Friday, June 03, 2005

That Mystical Negation Symbol, Again

Paul Nelson finds another instance of magical evolutionary logic. In his short piece he quotes a Washington Post editorial:
While "The Privileged Planet" is an extremely sophisticated religious film, it is a religious film nevertheless. It uses scientific information -- the apparently "perfect" position of Earth in its orbit and in its galaxy, the uniqueness of its atmosphere -- to answer, affirmatively, the philosophical question of whether life on Earth was part of a grand design, and not just the result of chance and chemistry. Neither God nor evolution is mentioned.

There is a clear implication in this quote that it's perfectly resonable and expected to say the world (i.e. life, the universe, and everything) is "just the result of chemistry and chance". Apparently, to look at evidence and say it points to design is religious. To look at the same evidence and say it points to "chance and chemistry" is scientific. In other words, it is not a religious statement to say: "The world is a meaningless accident." And by the same token it is not a scientific statement to say: "This looks like evidence of design." Okay.

BTW, I read the book Privileged Planet last year. Fascinating and well-written. As I've said before, if you really want to understand the Intelligent Design movement, you need to read the original books and not just third hand quotes, strawmen ad hominem attacks against ID'ists, MSM editorials, etc.


Anonymous said...

Nice, Matt, I linked!

Mark Nutter said...

I hate to say it, but yeah, it's exactly true that ultimately science cannot detect design. In order for science to tell the difference between something designed and something undesigned, there has to be something that was not designed, so science can contrast the two. So if Earth is a privileged planet (i.e. designed by a Creator), then Mars must not have been designed by any Creator. Nor any of the other planets or solar systems where there is no life. Hello, uncreated planets? Where do they fit into ID theory?

This is the Achilles heel of the modern ID movement. If the Designer created everything, then the concept of Design becomes lost in the concept of Nature, because the Design of things is ultimately the nature of things--all science knows about Nature is what it can see by observing how they were designed. To create an artificial dichotomy between Design and Nature, the modern ID'ers have to divide part of creation against itself, and call some part of it designed, as distinct from other parts. It's like Behe using Mt. Rushmore as an example of something that was obviously designed. You mean the Matterhorn was not designed?

Science is not powerful enough to discern the ultimate design of creation. It takes religion to discern design, and I think it's a sign of spiritual decline that people assume that's a bad thing. Since when does faith need a permission slip from the Science Department to gain access to a valid spiritual truth?

Of course, if the Designer of ID theory is not actually a deity, if it's only a bunch of meddling space aliens, then I guess the uncreated planets and the undesigned aspects of Nature are not a problem. So really this is only an issue for believers who support ID.

Matteo said...

Mark, thanks for the comment. Have you read the book Privileged Planet? How is your argument different from saying, "Well we can't really say that the intricacies and irreducible complexity (and yes, I think this really is a valid concept and I think it really does carry the implications the ID'ists say it does) of biological life point to design, but then we'd have to say that the simplicity of water, dirt, rocks and smoke don't. So that means that we'd be saying that life was designed by a creator but dirt wasn't". I fail to see how that's a logical implication of noticing design in something.

Faith needs no permission slip. It is no part of Christian faith to say that design must be invisible. See about one third of the Psalms and Romans Chapter 1, for example.

If nothing else, books like "The Privileged Planet" and "Rare Earth" poke some pretty big holes in the common conception (i.e. The Principle of Mediocrity) that the Earth is a garden variety planet circling a garden variety sun, in an unspecial part of the galaxy. It just ain't the case. I'm not saying that proves or establishes anything religious, but it is a common misconception among Darwinists that places like Earth are a dime a ten-to-the-dozen. They aren't. And that's going to have a big effect on the probability of all the right accidental mutations showing up in the time and space available (I may have just broken a cardinal rule of this allegedly probabilistic "science": discussing probability. Strangely enough, that's a big no-no among Darwinists).

Moreover, your argument is analogous to saying that there can be no such a thing as a miracle, because that would be dividing reality into two parts: things that are "normal" and things that are "miraculous". Let me reword your first paragraph:

"I hate to say it, but yeah, it's exactly true that ultimately faith cannot detect miracles. In order for faith to tell the difference between something miraculous and something normal, there has to be something that was not miraculous, so faith can contrast the two. So if, say, Jesus rose from the dead (i.e. by a miracle wrought by God), then Joe Schmoe must die in a normal, permanent way. Same with everyone else. Hello, regular people? Where do they fit into our faith?"

The thought is a non-sequitor, as far as I can see. The special is recognizable as special because it contrasts with its background environment. The mundanity of the background says nothing about the specialness of the foreground. Did no one paint the Mona Lisa because (for the sake of argument) there is nothing special about the frame?

Mark Nutter said...

It's not a question of what faith can detect, but of what science can detect. Science has to be objectively verifiable. Faith is more intuitive, and less constrained.

The problem is that the proposed theory here is that one can identify design by observing that this or that feature is "not natural." That which is natural is thus, by implicit definition, not designed. See the problem? In trying to make ID into a scientific theory, one is forced to make the assumption that God (i.e. the designer) did not design Nature.

What's more, this is an implicitly dualistic worldview, because it assumes that nature (i.e. the producer of that which is natural) exists and operates autonomously and independently of the designer. You have some things that the Designer produces, but most things are produced by Nature, on its own, apart from the Designer. That's the "frame" against which the painting of the Mona Lisa rests for us to detect the grand design. For godless ID theories that's not a problem--so what if Nature exists independently of the designer and operates autonomously from the designer? It's only an issue in the case where you want the Designer to be a Creator who actually did include not only biological life but also the simplicity of rock, water, and dirt as part of His design for Nature as a whole. To say that God designed some things but not others is a theological problem, but if you acknowledge that God designed all things, then what happens to our scientific criterion for determining design? "It must be designed, because it is not natural, yet nature is also designed, so if it's different from nature, that would imply that it is not designed, not that it is designed, but now we're concluding that it is designed?" Wait, how does that work?

You don't prove something is designed by showing that it differs significantly from something else that is also designed. If you assume that Nature is not designed, that Nature exists on its own and was not created by the Designer, but creates things autonomously and independently from the Designer, without design or purpose, then you can prove design by showing that this or that feature is not natural. But at that point you've proved ID by adopting a dualistic worldview that assumes the Designer is not the creator or controller of Nature!

Matteo said...

Mark, I just don't see the problem. You seem quite sincere about your overall position, but it's not clear to me just what your bottom line position is. My cards are on the table: I'm an electrical and software engineer with a small patent portfolio, and a convert to full-bore orthodox Catholicism who converted for reasons having nothing to do with the ID/Darwinism controversy. I assert that design is empirically detectable, and I also assert that the Catholic faith and Scripture hold that God can be known through what he has made. I see detectable design as a problem for neither science nor faith. In this, I don't believe that my position is substantially different than that held by some great names in past science: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Pascal, Pasteur.

So, I'm not arguing for my botton line position, but just stating what it is. So what's yours? I'm not looking for justifying arguments, just a statement.

Are you Christian? A skeptic? A buddhist? A guy who is trying to roll his own philosophy from first principles? Or what? Your comments here and postings on your blog leave me completely in the dark about where you're coming from. I suppose you could always reply that it is irrelevant to your arguments...but please humor me. Your arguments have a certain logic, but they seem to be based on assumptions or axioms that I do not hold. I'm just wondering what those are. I really want to know!

Mark Nutter said...

My position is that God designed the cosmos, but that perceiving God's hand in Creation is the job of religion, not science. Otherwise, let's dispense with the church, since it's superfluous, right? ;)

No, people who think science can prove God are expecting too much from science, and are digging pitfalls for themselves, such as naturalistic dualism (which is only one example). Are you serious that you don't think it's a problem for believers to adopt the position that God did not design Nature? Who did then? The Gnostic demiurge?

Matteo said...

So it sounds like you might be a "theistic evolutionist" with certain theological presuppositions about what constitutes the "purity of faith", and a view of ecclesiology that differs from mine. As I've said before, I don't look to science to prove God. Science is not what brought me to belief.

It sounds like you are trying to protect religion from shipwreck on the rocks of science. From my Catholic perspective, I'm just not worried. I do see science in danger of foundering on the rocks of bad philosophy/theology, however. I don't need science to prove God, but I would like to see science refrain from acting like it's proved atheism. When biology teachers aren't subject to ACLU lawsuits for daring to suggest that there are holes in Darwinism, and scientific careers are not put in jeopardy due to religious belief, maybe then we'll be getting somewhere. Or perhaps when the Smithsonian can show "Privileged Planet" without causing an uproar.

As far as "Are you serious that you don't think it's a problem for believers to adopt the position that God did not design Nature?", when did I ever make that assertion? Of course I think God designed Nature, both in its regularities (i.e. the laws of physics, that is "the background"), and in its singularities (the intricacies of life). I just don't see the problem.

Essentially, I don't think we're really arguing about science here. We differ in our theology, ecclesiology, and understanding of faith. I'm assuming that you are a Christian of some kind, maybe a Calvinist or something like that. Otherwise, your assertions about what the nature of religion and faith should be are sort of disingenuous. If you are instead, a "man of science who doesn't need religion", who is trying to "protect religion", well, my religion just doesn't need the favor.

Mark Nutter said...

Right, God designed nature too, so natural things are themselves designed. How are you going to come up with a scientific test for "designedness" when everything you could possible test is going to test positive? How can you possibly tell the difference, scientifically, between "designed" and "undesigned" if everything is designed?

Look at it this way: We're talking about Privileged Planet, right? You think it's possible to look at the scientific evidence regarding the conditions that make it possible for life to exist on Earth and conclude that the Earth was designed to support life. Ok, what are the scientific criteria for designedness in this case?

I can tell you what the religious criterion is: belief. After science gets done marshalling the evidence, you look at it and say, "Do I believe that all these conditions could have occurred in the same place at the same time and made life possible?" Belief (faith) is a religious criterion, and you can determine, on a religious basis, that you believe the planet was designed to support life, as I think is perfectly proper. But what is the scientific criterion?

One scientific criterion would be, does it violate any natural law for the ordinary processes of nature to produce a planet with this particular set of characteristics? No, it does not, so scientifically speaking there no reason why a planet like this couldn't come into existence apart from intentional design. (Playing devil's advocate here ;) So, scientifically speaking, what characteristics would a planet have if it just naturally happened to be able to support life, as opposed to being designed?

Try it. I bet you can't do it. There's no way, scientifically, to tell the difference between a planet that is designed to support life and a planet that just naturally happens to support life. There's a fundamental problem with the assumptions behind that whole approach, and it has to do with naturalistic dualism.

Matteo said...

As I've said before, part of the point of "Privileged Planet" is that the common assumption that there isn't much special about the Earth is just plain wrong. It is entirely conceivable that science could one day have a firm enough grasp of the laws of planetary, galactic, and universal development to be able to say that the probability of having a single planet like the Earth is not very great. I don't count on this to happen, but it is not impossible. I don't _need_ it to happen. Really, I'm not hanging much on this book. I think it's interesting, I think it's an intriguing way of looking at things, and I don't think it should be subject to a Darwinist Kangaroo Court (witness the Smithsonian uproar).

Your overall complaint is that the design hypothesis is capable of generating nothing but false positives. That's simply not correct. Dembski and others have pointed out that properly speaking, it should be generating false negatives. The goal is to have a "design filter" stringent enough to identify singular design where it exists, while not falsely identifying results attributable to the normal outworkings of law or chance as design. Of course, as a theist, I recognize that there is ultimately no such thing as pure chance, and that all laws proceed from a Lawgiver. But that doesn't mean I'm going to run around pointing at every pile of leaves shouting, "Look! Designed!" On the other hand, I'm not going to look at intricate, exquisitely regulated cellular nanomachinery and shout "Look! Chance and law!"

I have the impression that you think the Design Hypothesis dishonors a great finding of science: the ingenious, elegant, beautiful (designed?) mechanism of natural selection of random variations. The amazing feedback loop that creates wonderful designs. The simple, elegant, fecund principle by which the Universe flowers into being, going from the Big Bang, to babes, to blogs. Look, I know it's an attractive idea. Up until I started studying the evidentiary, logical, and probabilistic flaws in it, I was pretty jacked to contemplate the idea, myself. But now I think it's just plain wrong. And not for religious reasons. Therefore I find no reason for my religious point of view to conform to it. There's no "it" there to conform to.

Mark Nutter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mark Nutter said...

They're not false positives, that's the point.

Mark Nutter said...

See, earlier you asked "When did I ever make that assertion [that God did not design Nature]?" By calling it a "false positive" when we identify design in nature itself, you're implicitly asserting that nature is not designed, and thus that neither God nor anyone else designed it. I know, of course, that you do not intend to do that or want to do that. It's just something that's inherent in the dualistic (anti-evolution) ID approach. Identifying design in nature should be a true positive, it's not something that should ever be seen as a false positive. However if it's a test that returns "true" for everything, it's fairly useless scientifically. What's the point in doing the test if the results are guaranteed to always be the same?

Matteo said...

I didn't say that. I said that a correctly designed filter would be generating false negatives against design in nature-at-large (i.e. the pile of leaves, or dirt, or the Matterhorn, or whatever), but true positives about particular aspects of cellular machinery. Is this inferior to a Darwinist filter which is going to generate false negatives about everything?

Mark, I'm going to need to give this debate a rest, as I'm going to be traveling, and we've hit some good highlights. You've got fundamental philosophical problems against ID that seem compelling to you. They don't seem compelling to me. There is a difference of opinion here. No big deal. I can respect that. There's not much else I can or will say...

Mark Nutter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mark Nutter said...

You did say false negatives--my apologies. I read it through several times, but I missed it every time. Dembski's filter does have some problems with dualism that may not be easy to spot if you're not looking for them, but they're quite fundamental and serious.

I think you have misunderstood what the "Darwinist filter" does and/or should do, but I respect your decision to end this discussion.