Measured Against Reality

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Philosophy Final: Creationism

I'm currently taking a Philosophy of Science course, and the final paper deals largely with creationism, including one large essay about whether or not it should be included in schools. I figured it would make a decent blog post, so here it is. The first part deals with quotes, what they mean and responding to them, the second is the proposition that ID should be taught in school.

1. “A scientific explanation must appeal to law and must show that what is being explained had to occur.”

In his piece Creation Science is not Science Michael Ruse argues that “Creation Science”, or creationism, fails to be scientific. He outlines several demarcation criteria, one of which is that a science must be explanatory, and those explanations must appeal to laws, or regularities, in nature. In order for an activity to be science, according to this criterion, it must at least attempt to explain phenomena in terms of underlying regularities. He gives the examples of Mendelian genetics explaining why two blue-eyed parents will have blue-eyed children (the trait is recessive), and of cannon balls travelling in parabolas (the differential equations of motion demand it).

However, creation science fails to do this. Creation is, by definition, an act that is outside of law, outside of regularities, outside of nature itself. Science cannot deal with the supernatural, and the supernatural cannot be science. This demarcation criterion alone is enough to disqualify creation science, the rest simply make the disqualification more convincing.
(From Ruse, 38-47)

2. “He points out that the flagellar motor depends upon the coordinated functioning of 30 protein parts. … Remove one of the necessary proteins (as scientists can do experimentally) and the rotary motor simply doesn’t work. The motor is, in Behe’s terminology, ‘irreducibly complex’.”

Here Stephen Meyer outlines Michael Behe’s argument, called “irreducible complexity” (IC). A system is IC if when one or more of its parts are removed, it ceases to function. Behe (and Meyer) use this terminology to suggest that Intelligent Design (ID) must be true, because the odds of an IC system coming together by chance are vanishingly small. The flagellum is one example that ID proponents frequently cite, but it is not the only one (others include the immune system and blood clotting systems). IC is an incredibly important argument to ID proponents, as it’s one of the few they have that has some grounding in modern science.

The problem with this argument (well, one of many) is that when a system has some part removed, it may not function for its original purpose but still be useful for something else. Another is that evolution doesn’t proceed only through addition of parts; parts may be modified, sometimes drastically. Piecing together an evolutionary history may be difficult, but just because we haven’t yet found a plausible history doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist or will never be found. Assuming a designer from IC alone is nothing more than an Argument from Ignorance, a classic logical fallacy.

(From Meyer, here).

3. “Such attempts to infer to the best explanation, where the explanation presupposes the reality of an unobservable entity, occur frequently in many fields already regarded as scientific, including physics, geology, geophysics, molecular biology, genetics, physical chemistry, cosmology, psychology, and, of course, evolutionary biology.”

Here again is Stephen Meyer, arguing that ID isn’t unscientific simply because it postulates an unobservable entity [apologies for the double-negative, but that’s what he’s arguing]. His reasoning is perfectly correct: a theory containing unobservable entities, even those that are unobservable in principle, can certainly be scientific (even the antirealists didn’t assert that the presence of unobservable entities automatically invalidates science). As he points out, nearly every branch of science contains unobservable entities, and yet they remain scientific.

The problem with his line of argument is that ID doesn’t just assert an unobservable entity, but one that acts outside of nature. All of those sciences may contain unobservable entities, but they also proscribe how those entities will behave in given situations, usually with strict, specific restrictions on that behavior. However, a Designer is outside of nature, and ID doesn’t even specify what the Designer is. That is what is unscientific, a supernatural, unpredictable, unobservable entity.

And that’s leaving aside the problem that ID usually isn’t the best explanation anyway, as was briefly mentioned above.

(From Meyer, Here)

4. “Creationists do, in short, change their minds from time to time. Doubtless they would credit these shifts to their efforts to adjust their views to newly emerging evidence.”

Larry Laudan disagrees with Ruse that creation science isn’t science, he argues that it’s scientific, but just plain wrong. Here he is arguing against the assertion (made by Judge Overton in the McLean v Arkansas opinion) that creationists don’t ever modify their arguments and beliefs in response to evidence. This falls into the rest of his argument that all of Judge Overton’s reasons for finding that creationism isn’t science were poor demarcation criteria, or that creationism actually meets those criteria. However, he takes the tack that creationism should be excluded because it’s wrong, not because it’s unscientific.

He is technically correct; the big-wigs of the creationist movement (those who are skilled in public relations and know what they’re up against in terms of getting creationism into science classrooms) do shift their positions. He’s wrong that it’s in response to evidence. For example, after the McLean decision, “Creation Science” rebranded into “Intelligent Design”, and all references to any designer were removed in an attempt to secularize the movement. Old arguments that had failed were dropped, and new, equally fallacious ones were taken up. But the same old tripe, such as “Evolution is just a theory” still gets thrown about, just as it did in McLean, and just as it was in Scopes. Creationism is still ideological, and that’s why it’s unscientific. Laudan’s argument ignores this fact, and that’s why it fails. He’s right about creationism being wrong, but he’s wrong about it being scientific.

(From Laudan, 48-53).

6. “If our choice among rivals is irreducibly comparative, …, then scientific methodology cannot guarantee (even on the most optimistic scenario) that the preferred theory is true—only that it is epistemically superior to the other actually available contenders.”

Here Okruhlik, taking on a similar problem to those examined by Longino in the section on Objectivity, explains that theories will always share the cultural baggage of their makers, and when all available theories were created in the same system, they will all share the same baggage. Thus, when theory choice is comparative (that is, which of the available theories best fits the data), the cultural baggage will inevitably come along for the ride. This means that we can’t be sure that the theory is true (in the scientific sense) because it may have some hidden, potentially invalid assumptions that we will never be able to examine.

She describes several instances of this, such as using only male rats as the model of rat-ness. It’s undeniable that this is a problem, especially in fields such as anthropology, where there are few quantitative measures. But as Longino described, there are ways to defeat this problem, such as open review of background assumptions and stringent peer review. All of Okruhlik’s points are valid, we can only hope that fields with strong potential for (and/or past history of) falling prey to these kinds of assumptions will encourage/require examination of shared values and hidden assumptions.

(From Okruhlik, 192-208).

B. Using the Ruse and Laudan essays, the selections from Stephen Meyer on CourseWork, and other essays in the section on Science and Pseudoscience, evaluate the proposition that Intelligent Design should be included in high school science curricula.

Should Intelligent Design be included in high school biology courses? That question has occupied school board, divided communities, gotten people fired, and been endlessly discussed. The answer varies depending on who you ask, but the divide falls largely between those who accept evolution and those who don’t, with the latter category populated mostly by people who reject evolution on religious grounds. One answer came on December 20, 2005, when Judge Jones handed down his opinion in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, but this hardly settled the matter. It’s difficult to argue, from a Philosophical perspective, that ID should be included in high school curricula, but it’s absolutely impossible to argue for it from a legal perspective.

Demarcation, deciding what is and what isn’t science, is a classic problem in the philosophy of science. From Popper’s falsifiability to Kuhn’s puzzle-solving, or the research programs of Lakatos and Thagard, this issue has been heavily discussed. While there is not absolute consensus, it is clear that some dividing line exists, and it can be drawn by examining what we consider science, then comparing unifying characteristics to enterprises with ambiguous status. That is the methodology Ruse uses, and his criteria are: it contains laws, the laws are used to effect explanation, it makes predictions, it is testable, it can be confirmed, it can be falsified, and it is tentative. Ruse then shows how creation science meets none of these criteria. Since ID is little more than creationism renamed, there is no need to rehash the whole argument. Suffice it to say that ID fails most of these counts (the first two are discussed above), and the remaining are satisfied in letter only, not in spirit. For example, ID is in principle falsifiable, but as an Argument from Ignorance only when all ignorance is dispelled, an unlikely scenario. By Ruse’s argumentation, ID is unscientific and should expelled from schools.

Laudan disagrees with Ruse, but for poor reasons. He argues that satisfying the letter of the demarcation criteria is enough, that creationism actually is a science, just one that has been shown to be false. The trouble is that one can make the exact same argument about astrology, the classic pseudoscience. If an endeavor that aspires to be called scientific has been shown to be false, but still lingers like some pseudoscientific spectre, then it is not science. Humility, the ability to admit that you were wrong and accept that others were right, is the cornerstone of science. True, it doesn’t always work that way, but science aspires to that ideal. However, with creationism and ID it never works that way. That utter lack of any ability to accept scientific defeat is what makes ID a pseudoscience, and Laudan’s arguments wrong. But this doesn’t matter, because Laudan argues that because creationism (ID for us) is wrong, it should be expelled from schools, the conclusion is the same even if the method is different.

There is little doubt, from a Philosophical perspective, that ID doesn’t belong in schools. But don’t take my word for it, take Barbara Forrest’s, a prominent anti-ID Philosopher of Science and chronicler of the various guises of creationism, who testified at the Dover trial (despite the Defendant’s attempts to keep her off the stand). Her scholarship shows beyond all doubt that ID is simply the new face of “Creation Science”, a religiously-motivated attack on evolution, and as such does not belong in schools. I would quote it if I had space, but unfortunately there are few pithy quotes, to truly capture her work would take several paragraphs, and they will have to be relinquished to a footnote (see here and here, for a taste).

It’s all well and good that ID should be kept out of schools from a Philosophical perspective, but the Culture Wars are not played out in Philosophical journals, they’re played in courts and on schools boards afraid of going to court. What does the court have to say about Intelligent Design? In late 2005, ID was tried, and it came up short, far short. Judge Jones found that ID was obviously religious in nature, wasn’t science, and had been shown to be false. But most importantly, he found that including it in the curriculum violated the “Purpose clause” of the Lemon Test. This means that the action has no “secular purpose”, and as such is unconstitutional. This is the crux of the matter. There simply is no secular reason for including ID in any science curriculum. The only reason for doing this is because of objections to evolution, which are always religious in nature. Those are two bold assertions, but the preponderance of the evidence shows their veracity. And courts have consistently ruled against ID, finding that, on both Philosophical and legal grounds, it deserves to be expelled from schools.

Finally, what do the ID proponents make of this? Why do they want to see ID put into schools? There are two answers to the latter question: the first is what they say in public, that evolution is lacking and their new theory is better (propositions we know to be false); the second is the real intention their actions and private words betray, that their ideological beliefs demand creationism be taught, or at least evolution not taught. As for the former question, they’re feeling the pain of defeat, but this was simply yet another setback. ID has reared its head in Florida and Texas in the past few months . That is the nature of the Culture Wars, win one battle and immediately prepare to fight more. Because when it comes to religiously-inspired ideological matters, no defeat is great enough to stop proponents from trying to inflict their views on others, no matter what common sense, good science, good Philosophy, or the law say. That is why the defenders of science remain vigilant, watching and waiting for the next attempt to sabotage some poor children’s education.

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