Saturday, November 27, 2004
Naturalism v. Intelligent Design
In a previous thread, I posed a question whether creationism and evolutionism could be considered to be scientific ideas, given Karl Popper's stipulation that science must be able to accept that its core theories may be proven false at any time.
In that thread, a core idea seemed to leap out. In comparing the two ideas, the theory of evolution depends upon the philosophy of naturalism, while creationist theories rely upon the concept of intelligent design.
When speaking about the emergence of life, the core difference that is the root of the differences between the two ideas is the origin of specific features of living organisms that result in life. The theory of evolution states that these features are the result of random natural processes influenced by intelligent considerations. The theory of intelligent design disputes that random processes and environmental factors are able to produce these features in living beings. In intelligent design theory, these features are the result of being designed for the purpose of life by an intelligent creator.
While the nature of the creator in intelligent design is unspecified, at some level the creator must possess a supernatural character. (Else the theory descends into nonsense as questions about what intelligence created the creator become an endless loop.) Given the supernatural nature of the creator, it is clear that questions about intelligent design are not answerable within a scientific framework as the supernatural aspects of the theory are not within the realm of science. (In contrast to evolution theory, which states that the origin is the result of ordinary natural processes that can be assessed via scientific means.)
In the modern debate between evolution and creationism, it appears that rather than the differences being unique to the two theories, the differences between the two are only symptoms of a larger debate whether naturalism or intelligent design (or other approaches) are more valid methods of obtaining knowledge.
So given these thoughts, I will put forth the position that the debate between the creationists and evolutionists on a scientific level is meaningless. The level at which the debate should be conducted is at the philosophical level. While science is unable to deal with questions whether an all-powerful god created a universe thousands of years ago with the appearance that it is much older, philosophy can deal with these questions by asking whether it is possible for intelligent designers to exist and why they would behave in such ways, should they exist.
So, questions for the readers: First, am I full of hooey in this assessment of the creationism v. evolution debate? Is this really a debate that should be had within the confines of science, or is philosophy the proper venue?
Second, if one chooses to believe that science is an imperfect vehicle for discovering the truth (whatever that means), must such an honest person also entertain all alternative supernatural explanations for things like origins? If the answer is no, is there a rigorous process an honest knowledge seeker may use to determine whether one supernatural explanation must be given more weight than another?
Finally, if following the debate up to the philosophic level leads to another debate surrounding the nature of gaining knowledge, is there any point to bumping the debate up levels (should mankind have conceived of levels above philosophy that have relations to philosophy akin to the relationship philosophy shares with science), or are we experiencing a phenomenon that is not unlike Gödel's incompleteness theorm?
Welcome to Dean Nation, Chris :) Excellent post.
I have to disagree with the contention that evolution is grounded in a naturalist assumption. Darwin himself may have been disillusioned with the faith, but the modern theory of evolution has no innate requirement that no super-natural forces are involved.
I also have to disagree with the statement that creation theories are grounded in intellgient design arguments. I think that ID encompasses a wide range of interpretation, some close enough to evolution that it would be equal heresy in the eyes of a creationist.
As a rule, it's not the intellgent design people who are te threat to scientific literacy.
I do think that Creationists' stereotypes of those who believe in evolution, like myself, are grounded in the assumption that evolutionists are also naturalists. But this is a reflection of Creationists' quasi-political need to perceive themselves as a persecuted minority, and hence cast their ideological foes in stark terms.
If that antagonistic posture could be dropped, one could easily envision a synthesis of the scientific method with the philosophical foundation of religion.
I agree that the antagonism needs to be dropped between the camps ASAP. This is true of not just only the creationism debate, but almost all the rest of the political debates in this day in age.
I have to disagree that modern evolution theory isn't required to reject supernatural factors. The theory itself may be silent on the issue, but the theory living in the framework of modern science (must be falsable and testable) prohibits supernatural factors as by definition, they cannot be measured, predicted, or explained. If the theory of evolution starts to adopt supernatural factors in its explanations (as opposed to a simple "we don't know yet"), it can no longer be handled in a meaningful way in a scientific framework, and the discussion has to be bumped up to philosophical levels. Do you have some other supernatural factors in mind that are not reducible to intelligent beings interacting with a natural system?
As for the political aspects of the debate, I agree with you on most of those aspects. However, given some of the current problems with evolution theory (mainly lack of large-scale testing, due to short human lives) and science and philosophy's inability to put the intelligent design theory to rest, there is enough wiggle room for creationists to say that evolution does not have all the answers and creationism is an alternative scientific explanation (although it is clearly a philosophical explanation instead). Contrast this with the idea that the earth orbits the sun. Enough philosophy and science has been devoted to that question that it is no longer an active issue.
I use intelligent design because that's what various forms of creationism tend to boil down to. You can put Christian creationism under that umbrella.
The problem is that when reduced to its core principles, intelligent design can be reduced to stating that a supernatural actor(s) meddles from outside in our universe, and evolution (and the rest of science) can be reduced to stating that no non-scientifically-addressable actor(s) meddles in our universe, and that all processes and properties of our universe are the result of processes and properties from within the said universe. Since science (and perhaps philosophy) is incapable of proving or (more importantly) disproving the existence of supernatural beings, the discussion must be bumped up a level or more.
1) i would qualify that evolution, and science in general, works within the framework of methodological naturalism. that is, it is a method more than a ontological or metaphysical assertion.
2) "The theory of evolution states that these features are the result of random natural processes influenced by intelligent considerations." or, more explicitly:
a) mutation (operationally random-there are nonrandom patterns in terms of how frequently mutagenesis occurs in the genome)
b) natural selection, non-randomc) genetic drift, random
3) "In contrast to evolution theory, which states that the origin is the result of ordinary natural processes that can be assessed via scientific means," or, more precisely, how we make speak of the origin, or describe in, in plain or mathematical language is constrained within the bounds of methodological naturalism.
4) "So, questions for the readers: First, am I full of hooey in this assessment of the creationism v. evolution debate? Is this really a debate that should be had within the confines of science, or is philosophy the proper venue?" i believe you are correct, it is a philosphical, not scientific, debate. i have posted over at my own blog data which suggests that the primaries in the ID movement are *philosophers* not scientists.
5) "must such an honest person also entertain all alternative supernatural explanations for things like origins? If the answer is no, is there a rigorous process an honest knowledge seeker may use to determine whether one supernatural explanation must be given more weight than another?" my personal opinion is that there is no real way to be "rigorous" about the supernatural, i don't buy the thomists, god as humans can conceive of him/it/she is basically an entity that exists outside the bounds of verbal encapsulation.
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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.