Intelligent Design: Bah Humbugs from Bert Humburg 

Burt Humburg, who has worked with "Kansas Citizens for Science," is continuing to present himself as spokesperson against what he calls "Intelligent Design Creationism." He posted a comprehensive position paper at Panda's Thumb just yesterday. As usual, it's filled with misconceptions and distortions. These things come and go, but once in a while it's worth taking yet another look at how ID is being presented by its opponents. Humburg's article in particular is an extreme case of "when I want your opinion I'll give it to you." 

The name he gives ID, "Intelligent Design Creationism," is tendentious to start with. Creationism, as is well known, rings very negatively among scientists, so to paint ID with that label is an intentionally emotive rhetorical strategy, not founded in facts.

On this matter he writes,

Contemporary anti-evolutionary arguments purport to agree with most of evolution, but suggest that it is insufficient to explain all of biological diversity. IDC advocates appeal to the actions of an unnamed agent, typically called an Intelligent Designer, to account for things they feel evolution can’t. (Almost all IDC advocates believe this mysterious designer to be the Christian God, though they continue to use vague terms in order to skirt the Constitution or leave the impression that they are not discussing religion.)

Humburg is haunted by what he sees as a hidden agenda in ID. We "purport" to agree with most of evolution. Why this "purport" language? Apparently because Humburg thinks there's something lurking in that agreement, that's going to jump out and get him (and all of science) when the whole truth is known. In fact, ID does agree with the observed fact that populations change characteristics due to changes in their environment, genetic variation, natural selection, and so on.

ID, he says, avoids talking about the identity of the Designer "in order to skirt the Constitution or leave the impression that they are not discussing religion." No, ID avoids talking about the identity of the Designer because ID is a program of scientific research, and everyone knows you can't find the identity of a Designer in a scientific research program. Why would a scientist, speaking strictly from his science, speculate about what a Designer must be like?

You can see how ID opponents want to wrap the issue up in impossibilities. Those who openly talk about religious associations with Design are suspect because they do that; and those who limit their discussions to the science are suspect because they do that. It's all rhetorical trickery, designed to interfere with a research program.

"IDC advocates operate under the assumption that natural processes cannot fully account for natural phenomena. They survey current science, find those areas that are poorly understood currently, and conclude (or oftentimes simply argue) that science never will be able to understand those areas. Since God can do anything, IDC advocates point to these poorly understood areas as places where God must have intervened."

This is sadly distorted: ID "survey[s] current science, find[s] those areas that are poorly understood currently, and conclude[s] (or oftentimes simply argue[s]) that science never will be able to understand those areas." No. ID surveys current science, looking at areas that are not at all understood currently, and asks whether there are features that science cannot understand, in principle. There are rigorous tests, including observational, statistical, and logical, that ID applies to that question. ID also explores whether evolution in fact succeeds in its claims: does the fossil record really support evolution? What should we conclude from the complete failure of science to evolve new organisms in the laboratory? And so on.

"This is problematic because any phenomenon could be explained by God’s involvement and no phenomenon or data could ever disprove God. "

Notice how the topic has shifted. ID never said it was out to prove God, just design.
"For example, IDC advocates appeal to mutually exclusive manifestations of the IDC creator: that life arose because it is so improbable (e.g., CSI, described below) and that life arose because it is just so likely (e.g., 'Privileged Planet,' described elsewhere)."

This is comical. The Privileged Planet does not argue that life arose because it's probable! It argues that Earth's position in the galaxy, and its terrestrial characteristics, are exceedingly well-tuned both for life and discovery. It suggests that Earth must be extremely unlikely in those terms. It never even mentions how life actually came to be on Earth.

"Since IDC appeals essentially to the whimsy of a designer, and especially since IDC advocates are usually at pains to avoid saying just who this designer is, it therefore becomes clear that there is no theory of IDC. Rather, IDC exists only as a criticism of evolution or the accepted processes of science in general."

ID doesn't appeal to "whimsy," it makes no statements about the Designer's character. ID is more than a criticism of evolution (though it certainly is that); it is an appeal to the best explanation for observed phenomena. Its criticism of the "accepted processes of science" must be understood strictly as a criticism of philosophical naturalism, the assumption that there is nothing in the world for science to find, ever, except for strictly natural processes, and that nothing else exists.

"Because there is no testable model proposed by IDC, it cannot be science and it is therefore inappropriate to teach IDC alongside or instead of science in public school classroom."

No major ID proponents are suggesting that ID be taught in public schools, because the scientific work is still so controversial and because the work is really just beginning. So we agree there, but not for the same reason and not to the same extent. Kansas just rolled back an eminently sensible standard that evolution should be taught thoroughly, to include the challenges the theory is currently facing; and Humburg and others lobbied for this restricted teaching standard.

The suggestion that ID is not science is old, and yet scientists continue to do ID work. ID has "no testable model," yet opponents continue to say it has been tested and has failed. How do they do that if it's not testable?

"IDC is a Useless Idea"
"The IDC logic essentially holds that if something cannot be explained by natural (observable and testable) means, this would be evidence of an intelligent designer. Notably, all IDC advocates concede the utility of explaining things by natural means in science. Phillip Johnson makes this point clearly, since he is only interested in phenomena that have “God’s fingerprints all over them.” William Dembski explicitly states that IDC explanations are to be advanced only after natural explanations have failed.

"But this gives away the game: natural explanations must be preferable to supernatural ones! Further, a poorly understood area of science that will never be understood is indistinguishable from a poorly understood area of science that someday will be understood. Since the former are the evidences of the designer that IDC backers supposedly seek, IDC’s logic will be unable to say anything with certainty regarding what the designer did in this world until the day when science has discovered as much as it can possibly discover forevermore. There are many examples of IDC advocates who have given up on the accepted processes of science too early. (Google “Behe whale” sometime.) Therefore, IDC is useless."

I'm not sure--is Humburg here conceding that ID scientists do science after all? And do we need to accept that ID is useless for these reasons? Hardly. Even if everything were ultimately explained in natural terms, ID would have contributed heuristically to that by its methodology of attempting to detect design and observable instances of it. In the meantime, we have promissory notices on both sides: ID says there may be natural features that will never be explainable naturalistically (because evolution's explanations fail, and/or because of logical/statistical impossibilities in natural explanations), and opponents say someday everything probably will be explainable naturally. What's wrong with pursuing the question?

Others are better equipped than I to answer his charges against Michael Behe's and William Dembski's work. I'll stick with my purpose here, which is not to provide a scientific defense of ID but to demonstrate (again) how ID opponents consistently misrepresent what they are opposing.

"The danger of IDC is that it can substitute supernatural explanations that can never be tested and do not predict other findings in the place of natural hypotheses that can be tested and do predict other findings. (A direct intervention by God may possibly 'explain' but it does not predict other interventions, nor is it testable. One cannot put God in a test tube, nor can one keep him out.)"

Two points here. One, Humburg is dissatisfied with God as an explanation because he cannot be tested scientifically. What, though, if God actually is the correct explanation? Humburg assumes, apart from any evidence whatsoever, that this is inadequate; he's jumping to conclusions far ahead of what can be demonstrated, and he seems to be committed to staying there.

But this suggestion that "God as explanation" will stifle science is uninformed and wrong. God was considered the explanation throughout the early centuries of science, and these scientists by and large saw their work as profitable for understanding not only nature but even the mind of God. Did they give up investigations just because they could impose "God" as an answer to everything? Certainly not! And ID proponents in the lab are working as hard as any other scientist today, trying to understand natural phenomena in natural ways.

Humburg gives a "fanciful example" of ID scientists looking at the St. Louis arch:

The scientist who falls prey to IDC thinking might conclude that, since humans cannot create such structures as a whole and since the arch is clearly the product of design, God must have built the St. Louis arch.

(Don't you just love his "falls prey" language?) He goes on a bit later:
Clearly, the scientist who suffers from IDC thinking reached an inappropriate conclusion. Easily, one danger of IDC thinking is that it can support bad explanations for phenomena with untestable 'evidence.' However, incorrect hypotheses are advanced and corrected often in science, so this is not a prominent danger. The real threat is that the question of the arch’s construction has now been answered (God did it) in a way that sabotages further inquiry. Why investigate further if the question has been answered? Why investigate further if to do so might be considered to detract from God?"

Clearly this mistake is one that a person could make. But it's not a scientific argument; it's a sociological one. It predicts that scientists will find the "God" explanation so satisfying that they will give up further research. It's an argument that needs to be evaluated sociologically. As I pointed out already, it fails the test of real world observation. Scientists don't do this. So there's no scientific merit in arguing that they do or they would. (There's also no theological, philosophical, or scientific reason that they ought to do this; as already noted, scientists who believed God was ordering the universe have seen their work as glorifying God, not detracting from God.)

"Since IDC exists where scientific understanding isn’t, IDC implies a God of the Gaps (GOTG) argument. As Miller has written in Finding Darwin’s God, GOTG arguments forge a logical link between failures in science and successes for God. The counterlogic of the GOTG proposition – that successes for science must therefore be failures for God – is therefore just as logical. Clearly, if one bases a belief in God on an inability to explain some natural phenomenon scientifically, that belief will be threatened by any pursuit of understanding of that phenomenon by science. A reverent GOTG believer would surely serve his beliefs best by refusing to further investigate the reasons for that phenomenon. GOTG therefore propagates the warfare model of science and religion."

I actually agree with Humburg to a large extent here. If one's belief in God is based on a GOTG argument, that belief is always in danger of being overthrown. Where Humburg distorts things is in suggesting that ID is a GOTG apologetic for God. It's not. It's a research program devoted to detecting instances of design in nature, and at the same time questioning the adequacy of evolutionary explanations. I don't know of any fellow Christian whose belief in God is dependent on evolution's being proven. Again, he's attacking a problem that doesn't exist.

"[M]any religious scientists endorse theistic evolution, which unlike IDC posits that natural law can fully explain natural phenomena and that God used natural law as his tool to work his will. Theistic evolutionists acknowledge that there is no scientific reason to believe in God but instead rely on faith to know he exists."

Theistic evolution remains an option; and if ID's research programs ultimately fail over the course of years, I'll adopt it fully. But the question of ID is not a theological one. It's an empirical one: are there features of nature that are better explained as the product of design than by any other explanation? That's it.

And what about Humburg's approach to the question of God? Is he as afraid of God as Richard Lewontin is? Does this, perhaps, skew his view of any of this? He accuses ID of having a theological agenda. Is there one lurking in Bert Humburg?

Anyway, back to all the distortions. If ID really were what Humburg says it is, it would deserve to crumble as a scientific research program, and it probably would in a matter of months.

I've said it here before, and I'll say it again: if ID opponents really want to take issue with ID and put it to a complete and final end, they would be well advised to take issue with what ID really says. Too often they tell us what we think, and they fashion their rebuttals against what they have said we believe, instead of listening to what we do in fact think. As long as they're attacking something other than ID, they are engaged in a sham controversy of their own making. There is a real controversy. Why won't they take part in it?

ID's relationship to religion deserves careful reflection. See here and here for more on that. 

Posted: Mon - March 26, 2007 at 01:59 PM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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