Intelligent Design described

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In “Letters to the Editor” of the Cornell Daily Sun Adam Moline makes the following statement which captures much of what is wrong with ID

The problem with intelligent design is not that the background assumptions are bad but that the method employed by Intelligent Design’s advocates is not the scientific method. They use God in the same way that the ancient Greek dramatists did: to circumvent an otherwise insoluble problem in the final act. Just as deus ex machina is an improper means to conclude plays, intelligent design is an improper means to advance knowledge.

At the same time he also corrects a common misunderstanding among creationists

Will Evans ‘06 is incorrect to assert that “science, like religion, is based on a few fundamental assumptions, the first of which is that God … does not exist.” Science, unlike religion, is not based on fundamental assumptions.

25 Comments

But science does have underlying assumptions. Nothing like the stuff you get in religions, but they are there. Assumptions like “The universe will behave in a consistent manner”, “There is a real world” and “Our senses provide a fairly accurate picture of the world”

NOTE - I do accept the theory of evolution, and I am an atheist. Just trying to clarify.

James Picone:

No. The statements you refer to are learned. We learn these things as children. We learn them by experiment as we interact with the world. As we study science we find that they are not, in fact, absolutely true everywhere and at all times.

“The universe will behave in a consistent manner” was pretty much given up (at small scales, at least) when quantum mechanics was discovered.

“Our senses provide a fairly accurate picture of the world” is hardly worth considering, because the qualifying term “fairly” admits too broad a range of interpretations.

“There is a real world” is perhaps interesting. In Plato’s sense, I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a “real” world. Certainly, many philosophers have considered the possibility. Most people don’t worry about it because you don’t really learn anything from it. If somebody could show significant advantages in assuming “there is no real world,” most scientists would certainly consider adopting that position.

Both of the above posts makes good points. Science must have some basic assumptions, or we would be stuck in a cave of Platonic doubt about every observation we make, but the ones first listed don’t appear to be precise enough. If “the universe will behave in a consistent manner,” why won’t my girlfriend? But we do assume the universe exists, and that we exist in it together, and that we can all observe it in similar ways.

Assumptions like “The universe will behave in a consistent manner”, “There is a real world” and “Our senses provide a fairly accurate picture of the world”

We don’t need to make these or any other assumptions to do science. If the first assumption doesn’t hold, science simply won’t work – but in fact none of our expectation-based behavior would work, and we would all die quickly, or rather never evolve in the first place. As for the others, we’re discovering facts about some virtual world, the one modeled by our senses; it doesn’t matter whether you call this “real” or not. See, e.g., David Chalmers’ The Matrix as Metaphysics

I discussed this issue a long time ago with some postmodernists and I have a pretty good answer.

Science, like any other endeavor, requires a few basic assumptions. The difference is that the “basic assumptions” made by scientists consist of the absolute minimum assumptions necessary to get through the day. We “assume” that because the sun rose on every previous day that it will *probably* rise tomorrow. However, we are prepared to abandon our assumptions the moment we get evidence which contradicts it (for instance, maybe I just moved North of the Arctic Circle, and I’ll get some evidence against that assumption about the sunrise). We assume that our senses are giving us accurate data – until they start giving us inconsistent data, and then we consider the concept of mental illness.

If I may borrow some words from the previous poster: if we didn’t make extremely basic provisional assumptions about consistency and repeatability, none of our expectation-based behavior would work, let alone science. Can you imagine waking up in the morning and going “Gee, I wonder whether my muscles will move when I try to get out of bed. Who knows?” Instead, you assume they will (until you try and fail). “I wonder if the sun will rise this morning. Who knows?” “I wonder if gravity will still work today. I know my ‘memory’ claims that it worked all my life, but who knows; I’d better not depend on it.”

Really, it’s quite impossible to imagine living without this sort of “assumption”. And these sort of extremely minimalistic assumptions – the ones which you are using every day even if you deny that you believe in them – are what scientists try to stick to.

It may seem on first glance that minimizing assumptions to that kind of extremely low level – the minimum necessary assumptions which people absolutely must use to function – would lead to very few conclusions. But those conclusions are far more reliable and useful than any results based on more assumptions, and this method has proven its power over many generations.

We “assume” that because the sun rose on every previous day that it will *probably* rise tomorrow.

If this is an “assumption” then the word is useless, because then all expectations, no matter how well justified, are “assumptions”. But that simply isn’t what we mean by the word – “assumption” has the connotation of lacking justification or foundation.

No, empirical epistemology is based on inference to the best explanation. We make plans based on the expectation that the sun will rise tomorrow because that is the best inference from the available evidence; no assumption is necessary. In fact, we can be entirely neutral toward the sun rising, and test the proposal that it will. Try it; keep a log noting whether the sun comes up or not each morning. Of course, you will find it difficult to remain neutral for long. Why is that? It has nothing to do with assumption.

Science is all a posteri. Philisophical sludge can be sidestepped by a pragmatics of sorts: ideas which work; which can be built upon and remain internally consistent, which can in principle have evidence for or against, and which have a greater supporting body of evidence than other ideas and no evidence which is a death knell to it, will prosper and lead to greater understanding simply because they more accurately reflect which is there than other ideas.

Asking whether the universe or our general sensory perception of it are real is a bit academic and, in the end, doesn’t matter, rather like asking whether the universe truly is this old or whether it was absolutely seamlessly created to look this way. Ultimately, either way, for all intents and purposes the universe is this old to us, and ideas starting with the presumption that it was created with this apparent age simply won’t work any differently from the thinking that it truly is this age.

There’s no way to tell if the universe is real or not, if our sensory perceptions do generally genuinely reflect it, or whether the universe is this old or just apparently this old. To cut the clutter, we can always trim those more complicated ideas which share precisely the same explanatory power as simpler ideas with good old parsimony. But it still won’t have a jot of importance in our understanding of anything.

-Schmitt.

We’re dealing with models of relationships between truth claims. The relationships hold regardless of whether the model is being applied to a “real” world or a solipsistic fantasy or a world filtered through a lossy sensory apparatus or a virtual world being fed to a brain in a vat; such metaphysical issues factor out.

I think that Nathanael Nerode, the poster above, needs new postmodernists. The ones he used were clearly broken.

His problem seems to be that he’s using the word “assumption” when he clearly means “theory”. Sure, science has at its core the theories of consistency and repeatability, but those are theories based upon observation. Not assumptions without basis. And there’s nothing wrong with using theories as an underlying basis for researching other theories.

In contrast, there is no observational basis for God, and so He is an assumed entity. There is no theory to test Him, or argument which can deduce Him. By definition, He is a faith-based entity, and belief in Him has at its core no other basis but assumption; and that is a fundamental tenat of Christianity. And that’s not what science does at all.

There are no sacred beliefs in science, and no untestable ideas. Everything is fair game, including the theory that perceived reality is real. Were we to wakeup tomorrow in some alien’s lab and be informed that everything we’ve experienced was fake, we would simply realign our theories to this new information (after testing it as much as possible, of course). And that is the basis of science; not assumptions, but theories based on observation.

But science does have underlying assumptions. Nothing like the stuff you get in religions, but they are there. Assumptions like “The universe will behave in a consistent manner”, “There is a real world” and “Our senses provide a fairly accurate picture of the world”

Those are empirical observations, not assumptions. They are no different than “the sun will rise in the east tomorrow”.

Science is all a posteri. Philisophical sludge can be sidestepped by a pragmatics of sorts: ideas which work; which can be built upon and remain internally consistent, which can in principle have evidence for or against, and which have a greater supporting body of evidence than other ideas and no evidence which is a death knell to it, will prosper and lead to greater understanding simply because they more accurately reflect which is there than other ideas.

Asking whether the universe or our general sensory perception of it are real is a bit academic and, in the end, doesn’t matter, rather like asking whether the universe truly is this old or whether it was absolutely seamlessly created to look this way. Ultimately, either way, for all intents and purposes the universe is this old to us, and ideas starting with the presumption that it was created with this apparent age simply won’t work any differently from the thinking that it truly is this age.

There’s no way to tell if the universe is real or not, if our sensory perceptions do generally genuinely reflect it, or whether the universe is this old or just apparently this old. To cut the clutter, we can always trim those more complicated ideas which share precisely the same explanatory power as simpler ideas with good old parsimony. But it still won’t have a jot of importance in our understanding of anything.

Someone once put this a bit more succinctly:

“Philosophy and the study of the actual world have the same relationship to one another as masturbation and sexual intercourse.”

–K Marx

Were we to wakeup tomorrow in some alien’s lab and be informed that everything we’ve experienced was fake, we would simply realign our theories to this new information (after testing it as much as possible, of course). And that is the basis of science; not assumptions, but theories based on observation.

This reminds me of an interesting philosopher’s essay on The Matrix. His or her point was that Keanu, shortly after taking the pill and being clued in to a drastically different notion of reality, would be justified in disbelieving Morpheus for a while. The argument was, if you have 20 years of experience living, and a few hours of entirely contradictory experience, the most reasonable conclusion at that point is that the few hours are an hallucination, dream, or such.

“They use God in the same way that the ancient Greek dramatists did: to circumvent an otherwise insoluble problem in the final act.”

Deus ex flagellum! (flagella?)

One of my closest friends is the founder of the Minnesota Christian Apologetics Project, and while he is not a “creationist” in the pejorative sense, he does, naturally, believe that God created the cosmos and life. Coincidentally, yesterday we had a discussion very much like the one going on here. This is an excerpt from a reply I sent to his charge that science, like religion, makes foundational assumptions:

The evidence of science is that science works and is self-correcting, a continual feedback loop that sharpens its own focus and intuitions over time. The evidence of science is that it leads to advances in our knowledge and understanding, by fits and starts and up blind alleys and through fruitless deserts, but by a sort of Darwinian process of theoretical competition, the methods of science confirm and correct our knowledge about the world. The…methods of science have expanded our horizons and provided us a world of medical and technological wonders, and an ever-expanding view of the universe. The suppositions of theology give us only an entrenched defensiveness about religion’s intuitions. Theology succeeds as Vaudeville; it fails to move beyond its own suppositions to anything that has proved useful.

That response by Adam Moline was to Unintellignet Design, a Cornell Sun Opinion piece by Will Evans which was critical of IDC, but was a wee bit sloppy.

Yawn. It’s the old confusion about deductive vs inductive reasoning. People wrongly argue that science is based upon assumptions that, if incorrect, invalidate some/most/all of the conclusions of science because these conclusions follow deductively from the assumptions. Instead, science is inductive, so the arguments just demonstrate ignorance.

Dan S. Wrote:

Deus ex flagellum! (flagella?)

Hmmm.  Very interesting hypothesis you’ve got there; it would explain the obsession of creationists with flagella (though the part about dead horses needs work).

Now, is this a scientific theory?  What evidence could falsify the hypothesis?

Those are empirical observations, not assumptions.

“There is a real world” is not and cannot be an empirical observation, but neither is it an assumption of science. One could just as well imagine oneself to be a non-material being having an elaborate dream, and science would still successfully reveal causal relationships among the elements of the dream. As for “Our senses provide a fairly accurate picture of the world” – the vast majority of what goes on in the world can only be detected through elaborate instruments and inference. Without such augmentation, our senses, a product of evolution, present to us with a just enough of a model of the world to enable us to produce and care for offspring. To view our sensory world as “accurate” is akin to thinking that we are the peak of creation and the Earth is the center of the universe.

This reminds me of an interesting philosopher’s essay on The Matrix.

I mentioned philosopher David Chalmers and his paper, “The Matrix as Metaphyics”. Several others are listed at http://whatisthematrix.warnerbros.c[…]cmp/phi.html

it would explain the obsession of creationists with flagella

Unnecessary complexity of excuse. Flagella is just the latest word/thing about which the ignorant ID/creationists have heard. It’s new and exciting and can be incorrectly used all over the place much like a baby babbling or a young child’s obsession with nice new (to them) looking or sounding things.

One child here latched on to the word “pineapple” and for a while everything was pineapple this and pineapple that without regard for relevance. This last month’s word was “japati”. So, amongst other ludicrous things and general magical chanting of the word, he’s been on about japati daleks. Actually making any sense with his speech appears to be a superfluous concept to him. On the other hand since, unlike most ID/creationists, he’s only very young, there’s still a good chance he might eventually see rationality as being a neat idea too.

LOL!

This has been echoed but I don’t think explicitly stated: As fond as the creationists are of attacking scientists for “using” “assumptions”, the epistemology that any humans, including creationists, base their existence on is not really so different from that used by scientists. That should always be thrown back at them. They should be asked if they really want to go down the road that they can’t really know anything, and if they truly live their lives as if that were true? Paul

Bayesian Bouffant wrote in Comment #45693

That response by Adam Moline was to Unintellignet Design, a Cornell Sun Opinion piece by Will Evans which was critical of IDC, but was a wee bit sloppy.

Sloppy to say the least.

Will Evans wrote in Unintelligent Design on Aug 25, 2005

So, let’s talk about what is really going on here: the faith-based community wants to do everything it can to bring God back into the school system. Here, the issue gets trickier because science, like religion, is based on a few fundamental assumptions, the first of which is that God or any other supernatural being does not exist. No scientist can conclusively prove that, it must simply be taken on faith. Why, then, should our society prize one set of initial assumptions over the other if choosing between them is arbitrary? Why not present religion as a pure alternative to science in schools?

Although I think the essay is great this one misrepresented zinger about god is enough to derail the whole thing.

PvM, I do wonder why you didn’t include the original essay as well?

Sincerely, Paul

Although I think the essay is great this one misrepresented zinger about god is enough to derail the whole thing.

Indeed, the fundies, by blathering constantly about their religious opinions, do more than anyone else possibly could to undermine their own side.

Drop a few statements like this in front of a Federal Judge, and it’s “adios, muchachos”. Indeed, in Dover, the plaintiffs will be presenting published letters to the editor and such from ID supporters, to show clearly and unequivocably that ID has the explicit aim and effect of religious apologetics.

So once again, I wouild like to thank all the brainless ID minions who have been barging in everywhere to preach their religious opinions. I appreciate the help.

Science is based unabashedly upon the fundamental assumption that induction will continue to work. This is not something that is possible to learn from induction, which is how science ‘learns’ things, therefore it must be assumed.

I’ve been searching the PT web site, but haven’t found any mention of Harvard’s recent initiative on the origins of life. Toward the bottom of the article it says:

Szostak recalled that he had been surprised to see his own research, which he interprets as progress in understanding life’s origins, on religious websites, which cite the work as evidence of how difficult it would be to create life without a designer – because, Szostak said, "not even Harvard scientists can do it."

The fact that Harvard is studying this does create a problem. Who needs to study a non-issue? Is Szostak trying to divert attention from such implications by associating them with "those people?"

From a problem-solving perspective, it would seem more logical for Harvard to try to create life in a laboratory, using all the accumulated knowledge and extremely sophisticated tools of biological science. After that, they could work on closing the gap between this highly structured environment and the chaotic conditions of the earth when life began.

The problem with the above approach is that it could fail in several different and quite embarassing ways:

  • the project could fail to produce life in the laboratory, which would be a major source of aid and comfort to "those people."
  • even if the project succeeded, the process might be so very complex that it would be impossible to achieve with any of the mechanisms in nature that have been proposed. (This would become a great support for the ID position, among other things leading to a further proliferation of law suits against public educational institutions.)
  • and of course, if life is created in the laboratory, it introduces the subsequent challenge of demonstrating that evolutionary processes can transform it into different species.

Harvard has wisely chosen to instead follow a path that can end with a declaration of victory. Since there is such a strong desire in many quarters to believe in naturalistic processes, almost any findings can be claimed as progress. The article mentions several almost graspable straws that have been comforting in the past:

  • the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment: methane, ammonia, water vapor, etc. plus electricity generated some "prebiotic" molecules. And some rejoiced and said it was good, and it’s been in the biology texts ever since. Now if people would just stop pointing out that this is a lot less than one step out of a journey of 1000 miles…
  • "Scientists have long known that, under the right conditions … fatty acids come together and form membranes, like the skin of a water balloon." Now we have little balls to hold the bouillion. We’re on a roll!
  • add some montmorillonite clay into the mix. Toss a pinch of RNA into the pot and now we have little balls with RNA (manufactured elsewhere) inside. We keep making progress like this and we’ll solve this problem within a few million years. After all, with enough time, anything can happen.

You can tell what Harvard’s expectations are for this. Only $1 million a year is loose change in Big Science.

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on August 29, 2005 8:41 PM.

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