Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Beating a Dead Horse?

The book for the next book group meeting at my church down here in VA is The Right Questions: Truth, Meaning & Public Debate by Phillip E. Johnson. This is the same man who wrote Darwin On Trial and is, according to the Wikipedia article linked above, "considered the father of the Intelligent Design movement."

Our past books have been so intellectual and not at all at odds with scientific views of reality, so mainly I'm curious as to whether the guy who picked this book actually buys into Johnson's beliefs, or just wanted to present something controversial to the group. My experience so far is that people pick books they feel strongly about, and by strongly I mean "strongly agree with," and they pick them because (A) they think the book is so good that it will change other's minds if they don't feel the same way, and/or (B) they want to scope out how the other members feel about the issue without actually coming out and declaring "I believe X and I want to know if you believe the same." At least, that's how and why I picked my book (For the Time Being by Annie Dillard) , and thus far all the other books have reached conclusions that the people who picked them have agreed if this guy doesn't agree with the beliefs of Johnson, it will be the first time since I've been a member that someone has picked a book of which they didn't agree with the conclusions.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a class called "God, Evolution, and Culture," and since it was the first time the class was offered, it generated a lot of public (and private) discussion of the Creationism-versus-Evolution debate throughout the rest of my college years. It has also been in the news over the years (Dover, PA school board for example), and so I feel like I've read and thought about this topic about as much as any layperson can. I don't think that anyone other than the guy who picked this book might actually agree with the beliefs of its author, but I am nonetheless worried that I will not be able to keep a civil tongue in my head during the discussion because I feel so strongly that Intelligent Design is a crock of shit, and I don't want to either embarrass myself nor hurt this guy's feelings, because that wouldn't be nice, and it wouldn't be a very good thing to do at church. In my worry and frustration, I wrote the following thoughts, loosely written as though I am speaking to the book group:

I have to say, right at the beginning of this discussion, that I talked about this a LOT in college – first in a class I took my Sophomore year called “God, Evolution, and Culture” and over the next two years partly as a result of the discussion generated by the class I mentioned, as it was the first time this class was offered – and it seems to me that all debate about this topic is missing one vital point. That is, what are the hallmarks of a scientific theory, and why Evolution has it and “Intelligent Design” (ID), of which Phillip Johnson is a founder and proponent, does not.

The theory of Evolution makes no claims at being complete, or completely explaining everything, or being perfect; in fact, like all good scientific theories, it openly asks to be added to, challenged, and revised continuously. But the theory as it stands at any given moment has a major ability that ID does not have: the ability to make predictions and test those predictions
With a scientific theory such as Evolution, a scientist can say: “Based on such-and-such theory, I should find (blank) to be true of the natural world.” Using the scientific method, the scientist can then test his or her prediction. If the prediction is true, it strengthens the theory used to make the prediction and advances the body of scientific knowledge, as well as possibly leading to other helpful predictions/conclusions and adding applicability to abstract scientific theory. If the prediction is untrue, it leads the scientific community to revise the initial theory, or perhaps even to discard that theory altogether.
Example: The Big Bang theory led scientists to believe that the universe is expanding. That prediction was tested and proven. It further led to the prediction that the rate of expansion would be slowing; that prediction was tested and disproved. The fact that the expansion was indeed speeding up led to much speculation and reconsideration of the Big Bang theory, and in this case the theory wasn’t scrapped, but expanded to include the possible existence of “dark matter” exerting extra gravitational force, or an as-yet-unknown force, causing the universe to speed up in its expansion. This speculation in turn leads to ever deeper and more nuanced scientific inquiry.

ID or any other form of Creationism that tries to be an “alternative” to Evolution lacks the key abilities of a scientific theory mentioned above. It cannot lead to testable predictions about the universe. Anything that claims to be a prediction based on ID is actually a prediction based on the belief in that person’s (possibly misguided) understanding of a Christian God. Such predictions are not testable because they are by definition based on an un-provable belief. Thus ID offers no opportunity for advancing human understanding of the universe, but is only itself an attempt at “proving” a belief that is, again by definition, held without want or need of proof. [In other words, people who believe in a Christian God profess to need no proof, and further to defy any attempt at proof as sacrilegious or futile (at least, that is how I feel); and yet, the disbelief in Evolution in favor of ID can only be as a result of feeling their belief to be threatened and the feeling of needing to validate their belief.]

Phillip E Johnson is the founder of the pseudo-science known as “Intelligent Design” (ID). Since Johnson, in this book, is telling us to “ask the right questions” and to be open-minded, I think it is disingenuous of him to not clearly state his assumptions. The reasons debates such as this one are often so deeply frustrating and unfruitful is because the two parties are starting from vastly different (and possibly irreconcilable) foundational assumptions, but these assumptions are never addressed; thus the parties are always talking past each other, never actually answering or even addressing the issues that the other side is actually referring to.
I believe this is the case with Johnson’s books: he is not detailing his foundational assumptions, and neither does he have any understanding of his intended targets’ assumptions. He writes as though I know and understand his assumptions, and as though he understands (but disagrees with) mine; but in reality, I disagree with his assumptions, and he constantly and consistently misrepresents, misstates, and deeply misunderstands my assumptions. Thus his arguments are of no effect against my current stance, and all he has achieved is to add yet another huge black mark on the face of misguided “Christian Science,” again widening the ever-deepening gap in the ever-more-important dialogue between Science and Religion.

I would also mention that Johnson is a lawyer, whose job it is to tell half-truths in order to lead a jury to the conclusions most favorable for his client. In this case, his “client” is his own beliefs. A lawyer often knows very well that he is leaving out vital facts, but because of his training and because of the way our judicial system works, it seems to me that the general feeling of law practice is “the ends justify the means”; in other words, he is aiming for a conclusion, which he believes to be the correct one; he doesn’t care how you get to this conclusion as long as you DO get there, so he will use any means necessary to lead you there, even if it is by a path he doesn’t particularly care for himself.
I am quite possibly doing what I before accused Johnson of doing, namely misrepresenting his foundation assumptions. That’s why I leave this as a footnote, as another possible explanation for the vehemence with which I disagree with him. I find my earlier explanations much more probable and complete.
That said, the positive side of this argument is that it gives him the benefit of the doubt: he sincerely holds a belief in the conclusions of his book, and he is not intentionally lying, but only acting as he has been taught to act to achieve the results he dearly longs to achieve. I am here indicting his method, but not his honesty.
This is not to say that Scientists in general and Evolutionists in particular are not sometimes guilty of the same misleading tactics as I am here accusing Johnson of, and the practice is certainly equally reprehensible on both sides. The debate will never move forward until it is taken up by moderate and reasonable parties on both sides, those willing to truly discuss the issues
clearly and with open minds. This, as far as I can tell, has not yet happened.

As much as I dread reading this book, I am going to read it, keeping in mind the goal of having much more credence when I argue against having absorbed all of its misguided material.

I feel like I'm beating a dead horse, and yet this is still a major issue in America today. This, quite frankly, scares me more than just about anything else with regard to the future of the human race, because it's the same kind of thing that leads to terrorism.

What do you think? Do you have anything to add, or anything to disagree with? I would really love to hear other opinions and thoughts in this forum, where I feel like I can speak more clearly and freely than I can at, say, church book group...but if no one responds, then I'm just talking to a wall, and I'm therefore just as one-sided and useless as the people who write dumb books like Phillip E. Johnson's.

1 comment:

  1. So I'm late to the party here, but I am in total agreement of your comments. It's unnerving to think what schools will be teaching by the time I have children old enought to go. I certainly don't want them learning ID; and that's not to say I don't like ID because it's religious in nature, but for the reasons you spelled out here...there is no way to scientifically prove ID. I refuse to send my kids to a school that spouts *opinions* or *beliefs* on how the world became what it is today. I want them to learn the *facts* as tested by subject matter experts who do that sort of thing for a living. Would you pay to have surgery from some schmoe who *believes* he knows how to perform a triple bypass or from a licensed surgeon?