Saturday, November 25, 2006

Claremont tussles over ID

Evolving a right wing

The Claremont Institute in southern California is a bastion of originalists who not only know the founding principles of the United State of America, but believe we should go back to them. In practice, this point of view translates into a traditionally conservative agenda of limited government (unlike what passes for “conservative” in most quarters these days) and enhanced property rights. The Claremont Institute's quarterly publication, the Claremont Review of Books, carries the subtitle A Journal of Political Thought and Statesmanship. Earlier this year, it tumbled into a food fight over evolution and intelligent design.

Some conservatives are quite aggrieved that so many of their brethren insist on linking right-wing political philosophy with creationism. James Q. Wilson, the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, took up cudgels against the notion that conservatives need be creationists when he wrote an essay titled Faith in Theory (Why “intelligent design” simply isn't science) for the Wall Street Journal:
When a federal judge in Pennsylvania struck down the efforts of a local school board to teach “intelligent design,” he rightly criticized the wholly unscientific nature of that enterprise. Some people will disagree with his view, arguing that evolution is a “theory” and intelligent design is a “theory,” so students should look at both theories.

But this view confuses the meaning of the word “theory.” In science, a theory states a relationship between two or more things (scientists like to call them “variables”) that can be tested by factual observations. We have a “theory of gravity” that predicts the speed at which two objects will fall toward one another, the path on which a satellite must travel if it is to maintain a constant distance from the earth, and the position that a moon will keep with respect to its associated planet....

The other meaning of theory is the popular and not the scientific one. People use “theory” when they mean a guess, a faith or an idea. A theory in this sense does not state a testable relationship between two or more things. It is a belief that may be true, but its truth cannot be tested by scientific inquiry. One such theory is that God exists and intervenes in human life in ways that affect the outcome of human life. God may well exist, and He may well help people overcome problems or even (if we believe certain athletes) determine the outcome of a game. But that theory cannot be tested. There is no way anyone has found that we can prove empirically that God exists or that His action has affected some human life. If such a test could be found, the scientist who executed it would overnight become a hero.
There are no surprises here for the informed citizen who knows a little bit about the enterprise of scientific research and the standards of proof that accompany it. Wilson continues his essay by discussing such things as the religious motives of intelligent design advocates and design flaws in nature (the eye's “blind spot”) that suggest the absence of an intelligent designer. He was promptly taken to task, of course, by those ID sympathizers whose will to believe in a creator God makes them eager to embrace ID as scientific (and not a thinly veiled attempt to make fundamentalist religious dogma more respectable).

Henry V. Jaffa responded to Wilson in the Spring 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books in an essay titled Who Owns the Copyright to the Universe?. He makes the perfectly obvious point that evolution is silent on the issue of God, so the faithful need not object to lessons on evolution in school, but then he says that intelligent design is equally neutral!
Professor Wilson is behind the curve of controversy on this topic, which has raged in recent years beyond the boundaries of the 19th-century debates—or of the absurd Scopes trial. There is, for example, nothing in Darwinian theory that excludes the possibility that natural selection is the means by which God created the species. It may be an act of faith to believe this, but it is no less an act of faith to deny it. There is therefore nothing in the logic of evolution, strictly speaking, that places it in opposition to the Bible. Hence there never was any compelling reason for Biblical fundamentalists to oppose the teaching of evolution; nor is there reason now for Darwinian fundamentalists to oppose the teaching of intelligent design.

While there is nothing in the theory of evolution that contradicts the proposition that this is how God created, there is also nothing in the theory of intelligent design—many intelligent design advocates to the contrary, notwithstanding—which necessarily implies a designer.
Jaffa thereby presents us with a designer-free theory of intelligent design. Having ticked off the large majority of IDists, he sums up his argument for his version of design:
The idea of goodness—what Plato called the idea of the good—must pre-exist any work to be called good. To call a work good, whether the work be by God, or man, or chance, implies a pre-existing design. But the design, in itself, is independent of the designer. How the world came to be may be a mystery. That man is a rational being is a fact which we take as a starting point. If this fact is seen as the end or purpose of the evolutionary process, then we must conclude that the stages of the evolutionary process were means leading to this end. We must conclude that evolution in itself is an account of the accomplishment of a grand design.
No, I don't quite follow it either. How did “purpose” get in there? What Jaffa is talking about is ultimately just a form of theistic evolution, a notion toward which many scientists are indifferent. As long as this God person doesn't keep interfering, then He's welcome to sit on the sidelines and let his minions try to give Him credit for the results.

The Summer 2006 installment of the Claremont Review of Books returned to the issue with a reply to Jaffa's criticisms by Wilson himself. Here is Wilson's rebuttal, in full:
Debating Intelligent Design

I am puzzled by my friend Harry Jaffa's objection to my Wall Street Journal essay on Intelligent Design, since I agree with his central argument: there is “nothing in Darwinian theory that excludes the possibility that natural selection is the means by which God created the species” (“Who Owns the Copyright to the Universe?,” Spring 2006). Evolution rules out the possibility that God created each species one at a time but it does not rule out the possibility that God designed natural selection, infused mankind with a soul, or presides over an afterlife.

My objection to Intelligent Design is not that no Designer could exist, but that the advocates of Intelligent Design produce false arguments to support that Designer's existence. Their argument is that some biological phenomena display such “irreducible complexity” that evolution could not have produced them. As teams of biologists have shown, this is false. I.D. proponents are entitled, as is everyone else, to believe in God, but they are not entitled to create a misleading test of His existence. I doubt that I am “behind the curve” on this matter, since the National Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all said the same thing.

As the federal court in Pennsylvania showed in its lengthy opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover, I.D. supporters repeatedly argue that facts prove God's existence and thus evolution must be wrong. The court struck down the school board's requirement that I.D. be taught, on the grounds that this rule violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. I have some trouble with how courts interpret that clause, and no doubt Professor Jaffa does as well, but the clause, amply if sometimes weirdly supported by many Supreme Court decisions, governs public schools.

I tried in my essay to distinguish between two meanings of the word “theory.” In one case, a theory is a scientific prediction that can be tested by facts. In the other, a theory is an assertion based on faith or speculation. Darwinian evolution is a theory in the first sense, one that is amply supported by facts even though it cannot say very much about the existence of God. Intelligent Design is a theory in the second sense. Its advocates, like the Discovery Institute, wish “to defeat scientific materialism” and replace it with “the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” (I quote from the Discovery Institute's “Governing Goals.”)

It is true that a debased and incorrect view of evolution was once used to allege that blacks are inferior. But a debased and incorrect view of religion has also been used to support dictatorial regimes. Evil exists, and we must defend human dignity against it. And even evolution can teach us something (but not everything) about what is good. Our human experience leads us to acquire a moral sense even if we are neither religious nor scientific.

James Q. Wilson
Pepperdine University
Malibu, CA
Wilson's letter to the Claremont Review of Books was accompanied by other reactions to his initial essay and Jaffa's rejoinder. The usual ID talking points appeared in various guises in a letter from Joseph M. Bessette of Claremont McKenna College:
I take it that Jaffa's point is that the actual scientific claims of Darwinian theory are irrelevant to the large questions of human purpose and the human good.... Although Jaffa may well be right philosophically, what seems to me incontestable is that over the past century-and-a-half Darwinian theory has eroded the claims of human dignity, human nobility, and free will. Certainly, many of the practitioners of modern science have reached just this conclusion.

Regrettably, in defending (a kind of) intelligent design, Jaffa, like many of those he criticizes, fails to recognize that there is a genuine scientific debate over the tenets of Darwinian theory. I do not mean the notion of descent with modification, an idea that precedes Darwin himself, but the claim derived from the 20th-century's neo-Darwinian synthesis that random mutations in the human genome combined with natural selection can account for the diversity of the living world. Biologists and chemists with respectable academic credentials challenge the argument that environmental selection pressures operating on random copying errors in the DNA molecule can produce fantastically complex molecular machines. Mathematicians calculate the unrealistically low probabilities for the events presumed by Darwinian theory, even over long timescales. Information theorists raise doubts about the power of random mutation and natural selection to account for the vast growth of complexity and information content in living beings since the first simple cell. Physicists and others point to the amazing “fine tuning” of the universe: the laws and constants of nature seem to be precisely what they have to be for life to exist.

... One track in the Intelligent Design argument explicates the mathematical basis for distinguishing chance occurrences from those caused by an intelligent actor.

The keepers of the Darwinian orthodoxy have succeeded, unfortunately, in convincing many that there is no genuine scientific debate over these matters. We are told that the debate is really one between modern science and biblical literalism, or, somewhat more charitably, that the debate is a metaphysical one outside the ken of science. Yet ever since the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species serious scientists have challenged the adequacy of mutation and natural selection to account for the living world. Serious scientists still do.
As usual, whenever someone cites the “genuine scientific debate” going on between evolutionists and IDists, there is the false implication of some kind of parity between the two sides. However, a membership directory of the National Academy of Sciences would be but a small portion of the evolution side of the debate and the roster of research associates of the Discovery Institute would be a whopping preponderance of ID's supposedly genuine scientists.

Speaking of the keen intellects of the Discovery Institute, the DI was represented in the ID discussion in the Claremont Institute's publication by none other than Jonathan Witt.
Harry Jaffa asks “Who Owns the Copyright to the Universe?” and suggests it probably isn't the federal government, much less a low-level district judge in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Last winter, Judge John Jones ruled that mentioning Intelligent Design in the Dover, Pennsylvania, science classroom was impermissible. Many assume the ruling merely protects Darwin's theory of evolution from faith-based challenges in that school district. But the Supreme Court settled that issue 19 years ago. Judge Jones reached much further. He and men like James Q. Wilson insist that nature provides not “a shred of evidence” for design, and then set about denying students and teachers the freedom to discuss voluntarily not only design arguments in biology, but even design arguments that appeal to the Big Bang or the fine tuning of the laws of physics.

Intelligent Design is much broader than biology. I.D. holds that some features of the natural world are best explained by reference to an intelligent cause rather than to purely material causes. The idea stretches back to ancient Greece and has been updated by 20th-century discoveries in physics, cosmology, information theory, and the information revolution in biology. New evidence has reinvigorated it, and that's why some who oppose the idea want to minimize discussion of it. What's the solution? Don't mandate Intelligent Design. Don't label it a thought crime. Prof. Jaffa has the right prescription: mandate intellectual freedom.

Jonathan Witt
Discovery Institute
Seattle, WA
Witt dutifully repeats the Discovery Institute talking point that Kitzmiller is an act of censorship, forbidding even the “mention” of intelligent design. The decision actually, however, simply declares that ID is not a scientific theory and, as such, cannot be taught in a science classroom. A biology teacher in Dover is still able to mention ID—just as a geography teacher might mention the notion of a flat earth.

The lop-sided debate will undoubtedly continue.

Update: Pim van Meurs over at The Panda's Thumb cites a little-noted observation by Dembski that intelligent design need not always imply an intelligent designer. Perhaps this is where Jaffa got the notion. Check it out.


anomalous4 said...

This is certainly off-topic, but hello from a fellow Blake fan!

Anonymous said...

Their argument is that some biological phenomena display such “irreducible complexity” that evolution could not have produced them.

This is a caricature of an actual argument. Intelligence better explains the origin of an encoding, self-correcting system than does a selection, stochastic process.

Zeno said...

Well, Mr. Bradford, intelligence can certainly produce an encoding, self-correcting system: witness Shannon's error-correction codes, which carry within themselves the means of their own repair. But you merely state that intelligence is a better explanation than natural selection, which is no argument at all.

Haven't you learned to stop relying on argument from personal incredulity?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Bradford,

Like Zeno, I'm a bit confused by your comment. You assert that Zeno's characterization is faulty but then don't explain why. Instead you substitute one explanation for another without the explaining why yours is more apt. (This presents a particular problem because you in effect assume the truth of that which is being argued.) To paraphrase Monty Python "That's not an argument. It's simply assertion."

Perhaps you would care to clarify your position a bit?


Anonymous said...

But you merely state that intelligence is a better explanation than natural selection, which is no argument at all.

And you merely infer that natural selection explains how encoding nucleic acids arise without offering evidence that as to how.

Haven't you learned to stop relying on argument from personal incredulity?

I learn that when you learn to rely on empirical evidence to support your claim that a selection process gives rise to encoding nucleic acids.

Anonymous said...

Mr Bradford,

I read your most recent comment with great interest and would like to thank your for taking the time to clarify your position.

I'm afraid I still don't understand your posistion though. Although I may be presenting a false or overly simplistic dichotomy, could you please tell me which of the following posistions most accurately summarizes your central claim? (1) The selection process we find in nature can only be adequately explained by assuming some pre-ordained design; or (2) Although natural selection might explain the process, intelligent design does a better job of doing so.

In either case, could please briefly site your reasons/evidence?



Anonymous said...

Pid, Natural selection does not explain origins with experimental confirmation of claims. NS can be a useful analytical tool for already existing systems but since ID is not restricted to adapation of existing systems, origins can be a point at which IDers stake a claim. The focus of my claim was a very specific biological system and yes, I would claim that intelligence better accounts for its origin than the alternative explanation.

Zeno said...

As you may have noticed, PiD, William Bradford has simply repeated, time and again, his claim that natural selection is insufficient and intelligence is a better explanation (without saying why). Welcome to the world of blog trolls. You can engage him in discussion as long as you like, but I assure you that no progress will ever be made. It's a characteristic pattern and a perfect invitation to a waste of time.

Anonymous said...

As you may have noticed, PiD, William Bradford has simply repeated, time and again, his claim that natural selection is insufficient and intelligence is a better explanation (without saying why).

Prebiotic reactions are predicted based on presumed conditions and chemistry. Why would it be necessary to demonstrate the insufficiency of a prebiotic natural selection concept whose plausibility has never been shown?

I was responding to his two summarized claims. Unlike many physical phenomenon encoding nucleic acids have properties known to exist in intelligently designed symbolic coding systems. Identifying similar properties and inferring similar causality is a common basis for a hypothesis. But there is a more specific and measurable claim namely, that the retention of information in nucleic acids is dependent on existing detection and repair mechanisms. Without them genomic corruption is inevitable and cellular replication soon becomes compromised. That's a prediction. The expectation that repair mechanisms are selected prior to or simultaneously with the mechanisms they correct, amounts to a miraculous claim.

Anonymous said...

William Bradford, you write:

Why would it be necessary to demonstrate the insufficiency of a prebiotic natural selection concept whose plausibility has never been shown?

However, I don't see any evidence for the claim that natural selection has not provided a "plausible" "prebiotic natural selection concept." I also find myself wondering if scientists who support natural selection agree that such an explanation is necessary for their theory to be valid.

I'm also troubled by your concluding claim:

The expectation that repair mechanisms are selected prior to or simultaneously with the mechanisms they correct, amounts to a miraculous claim.

The phrase "miraculous claim" substitutes invective for argument. You assume at least two conditions that you have not adequately established. First, can you provide peer-reviewed data that supports your claim that "repair mechanisms would have to be selected prior to or simultaneously with the mechanisms they correct"? Second, can you demonstrate that an Intelligent Designer is the only explanation for the existence of these repair mechanisms? In other words, what exactly, is "miraculous" about the scenario you describe?

If you would care to respond directly to these points we can perhaps continue our conversation. Otherwise, I will conclude that in this instance zealotry has gotten the better of reasoned, civilized argument.


Anonymous said...

Pid, natural selection was defined by Darwin and reaffirmed many times since. It acts like a sieve in rejecting changes harmful to an organism and retaining beneficial changes. It is not however a generating mechanism. There is no established prebiotic generating mechanism analogous to changes in existing genomes. However if you engage in a Gedankenexperiment and assume, for the sake of argument, that a replicating encoding mechanism arose there would be a need to retain information having selective value. We know there are identifiable cellular mechanisms that do this job and that without them life ceases. What is the selective value of correction mechanisms prior the existence of functions they are designed to correct?

Anonymous said...

William Bradford,

I appreciate your explanation. However, you've left at least half of my question unanswered. Have peer-reviewed scientific journals that are commonly regarded to be reputable published articles that support your conclusions? If so, can you please cite what you consider to be the three most important?

(I apologize for not doing the leg-work myself, but I am an amateur in this field and wouldn't really know where to begin.)



Anonymous said...

Pid, there is an abundance of papers about correction and repair mechanisms. I pose the contention as a testable hypothesis rather than a conclusion. If confirmed, it would be a solid basis for theoretical models consistent with ID. I can refer you to studies (many of which are very recent) which identify and explain what the mechanisms are to which I was referring.

Anonymous said...

William Bradford, you have again failed to answer my question directly. I was not inquiring about the existence or operation of correction and repair mechanisms but rather about your contention that they can only be explained by presupposing a "design" for evolution. Are there no studies that explore your testable hypothesis? And if not, are there any in peer-reviewed journals that have borne out the assertion that ID is the only reasonable explanation for "evolution"? If so, please cite three.

I realize that there is no way for scientists to conduct experiments on all testable hypothesis and that it is possible that no one has gotten around to conducting a study that directly examines ID's claims. So if you feel that ID is not supported by scientific evidence due to either an outbreak of intellectual myopia in the scientific world, let me impose upon you further, please cite one of the many published peer-reviewed articles that dispute ID and provide specific counter arguments. Of course, if you can provide a link to a previously published article that does so, please provide that citation.

Let me close by saying that I appreciate your good will in continuing what might be for you a vexing conversation. However, I would ask that you make your answers a bit more direct and to the point.

Anonymous said...

Are there no studies that explore your testable hypothesis?

None that I am aware of.

And if not, are there any in peer-reviewed journals that have borne out the assertion that ID is the only reasonable explanation for "evolution"?

My argument is that ID is imputed at the origin of life. It is a front loaded claim. Just as the function of a machine can be explained without reference to how it was designed and assembled so too can adaptive changes in organisms. Particular articles can cite findings that are consistent with or in conflict with theory. There are findings published in peer reviewed journals that are consistent with the origins claim. Are specific references to them what you are looking for?

Anonymous said...

William Bradford, again I must ask you to be more direct, this time in your second answer. Please define what you mean by "theory." Please also define what you mean by the "origins claim."

If you have the time, I ask that you answer this question:
You claim that there are findings in peer-reviewed journals that "are consistent with the origins claim." If by "origins claim" you refer to ID, wouldn't it be more accurate to say that these studies are not so much consistent with the claim that there must be a design as they are silent on that point? (You admit that you are aware of no peer-reviewed articles that specifically confirm that evolution is impossible without a designer.)

But perhaps I have been wasting your time. Your last response leads me to believe that you do not see ID as an explanation requiring scientific confirmation but instead as something akin to an article of faith, or if you prefer an axiomatic assertion.

To jettison the jargon, do you find ID to be a reasonable explanation that you are willing to accept even though there is no direct scientific evidence for it nor scientific studies that have shown the standard model of evolution to be faulty?