Thursday, December 22, 2005

Intelligent Design - is it Creationism?

New Scientist says so. The American Association for the Advancement of Science says so. My former Cambridge colleagues say so. Most of the mainstream media say so. A federal judge in the U.S. has just said so. In fact, there are times when it feels as though there are only a few people who don't say so. But is it so? Am I really just being awkward? Or is it genuinely possible for so many people to be wrong and me - and what seems like a handful of others - to be right?

Firstly, what are the definitions? Are Creationism and ID formally the same? draws in information from various sources, and has the following definition of creationism:
Belief in the literal interpretation of the account of the creation of the universe and of all living things related in the Bible.
Intelligent Design doesn't have a separate definition, but the first line of the encyclopaedia entry for it is:
Theory that some complex biological structures and other aspects of nature show evidence of having been designed by an intelligence.
This would seem to encapsulate the essence of it.

So is there a formal connection between these definitions? No. Intelligent Design has empirical observation as their basis ("show evidence"); creationism has as its basis the "literal interpretation of the account of the creation".

Fair enough. But what about functional identity? One was once supposed only to eat oysters when there was an "R" in the month - in other words, not from May to August. The reason for this was that oysters spawn in the (Northern!) summer. So there is a functional connection between things formally defined in completely separate ways - there not being an "R" in the month, and it being spawning season for oysters. Are ID and creationism the same sort of thing - formally separately defined, but functionally the same?

That could be established by determining whether, despite the different definitions, it was the same people who aligned themselves with ID and creationism. But this turns out not to be the case. Creationists don't believe that ID proponents are adequately grounded in the Scriptures. ID proponents, for their turn, refuse to accept that it is possible to do science research starting with Scripture as a fixed reference point. So there is no functional equivalence, either.

In fact, a much better categorisation of the range of beliefs regarding origins can be found in this paper by Marcus Ross that I have linked to before.

But why is there such a determination to label Intelligent Design as creationism, when a few moments' consideration make it clear that this is not the case.

There are two groups of people who do this - again, this isn't new. There's the people who do understand the nature of Intelligent Design, and wilfully misrepresent it as creationism. Nobody who has fairly read "Darwin's Black Box" by Michael Behe could reasonably argue that it has much in common with the output of creationist organisations such as the Institute for Creation Research. Similarly "The Design Inference" by William Dembski. Similarly "Privileged Planet" by Gonzalez and Richards. But by labelling such books as "creationist", it is possible for their opponents to shut down debate - not on the basis of the content of the books (which as far as I know continue to be unchallenged in terms of the content of their science and maths), but because "everybody knows" that creationists are religiously motivated and "everybody knows" that there is no connection between religion and science - and therefore these books can't be scientific.

The majority of people who class ID as creationism simply do so because they have been told by somebody else that ID is creationism. They don't actually know anything about it first-hand - they haven't evaluated it for themselves. But (perhaps) they read New Scientist (whose "Intelligent Design Special" was a fine example of poor reporting), and if New Scientist says it is so, then it must be so.

So where do we go from here? The Kitzmiller vs Dover judgement is, in a sense, irrelevant (although humiliating). A person who, one assumes from the tone of writing in his judgement, was already pretty committed to a naturalistic worldview, takes the opportunity to slate the Intelligent Design movement and prevent ID from being proposed as an alternative to evolution in school. However, the questions that led to ID are still there - how come the universe is fine-tuned, and how come there seems to be a link between the presence of intelligent life and the ability to observe the univere? how come there is so much specified information in the universe? how come so much in biology looks designed with no apparent mechanism that could bring it about? Judge Jones didn't answer those questions. He just said that ID was wrong, and evolution was the truth. Perhaps he assumed that the answers were "out there" and just hadn't made it into court. Well, he was wrong. There are no answers to those questions. That's why I continue to have an Intelligent Design worldview.

Is ignoring the problems raised from a materialistic worldview going to enhance science? Or will it encourage people to think that science is more concerned about orthodoxy and toeing the line? We wait to see.