The gift that keeps on giving: Steve Fuller

Regular readers on this group may remember Steve Fuller whose contributions as an “expert witness” for the defense in the Kitzmiller law suit were quoted by the plaintiffs as well as the judge to show that ID was not science?

Last year, Steve Fuller released a book titled “Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution” which was recently reviewed by Sahotra Sarkar in “Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews”. Sarkar’s scathing review exposes the vacuity of Fuller’s arguments, a vacuity we have come to expect from ‘Intelligent Design’.

Not wanting to be left out, Denyse O’leary, validates the quality of the work by Sarkar by referring to him as a “third-rate Darwin hack”. Furthermore, Denyse, in her continued display of ignorance, responds to Sarkar’s observation that Fuller predicts that Darwinism (by which he means the entire framework of evolutionary theory) will be dead by the end of the twenty-first century and will be replaced by something more akin to ID creationism with “What about the Altenberg 16? “.

Indeed, Denyse, what about the Altenberg 16? Contrary to common ID myth, these people are neither displacing Darwinism and certainly are not intent on replacing it with something more akin to ID creationism. But somehow, Denyse, contrary to common journalistic practices, refuses to do the customary research which would led her to the statements released by the “Altenberg 16”. In addition, Massimo Pigliucci explains the reasons behind this workshop.

Now ask yourself, what has ID contributed to our understanding of evolution and evolutionary theory? Nothing, exactly nothing.

Various bloggers, well known to PT readers, have commented on Sarkar’s review, such as John Wilkins at “Evolving Thoughts” and John Lynch at “Stranger Fruit.

Sarkar’s review is full of funny quotes, I personally like the following

The third chapter turns to complexity, the emphasis on which is supposed to distinguish ID from “other versions of creationism” (p. 69). (I will happily follow Fuller in explicitly construing ID as a form of creationism but I doubt that most ID proponents will be quite as accommodating on this point.)

Always willing to read such statements in full context, I decided to check out the quote for myself.

On p. 69 we read:

Fuller wrote:

Intelligent Design theory (sic) differs most markedly from other versions of creationism by the emphasis it places on complexity.

Of course, the well informed reader should know by now that complexity as defined by Intelligent Design is merely the negative base-2 logarithm of the probability that a particular feature can be explained by a particular scientific hypothesis. Once a hypothesis explains a particular “complex” feature, the feature ceases to be “complex”.

And somewhat surprisingly, Fuller testified, under oath, during the Kitzmiller trial as follows

Q. Thank you. Do you have an opinion concerning whether intelligent design is creationism?

A (Fuller). I do, and it is not.

You can read Fuller’s full testimony at Talkorigins: Steve Fuller: Morning session and Steve Fuller: Afternoon session

Fuller responds

Despite, or perhaps because, the several hard hitting reviews of his book, Fuller has decided to ‘respond’. And what a better place than the bastion of ID ‘research’, Uncommon Descent. Somewhat disappointingly, Fuller does little to address the critiques. He responds that Sarkar missed the point and all his other errors, and mistakes are at best nothing more than editorial flaws, and distract from the real issues.

The real issue is that:

Steve Fuller wrote:

Non-teleological accounts of the world do not inspire the sustained pursuit of scientific inquiry – and so not surprisingly there are no good Darwinian accounts of science’s own significance for Homo sapiens.

In other words, Fuller’s argument is nothing more than that the role of ID is mostly limited to inspiring a sustained pursuit of scientific inquiry because in the early days, scientists were often motivated by their religious beliefs in pursuing a scientific exploration of the world around them. While historically true, I find the argument that religious faith is a requirement for a sustained pursuit of scientific inquiry somewhat lacking in logic and reason. In fact, it is not clear to me that the correlation between faith and science is not spurious since most scientists of those days all were men of faith. In fact, I could easily list some examples which seem to undermine the claimed correlation, such as the appeal to the supernatural to explain the unknown (something even Fuller’s best example, Newton, did not shy away from). Furthermore, I fail to see why Darwinian accounts should exist for the significant of science for Homo Sapiens. The suggestion that Darwinism is somehow the single explanatory factor seems rather simple minded. And yet, Fuller suggest, in what has become a common confusion amongst ID proponents, that there could not exist non religious motivations to pursue science or that Darwinian explanations could never exist. Not only do religious foundations not necessarily lead to good science, especially when religious foundations cause one to reject scientific evidence, it also seems a dubious claim that religion is somehow necessary as a stimulus for scientific inquiry. For instance, we have recent examples from the Young Earth Creationists who insist, based on their religious faith, that science needs to be ignored when it disagrees with their Biblical faith.

Other reviewers

On TalkReason we have an article by Norman Levitt helping us understand why Steve Fuller and ID are a “match made in heaven”. Norm Levitt also reviewed Fuller’s book

Merely out of mathematical whimsy, I want to consider Fuller’s very extensive discussion of “complexity” and “randomness.” This, as mathematicians and computer scientists are well aware, is a subject that has been thoroughly studied and analyzed for decades, generating a slew of deep results and fertile conjectures. Fuller, however, shows no awareness of the actual mathematical literature (even though much of it is accessible, at the basic level, to anyone with minimal mathematical skill). Instead, he seems content to take ID-theorist William Dembski as his guide.

In a wonderful paragraph, Levitt exposes, like Sarkar, many of Fuller’s flawed arguments such as:

None of this is backed up by serious analysis of the working methods and logical structure of biology itself. Fuller complacently views the ascendancy of evolutionary thought as a “rhetorical” rather than a “scientific” development. His principal evidence? The paucity of Nobel Prizes awarded for work on evolution! Of course, he never pauses to consider that under the idiosyncratic organization of the Nobel awards, there is no prize for biology as such. Biologists are smuggled in under the “Medicine and Physiology” category, which is just expansive enough to accommodate ethologists like Lorenz or Tinbergen, but not hard-core evolutionary theorists. In all of these pronouncements, Fuller is hard-pressed to hide his scorn for actual scientists who, it is obvious to him, know much less about what they think and how and why than a social theorist like himself who is enormously content to cite his own work endlessly.

In a debate between Fuller and Wolpert, Fuller argued that

Steve Fuller: Well, I don’t know what that means. Sorry, that is mysterious. That is a science stopper. A designer without, design without a designer is a science stopper, as far as I am concerned.

which is why Fuller is quick to identify the designer as God, so why can other ID proponents not be forthcoming about this, especially if “design without a designer” is a science stopper?

Fuller and Kitzmiller

Fuller’s contributions to the ruling include:

Third, Professor Steven William Fuller testified that it is ID’s project to change the ground rules of science to include the supernatural. (Trial Tr. vol. 28, Fuller Test., 20-24, Oct. 24, 2005).

Moreover and as previously stated, there is hardly better evidence of ID’s relationship with creationism than an explicit statement by defense expert Fuller that ID is a form of creationism. (Fuller Dep. at 67, June 21, 2005) (indicated that ID is a modern view of creationism).

In fact, as Matt Brauer pointed out, Fuller was cited 11 times in the final ruling.

See also Fuller’s expert witness report which helps understand Fuller’s position, however whimsical.

Religious motivation and science

Arguing that since historically people have done excellent science coming from a religious motivation that

It’s on those grounds that I believe Intelligent Design should be supported


In the same video clip, Fuller also admits that the textbook used in the Dover trial (Of Pandas and People) was a very poor textbook and that he said nothing good about it.

Fuller’s fascinations with ID seem to not be because he necessarily believes that ID has much relevance per se but rather because historically a belief in a Creator has been a foundation for doing science. In addition, Fuller seems rather impressed by (or should it be “under the impression that”) ID’s claims that it provides a ‘worthy alternative’ to evolutionary theory. As such Intelligent Design together with evolutionary theory would benefit the science education. Fuller’s position is that sociologists like him are in a better position to judge the nature of science than the scientists themselves, and that one need not understand the scientific arguments involved to judge the quality of said science. In fact, like so many ID proponents, Fuller seems to lack much of an understanding of either the science behind evolutionary theory but also Intelligent Design, taking Dembski and Behe’s word as the ‘Gospel’, while largely ignoring the many well qualified critics of their positions. It does not matter, Fuller envisions a science where anyone can ‘contribute’ and quality is less important than ‘participation’.

As one reviewer observes:

For Fuller, religion and science are compatible. He complains that evolutionary theory is being taught as dogma. It needs a “critical foil” and ID satisfies that function as well as anything else.

Source: Steve Fuller : Designer trouble by # Zoë Corbyn The Guardian, January 31 2006

In this context I also encourage the readers to listen to a discussion between Cohen and Fuller exploring the issues involved in the debate between intelligent design and evolutionary theory. It runs for slightly over an hour but it helps understand Fuller’s position and why Fuller’s interest is not so much in the details of scientific accuracy, something to be left best to scientists, but rather the argument that ID can contribute to science education through questioning science and providing a foundation on which scientific interest can be explained. Neither one seems particularly relevant nor convincing to me.

The point at the end of the day is that since scientists have done good science when they, based on their religious faith, decided to propose scientific mechanisms to explain how God created, Fuller believes that ID is worth to be considered in the science curriculum, even if it is wrong. From a perspective of a non-scientist, Fuller is quick to define the extent of science even though his own comments show that he is not very well versed in the scientific arguments.

Of course, other than as an audience for his claims and his books, I doubt that Fuller has much sympathy for the Intelligent Design position. He clearly defines ID’s designer to be “God”, is not concerned about the continued scientific vacuity of Intelligent Design and is even less worried about his sometimes heretical theological claims. Fuller and Intelligent Design are in many aspects, a “match made in Heaven”. In fact, ID’s ‘loving’ embrace of Fuller seems to have extended the Big Tent to include some interesting theological concepts.

Newton, God and science

In a recent paper, Fuller apparently argues that “[it] traces the roots of intelligent design theory to the aspiration of Newton and other scientific revolutionaries to regard the mechanical world-view as enabling humans to approximate the mind of God.”

Of course, I doubt that much of any attempt is made to validate the necessity of such an position, and in fact, Fuller may have forgotten how this world view caused Newton to argue that God was actively involved in correcting the orbits of planets, since according to his understanding of mathematics, such orbits could not be stable. Indeed, the roots of ID can clearly be traced back to Newton as he confused, just like the modern day ID proponent, the concept of ignorance with the concept of God.

As so many have so clearly and convincingly argued, such a position not only dooms ID to remain scientifically without content but also theologically risky. Perhaps by promulgating a theologically risky proposition, Fuller may very well be hastening ID’s demise amongst the faithful. As far as the scientific vacuity of ID is concerned, little hope exists that Fuller will challenge this either, as Levitt observes:

It is almost superfluous to add that Fuller has done little to come to terms with Dembski’s most trenchant critics, actual experts in complexity and information theory, such as Mark Perakh and Jeffrey Shallit, the latter of whom has justifiably damned Dembski’s work as “pseudo-mathematics.” Nor has Fuller been very accurate in describing Dembski’s intended program, which is to demonstrate “mathematically” that the evolution of complex life via natural selection is literally impossible. But to acquaint himself with this now-voluminous literature would violate one of his favorite axioms, viz., that a “social epistemologist” needn’t actually understand science in order to belittle it.

Mike Dunford, states it clearly and succinctly, catching Fuller in yet another scientific inaccuracy:

‘Anything new in science comes when scientific work comes up with something new, and this is unpredictable. At the time that Linus Pauling gambled that the genetic material would be a protein, he knew that it was a gamble and that experimental work would decide it.’ But your own example shows that Pauling DID predict correctly…

(Steve Fuller, comment 60)

As has been pointed out already, Pauling bet wrong. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a nucleic acid. Proteins are polypeptides. The two are very different kinds of chemical. That is really very basic biology - high school level, in fact. (I suspect that Bob Weimann would be somewhat disappointed in you for forgetting that.)

The Pauling situation illustrates a number of the problems both with teaching intelligent design and with Steve’s participation in this issue.

To begin with, let’s look at what the Intelligent Design people are demanding. They are not demanding equal funding for empirical research. They are not demanding access to the scientific literature. They are not demanding to be allowed to participate in the scientific process. They are demanding to be allowed to bypass research and publication and to place their material in the high school classroom. In the Pauling example, it would be like immediately demanding, prior to the expected experimental confirmation, to teach that protein is the genetic material.

When it comes to moving new research into the classroom, science moves very slowly and very, very conservatively. This is done for good reason. The sciences are very complex fields. Conducting and critically evaluating new research requires an enormous knowledge base - if it is to be done competently. Putting brand new, controversial material into the classroom might sound like a good way to stimulate critical inquiry in the students, but critical inquiry in this case requires a knowledge base that students simply don’t have at that level.

It’s also a knowledge base that Steve apparently doesn’t have. He speculates in comment 38 that “some design-based paradigm will overtake evolution in about 100 years,” but he doesn’t appear to have the basic knowledge of biology to actually make that an educated guess. He might be basing his opinion on the way that other major scientific revolutions have progressed, but that’s hardly a safe (or particularly relevant) basis for speculating on the outcome of specific cases.

Carl Sagan summed that up well, I think:

But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

By Steve’s own admission, ID has not progressed to the point of formulating or testing hypotheses. How, then, do we know that they aren’t Bozo. If it is possible that they are, why put them in the schools?

Similarly, Ben Alpers argues in the same comments

But, in fact, Fuller’s analysis of ID involves more than the boring old job of testing its knowledge claims. It involves speculating on the possibility that in the future, in some inscrutible way, ID might generate knowledge claims that are testable. And because we can speculate that it might generate future testible knowledge claims, we must ignore its current lack of such claims and teach it as science in high school classes.

Which raises a relevant issue namely, is something worth teaching just because it speculates that science may be wrong, especially when it fails to contribute to science in any positive manner, and failing to be ‘testable’? Even if one were to accept the (slight) possibility that ID may stumble onto something of scientific interest, why should we accept its premises when ID refuses by its own nature to engage in scientific inquiry? Sure, people have the right to formulate hypotheses based on their religious faith, but the right to speak does not extend to a right to be heard, especially when history has shown them to be unable to listen. In several of his comments, Fuller suggests that the main reason science rejects Intelligent Design is because of its strong roots in Christian theology, ignoring cause and effect. Intelligent Design is ignored by scientists because scientists have looked at its claims and found it to be lacking in content, relevance and accuracy. That in addition, this scientific lack of content can be explained by its roots in theology is just ‘icing on the cake’.

In the end it all comes down to, what Mike Dunford describes as

“How can you possibly hope to formulate an informed, independent opinion if you don’t know the underlying science?”

And yet, this is something which seems to be of little concern to both ID proponents as well as Steve Fuller. In fact, this appears to be a great tradition amongst ID defenders such as Phillip ‘Godfather of ID’ Johnson and Francis Beckwith. Although, I believe that Beckwith’s ‘love affair’ with Intelligent Design has come to a predictable ending.

And finally, in 2008, Fuller released yet another book on the topic of intelligent design, titled “Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design’s Challenge to Darwinism” which got a short review in the Guardian:

Once upon a time, Fuller points out, most science was inspired by the possibility of understanding God’s creation. That is true, but it does not mean, as Fuller pretends, that contemporary “ID” is an alternative method of doing science: its remit is strictly anti-science, cynically positing a “God of the gaps” for political reasons. For his part, Fuller happily adopts ID’s rhetorical tactics: speaking of biologists’ “faith”; forgetting to mention (or merely being ignorant of) the wealth of evidence for evolution in modern biology that wasn’t available to Darwin himself; and even muttering about the “vicissitudes” of fossil-dating, thus generously holding the door open for young-Earth creationists, too. The book is an epoch-hopping parade of straw men, incompetent reasoning and outright gibberish, as when evolution is argued to share with astrology a commitment to “action at a distance”, except that the distance is in time rather than space. It’s intellectual quackery like this that gives philosophy of science a bad name.

Another, slightly more positive review in the “Times Higher Education” points out that

Upholders of theistic evolution usually espouse “methodological naturalism”, which Fuller characterises as a “pseudo-philosophy” fuelled by bigotry. I have always understood it to be the view that properly scientific explanations refer only to “natural” (spatio-temporal) data, without denying that other data (like God) may exist, and have some form of causal influence, not falling within the purview of observational and experimental science. Fuller claims it is a conflation of logical positivism (all factual statements must be verifiable) and metaphysical naturalism (only natural causes exist). This claim is puzzling, as methodological naturalism is a term invented precisely to contrast with metaphysical naturalism, and no naturalist is committed to a positivist doctrine of meaning and verification. I cannot see how it is “anti-religious bigotry” to say that God’s acts cannot be unambiguously verified by public observation, or repeated, or experimentally tested. Indeed, this seems to be a common religious view, and even to follow from the fact that God is not a material entity and that God’s acts obey no general causal laws.

So what to make of all this? I believe that Fuller has a sincere though mistaken beliefs about the impact nay necessity of religion (preferably monotheistic) on scientific inquiry and curiosity and while I believe the evidence clearly shows him to be wrong, I can appreciate his position. However, to argue that Intelligent Design deserves a place at the table of science because it sounds plausible and sincere to Fuller and because it serves to ‘keep evolutionists’ honest seems to be rather a high price to pay. Especially when the request comes from a sociologist who seems to consider actual knowledge about the science involved to be a hindrance to evaluating if something deserves to be treated as science. This is particularly troublesome since so many have shown ID to be scientifically vacuous. It is thus not surprising that Fuller neither explains why ID is scientifically relevant nor explains why evolutionary theory is in need of an ‘ID’ opponent, and worse, why Fuller relies on the strawman that science and scientists reject ID because of its theological roots.