Paul Nelson - The "dark side" is calling
What is the "dark side?" It is the state of diminished grace into which ID "theorists" and proponents fall once the strain of having to defend purported evidence and logic of ID leads to increasing frequency of,
- pleas of persecution
- whines about establishment intransigence
- construction (and demolition) of wild strawmen of "Darwinism" and the positions of "Darwinists," and
- incessant repetition of talking points with little regard for contrary arguments.
Dembski has been seduced. Behe sort of hovers halfway between. Guys like Chapman and West and Witt say "it’s not dark, it’s just a different kind of light!" And Phillip Johnson? Hell, he invented the dark side.
But there have been a few ID supporters who’ve managed to retain a reputation for reasonable assessment of ID's position in the debate. People like Del Ratzch and Paul Nelson come to mind.
Lately, though, Nelson is showing signs of being seduced.
He has posted an entry at IDthefuture that includes some pretty suspect argumentation,
“...Student interest in design continues to grow. Nature reported last week on the Lindau meeting in Germany, for instance, where Ph.D. students and postdocs spend time with Nobel laureates. One such laureate, Günther Blobel (Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1999) “was taken aback to find some students expressing so much interest in the ‘creative guiding hand’ of intelligent design” (Nature 436 [14 July 2005]:171). Blobel was taken aback—if I may interpolate—because design is so obviously nonsense: how then could a science student who survived the rigorous selection process to attend the Lindau meeting -- 720 invitees from 10,000 applicants; less than 1 in 10 students were selected—still find ID interesting?”At first glance this comment might just seem prickly. But knowing something of Nelson's personal beliefs reveals it as extraordinarily disingenuous. Nelson is a young earth creationist who demurs from trying to defend that position by use of science. He has also been critical of ID's lack of scientific rigor. In other words he holds to a philosophical position despite being well aware of its lack of empirical support. As such he knows perfectly well how it is possible for students to "still find ID interesting" after having been educated in the sciences. People, including himself, are obviously capable of believing things in spite of evidence. Certainly this increases the odds that it might be "obviously nonsense."
“Who’s to blame for this mess? Maybe biologists themselves, at least in part, suggests Rudy Raff. Raff, long a leader and mentor in the field of evo-devo, periodically writes editorials warning about the growth of ID and skepticism concerning naturalistic evolution. His most recent, “Stand up for evolution” (Evolution and Development 7 [July 2005]:273-275), advises biologists to police their own language when describing biological systems. As Raff writes:Before we go on let's note that biologists wouldn't have to worry about this kind of thing nearly so much if ID proponents were capable of defining and using their terminology in a rigorous manner. The fact that advocates continue to co-opt words and phrases like "design" and "intelligent design" as if their meanings are manifestly supportive of ID indicate much about the disinformation aspect of the movement.
"...let us not play into the hands of ID propagandists. For instance, be careful about using teleological words to describe biological entities in our teaching and writing. Calling cells “machines that do X,” or describing biological structures as “well designed to do Y” will be duly cited in ID propaganda as one more biologist-supporting design."”
Although I sympathize with Raff's reasoning, I think we have to be able to count on most people being rational enough to recognize a silly extrapolation from innocent, if politically inconvenient, phraseology.
Back to Nelson,
“OK. Let’s say I’m a postdoc working on a cellular system (oops—“system” sounds designed, how about “assemblage” or “a bunch of stuff”) that controls (oh heck—“control” is teleological, how about “just happens to do something or other in relation to”) signal transduction (now what? Excuse me, Professor Raff—do you have a non-teleological synonym for “signal transduction”?)...sorry, didn’t mean to use all those teleological words just then, but I couldn’t help myself.”This is, or should be, beneath Nelson. Sarcasm without a point is really just pettiness. Is he truly having difficulty conceiving of how words such as "system" and "control" and "signal transduction" can be considered acceptable usage in biological terminology without having to invoke a purposer? There is room for teleology in biology without having to extend the metaphor to meta-agency. Or does Nelson think that when an astrophysicist describes the sun as a "system," or a meteorologist characterizes, say, the Coriolis force as exerting "control" on wind conditions and ocean currents, that this means they are constrained to recognize some extra-natural influence?
What about all the gene regulation, feedback loops, biochemical cascades and the like that occur in biological organisms? There is no reason these mechanisms cannot have a purpose without being the result of an ultimate purposer. If we say that it is the "goal" of a promoter to enable transcription of a particular gene it's an obvious bit of verbal shorthand, just as when we note that a crested river is "trying" to break through a levee. Can we not discuss these phenomena without having to defend empirical integrity against those who would quibble over terminology?
Steven Pinker, in a discussion with Robert Wright, had some relevant comments,
"I agree that we have to distinguish a proximate goal--what the system is trying to attain--from an ultimate goal--what the designer of the system was trying to attain by designing it. The proximate goal of a thermostat is to keep a constant temperature; its ultimate goal is to keep people comfortable. The proximate goal of sexual desire is sexual pleasure; the ultimate goal is replicating genes. Note that an ultimate goal at one level is a proximate goal at another level: The thermostat doesn't want to keep people comfortable, but the thermostat designer does; people may not want to make babies when they make love, but their genes, as shaped by natural selection, do. (Note to the Gotcha! Gang--I'm omitting the tedious shudder-quotes from teleological terms such as try, goal, design, and want; neither Bob nor I believe that thermostats and genes literally have thoughts and feelings.)"Seems like something that shouldn't have to be said, doesn't it?
Anyway, Nelson continues after the bit about confused terminology,
“Hyperbole, eh? Don't think so.”Spoken like a true member of the Gotcha! Gang. When Nelson has actually given us specifics as to the connection between his ultimate purposer and natural phenomena, then maybe we can talk about whether there is any reason to rethink our terminology as it applies to proximate goals.
He finishes with his most egregious argument,
“I'll give the last word to Orwell, from 1984:The implication here, as applied to Raff's admonition that we lend less fuel to ID psuedo-science, is hilarious. Raff has no wish to suppress anyone's freedom. He is trying to inhibit distortions of fact by those with a political agenda. Raff is serving accuracy, while Nelson is serving an insecure theology.
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it....Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thought-crime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control.”
Really now, comparing Raff's comments to Orwellian thought-crime? This combines nearly all of the indicators of seduction to the dark side I mentioned above. Nelson has, in the past, been able to offer something more dignified and perceptive.
But it now appears as if the force may no longer be with him.