Friday, March 31, 2006


Steve Fuller on 'Kuhn vs. Popper' - the justification of belief matters to religion

In stark contrast to the strangely uninformed picture of religious belief as a matter of blind faith spread about by Prof. Richard Dawkins, secular humanist Prof. Steve Fuller writes:

'It is easy to forget that both science and religion are preoccupied with justifying beliefs.' (p. 16)

Of course, Fuller isn't admitting that religion suceeds in justifying its beliefs. Nevertheless, even for Fuller to recognize that religion is concerned with even an attempt at rational justification, or that religious people generally don't believe what they do because they think it is unreasonable, places him at odds with the likes of Dawkins! It comes to something when one has to commend a secular humanist for recognizing and stating the obvious!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Steve Fuller on Kuhn vs. Popper - ID Is Scientific

I've just read Steve Fuller's book Kuhan vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science (Icon Books, 2006), which is a sociology of science review of the debate between Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper's philosophies of science in the twentieth century. I'll probably get a few posts out of highlighting some passages in this book that should be of interest to readers of this blog.

On page 75 Fuller talks about a critique of Darwin given by William Whewell andJohn Stuart Mill as 'the sort of complaint one might expect today from proponents of 'Intelligent Design Theory', the scientific version of Creationism.'

I suppose I can live with ID being described as a 'version of Creationism', if I'm allowed to mentally downgrade from the capital 'C' of so-called 'Biblical Creationism' (be it 'Young' or 'Old' Earth Creationism). If 'creationism' can mean any teleological view of the subject of study, then in that sense ID is a form of creationism (but so are directed panspermia and Platonism). Nevertheless, the associative resonance of 'creationism' doesn't help to convey the message that ID makes no religious assumptions and leads to a conclusion that can be embraced by atheists (indeed, which is embraced by some atheists).

However, at least Steve Fuller (a self declared secular humanist) is affirming that ID is scientific.

Of course, 'being scientific' does not mean 'being true'. Fuller appears to be agnostic about whether or not ID is true. And nor does 'being true' automatically mean 'being scientific'. ID would rather be true than scientific - but it claims to be both. Still, it's nice to see someone who isn't an ID proponent agreeing that ID is science, even if they don't agree that it is true (another example here is philosopher of science Bradley Morton).

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Dr David Tyler of Manchester Metropolitan University defends the scientific legitimacy of intelligent design theory

In his paper 'Is Design Part of Science', from the Christians in Science Northern Conference, Durham, 18 March 2006, Dr David Tyler of Manchester Metropolitan University argues that intelligent design is a legitimate part of science. Here's the most salient edited highlights:

'The 19th Century saw the flowering of the Enlightenment, with a powerful movement to secularise science. The intellectual leaders sought to redefine science in terms of law and chance exclusively. Inevitably, design inferences involving the agency of a Creator were regarded as antithetical to science, and the benefits that design thinking had brought in earlier times were overlooked and forgotten. These demarcation attempts were only partially successful. Inevitably, some areas of science were excluded. Design inferences are very much part of science in the fields of archaeology, forensic science, and the search for extraterrestrial life. In the last of these examples, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) uses design principles to analyse radio signals from space and has the long-term goal of inferring the existence of an alien civilisation. Instead of arguing for the superiority of explanations based on law and/or chance, those involved in the secularising trend have opted to exclude design from science as a matter of principle... In recent years, attempts have been made to counter the secularising trend in science. Evidence-based reasoning to design has reappeared... Some scientists have openly acknowledged that the Cosmos has the appearance of being designed. This, for example, comes from the journal Nature, 14 November 1996, p107: "It turns out that the physical constants have just the values required to ensure that the Universe contains stars with planets capable of supporting intelligent life...The simplest interpretation is that the Universe was designed by a creator who intended that intelligent life should evolve." (Smith J. M. & Szathmary E., "On the likelihood of habitable worlds”). These authors go on to say: “This interpretation lies outside science.” The current culture in science is such the design option is a “no-go” area. Consequently, the majority have searched for ways of explaining fine tuning as a result of chance... We are left with a paradox about the fine tuning of the cosmos in which we live. On the one hand, intelligent design works with evidence and infers design in a rational way, but most scientists want to exclude this as a matter of principle. On the other hand, the Multiverse hypothesis provides a chance based explanation, but it lacks any evidential base and it rests on extremely tentative theoretical foundations. Yet research into the Multiverse concept is deemed to be science. However, in this case, intelligent design is far more compatible with the knowledge that we have gained, and it ought to be evaluated as part of scientific discourse, not excluded as a matter of principle. We can perhaps start by considering this question “Is the Cosmos designed?” Why is the answer considered science if the verdict is negative but religion if the conclusion is positive? Putting this a slightly different way: “Why is inferring the existence of a Multiverse based on theory and observations science, while inferring intelligent design based on theory and observations is opposed as an invalid God of the gaps argument?” This case study reveals one of the key marks of secularisation in science: the rejection of the design inference as a matter of principle. To do justice to the observed pattern of data, researchers have created a scenario that was once dismissed as absurd. They have done this with no evidence of any other universe than the one we observe, and by using theoretical tools that are far from robust. Will history show that their rejection of the design inference led them into antiscience? Has escapism from design done something similar within the biological sciences? This is where the controversy rages most fiercely and where emotions run high. My aim in this presentation is not to answer that particular question, but just to suggest that the question is worth addressing... Those who present “design” as yet another assault on science need to develop a more holistic view. It may well be that we need a “back to our roots” movement in science, in which case, ID is part of the solution.'

Monday, March 20, 2006


Basil Mitchell on agency, telikenesis and detecting design

In his work on the design inference mathematician and philosopher William A. Dembski claims to have formalized (at least one of) the intuitive design detection apparatus of humanity. My confidence in the truth of this claim, and the claim that specified complexity is a reliable criterion of design detection, is boulstered by the fact that I keep coming accross academics who write about design detection and who employ what are more or less clearly pre-theoretic versions of Dembski's 'specified complexity' criterion. For example, arch Darwinist Richard Dawkins uses specified complexity as a design detector in Climing Mount Improbable, although he studiously ignores its implications.

My most recent discovery along these lines is a passage from Basil Mitchell's The Justification of Religious Belief (Macmillan, 1973). Mitchell was Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion and Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford prior to Richard Swinburne. In the course of defending the coherence of talking about incorporeal agency Mitchell has this to say on the subject of telikenesis (the alleged power to alter events such as the fall of dice by simply 'willing'):

'Whether or not telikenesis actually occurs, it does not seem difficult to specify the conditions under which we should be prepared to admit its occurence. If the dice were to fall with a certain number upwards whenever a particular individual was asked to bring it about and not otherwise, we should conclude that he had the power to cause physical changes without bodily movement. Bodily movement on the part of the agent is normally a reliable guide as to whether an occurence is an action or not, and, if so, whose; but we could, in principle, settle both questions without recourse to this criterion, if the other indications were clear enough. What are these? A combination of the following: (i) The unlikelihood of the event's occurrence apart from the intervention of some agent. (ii) The event's contributing to some purpose. (iii) The agreement of that purpose with the independently known character and purposes of the putative agent.' (p. 8.)

Note, first of all, that Mitchell is arguing that design can in principle be detected even if the design is not implimented by bodily agency.

Mitchell's design detection criterion has more parts than Dembski's, but then it attempts to do more, because it attempts to provide a criterion whereby we can detect not only that 'an occurrence is an action' but also 'whose' action it is. Mitchell's criterion for detecting intelligent design per se appears to be the same as Dembski's (albeit in a less outworked form).

Mitchell says that whether an occurence such as the falling of dice is an action can be answered positively if two conditions are met - and those conditions are sufficient complexity ('The unlikelihood of the event's occurrence apart from the intervention of some agent') combined with an independent specification ('specify the conditions under which we should be prepared to admit its occurence'/'The event's contributing to some purpose'). Knowledge concerning 'The agreement of that purpose with the independently known character and purposes of the putative agent', while helpful in pinning a designed event on a specific agent, is clearly not necessary for Mitchell's design inference per se.

Notice that this means that a design inference of the type advocated by Dembski does not of itself implicate any particular agent. Suppose our paranormal investigators set up some rigorous scientific experiments into telikenesis (would critics of ID condemn such experiments as anti-scientific in principle?) and the dice do indeed 'fall with a certain number upwards whenever a particular individual was asked to bring it about and not otherwise'. Suppose the specified complexity of this result exceeded Dembski's universal probability bound (something Mitchell doesn't bother calculating): while we should conclude that the best explanation for this result is intelligent design, we could not implicate our test subject on the basis of Dembski's design filter. Our test subject might have telikenetic powers, but the result we detected might have been caused by any agent. To settle on attributing the excersize of telikenetic powers in this instance to our test subject - rather than to God, or a god, or a ghost, or a demon, or an angel, or another human or alien with telikenetic powers in the next room who is trying to dupe our researchers into thinking that our subject has telikeneitc powers when he does not, etc. - our scientists must appeal to criteria beyond Dembski's design filter. Mitchell's 'agreement of that purpose with the independently known character and purposes of the putative agent' might be a good start here, but one imagines that Occam's razor should feature fairly heavily in such deliberations.

Basil Mitchell didn't clearly distinguish the criteria for infering design from the criteria for infering the responsibility of putative designers; he left his design detection criterion in a fairly pre-theoretic state (simply indicating the combination of low probability with a specification) sans the context of information theory and universal probability bounds deployed by Dembski, and, perhaps for these very reasons, Mitchell never made much of his criterion (and this in a book that discusses design arguments!). Nevertheless, it seems clear that Mitchell was thinking along the same lines as Dembski.

As far as one can tell, Dembski's thoughts on the matter are independent of Mitchell's. Now, the more scholars independently arrive at the same answer to a problem, the more confident we tend to be about the truth of their solution. Hence, discovering the use of specified complexity as a way to justify the inference to design as an aside in a work by a respected philosopher like Mitchell tends to add to our confidence that Dembski's answer to the question of design detection is correct.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Peter van Inwagen on Evolution

Peter van Inwagen is a respected Professor of Philosophy at Syracuse University. Although van Inwagen is a Christian, he is not a creationist. Indeed, regarding creationism Inwagen writes: 'It's not that it's not science at all... It's that - in my view, at least - it's very bad science, consisting of contrived, ad hoc arguments and selective appeal to evidence.' Nor, from what I know, does Inwagen count himself as a supporter of Intelligent Design Theory. Nevertheless, Inwagen has doubts about the Darwinian theory of macroevolution by natural selection. Here are some excepts from Inwagen's paper on 'Genesis and Evolution', first published in 1993, which bear a strong resemblance to the writings of several ID theorists:

‘One of the strongest reasons for being sceptical about... macroevolution is the absence of intermediate forms. This absence is striking, even at the level of the biological class... there are few, if any, remotely plausible fossil candidates for intermediates between... any class and the class out of which, by general agreement, it is supposed to have evolved... I find it difficult to believe that some fish was separated from some amphibian by only – to pick a figure that must be right within a factor of two or three – ten thousand generations, each of which differed from its predecessor only to the extent allowed by the operation of natural selection. Most biologists, apparently, find this easy enough to believe. The ignorant skeptic like myself, the village atheist, will wonder whether their ability to believe this is rooted in their nuts-and-bolts anatomical, physiological, and biochemical expertise, or whether it is the product of their belief that things could easily have happened this way because this is how things did in fact happen... One can also raise the question whether the missing intermediates are even logically possible, given that evolution proceeds by natural selection... there is no guarantee that such a procedure would produce at each step a genotype that corresponds to a viable organism. In fact, I find it hard to believe that it would... I doubt that there is any path in logical space from one to the other that proceeds by changing a small number of genes at each step: every path you try will (I suspect) eventually run up against organs and systems that are no longer coordinated – perhaps even against proteins that don’t fold properly. You can only look from one to the other and shake your head sadly and say, “You can’t get there from here.” At least not by the mode of transport envisaged... even if there are possible “small-step” paths from fish to amphibian, these paths might compose only an infinitesimally small region within the space of all the possible paths that confront the ancestral population of fish, and thus the evolution by natural selection of amphibian from fish might be so vastly improbable as not to be worth considering… our tentative conclusion should be that the theory of evolution by natural selection alone is doubtful in a way that many scientific theories are not.’ -
Peter van Inwagen, ‘Genesis and Evolution’ in God, Knowledge & Mystery: Essays in Philosophical Theology, (Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 128-162.


Open Letter to OCR

Dear OCR,

Subsequent to recent somewhat histrionic news coverage of your pedagogically excellent changes to the GCSE 'Gateway to Science' syllabus, which correctly informs students that one's assessment of empirical data is affected by one's background beliefs, I note from your website that OCR clearly adheres to background beliefs which mean that: "Creationism and 'intelligent design' are not regarded by OCR as scientific theories."

Since I am not a creationist, I have no particular stake in defending the scientific status of creationism. However, as a philosopher I do think that creationism should be classified as 'bad science' rather than as 'not science.' As professor of philosophy Peter van Inwagen writes of creationism: 'It's not that it's not science at all... It's that - in my view, at least - it's very bad science, consisting of contrived, ad hoc arguments and selective appeal to evidence.' (God, Knowledge & Mystery: Essays in Philosophical Theology, Cornell University Press, 1995, p. 143.) On this subject, may I recommend J.P. Moreland's work on Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation (Baker, 1989)? Professor Moreland, who concludes that creationism is science, argues that "more understanding would obtain if we read the creation/evolution debate not only as a difference regarding scientific facts, though it includes that, but also as a conflict over epistemic values." Hence Moreland's approach to understanding scientific controversy is, at least in this respect, very much in line with OCR's new standards.

As for Intelligent Design Theory (ID), I do hope that OCR is clear about the fact that ID is not 'creation science'. Nor is ID a conspiracy to re-package creationism for American schools. Unlike creationism, ID makes no theological assumptions and does not claim to provide direct evidential support for any theological conclusions. The scientific detection of 'intelligent design' falls far short of a conclusion of 'divine design', as David Hume would have pointed out (cf. Peter S. Williams, 'Design and the Humean Touchstone'). On these topics, may I refer OCR to the following papers: John G. West, 'Intelligent Design and Creationism are Just not the Same'; Jonathan Witt, 'The Origin of Intelligent Design'

As for the scientific status of Intelligent Design Theory, denied by OCR, I would like to refer you to the following sources of counter-argument:

Bradley Monton, 'Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision'
Alvin Plantinga, 'Whether ID is science isn't semantics'
Peter S. Williams, 'If SETI is Science and UFOlogy Is Not, Which Is Intelligent Design Theory?'
John Angus Campbell & Stephen C. Meyer, (ed.’s), Darwinism, Design, And Public Education, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2003)

At the very least, I hope that OCR will further its epistemically correct approach to the philosophy of science, encouraging recognition of the fact that not only is one's assessment of empirical data, but also one's assessment of what counts as a scientific theory, is affected by background beliefs. The scientific status of various origins theories is a matter of dispute which students should surely be given the tools to think about for themselves. Not to encourage such open minded but critical engagement would seem to place OCR in an awkward position: on the one hand telling students to think about how different background beliefs affect people's assessment of empirical data, whilst, on the other hand, telling them not to think about the relative merits of those background beliefs when they impinge upon the dictat (questioned by opponents as well as supporters of both views) that neither creationism nor ID are scientific.

Yours Sincerely,

Peter S. Williams (MA, MPhil)

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Hysteria over new GCSE science syllubus

The OCR examination board has sparked hysteria in the national media by making a reference to creationism in its new set of standards for GCSE science.

According to The Times, creationism is 'to be taught on GCSE science syllabus', while the Guardian cries: 'Exam board brings creationism into science class'.

These headlines are somewhat overblown. As the Guardian says: 'The new biology syllabus in England does not require the teaching of creationist views alongside Darwin's theory of evolution, but it opens the way for classroom discussions in science lessons and pupils will be assessed on work they do on this topic.'

Several print and radio news reports have also made a link between the new OCR syllabus and the possibility that 'intelligent design' might be taught in British schools. For example, in The Times, James Williams, science course leader at Sussex University’s school of education, says:

'This opens a legitimate gate for the inclusion of creationism or intelligent design in science classes as if they were legitimate theories on a par with evolution fact and theory. I’m happy for religious theories to be considered in religious education, but not in science where consideration could lead to a false verification of their status as being equal to scientific theories.'

Of course, this remark simply assumes that neither creationism nor ID are legitimate scientific theories on a par with evolution, because both are religious theories. One the one hand it is questionable why a religious theory cannot also be a scientific theory. On the other hand, ID is not a religious theory!

So what have OCR done to cause this storm in a tea cup? The new OCR 'Gateway to Science' curriculum asks pupils to examine how organisms become fossilised, and then it asks teachers to 'explain that the fossil record has been interpreted differently over time (eg creationist interpretation)'.

Why would the simple act of informing students about the fact that people with different beliefs have interpreted, or tried to interpret, empirical evidence such as the fossil record in different ways, causing such a storm?

The Times reports that: 'OCR, one of the three main exam boards in England, said that the syllabus was intended to make students aware of scientific controversy.' Here is the cause of all the trouble - the suggestion that we teach students that controversy about origins is not merely a scientific controversy about empirical data, but a controversy about how best to interpret empirical data, which is affected by people's background beliefs, including their metaphysical beliefs.

The nub of the problem

The really radical aspect of the OCR syllubus, as reported by the Guardian, is that it wants children to learn about 'ways in which scientific work may be affected by the contexts in which it takes place... and how these contexts may affect whether or not ideas are accepted.' Now, this is undoubtedly true. Teaching this fact to students will undoubtedly aid their understanding of science, of controversy within science, and of how science relates to other subjects that they study (especially 'RE'/'Philosophy & Ethics'). However, even OCR are ambivalent here, wanting to give with one hand and take with the other...

On the one hand, they want students to understand that what one counts as the best interpretation of the empirical data is relative to one's background beliefs:

The Times reports that a spokeswoman for OCR said: 'Candidates need to understand the social and historical context to scientific ideas both pre and post Darwin. Candidates are asked to discuss why the opponents of Darwinism thought the way they did and how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence.' (One hopes that students will learn that Darwin's opposition included leading scientists and philosophers of his day and that many Christians accepted evolution without any trouble...) John Noel, OCR’s science qualifications manager, told The Times Educational Supplement: 'It is simply looking at one particular example of how scientific interpretation changes over time. The history of scientific ideas not only has a legitimate place in science lessons, it is a requirement of the new programme of study.'

The National Curriculum Online website says for science at Key Stage 4: 'Students should be taught how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence (for example Darwin's theory of evolution).' Classes should also cover 'ways in which scientific work may be affected by the context in which it takes place (for example, social, historical, moral, spiritual), and how these contexts may affect whether or not ideas are accepted.'

On the other hand, t
hey want students to accept background beliefs which make a belief in evolution a foregone conclusion and which define 'science' in such a way as to exclude creationism and ID by definition:

OCR's website declares that: 'Creationism and "intelligent design" are not regarded by OCR as scientific theories. They are beliefs that do not lie within scientific understanding.' James Williams fumes in the Guardian over the mere mention of creationism in science classes: 'This is not science, it is not recognised by the scientific community and to legitimise it like this is wrong.' (So recognition by the scientific community now defines science?!)

According to The Times, a spokesman at the Department for Education and Skills said: 'The National Curriculum for science clearly sets down that pupils should be taught that the fossil record is evidence for evolution.'

So there we have it - the British government's official view is that the fossil record is evidence for evolution (perhaps they should read this peer reviewed scientific paper by Stephen C. Meyer). Since OCR have pointed out that whether or not one accepts this view is dependent upon one's metaphysical/religious background beliefs, it would seem that the British government is implicitly endorsing background beliefs that have this consequence and opposing background beliefs that do not have this consequence.


Its seems to me that the new OCR science syllubus is a real step forward for science education. It opens the way for a worldview centred education system, allowing students to be told the truth about the relationship between empirical data, scientific theories and background beliefs of all kinds. This will aid pupil's understanding of scientific disagreements, and it will help them to see how science is related to the different philosophical and religious belief systems that they study in other subjects such as 'Philosophy & Ethics'.

Nervous newspaper headlines notwithstanding, these new science standards do not amount to state endorsement for teaching creationism or ID as theories which are even scientific, let alone true. The context of GCSE science remains one in which the state endorses teaching that evolution is true. Nevertheless, by the simple act of admitting to students that 'scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence' these new standards will let the genie out of the bottle, because however insistent OCR is about neither creationism nor ID being science, and however insistent the state is that the fossil record supports evolution, students who have been taught to recognize that such claims depend upon certain background assumptions might just examine the assumptions endorsed by OCR and by the state and decide that they don't agree...

BBC News report

Guardian report

The Times report

OCR website comment

ID in the UK blog report

Monday, March 13, 2006


Link to Macro-Evolution Agnostic

I came across a blog by Lawrence Seldon called Darwinian Fundamentalism today, and added it to my list of 'ID friendly blogs'. Seldon does not appear to throw his hat in with ID, but he does describe himself as a macro-evolution agnostic, as his personal profile states:

'I am a macroevolution agnostic. I used to accept evolutionary theory. Then I looked at the evidence. It became clear to me that macroevolutionary theory is built more on a priori philosophical assumptions than on evidence. Microevolution, on the other hand, is supported by the evidence. The distinction between the two is critical and is largely ignored, or not understood, by the mainstream media and general public.'

Seldon's blog is subtitled:

'A blog "dedicated" to all the obscurantist, anti-intellectual, or dogmatic macroevolutionists in the world. When science does not give us a convincing explanation, we should admit it.'


Alvin Plantinga defends the scientific status of ID

Renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga has his say on the question of whether ID is science in a new article:

Alvin Plantinga, 'Whether ID is science isn't semantics'

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Taking Schopenhauer's Advice

In his cynical/ironic book on The Art of Always Being Right (Gibson Square, 2005) philosopher Arthur Shopenhauer gave the following advice:

'If you are confronted with an assertion, there is a short way of getting rid of it, or, at any rate, of throwing suspicion on it, by putting it into some odious category; even though the connection is only apparent, or else of a loose character. You can say, for instance, 'That is Manichaeism' or 'It is Arianism', or 'Pelagianism', or 'Idealism', or 'Spinozism', or 'Pantheism', or 'Brownianism', or 'Naturalism', or 'Atheism', or 'rationalism', or 'Spiritualism', 'Mysticism', and so on. In making an objection of this kind, you take it for granted: (1) that the assertion in question is identical with, or is at least contained in, the category cited - that is to say, you cry out, 'Oh, I have heard that before'; and (2) that the system referred to has been entirely refuted, and does not contain a world of truth.' (p 141-142.)

All of which sounds strikingly familiar to an intelligent design theorist used to fielding accusations about ID being 'creationism', 'religious', 'religious fundamentalism' and the like.

Of course, ID is neither identical with, nor contained within, the cited 'creationism' category (or the other categories). And while ID does bear some loose similarities with design arguments of the past, and with creationism, it constitutes a new scientifc framing and methodology of design argumentation which didn't really get up a head of steam until the 1990's. Those who cry 'Oh, I have heard that before' usually have not, slovenly confusing ID with creationism or William Paley's watchmaker argument (which they have heard before). They then attack the wrong target and declare the battle over before it begins. Moreover, while I am not a creationist, I wouldn't go so far as to say that creationism does not contain a word of truth (nor is Paley so easily dismissed as one might think from reading introductory texts in philosophy). Indeed, some arguments used by creationists against the theory of evolution are perfectly good arguments.

Many critics of ID seem to have taken Schopenhauer's advice to heart, following it to the letter!

Monday, March 06, 2006


New York Times' misleading reporting of 'A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism'

Having highlighted the Discovery Institute's 'Scientific Dissent From Darwinism' in a recent post, I came accross this fascinating example of the all too frequent press bias concerning ID in the New York Times' reporting of the matter, as discussed by John West @

' amazing admission by Times' reporter Ken Chang that only a small minority of the scientists he interviewed actually fit his story's stereotyped description of Darwin's critics.'

Sunday, March 05, 2006


View ID Video on-line

You Can View These Two Videos For Free Here:

Unlocking The Mystery Of Life

The Privileged Planet

[Broadband Connection Recommended. RealPlayer required.]


Jurasic 'Beaver' - some musings to get your teeth into

This month's New Scientist reports on the discovery, in China, of a fossilized Jurasic 'beaver' (Castorocauda) about the size of a grey squirrel, which makes it the largest mammal-like animal ever found from the Jurasic period (i.e. 200-145 million years ago). Writing for New Scientist, Jeff Hecht says that the discovery 'reveals that earlier mammals were not only bigger than thought, but more diverse.' Moreover, according to Hecht, 'The discovery shows that fur, modern skin structures and warm-blooded metabolism originated very early in mammals.' Indeed, this fossil, from 164 million years ago, 'sports the oldest known fur.'

Now, the earlier and more diverse any given animal type (e.g. mammals) or feature (e.g. fur, modern skin structures, a warm-blooded metabolism) the more explanatory weight evolution by natural selection is being asked to carry. Evolution is clearly a fact of life, but equally clearly, one cannot demand that evolution explain more in less time indefinitely. Assuming that evolution is an adequate explanation for the appearance of x number of mammals/features in x amount of time, what about y (larger) number in x amount of time (or less time), etc? Now, I'm not saying that the assumption that evolution accounts for the arival of a 'more diverse' set of mammals/mammal-like animals & features in the required time frame is an instance when too much is being asked of evolution. As far as I'm concerned, it may or may not be. I'm just saying that the question should be addressed. But here is where our trouble starts. For the discovery of the Jurasic beaver surely raises the question of when the numbers become too much, of where the tipping-point between evolution being an adequate and an inadequate explanation comes. The denial that such a tipping point exists surely turns evolution from a scientific theory into a philosophical dogma unconcerned with empirical reality testing. Nevertheless, many scientists looking to explain the existence of mammals will simply assume a priori that evolution must be the explanation, rather than admitting a priori that 'it may or may not be' the explanation.

As an inset box in the New Scientist article says: 'Few fossils have been found of relatively large mammals living in the Jurasic, but it seems that these ancient mammals had already developed many of the traits the exist today.' The term 'developed', in context, clearly means 'evolved'. This is assumed rather than argued. Indeed, the fossil record itself clealry provides little or no support for this assumption. The fossils apparently do not show much gradual evolution from basic to more complex/modern mammals, but rather shows early Jurasic mammals with 'many of the traits that exist today'. Now, if one assumes that evolution is true then one will have to explain this fact away by saying that the fossil record is incomplete. These traits did evolve, but we have no material record of their evolution for some reason. This may be true; although the more digging we do, and the more fossils like our Jurasic beaver we turn up, the less likely such an evolutionary 'epicycle' becomes (and the more strained the evolutionary explanation becomes). At best this means admitting that the fossil record offers no direct empirical support for the assumption that these 'modern' traits evolved; and at worst it means that the fossil record is in tension with the predictions of Darwinian theory.

Finally, Hecht observes that our beaver 'has overlapping rib bones, a trait found among reptiles called cydonts that gave rise to mammals, but not in later mammals. The overlap is not found in the cydonts considered closest to mammals, so [Zhe-Xi] Lao thinks it re-evolved rather than being a holdover from its distant ancestors.'

Is this the re-expression of genetic information that had been superceded but had somehow lain dormant in cydonts who lost this physiological feature and then led (by whatever means) to mammals? Or is this another example of the 're-evolution' or 'parallel evolution' which some scholars, such as Simon Conway-Morris, think argues for teleology?

One thing is certain, discovering more fossils is not an activity which automatically supports the full-blown 'blind watchmaker' hypothesis.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


The influence of Darwin on modern thinking about the design hypothesis

An invitation from a scientist at Edinbrugh University to contribute a paragraph on a personal view of Darwin's influence on modern thought stimulated me to write the following summary of Darwin's influence on the debate about design. The scientist in question is gathering comments for an article 'to be published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution (Elsevier) early in the new year'.

I've never bought the view, held by some, that Darwin's scientific theory is incompatible with a robust and evidentially supported belief in design, theistm, or the Bible. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Darwin's real triumph lay in getting people to shift the ground rules of the design debate within science - whether this was primarily his own influence or a picking up upon the spirit of the times you would have to ask more historically informed commentators. Intelligent Design theorists have therefore rightly countered Darwin by addressing a combination of philosophical and scientific issues - and by doing so have, I believe, shown that Darwin was wrong overall whilst being right up to a point. ID subsumes the theory of evolution much as Einstein's theory subsumed those of Newton. Newton was, strictly speaking, wrong. But he was right up to a point!

Anyway, here is my submission, which may or may not make it through to paper publication:

'Darwin changed the ground-rules for the philosophical design debate in The Origin of Species. Reversing the proper burden of proof concerning design, he placed it on those who posit design and awarded the presumption of truth to his own bold but risky extrapolation from micro-evolution to macro-evolution, although this depended upon a fallacious shift between saying that he saw no barrier to this extrapolation and saying that there was no barrier (this shift constituted an ‘argument from ignorance’). Many believers in design subsumed Darwin’s scientific theory within the design hypothesis, pointing out that material process and teleology are logically compatible, and highlighting evidence for design in the preconditions of evolution (such as the fine-tuning of the big bang) and even in the overall process of evolution. This project, embraced by influential scholars such as F.R. Tennant and Richard Swinburne, became known as the ‘wider teleology’. Hence, although Darwin didn’t end the design debate, he successfully limited the territory within which debating design was an academically acceptable activity. Darwin started the trend for scientists to offer vague gestures at a designer in the final paragraph of their books! However, following the rise of Intelligent Design Theory in the late twentieth century, a growing number of philosophers and scientists are calling Darwin’s epistemological bluff. These ‘design theorists’ are arguing, on the basis of advances in information theory and biological knowledge, that nature exhibits certain types of complexity that are both effective barriers to Darwin’s macro-evolutionary extrapolation and reliable indicators of design. For example, ‘irreducibly complex’ molecular machines such as the bacterial flagellum cannot (by definition) gradually evolve via any direct evolutionary pathway, and the odds against their gradual evolution via indirect evolutionary pathways means that they appear to be examples of ‘specified complexity’. In our experience, the only adequate explanation for specified complexity is intelligent design. On the one hand intelligent design subsumes all the genuine explanatory power of evolution without excluding evidentially motivated explanation by reference to design (a type of explanation considered perfectly ‘proper’ in numerous scientific fields) in advance of looking at the evidence. On the other hand intelligent design supplements the insights of the wider teleology (‘specified complexity’ is an analytical tool applicable to the pre-conditions of evolution) without buying into the assumption that evidence for design can’t exist within the biotic realm. With these developments, Darwinism joins the distinguished list of scientific theories that have been shown to be right up to a point. As intelligent design continues to gain ground it will increasingly be taken as a scientific starting point for philosophical debates about which metaphysical interpretation of the design inference is best. Theories of infinite naturalistic resources will battle it out with theories of both natural and supernatural designers of various kinds. But hasn’t that always been the way?'

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Is ID a pseduo-scientific creationist conspiracy? Peter Hearty on Intelligent Design Theory - a critique

Peter Hearty, with whom I debated ID on Premier Christian Radio a few weeks ago (cf., has an article on the National Secular Society website entitled 'Intelligent Design Leads Religious Renaissance'. Here is his article with my interjected comments (in blue):

Religion is enjoying a world-wide Renaissance, but while the demise of the medieval world heralded an upsurge in art, literature and science, this latter day Renaissance is a very different beast. [Is it me, or is Peter implying that the demise of the medieval world co-insided with a demise in religion and that this demise is to be thanked for a resulting upsurge in art, literature and science? If so, he has surely got his historical facts wrong. Science was created against a backdrop of theism which nurtured it. The first experimental scientists were Christians. And as for art, renaissance art is predominently religious art!] To it, science is a mortal enemy. [This is a sweeping statement. It certainly does not apply to the proponents of ID, many of whom are professional scientists!] Science offers an alternative path to truth, to fill in the gaps once occupied by an almighty god. [Science does not 'fill in the gaps once occupied by an almighty god'. Theists are as keen to avoid belief in the so-called 'god of the gaps' as are atheists. Advances in science merely constitute advances in our knowledge of the mode of God's action in relation to the world, whether by creating (primary causation) and then sustaining (secondary causation) a general and reliable physical order, or by additional 'primary' causation within that physical order.] It shows contempt for authority, demanding evidence and argument to back its assertions. There is no room for blind faith in a world of experts and peer reviews. [There is no room for 'blind faith' in the religion of the Bible either. I know very few religious people who are keen on 'blind faith'. The Bible tells us to worship God with our minds, to reason together with God, to 'test all things', to always be ready to give a rational defence of our beliefs (1 Peter 3:15), of Paul reasoning and arguing and proving in debate, etc.] For four hundred years the European god has been in retreat in the face of this onslaught. [God is not European! If anything, God is Middle Eastern! Europeans have in general been retreating from belief in God, that is no doubt true - although more do still believe to one degree or another than not. In other parts of the world, belief in God has been on the rise. Worldwide, theism is the dominant viewpoint. As for the philosophical situation, God has not been in retreat in the face of a scientific onslaught at all, although some of our ideas about the particular mode of divine action in particular cases may have been.] Now the faithful are fighting back, and in the vanguard is the theory of Intelligent Design [it should be noted that some ID theosrists are not religious]. Intelligent Design, or I.D., postulates that there are aspects of nature, particularly in biochemistry, which have so many interdependent parts, that they could not have evolved gradually [actually, that's 'could not have evolved gradually by a direct evolutionary pathway and are very unlikely to have evolved gradually by an indirect evolutionary pathway'. Peter only focuses on the issue of 'irreducible complexity' here, ignoring the wider issue of 'specified complexity' which applies to the fine-tuning of the big bang as well as to various biological examples]. The only possible alternative is the intervention of an anonymous, benevolent, designer. [This is not true, of course. Why think the designer is benevolent? Saying that something is designed does not allow one to say that the designer was necessarily a good person!] Except of course that the designer is not anonymous. We all know exactly who he’s meant to be. [Careful logic should not be confused with rhetoric. The conclusion that something is designed leaves open a wide variety of possible designer candidates. God is naturally one of those candidates, and one that people who already believe in God will readily make a connection with in this context. However, 'intelligent design' does not necessitate 'divine design'. As David Hume pointed out, the most any design argument can hope to achieve falls far short of proving the existence of 'God'. The designer may be singular or multiple, good or bad, necessary or contingent, natural or supernatural, cleaver or stupid, temporal or atemporal, an alien, a time travelling scientist, Plato's demiurge, a member of a polytheistic pantheon, an angel, a demon, etc. Any propper presentation of ID would make clear this inherent limitation of empirical argumentation and make clear that ID is logically compatible with a variety of naturalistic as well as supernaturalistic worldviews. In sum, the deisgner may or may not be 'God', and the question of whether or not the deisgner is God is a philosophical debate quite distinct from the soundness of ID as a scientific theory. Of course I think the designer is God, but saying 'I don't believe in God therefore there is no designer' is a non sequiter. It's like looking at a crop circle and saying to a UFO enthusiast 'I don't believe in aliens, therefore this crop circle is not the product of design. It must be explicable in terms of some natural process'! But of course, the crop circle is clearly designed (because it exhibits specified complexity), and there are any number of designer candidates one must consider, including humans!] The theory, and its chief protagonists, the Seattle based Discovery Institute, exist for one reason and one reason alone: to get the god of Abraham back into American schools, thus subverting the ruling of the Supreme Court and the American constitution. They failed with simple creationism, now they’re trying a more subtle approach. [Where to begin! Neither the Discovery Institute nor ID theorists like Dembski or Behe (or myself) 'failed with simple creationism' for the simple reason that none of us ever tried it! None of us are 'young earth creationsits' (although some ID theorists are), and ID is simply not the same thing as creationism. If Peter's conpiracy theory were on target, ID has to be the most bungled conspiracy in the history of conspiracies! ID theorists explicitly claim that their theory is neutral with regard to the identity of the designer, and they explain that this is because the design inference is incapable of taking us further by its very nature. Then again, Discovery Institute explicity supports the seperation of church and state and does not support getting the ID theory taught in schools!] I.D. pretends to be a scientific theory [it would be fairer to say that its proponents genuinelly believe that ID is a scientific theory - although many people disagree with this viewpoint]. With typical religious dishonesty, there is no mention of their god [Again, the ad hominem accusation that ID theorists like myself are dishonest. Again, careful logic should not be confused with dishonesty. ID theorists who believe in God do mention God, to say that they believe on grounds outside of ID as a scientific theory, that the designer is God.] It uses the language of science, christening itself a “theory”. [This is because it is a scientific theory.] It employs otherwise eminent biologists to find intricate mechanisms in nature whose evolution is poorly understood. [Peter here assumes that all intricate mechanisms in nature did in fact evolve, whilst admitting that we currently lack evolutionary explanations for how they may have done that. He is not saying we can take every intricate mechanism in nature and show that it can and did evolve - like x - and that we therefore know, on the basis of evidence, that they all evolved. He is simply assuming that every intricate mechanism evolved.] It vilifies its detractors, portraying itself as a victim for daring to utter scientific heresy – the champion of the unorthodox. [Well, ID is certainly unorthodox - and ID theorists do champion this unorthodox view. Many who have uttered this scientific heresy have indeed been victimised in one way or another. Indeed, some who do not themselves support ID but have merely supported the contention that ID deserves a place at the table or have allowed ID material to be published have been victimised (e.g. Steve Fuller). Peter vilifies ID theorists in this very article by saying that they are dishonest. In other words, Peter is calling me a liar. He says that 'dishonesty' is 'typical' of 'religious' people. I am a religious person. Therefore, dishonesty must be typical of me. Moreover, I am an ID supporter. Peter says that ID supporters failure to mention God within ID is an example of typical religious dishonesty (rather than a sensible acknowlegdement of the limitations of the design inference and the fact that non-theists can and do support ID). Quite aside from the question of whether or not this charge of my being a liar is true (in this instance I protest that it is not true) - it is clearly a charge that 'vilifies' me!] Then it demands equal billing in school science classes: “All we ask is that children be allowed to hear both sides of the argument”. [This is incorrect. The Discovery Institute does not support giving ID equal billing in schools: cf. 'Discovery Institute's Sicience Education Policy'.] Perhaps I.D. should be taught in science classes? As one commentator on the Newsline discussion forum said, it would take about five minutes to dismiss; to show that, once you abandon investigation and cause, you abandon science. [In what way does ID abandone investigation and cause?! ID depends upon observational investigation of empirical facts combined with rational, scientific criteria for distinguishing between which of the logically possible range of causes - chance and/or necessity or design - is the best explanation of the facts in any given case. Would Peter accuse a SETI researcher who concluded that a given radio signal was caused by an intelligent source - because it encoded a series of prime numbers (to take an example from Cosmos) - of having abandoned investigation and cause?!] The rest of the semester can then be spent on real science. But the I.D. zealots [This is a rather loaded term (even if it is technically accurate), at least if we are not to refer to Neo-Darwinists as 'Evolution zealots' (even if it is technically accurate). I don't think we should do either] will not stop there. Give them a wedge in the science curriculum and it won’t be long before they demand more. In a country where the science curriculum is decided by popular vote, there is everything to play for. In a democracy, it is not only human institutions which must be governed by the will of the majority, but the very universe itself.

Religions in the U.K. have no such fiddly little problems to contend with. Here, old fashioned creationism can be taught with government blessing and state funding3. [Doesn't this fact put a rather large hole through Peter's ID conspiracy theory? If ID is, as he says, a conspiracy to smuggle God into American schools by getting around the American legal system, why on earth does ID have supporters in countries, like Britian, where there is no seperation of church and state and where there are no legal problems with teaching creationism?] Politicians have realised that most voters have little concern for the niceties of the science curriculum. Faith groups, on the other hand, can be persuaded to vote en-masse. All of a sudden, it has become respectable to wear a belief in magic on your sleeve. From Bush to Blair to Putin, leaders of every political colour are realising that believers have votes. [How does Peter square this theory with the fact that while only 26% of the British population believe ‘in a personal God’ and only 17% regularly attend church, in the recent MORI poll for the BBC 44% of British adults said creationism should be taught in school and 41% supported including intelligent design?]

It is said that in the U.S. it is possible to have a black president, a woman president, even a gay president, but if you are an atheist then forget it. Surely such a state of affairs could never happen here? Yet we learn only this week that Robin Cook, one of the most intellectually admired and principled members of Tony Blair’s ex-ministers, felt himself unable to join the National Secular Society for fear that it would damage his political career. [Since only a minority of Brits believe in God, why would Robin Cook think his political career would be harmed by being honest about not being a theist? Indeed, although it seems that our Prime Minister does believe in God, Downing Street is very warey of this ever being dwelt upon. One aid reportedly responded to journalitic questions about whether Tony prayed about policy decisions by saying 'we don't do God'! In my opinion, a widely known active religious belief would on the whole be an electoral disadvantage in Britian. I see in the Observer article referenced by Peter the suggestion that Mr Cook felt that the cabinet was dominated by Christians and that open atheism on his part would hamper a possible return to cabinet after Tony had stepped down. If so, I think this is indeed a shame.] And therein lies the danger. Our religious leaders no longer wear vestments and mitres, instead they sit around the cabinet table. They do not preach damnation or proscription for those who fail to conform – those who do not share their enthusiasm for blind faith, any faith, are quietly sidelined. What use are voters who do not believe what they are told – who do not accept the authority of their religious superiors? And for that last bastion of rationality, science, they have the Theory of Intelligent Design. [I think Peter is saying that religious people have power in government and then impose their beliefs on the population through the power of the state and that they are trying to subvert science by imposing ID on the population. If so, I'm not sure that this is an accurate portrayal of the situation, even in America. The political leaders are elected by the people who agree with their outlook, and the courts have independent guardianship of the constitution (as the Dover case shows) - and whether or not ID is being used by political leaders, the question of whether ID subverts science depends upon the question of whether ID is science. I have argued here and elsewhere that ID is science and that ID is not a conspiracy to smuggle God into American schools. First of all the logic of ID leaves the identity of the designer to philosophical discussion. Secondly the American proponents of ID propper support the seperation of church and state and do not support including ID in school science lessons. Third ID has supporters in countries where there is no seperation of church and state or problem teaching creationism. The conspiracy theory advocated by Peter Hearty simply doesn't come to grips with these facts. Now, I really enjoyed my time dicussing with Peter both on and off air at Premier Christian Radio. I found him a friendly, self-reflective and open discussion partner. I just think that he misunderstands intelligent design theory. No doubt many American Christians do see ID as the 'next best thing' to the creationism they really support, and no doubt some want to get ID into schools for that reason - but this is not the attitide of the theorists who proposed ID. And this is not my attitude. I think that Peter's theory, that ID is a pseudo-scientific creationist conspiracy, is adequately rebutted by the following papers: Bradley Monton, 'Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision'; John G. West, 'Intelligent Design and Creationism are Just not the Same'; Jonathan Witt, 'The Origin of Intelligent Design'.]


bethinking publishes Horizon review

My article on Horizon's 'War on Science', which has already been posted at arn, has just been published by, which means its available in various formats including pdf.

cf. 'The War on Science: How Horizon Got ID Wrong'

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?