Sunday, February 09, 2014

Evolution from the outside

i) Let's begin by considering how young-earth creationism and intelligent design theory appear to critics. To an outsider, these theories aren't driven by the evidence. It's not a positive position. Rather, they are poking holes in perceived weaknesses in evolution. They cobble together an ad hoc alternative, based on bits and pieces of unrelated scientific data. 

And, to be honest, I think there's a grain of truth to that allegation. However, I don't think that's a damning admission.

ii) Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the critics are right. Suppose that young-earth creationism is hopelessly wrongheaded. To judge by sympathetic reviews, Ken Ham gave a so-so performance in his debate with Bill Nye. He missed many opportunities.

Yet within hours of the debate, you had young-earth creationists like Jay Wile, Sal Cordova, and CMI filling in the lacunae. All it takes is a little ingenuity, a little imagination, for young-earth creationists to counter stock objections raised by Nye. 

Yet if young-earth creationism is as bad as the critics allege, one wonders why a blatantly false theory has the internal resources to field tough objections. Wouldn't you expect young-earth creationists to be at a loss if their position is that misguided? How is it that they have any comeback? 

iii) Which brings me to the next point. I began by describing how young-earth creationism appears to an outsider. But that's reversible. Looking at evolutionary biology from the outside, we could level the same objections to evolution. Darwinians aren't just following the evidence wherever it leads. Take Richard Lewontin's notorious admission:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

Now a Darwinian might object that it's unfair to keep quoting Lewontin's oft-anthologized confession. Why presume that he speaks for every secular scientist? 

But the problem with that complaint is that his statement is representative. To begin with, he explicitly champions methodological atheism. But that's hardly an idiosyncratic position. Secular scientists routinely insist on methodological atheism. It's dogma. To be sure, they usually couch their position in more diplomatic terms. They avoid his tactless, colorful characterization. But it's the same position. 

In addition, they do resort to just-so stories. They interpolate evolutionary narratives to fill in the many gaps in the natural record. Evolutionary postulates substitute for concrete evidence. So they, too, cobble together an ad hoc paradigm.

iv) Which brings me to my final point. Science has an abundance of facts at its fingertips. Many data-points. But the challenge is where to draw a line through the graph. How to connect this diversity of information into a cohesive and comprehensive explanation. Both sides of the debate start with the same facts, but arrange them differently. And that illustrates the underdetermination of theory by evidence. Science has uncovered many individually useful facts. But do they point in one direction? Getting them to line up one way rather than another often goes beyond the available evidence.  

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