Sunday, November 13, 2005

Intelligent Design: Debunking the New Creationism

(With the Kansas Board of Education deciding that what the U.S. education system needs is less science and more religion, and the new Pope instructing us that the universe is the product of an “intelligence project”, this guest piece by Duane Valz on laying to rest the premise that Intelligent Design is a form of legitimate scientific inquiry comes at an opportune moment. A future piece will look at how all of this plays into America’s long-range competitiveness in the world.)

Let’s just call Intelligent Design what it is: a slyly positioned and disingenuous form of Creationism that is inconsistent with the good faith, honesty, and fairness that Judeo-Christian philosophy at its best is meant to exemplify.

The credo of Creationists is fairly straightforward and there is at least an intellectual honesty to their faith-driven beliefs. Creationists come in all flavors and stripes, but they all fundamentally believe that the God of their particular faiths was directly responsible for creating the universe, our planet and all life forms here on Earth, including human beings. Judeo-Christian Creationists vary in how literally or symbolically they subscribe to the versions of creation laid out in the Bible at Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Some Creationists accept “micro-evolution” (observed biological processes responsible for variations within species or classes of life forms), but reject “macro-evolution” (the notion that all life forms have a common biological source and that a distinct species or class of organism can emerge from another, given enough time and chance). For these Creationists, the notion of “theistic evolution”—whereby God has created all life forms and built some evolutionary adaptation characteristics into their genes—is not inconsistent with the Bible or the role of God as the supreme creator. Other Creationists reject both forms of evolution. Whatever version of creation they subscribe to, Creationists all believe in the premise that the God who they know and in whom they have faith is the entity ultimately responsible for originating life on Earth.

Creationists are certainly entitled to their views and I have no quarrel with the substance of the various Creationist positions. Science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. The faithful have every right to believe what they believe. Based on the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, however, and the long established American mandate to keep certain affairs of the church separated from those of the State, Creationists have run into trouble whenever they have tried to have doctrines like “Creation Science” taught in public schools. Creationists can impart their views to children in the privacy of their owns homes and more broadly in their places of worship, but federal courts, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard decision, have held that teaching a Judeo-Christian version of the origins of life and the Earth violates the separation of church and State. The judicial reasoning is that, as extensions of governments, public schools must not foster or mandate a particular set of religious views to the exclusion of others. Creation Science is not science at all, but a set of purely religious explanations of the origins of life. Creationists have argued in response that evolutionary theories of the origins of life are not proven science, and that to the extent that such theories present inconsistencies with Creationism, and contradictions with its precepts, Creationism should be taught alongside evolutionary theory as an alternative views. Otherwise, they argue, evolutionary theory would present a singular view on a topic with inherently religious significance and omit other alternative views regarding this key matter of understanding. The courts have ultimately not agreed, and have held that evolutionary theory, however flawed or incomplete it might be as a scientific theory, is purporting only to be a scientific theory and so need not be accompanied by overtly religious theories that happen to address the same subject matter.

Enter Intelligent Design (“ID”). It presents itself as an alternative scientific theory to mainstream evolutionary theories concerning the origins of life. ID’s main precept is that life itself, both the larger ecosystem and biosphere of Earth and each of its organisms, are way too complex to have arisen through a chance process of natural selection and gradual adaptation. Because life could not have come about on our planet in a random and haphazard manner, we can only conclude that there is some “intelligent force” that injected order into chaos and brought about life in all its complex manifestations.

ID advocates take the strangely neutral position that they are not seeking to promote any one notion of God as the intelligent designer of the universe and all its living content. They resort to the position that there must be some overarching intelligence that created such complex, yet highly functioning and interdependent life forms, such as the living things on planet earth. ID leaves open room for the notion that life “evolves,” but that is only based on the grand plan of the intelligent designer. The whole notion of natural selection—the primary mechanism behind Darwin’s notion of evolution—is unsupportable. Life as we know it is far too complex for it to have resulted from a series of random events and survival impulses at the individual organism or species level alone. DNA and genes, the blueprints for all life forms that we have identified to date, had to have been preconceived by a master planner.

A more careful examination of ID shows that it is nothing but pseudo-science with a covert agenda. It is obscured religious philosophy attempting to costume itself in scientific garments, which should be unacceptable to both scientists and those of religious faith.

1. Intelligent Design is Not a Legitimate Scientific Theory

ID is not so much a scientific theory, as it is a position. Theories not only have positions or conclusions that they set forth, but provide explanations about how to derive those positions or conclusions. Scientific theories, particularly, offer explanatory mechanisms or analytical frameworks for the conclusions they espouse. Those mechanisms and frameworks either provide useful expositions of the natural phenomena in concern or, more powerfully still, the ability to predict certain outcomes consistent with a theory’s conclusions or the capability to intervene and manipulate the natural phenomena itself. ID offers no explanatory mechanisms or analytical frameworks. It offers no predictive ability or procedures by which to intervene with or manipulate nature. It rests solely on a negative inference: that living nature is too complex to have come about without an intelligent architect. There is no way that we can prove or disprove this negative inference. Who is to say, scientifically or otherwise, that complexity precludes the random, spontaneous emergence and generation of life? Similarly, who is to say that we are not discerning the blueprints or traces of an intelligent force when we discover, scientifically, nature’s extremely complex structures and mechanisms? The very fact that we can argue about (and investigate) these issues without ever reaching a correct or more scientifically useful resolution is the very thing that proves ID cannot be a scientific theory. It is a basic requirement of any scientific theory that its conclusions and methods be subject to confirmation or disproof through testing and application. ID possesses none of the features required for a legitimate scientific theory. This relegates it to the status of an unscientific presupposition—an untested and indeed untestable hypothesis—rather than a scientific theory. As I discuss later, there are only politically driven and ulterior motives for the ID initiative.

Yet ID distinctly holds itself out as a scientific theory, one concerned with “design detection.” What is the methodology of design detection? All that one is able to glean from ID proponents is that design detection consists of two “methods”: (1) taking scientifically detected microscopic and macroscopic phenomena and declaring them too complex to have not been designed, and (2) inducing a designing intelligence from the fact of human intelligence (i.e., if manifestations of complex human creation, such as a written text, require an intelligent creator, then manifestations of complex natural phenomena, such as written text-like DNA, also require an intelligent creator). Both of these design detection “methods” incorporate circular reasoning. At best they are scientifically lazy (i.e., this is too hard for us to figure out, so let’s say a supreme intelligence came up with it), and at worst disingenuous attempts to couch religious presuppositions in scientific terms. The founders of the ID movement also support their major point of view with a smattering of anecdotal musings from practicing scientists who ascribe wondrous discoveries or research limitations in their own fields of pursuit to an irreducible complexity formed of intelligent intervention. Of course, that certain scientists of faith may come to these conclusions means nothing, at least nothing scientific. Those scientists arrive at the same untestable hypothesis that lay proponents do, favoring an easy negative inference over positive scientific proof or application. It is fine to do so as a matter of faith, but not as a matter of science.

2. Intelligent Design was Specifically Calculated to Dodge Legal Restraints on Religion in Public Schools.

It is unsurprising that the proponents of ID have a hidden agenda; simply to wedge Creationism back into public schools by circumventing the established legal restrictions against promoting or favoring one set of religious views over others. The founders of the ID movement are all Christian, so we would expect that each privately believes that the intelligent designer of their initiative would be the Christian God. So why would they actively then promote an initiative that obscures or denies the role of the Christian God in creating life? The only purpose for this denial is an outcome-driven, politically tactical one—to skirt legal barriers to teaching overtly religious theories of the origins of life in public schools.

In summary, people can believe whatever they want about the ultimate origin of life. Someday science may provide an answer, but currently it is the greatest mystery of all, and people of religious faith have the absolute right to attribute life to their views of God and the divine. What they don’t have the right to do is impose their religious views on the rest of us in the public school system under the auspices of science, which is exactly what proponents of ID are trying to do.

Duane Valz is an Emory-based technology attorney who holds a J.D. from UC-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law.

P.S. For an introduction to the fascinating new field of Evolutionary Development (Evo Devo), which is revolutionizing evolutionary theory and uncovering more and more evidence in support of Darwin’s theories click here.

P.P.S. A great article on the new ID theory of "Incompetent Design".


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