Unintelligent Design at the Local Library

I once worked part time at a small local library. My first temptation would have been to describe myself as an “accidental” librarian, but that’s a bit misleading. I didn’t get the job by accident. A better description might have been “reluctant” librarian. I got the job on purpose, to float me through the final year of my graduate studies after I was unexpectedly left adrift without a research assistantship.

 My duties at the library included the management of books catalogued and shelved among the 500s – “pure science”, according to the Dewey system. My professional and educational background is in science (not pure science, per se, but the peculiar nexus of science and humanities occupied by archaeology) so I approached this assignment with more than a little enthusiasm. It was a good excuse to indulge in a bit of healthy intellectual promiscuity, diving into topics outside the parochial confines of my native discipline.

 It is with this background in mind that I ask you to consider my surprise (and chagrin) when, shelf-reading the 570s, I noticed a book by the name of Darwin’s Doubt. For the unfamiliar, Darwin’s Doubt is a 2013 book by a fellow named Stephen Meyer, advocating the position that certain features of the biological world are inexplicable absent the intervention of some kind of intelligent designer. In particular, Meyer argues that the Cambrian Explosion – a massive flourishing of multicellular life that witnessed the emergence of the majority of currently recognized animal phyla – doesn’t make sense when viewed through the lens of modern evolutionary theory. A better explanation, in Meyer’s view, is that the Cambrian Explosion is the work of some unspecified and generally invisible cosmic engineer.

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A Creationist Physician Insists There is No Conflict Between Science and Religion – Here’s Why He is Wrong


Kashif N. Chaudry, physician and – apparently – cosmologist.

Physician and human rights activist Kashif N. Chaudhry seems to have an awfully high opinion of his rhetorical skills. Indeed, Chaudry makes no less lofty a claim than to have demonstrated that “no conflict exists between science and faith”. Not content to rest in the shadows of this inimitable accomplishment, Chaudhry has decided to tackle the question of ultimate causation, insisting that atheists – rather than religionists – make the bolder of claims by suggesting that the universe simply sprang into existence, unfurling randomly out of cosmic nothingness.

Chaudhry is confident that science is on his side, but his argument in this regard is perplexing at best. After a careful reading of Chaudry’s argument, the thoughtful reader is left with two options for understanding his approach: either he does not understand the process of scientific discovery – the ways in which evidence is wielded to corroborate of falsify claims – , or he is being deliberately disingenuous, using a caricature of scientific practice to convince the credulous that faith, as oxymoronic as it might seem, bests reason when it comes to the problem of cosmic origins.

Chaudhry begins his bizarre attack on atheism by posing a question about causation. He asks his readers to picture a random chocolate bar and explain its origins. To simplify (or confuse – I’m still not sure which) the matter, he gives three options for potential explanations for the chocolate bar’s existence:

  1. Through the help of an external force or agency. Isn’t that common sense?
  2. Magically appeared out of “nothing”. Ever watch Disney cartoons?
  3. It could either have come into existence through an external force or have appeared “out of thin air”. We can never  be wholly sure since we did not witness the exact moment when the bar came into existence.

His approach here is curious, but not altogether unprecedented. Axiomatically speaking, the clear answer is option three. This, however, flies in the face of all measures of practically and, indeed, scientific practice. The central thrust of his argument is that causation is a central component of all satisfactory explanations. This is “common sense”, insidiously deployed. No one is going to seriously argue that the chocolate bar did not have a maker, because that type of thinking is at the core of how we perceive the causal relationships between human artifacts and human agency. Chaudhry is attempting to guide the incredulous into a corner they can’t escape from without proclaiming something he can twist into acquiescence to faith.

What Chaudhry is missing, through deliberate obfuscation or excusable ignorance, is that science and common sense are not synonymous. Science, in fact, is a method for navigating around the traps common sense sets for us when thinking about complex phenomena. Causation certainly appears to be at the heart of everything, but – scientifically or axiomatically speaking – it’s difficult to get beyond the word appears. This is an insight that dates back to David Hume, who argued that causal relationships can be inferred, but never directly observed or – in colloquial scientific parlance – “proven”. Hume’s recognition is at the root of the so-called problem of induction, a problem with which both practicing scientists and philosophers of science have been grappling ever since.

To be fair, this is a point that is rarely made explicit outside the cloistered circles of scientifically oriented philosophers. But it is a recognition critical to understanding the rigorous practices that drive the process of scientific discovery. This is precisely where the sometimes tortured language of “failing to reject the null” comes from when testing hypotheses. The fact of the matter is that scientific certitude remains the strict province of falsification. Outside of that, science is a search for confidence, not proof – particularly as the word “proof” is colloquially understood.

What Chaudhry is getting at with his chocolate bar example (though I’m not sure he knows it) is a probabilistic understanding of evidence. And, in the case of the mysterious chocolate bar, this is not unreasonable. Chocolate bars did not exist before humans invented them. Every chocolate bar anyone has ever eaten has been a product of deliberate human action. It therefore makes good sense to think the mysterious chocolate bar is like all other chocolate bars, rather than a novel phenomenon deserving of novel explanation.


Graphical illustration of scientific understanding of the origins and evolution of the universe.

That Chaudhry’s understanding of proof is at best colloquial is amply illustrated when he springs his trap by replacing “chocolate bar” with “the Universe”, arguing that the Big Bang – the point at which the universe began what appears to be its perpetual expansion from an infinitely hot, dense point – must have some external cause. This may be true. It may also be true that causation is illusory, a product of humanity’s peculiar evolved psychology and insufficient knowledge concerning the inner workings of reality. But to insist that, because causation is a fundamental component of other scientific explanations, it must underwrite an understanding or, more pragmatically, acceptance of the Big Bang sets up a philosophical straw-man.

Graphical illustration of origins and evolution as modified by Chaudry. Yes, that is Ludovico Mazzolino's 16th century rendering of the Christian God, but the basic idea applies.

Graphical illustration of origins and evolution as modified by Chaudry. Yes, that is Ludovico Mazzolino’s 16th century rendering of the Christian God, but the basic idea applies.

Chaudhry wants to get around the obvious problem of infinite causal regression by invoking a positively mystifying tactic, one that fundamentally undermines his entire position. Cause and effect relationships, he argues, are a product of the physical laws that characterize the post-Big Bang universe. Prior to the Big Bang, the notions of space and time in which we anchor our notions of causation become incoherent. Fair enough. Why then does he think it reasonable to insist that the Universe must have an ultimate cause and that to think otherwise is nonsensical? Having spent most of his essay arguing that the Universe must have an ultimate cause in the currently unknowable conditions preceding the Big Bang, he upends his defense of Islamic creationism by pointing out that causation, prior to the Big Bang, might very well be a completely erroneous concept.

Close inspection of Chaudhry’s argument reveals a clear discontinuity between the phenomena behind the presence of chocolate bars and the Big Bang. Theoretical speculation concerning the possibility of multiple (possibly infinite) universes aside, it is clear – from an empirical standpoint – that the Big Bang is a singular event. Consider another example for purposes of illustration. All life forms with which humans are familiar are the product of evolutionary processes, well-explained by neo-Darwinian theory. It therefore makes sense for a researcher, upon discovering a previously unknown organism, to feel very confident in believing that it is a product of those same processes, explicable in the same ways.

This is not the case with something like the Big Bang. Cosomologists do not have a plethora of big bangs to study, nor do they have solid information concerning what – if anything – preceded the Big Bang for which they do have empirical evidence. It is not even clear that what preceded the Big Bang is explicable using the tools of modern physics. As Chaudhry illustrates, our common sense understandings of causation might not even apply.

The fundamental point is that, scientifically speaking, when it comes to the conditions that preceded the Big Bang, it’s presently impossible to move beyond speculation. Consequently, the best way to greet the question of ultimate causation – of prime movers or ex nihilo spontaneous generation – is with resolute agnosticism.

And this is precisely the position adopted by anyone whose atheism is grounded in reason. Atheists who come to a position of disbelief or substantiate their disbelief through a process of rational inquiry tend to avoid making overly confident claims concerning what existed prior to the Big Bang. As far as I am concerned, the only argument against the sort of amorphous, hands-off prime-mover endorsed by milquetoast deists the world over is one based in superfluity. That kind of god has no explanatory merit – the universe looks the same whether you posit its existence or not.

However, Chaudry wants to go beyond the kind of soft spiritualism at the heart of deism. Not only was the Big Bang the product of some external cause, but he knows what it is. How? Well, I guess he just believes really, really hard. Spoiler alert: this ultimate cause is not only a god, but the God depicted in the Koran. How fortuitous that Chaudhry happened to be born into a family and culture that stamped that belief on him from birth. Shame for the rest of us.

This, I think, is where we get to the atheistic assertions that really trouble Chaudhry and stimulated his ill-conceived journey into the weeds surrounding ultimate causation, prime movers, and ex nihilo creation. Atheists do make strong assertions concerning the existence of particular gods, because the increasing specificity of elaborate religious beliefs inevitably leads to claims that can be tested against empirical reality. An ardent religious apologist, Chaudhry insists that there is no conflict between science and religion. That atheists think otherwise is what really irks him. He supports this claim through a very selective and highly imaginative reading of the Koran.

Chaudhry himself offers a number of illustrative examples of this point in a previous blog, “How Science Brought Me Closer to God”.

Chaudhry argues that the Koran preempted Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton in describing planetary motion, quoting:

And He it is Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon, each gliding along in its orbit (21:33).

To begin, Chaudhry is selecting the translation that most closely comports with a scientific perspective, hoping his readers will ignore the fact that there are several others. Each differs – some subtly, some substantively – in the array of interpretations they can be taken to support. But more importantly, the verse seems to be suggesting a geocentric perspective. What, after all, is the sun supposed to be orbiting? Accomodationists – to borrow a term coined by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne – might respond with a pedantic parry, crying “surely the Koran is referring the barycenter of the solar system”. Maybe (extreme emphasis on maybe), but that is a mighty long leap that can only really be justified with a liberal sprinkling of imagination.

It certainly does not look like the Koran is offering a perspective that can be harmonized with scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, those still unconvinced might benefit from a further example, again plucked directly from Chaudry’s own arguments. According to Chaudhry, the Koran references the Big Bang:

Do not the unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were a closed-up mass, then We clove them asunder? (21:30).

Fascinating. The Koran must not only be true, but a scientifically accurate account of creation! Alas, Chaudhry has again chosen his translation carefully. More worrisome, however, is that he appears to have cropped the verse in a manner that reeks of duplicity. The full verse reads:

Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of creation), before we clove them asunder? We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe? (21:30)

If you squint just right, you might be able to find the Big Bang prefigured in that verse. But it also contains the marvelous insight that every living thing is made from water. Apparently we can scratch elements like carbon, nitrogen, calcium, and potassium off the list of elements that comprise human bodies. So speaks the Koran.

The point here is unsurprising. All religious texts make claims that, interpreted literally, bring them into conflict with a scientific understanding of reality. Just read Chaudhry’s full blog for further examples. (Note the magnanimity with which I am avoiding the clearly perfidious and misleading use Chaudhry makes of quotes from Stephen Hawking – a self-described atheist – to supported his religious claims).

Some religionists take a softer stance, arguing that religious texts like the Koran are populated with metaphors and similes – stuff that can’t be taken literally and meanings that can only be accessed through subjective interpretation. That is certainly true, but brings up the thorny question of how one goes about finding an interpretation in accord with the design of the Creator. I would humbly suggest that the design of the Creator is hard to differentiate from the vicissitudes of culture and individual psychology.

In any event, theists that adopt the religious-text-as-metaphor stance frequently advocate for a more amorphous perspective on deity. Chaudhry describes his god as follows:

“The concept of God as explained in Islam is that of a Spiritual Being, a conscious Creator who provides for man’s needs, expects man to serve His creation, and to whom we are all accountable in the end.”

That certainly seems better than the atheistic straw-man Chaudhry is anxious to wash his hands of. Yet it still places the concept of deity in direct conflict with a scientific understanding of reality. Evolution is not the work of “a conscious creator that provides for man’s needs”. Such teleological thinking is antithetical to an understanding of a fundamentally directionless process clearly guided by nothing more miraculous than contingency. Three billion years of evolutionary processes did not unfold for the purpose of building humans – we do not occupy such a privileged place at the pinnacle of creation. Humans are, in a very real sense, an evolutionary accident, and the processes that built us will continue to operate long after we have gone extinct.

Science and religious faith are irreconcilable. That does not mean they can’t sit precariously together in the same mind. It’s just a trick that takes either a willful avoidance of critical thought, a lot of intellectual gymnastics, or – in Chaudhry’s case – a willingness to bend the truth. Religion can only coexist with science so long as people like Chaudhry run around frantically plugging the leaks in the partitions that prevent scientific reason from permanently dissolving blinkered adherence to ancient superstitions.

Intelligent Design and the Problem of Scientific Demarcation: The Messy Reasons Why Intelligent Design Doesn’t Count

NGS Picture ID:422890

Archaeopteryx siemensii – The Berlin Specimen

Science, in many respects, is a sprawling, messy endeavor. It does, however, have boundaries. The borders of science remain particularly pertinent in a political climate that remains remarkably tolerant of conservative assaults on science and critical thinking. In many states, conservative lawmakers and right-wing school boards have launched sweeping – and, to those with an appreciation for fact-based discourse, revolting – revisionist campaigns, attempting to rewrite science and history curriculums to better match their ideological biases. Identifying which of their crimes against free expression and public education is most heinous is something of an arbitrary affair, but their attempts to inject religion into the biology classroom have been among the most pernicious and persistent. It is for this reason that intelligent design makes a particularly useful fulcrum for analyzing scientific demarcation criteria.

Discussions of what does and does not count as science have been far ranging and, occasionally, contradictory. Some philosophers and scientists cite a fairly narrow range of criteria as sufficient markers for the border between science and pseudoscience. Others argue that demarcation demands the inclusion of factors relating not only to what counts as scientific explanation, but what counts as science as a process, pointing to important elements of the methodology and sociology of science. A few have even argued that demarcation is a pseudo-problem. This latter argument probably goes too far, since demarcation has important practical consequences (e.g. what types of projects should be funded by public money, what types of claims should be invested with the most confidence, and – in particular – the type of confidence that comes with the term knowledge, and what types of information should be taught in public educational institutions). In what follows, I do not attempt to establish a comprehensive, universally satisfying set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be included within or excluded from the domain of science. Indeed, I think many of the criteria forwarded by philosophers of science capture at least part of the picture, and that few I have encountered are entirely wrong. Rather, the point here is to discuss demarcation in light of a socially and politically relevant problem: persistent attempts to inject religious dogma into the public science classroom. Using intelligent design (ID) as a fulcrum for analysis, I distinguish between scientific explanation and the process of science, identifying a few important criteria for each. Ultimately, intelligent design falls short of the mark in both respects, but nearly as cleanly as some might suspect. It is a free-flowing, wide-ranging discussion. It is also, I am quite confident, a balanced one. Though my ultimate conclusion is probably obvious at the outset, I think following the argument through its entire course is worthwhile.

The Problem of Demarcation

Superficially, establishing a set of clear and simple criteria for what does and does not count as science seems like a fairly straightforward proposal. Science, as a relatively recent addition to the human social repertoire, is commonly viewed as distinct from other activities. It employs unique methods that produce original and robust answers to questions relating to the nature of reality. Additionally, the answers produced by science are often freighted with a level of confidence above and beyond those forwarded by perspectives that fail to measure up to the rigorous standards of scientific practice. For many, a scientific perspective is considered a marker of rational equanimity of thought and scientific explanations are considered the pinnacle of reliability in the otherwise precarious and erratic arena of human knowledge. Indeed, the peculiar nature of scientific claims earns them a well deserved place of privilege in the social and political discourse of some nations, such that science is considered a reasonable guide for a variety of policies, a standard for what types of endeavors are suitable targets for governmental investment, and what types of explanations are considered appropriate for discussion in publicly financed educational institutions. More to the point, scientific explanations are probably the closest humanity comes to determining many important truths about the nature of reality.

It is with regard to questions of what topics do and do not count as suitable targets of scientific education that problems of demarcation stubbornly recur as an issue of broad social import in the United States. Citing presumed deficits in the notion of biological evolution as expressed in the neo-Darwinian synthesis, some have forwarded the notion of intelligent design as a plausible alternative solution to questions pertaining to the origins and diversity of life. Proponents of this view would like to see it injected into the public education system as a means of infusing science curriculums with a measure of balance they might otherwise lack. Critics justifiably charge that intelligent design is merely religious dogma rebranded and refashioned to mimic scientific practice. In this view, it has have no place in science education because its religious roots render its inclusion therein a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution, which has been consistently (and, I think, accurately) interpreted as a prohibition against the preferential treatment of any system of religious belief with respect to the function of the federal government. Of course, beyond the issue of strict legality is a question of whether or not the claims of intelligent design have the same explanatory merit as those included within the neo-Darwinian synthesis. At issue here is not only whether or not the framework is legally admissible, but whether or not the framework is a useful guide for understanding the aspects of the structure of reality that well corroborated scientific theories are thought to address.

Problematic in this is that the issue of establishing clear and consistent demarcation criteria for what does and does not fall within the bounds of science has proven signally thorny. Colloquially, science is regarded as a process of rational discovery, wherein researchers follow the evidence of empirical observation to whatever conclusions it might lead. This picture captures something of the spirit of the thing, but fails to fully articulate what science actually is and how it actually operates in practice. In testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs in the 1982 case of Mclean v Arkansas and defending the subsequent decision to reject the inclusion of Creationism (or “creation science” – the progenitor of intelligent design) in public school science curriculum, Michael Ruse outlined five criteria that could be used to distinguish science (e.g. Darwinian evolution) from religion and/or pseudo-science (creation science) (1,2). According to Ruse, science is:

  1. guided by natural law
  2. explanatory by reference to natural law
  3. testable against the empirical world
  4. its conclusions are tentative
  5. is falsifiable

Held against these criteria, Ruse argued, Creationism was exposed as poorly disguised religious dogma.

Though admirably clear and succinct, Ruse’s demarcation criteria are imperfect. Larry Laudan criticized them as simultaneously misconstruing the nature of the process of scientific discovery and setting a bar for admission so low as to be almost meaningless (3). Creation-science made claims that were both testable and falsifiable, satisfying conditions 3 and 5. For instance, a literal reading of the Biblical Noah story suggests a number of hypotheses about the kinds of evidence we can expect as a result of a massive global flood. Comparison between said claims and observable reality demonstrates that, as a scientific explanation, Creationism is indisputably false. Being wrong, however, is not the same as being unscientific. Relative to conditions 1, 2, and 4, the problem is not whether Creationism meets those criteria (for the most part, it does not), but whether what is commonly (perhaps dogmatically) accepted as science does so either. Much of what counts as science has little to do with the invocation of explanatory laws. Newtonian mechanics, for instance, seems perfectly capable of capturing and predicting the relationships between massive objects, yet offers little in the way of an explanation for why those relationships hold. Similarly, though eschewing dogma is considered crucial to the scientific enterprise, the reality of scientific practice often tells a different story. One particularly influential philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, went so far as to argue that dogma is a critical component of scientific pedagogy4, pointing out that students of any particular discipline are rarely encouraged to directly question the predominant explanatory paradigm of their field and the decisive evidence thought to justify it. With regard to Ruse’s fourth criteria, tentativeness, it is also true that the proponents of Creationism have not proven entirely intransigent, allowing their framework to morph into the more sophisticated framework of intelligent design.

Clearly, Ruse’s criteria fail to set up reliable guidelines for distinguishing between science and pseudo-science. To be clear, components of his framework seem to accurately characterize aspects of the scientific process. The problem is that they do not outline the entire corpus necessary and sufficient conditions for inclusion within (or exclusion from) the genus of ideas and investigative practices appropriately accepted as scientific. It is at this point perhaps useful to make a distinction between the scientific process and scientific explanations. These are, of course, overlapping domains. However, the possibility (however remote) for something to match any hypothetical set of criteria characterizing scientific explanations absent the work associated with the process of scientific discovery – that is, to be a scientific explanation by pure coincidence – makes the distinction worthwhile. Similarly, something might well resemble the process of science without really going about producing any actual scientific explanations. Scientific explanations are what the process of science is meant to produce as output. In other words, scientific explanations are the ends of science, while the scientific process is the means of getting there. Science, then, must be defined with respect to certain ends (the production of scientific explanations) and the specific ways in which it goes about achieving them.

Given this, there are two facets to the question of whether or not intelligent design is science. The first asks, “does it produce scientific explanations?” Does it share the same goals as other scientific endeavors and is its success in attaining those goals evaluated by the same criteria? The second relates to how closely the process by which those explanations are produced matches the processes by which scientific explanations are produced.

Intelligent Design as Scientific Explanation

That a theory be falsifiable is a frequently cited criterion for its acceptance as properly scientific. As advocated by Karl Popper, falsificationism relates to both scientific explanations and the process of scientific discovery (5). A valid scientific explanation should be falsifiable, and researchers engaged in the work of science should go about trying to falsify it. By suggesting that researchers should go about making bold conjectures and subjecting them to observational and/or experimental tests that stand a reasonable chance of turning up contradictory evidence, Popper sought to overcome Hume’s longstanding “problem of induction”. Briefly put, the problem is this: strictly speaking, scientific theories can never be proven by corroborating evidence, no matter how plentiful. There is neat a Bayesian proof of this, but its inclusion exceeds the scope of the present essay. Suffice it to say that the kind of evidence uncovered by individual experiments has limited extension, which is a big part of why the results of t-tests are interpreted in the rather torturous manner they are. Properly understood, positive evidence for a given hypothesis only demonstrates that, under a constrained set of circumstances, the hypothesis has a probability of being false below a certain threshold. Consequently, the most prudent course of action is to adopt a deductive approach and go about attempting to disprove hypotheses. No matter how many instances of positive evidence a researcher accrues, they can never be entirely certain that a given theory holds always and everywhere – that is, that it is an accurate description of any actual aspect of reality. However, a recalcitrant instance of disconfirmation can give us a lot of confidence about what is not true of the nature of reality. In short, opening up the potential for scientific claims (at least those pertaining to what is not true about reality) to be couched in the certainty of deductive disconfirmation eliminates the difficulties associated with inductive reasoning. Unfortunately, the actual practice of science tends to deviate from Popper’s prescriptions. That a given claim be falsifiable is a necessary component for it to be accepted as scientific. Falsifiability is a pretty strong candidate for a demarcation criterion, but – as Kuhn pointed out – the search for falsification does not really characterize much (if not most) of the work scientists actually do (6). Scientific ideas should absolutely be disprovable, but scientists do not typically go about hunting for evidence that contradicts the paradigm in which they work. As a result, falsifiability is a necessary, but far from sufficient, criterion for scientific demarcation.

On that note, it is difficult to fault the proponents of intelligent design for not putting a lot of apparent effort into finding out if their ideas are actually true – that is, an accurate description of some feature of observable reality by virtue of its ability to withstand frequent attempts at disconfirmation. Still, the question remains: is intelligent design, as an explanation, falsifiable? To answer that requires reference to what seems to be the central dogma of intelligent design – that certain biological systems and structures (eyes, immune systems, flagellar motors etc.) are “irreducibly complex”. This is meant to convey the notion that, absent any component of their current structure, they would cease to function entirely and that there is no natural process that could build them. It is a essential a rejection, probably based largely in either a misunderstanding of or inability to understand, the incremental process of descent with modification.

Superficially, irreducible complexity seems like not only a falsifiable claim, but a falsified one. A human eye, for instance, might not work very well if some malicious entity were to pluck out its lens. Consequently, an eye without one would not be very useful. However, the lens-free eye (or insert whatever component of whatever structure or system you desire) is something of a straw man. All that is required for an eye to evolve through the natural selection of blindly generated genetic mutations is that each modification on the road to any given modern eye (there are many) confer on its recipient some competitive advantage. From photoreceptor cells to direction sensitive eye cups, on up to any modern eye, all that is required is that each new feature – each subtle modification of the pre- existing structure – increase the fitness, or is associated with increased fitness, of its bearer. Eyes and flagellar motors need not appear entirely functional. Darwinian arguments only hold that each step along the long chain from no eyes and no flagellar motors to the modern manifestations thereof needs to confer some utility above and beyond that of extant, competing alternatives. As with creationism, it seems intelligent design is not an unscientific explanation – merely a wrong one.

This, however, seems a little too permissive. Irreducible complexity would count as a testable (and therefore falsifiable) empirical hypothesis if there were some stable, coherent, rigorously defined criteria for identifying it. Unfortunately, what does and does not count as irreducibly complex is arbitrary. It relates not to what can and cannot be reduced to a simpler functional form by some reverse-engineered process of evolution by natural selection, but what a given human can and cannot conceive of as irreducibly complex. Irreducible complexity refers to the shortcomings of the individual researcher’s conceptual repertoire, not a distinct feature of the natural world. Consequently, it is difficult to see how the claim of irreducible complexity is testable and, more specifically, falsifiable. A. C. Grayling characterized debating the religious as boxing with jelly (7). So it is with falsifying irreducible complexity: because of its extreme malleability, it is difficult – if not entirely impossible – to disprove. Its information content and the sorts of expectations that can be derived from it are limited only by the imaginations of its proponents.

The same problem holds for the broader notion of an intelligent designer. Proponents of ID have been careful not to specify the nature of the agent holding the cosmic reigns, possibly (read: probably) because they do not want to burden their idea with the sort of specific dogma that would render it inadmissible as a component of public school curriculum. The intelligent designer might be Yahweh, Zeus, advanced extraterrestrial beings, or any other entity capable of performing the necessary manipulations. Here, the problem is that the definition of the agent at work is not sufficiently circumscribed for consequences of its actions to be amenable to observational testing. Irreducible complexity is thought to be just such a consequence, but it too is unwieldy. As discussed, when something appears to be irreducibly complex, one might just as well ask why it is humans can’t conceive of the processes that formed it, rather than assume it must have been made by something other than undirected natural processes. The need here is not for scientists to be able to observe the designer directly, but for some observation to be expected as an inevitable consequence of its intervention. Prediction is a commonly cited feature of scientific explanations, included – for instance – in Carl Hempel’s deductive-nomological model (8) and James Woodward’s discussion of the manipulability conception of causal explanation (9). If the intelligent designer is going to do any explanatory work, ideas about its nature must at the very least be defined with a specificity adequate for the generation of predictions. Absent this, the intelligent designer has roughly the same explanatory merit of Hans Driech’s entelechy (10). Which is to say that an intelligent designer is, in light of current definitions, entirely superfluous.

Intelligent Design and the Process of Scientific Discovery

Thomas Kuhn criticized Popper’s suggestion that falsificationism represented a criterion sufficient for marking the boundary between science and pseudo-science. According to Kuhn, falsification only becomes important during periods of the sort of extraordinary research that often precipitates the adoption of new paradigms (6). Falsification, as a component of scientific practice, stems from the accumulation of recalcitrant problems and only really results in theory change in the presence of an alternative capable of overcoming some of those problems. Kuhn argued that the day-to-day process of scientific discovery was a more humdrum affair, characterized by a community of researchers working to solve rudimentary puzzles and bring theory and observation into closer harmony. Guided by a set of shared standards for solving scientific puzzles and evaluating their solutions (paradigms, in the disciplinary matrix sense of the term) scientists spend most of their time using an established theoretical framework to explain phenomena. During these periods of normal science, failures to explain observational evidence or experimental results are typically interpreted as errors on behalf of the researcher, not the theory they are attempting to employ.

Kuhn’s more extreme views on the incommensurability of alternative theories aside, there is much to appreciate here. As with any attempt to capture the essential components of the scientific process, Kuhn’s formulation is incomplete, but he does capture something essential – science, in some way or another, seems to involve the behavior of a community working to accomplish a common goal in accordance with a set of widely shared standards for success and failure. The scientific process is the means by which scientific explanations are produced and tested. It is a dynamic social activity, a point made Kuhn and echoed – to varying degrees – by Imre Lakatos and Paul Thargard in their respective attempts to formulate useful and accurate demarcation criteria. Lakatos argued that science is denoted by a progressive research program, guiding the investigations of researchers and leading to the discovery of novel facts about the nature of reality (11). Thagard reiterated the need for science to be a progressive process, bringing explanations and reality into ever tighter accord (12). Both also pointed to something critical – the need for scientific theories to be evaluated not only in terms of their adequacy in explaining or predicting a given set of observations, but it terms of their relative adequacy in light of alternatives.

To be clear, highlighting the importance of the social structure of scientific communities in describing the process of scientific discovery should not be interpreted as an undervaluation of the role of empirical evidence. Empirical evidence is absolutely critical, and represents a core component of the standards used to determine the veracity of scientific claims. Nevertheless, the reality from which empirical evidence is derived is impotent in terms of explanatory and predictive content absent a community of researchers with shared values for evaluating competing claims about the nature of reality. Presumably, reality was comprised of and unfolded in accordance with the same underlying processes well before the advent of anything resembling science. What’s new – and what makes science a distinct knowledge-gaining activity – is the way in which a community of individuals relates to that reality. An accurate – if broad – definition of the process of scientific discovery might read as follows: Science, as a process, is characterized by a community of variously competing and cooperating researchers working to sculpt enhanced understandings of reality that are evaluated in accordance with a set of shared values concerning what counts as success and failure.

In this sense, science itself might be fruitfully cast as a process that is in important respects analogous to Darwinian evolution. This is an idea Kuhn, Lakatos, and Thagard hinted at (albeit in somewhat different forms) in the emphasis they placed on the role of alternative accounts in shaping scientific progress. It was more or less directly stated by Bas C. Van Fraasen (13) and has been significantly elaborated by the philosopher of biology and science David Hull (14,15). In this view, scientific communities are conceived of as representing Darwinian populations. Individuals within a given community share significantly overlapping views about how to explain the phenomena of interest, including an overarching explanatory framework and notions about how to refine, test, and extend that framework. However, their ideas in this regard are not identical – there is variation within the population of scientists with respect to how to interpret a given theory and wield it as an explanatory tool. Scientific explanations are produced as a product of competition and cooperation among the individuals and different interpretations that constitute a given scientific community. External reality – through the mechanisms associated with competition and cooperation relative to shared standards of evaluation like accuracy, coherence, and parsimony – sculpts the population and the explanations it produces. As Kuhn pointed out in his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, individual scientists can be dogmatic and intransigent (16). Fortunately, for science to function as a process, individual scientists do not need to undergo much conceptual evolution. Certainly it would be nice if they did, but it isn’t necessary for science to experience progress. Over time, the composition of scientific communities change, allowing the population as a whole to experience the sort of conceptual evolution necessary for science to work as a process for uncovering more and more information (or inventing increasingly useful accounts) about the nature of reality.

This, of course, is not a comprehensive treatment of what features are necessary to distinguish a scientific process from a pseudoscientific one. Nevertheless, it should provide a sufficient foundation from which to address the question of whether or not the advocates of intelligent design are engaged in something akin to a scientific process. Relative to the criteria discussed above, it is possible to identify four pertinent questions:

  1. Is there a community with a shared goal?
  2. Are the members of said community engaged in progressive research?
  3. Do the members of said community vary in their ideas concerning the interpretation and application of their governing paradigm?
  4. Do they share criteria for evaluating success or failure in achieving the shared goal (question 1) that are commensurate with the broadly recognized and accepted criteria of science?

A complete and accurate answer to these questions would require a considerable amount of what I shall term, for lack of a better word, ethnographic research within the intelligent design community. The closest thing I am aware of to this type of work is Jason Rosenhouse’s book Among the Creationists (17). Based on Rosenhouse’s account of his considerable time spent interacting with Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates at conferences built around said claims, it seems fair to answer question one in the affirmative. There is certainly a community and they do seem to share a common goal: destabilizing Darwinian explanations for the origins and diversity of life.

An answer to question two is somewhat more equivocal. On the one hand, it might be generously granted that the proponents of intelligent design do sometimes carry out research. On the other, it hardly seems appropriate to characterize this research as progressive. For the most part, the advocates of intelligent design seem to spend their time concocting negative evidence for evolution by naturalselection, pointing to this or that feature of the natural world as something purportedly inexplicablewithin the Darwinian framework. They have not, however, generated anything that might even approximate a suitable alternative that could offer a potential corrective by which Darwinism might overcome its apparent flaws, much less a suitable candidate for its wholesale replacement. In short, they have not forwarded a way by which intelligent design might actually improve humanity’s understanding of relevant facts.

For question three, I am willing to move beyond a partial yes and grant that there is variation within the intelligent design community concerning the way in which the idea should be interpreted and applied. According to Rosenhouse, there are some who recognize that, as a scientific explanation, intelligent design lacks merit and others who appear quite content with the business of trying to sap Darwinian defenses.

Finally, there is the question of whether or not the members of the intelligent design community share criteria for evaluating success or failure that are commensurate with those employed in established sciences. Here, any answer must be considered far more tenuous. Still, the persistence of intelligent design despite its obvious explanatory stagnation is suggestive that the appropriate answer is probably negative. Irreducible complexity, insofar as it might be rather indulgently granted status as a falsifiable claim, has been resoundingly disproven, yet many proponents of intelligent design continue to tout it as one of their strongest arguments. In this, they do not seem to be engaged in a process that can be appropriately characterized as scientific – if the community shared criteria for evaluating claims against observational and experimental results, the population should have responded accordingly and abandoned the notion of irreducible complexity to monumentally heaping dustbin of failed ideas. Though it is difficult to identify precisely when intelligent design emerged from the Creationist movement, it is fair to say the basic argument has been around since the mid-1980s – shortly after the judge adjudicating the Mclean v. Arkansas dispute issued his decision. Thirty years (give or take) seems like plenty of time for the population to come around to the idea that the irreducible complexity argument does not work, provided they are willing to employ the same evaluative criteria used by scientists. By contrast, the evolutionary community had largely come around to the idea that genes/individuals (as opposed to groups or species) were the targets of natural selection by the early 1980s – around fifteen years (give or take) after W. D. Hamilton (18) and George C. Williams (19) had presented the landmark papers that facilitated the shift in outlook.

 The Status of Intelligent Design: Science or Pseudoscience

Perhaps it might have once been reasonable to permit the intelligent design movement status as something of an incipient science. This, of course, would demand turning an assiduously blind eye to the notion’s obviously religious roots. But as Lakatos argued, it is probably prudent to allow emerging theories some leniency with regard to putative instances of falsification or failures to produce explanations that meet the criteria of science (11). Precisely how much wiggle-room a new idea should receive, and how long it should be permitted, is unclear, but it seems reasonable to draw the line somewhere. If intelligent design has not crossed that line yet (again, an exceptionally generous allowance), it is probably hovering somewhere very close to it. As an explanatory framework, its failure is unequivocal. Irreducible complexity – its most promising candidate for generating empirical hypotheses – has, if taken seriously, been repeatedly refuted. However, it is not entirely clear that it even has the coherence and stability necessary for subjection to empirical evaluation. Irreducible complexity seems more like an artifact of the intelligent design advocate’s inability to comprehend Darwinian explanations and apply the criteria of scientific evaluation than a reflection of something that actually exists in reality. The same is true of the central notion of an intelligent designer. This entity has not been rigorously enough defined to yield a clear picture of the consequences we should expect to observe were such an entity involved in the processes underlying the origins and diversity of life.

Answering whether or not the proponents of intelligent design are engaged in the sort of process that might produce a valid scientific explanation is somewhat more ambiguous. Some of the necessary features are there, others are not. There is a community and they do seem to share a common goal. Furthermore, members of that community vary in the way they think intelligent design ought to be interpreted and applied – there is fuel for the sorts of competition that underscores progressive research. But at the same time, the intelligent design community does not seem to be actually engaged in progressive research. Additionally, there is reason to doubt that they take the value criteria used to judge scientific success or failure into account, as illustrated by the persistent advocacy of the irreducible complexity hypothesis (again, provided we are charitable enough to grant it status as an actual scientific hypothesis). On this note, it might be fair to say that, if the advocates of intelligent design are engaged in something like a process of scientific discovery, it is a very peculiar one.

Divorced of its obsession with uncovering negative evidence for the neo-Darwinian picture of biological evolution, intelligent design shares a goal roughly commensurable with that of Darwinism. This, of course, is the desire to explain the origins and diversity of life. Superficially, such an intelligent design might have a place within an existing process of discovery – an actual alternative to Darwinian ideas. That is not to suggest it is a good – or even promising – scientific explanation of any aspect of the biological world. Rather, it is to suggest that even an idea apparently doomed to abject failure has a potential place in the process of scientific discovery. That a theory is not true is not a particularly usefully criteria for exclusion from the scientific process – after all, it is hard to make a reliable statement about its veracity one way or another without it having first been subjected to the scrutiny entailed by the scientific process. The history of scientific discovery is littered with far more failed ideas than it is successful ones and the scientific process is sometimes described as self-correcting, weeding out faulty ideas as a natural output of its proper function. Intelligent design’s persistence could be thought to relate to its exclusion from the process of scientific discovery. However, there is an issue of epistemological incommensurability (to employ some fancy philosophical lingo) that renders such a merger illusory. The advocates of intelligent design may pay lip-service to the rigorous means by which scientific ideas are evaluated, but their actions tell a different story.

Establishing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what does and does not count as science is exceedingly difficult. If a definition is too restrictive, it might omit things that are widely thought to count as science. If it is too permissive, it renders the demarcation problem meaningless. In this regard, the concept of methodological naturalism has been forwarded as minimum standard for inclusion within the genus of ideas that can be properly viewed as scientific. Contrary to positions of ontological naturalism, methodological naturalism is not a comprehensive statement about what types of things exist in the universe. It is a practical recognition of what types of things are amenable to scientific investigation: things that are either directly observable as matter and energy or subject to inference through the consequences of their interaction with observable matter and energy. These are the only sorts of things that have produced scientific explanations in the past. Furthermore, they provide one of the core selective criteria that guide the process of scientific discovery. There are further issues to discuss with methodological naturalism – to insert it as a footnote at the end of lengthy essay does the idea a disservice, a problem I intend to remedy at a later date. However, it does highlight a core difficulty with the intelligent design framework. As long as intelligent design insists on positing the existence of a governing agent without elaborating on ways in which that agent might be observed, it trespasses the bounds of science and strays into the realm of pseudoscience.

With respect to public education, this is an issue that transcends the narrow scope of legal propriety. In that respect, the answer is clear: intelligent design, as with all other religious doctrine, has absolutely no place in the science classroom. Religion, as an important component of the social landscape, should not be ignored. It has important consequences for the way people behave and the development of disparate cultures. In this sense I’m sympathetic to Daniel Dennett’s idea that the proper place of religion within the public school curriculum is as a component of some kind of humanities course that covers all religion equally, discussing their core doctrines and historical importance with absolutely no reference to their truth or falsity.

But as an explanation for how the world works, religious ideas have no place in the educational standards we should esteem within our society. Scientific ideas have a special place in this regard because they are, unequivocally, the closest we have ever come to saying what is an is not true of reality. They are the reason we enjoy the rich host of technologies that populate the modern landscape, the reason medical science has pushed the average age at death back by decades, the reason humanity was able to place a member of its species on the moon. Science is the method by which we have achieved a glimpse, however fragmentary, into the endlessly astounding and awe-inspiring tapestry of laws and processes that comprise the fabric of reality. As a result, it has been afforded a richly deserved place of privilege in modern society. It has, in many respects, usurped religion’s place as a guide for discovering our place in the cosmos. For many, this has been – and continues to be – a hard pill to swallow. Their hurt feelings and ill ease should not be allowed to hamper progress. The world is a far more marvelous place absent ancient myths and superstitions, however ephemerally comforting they may be.

Notes and References:

  1. Michael Ruse. “Creation-Science is Not Science.” Science, Technology, and Human Values 7. No. 40 (Summer 1982) pp. 72-78
  2. Robert T. Pennock. “Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited. Synthese (2011) 178:177-206
  3. Larry Laudan. “Commentary: Science at the Bar – Causes for Concern.” Science, Technology, and Human Values 7. No. 41 (Fall 1982): 16-19
  4. Thomas Kuhn. “The Function of Dogma in Scientific Research”. pp. 347–69 in A. C. Crombie (ed.). Scientific Change (Symposium on the History of Science, University of Oxford, 9–15 July 1961. New York and London: Basic Books and Heineman, 1963).pp. 347–69
  5. Karl Popper. Conjectures and Refutations. (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1963).
  6. Thomas Kuhn. “Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research.” In M. Curd, J.A. Cover, & C. Pincock eds. Philosophy of Science: the Central Issues. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013) pp. 11-19
  7. Grayling, A. C. The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism. (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2013).
  8. Carl G. Hempel. “Explanation in Science and History.” In R. G. Colodny ed. Frontiers of Science and Philosophy. (London and Pittsburgh: Allen and Unwin and University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962)
  9. James Woodward. Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation (New York: Oxford University of Press, 2003)
  10. Rudolf Carnap. “The Value of Laws: Explanation and Prediction.” In M. Curd, J.A. Cover, & C. Pincock eds. Philosophy of Science: the Central Issues. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013) pp. 651-656
  11. Imre Lakatos. “Science and Pseudoscience.” Philosophical Papers, 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977)
  12. Paul R. Thagard. “Why Astrology is a Pseudoscience.” In P. Asquith and I. Hacking eds. Proceedings of the Philosophy of Science Association 1(East Lansing, MI: Philosophy of Science Association, 1978)
  13. Bas C. Van Fraasen. The Scientific Image. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980)
  14. David Hull. Science as a Process. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1988)
  15. David Hull. Science and Selection. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)
  16. Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012)
  17. Jason Rosenhouse. Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line. (Oxford University Press, 2012)
  18. D. Hamilton. “The genetical evolution of social behavior I & II” Journal of Theoretical Biology 1964 7(1):1-16
  19. George C. Williams. Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought. (Princeton Universty Press, 1966).

I originally wrote this essay for another purpose, but liked it enough that I thought I might rework it into a blog post to share with the world (read: the handful of people who might actually read this post).

Religious Moderation vs. Religious Fanatisicm vs. Science


Over at io9, Mark Strauss has written a nice piece cataloging the brouhaha underway at Bryan College, a Christian school in Dayton, Tennessee. The dispute revolves around a change to the wording of the college charter. The previous version was plenty nonsensical, but apparently the board of trustees wanted to make their pro-hokum position a little more rigid. Consequently, a charter that once read:

“that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death;”

now carries the adendum:

“We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.”

Both phrases mean approximately the same thing, but the addition of the clarification concerning the historical veracity of Adam and Eve strikes a stricter bearing, eliminating all room for “Bible as metaphor” apologetics. As Strauss points out, the altered wording gets right to the heart of one of the primary hurdles preventing Christian fundamentalists from accepting biological evolution: if Adam and Eve are not the literal progenitors of all mankind, then there is no “original sin”, and – here is the critical point – if there is no original sin, there is no reason for God to send his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to learn carpentry and die for our sins. Of course, even in the absence of empirical contradictions, this story doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s not the point. To hardcore believers, the Biblical creation story is a literal recounting of actual events. For them, the story of Adam and Eve is the linchpin their religious beliefs.

Strauss’ take on the whole affair is thoughtful and lucidly written. According to Strauss, the change in wording and subsequent schism can be partially traced to the rise of genomics. New tools have increased the resolution and fidelity of genetic research, allowing researchers to both ask and answer important questions about human ancestry. Unsurprisingly, the resulting accumulation of evidence argues strongly for a human ancestry that is ancient and shared. More to the point, it argues strongly against a literal interpretation of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. A recent study(published last year) conservatively estimated the minimum population size needed to account for the genetic diversity of modern humans is 2,250. Consequently, a hypothetical two person gene pool would fail to account for modern human genetic diversity by several orders of magnitude.

Despite the historical depth and philosophical breadth of Strauss’ analysis, he does eventually stumble. Everything you’ve read thus far is more or less a recapitulation of his take on a microcosm of the modern struggle between the forces of religious moderation and religious fanaticism. Now we get to the meat of things – what I really wanted to address. About two thirds of the way through his piece, Strauss tries to make a point by juxtaposing the opinion of David Coppedge, a former NASA JPL employee and paragon of cognitive dissonance, and Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and general advocate for reason. Coppedge is cast in the role of the raving religious fanatic, Coyne in that of the strident and dismissive scientific purist. Strauss writes:

Coyne is several magnitudes more rational than Coppedge. Yet, the underlying sentiment of both these statements bother me, in that they suggest a false dichotomy between faith and science—the idea that you can believe in the Bible or you can believe in evolution, but you can’t believe in both.

I think otherwise. Ever since Darwin first published On the Origin of Species, many theologians have reconciled evolution and scripture in ways that are not only elegant but that, in my view, have inspired new ways of thinking that enhance the tenets of existing belief systems for the better.

This is a nice sentiment. Unfortunately, as far as biological evolution is concerned, faith and science are fundamentally irreconcilable. This is true no matter how loosely one chooses to interpret the Bible. The problem is deeper than any question about whether or not a growing mountain of evidence renders a literal interpretation of the Bible untenable. This is because the Bible indisputably paints humanity as the ultimate object of God’s design. Consequently, even the most diplomatic form of theistic evolution construes biological change as a more or less teleological, goal-oriented process. Here, a liberal interpretation of the Bible allows room for evolution, with the caveat that evolution occurs for the express purpose of creating man.

That is simply not how evolution works.

Evolution is a blind process. It has no endgame in mind. In fact, it has no mind. It is a process of extreme contingency, unfolding according to the aggregate effects of the day-to-day exigences of the struggle to survive and reproduce. A person who thinks that belief in the Bible can be reconciled with acceptance of evolution has, somewhere along the line, stumbled into a profound misunderstanding about the meaning of the former or the consequences of the latter.

Humans are not the pinnacle of creation or the end point of the evolutionary process. Nevertheless, this is exactly what the Bible teaches, irrespective of how one chooses to spin it. Certainly one can believe in the Bible, on one hand, and evolution on the other. But the two views are not amenable to philosophical reconciliation. To espouse both the Bible and evolution is to simultaneous hold explicitly contradictory viewpoints. People can (and frequently do) have conflicting views. Which is perplexing, but fine. Far better that one accepts reality with a sprinkling of superfluous superstition that rejects reality altogether.  That said, to argue that scripture can be reconciled with the science of evolution (or geology, physics, astronomy, cosmology, archaeology, and so forth) is to adopt a extremely fragile conciliatory stance. It might sound smart to the ears of polite and sophisticated society – it certainly appeals to the lowest common denominator – but wait until the real wind blows.

In the end, the Bryan College story can be boiled down to a themes relating of ideological conflict – the stubborn traditionalists railing against the forces of progress and discovery. On the surface, it is about the conflict that results from the sort of ideological intransigence that leads one to reject science in favor of ancient superstition. However, there is also something deeper here, and that is the conflict implicit in the attempt to build institutions of higher learning where education is bound by the dictates of religious dogma. Bertrand Russell once wrote that…

“It may be said that an academic institution fulfills its proper function to the extent that it fosters independent habits of mind and a spirit of inquiry free from the bias and prejudices of the moments. In so far as a university fails in this task it sinks to the level of indoctrination.”

Wisdom of the West, 1959

How can a school like Bryan College possibly succeed in this regard? At a school like Bryan, the bounds of inquiry are strictly set. By purportedly divine fiat, there are places one cannot go, things one cannot think. This is made clear in the university charter: think like us or go elsewhere. Better still, the very doctrine of Christianity (as espoused by fundamentalists) can be roughly translated into “agree with us or burn in hell”. Such a philosophy is inimical to the very purpose of higher education. It is nothing short of crude indoctrination – the work of intensely insular minds grasping for company. In that sense, the Bryan College affair isn’t about whether it is best to interpret the Bible literally or metaphorically in light of scientific evidence. It is about an endeavor that is, by its very nature, doomed to fail: building an edifice of higher learning with built in limits on what is okay to learn.

edit: Billy Bryan pointed out that the Adam and Eve language is not replacing the previous passage. Having confirmed this, I’ve edited the blog to reflect that.

Evolution and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Proponents of Creationism and its slightly more sophisticated (though ultimately no less nonsensical) progeny Intelligent Design sometimes argue that the second law of thermodynamics refutes blind, Darwinian evolution and necessitates an intelligent “prime mover”. The basic argument is this:

  1. The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy never decreases in closed systems.
  2. Evolution, as a Darwinian process, involves increases in complexity and associated decreases in entropy.
  3. Therefore: (a) evolution does not occur, or (b) evolution occurs, but does so with a sprinkling of magic.

Those with some basic familiarity with biological evolution, systems theory, and/or the second law of thermodynamics might notice a flaw or two in this reasoning. In particular, they might note that biological systems are not – as Ludwig von Bertalanffy had noted by at least 1950 –  energetically closed: plants use photosynthesis to convert light energy from the sun into chemical energy, herbivores eat the plants, carnivores eat the herbivores, etc. etc.

Anyway, this is all a rather protracted way of introducing a comic that captures the whole “thermodynamics negates evolution” argument quite nicely:


From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal via Why Evolution is True.




A.C. Grayling on Humanism

Philosopher A.C. Grayling recently gave a talk on Humanism at The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Student Societies 2014 Convention. I noticed the video while perusing the blog of evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and thought it worth passing along. The talk is eloquent and the message both uplifting and enlightening.


Grayling addresses the question – frequently posed by theists – of how humans are to live fulfilling, ethical lives if there is no religion to tell them how to do so. The notion underlying this idea seems to be that religion is the means by which order has been imposed on anarchy. This line of thinking is common among the adherents of the various modern branches of ancient Levantine monotheism – namely fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Broadly summarized, Grayling’s answer is that there is no single way of behaving living a good and ethical life. To the extent that religion has anything to say about moral behavior, it does not have a monopoly on the topic.

Do we need god to be good?

For many people this is a subject that produces considerable consternation. God is the epicentre of most people’s moral philosophy. Priests and bishops are colloquially thought of as paragons o  righteousness. The notion that individuals can, through careful introspection and critical reflection, sculpt personalized systems of value is anathema. This type of thinking is a product of the vicissitudes of history and the nature of institutionalized power. Western society has been under the spell of Christian hegemony for centuries, including stretches during which religious authority dominated political discourse and actively silenced dissent. But the fact of the matter is that humans were living successful lives for thousands of years prior to the advent of modern religion. Of course, pinning down exactly when our hominid ancestors became more or less human is something of a mystery, and pinning down the moment of speciation in the parade of gradual change captured by any organism’s phylogeny is an arbitrary affair. Some argue that art is the harbinger of modern humanity. Under that rather conservative and capricious definition, humans have been around for 30,000 years or so. If that is so, then we have a stretch of at least 27,500 years during which our species not only survived, but actively flourished, in the absence of the moral dictates of Abrahamic scripture. Anatomically modern humans, however, have been around for around 200,000 years, during which time everyone seemed to get along just fine (in a very general sense) without Yahweh telling them what to do.


Image of horse from Lascaux caves in France. Painted around 17,300 years ago.

Now, there is a compelling argument that says religion may have played a role in enforcing large-scale socio-political cooperation1,2. Rooted in the principles of evolutionary game theory, the basic notion is that in larger communities of distantly or entirely unrelated individuals, the costs of defecting from social contracts might have decreased in concert with a decrease in the positive incentives toward cooperation (reputation, inclusive fitness, reciprocal altruisum, indirect altruism etc.), increasing the likelihood of free-riders or cheaters. It is hypothesized that the specter of all-powerful, vengeful, omniscient deities played a role in enforcing cooperation in the absence of effective incentives toward cooperation (or equally effective disincentives toward defection). Widely accepted, the idea that ill-deeds never go unpunished might have played a role in stabilizing large, complex social systems.

This is the sort of thing I could see theists latching onto, arguing that – by virtue of its hypothetical merits with regard to the maintenance of social order – religious beliefs has demonstrated its value and paid its way. Such an argument is not unthinkable (I just thought it), but it is hardly justifiable. Even if religion played a role in facilitating social cohesion, it did so a great cost. If one takes the Old Testament as an example, then morality is vouchsafed by tyrannical, capricious, and petty3 god dispensing harsh punishments for petty infractions. Who, after all, wants to go back a system where people are stoned to death for not properly observing the Sabbath? Not I. Religious enforcement of social forms involves not only the fear of damnation according to the whims of an ever watchful eye, but severe real-world costs to those caught in the act of defecting. This latter item is probably the more important motivation for cooperation when it comes to the Abrahamic religions. Additionally, the success of the modern monotheisms is, to a considerable extent, predicated upon their militancy. The fear of god maintains order within the group while the wrath of god eradicates those outside of it. The primary intrinsic merit that has secured Christianity’s supremacy as a putative moral authority in the West is its apparent willingness to annihilate opposing ideologies. This was true of Christianity before it was known as such. After all, the god of the Old Testament commanded the Israelites to massacre the Canaanites and Amalekites. Once Christianity had earned its modern moniker and Constantine had consecrated Christianity with the blessing and authority of the Roman state, the stage was set for centuries of slaughter. Take Charlemagne’s brutal response to the Saxon’s initial refusal to accept Christianity, for instance, or the Spanish conquest of the Inca and Aztec nations as another.


Charlemagne (742–814) receiving the submission of Widukind at Paderborn in 785, by Ary Scheffer (1795–1858).

These, I think, are real problem with notion of religion as a source of moral authority. I don’t think they invalidate the hypothesis that religion played a role in ensuring cooperation in incipient nation-states (as I said, I find the idea compelling) but they do illustrate that religions role in said regard was not a moral one. However, I think the best reason to disregard religion as the wellspring of moral of enlightenment is the simple fact that there is no reason to believe religions are true. This is a realization the Abrahamic monotheisms steadfastly guard against in their insistent on blind faith and submission in and to the will of god. I won’t waste any space pointing out why I find the truth claims of religion so dubious. Fundamentalist believers never change their minds, regardless of the reasoning and evidence with which they are presented. This sort of intransigence is made manifest in Creation Museum, a subject Grayling touches on4.More malleable minds can consider the matter for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

And that, as Grayling so eloquently describes, is at the very heart of humanism. It is a philosophy that celebrates individuality and critical thought. To summarize Grayling, it says the best possible kind of life is that life carefully considered and freely chosen. It takes love, freedom, creativity, and respect for the dignity of all humans as its core values and allows individuals to elaborate from there. It is not a rigid code of dos and don’ts, but a general outlook that requires both courage and hard work.

Courage, in that many people stumble when they realize that there is no concrete, universally applicable, monolithic meaning to life. There are many. There is, in fact, one for every single person. Put plainly, that sounds like some crass hippy bullshit, but it happens to be true. Having been reared in a religious home, I personally had a difficult time transitioning out of theism. Letting go of that bastion of purported truth was difficult because, for me, it entailing giving in to a period of listlessness. There was no new foundation to jump on when I stepped away from the old because that foundation hadn’t been built yet.

In a way, it still isn’t.

That’s where the hard work comes in. Thinking for one’s self and coming to a personal understanding of what one finds valuable can be difficult. As Bertrand Russell put it:

“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”

From Why Men Fight, 1916

It demands engagement with unfamiliar and challenging ideas. It is also a task without a firm end point. People build the meaning of their lives until they die. It is, for most, a work that is never truly finished. The trick is to revel in the work itself.

  1. Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton University Press
  2. Johnson, Dominic & Jesse Bering. 2006. Hand of god, mind of man: punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary Psychology 4:219-233
  3. Other than petty and capricious, what would you call someone so concerned with his personal image that he commands people in four different ways to show him respect? Then, for good measure, he says we probably shouldn’t kill each other either.
  4. Grayling calls the Creation Museum a “human rights crime”. As Jerry Coyne commented in his blog, the museum is certainly abominable, but I think calling it a human rights crime is a bit extreme. That said, I do think Ken Ham, the museum’s creator, is  not a particularly good person. One might counter that he is trying to do good – he is, with the best of intentions, trying to do what he thinks is right. Fair enough, but the same could be said for Adolf Hitler. Before someone carries that analogy to far, let me be absolutely clear: I am not saying Ken Ham is anywhere near as terrible a person as Hitler. Hitler was a real human rights criminal. If one could quantify evil, Hitler would be orders of magnitude worse than Ham. The point is that a person’s intentions do not necessarily redeem their actions. Ham’s work may be perfectly well intended, but its fruits have been unequivocally rotten.