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James Dee of the Austin American-Statesman Weighs in on ID

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Dee: The two black holes in Intelligent Design
Thursday, February 02, 2006
Source: http://www.statesman.com/opinion/content/editorial/stories/02/2dee_edit.html

Anyone reading this page must know that ID (Intelligent Design) is a much-disputed and assiduously marketed competitor to evolution.

Scientists in every field (and now a federal judge in the Dover, Pa., school board case) have firmly rejected the concept, as has the science adviser to President Bush. But its advocates — who seem to have among their number U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the president and Gov. Rick Perry — carry on undeterred.

One of the chief problems with ID is its arbitrary application of the non-scientific, purely subjective word “intelligent” to natural phenomena. However, if we consider, among many counter-examples, life’s ruthlessly predatory and destructive aspects (“nature red in tooth and claw”) — or just the oddity of nipples on men — this “intelligence” seems much less evident.

Since proponents focus on ostensibly inexplicable facts and unhesitantly invoke divine intervention, why not call it “MD” (“Miraculous Design”) instead of using the misleading and blatantly anthropomorphic word “intelligent”?

Even more serious objections can be raised against ID. There are two black holes at its core — the issues of purpose and causality, which do not generally turn up in discussions on either side of the controversy.

Starting with William Paley in the early 19th century, ID proponents have argued that a watch carries unmistakable evidence of design, and they would surely agree that watches are designed to carry out a particular purpose — telling time.

But what is the purpose of a specific structural feature in bacteria, or any of the innumerable non-human life-forms on the planet? What was the purpose of the bizarre — and now extinct — Burgess Shale creatures, enthusiastically described by Stephen Jay Gould in “Wonderful Life”?

ID will be trapped in a morass of implausible and unscientific rationalizations, trying to explain why a designer did this or that, whereas evolution does not ascribe purpose to the process called “natural selection.” As Gould emphasized in his final public appearance here (in February 2002), it is unscientific and self-centered to think that our species — perhaps 160,000 years old, after 3.8 billion years of mostly microscopic unicellular life — represents the goal of evolution.

The other black hole might be even worse, for it challenges the assumption, simply taken for granted in most ID theory, that the hypothetical designer is able to go from a mental concept to actual effects in the material world — i.e., that divine intervention is possible.

For centuries, theologians have insisted that God must be, among other things, non-physical and, like the soul, not observable by the empirical methods of science. How, then, does a divinity that by definition has no physical existence carry out its designs? It must be through Walt-Disney-style magical powers, as there is no other way to get from an incorporeal entity to some kind of concentrated and controllable force.

Science, however, rejects claims of magic, and modern physics has made the application of divine power to real-world objects far more difficult to imagine. In the Newtonian world, solid billiard balls simply bounce off each other. But at the atomic level (say, one-trillionth of a centimeter), the surfaces never touch each other. Rather, their gazillions of negatively-charged “electron shells” repel each other, like two strong magnets of identical polarity.

Even worse, those electron shells are abuzz with Heisenbergian uncertainty. In the aggregate, the uncertainties average out, making the feats of pool-sharks possible. But the task for a non-physical deity becomes immensely more complicated, since to intervene in the real world — whether moving mountains or triggering neurons to create inspiration — it must apply its still-unexplained force simultaneously to each one of those gazillion atoms on a time-scale of billion-billionths of a second.

This is a serious problem not just for ID but for all forms of theism. The principal scientific challenge to religion comes not from the high-order concept of evolution, but from causality, which pervades the deepest nuts-and-bolts level of atomic reality.

Pro-theists have argued, following Aristotle, that the only escape from an infinite recess of causes going backward in time is a First Cause (aka God). But anti-theists have countered that there is nothing logically impossible about such an infinity and that if everything must have a cause, then God also must have one. And it seems desperate to invoke the idea of a “Quantum God,” explaining the obscure by the even-more-obscure.

So, by an engaging paradox, the medieval theological principle called Occam’s Razor — which is commonly translated to mean that the simplest answer is usually the correct answer — may be turned against the philosophy from which it arose. For if physical causality is both universal and sufficient, then God himself becomes superfluous and literally impotent — and ID theory loses its designer.

Dee is a retired classics professor living in Austin.

Mr. Dee apparently doesn’t understand that life is saturated with purpose. The purpose of teeth is to chew. The purpose of blood clotting is to prevent hypovolemia. The purpose of the flagellum is motility. Everywhere we look in biology, we see the implementation of means to achieve ends. The million dollar question is this: How does a purposeless, unintelligent mechanism create a part or a process which exists to accomplish a specific task?

The second “black hole” he claims ID has follows from his false assertion that it posits a supernatural designer. This is incorrect, as neither transcendent (miraculous) properties nor the physical impossiblity of construction of natural design is a tenet of ID. The possibility of a natural designer is not ruled out. Moreover, ID does not even address the attributes or motives of a designer. Dr. Dembski defines ID as “the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the result of intelligence”. In other words, ID theorists study patterns. They do not purport to study a designer or establish a causal chain to one.

At the end of the article, Dee uses his inability to understand how a supernatural entity could be causally connected to the physical universe to argue not against ID, but against theism. This does nothing but show that the anti-ID camp is not always motivated by religiously neutral science.

I'm talking about circumstances where the designer (the beaver) isn't nice enough to hang around. All you have to work with is a pile of stick and junk clogging up a stream. Though the beaver might leave tracks that can be detected... Anyway, ID is all about detecting in circumstances where the designer is unknown and there is uncertainty on whether an object was in fact designed. Patrick
Interesting rule in post #3. Perhaps Behe should be informed of this new rule prior to his next television appearance. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,179604,00.html Behe was answering a direct line of questioning. Godwin's Law doesn't apply to the case where someone asks you to name of the leader of Germany during World War II. -ds dj
I actually think that, once the relevant resources are factored in, the beaver dam would hit the design node. So also for a wasp's nest. jaredl
And the explanatory filter would surely reject a beaver dam since it's just a pile of misc forest detritus. Of course, it's positioning is suspect but I don't think that's enough for a design inference. Patrick
Heh. Took so long looking up information on beaver lodges that Jerry beat me to it. Still not sure if a beaver lodge would qualify as CSI. If that's the case then ID might be limited to higher level examples of engineering. Patrick
Beavers create dams and their lodges with underwater tunnels and an enclosed space in the shape of a dome. Insects create hives. Birds create nests. Spiders create webs. While obviously not as complex as what human intelligences can create they're still designed by a lesser intelligence for a purpose (then again, in 3rd world countries people live in hovels not much better than the homes of animals). If SETI ever detects anything then there's another non-human intelligence. Now, ID being more stringent than older design arguments, I'm not sure what the result would be if applied to a beaver lodge or a man-made hut. Patrick
There is a lot of designs in the world that are not human and we can argue over the intelligent characteristic to the design. For example, there is the beaver dam, the spider's web, the bee's hive, bird's nest, etc. I am not conversant on CSI but they seem to fit CSI from what little I know. I am sure there are many many more. All are attributed to a life form. Are there any designs that are not based on life forms that are CSI? So the term human is not necessary. Jerry
For this one time, I agree. Even though ID cannot speak to the properties of a designer, by saying "intelligent design" you are giving the designer properties. You are giving him the properties of being able to design. If ID is just about finding patterns, which I believe it is, then we need to relegate the word intelligence to the dustbin and just call it "design theory". Because that's all we can infer, that it appears "designed". I find "design theory" to be a fascinating concept, that would have much applicability in my day to day work life. But "intelligent design"? Not so much. We don't see "intelligent" design everyday in our world, we see "human" design. We know humans designed what we see, we can't tell if something is intelligent without speculating on it's purpose. M J
The Statesman is a well known liberal rag. The city itself is a haven for faded flower children and alternative lifestyle fruitcakes. Sometimes hard to believe it's actually located in Texas. DaveScot
How interesting that Dr. Dee first says: 'Since proponents focus on ostensibly inexplicable facts and unhesitantly invoke divine intervention, why not call it “MD” (”Miraculous Design”) instead of using the misleading and blatantly anthropomorphic word “intelligent”?', and then later on says: 'How, then, does a divinity that by definition has no physical existence carry out its designs? It must be through Walt-Disney-style magical powers, as there is no other way to get from an incorporeal entity to some kind of concentrated and controllable force.' So he first objects to the use of the word "intelligent", saying it should be replaced by "miraculous", and then he turns around and basically is ruling out the possibility of "miracles." Is this some kind of 'Walt-Disney-style magical power' of logic? And if the good Dr. is offended at the poor science of ID, then why doesn't he attack it from a scientific point of view instead of a philosophical/theological point of view? Why should his arguement be taken seriously at all? Now maybe there is a problem with the term "intelligent design." Maybe it is a redundancy given that design is presumably always a by-product of intelligence. Perhaps we should call it "intelligent patterns", since there's no redundancy in that, and because Dr. Dembski's work revolves around pattern detection. So, admittedly, ID might be misnamed; but this 'misnaming' does help in this way: it points out that this 'scientific method' is directly in opposition to neo-Darwinian thinking about biological life. Put another way, Dr. Dee's article is, more or less, no more than silliness. puckSR You wrote: "If this is the case, then it is not ID vs Evolution….it is ID vs natural selection." Could you please interpret this for me? You seem to separate Evolution with NS. What idea of 'Evolution' do you have here? You also wrote: "Darwinists’ notice a pattern too, and if you happen to read anything by Charles Darwin, he interpreted the patterns of Design." Yes, he did. And to some small degree he was right. But most--verging on ALL--that Darwin wrote he was wrong about. Modern science contradicts almost every main thesis Darwin maintained in the Origins. Yet it is the 'Darwinists' who choose to hold onto him. So, tell me, who, exactly is "about 150 years behind"? You wrote this as well: "The problem, and it is a big one, is that both purpose and intelligence are subjective terms. Life is a subjective term too, but not nearly as vague as the word intelligent." You must be a liberal. Only liberals have such a disdain for objective reality. Now let me point out that these are your words above: "They only study patterns, but by using the word intelligent….they are implying that an entity exists…." Not only do you not profess to have any problem at all with the word 'intelligent', you actually make an inference based on its use: viz., 'the word intelligent . . . impl[ies] that an entity exists.' But, like most left-leaning individuals, it's easy for you to be disingenous. So, I'm not surprised at your inconsistency, as I was not surprised by Dr. Dee's inconsistencies. PaV
Why is it that whenever ID comes up it's the Darwinists who brings up God? Perhaps we should modify the Hitler rule: The first one to mention God loses. A corollary of Godwin's Law. Best idea I've heard in a while. -ds Jon Jackson
Im going to weight in on the article and the rebuttal. Crandaddy is absolutely correct....most ID people do not make claims about the nature of the Intelligent Designer. They only study patterns, but by using the word intelligent....they are implying that an entity exists.... If ID does not actually require an Intelligent Entity, and as DaveScot has suggested on numerous occasions, may be explained by a purely naturalistic force...then the term Natural Design would suffice. If this is the case, then it is not ID vs Evolution....it is ID vs natural selection. The mechanisms behind Evolution are a scientifically interesting field...and any new theories would be very helpful. Unfortunately ID only notices a pattern of design caused by "something". 'Darwinists' notice a pattern too, and if you happen to read anything by Charles Darwin, he interperted the patterns of Design. To sum up....If all ID does is study designed elements....then ID is about 150 years behind. IF they, however, suggest that an Intelligent Entity is doing the designing...then they need to develop a new definition for intelligence. BTW...Mr. Dee does not lack an understanding of the purpose of most life. He suggests that some life without purpose exists. The problem, and it is a big one, is that both purpose and intelligence are subjective terms. Life is a subjective term too, but not nearly as vague as the word intelligent. How would one define intelligence?..if ID can do that, and do it perfectly...then I will be the first person to tip my hat to the community How does determine purpose?...everything has at least some purpose...if you consider "existing" as a purpose. puckSR
Dee overstates his case in any number of ways, but his case is generally supported by those that have bought into the popular (and false) premises about ID. I run into this same argument on a consistent basis in other Internet debates that I encounter, and it is difficult at best to bring any debate with this mindset to a satisfactory conclusion. My general take is to challenge with a Dembski article, and ask the question: "Is this article science or religion?" It is amazing how THAT question is avoided or "post-modern-ed" to death. The real "magic" offered by Dee and others of his persuasion is the magic of fully formed, purposeful creatures and parts that make up those creatures, with no hope of any fore-running parts (ala Behe). As for the ability of the Creator to sustain the number of atomic level interactions needed to sustain and/or develop life with purpose, I would default to the obvious -- we, and everything else in this universe exist -- theory aside, that is reality. glfredrick

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