Where purpose and function meet

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Benjamin Wiker, who was recently heard accusing Darwinists of being in panic over 'specified complexity', seems to continue his wishful thinking in this article in Crisis Magazine. There seems to be indeed a crisis but contrary to Wiker's suggestions, the crisis seems to be in the ID camp where ID's failure to deliver scientifically relevant contributions seems to have cause much confusion.
Wiker, (in my opinion rightfully) disagreeing with scientists who refer to 'the pointlessness of nature and the universe', makes the mistake of conflating purpose and function, leading him to an erroneous conclusion. The distinguished Ayala Dr. Francisco Ayala, Professor of Biological Sciences and Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine presents a good introduction to these often confusing terms at the meta library "Teleological explanations account for the existence of a certain feature in a system by demonstrating the feature's contribution to a specific property or state of the system." Teleological explanations require that the feature or behavior contribute to the persistence of a certain state or property of the system: wings serve for flying; the sharpness of a knife serves for cutting. Moreover, and this is the essential component of the concept, this contribution must be the reason why the feature or behavior exists at all: the reason why wings came to be is because they serve for flying; the reason why a knife is sharp is that it is intended for cutting. The configuration of a molecule of sodium chloride contributes to its property of tasting salty and therefore to its use as food, not vice versa; the potential use of sodium chloride for food is not the reason why it has a particular molecular configuration or tastes salty. Ayala carefully distinguishes between purpose or external teleology It is useful to distinguish different kinds of design or teleological phenomena. Actions or objects are purposeful when the end-state or goal is consciously intended by an agent. Thus, a man mowing his lawn is acting teleologically in the purposeful sense; a lion hunting deer and a bird building a nest have at least the appearance of purposeful behavior. Objects resulting from purposeful behavior exhibit artificial (or external) teleology and function or internal teleology Systems with teleological features that are not due to the purposeful action of an agent but result from some natural process exhibit natural (or internal) teleology. The wings of birds have a natural teleology; they serve an end, flying, but their configuration is not due to the conscious design of any agent. We may distinguish two kinds of natural teleology: bounded, or determinate or necessary, and unbounded or indeterminate or contingent. But what is inexcusable in my eyes is how Wiker is abusing science to find 'purpose' where at most science has shown function. In other words: Wiker, a lecturer in theology and science, has confused a theological conclusion (purpose) with a scientific observation (function). And while Wiker correctly identifies that biologists can be seen confusing purpose and function when discussing biology, rather than applying this new found knowledge he commits a similar error. Wiker references Guillermo Gonzalez's "Privilege Planet", as "one of the most intellectually exciting books written on this subject ". In a future posting I intend to show that while the book may be exciting it totally fails to deliver on its claims. For a quick introduction as to why the Privileged Planet arguments fail I would like to direct the reader to the presentation by Kyler Kuehn at the "The Heavens Declare the Glory of God. ASA Annual Meeting, July 25-28, 2003." This leads Wiker to the (inexcusable) claim that: We have seen, then, that insofar as the latest, most comprehensive physics goes, the universe is far from pointless. As it turns out, it is biocentric, even anthropic--that is, it points directly to the realm of purpose. But physics cannot show purpose or pointlessness and in fact Wiker is making the same mistake he accuses reductionists of committing. In fact, I doubt that Wiker can even explain the nature of this purpose in a scientific manner. While I do not disagree with his conclusion from a teological viewpoint, Wiker confuses teleology and science. Wiker may take notice of the irony of his own comments: The more advanced the level of organization, the less informative is it to seek understanding [of these cellular structures and activities] solely in terms of their molecular constituents." In sum, reductionism is bad science. And yet unlike Intelligent Design, the alternative proposed by Wiker, science is progressing with exciting and testable hypotheses while ID is failing to deliver much of anything relevant scientifically. In sum, ID is bad science and if we were to believe Wiker, even worse than reductionism. Confusing the concepts of purpose and function, Wiker reaches a poorly argued conclusion using a poorly argued claim of 'Privileged planet' Wiker does show once again that ID is all about the supra natural when he states This motion is not purposeful precisely because the materialist cosmology jettisons an intelligent creator. Purpose, design, and function are all accidents of the pointless, purposeless actions and reactions of matter and energy. The only intelligent creator jettisoned by the methodological naturalist (often confusingly called materialist) would be a supra natural designer. It is tempting for us Christians to see purpose in the world around us, in fact I would argue that this tempation is not limited to Christians. But to claim that science has actually shown purpose in nature shows a misunderstanding as to the nature of science versus faith. Update: Given that Richards argues that 'purpose' can be inferred by elimination of chance alone it seems that 'purpose' also includes regularities or in other words 'natural laws'. This means in other words that what we see as 'purpose' could very well be the result of natural law alone.

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The conflation of function and purpose is a hallmark of ID. Because of this notion, the IDer can argue that virtually anything that fits its environment is most likely designed. I find this to be an interesting parallel to the whole use of the term “specified” in “specified complexity”. Whereas it is supposed mean a level of complexity that meets a certain criteria, the lay person sees the word “specified” and thinks that this means that someone has done the specifying- that there is a “specifier”. I have always felt that the ID people full know that this misinterpretation will take place in their audience, but I’ve never read any cautionary language from any of them. Given their ad campaign-like approach to the public it is fully expected that they don’t clear this up. In the advertisement world, begging the question is the hallmark of doing business.

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on April 10, 2004 6:11 PM.

The Privileged Planet Part 1: Where Purpose and Natural Law freely Mix Part 1 was the previous entry in this blog.

Last Word on Establishment (I Hope) is the next entry in this blog.

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