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May 15, 2008

Orson Scott Card on Intelligent Design

Excellent essay.

ID supporters will find some to like here. Those (such as myself) who think ID is anti-science will find a bit more. This crystalizes, better than I've managed, the basics of my antagonism towards ID:

Why Science and Faith Don't Mix Well

It is not that science disproves -- or tries to disprove -- the existence of God. The acts of a transcendent creator are simply outside the realm of anything that science can examine.

Science is the process of trying to discover mechanistic causes of publicly observable phenomena. The trouble is that causation cannot be positively proven. Ever. Under any circumstances.

So the best that scientists can do is make guesses (hypetheses) about causation and then conduct experiments designed to prove those guesses wrong. If the experiments don't prove them wrong, then the guess is considered to be a good one, an educated one, and scientists assume that it is true, or true enough, until new evidence emerges to contradict it.

But in science, no answer is ever final. No assumption of cause is beyond question. We never know enough to say, "This subject is now closed."

And that's just on the subject of mechanical cause. When it comes to final cause, which we call "purpose" or "motive," science is simply helpless. It is up to historians and biographers and fiction writers to provide motive and purpose and meaning -- and their work is specifically considered not to be science.

Scientists must therefore conduct their work as if the entire universe were one big machine, in which everything that happens is caused to happen by outside forces that push on each other.

Every serious student of science knows that this does not imply that the mechanical model of the universe is a complete explanation of anything -- it's not provable, it's simply the assumption that must be made before any useful scientific work can take place.

Here's why: The moment you allow transcendent or metaphysical forces into the equation, by definition they cannot be measured or replicated on demand. So the moment you say, "This event does not have a mechanical cause, but rather a spiritual/intelligent/purposive/magical one," science has stopped cold.

Think how much progress medicine made back when diseases were blamed on gods, and "treated" through sacrifices or prayers alone. Whether invoking gods does any good is a matter of faith; it will never lead you to effective medical treatments.

That is why science simply cannot admit God -- or Intelligent Design -- into the public discussion of science. The moment transcendent forces are invoked, science ends. And that's why I am among those who do not want to see Intelligent Design offered as a scientific alternative to Darwinism in science classes. It is, at best, a distraction; it is not that ID is wrong, it's that it's irrelevant to the project of science.

I've used the example of Thor and his lightning bolts. Even if it were actually, provably true that Thor created lightning with his hammer -- like, you could actually see him in the clouds making lightning -- science could not embrace this fact as part of science, because then all research into lightning would end. You can't summon Thor into the lab to do tests on him. You can't do any meaningful research into why Thor chooses to loose lightning on this day but not this one. It's a scientific dead-end. Once the supernatural -- literally, beyond the natural, and hence beyond science -- is conceded as actual fact, science can do no more work. The subject matter has left the jurisdiction of science and entered the realm of metaphysics and religion. In the Thor example, we've stopped researching lightning per se and must now turn to reading Norse stories about Thor to determine his temperament and motivations. Lightning isn't caused by any natural forces we can conceivably understand or reduce to theory; it's caused by Thor, end sentence end paragraph end science, and if we want to understand lightning we must turn to religion to understand the mind of Thor.

It should be noted that the theory of evolution itself is a a theory of intelligent design -- that is, due to natural selection and competitive advantage of favorable mutations, evolution will lead, usually, over aeons, to more complex structures and creatures which are more finely adapted to exploit and flourish within a particular ecological niche. The difference is, of course, evolution postulates that the forces impelling such a general trend towards "intelligent design" are themselves impersonal, unintelligent, and natural forces such as chance, the law of large numbers, and natural selection. Intelligent design, on the other hand, postulates an actual supernatural intelligence behind such a tendency, even though it frequently claims to not necessarily be speaking of God. No, not necessarily God, just some other omnipotent, omniscient sentient being capable of imposing his will and design on all of creation for all of time.

Pardon me if I find the distinction between such a being and God Himself a rather dodgy bit of semantics.

It could be that God Himself is in fact the "Watchmaker God" that Intelligent Design assumes, and did in fact create all the circumstances that would lead to complex life (and humanity) and so set evolution in motion according to his plan, working exclusively through natural forces, allowing His hand to remain hidden. There's no way to disprove such a theory. But then again, science can't really investigate this theory, nor admit it as being true, because by its own terms it would be unprovable (the theory noted above specifically envisions a hidden hand of God, invisible to earthy scientific attempts to reveal it) and furthermore would lead to the Thor-Lightning problem: Once a supernatural intelligence and will is admitted to be the causal force of a phenomenon, scientific inquiry into the cause of that phenomenon must end, and religion and metaphysics move in to take up the subject.

If God did it, that's the end of the inquiry as far as science goes. Science really can't carry that ball any further.

Why and how did birds evolve wings? A lot of interesting science can be done here if one assumes natural forces spurred the evolution of the wing.

If one's answer is "Because God wanted them to have wings," um... what avenue of inquiry is left to be explored? That simple sentence seems to settle things as far as the science goes, doesn't it? Why? Because God wanted them to have wings. How? Because God willed them to have wings. Done and done. Next subject.

That said, Card goes on to attack scientists who erroneously believe that because a fundamental assumption of science is that there are no supernatural forces at work in the universe that assumption proves that the universe contains no supernatural forces and hence no God. And then he turns to the anti-scientific, quasi-religious cult of global warming and overhyped attacks on Ben Stein's Expelled.

Worth a read.

Thanks to Rocks_Off.

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posted by Ace at 03:23 PM

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