Saturday, November 19, 2005


(or, How to Beat A Greasy Spot That Once, A Long, Long Time Ago, Used To Be A Horse)

I made two discoveries this week. One, that Scott Adams has a blog. Related to the first, is that he's waded into the debate over Intelligent Design.

It was a brave, if slightly foolish, thing to have done. But Adams has brilliantly illustrated the real problem with the arguments. To wit, most of those involved neither understand the other side's argument, nor their own. So, the debate leaps almost instantly to various forms of ad hominem.

As entertaining as ad hominem can be, it's still a logical fallacy.

The real problem is that Evolution and ID speak to completely different issues.

Here's the problem that I have with Evolution, as it's usually presented: I have yet to see an explanation of speciation that does not devolve into hand-waving at some point. Natural selection is not at issue, here. That's proven tech. But, here's the problem: You start with a dog, then its descendants change slightly to a different kind of dog, and succeeding generations become really different dogs ... and so on. When, precisely, do you arrive at something that is demonstrably not-dog? Granted, it's something that takes years and years, and it's probable that we haven't had enough generations of mammals to observe it yet ... and for all its flaws, it remains a pretty good description of what seems to have happened over the history of life on Earth.

Be that as it may, it's light-years from having the same weight or authority as Newton's Laws of Motion, and leaves much of the mechanics unexplained. There's a market for something to explain what's going on in the gaps.

As for Intelligent Design ... it's not science, properly speaking. It's epistemology. A different animal entirely. It does not even pretend to address the question of how things came to be, it's more concerned with why. But, it does lend itself to mis-use by people on both sides who want to conflate the questions, by laziness, ignorance, or disingenuous dishonesty.

As such, I'd have to agree with the people who are saying it ought not to be taught in high-school science classes. High-school science classes do such a poor job of conferring the knowledge that we do have clearly, that something like this could only muddy the already-murky waters. Weighty matters such as this should be reserved for those other two well-worn areas of scholarly debate: the lunch table, and after-school fist-fights.

Anyhow ... The problem with ID as science, is that it makes no testable predictions. But even that is not the fundamental problem, since the question really comes down to religion.

To the hard-core fundamentalist, Evolution is the blackest heresy imaginable, since it seems to remove any need for God in the cosmos. It doesn't, but that's beside the point. To the hard-core atheist, ID is the blackest heresy imaginable, because it summons up that damned old bearded guy they keep trying to bury. There is no meeting in the middle, here. The sides have far too much invested emotionally to allow for any compromise. There's only one cure for heresy. But, since we've outlawed burning at the stake, character assassination will have to do.

For the rest of us, there's nothing for it but to pop up a batch of popcorn, pitch a pillow, and enjoy the show. It's fine street theater, for those of you who enjoy that sort of thing.

UPDATE: 19 Nov 05: Vatican Official Refutes Intelligent Design. Yet another take on the argument. And there are subtle shadings of meaning between what someone like Rev. Coyne says, and what Benedict XVI says.

No comments: