December 28, 2006

Temporal hubris

Michael Behe's comments on the possible falsification of "intelligent design" (ID) are currently receiving a good bit of attention from the ID crowd. Though he has made similar statements elsewhere, the specific comments quoted below as well as on several pro-ID blogs are documented in the Case for the Creator DVD put together by creationist Lee Strobel.
"The National Academy of Sciences has objected that intelligent design is not falsifiable, and I think that’s just the opposite of the truth. Intelligent design is very open to falsification. I claim, for example, that the bacterial flagellum could not be produced by natural selection; it needed to be deliberately intelligently designed. Well, all a scientist has to do to prove me wrong is to take a bacterium without a flagellum, or knock out the genes for the flagellum in a bacterium, go into his lab and grow that bug for a long time and see if it produces anything resembling a flagellum. If that happened, intelligent design, as I understand it, would be knocked out of the water. I certainly don’t expect it to happen, but it’s easily falsified by a series of such experiments.

"Now let’s turn that around and ask, How do we falsify the contention that natural selection produced the bacterial flagellum? If that same scientist went into the lab and knocked out the bacterial flagellum genes, grew the bacterium for a long time, and nothing much happened, well, he’d say maybe we didn’t start with the right bacterium, maybe we didn’t wait long enough, maybe we need a bigger population, and it would be very much more difficult to falsify the Darwinian hypothesis.

I think the very opposite is true. I think intelligent design is easily testable, easily falsifiable, although it has not been falsified, and Darwinism is very resistant to being falsified. They can always claim something was not right."
Apparently rank and file ID proponents see in Behe's thoughts a rebuttal of some sophistication and profundity. However the problem here, as well as elsewhere Behe has expressed these ideas is that he holds an obviously flawed conception of scientific falsification. It would seem that in Behe's world falsification means something akin to "lends greater probability to my preferred alternative."

This can only happen if one has misconstrued the interrelateness, or lack thereof, of the concepts in question. This common misconstrual goes by many names: false dichotomy, affirming the consequent, and what some are calling contrived dualism. All of which means the same thing - it is a fallacy to conclude that incomplete information regarding, or a failure of empirical investigation into, some particular aspect of evolutionary biology can be considered support for the notion of "intelligent design." The one does not follow from the other.

It is wishful thinking built upon classic gap arguments, and it's the very antithesis of sophisticated and coherent argumentation. It's nonsense, and the specifics of Behe's suggestions (go into the lab and evolve a flagellum) only build even more absurdity into the overall rhetorical confusion.

But Behe's arguments (along with a closer examination of the last link above - hat tip to PvM at the Thumb) do lead me to try to articulate something I've wondered about for a while. Consider that present in any gap argument is the notion that one knows enough to be able to draw deep and irrevocable conclusions. Implicit in an observation of the form: "we don't know how evolution did this, therefore we can infer intelligent design" is the assumption that we know all we need to know about this particular area of inquiry.

Now this is not news. Everyone attempting to dissuade a creationist (of any stripe, from YEC to ID) has, at some point, taken exception to the use of gap arguments. We've all opined in frustration - "But you can't just fill in that blank with your theology, in science it's okay to say we don't know!"

My point is, rather, to observe that while these kinds of assumptions must be implicit in any gap argument I suspect one could not find anywhere a creationist who would be willing to state it explicitly. It would, of course, be rhetorical folly to do so. What's more, I would observe that it is very seldom any of those opposing the gap argument actually go to the trouble of pointing out this particular inherent contradiction (it does happen now and then, of course).

What I'm coming around to suggesting is that we all (even non-theists) share, as part of our time-constrained existence, a sort of temporal hubris that causes us to reflexively view the current wisdom as "complete." [But I'll go on to qualify this observation by saying that for those who do not ascribe to philosophical absolutes it is, to an important degree, easier to escape this kind of fettered approach to knowledge.] We all think a great deal about how much more we know than those who have gone before, but I wonder if we truly invest in wondering how much there is yet to know.

On the above-linked post at the Panda's Thumb, Pim Van Meurs offer this quote from Isaac Newton,
"...the motions which the planets now have could not spring from any natural cause alone, but were impressed by an intelligent agent…. To make such a system with all its motions, required a cause which understood and compared together the quantities of matter in the several bodies of the sun and the planets, and the gravitating powers resulting from thence; the several distances of the primary planets from the sun, and of the secondary ones from Saturn, Jupiter and the earth, and the velocities with which those planets could revolve about those quantities of matter in the central bodies; and to compare and adjust all these things together in so great a variety of bodies, argues that cause to be not blind and fortuitous, but very well skilled in mechanics and geometry."
The reasoning here is indistinguishable from that which leads ID "theorists" to presume that if current evolutionary understanding cannot explain a phenomenon it is therefore attributable to the actions of an "intelligent designer." And it is reasoning that is obviously flawed.

Now my intent here is not to equate Behe with Newton (after all, this is not information theory) except to the degree that we can wonder if this temporal hubris disproportionately informs perspectives shared by all those (from genius to, well...not) who ascribe to some sort of absolute concepts or principles.

Another example (admittedly from the "not" class) is from a panel discussion wherein Guillermo Gonzalez, in summing up his book - The Priveleged Planet, confidently stated that now is the best time in history to be a cosmologist (due to a confluence of factors allowing us to view and understand the universe). Aren't we justified in wondering if it isn't likely that cosmologists throughout history each in their time might have said something similar? And doesn't the act of drawing from Gonzalez' observation a warrant to conclude that we are here on this earth at this time because the universe was designed that way speak to the point that there is an implicit "we know enough to confidently say..." in any gap based argument?

I'd suggest it would significantly broaden Gonzalez' perspective to try to imagine what cosmologists one hundred years hence might be saying...and what they might know that he currently dismisses as irrelevant to the conclusions he wishes to draw.

To return to Behe then, it's clear that a large flaw in his argument lies in the temporal hubris that provokes a dismissal of a possible future generation in which a better informed creationist might say "though we now know for certain that a flagellum can be evolved without direct intelligent input, the type III secretory system is another matter altogether!"

I suppose it's a truism to observe that we all view historical significance through the lens of our own existence. However it seems that creationists (in this case ID proponents such as Behe) have developed this to a high, self-referential, art.

But gaps in empirical understanding have a funny way of shrinking with time. It's the nature of science, unencumbered by an obeisance to preconceived absolutes.


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