Answering a Horrible Pro-ID Article

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Anyone who has followed the evolution/creationism issue for any period of time is quite accustomed to seeing articles filled with the most basic factual errors, poor spelling and hackneyed arguments. But this article, written by someone named Brian Cherry in a webmag called the Washington Dispatch, may take the cake. It’s so badly written that for a moment, one suspects that it is a parody. Alas, it’s not. Mr. Cherry actually wrote it and, presumably, believes it. Unfortunately, he can’t even get the most basic facts right, let alone comprehend the larger issues he discusses. Let’s begin the fisking.

Who’s your daddy? It is exactly this sort of question that results in slapped faces and restraining orders if the query is made in a bar. When this question was posed to the State School Board of Ohio and framed in the context of human origins it sparked national debates and threats of lawsuits. The board was tasked with making the decision on whether or not students can be presented with an alternative to the theory of evolution. The alternative in question is the theory of intelligent design.

Mistake #1: There is no “theory of intelligent design”. At this point, ID is nothing more than a technical-sounding argument from ignorance. William Dembski, the leading ID advocate, defines an argument from ignorance as one that takes the form “Not X, therefore Y”. Yet even while denying, in rhetoric, that ID is based upon such an argument, he has created and developed a rather obvious one, the Explanatory Filter (EF). The EF is precisely this form of argument - “If not regularity and if not chance, therefore intelligent design”. This is not a theory in a scientific sense, and there is no actual explanatory model in place for ID. There is no model of how such design took place, by whom, or when. There is no actual positive research in favor of ID, there is only sniping at evolutionary theory as an explanation so that they can repeat the argument from ignorance seen above - if evolution doesn’t (yet) explain it, it must be ID. Sorry, this isn’t a theory.

Continue Reading “Answering a Horrible Pro-ID Article” (at Dispatches From The Culture Wars)

21 Comments

Fisking? This word is not in any of my dictionaries! Can someone enlighten me?

Fisking? This word is not in any of my dictionaries! Can someone enlighten me?

Fisking is a term used in the blogosphere, meaning a point by point refutation. If I recall correctly, it originates with the grand old man of blogging, Glenn Reynolds.

Maybe I’m not reading Ed correctly here, but it seems to me that his definition of an argument from ignorance is mistaken. I have taught informal logic for about 15 years and have always understood the fallacy to occur in either one of two instances: (1) when someone claims that his belief in X (e.g., that aliens exist, let’s say) is warranted because X has not been disproven (that is, nobody has conclusively proven that aliens do not exist), or (2) when someone claims that your belief X is false (e.g., that aliens don’t exist) because X has not been proven true. An argument from ignorance does not occur when one offers an argument to the best explanation by excluding alternative accounts. For example, suppose the Warren Commission excludes a second and third gunman in the JFK assassination based on the forensic evidence, pictures, witnesses, etc. By excluding the two gunmen, the commission concludes that the best explanation is that Oswald acted alone. Now, it’s possible that he didn’t act alone, but to appeal to the fact that it has not been conclusively disproven would be an argument from ignorance.

Consider another example. Suppose Hewey, Louie, and Dewey–monozygotic triplets–are suspects in the killing of their Uncle Donald based on the fact that their DNA was found on the murder weapon and on the victim’s body. Suppose detectives exclude Hewey and Louie as suspects because Hewey was in Orlando and Louie in Anaheim and the murder took place in Paris, where both Dewey and Donald were on vacation. Would it be an argument from ignorance to say that one is justified in saying that Dewey is likely the killer because the other two suspects were excluded because their whereabouts vitiated the possibility that they were responsible?

If ID proponents are arguing that ID is the best explanation of certain phenomena because it has not been conclusively disproven, that’s a clear case of an argument from ignorance. Perhaps I missed where this is found in the ID literature. Can anyone set me straight?

What were talking about here is a disjunctive syllogism of the form: Either p or q or r, but not p and not q, therefore r. If the premises of such an argument are true, the conclusion follows . However, since the premise is probably wrong in this case, the logic doesn’t matter—not only do ID types not define design stringently, they don’t really define “regularity” or “chance” or argue (much less prove) that the three alternatives exhaust the possible explanations as they must in a valid disjunctive syllogism. Sometimes talking about logic is just a way of practicing on the simplicity of the people.

I used the feedback form to send the author a request for further information. Specifically, I asked what the theory of Intelligent Design is, what predictions it makes, and which experiments have been conducted to test it.

I believe that the argument codified in Dembski’s explanatory filter can be expressed as follows.

“If have no viable explanation for this event we must conclude that the actual explanation can be categorised as design”.

Now this is an argument from ignorance because the only premise is what we do not know - any viable explanation for the event.

In the case of the triplets we DO have a viable explanation - Dewey did it. Moreover we have also put that explanation through the same check as the other two and failed to eliminate it (if Dewey had been in Las Vegas, what then ?). This is in stark contrast to Dembski’s method where design is simply assumed as a default.

Now it may be that in some actual cases - like the Caputo case - there is in fact a design-based explanation. But in general Dembski does not consider this a significant issue and to the best of my knowledge no such explanation has been utilised in any attempt to apply Dembski’s argument to biology.

I used the feedback form to send the author a request for further information. Specifically, I asked what the theory of Intelligent Design is, what predictions it makes, and which experiments have been conducted to test it.

Well from what I hear, they went to a Tennessee junkyard after a tornado went through and looked for a F-14 Tomcat.

Frank Wrote:

Maybe I’m not reading Ed correctly here, but it seems to me that his definition of an argument from ignorance is mistaken.

Take it up with Dembski, it’s his definition.

The most common abuse of logic among ID advocates is the fallacy of bifurcation. To say “not X, therefore Y” is justifiable only if X and Y are the only two possibilities. That may happen frequently in hypothetical examples, but in the real world, it’s only rarely true. And it’s definitely not true when it comes to Darwinian evolution vs. ID. There is an almost infinite number of logically valid possibilities, if we remove the requirement that they be testable. Much of the problem rests with the fact that ID is often expressed in extremely vague and ambiguous terms, while Darwinian evolution is relatively specific. They cannot be meaningfully compared as polar opposites.

Steve: All I’m asking for is a definition of the argument from ignorance and why it would apply in the case of the explanatory filter. Dembski has already offered his case in numerous venues What I am requesting in this forum is a definition of a fallacy employed as part of a negative judgment of Dembski’s case by a wide variety of writers on this site and elsewhere.

Here’s my concern: I understand that if chance, necessity, and agent-design are only three of scores of possible accounts of phenomena, and Dembski is arguing that eliminating chance and necessity proves agent-design, it is worse than an argument from ignorance; it would just be special pleading. If someone says, for example, the dent in my car is the result of chance, necessity, agency, or a combination of two or three, are they ignoring a fourth consideration? Now, I’m not as smart as you science-guys; so maybe there’s a fourth one I don’t know about. Please tell me what it is. If there isn’t a fourth one, then what would be wrong in concluding that between C, N, or A, that A is the case given ~C and ~N.?

Prof. Beckwith,

William A. Dembski in Intelligent Design Coming Clean Wrote:

In rejecting mechanical accounts of specified complexity, design theorists are not arguing from ignorance. Arguments from ignorance have the form “Not X, therefore Y.”

Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Please take it up with Dr. (in Philosophy!) Dembski.

This is known as “being hoist on one’s own petard”. It’s the hazard one runs if one uses the Humpty-Dumpty method of willy-nilly redefinition of terms to accomplish what can’t be done with honest discussion.

Prof. Beckwith Wrote:

If ID proponents are arguing that ID is the best explanation of certain phenomena because it has not been conclusively disproven, that’s a clear case of an argument from ignorance. Perhaps I missed where this is found in the ID literature. Can anyone set me straight?

I’m so glad you asked.

Prof. Michael Behe in Response to Critics Wrote:

Now, one can’t have it both ways. One can’t say both that ID is unfalsifiable (or untestable) and that there is evidence against it. Either it is unfalsifiable and floats serenely beyond experimental reproach, or it can be criticized on the basis of our observations and is therefore testable. The fact that critical reviewers advance scientific arguments against ID (whether successfully or not) shows that intelligent design is indeed falsifiable.

In fact, my argument for intelligent design is open to direct experimental rebuttal. Here is a thought experiment that makes the point clear. In Darwin’s Black Box (Behe 1996) I claimed that the bacterial flagellum was irreducibly complex and so required deliberate intelligent design. The flip side of this claim is that the flagellum can’t be produced by natural selection acting on random mutation, or any other unintelligent process. To falsify such a claim, a scientist could go into the laboratory, place a bacterial species lacking a flagellum under some selective pressure (for mobility, say), grow it for ten thousand generations, and see if a flagellum–or any equally complex system–was produced. If that happened, my claims would be neatly disproven.(1)

Philosophical Objections to Intelligent Design: Response to Critics, http://www.arn.org/docs/behe/mb_phi[…]response.htm

Besides the complete mangling of Popperian falsification that Behe engages in above, one can readily see that Behe’s claim of IC’s truth rests upon it not yet having been disproven.

Do you want the example from Dembski’s work, too? I’ve already mentioned it on this blog once before at least. I would have thought you might have seen it and remembered it. It’s pretty much identical to Behe’s error.

Wesley

Francis

The problem with the argument presented by Dembksi is that agent-design is an *invalid* choice to explain the gigantic mountain of collective observations which scientists have made and which they believe constitute the evidence for evolution. ID does not “explain” anything. At best, ID is merely a name given to a conservative thinktank’s exploitation of the admitted FACT that scientists have not yet answered every question that can possibly be asked about life on earth. [reminder: scientists know that it is impossible to answer every question that they can formulate about any phenomenon].

To use your analogy, it’s as if I told you that the dent in your car could be explained by chance, necessity and gorneflating. And then (insert hand waving) I proved to myself (but not to you, because I know you’re biased) that chance and necessity could not have been involved. Therefore, logically speaking, I say to you that it HAD to be gorneflating.

What’s gorneflating, you ask? Well, it’s something like magic, except that instead of being supernatural or religious, it’s got a dollop (or wedge?) of theistic symbollatry instead of illusory extrasensory inserted heuristically between the ubiquitous non-material rummahumma dingdang (note: not E.G. Vordhaus’s dingdang, but rather the post-dingdang discussed by Ron McKernan at the end of Track 4). A good start to understanding this might be reading David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus backwards (if you don’t have a copy, check your local library :). If that’s too much trouble, then just wait until the publications proving the validity of gorneflating start to appear in Nature, Science, and Cell. What a fantastic day that will be for America’s children!

This phallus-free post was approved by the National Council for a Gorneflating America.

Frank Wrote:

All I’m asking for is a definition of the argument from ignorance and why it would apply in the case of the explanatory filter. 

I don’t know that the filter itself is logically constructed as an argument from ignorance. It’s the way in which the filter is applied – the arguments that are used to eliminate chance and necessity – that make much of ID argumentation an argument from ignorance. With some variation, the arguments come down to claiming that because evolution hasn’t been proven true in every respect, then we’re justified in consdering it false, at least in part. Then we apply the filter and, viola, we’ve got design.

Dembski claims to be able to conclusively eliminate “chance and necessity”, but when pressed on the issue, it turns out that the only reason he has is that he’s not satisfied with the scientific explanations that have been put forth. For example, he dismisses explanations for the evolution of the flagellum because they’re not detailed enough. Therefore, he consides them false. I believe that qualifies as an argument from ignorance.

Here’s my concern: I understand that if chance, necessity, and agent-design are only three of scores of possible accounts of phenomena, and Dembski is arguing that eliminating chance and necessity proves agent-design, it is worse than an argument from ignorance; it would just be special pleading.

I would think it would be a case of bifurcation, but in this case, it’s limiting things to three instead of two possibilities (i.e. trifurcation). Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought special pleading was when someone more or less just begged you to accept their point of view.

If someone says, for example, the dent in my car is the result of chance, necessity, agency, or a combination of two or three, are they ignoring a fourth consideration?

I don’t know unless someone defines what chance, necessity, and agency are supposed to mean in this context, and explains how they exhaust the universe of possibilities between them. Dembski tends to take this as a given, but I for one would not divy up the universe of possibilities into these rather arbitrarily chosen categories. Why assume that agents aren’t themselves a part of chance and necessity? Why assume that something which is neither chance nor necessity has to be an agent? (For example, why assume that the supernatural = intelligence?) These assumptions need to be justified, not simply held a priori.

But ignoring all that, the real problem is Dembski’s assertion that he can rule out everything that doesn’t include some “agent-designer”. How the hell could anyone think that’s possible? Aside from the term “agent-designer” being vague to the point of uselessness, proving a negative is not exactly easy, especially when the negative is a universal one. It requires perfect knowledge of all “non-design” possibilities, which of course we don’t have and never will.

So I think it’s still an example of bifurcation, it’s just one in which the entire universe of possibilities except the one you want are lumped into a single category. Then you claim to have eliminated the undesirable category without justification.

Dear Dr. Beckwith

As you have dropped in to the Thumb, you might like to visit this discussion of your comments on what consitiutes “natural science”

Cheers! Ian

Steve writes: “Why assume that something which is neither chance nor necessity has to be an agent?  (For example, why assume that the supernatural = intelligence?)  These assumptions need to be justified, not simply held a priori. “

A couple of points here. The claim that one always needs a justification is a claim held a priori for which one needs no justification. So, at least we agree that “every story needs an a priori.” (that’s my rhyme; I just made it up). Second, it seems to me that “supernatural” does no work whatsoever. If, for example, the fine-tuning argument is sound or at least plausible, one would either be obligated or not unreasonable in believing that the order and nature of the universe is the result of an agent outside of this universe. If you want to call this “supernatural,” I have no complaints, but it does not detract from or add to the soundness of the argument. Third, in response to my car-dent illustration, Steve writes: “I don’t know unless someone defines what chance, necessity, and agency are supposed to mean in this context, and explains how they exhaust the universe of possibilities between them. “ But isn’t this an argument from ignorance?: since X has not been disproven (X=a fourth and unknown category besides chance, necessity, and agent-design that currently plays no part in explaining anything in the universe), therefore, I am warranted in rejecting the explanatory filter since its proponent has not disproven X. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that Dembski does define chance and necessity in the Design Inference. I’m not sure about agency, however. A real brief definition is offered by philosopher J. P. Moreland: “When an agent wills A, he also could have willed B without anything else being different inside or outside of his being. He is the absolute originator of his own actions. When an agent acts freely, he is a first or unmoved mover; no event causes him to act. His desires, beliefs, etc. may influence his choice, but free acts are not caused by prior states in the agent.” (published here: http://www.afterall.net/citizens/mo[…]ntarity.html) This leads me to Steve’s intriguing question about the possibility of agents themselves being part of the necessity/chance nexus. Of course, that is possible, but it seems unlikely for several reasons. First, my first-person understanding of my own actions seems to be inconsistent with the notion that I am an impersonal cog in the necessity/chance nexus. I could be wrong, but it seems that prima facie I’m not and thus those who disagree have the burden. Second, an “agent” absolutely subjected to chance and necessity does not bode well for scientific realism. If the “agent” and his actions are the result of prior causes that are not themselves the result of an agent, then the agent’s libertarian freedom vanishes and his actions are not attributable to a will that is a necessary condition for him to act. So, the insights of science, are not true “insights,” but rather, the offerings of minds that are not able to rise above the impersonal forces that produced these minds and their offerings.

There’s a lot more that can be said about this, but I don’t have the time do it here. I have finals coming up and lots of grading.

Frank

Frank Wrote:

A couple of points here. The claim that one always needs a justification is a claim held a priori for which one needs no justification. So, at least we agree that “every story needs an a priori.” (that’s my rhyme; I just made it up).

I didn’t say one always needs justification, just that I think that Dembski’s choice of exhaustive categories should be justified. They seems to be a tad contrived. Not everyone would have been inclined to single out “agency” as some distinct category totally separate from everything else. Why did Dembski choose to do so, other than to frame things in such a way that they tend towards his preferred conclusion, which we know he would never do?

At any rate, that particular digression was pretty orthagonal to my main point about the EF relying on (though not necessarily being one itself) arguments from ignorance. I don’t really care that much if Dembski’s priors are justified, it’s just one more thing that muddies the waters. How do I know if he’s included every possible category if the categories are vague or possibly senseless?

Third, in response to my car-dent illustration, Steve writes: “I don’t know unless someone defines what chance, necessity, and agency are supposed to mean in this context, and explains how they exhaust the universe of possibilities between them. “ But isn’t this an argument from ignorance?: since X has not been disproven (X=a fourth and unknown category besides chance, necessity, and agent-design that currently plays no part in explaining anything in the universe), therefore, I am warranted in rejecting the explanatory filter since its proponent has not disproven X.

Huh? Saying that there is incomplete information (i.e., having poorly defined choices) is not saying that something should be rejected. It’s saying that it’s fraught with difficulty when trying to apply it. Again, I don’t reject the EF based on the bad categorization, that’s just a side issue that I brought up to illustrate why bifurcation is generally not a good approach.

I reject the EF because it requires an exhaustive search through all of “chance and necessity”, which I don’t think is possible. I am happy to take Dembski’s definitions at face value for the purposes of that discussion. But you’ve left this point unadressed, which is perfectly okay, but it’s weird that you chose to make an issue out of the less important stuff.

A real brief definition is offered by philosopher J. P. Moreland: “When an agent wills A, he also could have willed B without anything else being different inside or outside of his being. He is the absolute originator of his own actions. When an agent acts freely, he is a first or unmoved mover; no event causes him to act. His desires, beliefs, etc. may influence his choice, but free acts are not caused by prior states in the agent.”

That’s great, but does this describe anything other than Moreland’s conception of God? Because it sure as hell doesn’t describe a human being. (Not a living one, anyway.)

And for that matter, a free agent which is solely the originator of its own choices is inconsistent with having desires, beliefs, etc. Those desires either came from something apart from the free agent, or they were themselves the result of choice. And if the latter is true, then choice is meaningless, because there is no basis for which to choose one thing over another. If you disagree, then list some choices which have nothing to do with preexisting desires or beliefs.

If Moreland wants to drag free-will into the debate, he’s opening up a whole ‘nuther can o’ worms. The thing is, it’s not much good to solve a problem with an even bigger problem. Now I have to side with free-will over determinism before I find Dembski’s priors to be justified, which is a rather large philosophical leap.

This leads me to Steve’s intriguing question about the possibility of agents themselves being part of the necessity/chance nexus. Of course, that is possible, but it seems unlikely for several reasons. First, my first-person understanding of my own actions seems to be inconsistent with the notion that I am an impersonal cog in the necessity/chance nexus. I could be wrong, but it seems that prima facie I’m not and thus those who disagree have the burden.

Your first person understanding is noted, but merely asserting it is not a terribly good way to convince others, much less a coherent rationale for shifting the burden of proof.

My first person understanding tells me that fisrt person understandings are often misleading and necessarily incomplete, and that it’s perfectly possible to think and act as if I have free-will even if I’m just impersonal cog in the chance/necessity nexus.

Second, an “agent” absolutely subjected to chance and necessity does not bode well for scientific realism. If the “agent” and his actions are the result of prior causes that are not themselves the result of an agent, then the agent’s libertarian freedom vanishes and his actions are not attributable to a will that is a necessary condition for him to act. So, the insights of science, are not true “insights,” but rather, the offerings of minds that are not able to rise above the impersonal forces that produced these minds and their offerings.

First of all, why assume scientific realism? There’s plenty of reason to question it, owing, for example, to the observer-dependent nature of quantum mechanics. Secondly, why can’t “impersonal” foces result in minds that are reasonably good, if not perfect, at discovering stuff about reality? Third, I don’t see how “agency” solves the problem.

And fourth, how did we get off on this tangent? What ever happened to the argument from ignorance?

Steve wrote

Secondly, why can?t “impersonal” foces result in minds that are reasonably good, if not perfect, at discovering stuff about reality?

Critters that don’t somehow discover reasonably reliable knowledge about reality have a habit of walking off cliffs, getting eaten for lunch, or showing up late for dates. That is, they die and/or don’t breed successfully. After a while their lineages tend to be on the sparse side.

RBH

e.e. cummmings wrote: “Francis, just out of curiosity, have any of your students ever spontaneously combusted during one of your lectures?” Yes, it was quite sad, since his epitaph now reads:

“I now lie as a pile of ashes But not from the fire of auto crashes Or from the voltage of pretty lasses Or candles lit at midnight masses But from a lecture by Beckwith Francis.”

Later dudes (and dudettes).

Frank

I stopped immediately when I read this in the article:

Despite the fact that a number of reputable scientists support this theory with credible scientific evidence, it didn’t stop proponents of evolution to immediately yell that this is a breach of contemporary view of the second amendment that separates church and state.

It is when reading an article with an obvious, even comical, error in an unrelated subject (such as which part of the constitution refers to separation of church and state) that you experience that warm fuzzy feeling for finding proof that whatever you are going to read next should not be taken seriously.

It is when reading an article with an obvious, even comical, error in an unrelated subject (such as which part of the constitution refers to separation of church and state) that you experience that warm fuzzy feeling for finding proof that whatever you are going to read next should not be taken seriously.

You know what’s really frightening? Brian Cherry is a high school history teacher. In my home state. I certainly hope that he has more regard for accuracy when teaching our kids as he obviously did when writing this piece of boilerplate nonsense. But given his entirely non-substantive response to the detailed critique of his article, I highly doubt it. And we wonder why our schools have done so poorly.

“Darwinian evolution”

Quibble - ID argues against our present understanding of Darwinian evolution. To argue “not evolution, therefore design” would be valid if one had supplied a proof, not that we cannot model the observations in the context of evolution by natural selection, but that we can never model the observations in the context of evolution by natural selection.

An example from science? Certainly, and a famous one: relativity and quantum mechanics cannot be reconciled, and therefore we know that there are unknowns which can only be understood in the context of some other theory. We have presumed, so far, that it is one which will treat relativity and QCD as special cases, since in their realms, they are the most accurate scientific theories we have discovered to date.

In short, not only does ID argue from ignorance, it argues from ignorance of what it is ignorant of.

Among Cherry’s more outstanding gaffes, he very cleverly posts Webster’s #2 definition of “religion” (a personal set of beliefs).

Which is odd from someone who is most likely religious (in the #1 definiton).

All this was hashed out and settled within 20 years of Darwin’s “Origin”, by T. H. Huxley.

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This page contains a single entry by Ed Brayton published on April 29, 2004 12:19 PM.

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