Philosophy and science

An interesting example of the different ways that scientists and ‘pure’ philosophers view things arose in an exchange I had in the comments of a previous post.

Commenter Kenneth brought up an interesting argument that I had not heard before for the existence of the afterlife, an argument that he said had originally been proposed by the philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677). Basically the argument boiled down to the assumption that each one of us is simply a collection of atoms arranged in a particular way. When a person (A) dies, those atoms are dispersed and join the universe of atoms that percolate through space and time. But there is always the possibility that, purely by chance as a result of random motion, a set of atoms will arrange themselves in exactly the same arrangement that made up A when A was still alive. So thus A will have been ‘reborn.’ Kenneth argues that thus the existence of life after death has been established, at least in principle.

The nature of the argument can be perhaps understood better with a simpler example of thoroughly mixing ink and water in a glass and then leaving it alone to sit undisturbed. We would think that this mixing is an irreversible process and that separation into water and ink again would not be possible except as a result of extraordinary efforts by external agents. But in fact if you simply wait long enough, there is a very remote possibility that the random motion of the individual ink and water molecules will result in a momentary spontaneous separation of the mixture in the container into two separate regions, one of pure water and the other of purely ink molecules (whatever ink molecules are).

Since all that this argument requires is the ability to wait for a very long time for which these unlikely events to occur, Kenneth has satisfied himself, from a philosophical point of view, that Spinoza’s argument is valid. And that once we concede the possibility that someone’s atoms can be reconstituted in its original form, the existence of life after death has been established, at least in principle

But science does not limit itself to these ‘in principle’ arguments. Such arguments are just the first steps. Science is always looking at the detailed consequences of such ideas in order to translate them into research programs. And this is where Spinoza’s argument for the possibility of an afterlife breaks down.

For one thing, the human body is not just an arrangement of atoms, like that of molecules in a mixture of ink and water, or the oxygen and nitrogen molecules in a container of air. The atoms in the human body are bound together in complex organic molecules, which are in turn held together by other forces to form cells and tissues and so on. It is not enough to just bring the atoms together, you also have to create the chemical reactions that fuse them into these molecules, and this requires energy from the outside used in a very directed way.

It is like frying an egg in a pan. Just breaking an egg into a skillet and leaving it there will not result in a fried egg, however long you wait, unless there is a source of energy to drive the reaction forward. A fried egg is not just a rearrangement of the atoms in a raw egg. It is one in which new compounds have been created and the creation of these compounds is a non-random process.

In addition, the probability of all the atoms that make up your body randomly arriving at the same locations that they occupied when you were alive is microscopically small. This is not a source of concern to Kenneth because all he needs is that this probability not be zero in order to satisfy his ‘in principle’ condition. But there is an inverse relationship between the probability of an event and the likely time that you would have to wait for the event to occur. For example, if you repeatedly throw a die, you would have to wait longer to get a six than to get just any even number because the probability of the former is less than that of the latter.

In the case of the body’s atoms coming together again, the probability is so small that the expected time for it to occur would be incredibly long. Again, it would not matter if this were a philosopher’s ‘in principle’ argument. But those arguments tacitly assume that nothing else is changing in the environment and that we have an infinite amount of time in the world to wait for things to occur.

But in reality events are never in isolation and science is always concerned about the interconnectedness of things. And this is where the ‘in principle’ argument breaks down. We know that the lifetime of the Sun is about ten billion years and that it will then become a huge ‘red giant’ that will grow enormously and even envelop the Earth. And later still, all the energy producing nuclear reactions in the stars will end, resulting in the heat death of the universe. So there will not be any surplus energy around, even in principle, to drive the chemical reactions to reconstitute the body’s molecules, even if they did manage to arrive randomly in exactly the right positions.

I think that this is where scientific research and philosophical speculations diverge. A scientist is not interested in just ‘in principle’ arguments for the afterlife of the kind that Kenneth says Spinoza makes. To be become interesting to scientists, Kenneth will have to provide at least numerical estimates of the probability the body’s atoms reconstituting themselves, and then use that probability to estimate the expected time for such an event to occur.

If that time is more than the expected heat death of the universe, then the question becomes moot. If it is less, then the scientist will ask if there is enough free energy at that time to drive the reaction forward and what is the probability that this energy will spontaneously be directed at the atoms in just the right amounts and directions to recreate the human body.

All these considerations, when brought together, suggest that Spinoza’s argument fails and that life after death as proposed by him is not going to ever happen.

That is the kind of difference between the approaches of pure philosophy and science.

Alternative realities

One of the things that I have noticed in recent years is the proliferation of what I call ‘alternative realities’.

In classical learning theory, it is believed that when someone confronts evidence that runs counter to that person’s prior knowledge, a state of cognitive dissonance occurs in the mind of the learner which only goes away when the learner’s knowledge structures have been adjusted to accommodate the new information.

This model of learning underlies what are known as ‘inquiry’ methods of teaching science where the teacher, having an understanding of what her students are likely to erroneously believe about some phenomena (such as electricity), deliberately sets up experiments for them to do whose results will directly confront their misconceptions, thus forcing the student into the difficult process of re-evaluation of what they already believe. By repeatedly going through this process at different levels of sophistication and context, the hoped for transformation is that the student develops an experiential understanding of the ‘true’ theory that the teacher is trying to teach.
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The science-religion debate

The ABC news ‘Face Off”, the ‘great’ debate between religion and atheism, was broadcast on Nightline last week. You can see the video of the program here. (You may be able to find the video of the full debate here.)

The side arguing for God’s existence was evangelist Ray “Banana Man” Comfort and his trusty sidekick Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron. The side arguing against was Brian “Sapient” (not his real last name) and Kelly, the creators of the Blasphemy Challenge and the people behind the Rational Response Squad.

The debate was initiated by Comfort who had contacted ABC News and requested it, saying that he could prove god’s existence. He set the bar for himself quite high. He promised ABC News that he would “prove God’s existence, absolutely, scientifically, without mentioning the Bible or faith” and added that “I am amazed at how many people think that God’s existence is a matter of faith. It’s not, and I will prove it at the debate – once and for all. This is not a joke. I will present undeniable scientific proof that God exists.”

The video of the program shows that the ‘debate’ was at a disappointingly low level, although to be fair the debate lasted for about 90 minutes and only edited portions were shown. From the outset, Comfort broke his promise, invoking both the Bible and faith. But even when it came to the ‘science’ part of his argument, he resorted once again to the tired Paley’s watch/Mount Rushmore arguments.

The shorter version of this old argument is this: “We can immediately tell when something is designed. If something is designed, it must have a designer. Nature looks designed to us and therefore must have been designed. That designer can only be god.”

The operational and philosophical weaknesses of this argument has been exposed by many people, including me, so that anyone who advances it cannot really be taken seriously unless they address those challenges to it. As far as I can see, Comfort did not do this. Although Comfort had previously alleged that the banana was the “atheist’s nightmare” (because it fits so perfectly in the human hand and human mouth, the banana and human hand and mouth had to have been designed that way) he did not bring bananas along as props. Perhaps he had been warned that his video of that claim has been the source of widespread merriment.

Kirk Cameron’s role seemed to be to undermine evolutionary theory but the clips of him doing that showed an embarrassing ignorance and shallowness. He invoked the old argument about the paucity of transitional forms but even here he brought it up in a form that would have made even those sympathetic to his point of view wince. He seemed to have the bizarre notion that evolution by natural selection predicts the existence every possible intermediate state between all existing life forms. He showed artist’s sketches of things that he called a “croc-o-duck (a duck with the head of a crocodile) and a “bull frog” (consisting of an animal that was half-bull and half-frog) and argued that the fact that we do not see such things means that evolution is wrong. Really. It was painful to watch him make a fool of himself on national TV.

Cameron seems to be suffering from an extreme form of a common misunderstanding about transitional forms. The fact that humans and other existing animals share common ancestors does not imply that there should be forms that are transitional between them as they exist now. What evolutionary theory states is that if you take any existing organism and follow its ancestors back in time, you will have a gradual evolution in the way the organisms look. So when we talk about transitional forms, we first have to fix the two times that set the boundaries. If we take one boundary as the present time and the other boundary as (say) four billion years ago when the first eukaryotic cell appeared, then there are a large number of transitional forms between those two forms. Richard Dawkins book The Ancestor’s Tale gives an excellent account of the type and sequence of the transitional forms that have been found. Of course, these ancestral forms have evolved along the many descendant forms so we would not expect to see them now in the same form they were when they were our ancestors. They can only be found in that form as fossils.

The DNA sequencing shows the connections between species as well and provide further evidence of the way species branched off at various points in time. So when evolutionary biologists speak of ‘transitional forms’, they are referring to finding fossils of those ancestors who preceded various branch points. The recent discovery of Tiktaalik, the 375-million year old fossil that has the characteristics of what a common ancestor of fish and mammals and amphibians would look like, is one such example. So is Archaeopteryx as a transitional form.

The ‘missing link’ argument against evolution, although lacking content, is one that will never die. One reason is the existence of people like Cameron who use it incorrectly. Another is that it is infinitely adaptable. For example, suppose you have a species now and a species that existed (say) two billion years ago and demand proof of the existence of a missing link. Suppose a fossil is found that is one billion years old that fits the bill. Will this satisfy those who demand proof of the missing link? No, because opponents of evolution can now shift their argument and demand proofs of the existence of two ‘missing’ links, one between the fossils of two and one billion years ago, and the other between one billion years ago and the present. In fact, the more transitional fossils that are found, the more ‘missing links’ that can be postulated!

This is what has happened with past discoveries of fossils. The fossil record of evolution has been getting steadily greater but the calls for ‘proof’ of the existence of missing links have not diminished.

POST SCRIPT: Antiwar.com fundraising drive

The website Antiwar.com is having a fundraiser. If you can, please support it. It is an invaluable source of news and commentary that is far broader and deeper than you can find almost anywhere else.

The new atheism-6: The biological origins of religion and morality

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.)

You would think that natural selection would work against religion because those individuals who spent their time in prayer and other rituals, and used precious energy and resources in building temples and offering sacrifices, would be at a survival disadvantage when compared to those who used their time more productively. In the previous post, I outlined the basic framework of natural selection and summarized the arguments of those who explain the survival value of religion by saying that religious ideas are passed on and evolve as a byproduct of the survival advantage that accrues from young children being predisposed to believe their parents and other adult authority figures.

But while that may explain how religions propagate once they come into being, it is harder to understand how religious ideas arose in the first place. If the outbreak of religion were an occasional event occurring here or there at random, then we could just dismiss it as an anomaly, like the way that random genetic mutations cause rare diseases. But religion is not like that. As David P. Barash says in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Volume 53, Issue 33, Page B6, April 20, 200.): “On the one hand, religious belief of one sort or another seems ubiquitous, suggesting that it might well have emerged, somehow, from universal human nature, the common evolutionary background shared by all humans. On the other hand, it often appears that religious practice is fitness-reducing rather than enhancing — and, if so, that genetically mediated tendencies toward religion should have been selected against.”
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The new atheism-5: The scientific approach to philosophical questions

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

The biological sciences approach to the questions of the origins of religious belief and morality is not to ask what the proximate causes are that led to belief in god and the afterlife (for which the answers may be to satisfy curiosity and provide comfort) but to see what evolutionary advantage accrues to those individuals who hold such beliefs, because natural selection works on individual organisms, not groups.

To better understand how evolutionary biology addresses these questions, it is useful to review the basic tenets of evolution by natural selection. Following Philip Kitcher’s The Advancement of Science, (p.19), Darwin’s four fundamental evidentiary claims can be stated as follows:
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The new atheism-2: Breaking down the wall

In the post-Galileo world, elite religion and elite science have tended to get along pretty well. Opposing the heliocentric model of the solar system has been roundly criticized as a stupid thing for the Catholic church to do and, since then elite science and elite religion have seemed to find a modus vivendi that enables them to avoid conflicts.

A large number of people, scientists and non-scientists alike, have managed to believe in a deity while at the same time being more-or-less active members of churches, temples, and mosques. They have managed to do this by viewing the creation narratives in their respective religious texts as figurative and metaphorical, and not as records of actual historical events. Such people also tend to believe that the world is split up into two realms, a belief which is captured in a statement issued in 1981 by the council of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences which says “[R]eligion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief.”
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The new atheism-1: The times they are a-changing

The year 2006 may have seen the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship between religious people and atheists. As I emphasized in my 2000 book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (from which I am excerpting certain passages here), the relationship between science and religion is very complex because the words ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are both umbrella terms that encompass a wide range of ideas and attitudes.

The changing relationships become easier to understand if we follow theologian Langston Gilkey and divide up each group into two: elite religion and popular religion, and elite science and popular ‘science’.

Elite religion is that which is believed by theologians and the more sophisticated members of mainstream religions. This group seeks to accommodate the knowledge created by science. It sees science and religion as describing two complementary areas of knowledge and tends to take scientific advances in its stride. Such people are comfortable with demythologizing the Bible and other religious texts and reinterpreting its knowledge in terms of recent developments in science. This group tends to have little difficulty seeing almost all the Biblical stories such as those of Noah and Moses (and especially the miraculous events) as metaphors and not historical. They believe in a god who can and does act in the world but how that happens is left unspecified and it is also left vague as to whether such interventions violate established scientific laws. Their religious beliefs are elastic enough that such people can absorb almost any scientific advance. That still leaves some problematic miracles at the heart of each religion (the resurrection of Jesus being one for Christians) that they are reluctant to demythologize, but in such cases refuge is taken by saying that science cannot disprove that it happened and so it could be true.

Popular religion, on the other hand, takes almost all its authority from religious texts and insists that all scientific knowledge must be interpreted to be consistent with these texts, since the latter are supposedly infallible. Fundamentalist religions of all stripes fall into this category. In the case of Christians, this group is likely to insist on the historicity of Noah, Moses, Jesus and all the other stories for which there is little or no corroborating historical evidence. For popular religionists, it is essential that the Bible and Koran and other religious texts be treated as scientifically and historically unimpeachable.

Elite science is that produced by the scientific establishment in universities and other research centers and published in scientific journals. Such science follows a strict methodological naturalistic philosophy, which argues that when investigating any phenomenon, we postulate as explanations only natural causes based on physical laws that lead to reproducible results. Elite science does not allow for the intervention of agents that can act arbitrarily in violation of natural laws as the explanation for any phenomenon.

Popular ‘science’ does not limit itself to methodological naturalism but allows for the action of supernatural forces. Such people find no difficulty believing in superstitions, horoscopes, astrology, telekinesis, witchcraft, and so on, and have no trouble believing that there could be some substance to the claims of astrologers, parapsychologists, fortune tellers, spoon benders, mind readers, faith healers, and the like. The idea of widespread existence of supernatural forces of all sorts does not strike such people as implausible. (The late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once said, “Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.”)

I hate to assign the label ‘science’ to what are such blatantly unscientific beliefs but feel obliged to follow Gilkey’s terminology completely, and it does provide a kind of symmetry in terminology. But I will try to remember to put it in ironic quotes to remind us that all these beliefs are not really science in any sense of the word that a scientists would accept.

So what is the status of the relationship between the four groups?

Popular ‘science’ and popular religion have never had any real problems with each other methodologically. After all, they both are willing to accept the intervention of supernatural agents in everyday lives, in violation of the laws of science. For example, creationists mix their popular religion about god specially creating species with ideas about a 6,000 year-old Earth, which they try and justify using popular ‘science’, which essentially means rejecting much of accepted science and creating ad hoc theories and fitting evidence to reinforce beliefs that are based on religious texts. What differences there are between popular ‘science’ and popular religion lie along moral dimensions. Fundamentalist Christians might dislike and oppose witchcraft, but that is because they think the latter is ‘evil’, the product of a ‘bad’ supernatural agent, not because they think that the idea of witchcraft itself is preposterous.

Elite religion has had an uneasy relationship with popular ‘science’. Elite religion is embarrassed by the notion that god, which for them is a sophisticated concept, would be compatible with other supernatural agents that go running around interfering with the laws of science on a daily basis. But they cannot come down too hard on popular ‘science’ because the only way to consistently do so would be to unequivocally rule out the action of all supernatural agents, which would put themselves too out of business. Once you have accepted the existence of at least one supernatural agent, you have pretty much lost any credibility to oppose any others. So this prevents elite religion from expressing a full-throated denunciation of popular science.

Elite and popular religions tend to get along better. Most large religious denominations encompass both kinds of believers and try not to antagonize any segment. So, for example, even though clergy are likely to know that very little of what is contained in the Bible and other religious texts is historically true (See here and the links therein), they are likely to not emphasize that fact to their congregations. While most people start out as children as popular religionists, if they begin to develop doubts about the historicity of the great flood and the like and ask questions, their priests and parents are likely to concede privately that it is acceptable to not believe in the literal truth of the events portrayed in the religious texts, because they are metaphors of a higher and deeper truth. Thus people who begin to question are slowly edged along the road to elite religion.

Elite science has been in conflict with popular ‘science’ and popular religion for some time now and this situation is likely to continue since the principle of methodological naturalism is a non-negotiable divide. One either accepts it or rejects it as a working hypothesis. Elite science rejects astrology and the like as frauds perpetrated on the gullible. The methodological naturalism that is characteristic of elite science does not allow the intervention of supernatural agents. Thus believers in popular science and popular religion are hostile to elite science because the latter does not allow for supernatural agents as explanations for anything.

All these relationships have been fairly stable for the last few centuries. It is the final remaining relationship, between elite science and elite religion, that is currently undergoing some serious upheaval and sparked the intense science-religion debates that we are currently experiencing, and will form the subject of future postings.

POST SCRIPT: New secular student group at Case

A group of students have taken the initiative to create a Case chapter of the Campus Freethought Alliance. The organizer is a student named Batool who can be reached at bxa21(at)case.edu if you would like more information about the group. I have been asked to serve as the group’s advisor and have accepted.

The CFA’s mission can be found on its website.

The Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA) is an international not-for-profit umbrella organization uniting freethinking, skeptic, secularist, nontheist, and humanist students and student organizations. Its purposes are:
-To encourage freedom from superstition, irrationalism, and dogma.
-To further the acceptance and application of science, reason, and critical thinking in all areas of human endeavor.
-To challenge misrepresentations of non-religious convictions and lifestyles.
-To create a campus community for freethinkers and skeptics.
-To cultivate in ourselves — and others — a sense of responsibility to, and compassion for, humanity.
-To counter all forms of religious political extremism.
-To defend religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
-To defend individual freedoms and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of race, sex, gender, class, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability.
-To unite freethinkers, skeptics, and humanists and consolidate campus resources to these ends.

False symmetry

In recent posts, I have been pointing out that while it is impossible to disprove god’s existence, that did not mean that it was rational to believe in god. The reason for those posts was to address a false symmetry that is sometimes posed between atheism and religious belief. That symmetry takes roughly the following form:

1. It cannot be proved that god does not exist
2. Therefore not believing in god’s existence is as much an act of faith as believing in it.

Some extend this line of reasoning even further, to argue that therefore atheism is also a religion and that thus keeping prayer and religious education out of schools is equivalent to promoting one particular ‘religion’ (atheism), and thus violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

This is a false symmetry. While atheists would accept the first statement, they would reject the second. The crucial difference is the role that evidence plays in shaping beliefs.

I said that because of the impossibility of proving a negative, the current state of absence of evidence for god and the afterlife was all the proof we were ever going to get. If people think that a more convincing proof is required for disbelief in god, then I am curious to learn what form it would take. So far, nothing has been offered, as far as I know.

Atheists take the following position:

1. We believe in those things that have sufficient and convincing evidentiary support.
2. We disbelieve those things for which there is insufficient evidentiary support.
3. The more evidence there is in favor of a belief, the more we are likely to believe and vice versa.

The crucial difference can be seen in response to my question as to what evidence it would take to make them disbelieve in god and the afterlife. The commenters in this blog (who are all people who have obviously given this question considerable thought) agreed that there was no conceivable evidence that would make them give up their beliefs. And yet, they do not believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, which have no evidentiary support either. So religious belief is decoupled from evidence. In fact, belief in god in the absence of evidence is taken as a virtue, a sign of the depth of one’s faith.

On the other hand, atheists take a position that is consistent with a scientific outlook. They believe in those things for which there is persuasive, objective, corroborative, and cumulative evidence, even if it cannot be proved beyond any doubt. They can also always conceive of some evidence that would persuade them to give up their most cherished theories. For example, if human fossils that are two billion years old were ever found, that would seriously undermine the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Similarly, atheists can conceive of all manner of things that would require them to accept the existence of god. As another example, suppose god were to suddenly appear on all TV stations, announcing his/her existence, the way that V appeared in the excellent film V for Vendetta. Of course, that by itself would not be convincing since people nowadays are skeptical of the power of technology. Some people are convinced that the Moon landings and the 9/11 attacks were hoaxes.

So to be really convincing, god would have to announce in that broadcast that he/she would stop the Earth’s rotation for 24 hours, starting at some specified time. Such an act would violate the laws of conservation of energy and angular momentum, which are foundations of physics. If that happened, I don’t see how anyone could doubt god’s existence.

Of course, god would have to take some precautions. Simply stopping the Earth’s rotation would, according to the laws of physics, at the very least unleash huge tsunamis and earthquakes that would wreak destruction on a massive scale. But since an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god can keep track of and do everything at once, I am sure that these negative consequences of stopping the Earth can be avoided. And this is not asking for too much evidence since the Bible says that god has done this in the past (Joshua 10:12-13). To be accurate, the Bible says that god stopped the Sun, not the Earth’s rotation, but we can grant some license for pre-Copernican thinking.

I am not saying that this is the only proof of god’s existence that would be acceptable to atheists. One can suggest a vast number of similar evidences. But it does suggest the nature of the evidence that would be required to be convincing.

So that is where things stand. Atheists, like scientists, can always articulate what evidence (or lack of it) makes them believe some things and disbelieve others. They can also specify what kind of evidence would make them call into question what they currently believe and convert them to belief about things they are currently skeptical of.

But religious believers have no choice but to say that there are some beliefs that they will never give up on, whatever the evidence. It is important to realize that there is nothing inherently wrong with taking this position. Kathy in her comments to previous posts quite rightly points out that faith is irrational and that logic and evidence have nothing to do with it. I agree with her.

What I am saying is that the atheist’s lack of belief in god and the afterlife are, like a scientist’s, based on logic and the absence of evidence while religious beliefs have to part company with evidence at some point. And this is where the symmetry breaks down.

POST SCRIPT: The secret doubts of believers

In a previous post, I suggested that it was strange that religious believers in their daily lives did not act in ways that were consistent with an all-knowing, all-powerful god and suggested that perhaps people were more atheistic than they were willing to let on. Of course, there is hardly any new idea under the sun. It turns out that long ago philosopher David Hume suspected the same thing, as he wrote in his The Natural History of Religion chapter XII (1757):

We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

The undogmatic dogmatism of scientists

In a recent online discussion about whether intelligent design creationism should be taught as part of science, one of the participants took exception to a statement by someone else that the theory of evolution is so well established that it was of no use to allow for the inclusion of intelligent design creationism. The challenger asked, quite reasonably: “On what things is there no room for debate? Of what things are we so certain that we’re willing to close the door to possibilities? If academics allow themselves to appear dogmatic about their theories, we legitimize dogmatism. We should be careful that scientists themselves do not become the new proselytizers to claim they hold absolute truth.”

This puzzlement is not uncommon and not unjustified. Seen from the outside, scientists must seem as if we either cannot make up our minds as to what we know for certain and what we are unsure of, or we are accused of cynically shifting our position for polemical advantage, sometimes arguing that evolution is a fact beyond dispute (in order to exclude intelligent design creationism as a viable competitor) while also asserting that intelligent design creationism is not scientific because it is not falsifiable. On the surface, those two positions seem inconsistent, applying different criteria to the two theories.
It is true that scientists assert that “evolution is a fact,” just as they assert that “gravity is a fact.” They also acknowledge the “theory” of evolution and the “theory” of gravity. And they also assert that ALL knowledge is provisional and subject to change.

How can all these things be simultaneously true? How can something be at the same time a fact and a theory, certain and yet subject to change? These are deep questions and ones that can lead to heated discussions since they affect deeply held core beliefs about science and religion.

These also happen to be questions that form the core of the seminar course I teach to sophomores. We discuss all kinds of things in my course including science and religion, intelligent design etc. and it is remarkable that in the four years that I have taught it, there have been absolutely no blowups or confrontations or unpleasantness, although colleagues have told me that these very same questions have caused problems in their classes. The relative harmony of my class exists despite the fact that I know that many of my students are quite religious, from a variety of traditions, and they know that I am an atheist. These personal beliefs are not things that we keep secret because they shed important perspectives on the discussions.

Perhaps the reason for the lack of friction is that my course starts with looking closely at what science’s knowledge structure is. We read Pierre Duhem, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, Larry Laudan and other historians and philosophers of science and see how it is that science, unlike other areas of knowledge, progresses rapidly because of the commitment of its practitioners to a paradigm in which the framework in which problems are posed and solved are well defined. The paradigm consists of a scientific consensus about which theory (or a set of closely related theories) should be used for analyzing a problem, rules for determining what kinds of research problems are appropriate, the kinds of evidence, arguments, and reasoning that are valid, and the conditions that solutions to these research problems must satisfy if they are deemed to be satisfactory. That complex paradigmatic framework is sometimes loosely and collectively referred to as a “theory” and students quickly realize that the popular meaning of the word “theory” as some sort of simple hypothesis or guess does not apply in the scientific realm.

As long as that paradigmatic framework (or “theory”) is fruitful and brings forth new problems and successes, it remains inviolate from challenges, and practitioners strenuously resist attempts at overthrowing it. The “theory” is thus treated and defended as if it were a “fact” and it is this that is perceived by some outside of science as dogmatism and an unwillingness to change.

But as Kuhn so persuasively argues, it is this very commitment to a paradigm that is the reason for science’s amazing success, because the scientist working on a problem defined within a paradigm can be assured a priori that it is legitimate and important, and that only skill and ingenuity stands between her and the solution. Solving such problems within a paradigm is a sign of superior skill and brings rewards to the scientist who achieves it. Such conditions ensure that scientists will persevere in the face of challenges and adversity, and it is this kind of dogged determination that has resulted in the scientific breakthroughs from which we now benefit.

Kuhn likens this commitment of scientists to a paradigm to that of an industrialist to the manufacturing process that exists to make a particular product. As long as the product is made well, the manufacturer is not going to retool the factory because of the enormous effort and costs involved. Similarly, learning how to successfully exploit a scientific paradigm involves a long period of scientific apprenticeship in a discipline and scientists are unlikely to replace a working paradigm with another one without a very good reason. Learning to work well within a new paradigm is as costly as retooling a factory, and one does not do so cavalierly but only if one is forced into it. The dogmatism of science is thus pragmatic and not ideological.

But we do know that scientific revolutions, both major and minor, occur periodically. Very few of our current paradigms have a long history. So how and why do scientific paradigms change? They occur when the dominant paradigm shows signs of losing its fruitfulness, when it fails to generate interesting new problems or runs out of gas in providing solutions. It is almost never the case that one (or even a few) unsolved problems result in its overthrow because all scientific paradigms at all times have had many unsolved problems. A few counterexamples by themselves are never sufficient to overthrow a paradigm, though they can be a contributing factor. This is the fundamental error that advocates of intelligent design creationism (IDC) make when they argue that just because evolution by natural selection has not as yet explained some phenomena, Darwin’s theory must be rejected.

To be taken seriously, a new paradigm must also promise to be more fruitful than its predecessor, open up new areas of research, and promise new and interesting problems for scientists to work on. It does that by postulating naturalistic mechanisms that make predictions that can be tested. If it can do so and the predictions turn out to be successful, the commitment to the existing paradigm can be undermined, and the process begins by which the paradigm may be eventually overthrown. IDC has never come even close to meeting this requirement.

Some people have challenged the idea that scientific theories have to have as necessary conditions that they be naturalistic and predictive, arguing that insisting they be so is to impose dogmatic methodological rules. But the requirement that scientific theories be naturalistic and predictive are not ad-hoc rules imposed from outside. They follow as a consequence of needing the paradigm to be able to generate new research programs. How could it be otherwise?

This is why IDC, by pointing to a few supposedly unsolved problems in evolutionary theory, has not been able to convince the biology community of the need to change the way they look at things. Intelligent design creationism does not provide mechanisms and it does not make predictions and has not been able to produce new research.

When we discuss things in the light of the history of science, the students in my class understand why science does things the way it does, why it determinedly holds on to some theories while being willing to abandon others, and that this process has nothing to do with dogma in the traditional religious sense. Religious dogma consists of a commitment to an unchanging core set of beliefs. Scientific “dogma” (i.e. strong commitment to a paradigm and resistance to change) is always provisional and can under the right conditions be replaced by an equally strong commitment to a new “dogma.”

Almost all my students are religious in various ways, and while some find the idea of IDC appealing, they seem to have little difficulty understanding that its inability to enter the world of science is not a question of it being right or wrong, but is because of the nature of science and the nature of IDC. IDC simply does not fit into the kind of framework required to be a fruitful scientific theory.

The Failure of Intelligent Design Creationism

On Monday I attended the talk given by intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocate Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box) at Strosacker. The program consisted of a talk for about an hour by Behe followed by a 20-minute response by Professor Hillel Chiel of the Biology Department at Case.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am quite familiar with the IDC program, having read Behe’s book and other IDC literature, written about the topic extensively, and debated Behe and other IDC advocates in 2002 in Kansas and again in Michigan. So I was curious to see what new developments had occurred since my last encounter with him.

Michael Behe gives good talks and the full auditorium had an enjoyable evening. He has an engaging manner, good sense of humor, and presents his ideas in a clear way. But I already knew that having heard his talks before. What disappointed me was that there was absolutely nothing new in his talk, which was entirely a rehash of the same things he was saying five years ago. The examples he gave in support of intelligent design were the same as in his book that was published in 1996. The only new things since that book were his rebuttals of some criticisms of his book, but even those were things that he said in his 2002 talks. I recognized all the quotes and examples.
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