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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

There Ought to Be a Law

...against book reviews where the reviewer doesn't include a single quote from the book, and against movie reviews where the reviewer admits he hasn't even seen the film.

Like John Derbyshire, I too haven't seen Ben Stein's Expelled--and that's why I'm not going to tell you whether it's good or bad. (Sounds reasonable, eh?) Just take a look at this thing. Now pretend for the moment that life on Earth really didn't originate out of "blind" forces. Yes, that could mean God did it from scratch, or it could mean that the Dawkins account happened on some other world, and then those beings seeded Earth with a cell they designed.

OK but the point is, just imagine for a moment that the people--the ones with the PhDs in biology and chemistry, yes they exist--who are questioning the orthodox views are right. In that mindset, Derbyshire's article is simply breathtaking. He repeatedly voices his outrage over the "sneering, slanderous" attacks of the Discovery Institute, in the same article where he himself openly calls them liars and fools. (You can say, "But they are!" and that's fine, but then the Discovery Institute people would say the same thing about their observations. An attack is an attack, whether or not it is correct.)

Anyway lest I be accused of the same sin of omission, here's a juicy excerpt from the defender of reasoned inquiry:

So what’s going on here with this stupid Expelled movie? No, I haven’t seen the dang thing. I’ve been reading about it steadily for weeks now though, both pro (including the pieces by David Klinghoffer and Dave Berg on National Review Online) and con, and I can’t believe it would yield up many surprises on an actual viewing. It’s pretty plain that the thing is creationist porn, propaganda for ignorance and obscurantism. How could a guy like this [Ben Stein] do a thing like that?

Later on:

And now here is Ben Stein, sneering and scoffing at Darwin, a man who spent decades observing and pondering the natural world — that world Stein glimpses through the window of his automobile now and then, when he’s not chattering into his cell phone. Stein claims to be doing it in the name of an alternative theory of the origin of species: Yet no such alternative theory has ever been presented, nor is one presented in the movie, nor even hinted at. There is only a gaggle of fools and fraudsters, gaping and pointing like Apaches on seeing their first locomotive: “Look! It moves! There must be a ghost inside making it move!”

The "alternative theory" is that these items were designed; hence the name, "Intelligent Design." Of course that doesn't count for Derbyshire; that's not a "scientific" explanation. OK but what if it's true? (Again, don't forget the possibility of aliens. This isn't merely Bible thumping.) And I'm going to go out on a limb--again, I haven't seen the movie either--and guess that Ben Stein and some of the people he interviews in the movie actually look at the natural world, just like Darwin.

Oh, one other thing: Derbyshire literally says that science itself was invented in northwest Europe in the late 17th century. (I went back and re-read it, since I didn't believe it myself when I just typed that.) How do you feel about that statement, Gene?

12 comments:

  1. Bob, you make a great point that I was just thinking about. Isn't this whole "scientific" thing a bit of a red herring? Isn't the real point to figure out what is true whether the truth is labeled "metaphysical", "scientific" or some mixture of the two?

    Maybe this is wrong, maybe condemning intelligent design as "unscientific" is really saying something about its truth value rather than just ruling it out of court on a technicality. If so, I would love to hear someone unpack "unscientific".

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  2. Stephen, I completely agree. And I'm a quasi-non-theist who thinks ID is dumb.

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  3. Stephen,

    Yeah it's been driving me nuts. I totally understand where the orthodox biologists are coming from. Believe me, I used to be a hardcore atheist (who read up on this stuff), and I went to / taught at Hillsdale College, where there were plenty of homeschooled Bible beaters spouting off on how the laws of thermodynamics prove that Darwin was wrong. (No they don't.)

    But this idea that it is unscientific to hypothesize that cells must have been designed...man oh man. What's funny is that I saw an excerpt from the movie Expelled where one of the "enemies" said that as a jab at Ben Stein. (I.e. "yeah maybe they were designed, but that doesn't prove God you dolt!!") I don't know what Stein said in response, but I hope he said, "Aha! So ID is scientific after all!"

    Anyway Stephen, what these people mean is that all science can do is look at the evidence and nature and draw conclusions from what's there. It is unscientific to then ponder about the "ultimate" reasons for these sorts of things.

    E.g. physicists can use experiments to try to determine the charge on an electron. But it goes beyond the boundaries of science to ask why the charge should be that, and not some other number.

    (Even here I'm struggling... If the charge turns out to be the exact right number to allow life--which it does--then that gives evidence for the "many universes" theory, where we just so happened to evolve in the very unlikely case where the charge on an electron, speed of light, etc. etc. are just right to allow life to evolve.)

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  4. I don't think any serious historian of science would agree with Derbyshire's claim about when and where science was invented. Everyone I've read regards what Aristotle, Archimedes, Ptlomey, Buridan, and Copernicus were doing as 'science,' although they also recognize that a fundamental quantitative re-orientation of science took place in the 17th century.

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  5. 'Isn't this whole "scientific" thing a bit of a red herring? Isn't the real point to figure out what is true whether the truth is labeled "metaphysical", "scientific" or some mixture of the two?'

    Stephen, I don't think scientists are wrong to demarcate scientific explanations from other types of explanation. In the natural sciences, a valid explanation must point to some natural law producing the observed phenomenon. Where they do go astray is in claiming that ONLY scientific explanations have any validity.

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  6. (Again, don't forget the possibility of aliens. This isn't merely Bible thumping.)

    But positing aliens as non-Biblical intelligent designers begs the question: who designed the aliens? The alien designers themselves must either be a product of:

    1. "Blind" evolution
    2. God
    3. A meta-species of alien designers

    And the meta-species of alien designers must themselves be a product of evolution, God, or a meta-meta-species of alien designers, which in turn must be a product of...

    So in the end, it all boils down to either evolution (i.e. science) or an intelligent designer God (i.e. creationism).

    And it's not like we don't already have the Wedge Document to prove that this is, in fact, merely Bible thumping.

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  7. Micah, I'm no fan of ID. For one thing, I don't like their image of a God fiddling around with design ideas at all. What's more, they fail to realize that if every single step of the development of life on earth transpired exactly per the NeoDarwinian story, in terms of what physically transpired, that fact would have no bearing on whether or not that process occurred due to blind chance or God's design.

    However, Micha, I think you miss the force of the alien possibility, which is that, IF it turned out that there was compelling evidence for deliberate design involved in the development of current, earthly lifeforms, then it would be 'unscientific' to deny that evidence, even while leaving open the issue of who did the designing. Of course this would raise (not 'beg') the question of where the alien designers came from, but, if it were true, it would mean that the NeoDarwinian story of the development of life ON EARTH is wrong, even if something like it happened elsewhere. And IF there were a good case for design on earth, scientists should be open to considering it.

    The validity of the IDers case here can be seen by analogy: We would consider a scientist to be daft who proposed a theory stating that the Macintosh on my desk was the result of the 'blind' jostling about of primitive computer-like bits that just happened to form this machine. One can acknowledge their point here without accepting that there IS such evidence for design! Although I think the IDers are mistaken, there theory is not a priori any more unscientific than holding that watches are the result of design. That's what the alien possibility demonstrates.

    What's more, contra your invocation of the 'Wedge Document,' even if it turns out to be true that every single IDer is actually trying to slip 'bible-thumping' in under the radar, it is irrelevant to weighing the validity of the alien argument.

    In a comment I hope to post later tonight, I will explain what I think the REAL problem with NeoDarwinism is, which the ID debate obscures.

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  8. Gene,

    I didn't say that we should deny evidence of design, if such evidence were forthcoming. What I said is that the "ultimate" explanation cannot be non-theistic alien designers; those designers must either be Gods themselves, or the product of an undesigned evolutionary process. Maybe there is a third possibility apart from evolution or theology, but aliens isn't it.

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