Wednesday, November 09, 2005

"Intelligent Design": not even interesting as philosophy

I'm probably too tired to blog, but the I've been goaded into it by, of all things, commentary on a local school board election. In Minnesota.

At Pharyngula, here's the commentary on the returns:
All of the candidates have disavowed ID as a fit subject for science courses. It's clearly perceived as a toxic issue and all have tried to distance themselves from it. That's a good sign; unfortunately, it also makes it difficult to tell who is on what side. ... Adams, Langseth, and Maes, have said they don't support ID creationism, but they also waffle with vague suggestions that it's an "interesting idea", and maybe it could be taught in a philosophy course. Sorry, ladies, it is not interesting, and I really wish people would stop treating philosophy as a safe dumping ground for any crap idea that comes along.

Of course, I love it when a non-philosopher speaks up for philosophy as not a dumping ground for crap, and said as much in the comments. But in that comments came the, "Oh yeah? Where the hell are the philosophers publicly decrying 'Intelligent Design' as a crock? If the History of Science Society is on record as against the ID movement, why has the Philosophy of Science Association been silent on the matter?"

These are good questions. This post offers my best guesses (which, given the above-mentioned fatigue, are not exhaustively researched -- I'm shooting from the hip tonight).

  1. Philosophers are speaking out against ID. I'm a philosopher, and I've gone off on ID repeatedly, both here and in my 3-dimensional existence. Philosophy of Biology (where Michael Ruse blogs) does too. So does Brian Leiter. So does Sahotra Sarkar. Anyone with a good search engine could turn up lots more in the blogosphere. Anyone who gains entry to a building with philosophy department offices could find a bunch just randomly knocking doors. We talk to people. We write letters to the editor. Critical thinking is our bag, baby -- how the hell do you think we feel about ID and the whole ID movement?

    By the way, this open letter to the Dover school board from University of Pennsylvania faculty is signed by philosophers.

    But maybe people have gotten so accustomed to tuning out philosophers (the most loathed of all those annoying "intellectuals" the American people cannot abide) that no one notices us shaking our tiny fists.

  2. Philosophers have been speaking out against ID and creationism for a long time, and think the whole thing is played out. There really are some issues that philosophers have achieved "closure" on, even if folks outside the philosophical bubble are still working on them. Once the good philosophers have worked out all there is to say about an issue like creationism/ID, it's time to move onto a live problem.

    For example, Philip Kitcher wrote Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (whose cover you see above) for a general audience. It was published in 1982 and is astoudingly clear. Many of his critiques of creationism carry right over to ID. Does he need to write this book again every decade just to earn his anti-ID cred? Or, would it be fair to ask members of the public to crack a book?

    More recently, Elliott Sober has delivered scathing critiques of the "detection" of design claimed by Dembski. If I could be bothered tonight (what with the fatigue), I could generate a list of philosophical take-downs of both ID claims and the flaky anti-evolution strategies that accompany them. The philosophers have been on this a long time. Anyone remember David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion? I think the 18th century counts as old skool, yo!

    Again, this is one of those cases where being tuned out by the public may play an explanatory role. Here, given that the public has not attended to what the philosophers have said about the issue, the philosophers decide to tune out the public and do some more fulfilling philosophical work.

  3. Intelligent Design is pretty sissy even for a philosophical theory. I say this as someone who has the utmost respect for purveyors of the interesting-but-clearly-wrong philosophical theories that one encounters in reading the history of philosophy. (Descartes is my favorite guy in this crowd. He's convinced me I can believe in my own existence, but his attempts to get us back reliable empirical data with which to do science don't work nearly as well as he wanted them to. Still, an interesting problem, and Meditations is a good read!)

    Really, what is ID offering? Every time we can't imagine how something could come about through natural processes we holler Intelligent Designer?

    Now, there may be interesting philosophical questions to be asked in the general vicinity. For instance, what conclusions are warranted when our imaginations fail us? Is "design" something of which humans are or could be reliable detectors? Is there a structural "floor" beyond which reduction does not succeed? But, for all of these questions, a serious philosopher would want to subject them to serious examination, maybe even considering real world cases of various sorts. The ID proponents don't seem to be doing any of that.

    ID isn't a scientific theory. It's not even a convincing imitation of a scientific theory. Not much interest there for philosophers who want to understand scientific theory building and testing.

    Maybe ID is interesting to folks who do philosophy of religion. Undoubtedly ID carries with it an interesting bundle of assumptions about the nature of the Designer. I confess that I am fairly ignorant of philosophy of religion, so I can't say whether ID is or should be a hot topic in that field.

In short: I can't think of why one would include ID in a philosophy class except as an example of how not to do philosophy (or science).

So why is the Philosophy of Science Association not on record against ID? I don't know, but I'll try to find out. Stay tuned!

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At 5:37 AM, Blogger Kyle said...

I also feel philosophers many times don't jump directly into the debate against ID because they aren't real happy with the arguments being made against it. Despite the resources you listed, many people seem to make exceptionally poor arguments against ID. It can be hard to jump into a conflict knowing you'll be on the same side as and associated with people spouting lunacy little better than the argument you want to dismantle.

I get the feeling Hugo feels that way over at the Studi, though I don't claim to speak for him.

At 5:31 AM, Blogger LST said...

Without any examples of what Kyle thinks are "exceptionally poor arguments" against ID, it's difficult to see what the problem is. While it's not the case that any argument against ID is a good argument, most of the anti-ID arguments seem to be spot-on. Besides, I thought the whole point of the post was to show that philosophers many times DO jump into the debate against ID. In fact, they're at the heart of the debate against ID, and scientists who are arguing against ID are, often unwittingly, dressing up in philosopher's clothing. This is not a scientific issue that needs philosophical clarity, or a religious issue that needs philosophical support. It IS ONLY and always has been NOTHING MORE than a philosophical issue.

At 5:53 AM, Blogger Kyle said...

For examples, see ericmurphy on this post at Telicthoughts. First he butchers physics, then evolution. Science would be a lot better off without that goofball on its side.

For another, see ed darrel's comments on this post at prosthesis. This one is wrong in fact and logically.

There are lots of examples. I can link entire threads that are so full of lunacy it's difficult to tell which side is being less reasonable.

At 6:56 PM, Blogger Nature's Rebel said...

Tiny fists, indeed. I think a big part of the problem is that philosophers don't really know what they are doing. Religion -- at least as we understand it -- was knocked out the moment Plato gave us the Euthyphro problem: are acts good because God approves them, or does God approve them because they are good? Unanswerable. Much later Hume and Nietzsche gave it another eloquently fatal left-right combination. To a large extent, it does cease to be a question. And yet it doesn't. What has philosophy, for all its arrogant self-assurance, replaced it with? Plato's forms? Hume's sympathy? Nietzsche's ubermensch? Academic liberalism? Can philosophy answer the question, why do people believe in religion, and can the individual philsopher answer the question, if people seem so intent on religion, is there a motivation in them (they are human after all) that is manifesting itself in me in another way? The day philosophy takes a look at itself instead of so smugly pointing out the errors of the unenlightened is the day it may find a replacement for religion. Until then, keep punching, but the wet toilet paper that you're sparring with will probably remain intact.

At 9:59 PM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

It's not clear to me that philosophy (or science, for that matter) ought to replace religion. Religion engages with the world in one sort of way, philosophy and science engage with it in different ways. Whether philosophy and science, on some fundamental level, try to engage with the world in the same way is open to debate, but both of these disciplines are in the business of examining logic and evidence.

Of course philosophy (and science, for that matter) can't answer all the questions that matter to human beings. Indeed, philosophy does have a track record of digging up questions we'd like to have answered without necessarily providing us with clear answers, nor even with assurance that such answers can be had.

It doesn't mean we can't still care about these questions. Nor does it mean that philosophy is an impediment to our caring about them (since often we discover how much we care by way of the sort of self-reflection philosophy trades in).

There are plenty of religious folks who shake their tiny fists at all sorts of states of affairs, including many that non-religious folks (who might even be scientists or philosophers) single out for tiny-fist-shaking: callousness toward other human beings, squandering of gifts like curiosity and rationality, Jessica Simpson on the TV. If you're paying attention at all and you haven't completely given up on the "ought" for the "is", you've got something to shake a fist at.

Shaking one's tiny fist is not a move intended to cow others into obeying one's will (however well-informed a will it might be). Rather, it is a choice to make a stand despite the almost certain futility of doing so. Regardless of how circumstances unfold, these things matter to us.

At 2:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about these science cartoons?

There are many good ones on Vadlo search engine, but there are some good on ID and evolution too.


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