Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Intelligent Design Challenge

As reported tonight on NPR's All Things Considered, some parents in the Dover schools are challenging the school board's decision to promote Intelligent Design as an "alternative" to evolution in science class. The piece was rife with journalistic errors as well as falsehoods from supporters of Intelligent Design. I can't remember every problem I had with the piece, but I remember a couple.

First off, NPR characterized it as "a battle over the origins of life." It isn't. Evolution is a theory that describes speciation in existing forms of life. That is to say, evolution posits that, given that there is life on Earth and that this life comes in various species (a species being a group able to successfully mate with others within its group to create reproductively viable offspring), that those species came about through a process of random genetic mutations combined with natural selection of the most favorable traits for survival produced by those mutations. It does not speak to the origins of life. That is another field entirely.

Then, a member of the Dover school board defended the decision to promote Intelligent Design by saying, "I just wanted to offer alternate explanations for the origins of life," or something to that effect. First off, as noted above, evolution is not an explanation for the origins of life. If Intelligent Design purports to explain the origin of life as well speciation, then Intelligent Design is more than an "alternative to evolution" but also an alternative to abiogenesis, the study of the formation of life from non-living matter. Since the Dover schools, to my knowledge, do not teach abiogenesis, they should not teach Intelligent Design either, if Intelligent Design purports to explain the origins of life as well as speciation. In which case, Intelligent Design is more accurately called "creationism," which is what it is, but which is too obviously just part of the Christian religion. The whole idea of Intelligent Design is to push creationism without calling it creationism, without directly liking it to Christianity, and falsely claiming that it is a "scientific theory" rather than what it is, "religious dogma." The fact that Intelligent Design covers all the same ground as creationism demonstrates that it is, in fact, a dressed-up version of creationism, because a theory developed simply to explain speciation in a different way than evolution does would not discuss the origins of life at all.

Also, it is interesting to note that those who argue for Intelligent Design on the grounds of wanting to "present alternatives to evolution" always want to present exactly one alternative: Intelligent Design, which supporters claim is agnostic on the issue of who the Intelligent Designer is, but is universally supported by Christians who believe the Designer is, in fact, the Christian God. No alternative explanations that would not lead one to the Christian God are presented. When Christians push a dogma exclusively developed and believed by Christians which is written so as to preclude any other Designer than the Christian God, it is not a big leap to assume that Intelligent Design is actually a way of teaching Christianity in the classroom.

Then, of course, NPR called Intelligent Design a "theory." Which, in the scientific sense, it isn't, as I have already written about today.

Then, some Intelligent Design wingnut comes on and uses another version of the "Watch in the Sand" argument. He said, "If you were driving through South Dakota and saw Mount Rushmore, you wouldn't think it had happened by chance."

No, you wouldn't. So what? Of course, the unstated implication is, if you don't believe Mount Rushmore could come about by chance, how could human life?

Well, let's see. First off, evolution isn't random. Evolution works by "natural selection." Traits useful to survival are chosen over traits that are not useful to survival. Second off, the comparison between human life and Mount Rushmore is incoherent. When you run across Mount Rushmore, you make some comparisons in your mind. You think, "I've never seen a mountain that has come to have distinct faces on it naturally. Especially not the faces of four Presidents of the United States. However, I have seen images of humans created by other humans, through drawing, painting, and sculpting, including these four Presidents of the United States. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that humans carved these faces into the rock."

But no one has ever seen life be created. Thus, the comparison that leads one to think Mount Rushmore could not be natural is not possible when considering human life, as the process requires the experience of seeing how human life comes about. The comparison is incoherent. Only if we had experience that showed that intelligent life never develops by itself and only comes about by intelligent design would this analogy work. Which, of course, is what the argument is intended to prove, making this argument a tautology.

And, in any case, this argument goes nowhere even if you accept the Mount Rushmore analogy. Because Intelligent Design has not solved anything if it proves that intelligent life could only have come about through the designs of other intelligent life, because then the question, Well, where did that other intelligent life that designed us come from? If we couldn't come about without an intelligent designer, who designed the designer? Of course, at this point, the theory breaks down, because the Intelligent Design supporter has to either commit the fallacy of Argument from Special Circumstances, by saying that the designer is an undesigned designer (ie, the creator is an uncreated creator), or admit defeat.

The Argument from Special Circumstances, by the way, fails because it begs the question, If the designers can be undesigned, then intelligent life can come about without design, and therefore the designers aren't necessary: Human life came about without a designer. It's the same reason that argument that universe and human life must have been created, therefore God created them, fails: Because it gives no reason for why the universe and human life must be created but God doesn't. If it is possible for there to be an uncreated creator, then why isn't it simply the universe itself? What do we need God for? The argument is not only incoherent, but, like many irrational arguments for theism, doesn't even prove what theists wish it to prove.

Intelligent Design supporters will sometimes then use the God of the Gaps argument here, saying that since we don't know how human life came about, it must have been God. But that's just an absurd unwarranted logical leap. Is it more likely that we don't know how life came about because we simply haven't discovered the mechanism yet, or that it is unknowable because "God did it?" Well, given all the other things that religion claimed was beyond the ken of humankind that weren't, there is no rational reason to believe that the origins of life are any different. Hell, I've never actually seen a porno tape being created, but that doesn't mean I have to assume that "God did it."

As such, Intelligent Design is not only not a theory in the scientific sense, it doesn't even offer an alternative explanation to evolution. Because its explanation does nothing more than beg more questions, thus explaining nothing. As such, every claim made about Intelligent Design in the NPR piece is demonstrably false.


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