Friday, 15 January 2010

Special Pleading Makes My Brain Hurt

Michael Behe is an interesting fellow. He may or may not be the next revolutionary mind in biology, if shown to be true he may have settled the God question in the affirmative (or at very least put the Ra─Ślians into overdrive) and if his concepts are vindicated then he'll go down in history as the man who changed everything. It opens up a scientific revolution, Nobel Prizes, immense fame and glory await.

But the rallying around the Darwinian paradigm is suppressing him from radically transforming the scientific landscape. There's the equivalent of a warning label on his university's webpage, written by scientists who are being caught in the backlash of his radical idea. Biologists are still refusing to talk design - sticking to the tried and true (only a theory) random heritable mutation and selection that makes what we call Darwinism.

Who knows, science may need to include astrology in its definition. It might be that complexity might require a designer. And that designer must be supernatural because explaining complexity with complexity just means a further explanation for that complexity (i.e. watch implies watchmaker but watchmakers don't exist ex nihilo). Maybe there are limits to the Darwinian process, whereby other processes might need to come into play. And one obvious candidate is design.

It might be that Behe is being attacked on philosophical grounds as opposed to scientific grounds. The review of Darwin's Black Box by H Allen Orr sounded like a scientific rebuttal but that must only be to my layperson eyes, just as Ken Miller's Only A Theory had what I thought were scientific objections to the claims made by ID but again I chalk that up to my non-biologist status. Savage reviews by Jerry Coyne, Sean Carroll and Richard Dawkins show true Darwinian colours that keep ID down. No science in those reviews...


Wait, what am I saying? I don't feel right, and I haven't since I listened to Behe on Point Of Inquiry last night. It was all going well and good until about 15 minutes into the interview when DJ Grothe asked him why he was so critical on "Darwinists" for not providing a mechanism for particular features yet not providing one himself. His answer could be summed up as follows: (don't just take my word for it, listen to the podcast yourself)
The asymmetry in burden of proof comes from what is trying to be explained. It's the appearance of design that needs explanation, and one cause of the appearance of design is design.
And on the surface that sounds quite reasonable. The same argument was made some 300 years ago regarding the structure of the solar system. Isaac Newton wrote "This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being". So 300 years later, such structures can somewhat be explained by the Nebula Hypothesis. So since there are problems associated with the Nebula Hypothesis, it follows that it must be evidence for a designer.

It's just going to take an astrophysicist to write a book or two about the limits of cosmology to explain natural formation and thus design. While they can no more claim credit for the argument than Behe can for Irreducible Complexity (It's Herman Muller's idea), they can kick up a fuss about the problems of methodological naturalism and cry persecution from the Swedenborg sympathisers in academia who aren't addressing the problems of the model.


Where such argument falls apart however is the necessity of mechanism. The nebula hypothesis, though not perfect, has at its core a viable mechanism for how such systems could arise. If design was the default, then it should be preferred as a plausible explanation with or without a mechanism that allows for the design of solar systems.

Solar systems aside, what about life? Replace Darwinism with Lamarckism and the argument still stays the same. Lamarckian inheritance can account for longer necks on a giraffe, but how can it account for a neck in the first place? And why is it that there are such big horns on a moose when generations of head-banging should reduce the horns to nubs? Since Lamarckian inheritance can't explain these features and design can, we must conclude design.

Applying Behe's logic to 200 years ago shows the problem with his position. No known mechanism, therefore design. Destroying Lamarckian inheritance in the absence of knowledge of Mendelian inheritance, evo-devo or epigenetics does not automatically fall back on a design hypothesis. It just shows that no answer is known.

That there isn't a mechanism is a grave concern to any appeal to design, because it can never escape being simply the alternative to any known theory. Knock natural selection off, and then all it is doing is biding its time until a new evolutionary paradigm comes along. Then repeat, knock down the new paradigm and then wait until the next one.

The danger of such thinking is that it puts proponents of the negative in the position where their entire position relies on them showing that whatever they are arguing against is wrong. No matter what it has to be that the paradigm is wrong, leading to essentially an argument from ignorance. Indeed, many of the reviews accuse Behe of this very fallacy, that he does not understand natural selection and thus arguing a straw man.


It's special pleading, special pleading that sounds superficially valid but underneath is utterly vacuous. There's simply no reason to think of design on a universal scale because we don't know of any force capable of design. We can speculate hyper-intelligent aliens or conceive of gods, but we don't know whether they are there since we have no evidence of them being there.

Now it could be that intelligence was involved in processes, it can't be ruled out. It's just there's no reason to rule it in. The problem of the argument is that for design to be valid this way, it means ruling out every possible explanation that could be; let alone what is being proposed now. Otherwise one might think they have proved design by defeating Lamarckian inheritance.

1 comment:

Rachel Bates said...

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