I’m wondering how the Sarkar-Nelson debate in Austin went down—any attendees want to let me know? I ask because I just now read the discussion paper by Nelson that supposedly represents his side of the argument, and rarely have I seen such a shallow and pointless position advanced with any seriousness, by anyone other than the most fatuous sort of creationist.
The paper goes on much too long for what is actually a trivial point—but then, that’s what BS artists do when they don’t have anything of substance: they go on and on. Here, though, is one key paragraph and figure that basically sums up his main point.
Take a look at Figure 2. Yes, that’s your puny fund of physical knowledge, circa
March 2006, to which both the naturalist and the design theorist have equal access. But
notice that the design side has a distinct epistemological advantage. The ID theorist
possesses a richer possible ontology of causes. It doesn’t matter if, at the end of time,
there never was anything corresponding to ‘intelligence’ as an ontologically distinct type
of cause. In that case, the design theorist would simply have carried around a useless
notion. Since the design theorist has free access to every physical cause for which there’s
any good evidence, however, he’s not losing anything by allowing for the possibility of
This is just so silly, both misrepresenting the status of the argument and playing pointless hypothetical games. He’s basically claiming that because ID includes an explanation that is not part of the scientific toolkit, it has a chance of encompassing some unidentified phenomena that will not be explained by science, and is therefore superior. To which I say, baloney.
- The argument that we should accept some random, unsupported idea because of the possibility it might be true is a familiar one: it’s the root of the worst argument for theism ever, Pascal’s Wager. It is not sufficient justification for an idea to merely claim it is possible that it is true, given sufficiently elaborate assumptions.
- His diagram falsely weights his preferred assumption. If we’re cataloging all possible explanations, or even merely all known causes (the box on the left), we’re talking about a huge volume of information, all of which is specified to varying degrees, from all the step-by-step minutiae of a series of gene sequences to fuzzy guesses and generalities…and it’s the detailed and testable explanations that are the central part of science. On the design side, all Nelson is adding is an exceptionally poorly specified concept—”intelligent causation”—with absolutely no information provided about either the nature of the intelligent agent or its mechanisms of action. It’s awfully presumptuous of Nelson to deign to call such half-assed, poorly codified blather an ontology.
- Science is a most pragmatic process. We pursue what is doable and that which we can infer from the current body of knowledge. Nelson is completely ignoring the practical aspects of science to advocate an idea which has no theoretical foundation and no applicable research program, all for a hugely hypothetical abstraction. If it’s a “useless notion”, why bother with it?
- At best, what ID therefore does is add the thinnest possible membrane, sheer to the point of invisibility and entirely untestable and untouchable, to the top of Nelson’s huge box of “our knowledge of physical causes”, and justifies its addition solely by claiming that it is possible that it might be true. What he then glosses over is that this miniscule and improbably remote possibility, which is lacking any empirical justification, is the sine qua non of the Intelligent Design movement. Yeah, sure, a designer of some sort might have intervened at some point in the history of life on earth, and I’ll give that hypothesis the level of attention warranted by the evidence for it, i.e. none, yet what Nelson must explain is why he’s part of a whole institute with dozens of fellows and a PR budget of millions arguing for this one insignificant, negligible idea.
Sahotra Sarkar is trained in philosophy as well as biology. I have to wonder how he responded to such inane and superficial pseudo-philosophical noise…it’s the kind of thing that could make for an awfully boring debate.