10 January 2013

Yes, Intelligent Design is still based on a God-of-the-Gaps argument

If you've ever noticed that ID advocates spend vastly more time trying to poke holes in evolutionary biology than they do actually doing research that could substantiate their competing hypothesis, you might have come to the conclusion that the reason they aren't doing that research is because the whole thing is just one big argument from ignorance – if something takes on qualities that are arbitrarily determined to be sufficiently complex, then some "intelligence" must have designed it.

Over at the ironically titled blog Evolution News and Views, they've slapped up a post arguing why ID is totally not a God of the Gaps argument. It fails hard, and I highly recommend you read it just for a good old fashioned chuckle. But if you'd rather not, I've picked a few choice quotes to ream.
My friend Jamie Franklin recently published a post on his website explaining why he has come to reject the claims of ID. His main concern is that ID presents a god-of-the-gaps argument, one that is based on what we don't know, rather than what we do know, about life. Because Jamie's thoughts are echoed in many other sources, they deserve a reply. He writes:
Basically, it seems to me that [intelligent design] is a God of the gaps type argument. This is when we look at something in the world that science cannot currently explain and attribute it to some kind of supernatural force. So, for example, at some point somewhere in history someone probably said that the god Thor was responsible for thunder and lightning in the sky. At that time there was no naturalistic explanation for thunder and lightning. This is a God of the gaps argument.
It is very difficult to envision how someone could offer an inferential design argument based on the occurrence of thunder and lightning. On the other hand, it is not at all difficult to imagine how one could offer such an argument based upon the digital information encoded in the DNA molecule and the intricate nanotechnology that is so abundant in living systems.
That's just a failure of imagination. If you want to talk about the interactions of complex systems that produce thunder and lightening, there is plenty of potential fodder for creationist arguments from ignorance. But this is a moot argument; the fact that something demonstrates an arbitrary standard of complexity does not prove it was designed. Now, it's fine to hypothesize that it was designed and then use the scientific method to test that hypothesis. But it's not proof.

The analogy offered by my friend also confuses observational and historical science. Thunder and lightening are a phenomenon that we can readily observe, repeatedly in real time. As such, the phenomenon is accessible to experiment and measurement (although, admittedly, the causes of lightning are still not fully understood). The origin and evolution of life, on the other hand, are historical events and therefore (since they cannot be directly observed) require a different sort of reasoning process, an inference-based methodology.
This is perhaps the greatest canard in all of ID. Even if something occurred in the past, you can still make falsifiable predictions about what we will discover. I'm reading a book that discusses the inflationary theory of cosmology. You know why physicists think that a period of rapid inflation happened in the early universe? Because the theory made several predictions about the universe that were later confirmed with an extraordinary degree of accuracy through observation.

Similarly, evolution makes a number of falsifiable predictions about the makeup of the genome, the distribution of fossils, etc. etc. A great example is the prediction of a fused chromosome in humans. Primates, our evolutionary cousins, have 24 chromosome pairs. If we share a common ancestor, we should have 24 as well... but we don't. We have 23. So there were two possibilities: either the theory of common ancestry was in big trouble, or one of those pairs of chromosomes had fused. And indeed, we found that the chromosomes had fused. Yes, this all happened in the past, but that doesn't mean it's simply based on inference; all scientific theories require falsifiable predictions to be confirmed before they can be well-established.
Another important problem with my friend's comparison is that ID does NOT invoke a supernatural force to explain biological phenomena. This is because the scientific evidence, at least on its own, does not justify an inference to a supernatural cause.
That last part is true, but "God-of-the-Gaps" is simply one form of an argument from ignorance. ID advocates can try to argue that they're not really talking about God, but of course no one believes them because they're almost all evangelical Christians. They even said so in the infamous Wedge Document. Anyone who says ID isn't about God is flat-out lying. But even if they want to try to get off on the technicality that they're not necessarily invoking a deity, it's still an argument from ignorance because they haven't provided any specific falsifiable predictions that the theory makes. They just argue (wrongly) that evolution can't explain x, therefore the truth must be y. Sorry, that's not how science works.

A design inference is not triggered by any phenomenon that we cannot yet explain. Rather, it is triggered when two conditions are met. First, the event must be exceedingly improbable (so much so that it exhausts the available probabilistic resources).
ID advocates are really bad at calculating probabilities. Here's a great video that shows, in simple mathematical terms, how easy it is to get vastly improbable things:

Oh, but there's more:
Second, it must conform to a meaningful or independently given pattern.
Meaningful is a qualitative term, and "independently given" is just circular reasoning.
On what basis does one argue that the fine-tuning argument, whose logic Collins does accept, is not a "god-of-the-gaps" argument? In fact, if one were to take this way of thinking to its necessary conclusion, any tentative hypothesis at all about anything could be considered an argument from ignorance because a better explanation may be forthcoming in the future. 
The fine-tuning argument is an argument from ignorance. Numerous scientific theories have been proposed that could explain the supposed fine-tuning of the universe – there's no justification for defaulting to a supernatural explanation.

The second argument is astoundingly stupid. No hypothesis is ever accepted as valid unless it is supported by rigorous empirical data. Even then, just one discovery can completely overturn a well-established scientific theory (though obviously that becomes much less likely the more rigorously the theory is supported).
Furthermore, to assume that every phenomenon that we cannot explain yet must nonetheless have a materialistic explanation is to commit a converse "materialism-of-the-gaps" fallacy.
And we finally get to the ultimate canard of theistic arguments against materialism. Note that the above argument flies in the face of the earlier dodge that ID does not assume anything supernatural. It just shows what the real motives of these people are. But no scientific theory requires us to make an assumption of materialism. Science simply requires that things be observable and measurable. If something supernatural has an effect or influence on the natural world, we can detect it with the tools of science. If you want to claim that a supernatural cause has a significant effect but is undetectable by science, then you're just conceding that your supernatural cause is impotent and doesn't actually do anything – and you're definitely not doing science.

The problem with supernatural hypotheses is that no one who advocates them has found a way to detect, observe, or measure them. They haven't figured out a way to make falsifiable predictions from them. So while such explanations may ease the minds of the religiously inclined, they're not scientific. That's why ID, despite being dressed up in scientific-sounding language, is nothing but standard-issue creationism.

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