Monday, February 20, 2006

Of Turtles and Snipe Hunts

As we watch the ongoing debate between Intelligent Design and Darwinism, we are learning why over 500 doctoral scientists have signed The Discovery Institute's "Scientific Dissent From Darwinism" statement. Slowly but surely, scientists are beginning to face the inadequacy of the long-held philosophy of science upon which Darwinism was founded.

Stephen Hawking once told a story about a scientist who was giving a public lecture on astronomy. As the scientist described what we know about the structure of the solar system, a woman at the back of the room spoke up and said, "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist asked the woman what the tortoise was standing on, and the woman's reply was, "It's turtles all the way down!"

Of course, we all know that from a scientific standpoint, the idea that Earth is perched atop a stack of large turtles is laughable for two rather obvious reasons. First, we've seen the Earth from space and indeed it is a sphere, and oddly enough, we can't see any turtles. Secondly, we recognize that this myth fails to explain where the turtles came from. We chuckle internally at the idea that someone could believe something so silly. The circular reasoning is so obvious that we wonder how any sane person could overlook it.

And yet many sane people (scientists, in fact) have accepted a contemporary version of the same myth; a philosophy of science called "methodological naturalism" which demands that if we are to discover an explanation for a given natural phenomenon, we must only consider those explanations which invoke natural processes. (It's worth noting that any natural process qualifies as a natural phenomenon) In most disciplines of science, methodological naturalism works quite well. If, for example, you're curious about how a bird's wing permits flight, you can discover the answer within the confines of methodological naturalism quite effectively, although we still are forced to accept the laws of physics, themselves a natural phenomenon, as a "given".

Methodological naturalism makes two gigantic assumptions before any evidence is examined. The first assumption is that there is no existence beyond what is natural or "material." The naturalist believes there is no supernatural realm. Or, to the extent that they believe there is, they believe that for the sake of science, we should pretend there is not. (Nevermind that pretense makes a lousy foundation for scientific research) The second assumption is that we know precisely how large the envelope of nature is and that we can know when we've escaped that envelope. Although we have no empirical knowledge of either, the naturalist must interpret every piece of evidence in the light of these assumptions. From the naturalist's viewpoint, it appears that assumptions carry more scientific weight than actual evidence.

In Hawking's story, the woman who challenged the presenter believed that beneath each turtle is yet another turtle. Similarly, the naturalist believes that beneath every natural phenomenon there exists yet another natural phenomenon. If explanation by reference to an endless stack of large turtles is silly, then an explanation by reference to an endless stack of natural phenomenon would be equally so. The naturalist's answer for the origin of life, therefore, is some natural phenomenon. (which one is not particularly relevant) When you ask them how that natural phenomenon came to be, their response boils down to: "It's natural phenomena all the way down!"

By adhering strictly to methodological naturalism, origin-of-life scientists have sentenced themselves to an infinitely long search for an answer that's not there. It's as though they've embarked on a sort of cosmic snipe hunt. Today, these brilliant scientists can be seen running around in the dark with their gunny sacks, making strange noises and banging sticks against tree trunks like some giddy scout troop on a camping trip, blissfully unaware that their snipe hunt is nothing but a cruel hoax. A growing number of scientists, however, are getting tired of hunting for snipes. These scientists would actually like to find an answer to the question of origins, and signing The Discovery Institute's "Scientific Dissent From Darwinism" statement is a step in that direction.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

If Not Both Sides, Why?

Recently, the state of South Carolina joined Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Kansas and New Mexico by approving statewide science standards which require a critical analysis of evolution in science classrooms. In these five states the standard-issue Darwinian evolution will still be taught, but with an interesting twist which ought to raise some eyebrows… the scientific WEAKNESSES of Darwinian theory will ALSO be disclosed.

In a country where ideals such as free speech, diversity, balance and tolerance are preached constantly, the remaining states DO NOT ALLOW the scientific weaknesses of Darwinian evolution to be presented in our public school science classrooms. This means that, in the state of Oregon (and 44 others) Darwinian evolution is taught as sheer dogma… scientific weaknesses are withheld from our students and Darwinian evolution is presented as a theory of origins that is incontrovertible.

It is important to note that of the aforementioned five states, precisely NONE have required that opposing theories of origins, such as Intelligent Design, be included in the state's science curricula. The standards adopted in those states require nothing more than an objective presentation of the strengths AND weaknesses of evolutionary theory. It's important to scrutinize the media's reporting on this point, because as these states have come forward, reporters have repeatedly spun the decisions as a victory for Intelligent Design, as though Intelligent Design had some relevance in the decision and as though ID will be taught in these five states as a result. Yet nothing is further from the truth… there is no language in these five states' science standards which requires—or even allows—the teaching of Intelligent Design or any other competing theory.

Of course, the decisions in these five states raise an important question for the rest of us: Should our schools continue to present only evidence which supports evolution, or should they also teach students about the evidences against evolution?

If one believes we should continue to conceal the evidence against evolution, one must answer some very tough questions: What good can possibly come from withholding scientific evidence against ANY scientific theory? How does that not undermine the integrity of science itself? Isn't scientific experimentation and discovery supposed to be transparent? How is it fair to our children to withhold this evidence?

If, on the other hand, one believes our students SHOULD be taught about the evidences against evolution, then another set of interesting questions is raised: Why has it taken so long for just five states to adopt standards which require nothing more than an objective presentation of evolutionary theory in the classroom? What is it that evolutionists are protecting? What is the rationale for having withheld this evidence and deceived so many students?

When considering whether to "teach the controversy", it's useful to cite an article published in "The Guardian" in September 2005 and written by renowned evolutionists Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne in which they conceded that "asking our students to analyse controversies is of enormous value to their education." Despite this, their column justifies ignoring this particular controversy and hiding it from their students on the basis that evolutionary science itself is, in their words, "bountifully endowed with genuine controversy." Apparently Dawkins and Coyne think that the persistence of controversy within evolutionary theory somehow makes the theory more robust. They are unwilling to consider the possibility that the theory they peddle is filled with controversy because it is fundamentally flawed; so flawed that biologists have had to scramble for inventive (but contradictory) schemes to keep the theory alive. But what's more important is that when it serves their purpose, Dawkins and Coyne are clearly willing to rob their students of what they themselves admit is valuable to students' education: exposure to controversial views.

The extent to which we present evolution dogmatically is the extent to which we lie to our students. Opposing critical analysis of evolution in public schools is tantamount to advocating the intentional deception of students. Conversely, advocating that Darwinian evolution be taught objectively in the classroom will challenge students to think critically about the theory and will provoke curiosity and interest in science generally. Perhaps what frightens Darwinists most about the critical analysis standards adopted in those five states is that presenting these evidences will make it all too easy to understand that the success enjoyed up to now by the Darwinian paradigm has come not from the strength of Darwinian ideas, but from of the Darwinists' ability to obfuscate those evidences.

Contradiction: The Common Thread of ID Criticism

The objections to the theory of Intelligent Design (ID) are wide-ranging, but they all have at least one common thread: Contradiction. That is, every argument offered by critics of ID ultimately lands them in the midst of astonishing contradictions. And as they attempt to wiggle free of the incongruity, they frequently end up making very good arguments in favor of ID.

For example, critics of ID love to claim that there's nothing scientific about the theory of ID. However, to claim that ID isn't scientific, the ID critic has to ignore the fact that scientists have been invoking intelligent design for centuries as they have discovered, investigated and analyzed messages carved in stone and other ancient artifacts around the world. Of course, intelligent humans were credited for these particular phenomena, but even before that conclusion was reached, an inference to intelligent authorship WAS made. The point is, either invoking intelligent causes is scientifically valid, or it's not. Scientists know better than to suggest that the Rosetta Stone was formed by natural, unintelligent causes. That is to say, scientists know that instructions arise from mind and not blind, unintelligent processes. And yet when some scientists look at DNA—a molecule which carries instructions for building a living organism and is sometimes referred to as "The Rosetta Stone of Life"—many scientists feel quite comfortable restricting themselves to invoking only blind, unintelligent processes.

We routinely attribute certain phenomena to intelligent causes, and when we do no one berates us for having invoked the supernatural. For example, as motorists enter the town of Bend, Oregon, they are greeted by a large topiary alongside the highway. The shrubs are sculpted to spell the word "BEND." Who would dare attribute the message in those shrubs to blind, unintelligent processes? Isn't it far more reasonable to attribute the creation of that topiary to an intelligent (landscape) designer? Why is it "unscientific" to do so?

Critics will quip that such examples only speak to human intelligence, which again places them in yet another contradiction. For an instant of time they pretend to believe that intelligence can only be manifest in humans, but they quickly betray that pretense when they express their support for programs such as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a program built upon the idea that intelligence is manifest in [non-human] beings elsewhere in the universe, and that if our radio telescopes intercept a radio signal transmitted by such beings, we will be able to determine that the signal had an intelligent source. When they pledge their support for SETI, critics of ID are admitting that intelligent authorship CAN BE detected using scientific methods.

The stark reality is that intelligence leaves behind certain hallmarks. If there were no scientifically valid way to distinguish between a signal from an intelligent civilization and the ambient radio noise of deep space, then SETI could never have been organized. And if there is a scientific method for determining intelligent cause, then in the interest of objectivity, that method would have to be applicable to any kind of phenomenon, including biology. When biologists uncover the kind of evidence that, had it been received through a radio telescope would have sent SETI fans into a palm-sweating ecstasy, we ought to be free to conclude, using precisely the same methodology and logic, that biological life had an intelligent cause.

You know that the critics of ID are really flustered, however, when they start making excellent arguments in favor of ID. In a Seattle Town Hall debate which took place in April of this year, University of Washington professor Peter Ward tried to discredit ID by pointing to a biochemist named Steve Benner, who has devised new ways of encoding genetic information in DNA. Unfortunately for Ward, the fact that Benner has been able to invent a novel scheme for encoding genetic information is a powerful argument FOR Intelligent Design, not AGAINST it. Why? Because Benner employed his INTELLIGENCE to DESIGN a system for encoding genetic information. Benner's accomplishment demonstrates precisely what proponents of ID have been saying for years: Intelligence is required to produce and encode information. For Benner's research to serve as a good argument AGAINST Intelligent Design, Benner would have to literally be as dumb as a box of rocks; but I seriously doubt that calling Steve Benner an idiot was really what Peter Ward had in mind.

Such egregious contradictions demonstrate that when a particular paradigm must be protected, logical consistency is no longer required. And yes, that's ironic as well because while logic and science are supposed to go hand-in-hand, the ID critics who claim to be defending science on the one hand, are the ones who have abandoned logic on the other.