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Science and the Question of God, Part 3

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October 7, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Randy Isaac. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Science and the Question of God, Part 3

Today’s blog is the third entry in a five-part series, which has been adapted from a new Scholarly Article found here. All references have been removed for the blog series but can be found in the full paper. In his previous entry, Randy Isaac outlined the rise of Creationism in the United States and the response of mainstream scientists. Today, Isaac introduces Intelligent Design and points out some flaws with Stephen Meyer’s argument from information.

Intelligent Design

The detection of the trademark of a designer has been a major theme in natural philosophy for centuries. Many people accepted William Paley’s early nineteenth century concept of detecting the divine designer until Darwin published his theory. Design lost favor until it was revived in the late 1980s and 1990s when it blossomed into a widely publicized movement known as Intelligent Design (ID). The essential principle of ID is that there are patterns in nature that are best explained by the action of an indeterminate intelligent designer.

A specific case of that argument is made by Stephen Meyer as an argument from information. He points out that DNA in a living cell operates as the source of information for the production and operation of all proteins and other functioning biomolecules in that cell. By studying other sources of information like computer code, he concludes that information can only be generated by intelligent agents. Hence, he concludes that there must have been some intelligent agent that generated that information. That agent is indeterminate but he reasons that it is logical to think of that agent as God, the Creator. The ID argument therefore only makes a weak claim for answering the question of God. Nevertheless, it makes the claim that there are scientific inferences for the existence of some agent outside of our normal scientific purview.

Responses to Intelligent Design

The ID argument has moved rapidly into the Christian community, appealing to a number of disparate groups. Young-earth creationists eagerly adopt the ID argument because they see it as a powerful addition to their arsenal of apologetics. Old-earth creationists are uncomfortable with flood geology and a claim of a young age of the earth. For them, ID is a most attractive alternative to young-earth creationism that still provides the apologetic base. Some scientists who are uncomfortable with the randomness and purposeless nature of evolution also embrace ID as a means of restoring meaning in life, independent from the theological implications.

Why hasn’t the mainstream scientific community embraced ID’s line of reasoning? The ID community claims the fundamental reason is an unwillingness to allow consideration of the existence of an indeterminate intelligent being, especially that which could indicate a deity. Why then do many Christians in science also reject ID? The ID community claims it may be because they desire the approval and support of their non-Christian colleagues in order to gain funding, publications, and perhaps tenure. The scientific community has a different answer, including Christians who firmly believe that all that exists was created by an Intelligent Designer. For them, the ID argument simply is not scientifically valid and has no logically coherent basis.

Importantly, the scientific community does embrace the concept of design detection. It is a common practice in many fields of science. However, the use of design to argue for the existence of an otherwise undetectable intelligent being is a very different matter. Stephen Meyer himself points out that historical causal analysis requires the demonstration of causal existence and causal adequacy before one can confidently assert the historical reality of that causal agent.

In the case of an indeterminate intelligent agent being postulated as a cause for the origin of life, Meyer pleads an exception to the requirement for causal existence on the basis of causal uniqueness. But he fails to establish uniqueness, in part because uniqueness still requires independent evidence of existence before it can be a legitimate causal agent. Furthermore, he has not convincingly ruled out evolutionary causes. Evolutionary processes can easily be observed to increase, decrease, or modify DNA and epigenetic information in living cells. This occurs in different ways in the development of every organism, in the reproduction process of every species, and in specific biological processes such as antibody formation.

Though humans have developed the capability of some degree of genetic engineering, the dominant mode of information change that we observe in living cells is either through development from embryo to adult or through reproduction and selection. Thus an intelligent agent is not causally unique as an agent of information change in living cells even if it were to exist.

Information and Intelligent Design

As for causal adequacy, Meyer asserts that since we know human intelligent agents are necessary to generate information in examples like computer code, therefore an intelligent agent must be able to generate the DNA information in a living cell. However, the small amount of genetic engineering that humans have accomplished is not easily extended to the generation of life from non-life. In addition to intelligence, skillful techniques of biotechnology, which have not existed in the past, are required to modify any DNA information. While it remains to be shown whether there are natural processes adequate for generating life from non-life (akin to those shown to be adequate for increasing, decreasing, or modifying DNA information), such a possibility cannot be ruled out.

In his argument, Meyer relies on the “identicality” of the nature of information in computer code with that in living cells. He reasons that since an intelligent agent is required to generate computer code, therefore such an agent is required to generate the information in living cells. However, he fails to acknowledge the significant differences between those two types of information. The significance and meaning of computer code depends on the abstract, or symbolic, significance attributed to physical states of the computer by an intelligent agent. In sharp contrast, the significant functionality of the information of a living cell depends on physical survival and not on abstract significance. Hence, the information in a living cell can be selected for functionality by physical processes without an intelligent agent whereas computer code cannot.

Though we live in an information age, the concept of information is often misunderstood. In my next post, I’ll outline three different uses of the term and continue my critique of Stephen Meyer’s argument from information.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of the American Scientific Affiliation.

The next entry in Randy Isaac’s series can be found here.


Randy Isaac is a solid-state physics research scientist and executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), where he has been a member since 1976 and a fellow since 1996. Isaac received his bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in Illinois and his doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined IBM to work at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in 1977 and most recently served as the vice-president of systems technology and science for the company.

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R Hampton - #35219

October 18th 2010

Rich,
Yes, the Discovery Institute doesn’t was ID required, but they want it taught just the same.

No I don’t support this policy, as presented by ID proponents, because their statistical analysis on the “improbability” of random genetic mutations is deeply flawed. I do not want bad Information Theory taught as a pretext to teach Intelligent Design. Given that ID proponents do not make a strong case of multiple designers, I’m even less inclined to give their motives the benefit of doubt. Between bad statistics and theological motivations, there is no valid reason to believe “SCIENTIFIC PROS AND CONS OF NEODARWINISM” is anything other than a political agenda as described in the Wedge Document.

Finally, there is no prohibition to teaching “the public” outside the public school system. Thus there is no need to appeal to teach the controversy.


R Hampton - #35220

October 18th 2010

(8/17/10) Discovery Institute believes that a curriculum that aims to provide students with an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories (rather than teaching an alternative theory, such as intelligent design) represents a common ground approach that all reasonable citizens can agree on…

Texas’s science standards require that students “analyze, evaluate and critique scientific explanations … Texas also requires students to “analyze and evaluate” core evolutionary claims including “common ancestry,” “natural selection,” “mutation,” and the formation of “long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.”

NOTE: the requirement’s are classic ID arguments

Although DI does not advocate requiring the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, it does believe there is nothing unconstitutional about voluntarily discussing the scientific theory of design in the classroom. In addition, DI opposes efforts to persecute individual teachers who may wish to discuss the scientific debate over design in an objective and pedagogically appropriate manner.


Rich - #35225

October 18th 2010

R Hampton:

Apparently you think that “scientific criticism of neo-Darwinian theory” would consist of readings from Discovery Institute authors.  That doesn’t follow at all.  First of all, state education authorities would be authorizing the textbooks, and they are going to be advised by Ph.D.s in the sciences who would be preponderately neo-Darwinist, and almost none of whom would have the slightest sympathy with Discovery.  So what criticisms would the students get?  Likely the criticisms of Margulis, Newman, Kaufmann, Denton, Conway Morris, and other non-Discovery people who have criticized aspects of neo-Darwinism.  Hardly dangerous from the point of view of religious indoctrination, since most of these people are atheists or agnostics, and in any case, the textbooks would be mandated to discuss only the science.  So who would be opposed to having students heard about Newman and Kaufmann?  Obviously, doctrinaire neo-Darwinists like Miller, Dawkins, Scott, and some of the dogmatic people who post comments here.  But who cares if these people are offended because the neo-Darwinian biology they were taught in the 1960s or 1970s is criticized?  I don’t.


Rich - #35229

October 18th 2010

R Hampton (35220):

No one would object to anything in the first two paragraphs unless they were Darwinian dogmatists.

Students should be taught (at appropriate level of difficulty, of course) strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories generally, not just evolution; it’s good pedagogy.  Same goes for historical theories, economic theories, etc.  Students don’t learn how to think if the teacher just says:  “This is the consensus of most scientists.  Memorize it.”  They learn how to think by learning how scientists reason things out, how they come up with theories and debate them and refute them.  Strengths and weaknesses is an excellent principle. 

There’s nothing wrong with analyzing and evaluating anything on the list of terms given.  They’re all crucial to understanding the material.

Outside of the Dover judicial district, there *is* nothing unconstitutional about voluntarily discussing design in the classroom.  In fact, you can’t explain Darwin without explaining that he was reacting to Paley’s version of ID, so some mention of “design” is pedagogically necessary to historically contextualize Darwin, just as mentioning Aristotle is necessary to contextualize Newton.


R Hampton - #35236

October 18th 2010

Rich,

In the Science classroom, teachers can not voluntarily discuss alternative theories if they are not approved by the state and/or school district. However, as we’ve seen with both the Missouri and Texas boards of Education (the the Dover School District), they become highly politicized with candidates expressly in favor of teaching “Intelligent Design” as a requirement.

Up for re-election in November, Ken Mercer explained his motivations in an op-ed from December 14, 2008 (http://www.mysanantonio.com/opinion/commentary/36146419.html?c=y&page=1#storytop)

Is evolution a fact? Most people of faith agree with what is commonly referred to as “micro” evolution,” small changes that are clearly visible. We see this in new vaccines and new strains of flu. You can witness evidence of microevolution downtown in any city via the thousands of varieties of stray dogs and cats. The controversial “macro” evolution was commonly understood as those major changes that could occur if one species jumped to another. For example, have you ever seen a dog-cat, or a cat-rat? The most famous example of macroevolution is the Darwinian “man from an ancestral primate.”


Rich - #35258

October 18th 2010

R Hampton:

Why do you quote me the words of a fundamentalist dolt?  I don’t agree with him.  But such a person won’t be writing science curriculum.  Trustees don’t write curricula; they give general directions, and the Ph.D.s write it.  No one with a Ph.D. in biology would write rubbish like that in a science textbook, and even if there were one such person, most science textbooks are collaborations by several authors, so the sane authors could overrule the nut case, and there are editors and publishers above them for further damage control. 

All that would be necessary to satisfy the Discovery Institute policy would be some coverage of the criticisms of neo-Darwinian theory *published in the peer—reviewed science literature*.  If Eugenie Scott is right, and there is no such criticism (she is always saying, “there is no controversy”) then what is she worried about?  The textbook writers could then say to the trustees:  “We tried to find some criticisms in the literature, but there weren’t any.”  End of story.  So why does Eugenie object to the policy, unless she knows there *is* professional criticism of ND evolution, and doesn’t want students to hear it?


R Hampton - #35285

October 18th 2010

Why do you quote me the words of a fundamentalist dolt?

Because those “dolts” like Ken Mercer (TX-SBOE) do in fact write the Science standards. Yes Ph.D.s write recommendations, but SBOE members are free to add, remove, and/or change the wording however they see fit. Hence the politics of Intelligent Design as it actually used (“manipulated” wink-wink) in public education. In other areas of study, the same folk can not hide behind the “teach the controversy” banner, thus exposing their true motives:

(CBS/AP 9/23/10) Don McLeroy, who is serving the final months of his term after also losing in the GOP primary, said he believes even current textbooks still reflect an anti-Christian bias.

“The biggest problem I saw was their overreach not to be ‘ethnocentric,”’ McLeroy said of an AP world history book approved in 2003 and still in use. “It’s a very, very, very, very biased book. Christianity didn’t even make it in the table of contents.”

McLeroy is one of the most outspoken of a group of board members who have pushed several conservative requirements for social study textbooks used in Texas, including that teachers cover the Judeo-Christian influences of the nation’s Founding Fathers.


R Hampton - #35286

October 18th 2010

RE: Don McLeroy

McLeroy is point man in fight over Texas’ science curriculum
Austin American-Statesman, March 8, 2009

...McLeroy’s amendments included adding a requirement that students analyze and evaluate the insufficiencies of the theory of common ancestry to explain gaps in the fossil record. He has succeeded in rewriting the state’s definition of science as it pertains to teaching to require “testable explanations” of nature. McLeroy said the change should allow the questioning of all scientific explanations and opens the door to the possibility that the universe was created by God. But he wants more. McLeroy says he intends to pitch another idea that he says should be taught in public schools: the insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of cells…


Rich - #35316

October 19th 2010

R Hampton:

I have no doubt that many of the people who challenge evolution in the schools are misguided.  And if you cherry-pick, you can find examples of elected school board officials who are extremists and want to use school boards to promote a particular religion.  But if you take the broader picture across the nation, not just two or three states, you will find that there have been many proposals to amend science curricula, some of them quite moderate.  In fact, one, about a year or so ago, I can’t remember where, passed, to the chagrin of Eugenie Scott who fought it all the way, and after it passed even the American Civil Liberties Association (which opposed the Dover school board initiative) said that there was nothing unconstitutional about it.  It specified—no religious contents; no intelligent design; critical appraisal of Darwinian evolution and of scientific theories generally.  But the NCSE doesn’t like the sheer impudence of anyone who would dare to challenge even a phrase from the sacred tomes of evolutionary biology.  The moderate part of the public simply is not with the Darwinists on this.  They want a reasonable compromise to end the wrangles.  But Eugenie and the fundies keep the fight alive.


Rich - #35320

October 19th 2010

R Hampton:

On McLeroy’s statements:  I’ve read some of them in news reports over the past year or so.  Some of them I agree with, some not.  As for the statements about teaching history,  I don’t know all the details about the history curriculum in question, and without being on the ground I can’t make a safe generalization, but I do know a great deal of history, so I’ll make these points:

You can’t teach a balanced course on world history without devoting significant time to the influence of Christianity on the course of events.  Whether or not Christianity makes it into the table of contents is less important than whether or not it occupies a substantive part of the course; however, it is likely that if it isn’t in the table of contents, some politically correct tampering was done, and it probably is under-discussed in the text as well.

If you are teaching early American history, you cannot teach it properly without discussion of the various religious groups which came to America and of the questions the Founders wrestled with regarding the public status of Christianity.  To pretend that none of the Founders were Christian, to retroject a modern secular humanism upon them, is historically dishonest.


R Hampton - #35376

October 19th 2010

Rich,
The more you learn about Don McLeroy, Ken Mercer, and Cynthia Dunbar, and what they did/tried to do in Texas, the less you will think their efforts are benignly secular. Nor is the situation in Texas an exception. For example, the Livingston Parish School Board wants to teach “creationism” within the science curriculum—made possible by the The Louisiana Science Education Act (2008) “adapted from sample legislation developed by Discovery Institute” (http://www.discovery.org/a/5711)

As we’ve seen with the Dover trial, real people - not scientists - are the ones who enact pro “Intelligent Design” science standards. Either through ignorance, zealousness, or outright deviousness, their version of ID is not the clinically exacting, politically correct definition offered by Michael Behe. These laymen do not want to inform the students of multiple and/or alien designers or of intelligent design that can be manifested by purely natural means. For them, ID is a Trojan Horse in which to introduce a monotheistic supernatural creator as “science”.


Gregory - #35380

October 19th 2010

R Hampton,

Without wanting to go into detail, that’s what comes with the power of local school boards in the USA. You give them power, you have to deal with the consequences. Some schools undoubtedly *will* teach pseudo-science & even pseudo-religion. For us non-Americans, it isn’t worth getting excited about because there’s not much that can be done except for a fundamental structural change in the educational system.

“real people - not scientists - are the ones who enact pro “Intelligent Design” science standards” - R Hampton

Yes, this is *exactly* what S. Fuller has predicted with his concept of ‘Protscience’ (see his book “Science.” Durham: Acumen, 2010 - especially chapter 4 - “We are all scientists now”).

What a group like BioLogos can do, that it hasn’t yet seemed to realize is *VERY* important, is to teach the *limits* of evolution, as both science AND as ideology, along with teaching that it’s o.k. to be a evangelical/Christian & to ‘believe in/accept’ the biological theory of evolution, an ‘old’ Earth, etc.

Once people realize the slope to ethical anarchy & atheism is not as slippery as fundamentalist anti-biological evolutionists imagine it to be, you’ll see a change in the matrix.


Rich - #35388

October 19th 2010

R Hampton:

According to the very article you cite:

“The bill expressly states that it shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine.”

So whatever the Livingston Parish School Board “wants” is irrelevant.  The State can put the kibosh on it.  Such a move is therefore *not* made possible either by the Act or by Discovery’s advice.

The Act also allows the State to veto inappropriate supplementary material, another safeguard against attempts to introduce creationism.

Dover is *not* an example of a change in Statewide sciences standards.  It was a rogue school board acting on its own, and without expert consultation, which is quite different from the case where a State revises its science standards after lengthy consultations with the public and hearing experts etc.

Your complaint is misplaced, because it’s directed against fundamentalists who want to hijack a good idea—the detached critique of scientific theories—for their own religious purposes.  I agree that all such attempts should be denounced.  The right policies can easily prevent this.  Louisiana has the right policy; it just needs to enforce it.


Rich - #35413

October 19th 2010

R Hampton:

I’d like to re-word the last paragraph:

“Your complaint is misfocused, because it’s directed against a perfectly valid science education policy, when the cause of the problem is not the policy itself, but fundamentalists who want to hijack a good idea—the detached critique of scientific theories—for their own religious purposes.  I agree that all such attempts should be denounced, and blocked.  But Louisiana has the right policy; it just needs to enforce it, by applying the provisions of the policy that were written expressly for the purpose of preventing fundamentalist hijacking.”


R Hampton - #35415

October 19th 2010

Rich,

You’ll have to forgive me. I sincerely doubt that states LA have any intention of actively enforcing the supposedly secular aims of the Bill. Hopefully groups like ACLU and the NCSE will provide effective policing for every school district in LA, TX, etc.—but that’s assuming a lot.


Rich - #35445

October 20th 2010

R Hampton:

Time will tell.  The ACLU watchdog there said the law would work if enforced as written.  And apparently that school board you mentioned has already backed off—at least for the time being—from its proposal, after being advised by its lawyer that its proposed policy would result in a lawsuit and a courtroom loss.

At the worst, some school board will try to pull something; its voters will be divided over the gamble; they will be sued in court, lose the case, and have to pay out millions in court costs; the voters will turn against the board and pitch out its creationist members in the next election (as happened at Dover).  And no one in Lousiana will try it again. 

In any case, if we make it a principle that we should never pass a law which is otherwise good merely because it might be abused, there are a whole lot of good laws that we could never pass.  The answer to any abuse is to punish lawbreakers with the full force of the law.  I was quite glad to see the Dover school board trustees humiliated in the courtroom, and their lies exposed.  I want to see the schools purged of creationism, so that everyone can see what a weak theory neo-Darwinism when judged by the standards of science alone.


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