Neil deGrasse Tyson: The Perimeter of Ignorance

| 35 Comments

In The Perimeter of Ignorance, Neil deGrasse Tyson, explains in no uncertain terms why Intelligent Design is scientifically vacuous.

Another practice that isn’t science is embracing ignorance. Yet it’s fundamental to the philosophy of intelligent design: I don’t know what this is. I don’t know how it works. It’s too complicated for me to figure out. It’s too complicated for any human being to figure out. So it must be the product of a higher intelligence.

Most notable quote

And what comedian designer configured the region between our legs-an entertainment complex built around a sewage system?

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and holds a PhD in Astrophysics and has an impressive CV

What is remarkable is how scientists come to realize more and more how ID is scientifically vacuous, as evidenced fully by its proven inability to contribute in a non-begging manner to our scientific knowledge beyond ‘poof’ and asking for more will quickly be dismissed as ‘pathetic’. Such is the life of an ID proponent…

Hat tip: Red State Rabble (watch the video)

35 Comments

Science is a philosophy of discovery. Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance. You cannot build a program of discovery on the assumption that nobody is smart enough to figure out the answer to a problem. Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes. We know when and where they start. We know what drives them. We know what mitigates their destructive power. And anyone who has studied global warming can tell you what makes them worse. The only people who still call hurricanes “acts of God” are the people who write insurance forms.

Or ‘religious leaders’

As Mr. Spock would say: precisely.

As the poet Yeats put it, regarding the sewage works:

For Love has pitched his palace in The place of excrement

Comment #179440 Posted by Clarissa on May 28, 2007 3:18 AM

Franky, it sounds like you are all projecting your own hang ups about sex and the human body. Were you taught that women were dirty or something when you were little?

Are YOU just a little defensive clarissa since those metaphors are equally applicable to men as they are women. Having some body issues perhaps. It is also a nice juxtoposition, since the negative stereotypes that demean women because of their bodies are drawn from ancient religious traditions, not from anything secular. If anything, modern society is working hard to eliminate such negative stereotypes.

Insincerely,

Clarissa, If you want to diss Neil de Grasse Tyson, you’ll get a lot farther by pointing out that the people who hypothesized Neptune weren’t worried about hurricanes. They were worried about Mediterranean gales– which are still much harder to predict than hurricanes. So, okay, Neil deG isn’t the world’s best meteorologist. But here’s where ID and science part company. Scientists find a minor error like this, correct it, and move on. IDers find one minor error and start a smoke screen of claims, counter claims, and personal insults until the scientists give up in disgust or the topic smothers under its own weight. ID isn’t science, it isn’t religion, and it certainly isn’t anything to foist off on innocent school children.

Meanwhile, in the Skeptic column of the June 2007 issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer is promoting nuclear fission with hydrogen.

The troll with many names said: Were you taught that women were dirty or something when you were little?Yes–by our priests, who taught us that sex was filthy (but women were useful primarily for bearing children, plus cooking, and keeping house). They taught us that the Fall, as well as the change of dinosaur diet from coconuts to flesh was the fault of a woman.

Clarissa Wrote:

Franky, it sounds like you are all projecting your own hang ups about sex and the human body.

Were you taught that women were dirty or something when you were little?

You brought up sex and the body my dear Clarissa. Were Degrasse-Tyson’s comments so hard to understand let alone rebut?

“Why not tally all those things whose design is so clunky, goofy, impractical, or unworkable that they reflect the absence of intelligence?,” Tyson argues in the linked article.

Why not? Because this tactic is remarkably weak. It relies on the same anthropomorpism that bedevils the Intelligent Design view of “design”; it grants that we know enough about the psychology of God (or what that psychology would be if there were a God) to argue about it. And in the end, too often, those who study the arts of Sauron end up practicing them: even smart people end up thinking that they can derive a natural atheology from the facts of Nature. That is, from the facts of Nature that they think wouldn’t have issued from the hand of an omnipotent biomedical engineer. The natural theologians cherry-pick; the natural atheologians turd-pick. Wishful thinking is king, either way—gratification of one’s predetermined opinions.

Nay, no, not. We can read neither proofs nor disproofs of ethical or theological claims from science. While the argument from imperfection must be argued occasionally as a disgusting necessity—to debunk the claim that an anthropomorphic engineer-God made the world—it should be dropped once that point has been made. Otherwise its users tend to absorb the fundamentalists’ equation of “God” with “anthropomorphic engineer-God,” and to imagine that one really can draw theological conclusions (negative ones) from biological data.

Tyson’s yuk-yuk remark about the “region between our legs” illustrates the mind-rot that accompanies too much indulgence in the argument from imperfection. It does not rise to the level of logic. Even from an engineering point of view, someone surely could defend the human urogenital arrangement in terms of economizing on space, protecting fragile assets, etc.—and one would almost certainly win, because the human urogenital system is an undeniable evolutionary success. It, and its mammalian and reptilian precursors, have functioned quite well for many of millions of years. We wouldn’t be here to sneer at them if they hadn’t. The urogenital system is a lousy example of something “impractical, or unworkable” about our bodies—and “clunky and goofy” are B.S. categories, logically empty. Who’s to say what’s “goofy”? Not everyone is as easily icked out as poor Dr. Tyson.

“Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?” – Darwin, On the Origin of Species. No, not even when that assumption strokes our theism. No, not even when it strokes our atheism.

Larry

PvM writes,

“You brought up sex and the body my dear Clarissa. Were Degrasse-Tyson’s comments so hard to understand let alone rebut?”

Wow. If there were a Nobel for furiously sneering condescension, this would win it.

But she didn’t bring up “sex and the body”: you did, by identifying Tyson’s sophomoric poke at human crotch design as a “most notable quote” at the top of the thread.

Larry

Hmmmm.…

is Gil = Fafar, perhaps?

I’ll go with “clunky and goofy.” Good-enough-to-work-sort-of-well-mostly IS poor design, especially if we posit an omniscient designer.

Model Ts were “clunky and goofy” in the light of modern auto design. Did they work “well” at the time? They outcompeted horses (in some applications) and some earlier models of cars. They were good enough to compete and survive in their milieu–and leave offspring. But if a designer with modern knowledge were responsible for the Model T, he would be criminally negligent. How many people died in Model T accidents that would have survived with just a few more safety innovations?

We can assume some things about auto designers: they’re IMPERFECT. They don’t even do the best they can at the time. They’re constrained by economic factors, style considerations, the greed of car manufacturers, etc.

Then why can’t we assume things about a hypothetical designer of life? There are clearly imperfections in the design of living things. Just because we’re surviving (some of us, so far) in this milieu doesn’t make us the best of all possible designs in the best of all possible worlds.

Unless, of course, the perfect designer made things purposely imperfect. That leads to some disturbing conclusions about the nature of the designer. We blame Ford for knowingly making Pintos with poor gas tank design. Why would we not hold a Designer responsible for making obvious errors (or taking money-saving shortcuts?) in the design of our bodies?

Aureola Nominee writes,

“is Gil = Fafar, perhaps?”

No. I’m me, not Larry Fafarman (if I’ve correctly interpreted this extremely cryptic remark), and I don’t play online identity games.

Judge Jones is my Hero. Evolution rocks. I just don’t like the sound of one worldview wanking.

Larry

PS. You can access my resume through www.larrygilman.net. I’m either real, or an extremely labor-intensive illusion.

“You brought up sex and the body my dear Clarissa. Were Degrasse-Tyson’s comments so hard to understand let alone rebut?”

Wow. If there were a Nobel for furiously sneering condescension, this would win it.

But she didn’t bring up “sex and the body”: you did, by identifying Tyson’s sophomoric poke at human crotch design as a “most notable quote” at the top of the thread.

Some background might help.

‘Clarissa’ is one of multiple sockpuppet identities for a useless creationist troll who also goes by the name ‘Diana’ and, most often, ‘Grady’. The legendary bonehead ‘Emanuel Goldstein’ is possibly the same person.

The posters here can be forgiven for losing patience with Clarissa/Diana/Grady, believe me.

Just Bob writes,

“I’ll go with ‘clunky and goofy.’ Good-enough-to-work-sort-of-well-mostly IS poor design . …”

Really? In engineering, we have a joke: optimists say that the glass is half full, pessimists that the glass is half empty, engineers that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be. If carrying on the species is our standard of needful function, then there is simply nothing badly “designed” about the human reproductive system. Which doesn’t, of course, prove that it was “designed” as IDers construe “design.” I just think that the complaint of poor design is empty here. Our reproductive system works as well as it needs to, so what’s not to like about it? If anything, it works too well: what are we up to now, five billion people? Six?

But your sentence reads in full, “Good-enough-to-work-sort-of-well-mostly IS poor design, especially if we posit an omniscient designer.”

This positing is exactly what I’m critiquing. “Omniscient designer” may seem to the ID people, and possibly to you (I’m not sure and apologize in advance if I am getting you wrong), to have an obvious, singular, unambiguous meaning that is synonymous with any plausible definition of “God”—but I don’t agree.

I’m not arguing that everything about us, or the physical world, is “well-designed.” I’m arguing that the projection of human standards of good design–technological standards of good design—onto the cosmos is only as valid as the assumption that those standards apply. But why should they? You seem to assume, as does Michael Behe, that there is a thing called “good design,” that we know perfectly well what it is (namely, the sort of thing that good engineers produce), and that if God had any sense—which he would, of course, if he existed—he would produce it too: materially parsimonious, breakdown-proof, long-lasting, space-saving machinery. Anything short of that is proof, I would agree, that God, if she exists, does not work for Toyota or Intel. Fine. Worth proving. But it’s not much and it doesn’t exhaust the possibilities of religion by a long shot.

Even the anthropomorphism behind the “omniscient designer” figure of speech, understood naively, is weak, culturally narrow. We humans don’t just make machines: we make art, we raise children, we throw parties, we found republics. We revel not only in elegant functionality, controlled productivity, and predictable outcomes but in excess, violence, randomness, exuberant overabundance. Efficiency and mechanical perfection aren’t even universal human values. The fact that the universe isn’t perfect by machine-perfection standards knocks out the ID God, who is about as numinous as a doll on a wedding cake, but that’s all it does. What if God were more like—let’s just say—Mick Jagger than Bill Gates?

Just Bob writes,

“Why would we not hold a Designer responsible for making obvious errors (or taking money-saving shortcuts?) in the design of our bodies?”

“Obvious” errors by what standard of obviousness? By that applicable to an industrial corporation designing a product line? This is the standard that argument-from-perfection and argument-from-imperfection people both seem to me to assume. But the idea that God, if there is a God, must have made the Universe to churn out people like the Apple corporation churns out iPods is (1) a theological assumption, (2) the same assumption that the ID people make, (3) a questionable assumption.

Sincerely,

Larry

Larry Gilman wrote:

“Not everyone is as easily icked out as poor Dr. Tyson.”

Indeed, the same Dr. Tyson who felt that the beauty of the naked human body is overrated. He may have a point when it comes to the average, but …

Seems dear Mr. Tyson speaks from the angle of his own psychological problems rather than as an “objective scientist” – the pretensions of certain atheists like him never fail to make me smile…

Good stuff there on TalkOrigins, Mr. Moritz (I clicked on your name). Thanks for that. I’ve loved TalkOrigins for years, but it’s vast and I never happened to see the bit on the Origin of Life.

Larry

Larry Gilman — 6.6+ billion and counting…

PvM Wrote:

What is remarkable is how scientists come to realize more and more how ID is scientifically vacuous,

I don’t think it is either remarkable or continuing - current generation scientists have always known that design and teleology are vacuous.

What is remarkable is the convoluted and strenuous efforts of Dembski et al. One can fake science much easier and better than they have.

Reginald Selkirk Wrote:

Michael Shermer is promoting nuclear fission with hydrogen.

Nitpick: It is fusion, Shermer is making one of several elemantary mistakes in physics. Fissioning protons in particle accelerator costs energy, and Shermer was really discussing energy liberation in while debunking “Secrets” ( http://www.sunclipse.org/?p=104).

As you can see from the link, Shermer has been making these elementary physics mistakes repeatedly. While he seems otherwise factually correct.

Larry Gilman Wrote:

Tyson’s yuk-yuk remark about the “region between our legs” […] The urogenital system is a lousy example of something “impractical, or unworkable” about our bodies

Tyson has used this a lot, successfully.

Since women easily get more urinal infections than men from their urinary tract located close to other body openings, it is one of the usual examples mentioned of unpractical outcome from evolution. A common cloaca would presumably be worse, and AFAIK those animals have indeed a lot of elaborate safeguards to prevent infections in this area.

The discussion if Tyson’s comical remark should have this obvious turn or instead be attributed to some sort of distaste for bodily functions is difficult, and the following question why that would be so even more. It is also besides the point.

But if we use the principle to read the best of it, he was merely tongue-in-cheek to great effect.

Larry Gilman Wrote:

Otherwise its users tend to absorb the fundamentalists’ equation of “God” with “anthropomorphic engineer-God,” and to imagine that one really can draw theological conclusions (negative ones) from biological data.

The argument from design is different than arguments from data, you are confusing the two by criticizing the opposition for the first. Tyson is discussing the first, while for example Dawkins and Dennet is discussing the later.

Personally, I think Tyson is a great popularizer of science view of the vacuousness of ID.

Al Moritz Wrote:

Seems dear Mr. Tyson speaks from the angle of his own psychological problems rather than as an “objective scientist” — the pretensions of certain atheists like him never fail to make me smile…

The most obvious problem with that argument is that Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to be neither atheist nor religious.

Wikipedia Wrote:

Neither an atheist nor religious, Tyson’s views on spirituality are complex, and are best understood from his two essays “The Perimeter of Ignorance”[3] and “Holy Wars”[4] both appearing in Natural History Magazine. From the 2006 Beyond Belief [5] workshop on Science and Religion, see excerpts from Tyson’s talk on unintelligent design in the universe[6] and the spirituality of science itself.[7] [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Degrasse_Tyson ; ref 6 & 7 are video links.]

Since one of the references is the text under discussion, it seems a great opportunity to explore the views of this spirited scientist.

Larry Gilman,

I agree. The argument from bad design can be problematic because it requires that you make some assumptions regarding the nature of the designer and her intentions. If one is willing to accept the possibility of a finite or limited designer then the argument losses much of it’s persuasiveness.

Perhaps a more robust version of the argument could incorporate the concept of historical contingency. Gould showed how evolution is constrained by historical contingency. Evolution can only work by modifying preexisting genes and genetic pathways. It does not start from scratch every time. It is always strapped with all the inadequecies and limitations present in ancestors when descendants evolve. This principle allows us to make sense of many observations in genetics and development. However, there is no logical reason why a designer should be constrained by historical contingency, especially if one posits that the designer is God. That hypothesis would make for a very small God indeed. Of course this does not preclude the possibility that a very limited designer could still be at work. But, if that designer is limited to that which could be accomplished by natural means anyway, the hypothesis hardly seems to have any explanatory poower. In any event, the observation of historical contingency is at least consistent with natural processes and this pattern does not seem to be consistent with many concepts of God. Unless of course you subscribe to the hypothesis of a deceitful God.

If carrying on the species is our standard of needful function, then there is simply nothing badly “designed” about the human reproductive system.

Unless/until one considers the size of the opening and the size of the head that has to come out through that opening.

Henry

Torbjörn Larsson wrote:

“The most obvious problem with that argument is that Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to be neither atheist nor religious.”

Thanks for the links. Upon your recommendation I have read the “Holy Wars” article too. Tyson has been generally portrayed as an atheist in the media lately. Perhaps this is wrong, but neither in “The perimeter of Ignorance” nor in “Holy wars” nor in the “Beyond Belief” videos that I have seen is there any hint that would lead me to believe that this is not correct and he is not an atheist (at home where I currently am I don’t have access to the other video links that you posted).

Torbjörn Larsson wrote:

“The most obvious problem with that argument is that Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to be neither atheist nor religious.”

Thanks for the links. Upon your recommendation I have read the “Holy Wars” article too. Tyson has been generally portrayed as an atheist in the media lately. Perhaps this is wrong, but neither in “The perimeter of Ignorance” nor in “Holy wars” nor in the “Beyond Belief” videos that I have seen is there any hint that would lead me to believe that this is not correct and he is not an atheist (at home where I currently am I don’t have access to the other video links that you posted).

“You brought up sex and the body my dear Clarissa. Were Degrasse-Tyson’s comments so hard to understand let alone rebut?”

Wow. If there were a Nobel for furiously sneering condescension, this would win it.

Sir, you flatter me.

I agree. The argument from bad design can be problematic because it requires that you make some assumptions regarding the nature of the designer and her intentions. If one is willing to accept the possibility of a finite or limited designer then the argument losses much of it’s persuasiveness.

The argument from bad design shows that the argument from design is flawed because one is unwilling or unable to understand much if anything about the ‘designer’ including intentions, capabilities etc. When real science addresses these issues it is based on a positive knowledge about the ‘designers’ such as their general capabilities, their interests etc.

(I hope this will not be a double post like my previous one - I could swear I pressed the “post” button only once.)

Larry,

I am glad you enjoyed my article on the origin of life. Thanks for the nuanced analysis in # 179588, which clearly shows that the “argument from poor design” is just as poor as the “argument from good design” by those who do not understand how evolution works.

Al

On the internet I once listened to Tyson give a speech. He sure sounded like an atheist. That’s good. Religious scientists may not be worse than atheist scientists, but religion is never going to do a scientist any good.

This article by Neil deGrasse Tyson has the best reasons I have ever seen for throwing all gods in the garbage where they belong.

I just think that the complaint of poor design is empty here.

You’re absolutely right – it IS empty, just like the “design” arguments to which it responds.

Hi all,

PvM: I didn’t know—couldn’t have known, I think—that “Clarissa” is probably not a real person, i.e., a member of the general public posting criticisms in good faith. Since Panda’s Thumb is such a high-profile public space, it’s probably good to spell out these things, eh? The appearances were against you. (And even a troll can be unjustly accused of bringing up a subject they weren’t the first to bring up.)

David Stanton writes, “The argument from bad design can be problematic because it requires that you make some assumptions regarding the nature of the designer and her intentions. If one is willing to accept the possibility of a finite or limited designer then the argument losses much of it’s persuasiveness.”

To make a distinction: The argument from bad design can be seen as having two forms, weak and strong (borrowing jargon from the artificial intelligence field). Here “weak” means not a poor argument but an argument that is not so ambitious. The weak argument from bad design is that instances of “bad design” defeat the strong argument from good design, namely, the claim that highly adapted systems prove there is a God. This is not the only possible attack on the strong argument from good design, but it is valid. The strong argument from bad design, advanced by some atheists, is that one can invert the strong argument from good design to prove that God does not exist. This relies on simplistic and unexamined assumptions about what a God would have to do if a God did exist—the same assumptions, in fact, that the IDers deploy in their own little games.

If one is willing, as you say, to accept the possibility of a finite or limited designer, then the strong argument from bad design argument loses much of its persuasiveness. One could also posit an omnipotent God who values exactly the sort of universe that we have—whose standards of “good design” do not happen to conform to those of our local cultural milieu at this instant of history. This possibility is often opposed by moral outrage—“Well, maybe you can believe in a God that likes cancer and tsunamis and ichneumon moths, but I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it”—but this has its own problems (i.e., the moral sense of the critic originates inside the universe whose hypothetical Creator the critic is vilifying).

There is also the possibility of a kenotic or self-limiting God, much in fashion these days with the “process theology” school in liberal Christianity, which hails Alfred North Whitehead as a founding father (not exactly an irrational ninnyhammer, by the way). On this view, God values the sorts of things—evolution, personal freedom, fecund development of possibilities—that can only happen in a dangerous universe, an evolutionary universe, an open universe, a universe in which pain, death, evil, and reality TV may come to pass, a universe unlike a puppet show or a perfect machine.

Sure, maybe it’s all crapola. But whether it is or not, it’s not logically ruled out by the narrow width of the human birth canal, top-on retinal vascularization, hemorrhoids, impacted wisdom teeth, etc. As for myself, not to play coy, I’m an Episcopalian and more or less in the Martin Gardner camp, that is, a fideist. (You either believe or you don’t, but neither way do you have hard proof.)

Well. I do apologize for going on so long, but it’s easier to sign off than to edit—thanks for a rousing round, y’all—

Regards,

Larry

Thanks for that, Larry, it makes a lot of sense and certainly isn’t all “crapola”.

Al

(BTW, I am Catholic.)

Al Moritz Wrote:

but neither in “The perimeter of Ignorance” nor in “Holy wars” nor in the “Beyond Belief” videos that I have seen is there any hint that would lead me to believe that this is not correct and he is not an atheist

But he also doesn’t state his views, so the question is open.

Certainly the question is open, and as I said in the same post, it may be that he is not an atheist after all. Yet as also Roger says, “he sure sounds like an atheist”. More information is needed.

Erratum: I wrote (in quotes in original) “Well, maybe you can believe in a God that likes cancer and tsunamis and ichneumon moths, but I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.”

Make that ichneumon wasps. Time-honored poster bug for the cruelty of nature.

Larry

Re “Make that ichneumon wasps. Time-honored poster bug for the cruelty of nature.”

Is that a technical term for digger wasps?

Henry

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