February 8, 2005

Michael Behe - "Eureka, it's a duck!"

Michael Behe, one of the leading proponents of “intelligent design” theory and originator of the oft-debunked concept of “irreducible complexity” has contributed an Op-Ed piece to the 2/7/05 New York Times called Design for Living.

Behe has always played a sort of second fiddle (or maybe third if one includes Phillip Johnson) to William Dembski in the ID hierarchy and apparently, if judged by this article, for good reason. As flawed as much of the ID rhetoric is, Behe’s argumentation here is a bit embarrassingly on the skinny side of convincing.

Dr. Behe begins by noting that there seems to be confusion as to “what intelligent design is and what it is not.” He then attempts to correct, but really only adds to, this problem by expounding upon his “four linked claims” for ID. These, he says, are “based on physical evidence and a straightforward application of logic.” Behe then finishes off his piece with an astoundingly weak and whiney bit of special pleading.

Behe’s four linked claims begin with,
"The first claim is uncontroversial: we can often recognize the effects of design in nature."
He presents a foundation for this observation by accepting a broad definition of design (as most ID theorists do, we’ll see why soon enough), which includes a mountain range produced by the collision of tectonic plates. As it’s obvious that “design” is a causally loaded word, its use in this context forces us to add a qualifier. We need to call this activity “undirected natural design”, or design which is not born of purpose or intent (as most definitions of design would suggest). Behe then proceeds to contrast this design with Mt. Rushmore, which “even someone who had never heard of the monument could recognize…” as designed. This is of course true. This is an example of what we can call “directed natural design,” or a phenomenon that is the direct result of purposeful agency.

These are uncontroversial observations, as Behe asserts, as long as one is willing to allow the use of “design” in a fashion that is nearly diametrically opposed to its actual meaning, that is - to describe phenomena behind which there is no creative intent. But Behe hopes the use of the word in this context will help support its use in the context of the next claim.
“...the second claim of the intelligent design argument: the physical marks of design are visible in aspects of biology.”
Behe argues that this claim is uncontroversial as well. The problem is that the devil is in the details of how one defines “design” and whether it is qualified and used appropriately during discussion, because it is at this point that Behe and his fellow ID theorists hope to import the notion of “directed supernatural design,” born, of course, of an intelligent designer. [Behe asserts in this article, as do nearly all ID proponents, that the designer has no necessary connection with religion. But as Behe and his cohort steadfastly refuse to qualify the designer in any way, even to make such a small accession as admitting it exists within the natural universe, it is clear they hope that supernaturally “directed design” is the conclusion to which most will jump.]

But let’s return to this claim. Behe, after citing William Paley’s well-worn “watch on the heath,” willingly affirms,
“Modern Darwinists disagree with Paley that the perceived design is real, but they do agree that life overwhelms us with the appearance of design.”
This is quite different from agreeing that there are “physical marks of design” visible when we investigate organismal complexity. To agree to Behe’s phraseology is to tacitly accept that the function or system in question which displays the “marks” could have been the result of directive, purposeful agency. Not only is this, in fact, a controversial observation, but it is an example of how ID theorists assume the conclusion they hope to prove.

He then attempts to support his second claim by noting that scientists like Francis Crick and Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, have made observations that admit the appearance of design. Again, it is important to point out that admitting that organismal complexity sometimes gives the appearance of design is far different from agreeing that “marks of design” can be empirically established. It is not surprising that humans, who have developed cultures full of design and designed objects, would see in natural complexity an analogy to that complexity with which they are inseparably familiar. Scientists are no less likely to react from this perspective than anyone else. It does not mean, nor should anyone attempt to bias the issue by suggesting, that there is something manifest about the “design” in nature.
“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.”
Okay, is Behe kidding? Is this something he wishes to suggest as a coherent bit of reason? He follows with,
“Here is where thoughtful people part company.”
No, “thoughtful” people take the conditional parameter; “lack of evidence,” and logically characterize the nature of the issue as indeterminate. They subsequently invoke such elaborate explanations as, “we don’t know,” or “we haven’t figured that out yet,” or “nobody's working on that right now, you’re welcome to take up that avenue of research.”

ID theorists, on the other hand, take the same parameter, turn it into an epistemological virtue and boldly proclaim that an “intelligent designer,” if tucked neatly into that gap in our understanding, offers a rigorous, scientific, acceptable alternative to biological evolution. Thoughtful people do not operate in this fashion unless they have an agenda to advance.
“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.”
Well, he is at least correct about it being controversial. This is barely deserving of a response. But Behe is serious. He even takes pains to produce a coherent set of propositions by which he hopes to establish the logic behind this position. He says,
“...if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it's a duck.”
He doesn’t, however, bother to tell us whether he means Donald Duck, or maybe Baby Huey.

Of course Behe blithely ignores important inconsistencies such as the fact that he has so far failed miserably to prove, if I may continue the metaphor, that it (life) does indeed look, walk, and quack like a duck. If he, or his ID compatriots, had actually gone any real distance toward convincing biologists that nature exhibits those qualities that strongly suggest it is intelligently (directedly) designed, then he wouldn’t have to so obviously continue trying to assume that which he desperately wishes to prove, an example of which can be found in the painful bit of reasoning that follows,
“Design should not be overlooked simply because it's so obvious.”
Behe finishes up with one of the more sophomoric paragraphs of nonsense I have seen in quite a while,
“Still, some critics claim that science by definition can't accept design, while others argue that science should keep looking for another explanation in case one is out there. But we can't settle questions about reality with definitions, nor does it seem useful to search relentlessly for a non-design explanation of Mount Rushmore. Besides, whatever special restrictions scientists adopt for themselves don't bind the public, which polls show, overwhelmingly, and sensibly, thinks that life was designed. And so do many scientists who see roles for both the messiness of evolution and the elegance of design.”
No, we can’t settle questions about reality with definitions, we settle them with scientific investigation, known as methodological naturalism. No, it wouldn’t be useful to search for non-design explanations of Mt. Rushmore for distressingly obvious reasons which, despite Behe’s implication, do not then extend to biological organization.

And just what is it supposed to mean to anyone, scientist or layman alike, that “the public, which polls show, overwhelmingly, and sensibly, thinks that life was designed.” Even given his petty inclusion of “and sensibly,” there is nothing here that reflects upon scientific methodology.

Despite the fact that he has difficulty cobbling together any kind of sensible argument in support of ID, Dr. Behe should at least have some minimal understanding of the limits of science, public sentiment, and religious influence. That he continues to argue as if what he and those like him wish to believe should legitimately influence scientific investigation is dangerously naïve, and palpably, well...daffy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why so heated? You sound like a vicar who has just been blasphemed against.. And atheist scientists arn't biased? It calls to mind Galileo..what if this guy is on to something? You're going to look pretty stupid.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too funny, mentioning Gallileo. He's the man who had evidence that went against the beliefs of the religious. Behe is the believer who goes against the evidence. If anything, Behe resembles the bishops persecuting Galileo.

6:26 AM  

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