Monday, August 08, 2005

What Intelligent Design is

Ezra cites QandO, who offers poll numbers that show a great amount of support for creationism, and solid support for "Intelligent Design". The first thing to say here is that QandO's post doesn't accurately represent the poll results -- scroll down to the November 2004 poll on the issue and you'll see that the phrase "Intelligent Design" was not actually used in the wording of the original poll. The pollsters merely asked people if they believed that evolution was "guided by God". There's an interesting difference between the belief that evolution was "guided by God" and ID, and it's what I want to bring to light in this post.

Here's a position that I imagine is reasonably popular, and that would make you my ally, not my enemy, in the fight against incorporating ID into biology textbooks: You believe that God created the universe so as to generate beings like us and all the other wonderful creatures that populate our world. But you accept that setting up a universe where evolution would eventually occur is the process by which God generated everything. You agree with everything Pharyngula and the biologists tell you about the history of life on earth, and you oppose the people who try to alter textbooks to say otherwise.

Now, the position in the previous paragraph is one I disagree with, since I don't believe that God exists. But it's different from ID in that it contains no biological hypotheses in contradiction to evolution. All it contains is a cosmological hypothesis that ends up contradicting my atheism. As such, it's no threat to interfere with a good K-12 science education, since cosmological questions about why all the physical constants are set where they are don't get discussed in high school science classes. Eventually, when the kids go to college and my co-workers teach them the Design Argument and the Problem of Evil in philosophy classes, they'll have a chance to hear both sides of those controversies. But even if they come out of those classes embracing teleological arguments for God's existence, that won't make them count as ID supporters.

10 comments:

Jon Henke said...

Granted, I simplified it a bit, but I think that their description was essentially -- and would have been understood to be -- ID. Strictly speaking, ID would require a bit more explanation than the poll gave, but it seems to me that the poll was trying to describe the idea behind ID, rather than use a term many people might not understand.

In any event, if the universe was "created" by a God who let evolution take its course, then evolution would have been an intentional part of that creation...i.e., intelligent design.

paperwight said...

In any event, if the universe was "created" by a God who let evolution take its course, then evolution would have been an intentional part of that creation...i.e., intelligent design.

1) Even if ID is what Mr. Henke says it is (and it is not), lots of people believing something that is simply not factual does not mean that their belief should have any weight. Science is not a popularity contest in the way that American Idol is.

2) ID proponents are not saying that there is some big cosmological kickoff outside of time. They're arguing that there's some meddlesome influence which creates speciation on a regular basis inside time, and therefore, modern evolutionary science is wrong. That's far different from the outside time God. In fact, the outside time God is by definition ineffable and unrelated to science, since we, living inside time, can't know what happened outside time.

Julian Elson said...

Here, as far as I can tell, are the three "evolution/creation synthesis" views:

1) The Catholic "guided evolution" position. Life evolved according to evolutionary laws, but God had a thumb on the scale, so to speak. Basically, humans descended from ancient fish, but God was there to make sure that some mutations arose, and were successful. He had the end product (us?) in mind all along.

2) The Jefferson-style Deistic position: God created the universe and the natural laws at the beginning of time, but does not actively intervene in the universe. The universe continues on its own like clockwork.

3) Behe-style intelligent design at a low level: humans evolved from an ape-like common ancestor with chimps, who evolved from a common ancestor of all primates, who evolved from a common ancestor of bats, primates, tree shrews, etc, who evolved from a common ancestor of all mammals, etc. Evolution is right until you get down to the first cell(s). At that point, the Designer created the complicated biochemical pathways which allowed the rest of evolution to take place.

I think that 2) is what you're saying is okay, but 1) is what the polled people actually probably thought they were supporting.

Justin said...

To be sure, this is an issue where lots of people (pundits, ordinary folks, others) have trouble keeping the issues straight. Philophers are of use here, since keeping issues straight is our job. In addition to Neil's point, which I agree with, let me say this.

Vew few church goers have anything like a fully thought out, deeply entrenched, coherent theology. That's not a criticism -- most people (including myself) don't have a completely worked out political philosophy either. In light of this point, here's been my experience. Ask an ordinary religious person whether she believes in evolution and often the person will say no. But preface the question in the following way, "Not only scientists but also a number of religious leaders, including Pope John Paul II, accept the theory of evolution", and you get far more people willing to say that they accept evolution.

The point here isn't that how you ask a poll question shapes the response you get. Rather, it's that while ordinary people recognize that the religious views they hold carry with them certain theological commitments, they often lose track or aren't fully in touch with what those theological commitments are. They assume that somehow or other, their beliefs must be incompatible with evolution. But, remind them that the previous pope accepted evolution (as just one example), they recognize that they aren't so committed (even if they aren't Catholic). The point is that while the poll surely tracks *something*, it's not tracking firm convictions or well thought out views. I suspect that a lot of the people polled could listen to Neil's story and say, "I'm OK with that", or even, "That's what I *mean* by intelligent design" (like Jon Henke). Which would just go to show that these people don't have the issues straight. Seems to me that the ID crowd has done a good job at gaining tacit support from people who haven't kept issues straight. (I don't doubt that those people who actively campaign for ID have the issues straight -- they're just wrong. But, I doubt that many of those people whose support for ID is casual do.)

Neil Sinhababu said...

Jon, I think the distinction between ID, which demands the textbook changes that Paperwight talks about, and Jefferson-style Deism, which rejects them, is an important one and should be maintained.

Julian, you're right that I'm saying 2 is okay. The "Guided by God" responses in the original poll may have come from people who believed either 1 or 2, or perhaps even 3 (or at least, that's the closest thing to a belief on the issue that we can attribute to them -- Justin's concern is an important one here.) My criticism of the QandO post is "Intelligent Design" isn't 2 -- in fact, it's inconsistent with 2. So people who accepted the "guided by God" response were presented by QandO as rejecting 2, which is bad.

JWG said...

Neil, you haven't been back to QandO, so I don't know if you just decided to quit making your point or if I convinced you that your argument was incorrect. I'm posting here to make sure there's a record of someone pointing out your errors about what evolutionary theory teaches, and what ID means.

If someone believes that God planned for humans to exist, then that is a clear form of ID. Any type of guidance by a creator is not currently supported by scientific evidence and is therefore currently rejected by evolutionary theory.

It is the aspect of guidance that is scientifically rejected, not the idea of a creator. Since poll question #2 stated, "Human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, but God guided this process," it is a form of ID.

Our complete arguments can be found on the QandO post.

Justin said...

I'm posting here to make sure there's a record of someone pointing out that jwg/jon henke don't really know what they are talking about, while Neil does.

Here's a metaphor that I use too often, and so I'm pretty sure Neil has heard it, but which is still applicable. Back in high school I briefly did policy debate, which involved clipping a lot of articles from Time Magazine. At the time I accepted pretty much everything Time said because it was the only news source I really looked at. If Time said there were such-and-such problems with the Clinton health care proposal, I believed it. Then, one week, Time did a story on baseball -- something I actually knew quite a bit about -- and it was clear to me that they were getting things just plain wrong. It wasn't just that they were simplifying something, they were dead wrong about it. This led me to wonder if Time ever really knew what they were talking about -- in most areas, I couldn't independently verify their claims, but here I could and they screwed up. Innocence was lost, etc.

Along similar lines, various claims I've seen advanced concerning ID -- claims which are without question false -- have me questioning a number of blogs, pundits, news sources, etc., not just on ID, but on issues in general. How can I trust source X on what it says about the effects of social security privatiziation say (which I know very little about) when it gets ID so wrong (which I do know something about).

To be sure, the issues surrounding ID are complicated. I can respect a source who acknowledges she doesn't really know what she's talking about with regard to it, or better yet, a source who doesn't entier into the discussion in the first place because she recognizes that doesn't know what she's talking about. I don't have much patience, though, for the various sources that spout off on the issue while suffering from deep and fundamental confusions on it.

(By the way, President Bush's recent statement that he believes Palmeiro on the steroids issue gave me an even more vivid Time flashback. If he could genuinely believe Palmeiro, that was a nice illustration [for me, given my baseball obsession] of what sort of epistemic agent he is.)

JWG said...

Gosh, Justin...that was worthless. Would you care to point out what was wrong with my argument? You claim I don't know what I am talking about (which is funny considering my background), but you don't bother to make any corrections. What am I confused about?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Just to inform you, JWG, this is a semi-personal blog, and Justin is an ex-roommate of the author. So long personal stories that describe interesting epistemic phenomena tangentially relating to the issue are, in their own odd way, appropriate.

JWG said...

"...long personal stories that describe interesting epistemic phenomena tangentially relating to the issue are, in their own odd way, appropriate."

I had no problem with the story.

The problem is that he used that personal experience as an example of how I don't know what I am talking about, rather than point to any actual argument I made.

In fact, Justin actually became insulting when he stated that I "spout off on the issue while suffering from deep and fundamental confusions on it."

My point, which I clearly explained, was that Justin's insults are worthless unless he can back them up with evidence of how I am confused. I have kept my background out of this because the evidence should speak for itself.

Show the world what "deep and fundamental" errors I am spouting, or keep your insults to yourself.