October 16, 2005

Stephen Meyer's "Notes to Teachers, Pt. 4" - Dressing up old creationist canards

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

(A Note To Teachers Part 4: Observability)

A third misunderstanding concerns the scientific status of unobservable objects and events. Some philosophers and scientists claim that intelligent design is not scientific because it invokes an unobservable intelligent designer. To be scientific, they claim, a concept or idea must be testable. Because an intelligent designer is unobservable, theories of intelligent design are not testable--and hence not scientific.

It is by no means clear, however, that something is untestable--and hence unscientific--simply because it is unobservable. If this were the case, many accepted theories and concepts would have to be declared unscientific as well.
No, this is incorrect. There are theories (e.g. the Big Bang) for which their ultimate existence as a causal agency is presently unconfirmable by direct observation. But the supporting evidence, the math and physics that tie observable and measurable phenomena in an empirically connected fashion to the causal force of the Big Bang is not similarly ambiguous. Despite the fact that we cannot directly recreate or witness the phenomenon itself, the Big Bang is the antecedent of a great many observable and testable consequences. It is very well supported by the data and is generally considered the consensus position among physicists.

This is very different from the situation we see in “intelligent design.” With proposed observations such as irreducible complexity(IC) or specified complexity(SC) (neither of which is considered by biologists to be logically or evidentially established) ID “theorists” propose that they have reached an evidential impasse, a point beyond which natural empirical inquiry cannot proceed. Therefore they consider it legitimate to infer the existence of a non-natural “designer.”

Note how this is vastly different from the Big Bang example. It is precisely the mathematics and evidence from astrophysics that have outlined the nature of the causal agency, in this case, the initial universal “expansion.” In other words, the investigation has led, in an empirically connected fashion, to an understanding of the causal agency. The Big Bang is observed in its effects in nature. In the case of ID, however, it is not the facts in evidence but the lack thereof, the existence of a gap if you will, that allows for a sort of filling in of the blank. In this case, one’s preferred designer.
Chemist J.C. Walton observes: The postulation of ... external intervention (into nature by a designer) undoubtedly restores order, harmony and simplification to the data of physics and biology. (Yet) at present there is no unambiguous evidence ... for the existence of the external entity, but this should not be regarded as a drawback. Many key scientific postulates such as atomic theory, kinetic theory of the applicability of wave functions to describing molecular properties were, and still are, equally conjectural. Their acceptance depended, and still depends, on the comparison of their predictions with observables.
First, let's take note of that which Meyer leaves out. Here is the full quote (with elided material in italics),

“The postulate of creation of living structures by external intervention undoubtedly restores order, harmony and simplification to the data of physics and biology. At present there is no unambiguous evidence of a scientific nature for the existence of the external entity, but this should not be regarded as a drawback. Many key scientific postulates such as the atomic theory, kinetic theory or the applicability of wave functions to describing molecular properties were, and still are, equally conjectural. Their acceptance depended, and still depends, on the comparison of their predictions with observables. The value of any given postulate lies in its ability to correlate, simplify and organize the observables. Judged by this standard special creation suffers from fewer disadvantages than any alternative explanation of the origin of life.”

Watson is arguing for special creation, something which Meyer, for the purposes of putting some epistemological distance between “intelligent design” and creationism, wishes to avoid. I’ve no information on whether Watson appreciates the distortion of his statements here, but this an abuse regardless.

But let’s look more closely at one of the elided sentences. Watson says,

“The value of any given postulate lies in its ability to correlate, simplify and organize the observables.”

This very neatly puts the inadequacy of ID into perspective. A theory such as the Big Bang correlates, simplifies and organizes the data and evidence accumulated by astrophysics, and in so doing is a direct result of the data. The “designer” explantion of IC or SC phenomena simply drapes over these “data” like a rug covering a hole in the floor. Consider that the Big Bang is contingent upon and epistemically responsible for the physical evidence such that contrary evidence can call into question the validity of the theory. Consider further that there are no similar circumstances by which the “designer” can be disconfirmed. It can be, and in fact has been, the inevitable retreat of ID “theorists,” in the event that a particular phenomenon can be shown to have a possible evolutionary pathway, to respond that a particular example of “intelligent design” may have been incorrectly designated as such. But they nevertheless continue to proffer other, as yet uninvestigated, examples.

“Intelligent design theory,” as advanced by ID proponents, can never be disproved. It exists outside of the rubric of scientific methodology as an unassailable given in the minds of some religious individuals. It does not resemble scientific theory, even that which by some might be considered conjectural, because it has no ability to “correlate, simplify and organize the observables. ” It merely coexists with the "observables," as it does with any possible observation.

Far from supporting Meyer’s position, Watson outlines its direct refutation.
Also falling in this category are almost all theories in the historical sciences--theories that postulate conditions and events that occurred in the unobservable past. The Big Bang is one such theory.
Ahh, that pregnant giveaway, “conditions and events that occurred in the unobservable past.” Another direct descendant of creationism rears its uneducated head. This is of course an attempted update of the popular creationist pitch – “Were you there, was anyone there to see it happen?” See the second entry in this series - Stephen Meyer's "Notes to Teachers Pt. 2" - A continuing exercise in disingenuous rhetoric – for more on this complaint about the nature of inference in the sciences.
Another, ironically, is neo-Darwinism. Although neo-Darwinism explains many observable features in the living world, it postulates unobservable objects and events. For example, the mutational events that allegedly produced reptiles, birds, mammals and even humans have never been observed--nor will they ever be observed. Similarly, the transitional life forms that occupy the branching-points on Darwin's tree of life are also unobservable. Transitional forms exist now only as theoretical entities that make possible a coherent Darwinian account of how present-day species originated.
The above can be translated as – “since we do not know everything, we cannot know anything.” Meyer is reduced to trumped up versions of foolish logical fallacies.

There are aspects of evolutionary biology that are unknown. There are pivotal events that will never be observed. To suggest that the entire hierarchical structure of data and theory that is evolutionary biology must be irretrievably undermined by such difficulties is to perversely misunderstand the nature of science. It is not constructed top-down as is religion (drawn from broad absolutes), but is developed bottom-up, based upon accumulation of data wherein new discoveries are expected to have effects on the upper layers of speculation and hypothesis. Science does not expect to deliver comprehensive knowledge, just "best" explanations.

In a layman this kind of shallow perception is perhaps understandable. But in a “philosopher of science” it is either incompetence or deliberate misrepresentation.
The unobservable character of Darwinism becomes especially plain when proponents try to reconcile the fossil evidence with their theory. As paleontologists now admit, the fossil evidence looks a great deal less "Darwinian" than they had previously acknowledged. Indeed, as Harvard paleontologist Stephen Gould points out, the two outstanding features of the fossil record are "sudden appearance" and "stasis." At any given location species tend to appear "suddenly," fully formed, and exhibit no directional change during their stay on earth.
Stephen Jay Gould being, of course, a known proponent of “intelligent design.”
The standard neo-Darwinian explanation for these features is the imperfection of the fossil record; because fossilization occurs only under special circumstances, fossils give us only a rough sketch of evolutionary history. More recently, some have proposed that evolutionary change occurs rapidly and in small, isolated populations of organisms. Both explanations, however, invoke unobserved circumstances to explain unobserved fossil organisms. How can one observe a non-fossilization event that happened 100 million years ago?
How, in fact can one observe something that happened even a mere 6000 years ago? This would indeed be a question worth examining for its challenge to evolutionary theory if in fact events in our universe did not have predictable, observable, measurable and testable consequences. Instead it is a child’s argument, i.e. “no one can prove I broke the cookie jar!”
Darwin himself realized that much of the evidence for his theory was indirect. Indeed, he spent long hours defending his practice of inferring the unobservable from the observable.

“I am actually weary of telling people that I do not pretend to adduce direct evidence of one species changing into another, but that I believe that this view in the main is correct because so many phenomena can be thus grouped and explained.” – (More Letters of Charles Darwin. 1903)

If we accepted the principle that unobservable entities are inadmissible in science, we would have to reject not only Darwin's theory but his entire approach to scientific investigation.
This dissembling is a pathetic play on the word “observation,” as well as a demagoguery of the question of testability in science. As discussed previously, any hypothetical entity in question need not be directly observable, but must be testable by way of its consequent effects in nature, in other words Watson’s “observables” (the data). The “intelligent designer” which Meyer would advance as a legitimate scientific alternative to evolutionary processes is not testable in this way. It cannot even be connected empirically to the proposed “observations” of IC or SC, it can only be inferred as a (supposed) result of elimination of natural explanation.
To be fair, some opponents of intelligent design would argue that the real problem is not unobservability but flexibility. The concept of an Intelligent Designer is simply too much of a "wild card;" it can explain anything. Put another way, the concept of an Intelligent Designer cannot be falsified.

Intelligent design is not unique in its flexibility, however. We have already seen how Darwinists handle the problem of the fossil record; they account for unobserved fossil forms by invoking unobserved geological processes. Indeed, the history of science shows that scientists have often offered ad hoc explanations to save a cherished theory. This problem is particularly pronounced in the historical sciences, where investigators must draw conclusions from incomplete or sketchy evidence.
The history of science also shows that “ad hoc explanations,” if they are to be considered legitimate, must meet the standards of evidence and peer-review required by science. And any “unobserved geological processes” must be well documented and evidentially established in the geological literature if they are to be invoked in accounting for fossil data.

Meyer has, at this point, given up argumentation for simple obfuscation. This kind of rhetorical denial of evolutionary biology, as opposed to logical and evidential support of ID, is another tactic shared with traditional creationism.
Nevertheless, intelligent design is not so flexible that it cannot be falsified. The concept of intelligent design entails a strong prediction that is readily falsifiable. In particular, the concept of intelligent design predicts that complex information, such as that encoded in a functioning genome, never arises from purely chemical or physical antecedents. Experience will show that only intelligent agency gives rise to functional information. All that is necessary to falsify the hypothesis of intelligent design is to show confirmed instances of purely physical or chemical antecedents producing such information.
The whole of science since the Enlightenment stands as evidence for this falsification.

Because “intelligent design” is a mutable, conformable concept, there is no way, as Meyer is quite aware, to establish that it cannot be a causal factor. It is not possible to prove that non-natural intelligence of the sort ID proponents propose could not have been involved in any particular event. All science can do is produce natural explanations such that an inference to ID is not necessary. Thus, to the degree such a thing is possible, the science sections of libraries all over the world are filled with falsification of “intelligent design.”


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