Monday, November 17, 2008

One step forward, one step backwards

There have been two developments connected to intelligent design in the last few days. One is heartening; the other is disappointing. William Dembski, one of the chief proponents of intelligent design, has announced that he will stop spending time running the Uncommon Descent blog and spend more time doing "technical research." This is a good thing. Whether or not there is any scientific merit to intelligent design, the desultory attempts by ID proponents to produce any scientific work about intelligent design has not helped intelligent design in the eyes of the scientific community. It is likely that the lack of scientific merit of intelligent design has forced the proponents to engage in the wastes of time that they have. However, on the off chance that there is any minimal scientific merit to their ideas, Dembski has some chance of finding it.

The second development is that Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith, a former Fellow of the Discovery Institute and a professor at Baylor University, has forcefully come out against intelligent design. In the past, Beckwith has spoken sympathetically about ID so this comes as a surprise. Unfortunately, he now opposes intelligent design for the wrong reasons:
Despite my interest in this subject and my sympathy for the ID movement’s goal to dismantle materialism and its deleterious implications on our understanding of what is real and what counts as knowledge, I am not, and have never been, a proponent of ID. My reasons have to do with my philosophical opposition to the ID movement’s acquiescence to the modern idea that an Enlightenment view of science is the paradigm of knowledge. By seeming to agree with their materialist foes that the mind or intellect cannot have direct knowledge of real immaterial universals, such as natures, essences, and moral properties, many in the ID movement seem to commit the same mistake as the one committed by the late medieval nominalists such as William of Ockham, who gave us what is often called “Ockham’s razor,”...
I imagine some readers are sputtering a bit as they read that. The complete context of Beckwith's remarks does not cast Beckwith in a better light. Beckwith's remarks are disturbing for a great many reasons, but I will only focus briefly on two of them.

First, as one friend cogently asked what is an "Enlightenment view of science? Newton's? Bacon's? Hume's? Paley's? Whewell's?" One would like to think that a tenured philosophy professor such as Beckwith would be more precise with language.

Second, many if not most scientists would agree that science has no essential monopoly on on all knowledge. Moreover, many proponents of intelligent design would also agree even as proponents of ID frequently attempt to push the bounds of what science can reasonably talk about. Thus, Beckwith's objection is either to some sort of extreme strawman or Beckwith's objection is to the entire notion of science as a separate epistomological method. Indeed, Beckwith goes on to claim that "According to many scholars, the practical consequence of “Ockham’s razor”[sic] is that claims about a thing’s nature, purpose, or intrinsic dignity—universal properties it shares with other things of the same sort—are “unnecessary” for our scientific investigation of the world because they don’t add anything of explanatory importance to our direct empirical observations." It appears thus that Beckwith does object to the entire scientific method. This is the opposite of something like non-overlapping magisteria. This is aside from the fact that archaeologists engage in trying to find artifacts' "purpose" all the time. I have no idea how science would incorporate the "intrinsic dignity" of objects.

I've paid some attention to Beckwith in the past and knew he had reservations about intelligent design. For a long-time I suspected that his stated reservations were for rhetorical effect while he argued for the constitutionality of teaching ID in public schools. In my naivete I never would have thought that Beckwith's objection was to science as a whole.

Beckwith appears to be objecting to ID, not because it drags us back a few centuries, but because it does not drag us back far enough. As William Dembski takes a step to join the 19th century, Beckwith is trying his hardest to join the 10th.


Metro said...

As a former Catholic, it always surprises me when a Catholic says they "don't believe in ID".

My dad taught me that the world did evolve, and was evolving, but that god essentially had to line it up and give it a push. But the master agency was there "In the beginning."

However, most Catholics don't believe in YEC, nor that God created all as it stands. Thus evolutionary beliefs and Catholicism are compatible.

I don't understand why Beckwith feels a need to dismiss Occam's Razor--anyone who claims a religious belief has already thrown it away.

What he appears to be saying is quite simple, to me: He doesn't feel creationism can't compete on scientific grounds.

Utterly true.

Joshua said...

As I understand Catholic doctrine, Catholic doctrine allows for the more general notion of theistic evolution where evolution occurred but God stepped in at some point to give humans souls. That's very important to distinguish from ID because the claim being made is a theological one. There's no claim being made that there's any scientific content. This is in contrast with ID which in its most coherent forms claims that there was direct intelligent intervention and that intervention is somehow scientifically observable. Thus Dembski for example has been quite clear that ID and TE are at odds. He has explicitly said "As far as design theorists are concerned, theistic evolution is American evangelicalism's ill-conceived accommodation to Darwinism" and" "Design theorists are no friends of theistic evolution." (both of those are from a 1995 article he wrote).

I'm not sure that your last point is correct; from my reading of Beckwith he wouldn't be happy even if the objective evidence suggested a young earth with a global flood. Because using that evidence it itself buying too much into the scientific paradigm.

Lautreamont said...
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Lautreamont said...
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Joshua said...

Lautremont, could you repost a corrected version of your comment? I had about three or four different versions and thought something was going wrong with the software so I don't think I posted all of them.

Lautreamont said...

It has been lost and the spirit has fled! If you have a copy feel free to post it.

Joshua said...

Ok, one version of Lautremont's comment that I was able to find is the following (I disagree with much in it and will respond soon):

Metro's 18th century clockmaker God should not be considered a locus of common ground where ID and evolution can coincide and coexist. Quite the opposite. Metro's belief, or should i say his 'father's' belief, implies that the word Physics and the words Biology are located and find their birth in God, and that without God's fine tuning the countless galactic collisions, supernovas, dead planets, live planets, storms, tides and other utterly Non-human phenomena would never occur. This concept also posits that We, humans, are the true heirs and the true purpose of this constructed "clock" rather than the trillions of other creates (many of which, like ants, not only outnumber us but outweigh us).

This concept is a veiled attack on what Josh called "scientific content." This seems to be a belief far slightly more selfish than those of ID and far more cowardly in that it neither demands adherence nor concedes to the truth of the scientific method.

In the end creationism or its new label "intelligent design" CAN compete on scientific grounds far better than that cautious clockmaker God can.

John S. Wilkins said...

Don't knock the tenth century, or at least the twelth. That's when Michael Scot introduced Aristotle to the Latin speakers, and it all got interesting after that.

Joshua said...

To Lautremont's remark:

One can allow a clockmaker deity or something similar without positing humans as the center of creation. Moreover, it doesn't interfere with science since this universe still functions in an essentially predictable fashion.

Moreover, claims that creationism or ID can compete with standard scientific theories seem to be difficult to support. Creationism in most forms has indeed failed to persuade scientists. Now it may be in part because they haven't tried to do much in the way of real science. But one must ask why not? I would suggest that it is because creationism in most forms is not a useful research program in the sense of Lakatos. It doesn't lead to new ideas or new hypotheses. All the work of creationism as a scientific hypothesis goes into adding more and more defensive ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses to defend the central claims.

It is curious that you consider ID to be simply creationism by another name given that the major ID proponents strongly disagree with that claim. When one is constantly renaming one's central idea that isn't a sign it can compete well.

To John: I choose my century carefully. The 12th was a much more interesting century (although didn't Scot actually do most of his work during the 13th?)