Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Is Secular Humanism better than Intelligent Design?

November’s New Scientist carries an article by E.O. Wilson (Professor of entomology at Harvard University) with the intriguing title: ‘Can biology do better than faith?’ Than which faith, and at what, one wonders? The answers to these questions are: better at providing a unifying worldview than the faiths of Abrahamic monotheism and of the political behaviourism adopted by ‘the now rapidly fading Marxist-Leninist states’. In short, Wilson seems to be rather firmly on the Nature side of the Nature/Nurture debate and to reject monotheism, in both cases on account of the theory of evolution. However, the very fact that Wilson slips from talking about biology to talking about ‘humanism based on science’ shows that his philosophy does not come gift wrapped in his biology, but is a philosophical interpretation of his biology. Wilson’s title obscures this fact.

According to Wilson:

‘Many who accept the fact of evolution cannot, however, on religious grounds, accept the operation of blind chance and the absence of divine purpose implicit in natural selection. They support the alternative explanation of intelligent design. The reasoning they offer is not based on evidence but on the lack of it.’

There are a number of points here that merit comment. First, although it is true to say that many who accept the theory of evolution reject Wilson’s interpretation of evolution as lacking divine purpose on religious grounds, it does not follow that their religious grounds are any less rational than Wilson’s secular humanism. Wilson appears to be assuming that religious belief is always and only a matter of blind faith. Anyone familiar with the work of theistic evolutionists such as Denis Alexander, John Polkinghorne or Russell Stannard will know that this is not always the case. Wilson’s belief that evolution lacks divine purpose is ‘implicit’ in the philosophical assumptions he brings to the theory, not something ‘implicit’ within the theory itself. People who approach the theory of evolution with different philosophical assumptions to Wilson are within their epistemic rights to adopt a different philosophical interpretation of that theory.

Secondly, it should be noted that there are people who reject the theory of evolution without doing so on religious grounds. On the one hand, there are people like secular Jew and mathematician David Berlinski who reject the theory but have no religious beliefs. On the other hand there are people like Catholic biologist Michael Behe who have religious beliefs but reject evolution on wholly evidential grounds since they see no conflict between their religious beliefs and the theory of evolution.

Third, Wilson conflates Intelligent Design theory with all forms of dissent from evolution (which he incorrectly thinks of as always being religiously motivated). A theistic evolutionist like Denis Alexander would be surprised to find himself called an Intelligent Design theorist by Wilson; as would the members of Answers in Genesis!

Finally, Wilson drags up the old objection that ID is an argument from ignorance and not, as it is in fact, a standard scientific argument to the best explanation of the known facts. I’d like to see Wilson accusing the forensic scientist who pronounces a certain death murder rather than an event due to natural causes, or a cryptographer who says that a certain series of numbers is a code, of arguing on the basis of a lack of evidence. And yet scientific inferences such as these, no less than when applied to the natural world itself, fall under the purview of design inferences of the type defended by ID theorists like William A. Dembski.

Wilson is prepared to concede that ID theorists might have a point when they argue that ‘scientists [that should read some scientists] resist the supernatural theory because it is counter to their own personal secular beliefs.’ ‘This may have a kernel of truth;’ says Wilson, ‘everybody suffers from some amount of bias.’ (It should be noted that ID does not, strictly speaking, require a supernatural explanation, since it agrees with David Hume about the limited knowledge about the metaphysical nature of the designer/s one can abstract from a design inferences. What ID requires is an intelligent explanation. Whether or not that intelligence is supernatural is another discussion.) However, Wilson immediately starts back-tracking with an appeal to how ‘the reward system in science works.’ According to Wilson, ‘Any researcher who can prove the existence of intelligent design within the accepted framework of science will make history an achieve eternal fame.’ In fact, I suspect that this is impossible – not because there is no way to present such a ‘proof’ or no evidence to support it, but because ‘the accepted framework in science’ excludes these possibilities a priori. To see why, consider the fact that Wilson considers ID to be a necessarily supernatural explanation, and then ask yourself whether Wilson is prepared to admit supernatural explanations into scientific theories? I doubt he would allow this, and I suspect that, like many ID critics, he might appeal to the supposed necessity of methodological naturalism in the sciences. For a thorough critique of methodological naturalism I would point readers to the work on this subject by the likes of Alvin Plantinga and J.P. Moreland. However, it can be pointed out here that a) only a hard-line methodological naturalism that wants to exclude intelligence as an explanation in the sciences actually conflicts with ID (since ID requires intelligent design and not supernatural design), and b) several philosophers of science would argue that, given the general failure of ‘demarcation arguments’, there is in fact no sufficient reason for excluding supernatural explanations from science in the first place.

Wilson goes on to assert that ‘there is no evidence, no theory and no criteria for proof that even marginally might pass for science.’ This may be true given a sufficiently strict definition of science; but any definition of science strict enough to exclude ID will also exclude all scientific fields that appeal to intelligence as an explanation of empirical evidence. That includes archaeology, cryptography, forensic science, animal psychology, and SETI (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence). Rather than taking such a radical definitional chain-saw to the tree of science Wilson would be well advised to stick to arguing that while there clearly are scientific criteria for making design inferences, and while these inferences can be supported in a number of scientific fields, they cannot be supported when it comes to the suggestion than anything in the fabric of nature is the result of intelligent design. Of course, nothing in the field of SETI has passed the test yet, so Wilson couldn’t use this as an argument against the scientific status of ID without questioning the scientific status of SETI.

In short, it seems hard to argue that ID isn’t scientific, and so the real question becomes whether there is sufficient evidence for making a design inference from nature. ID theorists will think so, non ID theorists will think not; but this is a scientific dispute about empirical evidence, of science verses science, not the issue of blind faith verses science that Wilson portrays.

Wilson’s assertion that ‘biologists are unanimous in concluding that evolution is a fact’ is either untrue (if taken in a substantive sense) or beside the point (if taken in the senses in which Intelligent Design theorists, or biblical creationists of ‘old’ or even ‘young’ earth varieties would accept). There are most certainly a number of qualified biologists and other academics who would dissent from Wilson’s claim that there is ‘overwhelming accumulated evidence favouring [the theory of evolution].’ Wilson’s statement that strict creationists insist that no evolution ever occurred is, to the best of my knowledge, either incorrect or applicable to no one (but at least it introduces a distinction between ID theorists and creationists).

Wilson is committed to the view that humans acquired their ‘unprecedented intelligence’ through an unintended and unguided process of evolution ‘during the far simpler conditions in which humanity lived during more than 99 per cent of its existence…’ Many philosophers have questioned whether this belief is at all coherent. If our brains evolved to cope with such simple conditions, is it reasonable to expect them to cope with figuring out such complicated matters as that they evolved in such conditions (cf. Alvin Plantinga, Warrant & Proper Function, Oxford, 1993)?

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