Saturday, May 10, 2008

Intelligent Design

It must be spring time. All the life emerging all around, especially in the very green climate where I live, must bring people to flights of fancy. I hear it from my chiropractor, from co-workers, from my neighbors whenever I talk about the beauty and wonder of spring. There must be an intelligent designer.

Wikipedia has a great entry about the rise and fall of this priest in a lab coat:

The argument, from my perspective, isn't about whether there actually is a God. It's about how to know a fact. God must remain a faith based matter for the same reason Intelligent Design is not science. There is just no way to prove it.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has stated that "intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life" are not science because they cannot be tested by experiment, do not generate any predictions, and propose no new hypotheses of their own.

Whatever they call their now legally defeated movement, they are faith based beliefs...which are fine if people desire to have them...they just aren't a science or even a "theory"...because something must have testable experiments to be a scientific theory.

A theory, in the realm of science, can't just be something that pops into your head like "I think there's a spaceship behind the moon". That is merely "a conjecture, an opinion, or a speculation" (National Academy of Sciences quote N.A.S.)

In science, a theory is a testable model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise verified through empirical observation. -N.A.S.

The idea that there is a God that designed everything is a fine opinion, it just is not knowledge that should be taught as such in our schools, private or not. It's simply unethical and mentally abusive to teach conjecture to impressionable children as if it were fact.

A creator may well be something we like to hope for, something we believe and preach in spiritual settings. We are free to delight our hearts with whatever we choose in those settings. I don't think science can, at this point, prove or disprove the ultimate existence of a creator or lack thereof. I don't think it's a contradiction to be a faithful person and a scientist, most of the time. Science does allow us to expand our knowledge, filling in those gaps we used to attribute to the "God of the Gaps", as Carl Sagan said.

In teaching science, the conclusions of repeatable and peer reviewed experiments are explained for what they say for themselves. The scientific method is taught so students can understand how the knowledge was discovered in the first place and how they can replicate those experiments to prove their results to themselves.

Forcing one group's hopeful imaginations or beautiful dreams on the education system would be a frightening and tragic dumbing down of critical thinking skills in our nation.

The same faith-based activists would react much like I do to them if, for example, a Muslim group were trying to impose Islamic teachings on their school age children.

Again to paraphrase the brilliant rational thinker and Astro-Physicist Sagan, The mission of the creationists is not to give students the best of our collective knowledge, it is to preserve the emotional attachment they have to the things they believe. Their mission is not truth-seeking at all, it's the preservation of long held dogma.

Here is a passage that sums up how I feel about the issue. It is a quote from the writings C.F. Volney, which I found on Project Gutenberg after reading about it in "Demon Haunted World" (by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan): live in harmony and peace, we must agree never to decide on such subjects, and to attach to them no importance; in a word, we must trace a line of distinction between those that are capable of verification, and those that are not; and separate by an inviolable barrier the world of fantastical beings from the world of realities; that is to say, all civil effect must be taken away from theological and religious opinions.
C.F. Volney (published 1787, original in French)

I guess I have shown by all my quoting that my reaction to the pseudo-science Intelligent Design movement is shared by many great thinkers who expressed my concern and dismay about the movement much better than I could. From Volney over 200 years ago to Sagan only a decade ago and including the very recent statements from the N.A.S.

Many smart grown up Americans walk around repeating Intelligent Design ideas that are so ill-conceived as to be evidence against themselves. They talk of accepting evolution while pretending there is such a thing as a limit on "cross-species" evolution, a fully non-scientific idea, invented to help people rationalize their beliefs and reduce their cognitive dissonance.

I hear proponents of this sham say things like "we don't even know whether butter is good for you or not, we can't trust our science!" .

I'd like to address that one argument. Whether eating butter is good for you is a question with a lot of variables. First, the real issue is probably more one of whether local news programs actually do rigorous research into their sources and subjects on slow news days.

I digress to the idea of many variables. Maybe the question should be one of whether butter is good for you in certain quantities or combined with certain foods or when one has a sedentary lifestyle or an active lifestyle. Clearly there are always new studies, new discoveries and other motives, other than pure knowledge, for promoting one opinion over another.

Maybe sales of butter are slumping one quarter, so a corporate staff member is paid to write an article emphasizing anything at all positive or virtuous about eating butter.

That whole mess is somehow used to reduce the value of scientific knowledge that helps us to understand things like Gravity, Electricity, the Chemistry of Plastic or the properties of Light. The "virtues of butter" is an incomplete set of knowledge just like the "origins of the universe" is also an incomplete set of knowledge.

This incompleteness is exploited in a logically false way to play down the tested hypotheses and valuable results of science for the purpose of muddying people's understanding so they can still accept rationally unsupportable or at best, unprovable, beliefs. It is a totalitarianism of ignorance that is deeply troubling.

I recently saw Eddie Izzard's wonderful "Stripped" tour. In his show he did a bit about the Planet Mercury, and it went something like (and I take vast paraphrasing liberties): "It's a dry, lifeless, waterless world where the temperature ranges from −180 to 430 °C from night to day. What's so intelligent about that design? That's not intelligent design, it's either random and God doesn't exist or he's one sardonic smart ass".


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