December 28, 2004

Intelligent Design vs. Evolution

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:52 am

And now for a change of pace, there has been a lot of activity in the blogosphere lately about the Intelligent Design theory of the origin of humanity. The Washington Post ran an article about yet another battle to water down the teaching of evolution in Dover, PA. Hugh Hewitt blogged a critique of the article with links to Intelligent Design apologists here and here. Of course, there are many sources for the opposing viewpoint; one I still find well-argued is from Skeptics Magazine.

A quick recap of the issue: Intelligent Design (ID) argues that the irreducible complexity which is present in humans and other living organisms shows evidence of design that could not arise without a designer, and a very intelligent one at that. ID does not presume to identify the designer, although God certainly would fit the bill. Instead, ID looks for signs that a strictly random evolutionary process could not result in anything as complex as humankind.

While I certainly believe that God had everything to do with our creation, I have several misgivings about ID. The first is scientific. Its proponents argue (see the links above) that ID is a viable scientific theory, and should be judged accordingly. The issue here is one of falsifiability: a scientific theory must be able to be proven false, or else it is just a belief, not a scientific theory. The ID camp says that ID could be proven false by scientific evidence. However, to be proven false, scientists would have to prove that irreducible complexity does not exist, or in other words, that all the complexity we see in the world has resulted from purely mechanical processes. But it is next to impossible to prove a negative. Any time one example of irreducible complexity is shown to have natural causes, the response can always be along the lines of “well, sure, but what about <insert your favorite organism/organ/ecosystem/biochemical pathway here>? That is definitely irreducibly complex.” So, ID could in fact be true, but I don’t see how the scientific method will ever prove or disprove it.

My second misgiving is cultural. If the ID debate were strictly a scientific one, then research into the mathematics of designed vs. random complexity would be fruitful. Even if ID never became a true scientific theory, I’m sure science would benefit from efforts to advance our knowledge in this area. The problem is that this is yet another front in the culture wars. The secular scientific community dismisses the ID proponents as religious zealots, while the ID proponents are busy trying to get ID taught alongside evolution in public schools despite the fact that it clearly hasn’t passed the same experimental and academic hurdle as the rest of the science curriculum. What should be fought out in scientific papers and the halls of academia is instead caught up in the red state vs. blue state culture war with the courts again acting as referee.

A third misgiving is theological. ID is looking to prove the existence of a designer of the universe. But God, the actual designer of the universe, has always been rather careful about how and to whom he reveals himself. “Blessed are those who believe without seeing”, and “we are justified by grace through faith.” Faith seems to be a pretty important part of God’s plan. If ID or any scientific theory proved God’s existence, there would be no faith, only scientific knowledge. While that would do wonders for church attendance, it would destroy free will. I just don’t think God is going to allow that to happen.

Finally, I think this whole evolution vs. ID debate is ancillary. Instead, Christians should be talking about the anthropic principle. This principle (not a theory, but an observation regarding the universe) states that if any of the fundamental constants of our universe, such as the speed of light, the gravitational constant, or Planck’s constant, were changed just a little, life would be impossible in our universe. Every one of these constants seems to be precisely the value required to result in the conditions necessary for life. These constants seem to have been specified by God to provide for the development of humanity.

Secular skeptics have two arguments against the anthropic principle. The first argument is that our universe could be one of an infinite number of universes, or “multi-verses”, each of which has a different set of values for the fundamental constants. The fact that we are busy blogging about this is because we are in the one universe that can support life, and it could not be otherwise. However, if ID is not a scientific theory, then the concept of multi-verses isn’t even science. It is no easier to believe in multi-verses than it is to believe in a personal and merciful God.

The second argument against the anthropic principle is chance. The probability of these values for the fundamental constants is extremely low, but not zero. We lucked out. I find this precisely the way God often reveals himself. The anthropic principle is not proof of God, but it points the way. It does not require us to believe in him, for that we need faith. But it is a hint, a wink and a nod from God, telling us that we are on the right track, that the puzzle of an extremely improbable universe that has led inexorably to life is a good puzzle to think about. This is how I find God in my daily life: subtle signs of his presence that are easily overlooked, but once noticed, can’t be ignored.

I just don’t understand why conservative Christians are so consumed with battling against Darwin, while they miss the real fingerprints of God in the universe.

9 Comments

  1. Nice post. I (what you would call, I suspect, a conservative Christian) agree that the Anthropic Principle is the place to look. However, just to nitpick, I would not reserve the term “Intelligent Design” to refer only to the arguments being waged against evolution. I would (and do) use ID to refer to the design vs. multiverse cosmological debate. Officially, “Anthropic Principle” carries some baggage — with its weak and strong versions — that it is somewhat ambiguous.

    It is also worth noting (especially since I’m a physicist) that on the cosmology ID debate (what you called the Anthropic Principle) things have been more civil. Many physicists, regardless of their beliefs, agree that the evidence presented for design is compelling enough that it must be addressed, e.g., by a multiverse alternative. Evolutionists, who conveniently relegate not just the miracle of a fertile planet but the onset of life itself to other disciplines, are much more prone to name calling.

    Comment by David Heddle — January 4, 2005 @ 4:06 am

  2. I held my newborn son in my hands, after pulling him out of my wife’s body. And I Believed. I looked out over Yosemite Valley from the peak of Half Dome, and beheld the natural splendor of the Sierra Nevadas. And I Believed. I stood on a styrofoam and fiberglass board, floating in the Pacific Ocean, and balanced, as a wave pushed me back to shore. And I Believed. In my darkest hours, I clasped my hands together and prayed to the Lord for help. And I Believed. I peered into the depth of the heavens with a 12-inch parabolic telescope, and saw clearly, the rings of Saturn, the Moons of Jupiter the planet Pluto; things whose existance, NO HUMAN was even aware of prior to a few hundred years ago. And I Believed.

    Not at all scientific. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    The Intelligent Design “debate” is designed to do one thing. It’s designed to undermine the standing of Science in our Civilization. It is designed to undo the Enlightenment. It is intended to return us to the Dark Ages.

    I can believe in every scientific theory, the scientific method, and all empirical evidence presented to my own eyes. But none of it matches the level of faith I have in my Creator. If someone could prove, scientifically, to me, that God existed, it would be the greatest disappointment of my life.

    Furthermore, the principle behind ID is that, by probabilistic determination, they intend to “prove” that this all could not have happend “by chance”. But in defining what is probable, and improbable, they’ve mapped human expectations, in a most unscientific way, onto their statistical analysis. So nothing is really “proven” by this theory, other than someone’s opinion on what is “probable” and what is not. In my opinion, it is clearly NOT beyond an all-powerful deity to create a universe that appears to be created purely by chance. In fact, it’s probably blasphemy to suggest otherwise.

    Comment by Osama_Been_Forgotten — January 4, 2005 @ 11:31 am

  3. And I Believed. Not at all scientific. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    What’s not scientific? Spelling Belief with an initial capital letter? Using the word “Believe” without any object?

    What did you Believe?

    The Intelligent Design “debate” is designed to do one thing. It’s designed to undermine the standing of Science in our Civilization. It is designed to undo the Enlightenment. It is intended to return us to the Dark Ages.

    Sounds like three things, then. 🙂

    Who designed the debate? How do you know their intent? How do you know that their intent is exclusive? Are you sure that the design hasn’t been hijacked by others, so that the final result of “success” in the ID debate might be something other than what the original “designer” of the debate intended?

    I find your claim odd, since the debate in fact wasn’t designed by any one mind; it’s evolved over time 🙂 as part of the work of many minds, with many goals. Most of the minds driving the debate from the ID side of things are theists (some of the followers follow other angles, such as panspermia and Gaia). None of them claim to do what you claim they want; in fact, they all present their arguments as being the only reason anyone should join their side.

    I can believe in every scientific theory, the scientific method, and all empirical evidence presented to my own eyes. But none of it matches the level of faith I have in my Creator.

    What does the word “faith” mean to you here? I’m not capable of forming those two sentances you just spoke, so you must have a different definition. It almost sounds like you’re comparing “faith” and “belief” on some sort of scale, as though they were two varieties of the same thing. Is that what you mean? OTOH, you could be saying that they’re not at all the same thing, with which I agree but wonder why

    If someone could prove, scientifically, to me, that God existed, it would be the greatest disappointment of my life.

    Why?

    Furthermore, the principle behind ID is that, by probabilistic determination, they intend to “prove” that this all could not have happend “by chance”. But in defining what is probable, and improbable, they’ve mapped human expectations, in a most unscientific way, onto their statistical analysis. So nothing is really “proven” by this theory, other than someone’s opinion on what is “probable” and what is not.

    The question of what probabilities are acceptable for science is an old one, and is essential to the progress of science. It’s always been implicit that some theories are possible, but so unlikely that they have to be discarded; with ensemble gas theory that was formalized, and some probabilities can be plotted. For example, a theory that stated that a measured increase in pressure was caused by gas molecules in a room randomly happening to cluster near the sensor would be discarded; not because it’s impossible, but because it’s monumentally improbable without some other influence.

    Any theory that can only explain observations to enormously unlikely levels of confidence is severely lacking. The theory may be right so far as it goes; but it’s definitely lacking something.

    In my opinion, it is clearly NOT beyond an all-powerful deity to create a universe that appears to be created purely by chance. In fact, it’s probably blasphemy to suggest otherwise.

    It’s also entirely beside the point. We’re looking at our universe, not a hypothetical one.

    -Billy

    Comment by William Tanksley — January 4, 2005 @ 3:29 pm

  4. Its funny. In Darwin’s time the religiously superstitious were loath to embrace the theory of evolution. Today’s scientist are loath to embrace the theory of intelligent design. Are today’s scientists the new religiously superstitious?

    Comment by Jack — January 5, 2005 @ 2:29 pm

  5. a scientific theory must be able to be proven false, or else it is just a belief, not a scientific theory. The ID camp says that ID could be proven false by scientific evidence. However, to be proven false, scientists would have to prove that irreducible complexity does not exist . . .
    I’m not much of a scientist, nor am I trained in logic. However isn’t this true of Darwinism, too. How does one prove that evolution from one species to another didn’t happen? If evolutionists comeup with one example of macro-evolution that is later proven to be a mistake, then can’t they just point ot another possibility? Don’t you have to look at the preponderance of the evidence and see which mechanism is the most likely? Chance plus time or design by an intellligent designer?

    Comment by Sherry — January 5, 2005 @ 8:03 pm

  6. Sherry –

    Good point. I’m not a scientist either, but evolution predicts that, not just in some cases, but in every case, there were a set of intermediate organisms showing an evolutionary path from prior organisms to what we see today. Every place that fossils are found, we see this pattern. If a complete fossil record for a given species and its predecessors was found without this pattern, then evolution would be disproven. It hasn’t been yet.

    I don’t disagree with your criteria of the preponderance of the evidence though. And I think the preponderance of the evidence is for evolution. But don’t think that this disproves that God created the world. We are only debating how he did it, not whether he did it.

    Comment by Bob — January 6, 2005 @ 11:33 pm

  7. David –

    It also seems that conservative Christians are more prone to attack evolution than the Big Bang, and to name-call biologists as opposed to cosmologists. It’s nice to hear that things are a bit more measured on the cosmology front.

    As I alluded to in my post, I think the cosmology ID issue can’t be explained away like the biological ID issue can. This is what we Christians, conservative or progressive, should be talking about instead of trying to shoot down evolution.

    Thanks for the info!

    Comment by Bob — January 6, 2005 @ 11:40 pm

  8. This site shows enormous lack of comprehension of not only the mechanisms of Darwinian evolution, but of basic deductive logic. The idea of complexity is, first and foremost, a complete nonsense term as it is used in generic creation-speak. It’s like the way I look under my car hood and say, “Wow..look at how complex this is.” It just means “having lots of parts that interact”. By this standard, a puddle of water would be “complex”, with trillions upon trillians of molecules of water bouncing around in hard-to-predict ways.

    “Irreducible complexity” really has nothing to do with this this concept at all. It’s simply a fatuous creation-speak term that refers to systems that all have to be in place in order for an organism to continue to “function” (in accordance with the arbitrary terms we use to define that). Essentially this just means to go about converting potential energy to kinetic energy–eating and moving around. The very basis of this argument is fundemantally flawed for at least three reasons.

    1) No creationist can show that a system couldn’t have evolved gradually, stemming from parts that were originally evolved from selective pressure to perform some other function, and then co-opted for some other function.

    2) Darwinian theory does not _require_ any amount of “gradualness”, so even if something could be shown to have not gradually evolved in evolutionary history, that wouldn’t rule out Darwinian processes as the explanation. Darwinian evolution is a process of cumulative mutation and natural selection. It is entirely possible for an organism’s sperm or egg cells to undergo a huge number of mutations in one day that make the organism it grows into radically different from the parent. It’s not likely, but given a choice between choosing that as an explanation, or the action of a god that we don’t even know exists or has the ability or even _desire_ to make life, the Darwinian model is by far the more probable explanation. You’re basically comparing one in a million to..effectively zero. We at least know that mutations _happen_ so that any feature in life was at least _possibly_ caused by random mutations. But we haven’t observed any intelligent creator beings even doing so much as randomly mutating DNA.

    3) No intelligent entities are observed (aside from humans of course) which affect any organism’s DNA. So no amount of what you call “irreducible complexity” (which is a horridly misleading term) can evince creation, as we have never observed any creators, much less any that are consistent with any facet of biology.

    Now the basic deductive problem that leads to the mistake of concluding “creationism” is well exemplified in the following line from above:

    “For example, a theory that stated that a measured increase in pressure was caused by gas molecules in a room randomly happening to cluster near the sensor would be discarded; not because it’s impossible, but because it’s monumentally improbable without some other influence.”

    You can never discard a theory because it’s _improbable_, but only _improbably relative to competing theories_. For instance, it is possible that enough of the chemicals that are consistent with fire could accumulate near my smoke detector to set it off. But if I hear it going off, I won’t conclude that happened. Why? Because I know of other more plausible explanations, like I’m burning something I left on the stove, or my neighbor is burning something..or maybe the thing is just malfunctioning.

    In the case of evolution, this isn’t the case. No matter how unlikely you may think any aspect of evolution is, it’s not unlikely compared to other explanations. Because there ARE no other explanations. Creationists posit a creator “God”, but they have not shown that it is any more likely than random processes to bring about life as we know it. They haven’t shown that it buries fossils, or makes human and chimp vitamin C genes appear so similar that any reasonable person would conclude we diverged from a common ancestor about 6 million years ago (just exactly what the fossils say too..hmmmm…). They haven’t even shown beyond their own total faith that god even _exists_. What if there is no god? How could god be a better explanation for life than Darwinian processes, if god doesn’t even exist? Or what if god does exist, but is not intelligent and had nothing to do with creating life. Then god would still not be an explanation for life.

    Creationists always say this wacky stuff like “all the evidence for creation..” yadda yadda. But you can’t have evidence for the existence of a creator. If you never actually observed the creator, you’d have no way of knowing any of the tell-tale clues it leaves behind that would serve as evidence. For instance, imagine you said you found evidence that I had stolen a wallet from your house because you saw my footprints..but you had never seen my footprints before. How would you know they were my footprints? Same goes with fingerprints. Until you’ve seen what specific clues god tends to leave behind, you can’t say that anyting you see is consistent with god as an explanation.

    creationism also can’t be a theory because it doesn’t do anything a theory is supposed to do. it doesn’t _explain_ anything. if you look at processes like mutation and natural selection as explanations, it would make perfect sense to expect everything in biology to fit into a perfectly nested hierarchy–like a family tree! But this would make NO sense were it not for Darwinian theory. When have you ever observed god making life in perfectly nested hierarchies??

    Just my 2¢ to help you guys. You sure sound like you mean well, but you really have some huge misconceptions. Once you realize that, freeing yourselves of the mythology of creationism is easy.

    Sincerely,
    Clay Shentrup
    San Francisco, CA (Kansas native)

    Comment by CLAY SHENTRUP — December 29, 2005 @ 3:20 am

  9. I’m not much of a scientist, nor am I trained in logic. However isn’t this true of Darwinism, too. How does one prove that evolution from one species to another didn’t happen?

    The issue you’re talking about is falsification. That is, does a theory have predictive value, such that if we did not find things to be the way the theory expected them to be, we could rule out all or part of it. In the case of Darwinian natural selection, for example, we should expect to see that fossilized remnants of previous life forms show change over time, and in some cases even changes which are so close to each other that we can actually see the obvious line of transition. This is precisely what we see in nature. The series of fossils leading from mesonychid and other ancestors of modern cetaceans up to the present day is remarkably evident. Another thing that Darwinian theory would obviously expect is that we find all life nested with perfect taxonomy. That is, you never find an animal that has the wings of a bird, but the head of a cat, as if an intelligent designer might have simply put the parts it wanted into an organism purposefully. Every single organism alive can be arranged like this, and that’s truly phonemenal evidence of descent from a common ancestor. No “theory of intelligent design” would specifically expect this fact of biology. Darwinian theory does predict these things, so were life not to exhibit these characteristics, that would disprove all or part of it. This is what falsification is about.

    Now before you say, “Scientists can arrange life however they want to..that doesn’t prove anything..” let me stop you. Let’s use the analogy of strings of letters to represent genes in the genome of a species. Let’s say we have the following organisms/species (represented by strings of letters):

    AEFR AES AHT BIU BIV BJ CK CL CLW CLWY CLWZ CM DNO DPN DQ

    Let’s just say each letter represents some gene, and groups of letters represent a whole organism or its genome. Now while nothing about this sequence of letters may look special, it happens to have the extremely rare quality of being perfectly hierarchically nested.

    A, B, C, and D can be thought of as “kingdoms”, or top-level nodes. In these groups, there is one basic test that is passed that shows this is an example of perfect hierarchical nesting: if any two letters, A and B, are found together, than at most one of them can be found independently of the other. So if a sequence exists like AEFR above, and then you find sequence like AMK, you now see that A can occur without E, so it must be on a higher node, and thus you should never find a sequence like EPS where E exists without A.

    If you make random groups of letters like this, the odds that they will pass the “perfect hierarchical nesting” nest are virtually nil. The odds that perfect hierarchical nesting could have occered in life, purely at chance, are exceptionally small. But with Darwinian evolution, it’s the only way you’d expect them to be. Now below I did just type some random charaters in without really looking at the keys I was pressing.

    theu ran nal nhb ab ret mbo lsa wtr

    Notice we have ran, nal, lsa. Since “n” occurs without ‘l’ in the first string, but with ‘l’ in the second string, we should never expect to find ‘l’ without ‘n’. Yet in the third string here, “lsa”, we do. This is not hierarchically nested. I can’t emphasize the signifacance of this enough.

    If evolutionists come up with one example of macro-evolution that is later proven to be a mistake, then can’t they just point ot another possibility?

    Well, first of all there’s no such thing as “macro-mutation” any more than there is such a thing as “walking into the distance out of site”. If you walk out of someone’s range of vision on the salt flats of Utah, there’s nothing about that final step you take where he can no longer see you that is any different than the first steps you took. That’s the same way with the evolution of a “new” species. Creationists always make this incredibly stupid example of how a “giraffe always gives birth to a giraffe, not a different species”. Yeah, and every step you take is within eyesight of the last footstep you left. But at some point, you make a footstep that is out of the “field of view” of a foostep you took long ago. So to bring the analogy back to biology, my dad could have someone far back in his family tree who we could mate with, and produce fertile offspring with. He and that person would be in the same “species”. But I could be genetically different enough that I could not produce fertile offspring with that same person. So I’m a “new species”, but I’m still in the same species as my dad. The problem with the concept of species is that it’s very misunderstood, and more greyscale than people often realize. It is entirely possible to have a couple who cannot produce a baby together, even though they both could with other people. Technically then, they are not in the same species. Creationists try to make a big deal out of species, when it’s not significant to the veracity of evolution. Being in a different species is just a “fence” that keeps mutations in two different populations from being exchanged. Physical boundaries can do that just as well. Why creationists make a big deal of different species is beyond me.

    Don’t you have to look at the preponderance of the evidence and see which mechanism is the most likely? Chance plus time or design by an intellligent designer?

    Exactly. There’s tons of evidence for “chance” (Darwinian evolution). There is no evidence, and cannot be any evidence for creationism, because no creators are known of.

    Comment by CLAY SHENTRUP — January 13, 2006 @ 12:42 pm

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