Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Intelligent Design fracas

These days a trial is occurring in Harrisburg to determine whether Intelligent Design will be taught in a Pennsylvania school as an alternative to Darwinism. At first sight, it might seem that we have regressed to the days of the Scopes trial of 1925, which pitted Evolution against creationism.

In the interval, however, much has changed in our conception of science. Defenders of Darwinism do not always appreciate this shift.

Let us start with the conventional view, which can be found in the writings of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. According to this model, we begin with a substantial body of experiments or observations. Using generally recognized rules, this material is transformed empirically to yield scientific concepts. The concepts resulting from these operations remain unchallenged until a further body of evidence appears that causes them to be revised. In this way science truly progresses, moving ever closer to final truth.

In 1962 Thomas Kuhn published his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the most influential book of philosophy published in English during the 20th century. Kuhn challenged every element of the conventional view.

First, Kuhn held that there is a two-fold pattern of scientific discovery. Much of the time scientific workers accept a dominant paradigm, content to make minor modifications of it. This phase is termed "normal" science. At some point, however, the old paradigm collapses and is replaced by a new one. This is the revolutionary phase.

A paradigm is a cluster of themes, expectations, and problems. It is a holistic entity that is irrefutable. Moreover, paradigms are incommensurable; statements in one paradigm cannot be translated into another.

In the view of many who embraced the new concept its implications are profoundly relativistic. For example, Paul Feyerabend suggested that we need not limit ourselves to one paradigm only, but should entertain as many as possible: "anything goes." He would even include witchcraft and astrology. In his later years Kuhn (who died in 1996) sought to distance himself from his postmodern admirers. Nonetheless, the genie came out of the bottle in 1962, and things have not been the same since.

As noted with Feyerabend, some sought to push the Kuhnian concept to the limit. Others sought to retain elements of the traditional view, including the idea of scientific progress. Others pointed out that the word "paradigm" is polysemous, admitting (perhaps) of as many as 22 different senses.

Still the intellectual climate fundamentally changed. There can be no question of returning to the simple truths of the old Baconian-Newtonian model. Some of the defenders of Darwinism seem to seek to do just this, however, claiming that Evolution irrefutably rests upon a chain of observation, deduction (according to settled rules), and ascertainment. In this view Intelligent Design does not. Yet in a post-Kuhnian world neither theory can claim this solid foundation. The basis for the defense of Darwinism must lie elsewhere.

Kuhn’s challenge to the conventional model of scientific change belongs to the early sixties. At almost the same time the British historian of ideas, Frances Yates, advanced another. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in Rome in 1600, counts as a martyr to freedom of thought and a pioneer of modern science. In her 1964 book entitled Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Yates showed that the Italian thinker’s writings are permeated with references to the occult corpus associated with Hermes Trismegistus. Bruno was hardly an exemplar of the scientific method. Instead, he elicited fear from the authorities as a possible practitioner of magic arts—arts that might actually work, or so they suspected.

Yates and others have profiled many other scientists whose work took much of its initial impetus from sources that we would regard as irrational and superstitious. A noted example is Isaac Newton, who is known to have expended much energy on chronological, alchemical, and apocalyptic speculations. A full understanding of Newton requires attention to these occult interests. There is no need to cite further examples. The key point in all of this is that there is a difference between discovery and confirmation. Discovery may involve all sorts of serendipitous, even irrational motives. Confirmation requires replication and also, as Karl Popper has shown, refutability.

It is not clear whether the supporters of intelligent design are aware of their indebtedness to the trends inaugurated by Kuhn and Yates. Yates’ ideas of the occult would surely be repugnant to them. Still, the whole intellectual climate has changed since the sixties, and the Intelligent Design folks rank among the beneficiaries. An unintended consequence, if you will

I am not a supporter of Intelligent Design. It seems to me that its proponents need to come up with arguments that would be much more cogent than the ones they have advanced so far. Yet I would not rule this possibility out. That is what the hard-line evolutionists do, and this dogmatic tactic is harming them in two ways. First, as I have shown in the above remarks, they tend to go back to a conventional view about the history of science that is pre-Kuhn and pre-Yates. At this late date, that ploy will not work. With all due respect to them, it smacks of a reversion to the old time religion. Secondly, in their insistence that theirs is the only way, the Darwinists seem to violate the basic postulates of the liberal principle of dialogue. Hurling epithets about “flat earth” and “alchemy” will not silence this concern.

As I have indicated, this piece is not a plea for Intelligent Design. It seems to me unlikely that it will ever emerge as a competing paradigm, an acceptable alternative to Darwinism. Still, because of the changes in the intellectual climate I have outlined above, it does not suffice for the defenders of Darwin simply to hurl anathemas based on the situation prior to 1962.

Clearly we have not simply returned to the time of the Scopes trial eighty years ago. In the new context the opponents of evolution may be harder to defeat in the court of opinion now than they were at the time of Scopes.

Note: A book has recently been published purporting to reassess the Scopes trial. It is Marvin Olasky and John Perry, Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial. In the view of the authors, the trial has improperly taken its place as an icon of the conflict between Evolution and Creationism, a contest in which Evolution won. Reviews suggest that the authors, who are supporters of Intelligent Design, have not made their case. Olasky, be it noted, has had considerable influence on president Bush.


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