Adam Fields (weblog)

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What does an ID textbook look like?

Here’s what I don’t get. What would it even mean to teach intelligent design in schools?

Chapter 1: Some things are too complicated to have arisen by evolution, specifically people.
Chapter 2: …..?
(Chapter 3: Profit?)

As far as I can tell, there’s nothing to it. It’s the opposite of science.

“I don’t understand this, so there must be no possible answer”.

It says not just that we don’t know, but that we can’t know, so there’s really no point in trying to figure it out.

3 Responses to “What does an ID textbook look like?”

  1. James Wetterau Says:

    I think your criticism of intelligent design here is unfair.

    Intelligent design (ID) is the name of a wide variety of different positions. In my view, at least some of them include a (false) scientific hypotheses. The best evidence from the summary presentations I’ve read establishes that the ID people are wrong in their hypotheses, and wrong, misguided or dishonest in their attempated proofs, sometimes laughably so. They almost certainly intend to advance a theological objective more than they intend to follow open scientific inquiry. But they are still making scientific hypotheses. I think that many people, out of revulsion towards creationism, and recognizing that ID is in some cases simply a fancy version of creationism, leap to an unfair condemnation of the whole question as inherently unscientific, or “anti-science”, as you put it. But that ultimately undermines our case against ID.

    The central arguments of ID go something like this:

    1. We can and should find a measure of the complexity of human beings and other organisms with which we will be able to answer to the question: could evolution as it is commonly understood and taught give rise to the observed species on Earth?

    2. The ID people then make a number of arguments and statements about complexity proposing that they can asnwer the question of point #1 in the negative.

    3. The ID people go further and propose to adumbrate certain hallmarks of design by intelligent beings, and then to show that these better fit the observed species. This is the design hypothesis — that at least some organisms on earth were likely at least partly the result of design by an intelligent being, and that this is a better theory for the origin of species on Earth than modern evolutionary theory.

    If this were true, it would be an important scientific result. Some ID people point out, for example, that this could mean that human beings or other organisms on Earth were designed by aliens. ID does not necessarily require God, and some of the ID people openly admit that.

    Now the principle problem with all this is that the best evidence says that it’s not true and there’s no real scientific controversy about that. The main reasons some people believe it involves dressing up theology in scientific garb. Their work on complexity seems not to pass muster. Their arguments patently fail the test of a good scientific theory.

    That doesn’t mean that there’s not a real hypothesis there. Moreover, it doesn’t make the idea of measuring complexity and detecting intelligence meaningless, unimportant and useless. Plenty of other real scientists have had thoes ideas longer and done better, useful things with them. I’ll speculate when it might be most directly applicable in a form close to what the ID people claim they want: suppose one day human beings reach other planets and wonder whether particular features we find there are natural or the result of alien intelligences that perhaps visited or evolved and left. It would be useful to be able to measure complexity and somehow assess whether or not things were most likely designed or natural.

    Again, from the best criticisms I’ve read by people who actually know information theory and complexity from top to bottom, the very best ID people have nothing new to contribute, make egregious blunders, and are patently doing junk science when they claim to show that ID refutes evolution as the major unifying theory of biology on Earth. However, that is not the same as saying that the core ID hypothesis is anti-science or inherently unscientific, or accusing them of arguing that we “can’t know, so there’s really no point in trying to figure it out”. I think you do your perspective harm when you phrase it like that, because that’s not the ID case.

    I think when you make that claim you come off as grinding an axe, rather than as a fair critic.

  2. adam Says:

    From what I’ve read, the three points you list above are usually collapsed into one: some organisms are necessarily complete – take away any of the constitutent parts, and there’s no point in having any of the others because you don’t have a working whole until all of the pieces slide into place. Evolution doesn’t explain how that happens, and therefore, the whole must have been created out of whole cloth. This latter is, as presented, an ultimately untestable hypothesis. Also, I’ve seen no indication that the adoption of ID as a realistic theory has as the next consequence the search to identify said creator. As you mention, if true, this would be important, and I’ve stated in the past that I might accept that as an avenue of valid scientific research, were someone to step up with any sort of feasible plan about where to get started. I also think we have far better things to spend money on.

    Moreover, there’s an origin problem. If the intelligent designer is God, then you can assume that he/she/it either created himself/herself/itself, or has always existed. If the intelligent designer is aliens, then who created the aliens?

    I maintain that ID as I understand it is just what I claimed it to be, and as you point out, that is not the same as complexity science.

  3. James Wetterau Says:

    A few quick thoughts and then I’m afraid I’m out of time for this discussion:

    1. Just because some ID people merely state reductivist creationism-dressed-up-in-pseudoscience doesn’t mean all ID is that anti-scientific. And in fact some have lavished some (poor, wrong) effort at assessing complexity. Again, as far as I can tell that work has been poor scientific work, in some cases wrong, and in some repetitive and/or abusive of other known work, but it was a real attempt. I don’t think it’s wise to condemn ID as anti-science or as a complete know-nothing philosophy, because you seem to be ignoring this component of it. It is better to acknowledge and defeat that work on its own terms. And it seems to be rather easily defeated, too.

    2. The way the complexity thesis can be falsified is via attacking the assumptions in the models, problems with the models, contradictions with evidence, holes in the evidence or what have you. Here’s an example of a vicious but fact-based criticism of some ID efforts:

    As you can see, the author goes into some substantial explanations of where one argument for ID goes wrong. If the ID people were merely claiming “we can’t know”, then this would not be necessary.

    3. The fact that this is happening is a good thing — it means that know-nothing creationism has been defeated. At this point the intellectual heirs of creationists have tried (badly, and foolishly) to create a real falsifiable theory. And you know what? It’s being falsified. They have entered the tournament of science and in their first joust got knocked right off their hobbyhorse. Which is no surprise, but it’s better than the non-science they got away with before.

    4. Of course none of this justifies ID being taught in public schools. There is no scientific controversy about it. It’s a discredited, failed theory — stillborn, because it was a wild hypothesis based on theology.

    5. There might be something useful to learn from all this. It will, for example, be interesting to see if a theory of intelligence eventually leads to some kind of measure of design.

    6. I think it’s unfair to insisit on an answer to the question of ultimate origins from ID. All ID says is that evolution is insufficient to explain the origin of species, and therefore hypothesizes design. If this were true (which it’s not) in and of itself it would be a major result.

    Of course it would raise all kinds of questions. Design by aliens? The monolith of 2001? Panspermia? Design by God? But just refuting evolution would be important science even if the refutation did not answer this question conclusively, well or at all.

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