Saturday, May 16, 2009

Battle of Clerics

I came across some notes of mine from May 2005 titled “A Battle of Clerics.” My new look then at the subject of intelligent design (ID) must have been occasioned by some uproar. Indeed, checking back, it appears that around that time began a case later known as Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al. in which the U.S. District Court held that teaching intelligent design in public school biology classes violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Intelligent design was held not to be science; the court also saw it as hopelessly entangled in a creationist belief.

I actually agreed with the U.S. District Court up to a point. I think that ID is a philosophical position—as is Darwinism. Neither is a “hard science.” Biology must remain, by its very nature, a soft or a “descriptive” science. The biological realm staunchly resists experimental approaches able to demonstrate how species may have been formed. The whole area is saturated with assumptions, hypotheses, theories, assertions, denials, and the rest—not one of which is capable of demonstration or falsification. A person may be persuaded of this or that, but the proofs are not compelling. We’re in the realm of natural philosophy here. Biology is no more a science than are cosmology, history, psychology, anthropology, or sociology. Science strictly construed is a term applicable, alas, only to physics and to chemistry. In the biological realm anatomy and medicine qualify up to a point, but even in medicine there are spooky areas that don’t fit the narrow gauge of experimental science (psychiatry, placebo effect, etc.).

What we see in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover is indeed a battle between clerics, thus between dogmatists. The matter cannot be resolved on merits. This is the sort of problem that E.F. Schumacher (A Guide for the Perplexed) labeled a “divergent” problem: the more you debate it, the greater the heat and the confusion. (“Convergent” problems, by contrast, produce solutions.) The matter therefore must be lifted to a higher level where another philosophical system, using its own definitions of value and its own transmission of holy writ, will decide who is right. Not in reality, to be sure, but in the social context that prevails.

The problem with ID, I think, is three-fold. First, it expends a lot of effort on showing something that is rather obvious to any open-minded observer. It is the teleological pattern that entirely soaks the biological realm. Purpose is present. You don’t need intricate researches to make it plain. I reached that conclusion very rapidly after studying biology for about three months in my adult years. I saw “technology” all over the place. I loved looking at the details of cells. It seemed to me self-evident—and if there was anything new there, it was that “As in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm.” Purpose is present.

Second, ID positions itself as science. This is in part visible in William A. Dembski’s work; Dembski relies heavily on mathematical approaches which, to me, are a clear indication of the clerical character of this battle in biology: modern science believes it offers irrefutable evidence when it offers it in the form of equations. And the public, which gets a real scare when it sees Greek letters and square-root symbols, is properly awed. Mind you, I have read Dembski—a lot of Dembski. Carefully. It’s not the work itself. It is its positioning and rhetorical uses that are the problem. The nature of biological evidence does not change just because we approach it with a transcendentalist assumption. What you see in biology is mechanism. That which is the real puzzle we can't access at all by any methodology that uses chemistry, dissection, equations, or fossils. The facts, as they appear to me, are that the life sciences must be approached by philosophical, transcendental means. They are inaccessible to science understood as a genuine explanatory methodology. Biology cannot be explained that way. Give me an equation for purpose…

Third, ID proponents take an adversarial position to conventional, neo-Darwinist approaches. This flows from the second error, the assumption that biology is a hard science where—if only the workers in the field were to use the right method—new answers would be possible. I don’t think so. At the same time, however, there is ample room for debating naturalism as an ideology. But that’s an entirely different enterprise. One doesn’t need the bacterial flagellum for that. Two thousand years worth of philosophical tooling is on hand and ready to be used in the usual way.

When clerics battle, don’t look for charm or inspiration. It’s the Pied Piper who attracts the children to follow him out of the city. The poets and the visionaries might lead us if inspiration strikes them. The clerics will just keep shouting—and nobody the wiser.

1 comment:

  1. A very nicely and clearly written explanation. The problem is the "up to a point" aspect of the argument that biology can not be fully studied by what we know as scientific methods. Those pesky boundary areas...