensible, and the communicable.


Now, the major thrust of the intelligent design movement is to claim that scientists are not doing that. The claim is that scientists are adhering to a worldview philosophy of metaphysical naturalism.

This argument is not about science. It is about law. It is no accident that an attorney Phil Johnson made this naturalism accusation. He is not responding to the methods that scientists use, but the definition of science that Judge Overton used in the case Overton versus the Arkansas Board of Education, which states, among other things that "science deals with the natural" and with "naturalistic explanations". This ploy is the narrow
edge of a wedge
(See the Discovery Institute's Wedge document here:

http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Hangar/2437/wedge.html

Groothuis, with every other
well-meaning theologian who has jumped on this bandwagon, is being taken for a ride. Indeed, science should not (and does not) begin with grandious worldview philosophy.

Yet, in order to open the door to intelligent design, science would be required to be shifted away from its basic practical common-sense metaphysics, to a natural-theological metaphysics, the narrow edge of the Discovery Institute's Wedge.

The broad edge
of the Wedge is full-blown creationist
pseudoscience. (Interestingly, scientific research is not a big part of the Wedge plan.)

As to specifics. So far the ID movement has done no science, either theoretical or practical. Yet, a research group with the same level of funding and staff could have pumped out 300-400 scientific papers in the time that Discovery Institute has been running this game.

Of course, it could be possible that someday an actual scientific theory of "intelligent design" could be formulated. If such a scientific theology would arise, we would no longer need religious texts, we would need only study math and science to know this new ID-God.

(The foggy mathematical philosophy of Dembski, and the similarly foggy scientific philosophy of Behe are far from what a true scientific theology would look like.

John Stockwell said...

I find it interesting to read the writings of philosophers who encounter scientific matters, but who possess little understanding of either the practical or the philosophical side of science.

Dr. Groothuis clearly falls in this category. First of all, in no place in scientific definitions or discourse is there really any requirement that science be restricted to the "natural" or that it eschews the "supernatural", not because of some open-metaphysics policy, but because neither of these terms have any scientific meaning.

Scientists often say that they are working in the realm of the natural, but what they really mean is that they are working in a highly restricted realm, whose ontology requires objectifiability, uniformity, causality, and persistence of phenomena, such that regularity may be observed and codified in descriptions that scientist call "natural law".

Scientists by all practicality are restricted to dealing with those objects of their experience that are apprehensible to human senses (possibly augmented by instrumentation), to ideas and explanations that are comprehensible to human intellect (possibly augmented by computational aids), and to phenomena and theorizing that can be communicable in human language (possibly augmented by technology and mathematics).

The fundamental flaw in many of the the traditional approaches to philosophy, such as those of the Ancient Greeks, is that their basic approach was to try to guess details of a worldview ontology and then try to make sense of the observed world from that ontological worldview.

Scientists over the centuries discovered, via the school of hard knocks, that it was better to consider any worldview pictures as temporary "big picture" summaries of where science is at a particular time, rather than guiding worldview philosophical systems.

Of course, the end result of scientific investigation has modified our general worldview to one in which large-scale aspects of the universe turn out to be amenable to scientific methods that involve the comprehensible, the apprehensible, and the communicable.


Now, the major thrust of the intelligent design movement is to claim that scientists are not doing that. The claim is that scientists are adhering to a worldview philosophy of metaphysical naturalism.

This argument is not about science. It is about law. It is no accident that an attorney Phil Johnson made this naturalism accusation. He is not responding to the methods that scientists use, but the definition of science that Judge Overton used in the case Overton versus the Arkansas Board of Education, which states, among other things that "science deals with the natural" and with "naturalistic explanations". This ploy is the narrow
edge of a wedge
(See the Discovery Institute's Wedge document here:

http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Hangar/2437/wedge.html

Groothuis, with every other
well-meaning theologian who has jumped on this bandwagon, is being taken for a ride. Indeed, science should not (and does not) begin with grandious worldview philosophy.

Yet, in order to open the door to intelligent design, science would be required to be shifted away from its basic practical common-sense metaphysics, to a natural-theological metaphysics, the narrow edge of the Discovery Institute's Wedge.

The broad edge
of the Wedge is full-blown creationist
pseudoscience. (Interestingly, scientific research is not a big part of the Wedge plan.)

As to specifics. So far the ID movement has done no science, either theoretical or practical. Yet, a research group with the same level of funding and staff could have pumped out 300-400 scientific papers in the time that Discovery Institute has been running this game.

Of course, it could be possible that someday an actual scientific theory of "intelligent design" could be formulated. If such a scientific theology would arise, we would no longer need religious texts, we would need only study math and science to know this new ID-God.

(The foggy mathematical philosophy of Dembski, and the similarly foggy scientific philosophy of Behe are far from what a true scientific theology would look like.

Anonymous said...

gee, how original.

Argument from perceived design.
Argument from irreducible complexity.

Very weak arguments, and the best the ID/creationist club can up with. Bah.