Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Usual Suspects

It's now official. Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin. Word is that MoveOn.Org will soon reveal proof implicating the nefarious Bush administration in this attempt on the Ukrainian's life.

Intelligent Design and Religion

Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost poses this question: If a scientist were able to produce an organism from scratch in the laboratory how could other scientists tell that it had been designed by an intelligent agent rather than by nature? There must be some distinctive characteristics of naturally designed organisms, Carter argues, which distinguish them from artificially designed objects. How else, he wonders, can Darwinians justify their certainty that organisms are only fashioned by natural processes and never intelligent ones?

His question points up a crucial element in the current controversy between Intelligent Design (ID) theorists and Darwinians. How do we recognize intelligently designed structures whenever we encounter them? How, if we didn't otherwise know, could we be certain that Mt. Rushmore was the product of intelligent artisans whereas we might not arrive at that same conclusion about The Old Man in the Mountain?

Intelligent Design theorists like William Dembski are attempting to remove design recognition from the realm of the intuitive and to ascertain exactly what it is that enables us to distinguish purposely designed objects from those which may be the products of random, purposeless processes. They are seeking to discover how it is that we manage to distinguish intelligent agency from the work of mindless forces.

Once the criteria of design recognition are established, at least in broad outline, they may be turned toward living organisms and the structures found in those organisms. No one denies that biological structures are designed. The question at issue is whether the designer is mindless chance and physical law or whether it is some form of intelligent mind.

ID theorists conclude that complex, specified arrangements or patterns are the hallmark of intelligent provenience and that organisms possess these qualities in abundance down to the tiniest microscopic bio-machines which cram living cells. They conclude that it is therefore at least as plausible that these structures are somehow the result of intelligence as that they are not.

ID advocates go on to argue that public schools shouldn't implicitly foreclose the possibility of an intelligent agent being responsible for nature's architecture by refusing to acknowledge that possibility to their students. This certainly seems reasonable, but, nevertheless, there is opposition.

The resistance stems from the fact that if ID is correct then it leads to certain philosophical conclusions about the ultimate nature of reality which are unpalatable to scientific materialists. Thus there is a major effort to prohibit such instruction by those who fear that in any fair consideration of the evidence the hypothesis that natural processes are perfectly adequate to account for the myriad of molecular machines we observe in our microscopes will look pale in comparison to the alternative.

Consequently, in order to prevent such comparisons, strenuous efforts are made, whenever the spectre of Intelligent Design looms up, to characterize it as religion while simultaneously packaging the materialist hypothesis as science. The fact is, of course, that materialism is not science and ID is not religion. They are both philosophical or metaphysical hypotheses which rely upon empirical data for their conclusions.

Consider a few ways in which ID has been mischaracterized:

1) It's argued that ID should not be taught in public schools because the Supreme Court has prohibited it, but this is not true. In Edwards v. Aguillera the Supreme Court explicitly said that teachers are free to teach creationism if they wish. The Court merely prohibited state legislatures from mandating it. Creationism has a strong religious component, depending as it does upon the Bible. ID has no such component, so if teachers are free to teach creationism they would certainly be free to teach ID.

2) ID is philosophical, and philosophical concepts have no place in the science classroom. This objection belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of philosophy in science. The two are very nearly inseparable. If science teachers cannot introduce philosophical concepts into their classrooms then they cannot talk about what science is, the scientific method, the basic assumptions of cause and effect, the principle of sufficient cause, the principle of uniformity, the law of parsimony, the criteria of a good scientific theory, the laws of logic, and so on. All of these, and much more that might come up in an intellectually vivacious science class, are philosophical topics. It's very strange that all manner of philosophy is admitted into our classrooms without raising alarm, yet the notion that there might be an Intelligence responsible for the structure of the universe sends half the population into a panic.

3) If ID is correct then it lends support to the belief that there is a God. This is true, but it's irrelevant. We don't prohibit teaching Darwinian evolution on the grounds that it lends support to the belief that there is no God. Simply because a field of study has implications for religious belief it does not follow that the study is itself religious.

Moreover, though ID is compatible with belief in the God of traditional monotheism, it doesn't require it. It claims only that life is the product of intelligence. That intelligence may be the God of Judeo-Christian tradition or it may be the God of jeffersonian deism, or it may be extra-galactic beings which somehow seeded life on this planet, as some scientists have suggested. Anyone who takes the design inference beyond the conclusion that life exhibits the impress of intelligent manufacture is making a philosophical leap that ID neither sanctions nor opposes.

This is why the allegation that ID is just a form of creationism is misinformed. Creationism says explicitly that the God of the Bible created everything in the space-time universe. Some forms of creationism go even further and claim that God created the major taxa pretty much as we see them today and that He did this relatively recently and very quickly.

ID makes no such claims. It does not affirm that the world is created by God, it asserts nothing about how the world or life were created nor how quickly or long ago. Some ID theorists are evolutionists (though not Darwinian evolutionists). They believe that life has descended from primitive ancestors pretty much the way Darwinians claim, but they reject the notion that natural processes alone are sufficient to explain it.

The basic claim of ID is that however life came to be as it is, it must have involved intelligent input. It did not happen by the action of purely physical or material causes. If people wish to see support in this for a belief in God, that is their decision, just as it is their decision if they find support in Darwinism for their belief that there is no God.

4) Similarly, the claim that ID is religious is frequently raised, but how do we know it is religious? What is a religion? How do we recognize one? Not one person in a hundred who voices this objection can give a compelling definition of what "religion" is. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy acknowledges that religion eludes definition. Some religions have a moral code, some don't. Some religions have a god, some don't. Some religions involve worship of their deity, some don't. Given the inability to specify exactly what characteristics a religion possesses it seems a little absurd to say that ID possesses them. ID neither entails the existence of a god nor does it prescribe worship of one. Doubtless many ID adherents are religious as individuals and would like to see ID used as a means to point others to the Judeo-Christian God, but then many Darwinians are atheistic and see Darwinism as a useful tool for turning people toward materialism or naturalism.

5) ID is a Trojan horse for sneaking religion into schools. Even if it were true that ID is somehow religion, it should nevertheless be asked why Darwinism enjoys immunity against the same charge. Why should it not be seen as a Trojan horse for sneaking atheism into schools? Why are the alleged aims of one illicit while those of the other are deemed acceptable? Darwinism states that the universe, life, and the diversity of life are all solely the product of unguided, unintelligent, purposeless and purely natural forces. No God is necessary to account for anything that exists, and indeed Darwinism insists that the universe is closed to any non-natural intervention. Such a view has profound religious implications. It is an explicit denial of the basic tenets of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and it implicitly endorses atheism since there is no point in believing in any metaphysical entity which serves no unique function. Even if one could salvage from the periphery of the Darwinian world-view a minimal divinity of some sort, it clearly remains a view of reality fraught with religious implications, since it denies the existence of the God of most monotheisms.

Intelligent Design entails no deity, it enjoins no worship, it promotes no sacraments, it possesses no scriptures, it teaches no dogma, and it is affiliated with no church. It is not a religious hypothesis. Its critics point to the fact that many of its advocates are theists or deists and claim that this demonstrates the religious underpinnings of ID, but the fact that there are many theists among the ID ranks no more disqualifies it as a legitimate topic of discussion in a science classroom than the fact that so many Darwinians are atheists disqualifies it from being taught.

Biology teachers, when they talk about cell biology, for instance, should seek to instill in their students a sense of awe at the wonders of the natural world. They should then point out that there are two ways of thinking about how those wonders came to be. They are either the result of eons of random chance and physical forces or they are the product of a superintending intelligence acting in concert with those forces. Let's teach our students the beauty and complexity of the biological world, present them with the competing metaphysical explanations of random chance or intelligent purpose, and let them decide for themselves.

For more on this topic see several essays from the Viewpoint archive, specifically this one, this one, and this one.

The Falling Dollar

This article in the New York Times(subscription may be required)instructs us in the negative consequences of a falling dollar:

America's trade imbalance can be corrected, the current reasoning goes, with a much cheaper dollar - perhaps 30 percent cheaper than it is today. The idea - supported by Treasury Secretary John Snow and Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman - is that this would raise the price of imports for Americans, who would thus buy less from abroad. A cheaper dollar would also supposedly allow us to sell more to the world by making our exports less expensive.

Here is what's wrong with this analysis.

A falling dollar is unlikely to curtail imports as much as hoped. It is more likely instead to act as a consumption tax. About one-quarter of the United States import bill arises from oil purchases, which are priced in dollars. A rapidly depreciating dollar thus means lower earnings for OPEC producers. In response, the cartel might well raise prices. Goods from Asia, especially China, account for at least another 25 percent of our import bill. Because these computers, machine tools, TV's and toys are essential to our work and lifestyle, chances are that we will still buy them, even at higher prices.

Nor will a cheaper dollar encourage domestic production that can replace imports, as some argue. Auto parts, for instance, are increasingly produced in Mexico and other developing nations. These plants, part of a highly specialized global supply line, are not likely to be replaced by suppliers in the United States just because of temporary currency movements.

American exports, meanwhile, will not be spurred as much as most forecasters hope. Because currencies' values are relative to one another, the lower the dollar gets, the higher the euro and yen rise. As the currencies of Europe and Japan strengthen, the exports of these nations will become more expensive. That could easily translate into slower growth in those already slow-growing regions - and less money to buy our exports.

There's lots more analysis at the link, and reading the whole piece really is an education in macroeconomics.