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February 25, 2005

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Why not teach the controversy?

Nice to know their arguments have disintergrated down into the depths of terminally lame.

Deinonychus has a long string of critiques (here, for example) of Intelligent Design, some of which both Sebastian and I have commented on.

Odd that most of the bloggers I consider to be reasonable, smart people are dead set against this being in the schools, regardless of their political persuasion. There are some exceptions to this, of course, but most of the exceptions just want people to see exactly how lame ID is, scientifically. Problem is, high school kids aren't exactly equipped to make that judgement (IMO, of course).

I would tend to be more flexible on this if it were presented as "religious argument", i.e. having no basis in fact whatsoever. Kind of like Velikovsky (whose book I found when moving bookshelf contents a couple of weeks ago; check it out if you're craving that feeling of intellectual superiority).

Probably other people have already thought of this, but it occurred to me that since proponents of ID in the classroom remove any talk about the nature of the intelligent designer in their theory, science teachers who're being forced to present this material could spend some class time speculating with their class about possible designers -- space aliens? A universe-sized supercomputer? A superintelligent shade of the color blue? etc.

One wonders how the ID people would react if their push resulted in this kind of stuff instead of God-talk. It would be a test of how sincere they are when they protest that they're not just trying to get God into the classroom.

"space aliens? A universe-sized supercomputer? A superintelligent shade of the color blue? etc."

I, for one, bow down to our new blue colored overlords. ;^)

It was the mice, but don't tell anyone.

It's amazing how much energy is spend on this crap. The fundies trying to get it in school and the people trying to keep it out. What a waste. For what? Because your faith in God requires that a book assembled from multiple authors and sources thousands of years ago has to be literally true? When does it stop? Instead of just repealing the Enlightenment, how about the Rennaisance? Heliocentrism is just a theory. Even the High Middle Ages were a little too fancy-pants book learnin'. Let's just go back to the Dark Ages. We could all be serfs again. Except the lucky few who get to be thugs or priests.

Slarti,

But if it were presented as a religius argument it would have no place in a science classroom. It could be part of a comparative religion class but I don't think that's what the ID proponents have in mind.

I agree, GT. Which is why I'm against it being taught as science. I thought this would have been clear, but it's not the first time I've thought that and been mis-taken.

I'll be the dissenter. I'm a Darwinian and Christian and think Behe and Dembski are wrong, but it seems to me that virtually every presentation of Darwinian theory that I've seen uses some form of intelligent design as a foil, beginning with The Origin of Species and moving up to the present. Evolutionists are constantly pointing out that this or that piece of evidence makes sense under the theory of natural selection, but is simply a brute fact or downright unintelligible if viewed from the ID viewpoint. Darwin, for instance, does this with biogeography. I think I've seen references to design as an alternative (but failed) hypothesis even in books written by Darwinians for other Darwinians, and not just in introductory texts, but I don't have examples handy.

The really fascinating thing about Darwinism for most people is precisely the fact that it shows how extraordinarily complex organs obviously "intended" for a particular function can come into existence through a mindless process. So the ID alternative is right there just in the statement of the problem that the theory of natural selection is intended to solve. An honest presentation of the evidence will be in Darwin's favor. So what's the problem?

Okay, the problem is that the ID proponents want to use this as one battle in the culture war and they probably want their propaganda put in the schools as an alternative to mainstream scientific thought. So keep out the propaganda, but mention intelligent design as an alternative notion that scientists have shown doesn't fit the evidence. In practice I would think a teacher in many parts of the country would have to deal with this issue because the students themselves would raise it and quite properly so. Darwinism is counterintuitive for many or most people and a teacher should be able to explain why Darwinism does a better job explaining the kinds of design we actually see than ID can do.

Is there anyone posting or reading here who thinks ID should be taught in science classes? Could this be a first for ObWi -- and no-dispute post?

Just so as not to disappoint Opus, even I don't want Behe and Dembski taught in science classes.

Don-

Doens't that happen already? I remember learning the 'If you find a watch, you assume a watchmaker' argument in high school, and although I don't really remember the context, I assume it was something like "This is what Darwinism refuted". I mean, you could mandate it, but I don't think that's what the ID fans want.

Don --

You've nailed it. I agree.


I remember learning the 'If you find a watch, you assume a watchmaker' argument in high school

I'd not heard that one, but it's not a worthy argument. If you find a tree, you don't necessarily have to start looking for some being that assembled it from component quarks (or whatever the LCD of subatomic particles is, these days); you can watch it grow from seed.

There's this insane notion in some quarters that Evolution is anti-religion; in reality I haven't seen that to be the case.

Hey, the girlfriend and I have both been knocked out for more than a week with a devastating cold, which is my second of the winter. This is intelligent design?

Slart-


Well, yes, I agree that it's not worthy. But it is the basis of ID, it is facially appealing, and it was a current train of thought when Darwin was writing -- Darwin was at least in part refuting Paley (the watchmaker dude) whe he wrote TOS. It makes sense, on at least the latter two grounds, to allude to the watchmaker argument when teaching evolution. I wouldn't mandate it, but it's a reasonable history-of-science kind of thing to bring up.

Hey, the girlfriend and I have both been knocked out for more than a week with a devastating cold, which is my second of the winter. This is intelligent design?

The problem with this sort of argument against ID is that one can't really speak to the quality of the design without knowing the designer's purpose, and also the restrictions she was working under. Maybe viruses are part of the plan, or maybe they're an unavoidable consequence of some other desirable feature.

Like an inordinate fondness for beetles.

"It makes sense, on at least the latter two grounds, to allude to the watchmaker argument when teaching evolution. I wouldn't mandate it, but it's a reasonable history-of-science kind of thing to bring up."

I recall from high school science learning about the flat-earth theory, geocentrism, and the electron soup model of the atom. They were taught in the context of progression of knowledge and were explicitly discredited. The implication was clear. . if you still believed in either of these you were mistaken and probably irrational. And they had something in common. . they were disprovable theories.

The problem with ID is that it's not a scientific theory to compare anything against. It's non-falsifiable. It's a matter of faith. You can't very well stand up in a science class and say 'people once thought that humans were created by an anthropomorphic sky buddy, but that's just irrational' unless you have a death wish.

The purview of science class and science books is science. Science is unequivocal that evolution is the best explanation for species development. Current science describes absolutely no mechanism for omnipotence, non-corporeal intelligence, implementation of a chemical design, predictability of the design, or any related notion of ID. If you want to believe in ID, that is fine, but you are not believing in science. You are opting out of science. Science class isn't the place for you.

(Just to make certain -- I haven't inadvertently given the impression that I advocate the teaching of ID in science classes, have I? If so, it was unintentional. I don't. I'm a big ol' rationalist atheist/agnostic -- I like religious people, often, but I'm not one. Big C.S. Lewis fan, though.)

And, really, were the mosquitos really necessary? How about the AIDS virus? Ebola Zaire? If one can make up an intelligent purpose for these, one can manufacture an explanation for damned near everything.

And...slime molds?

Spina Bifida?

Honestly, great plan.

Who said the plan was for us to be comfortable and non-icked-out? God never promised us a rose garden.

One of the major problems with attributing things like Ebola and AIDS to the intentional design of Deity--particularly with cop-outs along the lines of "life is full of adversity" or such on--is that the unavoidable conclusion is that Deity is more sadistic than the worst the human race has ever produced. Imagine that gamer you know who likes to unleash disasters on their Sim City game. Now imagine that there are millions of real people in that game. There's the God you have if you ascribe specific diseases and disasters to ID: a sick, twisted monster you'd have committed, imprisoned, or executed if he were your neighbor.

If I'm going to believe in a Magic Sock Puppet of one flavor or another, I'm most inclined to think that Deity laid down the basic ground rules of physics, gave the universe a kick-start, and sat back for the last few billenia to see what turns up.

You know, I am, as noted above, not a theist, but I never had trouble with the "What kind of decent God could allow such awful things to exist/happen/etc," problem. You do have to remember that under the premises Christians are working with, there's an eternity of bliss to counterweight anything bad that happens in this life -- the guy who dies of Ebola, or is massacred in Rwanda, is presumably, a billion years from now, happily basking in God's presence, and the whole bleeding to death internally thing, or getting macheted, seems like no big deal in retrospect.

(Don't ask me about hell -- I think you need an actual Christian for that one.)

Don't ask me about hell -- I think you need an actual Christian for that one.

How actual?... The Bible (unlike, say, Aquinas or Dante) says remarkably little about hell. A Christian has to assume that IF there's a hell, and IF it's eternal, THEN God has some really good, moral reason for it. Which is inconceivable to me, but then, it's never a very good argument against the morality of God's actions that they're inconceivable to us.

That said, the only *Christian* attitude I can adopt towards hell is to hope that it's neither permanent nor pointless, and that no one I know actually goes there, and that anyone who goes to hell will graduate to an eternity of bliss that will make it all seem worthwhile.

Instead, of course, many so-called Christians seem positively excited by the idea. Nietzsche wrote all about those people, quite accurately.

You do have to remember that under the premises Christians are working with, there's an eternity of bliss to counterweight anything bad that happens in this life

This is the traditional explanation, but one so inclined can find a more Eastern message in Jesus' words -- if you become unconcerned with the material world, then the "bad" things are no longer bad. As I recall, there are numerous passages where Jesus speaks of "the Kingdom of Heaven" as if it was a present thing, rather than a future, after-you-die thing.

Yeah, I have a hard time buying that one. I mean, for St. Lawrence on the gridiron making jokes about not being done on this side yet, present pain is subsumed in his saintliness, but for Joe Tutsi in Rwanda, whether if he were good enough he wouldn't mind being macheted seems to be lost in the fact that he clearly does mind. Not that I believe in God, again, but the infinity-of-bliss argument works for me; the if-you-were-a-good-enough-person-you-wouldn't-mind seems to help out unjustly few sufferers.

You problem of evil types are making my point--if people start examining the actual design you find in the biological world you'll find lots of examples of organisms designed to survive in part by making other organisms miserable. That's to be expected under Darwinism and I gather in the artificial life computer experiments parasitism pops up all the time. For us Christians (when we sit back and think about the Deeper Meaning Of It All), it's not the kind of evidence of a designer that we'd prefer, but more part of the theological problem of evil. Why did God use Darwinism to make the world? Speaking for myself, if I were going to choose a past history for this world, I'd pick Tolkien's mythology. (I've worked it out--Atlantis is Numenor, of course, and Plato says Atlantis fell in 9600 B.C., I think, so Frodo lived around 6000 B.C. and given that Ages seem to be about 3000 years old, we're probably in the Sixth, which began around 4 B.C. When I go on tangents, I like to really go on them.)

I have a big problem with the doctrine of hell, but I don't think you can blame it on Aquinas and Dante. Jesus teaches it more than Paul, which I say because Paul is often portrayed as the guy who ruined the pristine beauty of Jesus's ethical teaching. But Jesus's ethical teaching, to some extent, is backed up by warnings about what happens to rich people when they die if they didn't care about the poor while they were alive. Paul is the one who throws out some universalist-sounding verses here and there.

Intelligent design? Hell, look at the quality of TV sitcoms, modern art, the spleen, what goes into sausage, and blogging. Do you see any intelligence or design there? Do you? Really?

Look, I was just kidding, just having a bit of a lark with some wacky designs for arch-angel Gabriel's surprise birthday party. You know, gryffins, manticores, centaurs, Ann Coulter. Things that shouldn't exist, ya know?

Then I got startled by a blast of trumpets from that bloody celestial choir, and out fell this "evolution" thing. What the hell was I supposed to do with that? "Just chuck it on Earth, the planet without shape or form", suggested Gabriel. "What's the worst that could happen?". The last time I listen to him.

So I moved over the face of the waters, and tucked evolution around the back, where I thought no one would see it. But bugger me if life didn't just spring up and allow evolution to do its thang.

So that's it. Neither thought, intelligence, nor design had much of a part in where your species is right now. I thought that would have been obvious, but I still had to send an angel to have a word in Darwin's ear just to get the ball rolling. And then you had to go and bring up this "intelligent design" malarky. I mean, look at the platypus, for my sake. You think I would have come up with that? Gimme a break.

Personally, I always thought Robin Williams' take on the platypus to be definitive.

"Do you think God gets stoned? Take a look at the platypus... I think you think he might." *mimes toking on a joint* "Hey Darwin! Yo. Here ya go! I'm gonna take a beaver, and put a duck's bill on it." *cackles stonily* "Then, I'm gonna give it webbed feet, and it's gonna live in water. Then *tokes again* it's gonna be a mammal, but it's gonna lay eggs! Muahahahaha! Hey, I'm God, what're you gonna do, eh?"

Well, now that God has spoken ...

Donald, Jesus does mention hell, but he doesn't go into much detail, certainly not the loving detail that Joyce riffs on in part IV of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Christians are more or less stuck with the existence of hell, but its nature & purpose are up for grabs interpretively, & you can tell a lot about some "Christians" by the interpretive choices they make. (Not to criticize those who simply don't know better & have confused the cultural accretions with what the New Testament actually says. Heck, I sometimes can't remember what's in Exodus and what's in that DeMille movie.)

The Bible's not too forthcoming on Heaven, either, SFAIK. Is Heaven an eternity of sitting on a cloud, playing a harp, and looking at the Naked Face of God? 'Scuse me, but that's just plain boring. No wonder the angels wanted to bug out every once in a while and play around with mortals.

Mormons take a heroic stab at imagining a Heaven where you actually get to *do* something, though the idea that the best one can hope for is being a godlet in a universe where you have to do everything the same way Jehovah also strikes me as tedious. Didn't anyone in the Celestial Spheres ever read 'What Color is Your Parachute'?

Well ... for starters, ID should not be mandated. If some science teacher finds it useful to teach it as a foil, fine, but the reasons should be pedagogical, not political.

I think the argument from design made perfect sense until Darwin. Imagine that we didn't have the theory of natural selection, and therefore that the alternative to 'someone made the world' was something like: 'flotsam and jetsam drifting around in space clumped together, and by coincidence formed the earth and its inhabitants'. Or let's confine our attentions to us: not just one but two human beings had to be formed by a chance agglomeration of stuff. One had to be male and one female who could actually reproduce, and they had to (as it were) coagulate during one another's lifespans. Oh, and this had to happen on a world with air their formed-by-chance lungs were equipped to breathe, water they could drink, food... And by chance again, we got to have eyes sensitive to the right wavelengths, legs to move about, hands with opposable thumbs -- for all the world as though we had been made on purpose. If we had come together through chance, it would have been just luck that our intestinal tracts didn't just end in a cul de sac, or that we weren't set up to crave jumping off cliffs instead of food, or whatever. I mean, it's too implausible.

Sometimes, when I explain this in class, I say: suppose I had a basement into which I throw stuff when I don't need it, and I go down one day and find that the stuff I've thrown in has formed a smiley face. That would be odd, but it could happen. Now suppose I go into my basement and find that the stuff has formed not a smiley face, but a supercomputer which contains the entire contents of the library of Congress, all my diaries, and it's just in the process of balancing my checkbook. It's (let's suppose) possible in principle that this should happen by chance, but you'd still assume that some person was responsible. Darwin took what looked like the supercomputer scenario and explained how it was just the smiley face scenario. (In terms of probability.)

As far as hell goes, I always liked (again) CS Lewis' view: namely that you spend your life making yourself into one sort of person or another, and if the sort of person you end up as is (for instance) eaten up by vanity, then you will be in hell, whatever God does. (Especially since, if you always have to be the best at everything, you will be unable to tolerate God.) So hell exists, but God doesn't put you there as punishment; it's the necessary consequence of the person you are. That always made sense to me, and it makes for a much better view of God and His goodness.

Darwin took what looked like the supercomputer scenario and explained how it was just the smiley face scenario. (In terms of probability.)

Which reminds me... one thing I've never quite understood is how creationists or ID advocates get around the anthropic principle, since it would seem to me to demolish the probability argument against evolution.

Which version of the anthropic principle and which interpretation of it are you talking about, Josh?

I've sort of given up on any form of the argument from design, but I used to like the anthropic principle interpreted as an argument for God's existence. Freeman Dyson (not an orthodox believer in any religion) seems to make a case for a Designer at the end of his autobiography "Disturbing the Universe". He looked at the physical constants and decided Someone had fixed them to have those values.

I encountered a scientist at the usenet creation/evolution debate site some years ago who claimed that the anthropic principle was a point against God's existence. The argument (which he couched in Bayesian terms, but can be understood better in plain English) was that in a naturalistic universe (one without God), humans could only exist if the physical laws and physical constants allow it. In a supernatural universe (one with an omniscient God), He doesn't have to play by those rules. There are many more ways to make a chaotic universe than one that follows rules, and God could have chosen to make one of those and then supernaturally decreed that humans will exist in that environment. So the fact that we exist in an orderly universe with physical laws that actually allow for our existence is a point of evidence against God, not for Him.

I finally decided the argument is correct as far as it goes, but misses part of the point. If what we can see with the Hubble telescope is most of what exists and if life could only exist in one in a gazillion possible universes, then that fact still requires explanation, even if you grant that God didn't need to make an orderly universe to make us.

But the arguments are so confusing and convoluted that I decided it was probably beyond me to understand, and you can't really place much stock in an argument for the existence of God if you have to have faith that it exists. Personally I think the ontological argument must be valid (God's existence is, I assume, a logical necessity), but I don't know how to prove that, so I have faith that some form of the ontological argument is true. Which makes it sort of useless.

On hell, I go back and forth between C.S. Lewis's view as outlined by hilzoy, and George MacDonald's view, which is that Hell is actually Purgatory and everyone is saved in the end, though some might take a long time to cure. Lewis's view is more biblical, as best I can tell.

I suppose you could teach ID as a foil, but the ID/Creationist proponents would be totally apopleptic. They don't want to have their religious doctrines tested against scientific scrutiny, they want their religious doctrines to be given the halo of being in a science class. That's why 'teach the controversy' is the watchword even though there is no scientific controversy about whether evolution happened.

While I no longer believe that gods exist, I don't want to ask science teachers to be the ones who demonstrate that anti-evolution creationism is false. It's not their job to be teaching theology.

Which version of the anthropic principle and which interpretation of it are you talking about, Josh?

Sorry, should have been more specific... I had the weak anthropic principle in mind. Assume for the sake of argument that it's incredibly improbable that life could have arisen without a designer. Unless you're willing to state flat-out that it's *impossible*, that still leaves you with some situation in which it can occur. Since we're here arguing it, the possibility that we're the product of one of those situations can't be ruled out. (I.e., if things had worked out differently, if the universe had taken one of the more probable paths, the whole argument would be moot because we wouldn't be here to have it.)

(I.e., if things had worked out differently, if the universe had taken one of the more probable paths, the whole argument would be moot because we wouldn't be here to have it.)

Actually, it wouldn't be moot, because argument wouldn't exist.

Actually, it wouldn't be moot, because argument wouldn't exist.

Not necessarily -- some other sort of sentient being could have come into existence and developed the same concept.

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