Posted: June 16, 2008
Science and Design; The Collapse of Civilization?
Science and Design
I find much to agree with in Joseph M. Bessette's review of three books arguing for divine design in the universe ("Science and Faith," Spring 2008). It would be nice to have something more solid than a metaphysical waving of hands behind design intuitions. Still, Bessette could have asked more forcefully if current ideas of design work at all.
Consider Owen Gingerich's book, God's Universe. Bessette notes how Gingerich wants both to point out signs of design and to say design is a matter beyond science. But there are deeper problems. For a historian of science, Gingerich shows little awareness of the significance of the history of design arguments. Today's pro-design, cosmological fine-tuning enthusiasts are not the first to try to find cosmic improbabilities; but none of these efforts has ever met with lasting success. Among physicists today, calling fine-tuning a sign of design is not a serious option. In a physical context, design does no explanatory work: it makes no new predictions and highlights no new patterns.
Francis Collins's The Language of God is also unimpressive. Collins rejects explicit design in biology, the area where he undoubtedly has standing, but argues for design in cosmology. Unfortunately, Collins is out of his depth in his naïve discussions of physical cosmology. He is not alone in this; it may be interesting to ask why some devout scientists reject claims for design in their own areas of expertise but endorse it in areas they know little about.
Then there is the Intelligent Design movement, including figures such as Michael Behe, author of The Edge of Evolution. I agree that there is something commendable in an unevasive argument for design that ignores arbitrary pronouncements about what science can and cannot do. But does the argument succeed? Expert judgment on Behe's claims, in both his recent book and earlier work, has been resoundingly negative. And this is not because I.D. arguments have failed to get a scientific hearing. Many scientists have found I.D. intriguing, at least as a mistake that is worth criticizing in depth. I am co-editor of Why Intelligent Design Fails, a collection of detailed scientific criticisms of Behe and William Dembski. Other scientists have also engaged with I.D. as a scientific proposition and explained why it is mistaken. Intelligent Design proponents sidestep such work and concentrate on their philosophical and theological critics. But in doing so, they reinforce the impression within mainstream science that I.D. is primarily an ideological enterprise.
Perhaps like Bessette, if forced I would prefer the I.D. of Behe and Dembski to the I.D.-lite of Gingerich and Collins. At least the former attempts to put some real content into design intuitions. But this also means we should demand something considerably more substantial from its I.D. proponents. All indications so far are that nothing is forthcoming.
Truman State University
In his review, Joseph M. Bessette does not mention the many critical reviews of the same books that have appeared elsewhere, both in print and online.
For example, Bessette has an overall positive opinion of Michael Behe's work, which has been severely criticized and almost unanimously rejected by the scientific community. The Edge of Evolution has been skewered by biologists, mathematicians, and philosophers of science (including Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Mark Chu-Carroll, Nick Matzke, S.A. Smith, Ian Musgrave, and others).
Behe is a prominent Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, which is the hub of the Intelligent Design movement, but in many respects his views are at odds with the articles of faith of many I.D. advocates. He accepts many tenets of the Darwinian evolution theory, including common descent, but his main idea is that although the Darwinian process may be real, it has certain limitations, and those limitations can be overcome, in his opinion, only by the interference of an undefined designer (who, on closer inspection, turns out to be the God of the Bible). For example, Behe concludes that certain evolutionary steps could happen only if more than one lucky mutation occurred simultaneously. Such events, he calculates, if assumed to have happened spontaneously, have such a minuscule probability that they should be considered practically impossible, unless a "Designer" deliberately and miraculously caused them to happen.
Behe's math, however, has been shown to be faulty. He applies probabilistic reasoning in an invalid way. Likewise, his treatment of such concepts as fitness landscape, fitness function, and the like, show his misunderstanding of these elements of optimization theory (in Behe's interpretation, fitness landscape is imagined as nearly one-dimensional as well as static, while the real fitness landscape in the biosphere is multi-dimensional and dynamic).
Likewise his discussion of viruses has been shown to be fraught with elementary errors. After graduate student S.A. Smith, who conducts research on the HIV viruses, pointed out erroneous statements in Behe's book, the author was forced grudgingly to admit his error. (Perhaps a unique event among I.D. advocates, who usually pretend not to notice comments pointing to their errors).
Behe's book contains many other weaknesses. From Bessette's review, readers would not learn at all about any of the problems that in fact make the book a failure.
Cal State University, Fullerton
Joseph M. Bessette maintains that "The testing of Darwinism's claims is, of course, a large part of the Intelligent Design enterprise and the whole point of The Edge of Evolution." That a religious doctrine, which so-called "Intelligent Design" most assuredly is, should be called upon to test a scientific theory is surprising. That a scientific theory is to be tested by a doctrine of faith that is neither testable nor falsifiable, is ludicrous.
Joseph M. Bessette replies:
Taner Edis, a physicist, and Mark Perakh, a mathematician and physicist, would have us believe that the debate on intelligent design is over, but many others are not so sure. Edis and Perakh, themselves, write extensively against Intelligent Design and have made useful contributions to the debate in books and numerous articles.
Although Edis appreciates that I have reservations about Francis Collins's The Language of God and Owen Gingerich'sGod's Universe, he is too quick to dismiss the teleological, or theological, implications of "cosmological fine tuning," as discussed by both authors. Numerous leading astronomers, cosmologists, physicists, philosophers, and theologians—theists and non-theists alike—have grappled with the meaning of the extraordinary fact that so many properties of nature are just what they need to be to have a universe that can support intelligent life. Indeed, this is one reason why many scientists, reluctant to conclude that the universe was intentionally designed just this way, are attracted to the "multiple universe" hypothesis. They speculate that universes exist with all possible physical constants and properties of matter and we happen to live in the one that works. When Edis says that inferring design from fine-tuning "does no explanatory work," he apparently means that it will not affect the work of "physicists today." But who thought it would? Perhaps it will do a different kind of "explanatory work": explaining, or at least helping to explain, why the universe is as it is and whether it was designed with man in mind. Isn't this enough "explanatory work" for one hypothesis?
Mark Perakh's letter draws on a very lengthy critique of my review that appeared on his website "Talk Reason," a critique so long and detailed that he had two other scientists review the initial draft (see www.talkreason.org/articles/Bessette.cfm). Oddly, the website review begins with a nine-paragraph denunciation of "Bessette's argument from authority" (emphasis in the original) in defense of faith. To read Perakh, you would think I had argued that because Kepler believed in God, therefore God exists. Of course, I made no such argument. I made two empirical observations relevant to the conclusion of some that "science tilts the scales toward atheism": first, that "many (most?) of the giants who founded modern science were themselves deeply religious"; and, second, that two-fifths of working scientists in the United States "profess belief in a personal God who communicates with humankind and answers prayers." While I happily concede that these facts don't demonstrate that God exists, they are surely relevant to the question whether science "tilts the scales toward atheism."
In this respect it would be interesting to know what Perakh thinks about the connection between science and theism in Collin's and Gingerich's books. He seems to have missed the whole point of the two books. While it is true that both Collins and Gingerich oppose Intelligent Design of the William Dembski and Michael Behe type, both believe that the universe wasintelligently designed and that certain scientific findings, such as the Big Bang (both) and the "digital elegance of DNA" (Collins), provide supporting evidence. What does Perakh think Collins meant by his subtitle: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief?
Perakh argues that the fact that others have "skewered" Behe's The Edge of Evolution proves "the book a failure." Apparently, even a graduate student was able to find "elementary errors," forcing the author "grudgingly to admit his error." The story, though, as might be expected, is a bit more complex. The reader can follow the entire matter on Behe's Amazon blog where he has set out an extensive response to the graduate student's critique and also to the embrace of it by a more senior scientist.
One of the great challenges in following the debate over intelligent design is discerning the legitimate scientific questions and evidence amidst all the rhetoric and polemic. For example, in responding to Behe's response, the graduate student cited by Perakh reveled in her "opportunity to expose the fact you are a charlatan to the entire planet...[and] to highlight the arrogance of Creationists like yourself." Behe was "basically acting like a common gutter Creationist." "So what's your deal?" she asks. "Is it just for the money? You've got a litter of kids, and I admit I would find the $20K you get for selling out rather tempting in today's funding climate." Is it unreasonable to think that such hostility might color this researcher's critique of intelligent design?
Ken Willis's brief letter describes Behe's argument in The Edge of Evolution as "a religious doctrine" and a "doctrine of faith" that is irrelevant to Darwinism's claims. But, as Behe shows at the end of his book, his science leads to some unsettling conclusions about the designer: "Here's something to ponder long and hard: Malaria was intentionally designed. ...What sort of designer is that? What sort of 'fine-tuning' leads to untold human misery? ...Maybe the designer isn't all that beneficent or omnipotent. Science can't answer questions like that." One wonders what "doctrine of faith" Willis has in mind that would produce such a conclusion. Critics of Intelligent Design should, as many do, confront the science.
* * *
The Collapse of Civilization?
A strange thing happened when I read Midge Decter's review of my book, The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization ("Growing Up American," Winter 2007/08). I didn't recognize the book she described as my own.
Why? Decter has reviewed a book which posits that lax parents and their spoiled children are, as the subtitle declares, "bringing down Western civilization." For supporting evidence, she says the author—me, supposedly—looks to, well, the laxity of parents and the spoiledness of children.
Such a summation of The Death of the Grown-Up is equal parts baffling and peculiar. It's not that my book doesn't examine changes in the family (and the culture) that were first in force in the 1950s (and not the 1960s, as the review implies), but only two chapters out of the book's nine are specific to parents and children. The rest explore the impact of the abdication of adult authority and the coronation of youth on our larger culture, way beyond the family circle that, for reasons I cannot fathom, regrettably constricts this review.
Eroding manners and mores, the rise of multiculturalism and political correctness, the ensuing loss of Western identity and virtues, the bifurcation of mainstream and military culture: all of these developments of the latter half of the 20th century I link to the death of the grown-up.
It is in the final third of the book that I lay out its most controversial claim: that in our culturally infantilized state, we inhabit a world of pretend when it comes to Islam. There is something—dare I say childish?—in our failure to discuss frankly the politically incorrect truths about Islam's supremacist nature.
Whether I was successful in my argument, readers of Ms. Decter's review will never know. Of course, they are not alone. It is a perplexing fact that most reviewers of The Death of the Grown-Up have withheld any and all comment on the final three chapters of the book dealing with the "war on terror," democracy, and Islam. At this point, I can only hope readers pick up the book and decide for themselves.
Midge Decter replies:
Diana West may have invented a new strategy for responding to a review that an author is displeased by: namely, review one's book oneself. And since readers—not to mention this one—would find it not only pointless but tiresome to have to go through what would be a re-re-review of West's book, I will confine myself to advising her and her readers to heed the advice of D.H. Lawrence: "Trust not the teller, trust the tale." Since "the abdication of adult authority and the coronation of youth" is a condition of American society with which those of us older than she have been familiar for probably upwards of half a century, and since at the same time other rather complicated things have been going on both in and at the hands of American culture and society—movements, powerful counter-movements (including, may one say, with respect to Islam), wars, futile compromises, political bravery, political cowardice, lying, truth-telling, and now and then a coming through handsomely—to proclaim that America's "arrested development" is doing no less than "bringing down Western civilization" becomes a species of disaster-mongering. What she herself adduces as evidence not only does not support but is positively given the lie by the behavior of a comforting number of West's fellow Americans every day.
If Western civilization is to be brought down, it will not be at the hands of the United States and its admittedly less-than wonderful cultural condition. And Miss West, who is, as I remarked, a gifted and sprightly writer, would do well to cool her temper and provide her readers with accounts of things nearer at hand.