Saturday 22 October 2005

Aussies say "No" to Intelligent Design

In a display of good sense, Australian scientists have published an open letter condemning the suggestion that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools as a scientific theory. The open letter, representing over 70,000 scientists and science teachers, states: “While science is a work in progress, a vast and growing body of factual knowledge supports the hypothesis that biological complexity is the result of natural processes of evolution.” In contrast, the letter states that Intelligent Design is being promoted on the basis of religious and political agendas, not on the basis of empirical evidence.

My own objections to Intelligent Design are theological: the entire theory rests on bad theology. But it is also bad science, or rather pseudo-science: it is ideology masquerading as science. So it’s good to see the scientific community taking a stand against it.


Copernicus said...

Well, there's a big difference between bad science and pseudo-science. But I'm not sure that these guys know what science actually is - you can, after all, get a science degree without ever having studied philosophy of science.

When I used to be a physics teacher, we'd have arguments with the biology teachers over what science was - they seemed to view it mostly as hypothesis testing. This letter makes me think that biologists dominate the Science Teachers' Association...

Anonymous said...

I'm not an advocate of Creation Science or anything like that but I really don't see the problem in schools being (a) more critical of evolutionary theory, and (b) informing students that science does not preclude the possibility of a creator. Remember that, e.g., the case in the Pennsylvania courts right now is simply about the right to give students a short statement that there are gaps in evolutionary biology and some believe that certain aspects of creation seem to point to the existence of a creator. That's a pretty benign statement and I don't see why students shouldn't be made aware of that. Evolutionary theory isn't scientific law and until it achieves that certainity, it shouldn't be treated that way in our schools. Students in our schools should be exposed to discussions of the intersection of faith and science. It is possible to have this discussion without being naive, anti-religion or anti-science. Students should learn to understand the respective domains of religion and science.

Anonymous said...

Over at my blog I've got a brief post on this.

What might be of interest to people are the links to an article in The Bulletin and an interview with Peter Jensen on the subject.

One of the interesting things that the ID debate has brought to my mind is the arbitrary line we draw between areas of knowledge. The interdependence of science and philosophy and ethics seems to be ignored and we protest because "philosophy" (or religion) is being taught in the science classroom.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these thoughtful comments. Ken, I agree with you that "students should learn to understand the respective domains of religion and science" -- but it seems to me that this is not achieved by making science teachers say a few words about the possibility of a "creator".

Precisely because religion and science are different fields with different objects of inquiry, each field should keep to its own proper task. Scientists shouldn't try to pass judgment on whether or not there is a "creator", and religionists shouldn't try to pass judgment on the methods and conclusions of science. And it seems to me that the proponents of Intelligent Design are simply trying to hijack science with a religious ideology. This kind of strategy is the very opposite of "understanding the respective domains of religion and science"! It would be like chemists or biologists lobbying to determine the way exegesis is taught by professional biblical scholars.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but there seems to be a definite overlap of subject matter between the disciplines of theology and science because they both speak about beginnings.

The one creation science argument that really got me thinking (in spite of my dislike of their fundamentalist approach)was that evolution presupposes death before the existance of man. This seems incompatable with the Christian belief that death entered the world *after* Adam and Eve sinned. So unless Adam and Eve sinned in 'ape form' it doesn't seem to make sense.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Josh. Well, I suppose it depends on how you interpret the Genesis fall-story. I myself don't see any reason to interpret it as a literal account of a historical event. Rather Adam is us: he is the human being who is also the sinner.

As for the question of death, I don't think that Genesis 1-3 is trying to say that there was once a Golden Age which then ended when people sinned. Rather I think the point of Genesis 3 is that human beings are immediately sinners. (Of course, Gen. 3 and Gen. 2 are really the same single narrative: it is not a narrative of creation-then-fall, but of creation-and-fall.) Death is immediately part of human existence, because we no sooner begin to exist than we find ourselves sinning.

In Karl Barth's words: "There never was a golden age. There is no point in looking back to one. The first man was immediately the first sinner" (CD IV/1, p. 508).

Anonymous said...

Ben: I don't think that sort of strict segmentation is useful. First, it's only a single statement and it's hardly inaccurate; it simply expresses a belief that, in point of fact, many scientists actually hold. It appropriately puts the discussion in context and it shows some sensitivity. I know in my High School biology classes, except for one, all aspects of evolutionary theory were presented more as scientific law than theory. For altogether other reasons, it wouldn't be bad to encourage some healthy skepticism and some openness towards theocentric science. Second, I think it is far past the time for interdisciplinary awareness. The blinders are what cause the type of ignorant debate we have going on now. On one side, you've got evolutionists with next-to-no religious, and sometmes even ethical, sensitivities and on the other side you've got theologians and ethicists who have only a rudimentary understanding of science. That ought to change and it won't as long as we continue to uphold the artificial barriers to protect our disciplinary purity. Now, perhaps it shouldn't be the science teacher making the statement but a theologian giving a class on integration of faith and science but, quite frankly, I'd prefer to see science teachers who are actually capable about thinking in these terms rather than the general tendency towards hostility. I, at least, am not asking them to change the scientific method. I only would like them to show some humility in their discipline and theories.

Ben Myers said...

Ken, you write: "I know in my High School biology classes all aspects of evolutionary theory were presented more as scientific law than theory," and you say that it would be good if school students had a "healthy skepticism" about evolutionary theory.

But don't forget that "theory" is a technical scientific term. Biological evolution is a scientific "theory", but this doesn't mean it's a mere hypothesis or a speculation, nor does it mean that it's in need of further empirical proof. Should we also be encouraging students to have a "healthy skepticism" about the theory of gravity or electromagnetic theory or quantum theory? If we did encourage this kind of skepticism, we would simply be misunderstanding the technical meaning of "scientific theory".

Anonymous said...

Gravity is not theory. It's scientific law. It's called the law of gravity not the theory of gravity.

I'm well aware, Ben, that theory is a technical scientific term. So is the term law. Good science depends on skepticism, even skepticism of generally accepted theory.

Fundamentally, I'm most disconcerted with the assumption that religion doesn't have a role to play in science. Many questions asked by scientists are influenced/affected by certain epistemological assumptions about the universe. If one of those assumptions is that God does not exist, it immediately effects the nature and type of questions asked. This limits scientific investigation and this is where philosophy and theology must intersect with science: at its core. Scientists ought to be aware of how their research is conditioned by their epistemological assumptions. I am not suggesting a change to the scientific method; I believe firmly that science is the investigation of natural phenomena. Rather, I am suggesting that maybe science that reflects more honestly on its own epistemological assumptions may actually begin to ask exciting and different questions when it tolerates alternatives to the prevailing atheism and hostility to religion.

johnd said...

Since the only thing in their(ID ers), platform which comes close to being a commonly-shared presupposition is a negative (naturalism is wrong), they can provide no coherent philosophical framework on which to base the axioms necessary to interpret evidence relevant to the historical sciences (paleontology, historical geology, etc). So they can never offer a ‘story of the past’, which is one more reason why they must continually limit the debate to one of mechanism—and then only in broad, general terms (designed vs undesigned).
Their failure to identify themselves with a story of the past (e.g. Genesis) is partly tactically-driven, but is also a necessity, because they do not agree within themselves on a story of the past. However, this failure only reinforces the perception by the establishment that they are really ‘creationists in disguise’. The attacks on the IDM have thus been virtually as ferocious as any on Genesis creationists. Thus, the belief that agreeing to ‘keep the Bible out of it’ would serve to keep anti-religious hostility out of the arena has not been confirmed in practice
Ironically, despite already drawing the fire aimed at Genesis, the Bible and Christianity, many other prominent figures in the IDM reject or are hostile to Biblical creation, especially the notion of the recent creation of a good world, ruined by man’s Fall into sin. For tactical reasons, they have been urged (especially by their coolest and wisest head, Phil Johnson, who does not himself share that hostility) not to publicly condemn their Genesis-believing fellow travelers, although this simmering opposition has burst forth from time to time. Were the IDM to partially succeed in its initial aims, some of the strongest opponents of literal Genesis may well arise from its recently-victorious ranks. For instance, Dr Michael Denton, though an amiable fellow, was nevertheless part of a broadcast forum in Australia which recently told a largely Christian audience that belief in literal Genesis was foolish and unscientific.
Urged to deduce the existence of the Creator God from ‘design alone’, and thus leaving out the Fall and the real history of the world, thinkers concluded that any creator God must be cruel, wasteful, etc. Charles Darwin himself wrote in exactly that vein. He also provided another example of the negative effects of leaving the Biblical history out of the discussion. When he came across obvious examples of adaptive radiation from mainland populations onto islands, the only ‘concept’ of creation he had in his mind, in association with most of his deistically-influenced scientist contemporaries, was in situ creation, which his observations spoke so strongly against. But of course if he had built into his thinking dispersal of all land vertebrates from one central point after the global Flood, the alleged problem would have vanished. So, intelligent design arguments that ‘left the Bible out of it’ actually aided and abetted, in a major way, the rising rejection of the Bible. Far from countering atheism, it actually pushed thinkers into a non-design explanation, hence further into naturalism and atheism.

A simple cell?
Many people don’t realize that even the simplest cell is fantastically complex—even the simplest self-reproducing organism contains encyclopedic quantities of complex, specific information. Mycoplasma genitalium has the smallest known genome of any free-living organism, containing 482 genes comprising 580,000 base pairs11 (compare 3 billion base pairs in humans, as Teaching about Evolution states ). Of course, these genes are functional only in the presence of pre-existing translational and replicating machinery, a cell membrane, etc. But Mycoplasma can only survive by parasitizing other more complex organisms, which provide many of the nutrients it cannot manufacture for itself. So evolutionists must postulate a more complex first living organism with even more genes.

More recently, Eugene Koonin and others tried to calculate the bare minimum requirement for a living cell, and came up with a result of 256 genes. But they were doubtful whether such a hypothetical bug could survive, because such an organism could barely repair DNA damage, could no longer fine-tune the ability of its remaining genes, would lack the ability to digest complex compounds, and would need a comprehensive supply of organic nutrients in its environment

Molecular biologist Michael Denton, writing as a non-creationist skeptic of Darwinian evolution, explains what is involved:

Perhaps in no other area of modern biology is the challenge posed by the extreme complexity and ingenuity of biological adaptations more apparent than in the fascinating new molecular world of the cell … . To grasp the reality of life as it has been revealed by molecular biology, we must magnify a cell a thousand million times until it is twenty kilometers in diameter and resembles a giant airship large enough to cover a great city like London or New York. What we would then see would be an object of unparalleled complexity and adaptive design. On the surface of the cell we would see millions of openings, like the port holes of a vast space ship, opening and closing to allow a continual stream of materials to flow in and out. If we were to enter one of these openings we would find ourselves in a world of supreme technology and bewildering complexity.

Is it really credible that random processes could have constructed a reality, the smallest element of which—a functional protein or gene—is complex beyond our own creative capacities, a reality which is the very antithesis of chance, which excels in every sense anything produced by the intelligence of man? Alongside the level of ingenuity and complexity exhibited by the molecular machinery of life, even our most advanced artifacts appear clumsy … .

It would be an illusion to think that what we are aware of at present is any more than a fraction of the full extent of biological design. In practically every field of fundamental biological research ever-increasing levels of design and complexity are being revealed at an ever-accelerating rate
john donnelly via answers in genesis website

Ben Myers said...

Hi John. "Dr Michael Denton ... told a largely Christian audience that belief in literal Genesis was foolish" -- I would agree with him, but not primarily because of any commitment to making Genesis "fit" with modern science. Rather, I think that the kind of scientific reading of Genesis that you're proposing rests on a basic misunderstanding of what Genesis is actually trying to say. Genesis should be interpreted as theology and proclamation, not as a scientific textbook. Thanks for your point of view though.

Fat said...

If one looks at the world believing that it all just happened then you'll see the world but if you believe that the universe and all that is in it was and is being created by God then you will see the wonder and splendour and order and love and purpose that is Him in every atom, every relationship and every physical law that you explore.

I believe in science and scientific endevour because I trust in God and I believe that when all is known that can be known we will not find chaos and chance but we will find order and purpose and ultimately we would find God.

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