Tuesday, December 16, 2008

No Intelligence Allowed

Last night I got to watch Ben Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. It was a very good movie that exposes the way in which the academic elite discourages discussion about Darwinian evolution. Stein gives no actual arguments in favor of any particular "intelligent design" theory, although he does give a fascinating and moving investigation of the link between Darwinism and social philosophies such as Nazism. (This part of the movie gets very personal for Stein, a Jew, but it also, I think, gives some real insight into some of the intellectual problems people have with Darwinism.) In any case his purpose is mainly to expose the lack of freedom in current scientific discussion. I highly recommend the movie.

The real crux of the whole debate between "Darwinian" theories of evolution and theories about "intelligent design" is the question, "What is science?" This is what I infer when I hear criticisms of intelligent design from people like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, who like to make blanket statements such as, "It's not science." The word science these days carries with it a certain authority, as in the statement, "Global warming is a scientific fact." A large part of our culture now views scientists as experts on what they consider the only real objective truth. But what kind of truth is that?

What is science? Having majored in math and physics in college, and having taken a course in the philosophy of science, I'd like to think I know a little something about how difficult this question really is. I think it depends on what you think is at stake. If you think science is just one of the many academic pursuits that leads to real, objective truth, then that's one thing. If, on the other hand, you think that science must by definition be only legitimate pursuit of objective truth, then I should warn you, you must question whether what our culture calls "science" really is the total package.

I have no doubt that scientists today really are discovering objective truth about the world. The vast majority of people do not dispute this. Some scientists like Dawkins, however, are prone to go so far as to say that scientists are the only ones gaining objective truth. Most scientists would not say they are the only people with intellectual merit. However, some would say that the only questions with objective answers are the ones they study--this is key.

Frankly, I can relate. I'm a mathematician, for crying out loud. I could just as easily say that the only questions with objective answers are the ones I study. I certainly don't think there's much comparison between mathematics and biology (Dawkins' field). The kind of precision and rigor that is required in mathematics makes it extremely trustworthy, and of course that's one thing that's so appealing to me about the subject.

Even so, my friends who are apt to complain about mathematics are right: Who cares? If these really are the only kinds of questions with objective answers, then heck, we're screwed. If questions about meaning, purpose, ultimate beauty, and maybe even eternity are just unanswerable, then we humans have lost the search for knowledge, because it isn't there. The existentialists would have us make up our own answers, but really, can anyone really live with a purpose he just made up for himself? My own conscience would repeatedly nag at me, saying, "Uh, hello? Get real!"

So, maybe science doesn't answer all of life's important, objective questions. Then why worry about evolution? Isn't it just a theory that explains a natural phenomena, something that falls in the realm of science?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Evolutionary theory is about the mechanism by which all species came into existence. This has profound philosophical implications for us as human beings. Intuitively, one would think that the way in which we came into being has a great deal to do with our purpose or meaning in this universe. If we came about unintentionally, that rather makes us look like the bastard children of the universe.

Evolutionary scientists like Dawkins are actually willing to accept this, and they parade around their atheistic views for the whole world to see. I fail to see how anyone can live with this kind of worldview, but I won't go on about that, since I already have previously on my blog.

Even those scientists who don't accept this worldview, however, seem to insist that scientific theories can't involve discussions of purpose and meaning. The problem is, the link between the meaning of human existence and the origin of the human species is unbreakable. Human beings need to know.

Intelligent design tends to get written off as just trying to rebuild a case for the Genesis 1 account of creation. However, it's really not that. It's simply a non-Darwinian explanation of evolution. There's this idea of "specified complexity," that is, if something (say, a cell) is very complex and could not have existed without all the parts coming into existence at the same time, then the mechanism by which it came into being must be something called "intelligent design," as opposed to "random chance."

The typical response I hear to this is that it's more of the same "God of the gaps" stuff: I can't explain X, so therefore X is an inexplicable act of a higher intelligence. I disagree; I think intelligent design theorists are trying to flesh out a genuine understanding of intelligent design as an explicable mechanism. That is, there should be some criterion by which to classify a particular biological development as "designed." Specified complexity is one attempt at such a criterion.

The problem is that many evolutionists will say that this kind of pursuit is inherently worthless. An explanation of the universe involving "design" isn't elegant enough. That's what people like Dawkins say. But isn't that really just a way of saying that doesn't fit a particular worldview? Should science necessarily operate under the assumptions of philosophical naturalism? I don't think so.

There is something attractive, of course, about a theory that is simple, yet universally applicable--that is, elegant. Newton's theory of gravity works that way: instead of saying that gravity just happens to apply here on earth, he said it applies to all objects with mass. This is an elegant theory; there is a principle behind it that can be applied to all things equally.

Yet the assumption that all legitimate explanations of the universe must be this way is a bold one, and it is actually shockingly theistic. Where would we expect such uniformity in the universe to come from? A universe that came about by chance? In any case, I'm sure it's impossible to have purely empirical reasons for thinking that all scientific theories should have this particular "elegant" form.

The final irony for me is that I suspect that evolutionary theory is more correct than Intelligent Design theory, precisely because of my particular theistic view of science. I do think that elegant theories are somehow more likely to be true. There is a certain elegance--i.e. uniform simplicity--inherent in the universe, and to me this is bound up in the fact that God created it. I think Francis Collins does a stellar job of explaining this.

The important thing for our culture is that scientists keep these discussions open. The danger is that in embracing philosophical naturalism as the only "objective" way to see the world, scientists have begun to squelch critical questions. If science is not the only path to objective truth, then science needs to allow itself to be influenced by other realms of human thought. In particular, we do need to pay attention to what we think it means to be human even as we study the origin of our species.

After all, is doing science really worth it if we're just the bastard children of the universe?


  1. "my particular theistic view of science"

    I think that's horrible. Theistic is a disgusting word that should never be in the same sentence as the word 'science'. Science explains natural mechanisms, not supernatural magic.

    Intelligent design is a concept so childish and idiotic it's not worth talking about. "Intelligent design" are code words Christian extremists use when they are trying to dumb down science education with god fairy magic.

  2. Bob,

    Yours is an attitude shared by many. However, using words such as "disgusting," "childish," and "idiotic" don't actually help you build a case. This is the kind of attitude that limits discussion, squelches freedom of thought, and ultimately degrades the academic enterprise. If you're going to get something out of these discussions, it would be more helpful if you really dealt with the arguments presented, rather than resort to name-calling and "straw man" tactics.

    You ought not to assume that theists are talking about "god fairy magic" when they talk about God. Theism gives a holistic explanation of both natural phenomena and critical questions such as meaning and purpose in existence. You need not think that theism does not take into account scienitific knowledge. You should read the book by Francis Collins I linked.

    Critical thinking means asking serious questions not just about theistic presuppositions, but about your own presuppositions, as well. Take some time to think about these things, and don't just dismiss them because of your prior commitments to a particular worldview.

  3. It's fair to call every god ever invented a "magic fairy". All gods perform magic tricks. It's a childish idea, and just because millions believe in this nonsense doesn't make it any less insane.

    People like Collins are extremely rare in the scientific community. Collins might be brilliant and very successful, but there's something seriously wrong with him if he really believes in Jebus.

    Only Christians use the word "worldview". There is only one valid world view. It's called reality. Believing in a supernatural creature with magical powers (god) is not a world view. It's a mental illness. It's a disease that must be kept completely separate from science. Attaching the adjective theistic to science is just plain wrong. A respectable scientist would never call his work theistic. This worthless adjective is used only by people who want to defend their childish belief in fairies.

    I refuse be quiet about obvious facts, and it's a fact that anyone who believes Jebus was a god, and anyone who tries to stick the breathtaking stupidity of magic fairies into science, should be ashamed of themselves. Theism equals insanity and there's no excuse for it in the 21st century.

  4. Bob,

    That's great that you feel that way and everything, but you've done nothing to advance your position except try to intimidate those who disagree with you. That is completely against the kind of intellectual freedom we ought to value.

    It's important to ask critical questions about atheism just as much as theism. For instance, how do we define the value of a human being? Theism gives us coherent answers, but atheism struggles to find coherent answers. Indeed, one need only look to the works of folks like Peter Singer to see that atheists often do come up with astonishingly horrible views of the value of human life. That is because atheism has a huge amount of difficulty really dealing with this question.

    I mention this question because it is relevant to the evolution discussion. It is important to realize that there are just as many critical questions that atheists must face as there are for theists. With that, I would ask that you please bring some humility into these discussions, for your own sake as well as those around you.

    Also, I'll just mention that you're talking to a guy who graduated valedictorian of my class at Washington & Lee University with a degree in math and physics. I think it's fair to say I'm not dumb, and I believe I have good reasons for holding my worldview. Intimidation is as useless here as it is wrong.


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