Thursday, October 20, 2005

C, DE, and ID

There continues to be a great deal of confusion, much of it seemingly deliberate, over the nature of the Intelligent Design (ID) hypothesis as well as the nature of the basic assumptions of Darwinian evolution (DE) and creationism (C). This post is an attempt to clarify things a little.

Let's start with the commonly heard refrain that DE is science whereas ID is religion.

The fundamental claim of DE is that all of life has arisen solely as a result of blind, unguided, impersonal processes. ID is, in its essence, simply the denial or contrary of this claim. ID states that mechanistic processes are inadequate by themselves to account for what we find in the realm of living things and that one of the causal factors which must be invoked to fully account for life is intelligence. Whatever philosophical status the basic assertion of DE enjoys its contrary also enjoys, and vice versa. If the proposition that life is completely explicable in terms of blind, impersonal processes is a scientific assertion then so is it's denial. If the proposition that life bears the impress of intelligent purpose is religious then so is it's contrary.

ID is not C. Creationism is an attempt to vindicate the Genesis account and to reconcile it with science. It starts with the assumption that Genesis is true, and it will not accept any explanation that is incompatible with this assumption.

Similarly, DE starts with the assumption that only naturalistic forces can be employed to account for living things and will not accept any explanation which is incompatible with this assumption.

Both C and DE are inferences from an a priori metaphysical commitment and are more like each other in this regard than either is like ID.

ID starts with observations of living things and infers from the empirical data that intelligence must have played a role in the development of life. As such, ID is an observation-based hypothesis and is therefore more scientific, in this sense at least, than either of its competitors. It's inference that purpose and intentional design underlie life on earth is based not on a presupposition that there is a designer (though many ID theorists doubtless hold such a presupposition in their private lives), but rather upon several obvious facts about the world. Here are three:

1) The abundance of specified complexity (information) in the biosphere: Information is not generated by purposeless processes. A computer, for example, does not produce simulated organisms by blind chance. The computer must be programmed to follow an algorithm which is itself the product of intelligence. Likewise, DNA and proteins which carry far more information than does the average library, are not adequately explained by purposeless processes any more than are the books in the library.

2) The existence of ostensibly irreducibly complex structures and processes: If irreducible complexity exists in living things - and despite the claims of critics, no one has been able to put forward a convincing case that it does not - then this would be evidence of an intelligent agent at work. The nature of biochemical machines and pathways, cellular assembly lines and factories, and highly complex chemical cascades (like blood clotting) all point to purpose. The idea that these things could have arisen through random mutations and natural selection apart from any intentional engineering would be regarded as extremely implausible were it not necessitated by a prior commitment to materialistic explanations.

3) The telic nature of the cosmos: That life is telic (i.e. evinces purpose) is in dispute. That the cosmos is telic is much more difficult to gainsay. Cosmologists can invoke no mechanism like natural selection to explain the exquisite fine-tuning that is being discovered to exist throughout the warp and woof of the cosmos. If the cosmos as a whole bears witness to having been intricately engineered for a purpose, it is plausible to think that certain aspects of the cosmos, like the structures in living things, which appear to be designed for a purpose, actually are.

Indeed, we must keep in mind that the current debate is not about whether there is design in the biosphere. Everyone agrees that there is. The debate is over the source of that design. Is it nature blindly selecting for survival advantage, or is it an intelligence of some kind, a "World Soul", a Platonic demiurge, an idealist "Absolute", or the God of classical theism? ID offers no opinion.

It must be stressed that, strictly speaking, ID does not conflict with evolution (E), the theory of descent by modification. It conflicts only with DE, which insists that descent is a thoroughly naturalistic, mechanistic process. E simply asserts, however, that organisms share common ancestors. It does not require one to believe that the process of descent from these ancestral forms was purely mechanistic.

Thus there are among the top ranks of ID advocates a number of evolutionists of various stripe, and there are also some who are more creationist in their beliefs. ID is compatible with both, although either, or both, could be wrong and ID would be unaffected. What ID is not compatible with is DE.

ID is scarcely even related to C except insofar as both theories hold that an intelligence was involved in the emergence of life. To see the vast difference between them one need only realize that all of Genesis could be proven wrong but, although C would be thoroughly devastated, the theory of ID would be unscathed. ID is not dependent upon Genesis or any other religious or metaphysical book or doctrine for its content.

Contrary to the insistent claims of its critics, and the hopes of some of its advocates, ID is not religious. It requires no commitment to a god, it prescribes no worship nor doctrine. It has no clergy nor holy books. It simply holds that blind, unguided processes are inadequate by themselves to account for living things and that at some point, in some way, intelligence must have played a role. This is hardly a religious assertion, and unlike religious assertions, may even lend itself to testing. If it could be shown, for instance, that some mechanistic process does indeed produce information or an increase in information, if it could be plausibly and convincingly demonstrated that DNA or proteins could have arisen by chance through purely natural processes, then intelligent agency will have been shown to be a superfluous add-on, and ID will be decisively refuted.

Some may wish to use ID as a wedge to get religion into schools, but ID should be judged on its merits and not on the motives of some of its proponents. There are some who insist, after all, that DE be taught because they see it as a way of inculcating atheism into students. There are others who have used DE to justify social Darwinism and even genocide. It would be an error to judge DE on the basis of such misuses by its votaries, and it's equally wrong to judge ID by the misuses to which some of its adherents wish to put it.

There can be no harm, despite the hysteria of the ACLU and its allies in the scientific community, in informing students, when they are studying evolution, that although many scientists believe the process requires only mechanistic engines like mutation and natural selection, others disagree. It hurts no one to inform students that there are many scientists and philosophers who believe that whether evolution accurately describes how life came to be or not, the fundamental causes of life must have included intelligent purpose among them.

Things Are Better Than You Think

Everything that you thought was true about the state of the world is apparently false. If you don't believe it, read the Commission on Human Security Report titled War and Peace in the Twenty First Century. The report is filled with fascinating information. Did you know for instance that:

Over the past dozen years, the global security climate has changed in dramatic, positive, but largely unheralded ways. Civil wars, genocides and international crises have all declined sharply. International wars, now only a small minority of all conflicts, have been in steady decline for a much longer period, as have military coups and the average number of people killed per conflict per year.

*Armed conflicts around the world have actually declined by 40% since the early nineties.
*Between 1991 (the high point for the post-World War II period) and 2004, 28 armed struggles for self-determination started or restarted, while 43 were contained or ended.
*There were just 25 armed secessionist conflicts under way in 2004, the lowest number since 1976.
*Notwithstanding the horrors of Rwanda, Srebrenica and elsewhere, the number of genocides and politicides plummeted by 80% between the 1988 high point and 2001.
*International crises, often harbingers of war, declined by more than 70% between 1981 and 2001.
*The dollar value of major international arms transfers fell by 33% between 1990 and 2003.
*Global military expenditure and troop numbers declined sharply in the 1990s as well.
*The number of refugees dropped by some 45% between 1992 and 2003, as more and more wars came to an end.
*The period since the end of World War II is the longest interval of uninterrupted peace between the major powers in hundreds of years.
*The number of actual and attempted military coups has been declining for more than 40 years. In 1963 there were 25 coups and attempted coups around the world, the highest number in the post - World War II period. In 2004 there were only 10 coup attempts - a 60% decline. All of them failed.

According to the Report each of the following examples of conventional wisdom is actually little more than myth:

� The number of armed conflicts is increasing.
� Wars are getting deadlier.
� The number of genocides is increasing.
� The gravest threat to human security is international terrorism.
� 90% of those killed in today's wars are civilians.
� 5 million people were killed in wars in the 1990s.
� 2 million children were killed in wars during the last decade.
� 80% of refugees are women and children.
� Women are the primary victims of war.
� There are 300,000 child soldiers serving around the world today.

The Report states that, "Not one of these claims is based on reliable data. All are suspect; some are demonstrably false. Yet they are widely believed because they reinforce popular assumptions. They flourish in the absence of official figures to contradict them, and conjure a picture of global security trends that is grossly distorted. And they often drive political agendas."

Then there is this astonishing fact:

According to the World Bank, the September 11 attacks on the US in 2001 pushed millions of people in the developing world into poverty, and likely killed tens of thousands of under-five year-olds, a far greater toll than the total number of deaths directly caused by the attack.

The report gives the lion's share of the credit for the decline in violence to the end of both colonialism and the cold war, which is certainly a major factor, and to the efforts of the U.N., which is certainly a singularly ludicrous attribution. Nowhere in the report is there mention of the fact that since the 1980s, evil-doers have been put on notice that if they persist in doing their neighbors ill they may well receive a knock on the door from an American JDAM precision guided munition.

Such a prospect has probably done more to concentrate the minds of the world's villains than all of Kofi Anan's proclamations, programs, and thieveries put together. Yet it receives no mention. Nor have we seen this report in the MSM. Too much good news for the chronically dyspeptic gloom and doomers to assimilate, we suppose.

Thanks to Belmont Club for the tip.