June 1, 2006

"Intelligent causation" continued

A few days ago I posted a commentary on the continuing use of arguments about scientific exclusion of intelligent cause. These assertions are made by "intelligent design" proponents who wish to accuse ID critics of committing the patently absurd blunder of disregarding the possibility that natural phenomena can be the result of intelligent intervention. Of course scientists do not do this, they uniformly accept intelligent cause but do not make the mistake (or use the tactic, in the case of ID advocates) of conflating natural intelligence with any putative non-natural intelligence.

This subject has been taken up on Ed Brayton's blog, with Paul Nelson (one of those I identified as using the flawed argument) in the comments section trying to further explain this position, saying,
"...the "intelligent causation" in question [...] is intelligence as a causal primitive, i.e., irreducible to other fundamental categories (chance and necessity)."
Now this sounds impressive but what does it really mean? Do we know that intelligence is "irreducible to other fundamental categories?" Of course we don't know that. Cognitive research is a work in progress but it has certainly not met such broad empirical obstructions as to force us to conclude that intelligence, consciousness and the human experience are not amenable to investigation and eventual explanation.

This characterization of some ineffable core of consciousness (Nelson's "causal primitive") lying at the heart of intelligence is a conceit of personal philosophy, not a scientific observation.

Nelson demonstrates that he knows this (as, I assume, do the other "theorists" using the argument) later in the comments when he says,
"I disagree with you, Douglas, about what "most people" think about the ontological status of intelligent causation, and frankly, neither of us knows -- but I'd guess that, except for the really wild-eyed eliminative reductionists like Dawkins, "most people" regard their own agency as irreducible in some strong sense."
He admits that "neither of us knows," which means his suggestion of a "causal primitive" is really nothing more than another argument from ignorance, another God-of-the-gaps ploy.

Nelson goes on, above and in the following quote, to discuss some of the socio-political reactions to notions of cognitive evolution.
"Now, they may be wrong about that, but that's their intuition. One reason ID has become so popular is the wide perception that runaway physicalism (for instance) is just crazy, and moreover dehumanizing. From an ID perspective, it is not a minor matter whether, on analysis, "intelligence" dissolves away into other causal categories."
What is Nelson really saying here? I submit it boils down to this - "It doesn't matter what science tells us, the fact is that there are those of us who wish to preserve our intuition that there is something special about us."

I think those who would have a problem with this, taken as a philosophical or theological perspective, would be very few. Of course the difficulty comes when someone like Nelson believes that this perspective should inform not only his philosophy, but the personal and professional choices of others, and acts on that belief.

As he does every time he argues for the biological relevance of ID.


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