Thursday, December 08, 2005

Whither Intelligent Design?

Intelligent Design (ID) hasn't had a good month: George Will and Charles Krauthammer have strongly criticized the movement, and the New York Times has published a piece which is essentially, a speculation on whether an obituary ought to be prepared.

For my part, I have no strong opinion on the Intelligent Design debate. On the central question, whether evolutionary theory provides a complete explanation for the development of life from its beginnings to its present state, I am decidedly agnostic. I certainly have no metaphysical commitments that make me lean towards evolution, but I am sufficiently impressed by the explanatory power of the evolutionary synthesis that I regard it as a very strong hypothesis that no divine intervention was necessary or occurred.

Having hopefully established my neutrality, I hope these observations will not be seen as partisan by either side. George Will observes that the Kansas School Board, in approving the teaching of ID alongside Evolution "deleted from the definition of science these words: 'a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena.'" Charles Krauthammer describes ID as "a theory that violates the most basic requirement of anything pretending to be science -- that it be empirically disprovable." Both commentators point towards the most troubling aspect of Intelligent Design- its representation as science. ID, at least in its most common representations, is a variation on the "God of the gaps" argument. There is nothing logically wrong with such an arguement- but it is manifestly not a scientific arguement, and it ought not to be represented as such. It imports a metaphysical claim into science, corrupting, as Will notes, the proper understanding of science.

But the Intelligent Design folks are hardly the only ones busily corrupting the proper understanding of science- all too many defenders of evolution are busily doing the same by assuming a materialist philosophy- assuming, in other words, that miracles don't happen. This is the greatest irony in the whole debate- that neither side reliably does justice to science. Perhaps the most troubling example of this is the Columbia Journalism Review, whose purpose is to promote responsible journalism. They recently published a cover article arguing that journalists need not present both sides of the arguement when discussing ID-related news. Troubling as this alone would be, the authors characterize evolution as "mindless and directionless" which is the kind of atheistic terminology which even, as sterilizing points out, the National Association of Biology Teachers has rejected as being untestable. This an attitude that is all too common among evolutionary biologists themselves, Richard Dawkins foremost among them. In an unwise, but telling admission, Havard geneticist Richard Lewontin wrote in 1997 in the New York Review of Books that:
We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated 'Just So' stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
So while it is necessary to correct the wrongful claim of science for the central argument of Intelligent Design, it is no less necessary for Evolutionary Scientists to denounce the metaphysicians in their own midst who also smuggle metaphysical commitments into the precincts of science.


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