October 11, 2005

Stephen Meyer's "Notes to Teachers Pt. 3" - Silly strawmen and false dichotomies

[Third in an ongoing series of responses to Stephen Meyer's "Notes to Teachers."]

(A Note to Teachers Part 3: Science and the Laws of Nature)

A second misconception revolves around the question of what makes a concept or explanation "scientific." In particular, some scientists and philosophers assert that the concept of intelligent design in inherently unscientific. According to this view, science must explain things by using natural laws--not by invoking an act of God or some other intelligent agent. Thus, we no longer explain the orbit of a planet by saying that an angel pushes it through the heavens. We explain it with Newton's law of universal gravitation.
I suppose this can be considered a “misconception” in a similar fashion to a carpenter’s mistaken belief that his saw is useful for cutting wood.
In the same way, design is ruled out-of-court because it invokes an intelligent agent rather than natural laws. Philosopher of science Michael Ruse, for example, has said:
Science attempts to understand this world. What is the basis for this understanding? Surveying science and the history of science today, one thing stands out: Science involves the search for order. More specifically, science looks for unbroken, blind, natural regularities (laws). Things in the world do not happen in just any old way. They follow set paths, and science tries to capture this fact.
There are serious problems with this view, however. One problem is that it ignores areas of scientific investigation where intelligent design is a necessary explanatory concept. The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is one example. At the time of this writing, radio telescopes are scanning the heavens, looking for artificial radio signals that differ from the random signals generated by natural objects in space. If we were to limit science to the search for "unbroken, blind, natural regularities (laws)," we would have to say that SETI is unscientific--by definition.
There it is, one of the ID classics, the SETI analogy. Meyer is (or should be if his education is any indication) aware that for Ruse’s purposes the expression “unbroken, blind, natural regularities (laws)” considers intelligences such as humans or putative extraterrestrials to be natural expressions of those laws. As Ruse would not discount archeology or other sciences that investigate humans and/or their products, neither would he remove possible intelligences sought by SETI from the universe of natural law. Meyer’s point is clumsy and ineffectual, and relies on an egregious false dichotomy.
Archaeology would meet the same fate. Archaeologists routinely distinguish manufactured objects (e.g., arrowheads, potsherds) from natural ones (e.g., stones), even when the differences between them are very subtle. These manufactured objects then become important clues in reconstructing past ways of life. But if we arbitrarily assert that science explains solely by reference to natural laws, if archaeologists are prohibited from invoking an intelligent manufacturer, the whole archeological enterprise comes to a grinding halt.
I wrote the above never imagining that Meyer would compound his foolishness with this embarrassing continuation of the same sophomoric argument. It is clear Ruse does not intend to remove archeology, or SETI, from the domain of scientific investigation of natural law. Does Meyer truly not understand this, or is he choking back rhetorical integrity in favor of rank sophistry?
A second problem with limiting science to blind, natural regularities is that it confuses laws with explanations--an error that philosopher of science William Alston calls "a 'category mistake' of the most flagrant sort." Laws and explanations are often two different things.

Scientific explanations often invoke not only laws but causal events and actions. For example, consider the field of modern cosmology. Most cosmologists explain the features of our universe not only by reference to the laws of physics, but by reference to a single event: the Big Bang. The Big Bang explains why galaxies throughout the universe seem to be receding from each other. It also explains the presence of low-level radiation that seems to permeate space. These phenomena cannot be explained solely by reference to physical laws or natural regularities. Rather, the critical explanatory feature of (Big Bang) is a one-time event that established the conditions responsible for the phenomena that we now witness.
The Big Bang cannot be explained solely by reference to the laws of physics because it is hypothesized that the laws of physics for our universe came about as a result of initial conditions produced by the Big Bang. Everything that has happened since very early in the BB event can be explained in terms of natural laws.
Moreover, sometimes it seems that scientific laws are hardly relevant to our explanations at all--such as when we try to explain why things turned out one way rather than another. For instance, Newton's law of universal gravitation may tell us why the earth has a Newtonian orbit rather than a non-Newtonian one. But it doesn't explain why the earth follows its present orbit, instead of some other orbit that is equally compatible with Newton's law. That kind of explanation requires something else--namely, information about how the earth attained its present position and velocity.

A similar example can be drawn from the field of historical geology. If a historical geologist wanted to explain the unusual height of the Himalayas, invoking natural laws would be of little use. Natural laws alone cannot tell us why the Himalayas are higher than, say the Rocky Mountains. That would require discovering antecedent factors that were present in building the Himalayas but not in other mountain-building episodes.

Thus, scientific explanation not only involves laws but may also involve past causal events.
Which “causal events” themselves are explained by way of natural law.

Meyer seems to be arguing that the fact that all events have causal antecedents (disregarding, for the moment, quantum phenomena) somehow demonstrates that the notion of science relying upon natural law is flawed. It is a specious bit of special pleading that could only be asserted by someone pushing an agenda.

If we are to disregard, or regard as having little reliability, all explanations of events that rely upon prior conditions then the very word “explanation” loses meaning. Yes, everything has a causal antecedent. But there are proximate causes that can be investigated and understood. That we may not understand all of a particular cause’s antecedents does not invalidate attempts to understand a well-defined and constrained set of conditions by way of a proximate cause. If we could know all possible causal conditions in an infinitely recursive way we would never need to distinguish induction from deduction, science could offer “proof,” and we would all be Gods.

But that is not the nature of our universe. We create “best” explanations, and put them to practical use. We don’t try to explain everything at once, we put it together slowly, piece by piece. Science is, foremost, what scientists do. And that means a reliance upon a methodologically natural approach to empirical investigation, not a façade of “open-minded” accommodation of causal inferences which cannot be established to have any explanatory power. Meyer is hoping to leave just this kind of option available to those, like himself, who cannot accept that science does not operationally lead to his version of God.
If scientists could never invoke past events and causes, they could never explain many important phenomena.
Meyer is doing a fine job of pulling the arms off of that scarecrow. Who ever argued that scientists could not “invoke past events and causes?”
Why is this important? Because ignoring the role of causal events in scientific explanation has created a false dichotomy between agency--or intelligent design--and the laws of nature.
No scientist ignores the role of causal events in scientific explanation. There is no false dichotomy (except the one in Meyer’s imagination). It is painfully obvious what Meyer is trying to do here. He thinks if he can establish an equivalency between arguing for the role of “past events and causes” and the role of “past supernatural, empirically non-demonstrable, events and causes” in the mind of the reader he can get away with this bit of spurious rhetoric.

A similar deception also takes place when ID proponents cite “intelligent design” in an attempt to legitimize the notion of supernatural ID by conflating it with natural (usually human) ID. Meyer uses this tactic above and continues it immediately below.
The fact that scientific explanations may invoke laws doesn't mean that agency is somehow ruled out. Rather, intelligent agents can alter causal events and introduce other contributing factors. Although intervention may alter the course of subsequent events--sometimes in novel and unexpected ways--it does not violate natural laws.
Of course not. This is pathetic.
Indeed, the actions of intelligent agents are themselves causal events. Therefore, citing the action of agents may be necessary to explain many present phenomena. Imagine trying to explain Mt. Rushmore without reference to sculptors. Law-like explanations involving only natural processes would completely miss the critical explanatory factor. That is why archaeologists, forensic scientists and historians often find it impossible to avoid postulating intelligent agency.
All of which neatly makes the point that it is not about the action of agents or intelligent causation (which are readily addressed by science). It is about what types of explanations qualify as scientific. And those that make use of observation, measurement, and testing (in other words, naturalistic methods) meet the standard. Those that infer non-natural agency which cannot be tested or empirically demonstrated do not.

Once again I feel compelled to wonder if Meyer truly cannot see this, or has sold his intellectual dignity for some shoddy rhetorical merchandise.
The notion that science explains solely by reference to natural laws suffers from yet a third problem.
As we bear in mind that Meyer has not yet established a first or second.
In addition to confusing laws with explanations, it assumes a cookie-cutter view of science, in which all disciplines ask similar questions and use the same "scientific method." This belies the rich diversity of methods that scientists use to understand the natural world.

Several philosophers, for instance, have argued that a clear distinction exists between the "inductive sciences" and the "historical sciences." These two broad categories ask different kinds of questions and use different kinds of methods. The inductive (or nomological) sciences, on the one hand, ask questions about how the natural world generally operates. Hence, a virologist may try to discover how a particular enzyme helps a virus infect its host. Or a crystallographer may try to determine the effects of weightlessness on crystal growth. In each case, scientists seek to uncover the regularities that characterize natural phenomena.

The historical sciences, on the other hand, ask different kinds of questions. Rather than trying to understand how the natural world operates, the historical sciences seek to understand how things came to be. One example, of course, would be the historical geologist who was seeking to explain the unusual elevation of the Himalayas. Another would be an evolutionary biologist seeking to explain the origin of giraffes. Still another would be the archaeologist seeking to reconstruct an ancient culture. Note that in each case the goal is not to find new laws or regularities but to reconstruct past conditions and events.
Somehow “trying to understand how the natural world operates” has now transformed into “find new laws or regularities.” Did he think no one would notice this glaring manipulation of the argument?

Scientists, whether they engage in (Meyer’s categories) the inductive or historical disciplines, are not always trying to “find new laws or regularities.” But they are always trying to “understand how the natural world operates.” Just as the Himalayas and giraffes are part of the natural world, so to are humans (at least until demonstrated otherwise, an assumption ID proponents like to assume but seldom attempt to support with evidence). And it is also true that, whether their investigations are inductive or historical, scientists are always trying to “reconstruct past conditions and events.” Just at a different level of temporal removal.
The importance of this distinction to our present discussion is that although postulating intelligent intervention is completely inappropriate in the inductive sciences, the same is not true in the historical sciences.
(At the risk of continuing the flagellation of this poor, deceased horse…) Of course it’s not, archeologists do it all the time. Forensic scientists do it whenever they conduct an investigation. I do it whenever I look for my lost car keys.
In the inductive sciences the whole point is to discover how the natural world normally operates on its own, i.e., in the absence of intelligent intervention. Postulating an intelligent agent would thus contradict the implicit goal of research in the inductive sciences.

In the historical sciences, however, the goal is to reconstruct past events and conditions. Thus, there is no need to impose such restrictions.
By this Meyer means, but does not say, “there is no need to impose” restrictions on non-natural agents (God).

But there is an obvious, and operationally critical, need to do so. If scientific methodology need not be restricted to natural explanations, then the very utility of science is irreparably diminished.
Quite the reverse. As we have seen, the explanation of certain artifacts or features may require reference to intelligence. Intelligent agents may have left traces of their activity in the natural world. The historical scientist need not turn a blind eye to them.

Hence, when investigating the origin of the living world, it may be perfectly acceptable--depending on the evidence--to hypothesize an intelligent designer.
Thus, Meyer’s grand conclusion boils down to this – “We know, and can demonstrate scientifically, that primitive humans have created artifacts, therefore it is reasonable to conclude that God created the universe, Q.E.D.”



Blogger Barron said...

I think "intelligent design" is no longer a useful term. I recommend replacing it with "supernatural design". They try to convolve all the natural intelligent design (SETI, archeology, etc) with supernatural intelligent design. They try to hide the "supernatural" part in the "intelligent", and they conceals the really controversial part of the idea. Everyone in science can easily handle questions of intelligent design by natural means. It's trying to drop the "natural" that causes controversy (and how can we "teach the controversy" if we don't define what that controversy is?).

10:33 AM  

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