Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ben Stein Should Stop Whining About This

Ben Stein's documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, opened this weekend nationwide.

I have not seen it, but supposedly one of its central complaints is that that "intelligent design" is not allowed in America's public schools and institutions of higher education. This, he alleges, is censorship, injustice, oppression.

This seems to me a clear case of whining about nothing. Let me explain why. [Here I will be ignoring his allegation, which I see as a separate matter, that a pro-ID professor was denied tenure because of his religious views.]

ID is simply a version of the traditional "argument from design." This is the familiar watchmaker analogy, which says that just as a watch found on a beach would be evidence that there once was a watchmaker who designed it (watches don't grow on trees after all), so order in nature is evidence that there must be a supernatural intelligence that designed it. An early version of this argument is the fifth of Thomas Aquinas' "five ways" of proving the existence of God (you can find it here if you scroll down the page).

The only thing ID adds to this ancient tradition consists in simply applying the argument from design to specific issues in evolutionary theory. The Cambrian explosion of new species happened too fast (about 80 million years in one account) to be explained by natural selection, therefore a supernatural intelligence brought it about. Or some specific organ or organelle (such as the "motor" that drives the flagellum -- hat tip to Nat Hunt here) could not have evolved from an earlier, simpler structure that itself had some adaptive function that could have been selected for.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to show that Darwinian mechanisms cannot explain various forms of natural order. Scientists have been discussing issues like these since Darwin's book was first published. This is just the sort of thing that scientists do.

But of course this is only half of what the IDer is talking about. The critics of ID point out that the rest of these arguments -- the supernaturalist conclusions -- transform the whole argument into non-science. It's just "religion masquerading as science." That explains why it isn't found in forums like public schools or secular universities.

These critics are right about one thing: these arguments are indeed not scientific in nature, because they deal with an Entity that is radically different from those with which science deals. But they are wrong about the other two points. These arguments are not merely religious and they are found in these forums. They are philosophical arguments. They are discussed in philosophy departments, where they belong. I myself have taught the classic argument from design a number of times. Of course, that is not quite the same thing as ID, which tends to focus on gritty micro-issues. But I'm sure my colleague Eliott Sober discusses such micro-arguments in his courses on the philosophy of biology all the time.

Given that fact, one has to wonder what Ben is whining about. Why should he and his comrades want to move this discussion from the philosophy department to the department of botany? What on Earth is the point? I suspect the only possible answer is what I call "epistemic hitchhiking". They want a ride on the science choo-choo without paying for a ticket to knowledge-town. They don't want to admit that they are just philosophizing. They want to be seen as doing science.

But they just don't qualify. Sorry Ben. Get a life.


Anonymous said...

One thing that you didn't point out that seems pretty important to the issue is that IDers bring nothing scientific to the table. They say that the eye was designed, but they never actually explain how that would physically pan out - which is what a biologist would be looking for. Did an intelligence just pop an eye into a fish-like creature one day? In fact, it's pretty hard to think of anything that could come out of ID which could be seen as a scientific discovery.

Lester Hunt said...

Nat, Good point. That's one of the reasons why what they are doing is not science. They give no mechanism by which their hypothetical cause would bring about its intended effect. It would be like Darwin saying, "all these species exist and have the traits that they have because evolution somehow brought them about," but never developing the theory of natural selection and never even explaining, except in the most general terms, what "evolution" is supposed to mean. There have been times and places where such an empty abstraction would be regarded as "a theory," but not in modern biology.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, pithy assessment of this whole issue -bravo, Lester!

Anonymous said...

Nice post! I used to really like Ben Stein, in large part because of "Win Ben Stein's Money." But his involvement in this whole affair has spoiled him for me. Also, for what it's worth, I understand that the documentary is supposed to be extremely deceptive, and you can read online accounts of how the skeptics interviewed, like Dawkins and Shermer, were lied to and subsequently had their interviews mangled to make them look bad.

And naturally, there's the biggest Godwin violation I've ever seen, an extended discussion of how Darwinism is responsible for Naziism. Apart from being distasteful in itself, it's a bizarre claim for other reasons. For one, that's not a scientific criticism, but a moral/political/social one. (Of course, the fact that ID itself is grounded in those concerns, rather than scientific concerns, may have something to do with that.) For another, it undercuts what the film's main message is, that ID deserves to be taught on an equal basis with Darwinism as a competing theory. Well, but if Darwinism leads to Naziism, wouldn't we prefer to simply "expel" the Darwinians in favor of ID? You can't say that you just want your side to be treated on a equal basis if, at the same time, you're claiming that the other side is irredeemably corrupting and evil. Why would you want to be treated on an equal basis with proto-Nazis? Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I certainly note that there isn't much of a history of the religious conservatives being all that active in the realm of intellectual freedom, which suggests to me that there's something disingenuous about the claim that this is just about academic freedom.

- Jason, http://kraorh.livejournal.com/
Beijing, China

Lester Hunt said...

Ann, Thanks! You are a dear.

Jason, Good point about Ben's potential consistency problem. I used to like him too. He had a sort of diary-column in the American Spectator (maybe he still does) that was always a fun read. He also wrote a funny and wise little book called "How to Ruin Your Life." I wonder what happened to him.