Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Response to CThomas (on ID)

A reader by the name of CThomas made this request in the comments of yesterday's post. The answer grew to post-size, and so I am placing it here. I advise longtime readers to skip this post, lest they bemoan in a "there he goes again" fashion.

CThomas's request:

[B]ut I was wondering if you could restate why you feel so strongly that "ID" is really about religion, and that denials of that are a sham.


I would agree with what GCT wrote.

The big-bang theory which you bring up is, in fact, a good counterexample. In the past, many scientists would quite openly use it as an example of how science supported their faith. I certainly heard professors make such statements in the classroom. There was no controversy. Why? Because it was understood that they were expressing their personal views, and there was no demand to insert their viewpoint in the curriculum and call it science. It was simply a case of expressing a metaphysical extrapolation: this scientific result is so beautiful, so powerful, so unexpected, and so inexplicable, that I see the hand of God. As I said, this view was fairly common and non controversial. Any assistant professor who made such a statement would not have had it held against him come tenure time.

Now consider fine-tuning. Who believes fine tuning is evidence for a designer? Theists, such as I, do. Although theoretically an alien from another universe might have created our universe, I don't know of a single atheist who is so swayed by fine-tuning that he agrees that the universe must have been designed by a powerful though natural being. Atheists impressed by fine tuning instead look for multiple universe explanations.

Again, in principle there is no controversy here. Before the modern ID movement, one could argue, without fear of retribution, that fine tuning was, in one's personal view, a sign of divine intent. Of course, scientists who thought so also supported cosmological research that might potentially weaken their position—because we are scientists. I, for one, never worry that science will undermine my faith anymore than I worry that archeology will. (In fact, if science or archeology could disprove God, I'd want to know it—might as well eat, drink, and be merry. After all, St. Paul wrote to the effect that, if this is all wrong, then we are the most foolish of men.)

Now if all those theists and fine-tuning proponents joined forces to express their views in text book form (after first replacing every occurrence of creation in early versions of the text with design), wrote secret strategy papers outlining how they would use their political influence to get their views into the schools so as to advance their position in the culture wars, and how they could further their cause through litigation, while at the same time they argued publically that it's all about the scientific merits of their views—even though they made no testable predictions and performed no experiments—you'd start to, I'll speculate, smell a rat.

The ID movement uses what was acceptable—that it is "our private view is that the designer is God," as smokescreen. Behind the curtain what they have done is take all the reasons that scientists/believers have always accepted as science-based support for our beliefs—packaged them in a veneer of flimsy mathematics, and stopped calling it by its real name, apologetics and insisted on calling it what it isn't: science.

Now that that's failed, their strategy is worse yet: it's to ratchet up the culture-war rhetoric. It's not possible, in their minds, to be against their movement on principle—anyone not with them is part of the "materialist conspiracy."

Well, I was a practicing scientist before I was a believer. If there were any meetings where unbelieving scientists plot their strategy to undermine theism, I wasn't invited. The only conspiracy (i.e., a secret agreement and call to action) that has been exposed to the sunshine is the DI's "Wedge Strategy."

The dishonesty of the movement has done incalculable damage. It has not only polarized what was, for the most part, a tolerant community of scientists into believers versus unbelievers—it has caused a second order fracturing as well. Unbelievers are split between militants and moderates, and believers are split between those backing the ID movement and those who are painfully embarrassed, both as scientists and more importantly as believers, by its tactics. In addition to everything else, they made the common mistake of incessant wolf-crying, thereby desensitizing virtually everyone to the merits of any legitimate case of religious discrimination in the scientific community.

By the way, I am convinced that among believing science professors the majority position is that the ID movement is a scientific and ecclesiastical embarrassment. I have no data that is not purely anecdotal. One is that the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) has certainly expressed what could be interpreted as embarrassment with the movement's rhetoric (to the point where this venerable group of scientists/believers is under attack from Dembski and O'Leary (here and here) for being pawns of the materialists. There's an orthodoxy in this movement and one of its dogmas is: no mentioning the unmentionable question of the age of the universe.) The other is that I know, personally, on the order of thirty scientists/believers, and not one is a supporter of the ID movement, although they all are sympathetic toward design (what theist isn't?). While some of the leaders of the ID movement have PhDs, their army is less educated in the sciences, as a perusal of the comment section on Uncommon Descent demonstrates. That is yet another sign that this is a cultural movement, not a scientific one.

Likewise, among unbelievers, all my personal anecdotal evidence causes me to believe that the militant position is a minority. But the militants, like the famous IDists, though a small subset, make for a better story. Bu we should take comfort that these are the extremes, not the norm. In a way they are peas in a pod. People like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Ken Ham, and Bill Dembski will agree that science is incompatible with theism, each because they hate one or the other. (Dembski and Ham will deny that they hate science, but what they claim is science, which they wholeheartedly support, isn't.)

Yes, if you look only at the slogan "the designer could be an alien" you can stand on the thinnest of crumbling ledges and argue that it is not about promoting theism. However, if you look under the hood it is easy to see that this movement, at this time, with these leaders, is all about promoting theism. Promoting theism is fine by me, but not if it is done via a Trojan Horse, and not if it sets up standard science, which to me has always glorified God, as an atheist, materialist conspiracy designed to obliterate religion.

The fact that all IDists are theists (there may be a few pathological counterexamples—but at least the ones I know about, such as DaveScot on Uncommon Descent, I don't find credible) would indeed be irrelevant if ID was, in fact, science. But given that ID is not science, the universal theism of the IDists emerges as the motive force behind the movement, not just an inconsequential correlation.

To summarize:

  • The Wedge Strategy demonstrates, in my opinion conclusively, that the underlying goal of the ID movement was to promote theism in the public schools.
  • Blatantly redacting Of Pandas and People to replace the word creation with the neutral term design is further (again to me, conclusive) evidence of the movement's true agenda.
  • While it might be possible to promote design theory scientifically, any scientist looking at the current state of the art would conclude that ID hasn't gotten there yet. The movement's strategy is to redefine science so that ID does fit in the new definition. Unfortunately, so does astrology.
  • ID, if it were all about science, would not propose a "big tent" inside of which the scientifically meaningful question of the age of the earth was off the table. In that sense (i.e., meaning a "no-fly zone") there are no big tents in science, and questioning anyone who claims to be a scientist on a position which he claims is supported scientifically is fair game. The Big Tent is meant to inflate the base, or to avoid fracturing the base because, once again, it's all about religion (via the culture wars) rather than science.
  • The ID leaders, if it were about the science, would be doing research instead of constantly bitching, moaning, and whining about atheist, materialist conspiracies.

All this could change in a heartbeat if the ID community made one testable, positive prediction. Do this experiment, result A confirms ID, and result B refutes it. Then all the unsavory tactics of the movement would be forgotten, at least by me, as ID became a legitimate science.

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