Monday, February 07, 2005

Unintelligent Design?

In today's Times, Michael Behe, a leading proponent of "intelligent design" was given the opportunity to beg the question of the theological aspects of his theories. What I mean by that is that, while the author proposes a designer, he also pretends that his theory is separate from theology... presumably because he provides no information about the "designer" and does not speculate as to who the "designer" might (or might not) be. Beyond that rather patent omission, the author asserts, "Rather, the contemporary argument for intelligent design is based on physical evidence and a straightforward application of logic." Or, more accurately, not. Starting at the beginning:
The first claim is uncontroversial: we can often recognize the effects of design in nature. For example, unintelligent physical forces like plate tectonics and erosion seem quite sufficient to account for the origin of the Rocky Mountains. Yet they are not enough to explain Mount Rushmore.

Of course, we know who is responsible for Mount Rushmore, but even someone who had never heard of the monument could recognize it as designed.
Except this theory is neither new, nor is it compelling. It was, what, some eight centuries ago that philosophers suggested that order in the universe evidenced the existence of a God? The difference between "now" and "then" is that the larger forces of nature which create the apparent order in the universe are accepted by Behe and are acknowledged as "unintelligent physical forces". Yet this is a distinction without a difference - Behe is repeating the error of observing something that appears ordered and designed and, because he does not know (and refuses to acknowledge) "unintelligent physical forces" which could account for the same phenomenon, assuming intelligent design.
Which leads to the second claim of the intelligent design argument: the physical marks of design are visible in aspects of biology. This is uncontroversial, too. The 18th-century clergyman William Paley likened living things to a watch, arguing that the workings of both point to intelligent design. Modern Darwinists disagree with Paley that the perceived design is real, but they do agree that life overwhelms us with the appearance of design.
That's not really a second claim, so much as a variant of the first. It has a simplistic appeal - if something looks like it might have been designed, it is reasonable to assume a designer. But, as Behe himself suggests in asserting "unintelligent physical forces"as the force behind what philosophers once viewed as evidence of "design", this claim begs the question.
The next claim in the argument for design is that we have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn't involve intelligence. Here is where thoughtful people part company. Darwinists assert that their theory can explain the appearance of design in life as the result of random mutation and natural selection acting over immense stretches of time. Some scientists, however, think the Darwinists' confidence is unjustified. They note that although natural selection can explain some aspects of biology, there are no research studies indicating that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell.

Scientists skeptical of Darwinian claims include many who have no truck with ideas of intelligent design, like those who advocate an idea called complexity theory, which envisions life self-organizing in roughly the same way that a hurricane does, and ones who think organisms in some sense can design themselves.
Here, again, there is nothing that lends support to "intelligent design". If one were to assert, "Many scientists believe the Earth is flat. I think it is shaped like a cube. As there are many scientists who disagree with the 'Flat Earth' theory, including some who think it is hexagonal and some who believe it is a dodecahedron, my theory is valid," the illogic would be patent. (I don't mean to belittle the two alternative theories Behe mentions - my analogy is to his effort to, through simplistic presentation, implicitly suggest that his own speculations are at least equal.)

Beyond the illogic, it also is not correct from a scientific perspective. There is extensive scientific analysis - which, unlike "intelligent design", has passed peer review - which presents observations and theories of evolution at the subcellular level. It is possible that Behe does not understand that body of science, or that he disagrees with the concusions of the scientists behind it, but it is fundamentally dishonest for him to pretend that it does not exist. The fact that Darwinism itself has evolved from its rawest, 19th Century form is no surprise. But subsequent additional scientific research, knowledge, and theories do not mean that "anything goes" or "my speculation is equal to (or better than) their science".
The fourth claim in the design argument is also controversial: in the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life. To evaluate this claim, it's important to keep in mind that it is the profound appearance of design in life that everyone is laboring to explain, not the appearance of natural selection or the appearance of self-organization.
A circular and self-serving argument: If I don't find other theories more compelling than my own, I should not only be able to adhere to my opinion but should be able to advance it as equal or superior to its "competitors". And, at its core, this isn't really different from the earlier points that, if something looks like it was designed (like the "face" some used to imagine on the surface of Mars) then it is reasonable to assume that it was designed. However Behe rationalizes the manner in which he puts these four "claims" together, he's remarkable in his circularity.

But it seems to me that the principle failing of Behe's theory is one he chooses not to address: His refusal to identify the designer, or to apply his own "claims" to the notion of an intelligent designer. Why? Presumably because he knows that the concept of God that is embraced by most of those who purchase his book falls apart when his four "claims" are applied to its existence. After all, if God is an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful being, capable of simultaneously being everywhere and anywhere, and credited with knowledge of the smallest act of man, and with designing life and matter right down to the subatomic level, God is the most complex being ever conceived. Why isn't Behe demanding that theologians explain, "Who designed God"?

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