Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Sarkar-Nelson ID debate -- some notes

I see from Amanda that Pharyngula wanted some more info about the Sahotra Sarkar-Paul Nelson debate on Intelligent Design here at Texas. Amanda gives good general coverage in the opening of her post. Just a few points I wanted to add / emphasize. (We left after the first hour, so we missed Q&A.)

- Paul Nelson was willing to concede that ID wasn't sufficiently developed to be taught in high school textbooks. He seemed to be reaching out to any young biologists who were sympathetic to ID, asking them to someday build his theory for him, and half-acknowledging that he didn't really have a theory yet.

- I was really happy with the way Sahotra started the debate. He spent ~2 of his first 15 minutes emphasizing that the reason we're here talking about ID isn't that it's actually a scientific viewpoint anyone seriously respects. He likened IDers to flat-earthers and Raelians, saying the only reason we were debating ID was that more political power had gotten behind that view than the other crazy views. He specifically mentioned the ID movement's funding from Howard Ahmanson, who apparently wants to turn America into a theocracy.

- Sahotra was willing to grant Nelson the philosophically controversial claim that (I may not have this precisely right here) non-natural explanations shouldn't be ruled out a priori. (Similarly, we don't rule out a priori that the earth is flat. We rule it out a posteriori.) I don't have a well-developed view on this issue, but this seems right to me. The challenge for the IDer is to show that his theory can provide better explanations than evolution can. That's where I think the battle is properly fought. The evolution side gets to bring out their truckload of anti-ID evidence -- problem of evil, anybody? -- and show what a disastrously bad explanatory theory ID would be.

- At one point, Sahotra listed a whole bunch of technical stuff (not being a biologist I don't remember it very well) that evolutionary theory explains, and challenged Nelson to provide explanations of all of it. Nelson basically did his "no, we don't really have a theory" thing at that point, and begged the ID biologists of the future to someday make explanations for him.

- I managed to find Sahotra a picture of a whale with hip bones, and he used it! I was so proud!

19 comments:

Bronze Dog said...

Speaking canid to canid, you picked a cool name for your blog.

Glad to hear that some IDers got embarrased (I would hope they were aware of their embarrasment) at that thing.

bipod said...

Put on your philosopher's hat for a second (drop the advocacy hat) and tell me in what sense intelligent causes are non-natural causes.

And while you manage to keep the philosopher's hat on your head, explain why the problem of evil has anything to do with intelligent causes. The Holocaust was the result of intelligent causes. If you can't make this conceptual distinction, then you might take a moment to ask yourself which hat you have on. You might have accidentally gone back to advocacy.

bipod said...

One more thing. Your conceptual system would blind you to discovering the existence some other intelligent civilization by way of their advanced technology.

Let's say that life in the universe is very common. If that is the case, then there is a good chance that some life in the universe is more intelligent and more technologically advanced than human beings. If that is the case, then presumably, during our explorations of the universe, we might happen upon some designed objects. Are you telling me that under such a circumstance, the rational person has no recourse to the concept of intelligent causation? Are you saying that we'd be wrong to make the conceptual distinction between intelligent and non-intelligent causes in this case?

BTW, there are plenty of philosophers of mind who think that "mental causes" are essential to the explanation of certain phenomena. Read the literature and find out.

Minimally, an a posteriori analysis lends credence to the conceptual distinction of intelligent and non-intelligent (or blind) causes.

Neil Sinhababu said...

bipod, that stuff about non-natural causes is only meant as an attack on the most popular form of ID, on which a God does the designing. If you look at Nelson's diagram, the opposition between the intelligent causes and the natural causes starts with him. That's because he's interested in a version where God does the designing.

If you'd like to push for a version of ID on which space aliens come to earth and start life on this planet, feel free! That version of the theory seems much more plausible to me than the God versions. Space alien ID doesn't get hit nearly as hard by the problem of evil, for instance. I still don't think it should receive big grant money or be taught in public schools, but it definitely makes more sense.

crevo said...

Nelson has pointed out previously that a large part of the proofs of evolution are not of an empirical basis, but simply are negative theological assertions. Evolutionary arguments do not show evolution to be true by means of empirical analysis, but instead by attempting to prove that God wouldn't have made an original design that way.

Pete said...

G'day all...

crevo said...

"Nelson has pointed out previously that a large part of the proofs of evolution are not of an empirical basis, but simply are negative theological assertions."

One could glibly reply: "But he would say that, wouldn't he?"

However, as a molecular biologist I will say instead that I have never come across any theological assertions, positive or negative, in any lecture, textbook or journal article on evolutionary biology. If evolutionary theory depends so much on these assertions, I'm left wondering why the post-doc in the adjacent lab, who is an evangelical and a lay minister in his local congregation, is still working away on mutations in light-harvesting proteins!

The most that can be said of evolutionary theory, theologically speaking, is that it does not explicitly invoke a deity (and even that is pushing the boat out). Is that a negative theological assertion?

crevo said...

"I'm left wondering why the post-doc in the adjacent lab, who is an evangelical and a lay minister in his local congregation, is still working away on mutations in light-harvesting proteins!"

What does researching mutations have to do with creation/evolution? Creationists are engaged in the same kind of research -- or are you only aware of the straw man version of creationism?

"However, as a molecular biologist I will say instead that I have never come across any theological assertions, positive or negative, in any lecture, textbook or journal article on evolutionary biology"

Many textbooks have them. Specifically, Futuyma (I think that's how he spells his name).

Think of the argument from homology. Do we have any physical evidence that changes in the higher taxa can even occur? Davidson's recent paper indicates that the answer is no. So, if we have no empirical evidence that such changes are available to animals, what gives us ground to say that the changes were the result of known processes? The answer throughout history has only been "God would not have designed animals in this way". It is not a positive empirical evidence -- (i.e. we know animals can change in this fashion -- in fact we have lots of evidence to the contrary), the only thing that has caused it to win over creation or other intelligence-based notions is the negative theological argument.

If you have evidence that the changes in the higher taxa are due to Darwinian processes, I'd love to see it. But it is usually an assumption, or the result of a negative theological assertion, not an empirical result.

Ebonmuse said...

"What does researching mutations have to do with creation/evolution? Creationists are engaged in the same kind of research -- or are you only aware of the straw man version of creationism?"

Oh, really? Do be so good as to cite for us some papers published by creationists in peer-reviewed scientific journals detailing this research.

crevo said...

"Do be so good as to cite for us some papers published by creationists in peer-reviewed scientific journals detailing this research."

Evolution of protein sequences and structures.

Todd Wood was also part of the team that sequenced the rice genome, and continues to work on sequence comparisons, and focusing on transposons. He had a chapter in Wiley's "Handbook of Statistical Genetics", and also had a core article on Genome Sequencing in "Encyclopedia of Molecular Cell Biology and Molecular Medicine".

John Sanford, who invented the Gene Gun and co-invented other techniques, is also a creationist, though he has only recently become so.

The primary author on this paper is also a creationist.

If you want to know what Creationists talk about when they get together to talk about Creationism, see the proceedings of the last BSG conference.

Ebonmuse said...

You know, when I asked for peer-reviewed articles by creationists, I would have assumed it was implicit that I was asking for articles supporting creationism. None of the ones you listed do that, as far as I can see.

I don't doubt that creationists can actually engage in science when they manage to put their pseudoscientific beliefs aside. The ICR, for example, has a geologist (Andrew Snelling, I believe) who publishes articles in mainstream journals that apparently accept the scientific consensus without a ripple of complaint; then he turns around and publishes papers in ICR rags claiming that the Earth is 6,000 years old. This is a rather bizarre instance of compartmentalization, but it proves my point: anyone is welcome to do science if they can muster the evidence and write the papers defending their views. The creationists, for the most part, have not even tried, which is why the scientific community rightly rejects their beliefs.

crevo said...

"I would have assumed it was implicit that I was asking for articles supporting creationism. None of the ones you listed do that, as far as I can see."

1) My original point was that the idea that mutation research is an anathema to creationism is a straw man. I put out papers by creationists which involve talking about mutations.

2) The reason that creationism is never invoked specifically in mainstream peer-review is simply because it is a taboo subject. Just look at the Sternberg case. The _editor_ was castigated, merely for allowing a paper to be published which supported ID. The only journal that still publishes openly ID concepts is Rivista di Biologica.

3) If you are looking for Creationists making expressly creationistic claims, look in the journals on that topic -- Origins, TJ, and CRSQ. There are a lot of research going on in those journals.

4) If you are looking for papers supporting creationist _concepts_, they abound. Both by creationists and by non-Creationists. I catalog some of the more interesting ones on http://baraminology.blogspot.com/

So (a) creationists do research, and get published. (b) Creationists (and others) do research which supports creationism, while not talking about creationism specifically, and get published in secular journals. (c) Creationists discuss the overtly creationary aspects of their work in journals dedicated to their topic.

Considering the massive prejudice against them in both publishing and research grants, I'd say they have made a fairly impressive showing.

jazzraptor said...

For the life of me, I can't figure out why it's scientific to assume that chemicals randomly chanced into the combination for life, but it's supposedly religious to even consider the possibility that life required a designer. As an agnostic, I can make no sense of this stance - at least no scientific sense. Since we don't know the truth, the only reasonable scientific position is that both possibilities have equal standing. To say that one possibility is "science", and the other, "religion" is to commit an error of logic - a category error. This is rather incontestable, yet smart people make the mistake all of the time.

Another mistake that ID critics make all of the time is to put ID in opposition to evolution. You've made this error in this entry. Many IDists are evolutionists . . . myself and Behe included! Intelligent Designers (people) create evolutionary systems all of the time, and the trajectory of the evolution absolutely depends upon the savvy of the designer.

Sure, to wear the "God did it" blinders is a Science-stopper. But you're not doing much better with the "Natural Selection did it" blinders: also a Science-stopper. Whenever one assumes a conclusion, they're stopping Science.

bipod said...

Neil,
I'm acutally not interested in a "designer-centric" approach to intelligent causation. I am, however, interested in the naturally occuring phenomena of intelligent causation and how it fits into a physical world.

In other words, I'm interested in how we make sense of intelligent causation, given our core conception of physical: of the physical world as one completely governed by a small set of basic central, fundamental forces operating on some fundamental constituents.

How does intelligent causation fit into such a picture, a physicalist picture which I'm inclined to accept with only slight reservations.

What can't be denied is that at the level of phenomena, there is a clear conceptual divide between events that have intelligent causes and events which have non-intelligent causes. The conceptual divide might not reflect ontology, but there is no denying that A) we perceive the divide and B) we can make the conceptual divide fairly easily.

My interest in ID of course is not Paul Nelson's interest in ID, but nonetheless, to make ID out to be a natural vs. supernatural competition is to not take the phenomena seriously. In other words, there really does *appear* to be a difference between types of causes (directed versus undirected). As you know from philosophy, appearances don't always map onto reality. But at least give the phenomena the credit that it deserves.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Bipod, I have a post that may go into some of the issues you're interested in -- here it is.

crevo said...

It's not complexity, it's information. Cells, among other things, constitute a full Shannon information system. We know of many, many, many Shannon information systems, and in every case where we know its origin, it is an intelligent design. In fact, there is no known way that such a system can arise without an intelligence.

Even Dawkins agrees that biology appears to be the result of design. Now, in absence of evidence of the contrary, aren't appearances the basic data with which we work with? Thus, if X _appears_ designed, and this is near-universally agreed upon (the appearance, not the actuality), is not the burden of proof on the person who says that X is not designed to provide empirical proof that it is not?

That empirical proof is not forthcoming. If you know of such a proof or even a remotely plausible model, I'd be interested in hearing about it.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Personally, I don't think I or most other life forms look designed. Sometimes I see biological function, but I don't see design.

Hawkins isn't the best case for the creationist, since he's a hard-core adaptationist. He's all about selection pressures forcing things into interesting shapes. If you could get one of the genetic drift people like Motoo Kimura or, I guess, Sahotra Sarkar to say the body looked designed, that'd be more interesting.

Ebonmuse said...

Hmm... My previous post seems to have disappeared. Well, let's try again...

2) "The reason that creationism is never invoked specifically in mainstream peer-review is simply because it is a taboo subject. Just look at the Sternberg case. The _editor_ was castigated, merely for allowing a paper to be published which supported ID."

No. The editor was castigated because he bypassed the journal's normal peer-review processes, choosing himself as the sole reviewer of a paper in which he had a personal interest, in order to smuggle the paper into the journal and shelter its contents from criticism. This was and is a gross violation of normal scientific practice.

Furthermore, the Meyer paper wasn't even of high quality. It contained numerous factual errors, and even beyond that, it presented no positive arguments for ID or creationism, merely stated some perceived problems with evolution and assumed that that means ID wins by default. Ironically, this is the exact kind of "negative theological arguments" you accused evolution of relying upon.

"If you are looking for Creationists making expressly creationistic claims, look in the journals on that topic -- Origins, TJ, and CRSQ. There are a lot of research going on in those journals."

All those journals are published by creationist groups that require their members to affirm a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, and such "peer review" as there is consists of them rubber-stamping each other's work so long as it reaches the "correct" theological conclusions. (Just witness the recent massive schism in the creationist movement, as the American group Answers in Genesis split apart from its overseas affiliates out of a disagreement over the mere *existence* of an article on their site criticizing Kent Hovind, who is out there even by the standards of creationists.) Scientists rightfully reject this work as hopelessly shoddy and completely controlled by its authors' prior theological interests. When creationists can make their case to people who don't share their preconceptions, they're welcome to do so; but for the most part, they don't even try.

"Considering the massive prejudice against them in both publishing and research grants, I'd say they have made a fairly impressive showing."

Are you joking? Creationist groups like AiG and the Discovery Institute have multimillion-dollar annual budgets. If they spent less money on putting out press releases and hiring PR firms and lobbyists, they could afford to fund actual research; but for the most part they're happy to bypass the scientific community entirely and appeal directly to the public. That they then complain about scientists mistreating them is the height of hypocrisy.

crevo said...

"The editor was castigated because he bypassed the journal's normal peer-review processes"

His handling was not normal, but was within the bounds of the journal, and the procedure had occurred before.

"choosing himself as the sole reviewer of a paper in which he had a personal interest"

He checked with a member of the BSG beforehand. Also, it went through, and passed, a normal peer-review process. The president of the BSW confirmed that the paper did in fact pass a proper peer-review process.

"in order to smuggle the paper into the journal and shelter its contents from criticism."

How is peer-review and publishing in any way "sheltering from criticism"?

"Furthermore, the Meyer paper wasn't even of high quality."

Even if this were true, it would not warrant the treatment. There are plenty of papers published in the world which aren't of high quality. However, if you are referring to the PT review, the review was what was of low quality, not the paper. If the paper was _actually_ of low quality, then why not publish the criticism in a peer-reviewed journal, rather than some hack blog like PT?

"it presented no positive arguments for ID or creationism"

Functional integration is a positive argument for design. So is the informational nature of the genome. So is the arisal of structural endpoints from diverse origins. So is hierarchical arrangement. So is the complex specified information required to produce organismal novelty. The OVERWHELMING evidence is that such things are the result of mind-activities, _and_ that there are no other causes that produce such effects.

Perhaps you are too busy reading PT to actually have read the paper?

"If you are looking for Creationists making expressly creationistic claims, look in the journals on that topic -- Origins, TJ, and CRSQ. There are a lot of research going on in those journals."

"All those journals are published by creationist groups that require their members to affirm a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible"

So what? Have you read their research? Why not respond to their research rather than their commitments? How is this any different from the a priori commitment to materialism that the Darwinian establishment has in spades? Creationists are not limitted to only supernatural causes, but Darwinists are limitted to only material causes. It seems like the Darwinist ideological commitments actually are more constraining.

"and such "peer review" as there is consists of them rubber-stamping each other's work so long as it reaches the "correct" theological conclusions."

Actually, you are confusing the premise and the conclusion. Creationism (but not ID) in general uses Creation as a premise, not a conclusion.

"Answers in Genesis split apart from its overseas affiliates out of a disagreement over the mere *existence* of an article on their site criticizing Kent Hovind"

Care to cite a source? I am somewhat familiar with the incident, and I'm 99% sure it had nothing to do with this.

"Are you joking? Creationist groups like AiG and the Discovery Institute have multimillion-dollar annual budgets."

Now you're getting into laughably absurd statements.

The DI's Intelligent Design budget, including research, education, and PR, has been about $18 million TOTAL for the ENTIRE LIFE of its existence. Compare that to the SINGLE PROPOGANDA PIECE OF PBS's EVOLUTION which alone ran $15 million.

Then let's look at AiG. Again, they are doing research, education and PR with their budget. They are building a Creation museum for a mere $25 million. How much do other natural history museums cost? Many of them cost the same amount EACH YEAR to run them. And AiG is only building ONE. How much does it cost to run a biochemistry lab? Some of them cost tens of millions of dollars! And you say that AiG and Discovery Institute are well-funded!? Can you honestly say that with a straight face? What's especially bad is that the Darwinists are funded by taxpayer money -- i.e. I'm forced to fund it whether I want to or not.

"they could afford to fund actual research;"

They do actual research. You're just to busy propogandizing against them to look.

"but for the most part they're happy to bypass the scientific community entirely and appeal directly to the public."

Isn't the whole point of science's objectivity the fact that it is publicly accessible -- i.e. the evidence should be objective to anyone who is interested in researching? What is happening to Darwinists is the same thing that happened to Enron. Someone finally got suspicious enough to check the books, and lo and behold, they have been bluffing on their financials for years. Public auditting of science is just as necessary as public auditting of corporations.

"That they then complain about scientists mistreating them is the height of hypocrisy."

What about the professors who have lost their jobs when they became convinced of creation? What about the professors whose pay has been frozen? What about the students who are told that disagreeing with the professor will keep them from graduating? What about Sternberg?

The fact is that any opposition is being silenced and being declared out-of-bounds for science. It is not being discussed. This is the whole lesson of Sternberg -- rather than providing a scientific rebuttal (which is the proper course to criticize bad science when it is published) they instead opted to throw it out on a priori grounds, not allowing a discussion or presenting arguments against it, and castigated the editor who published it. What message do you think that sends to other editors who think that ID or creationary hypotheses might be worth publishing?

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