Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Response to Jeremy Pierce

In the post below, Jeremy commented:
David, as I've been catching up on your critique of the ID movement and then reading this post, I'm troubled by a theme that doesn't sit well with me. I think you've set up the ID people with a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario. Here it is, and tell me if I'm wrong.

If they acknowledge that the argument does not prove the existence of God but merely provides evidence that some can take to be a sign of the existence of God, evidence that others can resist, you call it a ruse that they are hiding behind so that they won't be labeled religious.

Yet if they assert that the argument does more than that, you call it a claim that science proves ID, which you also say is bad, because all science establishes is the signs of some intelligence, signs that someone can reinterpret or take to be from something else if they so choose.

My problem is that I think the biological versions of ID need to admit that, for all the argument shows, the designer is just a bunch of aliens. Otherwise it just smacks of intellectual dishonesty. At the same time the DI people need to admit that they believe the conclusion is not about aliens but about God. They just can't say that they think the argument proves it to be God. Given their endorsement of biological ID arguments, this seems to me to be what they ought to say. But you call it a ruse. That's what I just don't get.
I think I see your point, but I'm not sure. Let me try to clarify.

In a sense I am projecting.

I acknowledge that, in principle, the designer doesn't have to be God. I have argued that point many times, including recently (I think on Rosenhouse's blog), when someone from the anti-ID side brought up the false "turtles all the way" criticism. I argued (without success) that (in principle) an advanced alien who evolved without any irreducibly complex components could have designed life with the feature of irreducibly complexity. Seems rather obvious, but it was rebutted with some impenetrable metaphysical argument.

So, as I said, I agree that, in principle, the designer doesn't have to be God.

Here's the projecting part. When I talk of Cosmological ID I am up-front that I think the designer is God. I would feel very uneasy going beyond mentioning, just as an aside (and even this I don't do) that the designer might be an alien from another universe. And without question I wouldn't elevate that possibility to the category of a critical feature of my view, along with the claim that it should make it palatable to critical thinkers of all stripes.

Suppose we wipe the slate clean and nobody ever heard of ID. Now suppose Dembski comes along and proves (or effectively proves) that the bacterial flagellum was designed. Just a bolt out of the blue. What would happen, assuming his mathematics and his analysis were independently checked and confirmed? In this make-believe world where the flagellum was accepted as designed the scientific community would naturally split between the alien and God camps. The point is, if ID is really science there is no need for a preemptive strike that "the designer could be an alien." Prove design—and afterwards the fallout will include speculation on the designer.

It seems to me, knowing that 99.9% of IDers are theists, that what is being sold here is: there is a position waiting for someone to fill, the position of an intellectually fulfilled atheist IDer. And the existence of this open position, rather than being simply an intellectual curiosity, is central to the argument that ID should be in the science curriculum.

Suppose YECs did the same thing. (They might as far as I know.) Imagine if they said:
AiG science belongs in the science curriculum of public schools because it is real science, and it points to a young earth even if you don't believe the biblical account. Indeed an honest atheist, if they gave our science a chance, might easily conclude that the earth is young.
In that case I think almost everyone would agree it was a political tactic. I don't see how the ID movement is doing anything different. At least until such time that they start producing some real science. (If the YECs do not make that argument, it's to their credit.)

To reiterate: if ID is science then go produce some results, and stop all the distracting philosophical mumbo jumbo. No need to mention that the designer might be an alien. People will naturally go there if the science is sound and they do not want to acknowledge a supernatural designer. Mentioning the possibility over and over certainly makes me want to say that the ID community "doth protest too much."

Or, even more succinctly put: since ID doesn't pass muster as a science, the claim "the designer could be an alien" is in fact a ruse (or at least a red herring) intended to create a fa├žade of scientific legitimacy.

Now as to whether a claim is actually made that design can be demonstrated I would say that it certainly is. Unless Dembski has retracted, he has stated that his mathematics is not susceptible to a false positive--which means that anything it concludes is designed is definitely designed.

As an aside, the idea of tying design to low probability (yes, I know it is not just low probability) is probably a mistake and certainly incomplete. The cosmological ID argument is not based on low probability at all. But suppose it were: suppose we had a theory that gave the distribution of the physical constants, and from that theory we concluded that the probability of a set of life-sustaining constants was 1 in 10500. Suppose on the basis of that probability we prove the universe was designed. Now suppose a new theory comes along that demonstrates that the constants were not random draws but that their values are determined. The design proof "crumbles" because a probability of 1 in 10500 has been replaced with a probability of unity. And yet Cosmological ID, at least as I view it, would live on precisely because it is not based on the (in actuality incalculable) probability of the values of the physical constants, it is based on the fact that if they were changed by a small amount the universe could not support life. Indeed, I would argue that this situation, in which the values of the constants are determined from a theory of everything, points a more elegant form of design.

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