Monday, April 14, 2008

I'm no fun, anymore: Intelligent Design

(For more fun, please address Chris's journal for pictures, video, and general love about our KITTENS.)

Now I don't think that "things get sick and die" or "creature x is stupid/dysfunctional/etc" are good arguments against 'intelligent design.' Kind of like "bad things happen, so there can't be a loving God" won't really hold up.

At least, not any better than "it's too complicated to be random, so it has to have been intelligently designed."

I admit it: I do like to point out the vertebrate plight of having our esophagus and trachea cross to get to the stomach and lungs, providing an opportunity for choking we don't really need. It's not how I'd have designed it, frankly, since the tubes could be put in in straight lines, without crossing (and thus, without death by sandwich). But I suppose someone could argue the watchmaker wanted people to choke, sometimes, and get liquid 'down the wrong pipe.' If they liked. There's no disproving that, so it's not worth debating.

But there are far, far deeper flaws with this idea of Intelligent Design (which isn't actually a theory) than that.

Why isn't it a theory?

A theory has to be arrived at after taking a hypothesis as far as you can; it has to be rigorously tested-it has to be testable, or observable. And it furthermore has to have a way to be disproven--otherwise, it isn't science. That's just how the rules work.

Evolution has gained the status of theory because, over the centuries, we've watched it happen, we've bred animals (and people) in so many different combinations, and seen the changes that have occurred. We've established a fossil record, which, while it has gaps, does tend to follow well, from one thing to the next. Humans alone are a foot taller, and with shorter pinky fingers, than we were just a few hundred years ago.

All evolution really insists is that things change, over time. They breed selectively, some genes beat out other genes, some animals out-compete other animals, and so things change. New traits come up, others die out. We've seen it. We've experimented with it. It's a good theory. Like the theory of gravity. It's possible that someday something could jump up very high, and forget to fall, and then we'd have potentially partially disproven it. And it's possible that someday something could leap fully formed out of the mud, or that something could cease absolutely to change. But until then, these are our theories, and they're good theories, and they've stood up for hundreds of years to rigorous abuse.

Being "just a theory" is being pretty damn strong.

Now what about intelligent design?

Well, how can you test whether something in nature had a divine creator? How do you disprove a metaphysical intervention?

There's no proof it didn't happen. I'd never say that--there just couldn't be that proof. But that's the point: if there's no experimenting or proving it one way or another, it's not science. Metaphysics, maybe, philosophy or theology, maybe, but not science. So it doesn't belong with science.

ID has its roots way back, in philosophers in the 1700's(-ish). 'I look at a watch and I know by looking that there was a watchmaker.' The idea there was that something so complex could not just happen, and that it's simply intuitive that something greater than us made us. And while it's a nice little metaphor, I find that glass and metal being tempered in that way are the real clues to a watchmaker; observation has suggested that thinly pounded metal and gears and glass only happen when humans intervene with heat and hammers and screws. One pithy saying does not science make.

ID really runs in a circle, this way. "There are things here that are too complicated to have been made without an intelligent maker, so there must be an intelligent maker." But how can we say whether it's too complicated to make by chance? Well, by asserting that only an intelligent maker could make something so complicated as this. But you just can't prove something with itself.

But it's more than that. I think the major flaw with ID is that it disregards trial and error. By saying, "Look, how perfect! How circular! How well it fits together, and how well it is balanced!" it ignores all of the rocks in space, all of the species, all of the ecosystems, that fail and die out, that are not so perfect. Of course the planets move in roughly circular patterns, and don't crash into one another--any planet that was in a place where it would have been crashed into has been crashed into, and taken out of play. Of course our organs work (relatively) well; vertebrates whose organs didn't work as well died out. Every day, there are imperfect births, there are poorly formed fetuses that don't get born at all, there are eggs that never become implanted, and there are creatures that die, because they weren't viable, and they didn't survive.

How can something so perfect as life have just happened? Well, lightning might have struck the mud one billion times before a cell that sparked in it actually survived. Of trillions of bacteria, maybe only a few were perfect--perfect enough to live on.

The first creature in the phylum chordata--our phylum, most ancient ancestor in this run--was the lancet, and it is a sack that filters water through itself, to take little particles from it, and then it lets the waste out the same way it came in. It sticks to a rock in the ocean, and that is its life. I find it perfectly reasonable that out of a million different sacks that might have tried it out in the big ocean, most would have been too porous, not porous enough, unable to stick to the rock, unable to digest particles, etc. And if one did, then, that is not a sign of a perfect design. If a hundred seeds scatter on the ground from a tree above, and they result in six plants, that doesn't mean that the tree dropped six seeds in the six places they would survive; it means that the ones that scattered into the dark, into sand, into the paths of snails or birds, and the ones that weren't as strong to begin with, didn't ever grow for us to observe.

There is endless imperfection. There are so many systems that don't work, that can't work. But they generally don't stick around very long, for that very reason.

That doesn't mean that only perfect systems have existed, or tried to exist. That doesn't mean proof of a plan.

Now, why am I on about this?

I really have no qualms with people believing in ID--it's very appealing, it's technically possible, there's no problem with that at all--but the push into science is very troubling. Some of the institutes and think tanks that have been working on it admitted at their inception that they were going to make concerted attacks on science in general, by trying to break down what is or is not considered science. All the advances in science that have served us well--the things that have helped us build machines, study the paths of the planets for coordination, do medicine--were only possible by adhering to these rules of not accepting something as fact or theory that you couldn't potentially prove, that you couldn't experiment on. If sheer force of belief is granted the same kind of validity as something actually tested, imagine the state we would be in--that we had been in, in the past, in fact:

During the time of the plague, ghettos where Jews were segregated were generally hit much less hard, because of Levitical rules for cleanliness of living. Waste that would attract rats was not left around. Mouseholes were plugged, so rats weren't inside, so they couldn't carry the disease inside. Now, there could have been rational experiment and observation done; comparing lifestyle to prevalence of disease, seeing if Christians would get the plague less if they followed some basic hygiene principals, and then making judgments on the cause of the plague hitting someone based on that.

Instead, Jews were lynched, because they were believed to be practicing witchcraft and in league with the devil, because no one could have survived the plague in any other way. Belief trumped anything that looked like logic or real science, and contributed to the plague spreading unchecked.

Obviously ID isn't as damaging as a witch-hunt, but it needs the kind of atmosphere that allows those kinds of things.

This push for getting ID into the classroom is very similar to the political atmosphere, now; something being asserted, repeated over and over without evidence, or without being subject to proper scrutiny, is getting the same air time and the same consideration as viewpoints based in study, in logic, in picking through arguments. We're becoming dangerously relativist. If one person says, "the economic situation has further disadvantaged people who were already in an untenable position" and comes with figures to show it, and another says, "God wants them to be in that position, or they do" where is there possibly room for rational debate, there? Or even for being rational at all? Where is reality in that? God wanting or not wanting something can't enter into it; it may or may not be the case, but it isn't relevant to debate.

So it goes with ID.

Why am I on about this now?

I just saw the commercials for Ben Stein's intelligent design flick. I'd seen ads for it before, when LiveJournal decided that my being interested in science meant that the ad on my journal should be for "what big science doesn't want you to hear." And I've kind of heard enough from Stein, lately, in general. Like when he left messages on our phone at the last election about how we should vote to restrict abortion rights. (/ad hominem)

And it's frankly just starting to piss me off. :( So. There we are.

1 comment:

Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

Not defending ID or suggesting it has a place in primary education. But:

There is a hypothesis to (modern) ID theory, which is "Is there a point at which evolution no longer satisfactorily explains how things came to be?" Not that I know the answer, but I think, as such, it is an interesting jump off point for philosophical (NOT to say scientific) inquiry, which is how I think ID, as a topic of debate, might be valuable.

Oh, and yeah, I think Ben Stein has outrun his cuteness and is pretty much operating in full-on schmuck mode now.