Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Two

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June 21, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Two

The first part of this series can be found here.

My blog about the importance of taking scientific consensus seriously generated some heated response from several directions, most noticeably over at Uncommon Descent, the Intelligent Design blog run by William Dembski. This is a critically important issue for the Intelligent Design community because its whole approach to origins requires that it set aside scientific consensus in favor of alternative views accepted by less than 1% of practicing biologists. ID requires that there be some criteria other than consensus for the evaluation of what constitutes “science.”

A variety of arguments are provided to support this, which I would like to examine over the next few months. I will start with the historical argument first.

Dembski writes: “If the history of science is any indicator, every scientific theory has faults and is eventually abandoned in favor of a better, more accurate theory. Why should we expect any different from evolutionary theory?”

I find it hard to understand what Dembski means by this. He speaks of every theory. If he had said some theories, he would OK. But every theory? Over two thousand years ago Greeks developed, to consider one example, a theory that the earth was round and not flat. Their reasoning was quite ingenious and included observations like the shape of the earth’s shadow on the moon during an eclipse, and the way a ship appeared to sink down as it sailed out to sea. This theory seems quite secure to me and unlikely to be abandoned. In fact this idea is now a simple fact, as photographed from space.

Two millennia after the enduring success of the round earth theory, Copernicus developed a theory that the earth was moving. To be sure, this overturned a theory that the earth was stationary, but are we really supposed to believe that the motion of the earth will be “eventually abandoned” in favor of a “more accurate theory”?

Let’s take a stroll through science and look at some of the central ideas: electrons and protons have equal and opposite charges while neutrons are uncharged; radio waves travel at the speed of light; the orbits of electrons are fixed to certain positions and cannot be anywhere in the atom; stars shine by fusing nuclei; the universe is expanding; disorder increases through time. These theories once seemed speculative and controversial but now they represent the consensus of the scientific community. Are we really being asked to believe they will one day be overturned?

The history of science does not suggest that theories are abandoned. Scientific progress occurs most commonly when theories are refined and extended. Physicists did not abandon Newton’s theory of optics in the 19th century--it was extended and refined with the discovery that visible light, radio waves and infrared radiation were all part of a continuous electromagnetic spectrum. Similarly, the “solar system” model of the atom was not abandoned when it was discovered that the nucleus had both protons and neutrons in it. And that nuclear model was not abandoned when it was discovered that protons and neutrons are composed of quarks.

So how about evolution? Is it reasonable to hold out hope that it will one day be abandoned? The situation with evolution is quite the reverse. Evolution has been around for over 150 years and remains within the broad outlines traced by Darwin in The Origin of Species. During that period it has become steadily stronger and more successful at explaining the natural world. When DNA was discovered, for example, it fit evolutionary theory exactly, confirming Darwin’s intuition about how natural selection had to work. And when the mapping of genomes of multiple species began a few years ago, the data confirmed the ancestral patterns that had been developed based on comparative anatomy and other approaches.

The consensus that exists now about evolution is close to 100% of research biologists. Comparative anatomists, geneticists, cell biologists, paleontologists, embryologists and every other sub-field of biology have all compared their data with each other and found that evolution ties it all together and makes it into a remarkably coherent system. This conclusion is so broad and based on so many different technical fields that I cannot imagine how a layperson could even begin to understand it well enough to decide that all these experts were wrong.

Thomas Cudworth, also on the Uncommon Descent blog, is appalled at my consensus argument, which he summarizes as “everyone should defer to the majority of evolutionary biologists simply because they are the certified experts.” Leaving aside the fact that “certified expert” is not a label in use in the scientific community, Cudworth is properly stating my position. A simpler way to put it would be like this, however: People who know a lot about a subject are more likely to be correct when they speak about it than people who know very little.

Is a challenge really being made to this statement? Are we really to believe that it is acceptable to put the conclusions of people who know very little ahead of those who know a lot? If I, a physicist who took my last biology class in 1975, decide to challenge Francis Collins on a question of genetics, should anyone listen to me, just because they like my “science” better? (Please don’t, if I go off the rails and do something like this.)

And why is this “everyman science” proposed only in the area of biology? Can we apply Cudworth’s argument to physics and astronomy? If I can find three trained astronomers who are absolutely certain that astrology is valid, does this mean we should consider setting aside the consensus view from tens of thousands of other astronomers who think the opposite? If I find three psychologists who believe the stories of alien abductions, does that idea become worthy of consideration? How about three historians who deny the Holocaust?

The sad truth of the matter is that the argument made against the validity of consensus in science is selectively applied only to evolution and only because the ID movement has no choice. Its confident predictions of a decade ago that evolution was tottering and would soon collapse have not come true. The consensus remains against ID and so the consensus must be wrong.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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Rich - #18370

June 22nd 2010

Karl A.:

Thanks for this reference.  I’ve heard of the book from a few others, as well.  Sounds like it’s closer to an explanation of the “how” than I’m ever going to get from population geneticists, who seem to me to prefer to deal in mathematical analyses of genomes rather than actual organic forms.


Chip - #18393

June 22nd 2010

Dr Gibberson,

Two brief comments, if I may. 

1) In your piece, you compare ID to astrology and alien abductions.  To anyone who has (or should have) given the likes of Behe a fair reading, this is preposterous.  Why do advocates of evolutionary theory consistently misrepresent the opposition with such transparently ridiculous straw men? 

2) You ask, “And why is this “everyman science” proposed only in the area of biology? Can we apply Cudworth’s argument to physics…?”  I think your answer lies in the fact that physicists don’t consistently rely on the argument from authority (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_authority) when attempting to support their ideas.

In the end, it is the consistent drumbeat of this quality of argumentation from your side of the aisle that renews, rather than quells, my skepticism toward the orthodox position. 

$.02,

Chp


unapologetic catholic - #18405

June 22nd 2010

From today’s Evolution news and Views:’

“Now that you understand a bit about the universal probability bound, read the book to further see why material causes could not produce life’s complexity unless the available probabilistic resources vastly exceeded this bound.”

Material causes could not produce ==  supernatural intervention required.

Chip, you must not talk to a lot of physicsts.  If you challenge a physicist with the everyman approach, that phycisist will ask you “exactly” how much mathematics you have.  Unless you demonstrate competence in differential calc, multivariable calc, vectors, advanced probablilty and NCG, you will have to rely on authority. You won’t even be able to formulate an intelligent question.

Physicists rely on authority every day, as do physicians, engineers airline pilots and plumbers.  Why is this a problem?  Chip makes a frequent but fundamental misunderstanding of the argument from authority fallacy.  The fallacy’s full name is “Argument from inappropriate authority.”
“Bozo the clown says evolution is wrong, therefore evolution is wrong.”  That’s an example of the fallacy.

Reliance on experts is not the same as an argument from inappropriate authority.


Rich - #18408

June 22nd 2010

U.C.:

You left the context out of the Evolution News and Views article:

“ID proponents have responded by noting that we should not *assume* that the material causes have the ability to produce life. Instead, we should treat that hypothesis scientifically and test it.”

And the point of the article is that a scientific argument has been made to suggest that the universe does not have enough probablistic resources to do certain things that have been claimed for it.  One can dispute the conclusion, but it was arrived at via empirical and mathematical reasoning, not divine revelation. 

I don’t see the phrase “supernatural intervention” mentioned in the article.

As for your point to Chip, the physicist *would* be wrong to ask how much math someone has, *unless the math is directly relevant to the point at hand*.  If you argue A, and I argue not-A, and you say “I have more math than you, and therefore I’m right”, that’s an argument from sheer authority.  If you can disprove not-A mathematically, that’s another matter, but just having more math, or more degrees, or more prestige, counts for nothing in an argument.


Rich - #18410

June 22nd 2010

Mike Gene:

Thanks for your great points above.  Dr. Giberson should engage seriously with them, but based on the fact that his above column doesn’t seriously engage with the large issues raised previously by myself or gingoro, I wouldn’t hold your breath.


Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa - #18419

June 22nd 2010

There are two sorts of disagreements I have with this article.  One minor, which is that the “solar system” model of the atom, may not have been totally “debunked”, but it changed considerably, since you can imagine electrons, not orbiting around the nucleus, but forming a cloud of probabilities in each energy level.

The other one concerns the use of paradigms.  When there is a paradigm shift, sometimes theories shift along with it.  For instance, the Aristotelian paradigm offered one view of gravity, while Newtonian physics offered another, and yet even the general relativistic view of gravity made further changes.  These are not “refinements” of earlier theories, but rather a complete change of the conceptions of these theories.

I do agree with Giberson regarding the rest of the article.  I think the Neo-Darwinian view of evolution is stronger than ever, and I wouldn’t bet on it being refuted any time soon.  I have seen nothing in ID that can offer anything to science.


unapologetic catholic - #18435

June 22nd 2010

Alright then,


“Now that you understand a bit about the universal probability bound, read the book to further see why material causes could not produce life’s complexity unless the available probabilistic resources vastly exceeded this bound.”

The opposite of “material causes” is “Immaterial causes.”  Can any ID proponent identify a single immaterial cause that has ever been observed?


Mike Gene - #18443

June 22nd 2010

Hi Rich,

Thanks for your great points above.  Dr. Giberson should engage seriously with them, but based on the fact that his above column doesn’t seriously engage with the large issues raised previously by myself or gingoro, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Well, I can note that 100+ comments later, it doesn’t look like anyone can answer these basic questions born of critical thinking.  Ignoring questions won’t make them go away.


Mike Gene - #18444

June 22nd 2010

Hi Pedro,

You assert, “I think the Neo-Darwinian view of evolution is stronger than ever, and I wouldn’t bet on it being refuted any time soon. ”  The problem is that I found “Neo-Darwinian” means many different things to different people.  Are you saying the Modern Synthesis is stronger today than ever?


Rich - #18493

June 22nd 2010

U.C.:

An immaterial cause that has been observed?  Easy.

Intelligence.

Intelligence cannot be seen, heard, tasted, touched, or smelled.  Yet it’s real.  We see its consequences all around us. 

And another thing we know about intelligence:  it can regularly cause huge increases in complex specified information, which is exactly what we need (a) to create life from scratch; (b) to make major body plan changes in living creatures.

So if there exists some non-human, extra-human, or super-human intelligence, immanent or transcendent, it would be (along with suitable material adjuncts) an appropriate causal explanation for what we observe in nature.  And it wouldn’t even have to act through “intervention”; it might act indirectly, and wholly through natural causes, via a fine-tuning which pre-programs nature for life and evolution.

Of course, every Christian believes that an intelligence of the sort described exists.  The problem is that one subset of Christians refuses to entertain even the *possibility* of inferring the existence of this intelligence from its effects in nature.  It rules design inferences completely out of court, in the interest of preserving a certain theory and a certain theology.


unapologetic catholic - #18499

June 22nd 2010

Rich:

I do not agree that intelligence is “immaterial.”  All known (non-trivial) instances of sentient intelligence have only been observed in humans with fully functioning brains. No other known sources of intelligence have ever been demostrated to exist.  Intelligence is a manifestation of a working brain. It can be measured, improved and evaluated and is “material” as that word is commonly understood.  But put that aside for a moment.

Three questions, if you don’t mind:

1.  Do we know of any examples of non-human intelligence?

2.  Define “suitable material adjuncts.”

3.  How do we distinguish “designed evolution” from non-designed evolution?”  How are the two different?  What are the physical differnces between a designed biology and an undesigned biology.

“Of course, every Christian believes that an intelligence of the sort described exists.”

You’re right, but that’s not a scientific conclusion.

“The problem is that one subset of Christians refuses to entertain even the *possibility* of inferring the existence of this intelligence from its effects in nature.”

I would be delighted to unequivocally observe this intelligence’s effects in nature.  Can you indentify some of those effects for me?


katz - #18504

June 22nd 2010

IDers sound so much like Thomas Kuhn.  If all theories are inevitably going to be discarded eventually, why should we care about ID?  Presumably it’s just another theory that’s going to be discarded later.


Rich - #18505

June 22nd 2010

U.C.:

1.  That we don’t know of any examples of non-human intelligence does not prove that such intelligences do not exist.  It is possible that they are not directly observable, but can only be inferred from their products.

2.  Read Denton, *Nature’s Destiny*.

3.  Designed evolution would reveal a high degree of integrated complexity.  Non-designed evolution would produce fatality after fatality, and likely would never rise beyond the level of a one-celled creature (which begs the question of how the integrated complexity of the one-celled creature arose—cf. Meyer).

4.  The fact that Christians acknowledge the existence of such an intelligent being *as fact* (not as mere likely hypothesis) means that it would be irrational not to consider the existence of that being as a possible explanatory factor.  There is no reason to assume *a priori* that the methods of “science” narrowly defined can explain either the origin or the evolution of life.  There is no reason to assume that all causes can be uncovered by science.  The person who is interested in understanding *what actually happened* will consider all *rational* (not just all *scientific*) explanations.  Design is a rational explanation.

5.  The cell.


Rich - #18507

June 22nd 2010

katz:

The application of Kuhn that’s important here on Biologos, where the scientist-columnists (none of whom appear to have read Kuhn) worship the current paradigm, is to induce in the mind of the the more intelligent readers here the thought that paradigms can be overthrown, that the majority of specialists have often been embarrassingly wrong (a historical point conveniently left out in Dr. Giberson’s column above), that sometimes the untrained outsider (Darwin, for instance) has come up with important new perspectives, etc.  The notion of “science” that’s sold here is narrow, simplistic, and, to any trained philosopher, 20th-century positivistic and hopelessly dated.  Read Steve Fuller’s *Dissent over Descent* for a discussion of the historical, philosophical and sociological aspects of evolutionary theory far deeper than what’s presented here.


katz - #18528

June 23rd 2010

Rich:

It’s possible that you made a true statement in the above paragraph, but I couldn’t find any.  IDers are less convincing when they don’t appear to know what the scientific community is like.


Rich - #18533

June 23rd 2010

katz:

Perhaps you didn’t detect the true statements because you don’t have sufficient knowledge of the history and philosophy of science?  That wouldn’t be unusual around here.  Other than some remarks from Gregory, I haven’t yet seen a comment here on either the history or philosophy of science that rises even to the sophomore level.  And if I were to mention the names of Cassirer, Yates, De Santillana, Osler, Oakley, Hooykaas, Koyre, Burtt, Sambursky—I think that the vast majority of columnists and commenters here would not even recognize most of the names, let alone have read any books by these authors.  Yet not to have read these authors is to show one’s rank amateur status in the history and philosophy of science, and this renders one vulnerable to adopting a narrow and parochial view of science, such as the one championed on this site.


Brian in NZ - #18574

June 23rd 2010

Karl, you said - This theory seems quite secure to me and unlikely to be abandoned.

I didn’t know that the question of round or flat earth was still a theory. Why are you using examples of known facts (round earth, spinning earth) and calling them theories?

Seems to me like are using poor examples to support your claim. A theory should be open to correction and refinement until it is proven to be a fact. But you are suggesting that facts are still theories. Why are you doing this?


NS - #18622

June 23rd 2010

For those of you who are interested, Thomas Cudworth has put up a response to Karl over at Uncommon Descent. I tossed up a few of my own observations there, which I won’t bother repeating here.

I will ask this: Does Karl see fit to take to task Stephen Hawking for his recent ‘speaking outside of his field of expertise’ re: alien life? Hell, does Biologos intend to be anything more than an ongoing (and usually poorly-aimed) criticism of ID, and “darwinism” apologetic site?

As someone who accepts evolution, common descent, believes in God and Catholicism, who is skeptical of ID (or anti-ID) as being ‘scientific’, and who thinks the ID movement has made plenty of mistakes, I will say this: Give me the ID movement, and all its flaws, over Biologos any day. The whiff I get off this place is one of too many Christians desperately seeking praise and tolerance from atheists, academics and the generally Christian-hostile. And if that requires kissing up to third tier atheists like Ruse, trumpeting the need to let ‘the consensus of experts’ decide what they should believe, or spending more time criticizing fellow christians or religious than the untold numbers of atheists abusing science, so be it.

Wasted potential.


James - #18633

June 24th 2010

Brian in NZ,

You are extremely confused about basic scientific classification. Theories are not ‘unproven’ facts. Facts are not theories that have been ‘proven’ and promoted. They are both fundamentally different constructs in science. A fact is just a piece of data or an observation. A theory is a well-supported explanation for some phenomena that makes predictions and has explanatory power. I’d recommend you look through the National Academy of Sciences. I also like what Stephen Jay Gould had to say on this.

Also, there are still groups that reject what you refer to as ‘facts’ - http://www.geocentricity.com/


Unapologetic Catholic - #18812

June 24th 2010

“As someone who accepts evolution, common descent, believes in God and Catholicism, who is skeptical of ID (or anti-ID) as being ‘scientific’, and who thinks the ID movement has made plenty of mistakes”

Could you link to some of your posts at UD where you have actually argued in favor of evolution and common descent?  Uncommon Descent is well known for vaporizing comments that advocate common ancestry, evolution or common descent.  They will not publish any comment that does not accept the argument regarding design.  Their point is that the Darwinist Scientific Conspiracy squelches all creative thought—as they ban any posters who produce contrary evidence.

“Give me the ID movement, and all its flaws, over Biologos any day”

Does scientific accuracy enter into this process?


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