Response to U of T Varsity Student Paper Article on Evolution and Intelligent Design Creationism
In late November the University of Toronto’s Varsity student newspaper ran this article in which it attempts to compare evolution, intelligent design, and creationism—yes, that’s correct, they distinguished between ID and creationism. My response, submitted as an Op-Ed, is presented here.
A response to Rolling the Dice (Andrea Yeomans, 27/11/2007)
By: Ron Brown, University of Toronto Alumnus (2006)
This apparently well-intentioned article begins to get it wrong from the start. Firstly, Creationism and Intelligent Design (ID) are not relevantly distinct. ID is nothing more than a repackaging of Creationism in scientific terminology. It is nothing more than the same old argument from ignorance (I can’t understand how this can be, therefore God did it) and teleology (if it appears to be ordered and designed, then there has to be an orderer/designer), except this time they are trying to hide the religion behind a thin veneer of science because the only way to get it into the classroom in America is to present Creationism as a legitimate secular scientific theory, and if this is not possible, to create such an illusion. Yes, ID does tend to be more consistent with modern science than Creationism when it comes to things like age of the Earth and so forth, but at its core, ID is still invoking the same old arguments from ignorance and teleology. The second early misstep this article makes is in assuming that a passionate debate is occurring. In the scientific community, at least, there is no debate. Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC—since they’re at their core the same thing, I’ll combine the terms on occasion) is not science. It is based on no solid evidence and makes no testable predictions that could falsify it. When leaving science (i.e., the systematic, rigorous, intellectually honest and rational approach to studying the universe), this may be a debate in the sense that people are arguing from different sides, but it surely is not an honest debate. IDC is not based on a coherent evidential base and sets up no condition under which it could be disconfirmed (in contrast to the scientific evolutionary position which has stood up against a legitimate possibility of falsification for well over 100 years and continues to do so today). A debate is surely not an honest debate when one of the sides is so remarkably immune to legitimate testing.
Lets take a look at Creationism and ID a little more closely. Creationism, on the one hand, is simply the belief that the universe and its contents were created by a deity (e.g., the Judeo-Christian God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster). On the other hand, which is really actually the same hand but this time wearing a lab glove, ID is the position that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection” (The Discovery Institute, DI, a leading proponent of ID). So, so far, the two are looking pretty close to one another. The one says “God did it” and the other says that, at minimum, “God necessarily did some of it”. In either case, a God is invoked. And make no mistake about who this God is. While the DI has taken great pains to distance themselves from public linkages to Christianity, the Christian God is absolutely who they are talking about. Bill Dembski, leader of the DI, has been recorded as having said that the Christian God is precisely who he has in mind. Michael Behe, ID “science” author (who has been all but disowned by the Department of Biochemistry at Lehigh University, where is a tenured faculty member) admits that because he’s a Christian, obviously he’s going to believe the designer is his God. To be honest, I assume that every member of the DI is a devout Christian. And there is not a single reported nontheist scientist who views ID as a valid scientific or rational enterprise.
What are some of ID’s more specific positions? It makes three main arguments: irreducible complexity (IC), specified complexity (SC), and fine-tuning. IC is the position that “a single system which is composed of several well-matched interacting parts that contribute to basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning”, as defined by author of the concept, Michael Behe. The position is that a functional system which requires all its parts to be functional cannot evolve because evolution occurs in a stepwise fashion wherein each step must be valuable in itself; a feature will not evolve if its useless simply because in 100 generations another part will have evolved which will be able to form a valuable synergy with the first part—evolution does not have this kind of foresight. The problem with this argument—as has been presented to IDists countless times, though they continue to say the same things over and over again to naïve audiences who hadn’t heard the earlier criticisms that they failed to address—is that it assumes that the parts of the system had no other possible uses. While the parts of an interlocking system could not have evolved if they were each useless until the system was complete, they absolutely could evolve if the parts were initially useful for something else prior to the later functional synergy. To call irreducible complexity an argument from ignorance would actually be to portray it an overly favourable light, at least in the case of proponents like Dembski and Behe. When IC is endorsed by people such as these, it is not a statement of I don’t know how this could have happened or This could not have happened in an undirected fashion, therefore God did it. That may have been the case at the beginning, but surely no longer. Both of these individuals are well aware of the criticisms to this position and the fact that they’ve never been able to address them. This is not simply an argument from ignorance. This is an argument from ignorance in which there is no ignorance; it’s an argument from ignorance made in deceit to lay individuals who are motivated to believe and usually do not have the background in evolutionary biology to know of the unaddressed rebuttals.
The second major argument of ID is Bill Dembski’s specified complexity. SC is the position that when something exhibits specified complexity (i.e., is both complex and “specified”, simultaneously), one can infer that it was produced by an intelligent cause (i.e., that it was designed) rather than being the result of natural processes. He gives the following demonstration. A letter from the alphabet is specified but simple. A long “sentence” comprised of random letters is complex but without specificity. A Shakespearean sonnet is both complex and specified. This argument is a textbook example of undiluted argument from ignorance. All it is saying is that which gives the appearance of design must have a designer. I don’t know how such functionality could have emerged without a designer, therefore a designer, which for him is the Christian God, did it. But like irreducible complexity, this too is a dishonest argument from ignorance. Specified complexity is exactly what evolution by natural selection explains! Evolution by natural selection is the process by which, in a population of replicating organisms who pass on heritable traits, organisms that possess advantages traits are more likely to survive and reproduce extensively and pass on their genes to the next generation. Over time, by the undirected and simply intuitive process of survival of the fittest, populations will evolve to have more and more beneficial (e.g., functional) traits in their gene pool, as if by design. Bill Dembski knows this. But he also knows that there are millions of Americans who do not understand this concept well, are motivated to reject it, and are motivated to believe in God.
Finally, there is the argument from fine-tuning. This argument says that the universe is just too perfect to have emerged by chance. If you changed the constants just a bit life would never have occurred, we would never have occurred, and certain structural features of our universe couldn’t have been. Why does any of this matter? What is so special about life as we know it, us, and the universe as we know it? The fine-tuning argument is analogous to a person that has just won a lottery saying that God must exist and have wanted me to win because the odds of me winning by chance were so small. So what if the odds of this universe, life as we know it, and us are small. To assume that this is something of any interest assumes that the universe was somehow trying to make us. The universe didn’t have to go in this direction. It could very well have gone in another, in which either no life existed or life of a radically different nature existed, and the universe’s structure as a whole was vastly different. And does it not occur to ID proponents that the Earth, the only part of our universe we know to contain life, is a miniscule fraction of the universe? And that life as we know it has, as far as science indicates, only existed for a fraction of the length of the universe? And that for all we know there are other parallel universes co-occurring with this one? Given all of this, on what rational basis is it plausible to think IDC is anything more than the most idle and baseless of speculation? The main current proponent of fine-tuning, physicist Guillermo Gonzalez, absolutely must know of all of these criticisms. The argument from fine-tuning is just as weak, one-sided and dishonest as the biologically-based arguments.
The three primary arguments of ID are nothing more than dishonest arguments from ignorance, as is ID by definition. Their proponents know that they are being dishonest, as each of them has heard the criticisms against their arguments hundreds of times over—and should have been able to deduce them independently anyhow—and have not been able to rationally rebuke them. Because they’re simply saying “God did it”, or at minimum, “God, err, “the designer” necessarily did some of it”, they make absolutely no testable predictions—who knows how God did it? God’s will and ways are mysterious and unknowable, right? Because ID cannot be tested, it cannot be falsified. And because it makes no specific and unique testable claims, it contributes nothing to science. No new directions, no new findings, nothing. To science, it is exactly what Creationism was: an argument from ignorance that made no positive testable assertions, contributed no new directions or insights, and could not be falsified. Speaking generally, the only real difference between Creationism and ID is that Creationism says “God did it” whereas ID says that “God, oops, “the designer”, necessarily did some of it, there had to be a God”. At their core, though, they’re both insisting that a supreme intelligence necessarily exists, and they do so presenting no positive evidence for this and establishing no conditions under which they would be willing to discredit the position. It is for these reasons among others (such as the fact that it was proven that a proposed ID science textbook endorsed by the ID proponents was the same textbook that was written earlier as a “Creation Science” text, but with all Creationist terms simply replaced by ID terms) that even conservative US Supreme Court judge John Jones, a Bush appointee, decided against ID in a 2005 case in Dover, Pennsylvania regarding the introduction of ID to local science classes. Jones determined that ID is nothing more than religious Creationism trying to elbow its way past the Constitution by disguising itself in scientific language.