August 28, 2005

Dennett: "Intelligent Design" Obscures Real Objections to Evolution

Daniel Dennet, a brilliant philosopher at Tufts University, known (to me) for his work on personal identity and philosophy of mind, is an avowed atheist. In today's New York Times, Dennet joins the "intelligent design" controversy with a lengthy Op-Ed. The article is four pages long, but I just want to focus on one thing he says and the conclusions he draws from it:

The focus on intelligent design has, paradoxically, obscured something else: genuine scientific controversies about evolution that abound. In just about every field there are challenges to one established theory or another. The legitimate way to stir up such a storm is to come up with an alternative theory that makes a prediction that is crisply denied by the reigning theory - but that turns out to be true, or that explains something that has been baffling defenders of the status quo, or that unifies two distant theories at the cost of some element of the currently accepted view.

Dennett argues that the political focus of the ID movement, and especially the Discovery Institute, has made it nearly impossible for anyone to bring an actual scientific objection to evolution. For an objection to be "scientific" (rather than purely philosophical, which is a better description of most creationist theories), it needs to make testable predictions which are different from the reigning theory. Simply pointing out all of the things the reigning theory has not yet explained is not a scientific objection. (However, I think most evolutionists fail to admit that a list of facts that are within the realm a theory is supposed to cover, but which the theory does not in fact explain, does constitute epistemic ground for an individual to reject the theory in favor of another or, in the absence of a better theory, withhold judgment.) Thus far, proponents of intelligent design have predicted that various things wouldn't be found - for instance, I, who am not a scientist, predict, rather ignorantly, I admit, that we will not find a good evolutionary explanation for the creation of new chromosome pairs. If it could be proven that there was no such explanation (what would such a proof look like?) that would severely limit the applicability of evolution, to something like the "micro-evolution" that most creationists believe in. However, if intelligent design proponents want to be taken seriously by the scientific establishment - or at least make a serious breach of proper scientific methodology necessary for their exclusion - they must predict what we will find, and then go look for it. I would be willing to bet, and Dennett seems to agree with me, that an ID paper that made concrete predictions on, for instance, what would be found by our work to interpret the recently mapped human genome, would be published in a peer-reviewed journal, even if the prediction had not been verified or falsified yet. The problem, however, is that ID proponents are letting their faith get in the way of good scientific methodology. They know that concrete predictions might be proven wrong, and this might be damaging to their faith, so they make no such predictions. That kind of faith is no faith at all. Faith in a lie is at best unbenificial - at worst, extremely damaging. This is what the Apostle Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 15:19 when he says "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable." That is, the New Testament insists that your Christian faith is not beneficial to you unless it is TRUE. If you have real faith, you will be confident that your belief can withstand an honest inquiry into truth, and come out on top. And if it doesn't, the Bible says you are better off with your apparently false belief removed. Christian faith is not blind.

Therefore, Christian biologists, those with scientific training who believe in ID: don't be afraid to follow good scientific methodology, to make real testable predictions that might be wrong! If your theory is purely philosophical, say so and go on doing science with these different background philosophical assumptions. Later on, we can do what has been called "worldview analysis" and look at which understanding fits the facts most naturally (no doubt both will be able to be fitted to the facts, but hopefully one will fit more naturally, so that we have some rational ground for belief). Above all, don't let your belief in God as the designer of the universe stop you from making further inquiry into just HOW He designed it! Faith in God was not a stumbling block, but rather an encourager, in the inquiries made by Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Priestly, and all of the other early modern philosopher-scientist-theologians who searched for better understanding of the physical world.

In the end, Dennett is right in his criticism of ID as a "scientific" theory. However, I am surprised that he did not evaluate it as a philosophical theory. Does anyone out there have an opinion on this? Are there non-political intelligent design proponents? Do these people believe in the theory as philosophical or scientific? How do they view the distinction between the two? I think more philosophy of science should be included in public school science curriculums, so that students know exactly what assumptions are being made. Do others agree? Would this be a better way to push for some mention of the fact that science doesn't necessarily mean rejection of God? (I think it would.) Whatever the case, I think that Dennett has contributed much more useful thoughts to the ongoing debate in the Times than most of the other writers, and I thank him for his legitimate, if perhaps excessively strongly worded at times, critiques of the intelligent design movement as it exists today, and I hope that the Discovery Institute and others like them will take his criticism to heart and either begin doing real science, or begin to frame their theory as philosophical instead of scientific.

Posted by Kenny at August 28, 2005 2:32 PM
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