In the Face of an Aspiring Baboon
|August 22, 2008||Posted by Steve Fuller under Atheism, Biology, Courts, Creationism, Culture, Darwinism, Education, Evolution, Intelligent Design, Legal, Philosophy, Religion, Science, theistic evolution|
In the Face of an Aspiring Baboon: A Response to Sahotra Sarkar’s Review of Science vs. Religion?
Some will wonder why I expend such great effort in responding to Sahotra Sarkar’s negative review of my Science vs. Religion? I offer four reasons: (1) The review was published in the leading on-line philosophy reviews journal (which offers no right of response). (2) Word of the review has spread very fast across the internet, especially amongst those inclined to believe it. Indeed, part of the black humour of this episode is the ease with which soi disant critical minds are willing to pronounce the review ‘excellent’ without having compared the book and the review for themselves. (3) The review quotes the book sufficiently to leave the false impression that it has come to grips with its content. (4) Most importantly, there is a vast world-view difference that may hold its own lessons. Sarkar and I were both trained in ‘history and philosophy of science’ (HPS), yet our orientations to this common subject could not be more opposed. Sarkar’s homepage sports this quote from Charles Darwin: ‘He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke’. I take this to be wishful thinking on Sarkar’s part.
My response is divided into 4 parts:
1. The Terms of Reference: Start with the Title
2. What to Make of the Philosophical Critique of ID?
3. Sarkar’s Particular Criticisms I: The More Editorial Ones
4. Sarkar’s Particular Criticisms II: The More Substantive Ones
1. The Terms of Reference: Start with the Title
The book of mine that Sarkar reviewed is entitled ‘Science vs Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution’. This simple point is worth bearing in mind, since Sarkar seems to have little interest in — or knowledge of – the question defined by the book’s title. Although Sarkar and I are students of history and philosophy of science (HPS), I shall argue that his interest and knowledge is limited to an interpretation of the book’s subtitle so narrow as to cast doubt on his suitability as a reviewer. Indeed, of the various expertises that contribute to HPS, the matters of contemporary evolutionary biology on which Sarkar’s competence clearly exceeds my own do not bear on how one determines the scientific status of either ID or Neo-Darwinian biology, which has to do with their respective claims to epistemic legitimacy in society. The fact that Sarkar found so much of my discussion ‘useless’, ‘extraneous’, ‘unreliable’ and ‘vacuous’ should have made him wonder whether I had written the book he imagined he was reviewing. But no — like the horseshoe crab programmed to be in hot pursuit of edges, he carried on regardless.
When the defence lawyers asked me to serve as a rebuttal witness in the landmark anti-ID court case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, I agreed to dispute the historical and philosophical claims of the plaintiffs’ experts (Ken Miller, Rob Pennock, etc.), which I found seriously wanting. It was a task that I gladly undertook and continue to undertake today — especially given Sarkar’s performance, which reveals the continuing shallowness of ID’s opponents on these matters. If I am a ‘shill’ for anything (a nod to the incorrigibly charmless Brian Leiter), it is not ID but HPS. An important rhetorical strategy of the opposition has been to deny — or grant as little credence as possible to — the very idea that ID has a historical and philosophical backstory that extends beyond the confines of the Discovery Institute. Sarkar unwittingly makes this point himself when he claims that the chapter of my book most relevant to Kitzmiller, is ‘by far the longest’: In fact, it is only three pages longer than two of the other four chapters. However, it is clear from Sarkar’s review that it was the only chapter that he thought really mattered.
Sarkar expresses disappointment and puzzlement that I don’t present a critical survey of such contemporary ID proponents as William Dembski, Michael Behe, and Philip Johnson. I am sure that it would have made his task easier – but that is not my problem. As in another recent book, Dissent over Descent, my interest in Dembski and Behe is mainly as members of a deep and fruitful scientific tradition inspired by the Bible that has sought intelligent design in nature long before Darwin came on the scene and even now does not require Darwin for its raison d’être. Even Johnson, the lawyer who sparked the attack on metaphysical naturalism that inspired contemporary ID, shows a concern about the nature of the scientific method not unlike that of that other lawyer, Francis Bacon, who nearly 400 years earlier began the modern search for metaphysically neutral demarcation criteria for science (see esp. p. 162 of Science v. Religion?). Nevertheless, Sarkar reasonably asks why I don’t take the philosophical criticisms of contemporary ID more seriously. I turn to that question in the next section.
2. What to Make of the Philosophical Critique of ID?
Following Sarkar’s example, I shall stick mainly to Elliott Sober’s work, which has the advantage of being easily accessible on the web. Overall I don’t believe that the philosophical literature does much more than reveal the warped dialectical arrangements under which ID is currently discussed. This is a problem that should be laid squarely on the doorstep of the US Supreme Court, given its restrictive interpretation of the separation of church and state, which prohibits religiously motivated instruction in publicly supported science classes. ‘Sober v. Dembski’ is a classic case of a mute and a deaf trying to communicate with each other: Dembski cannot say what Sober cannot hear. What I mean here is a sophisticated discussion of divine agency as a form of supernatural causation relevant to scientific explanation.
Take Sober’s main complaint against Dembski’s ‘explanatory filter’ (in ‘How not to detect design’): Dembski’s criteria for inferring design do not exhaust explanations by regularity and chance. Sober deals with the matter so narrowly as to avoid asking why Dembski might have put the matter this way in the first place. My considered view (expressed on p. 62 of Science vs Religion) is that Dembski is using Shannon and Weaver-style information theory to understand the practice of science as the means by which God communicates his plan, presumably because he wants some response from us. Just as in information theory, a message’s content (relative to a receiver) is what results when redundancy and noise are removed from the signal, so too for Dembski ‘design’ is what results when regularity and chance are removed as factors in one’s scientific understanding. Added to this are Dembski’s suspicions about the reality of chance in nature, in light of how random numbers are ‘generated’ (see chap. 17 of Dembski and Ruse, Debating Design, CUP 2004). Sober, it seems, harbors a much stronger faith in the reality of chance than Dembski, which in turn makes Sober less willing than Dembski to infer design in nature. Why Sober and Dembski should hold such contrasting intuitions about the respective roles of chance and design is probably related to their contrasting background beliefs about the likelihood of God’s existence. But this is not a matter easily discussed in the context of science policy in the USA today.
To his credit, Sober (in ‘Evolution without Naturalism’), distinguishes himself from the vulgar naturalists who testified for the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller by not dismissing the testability of supernatural claims out of hand. However, he complains he can’t tell ID and evolution apart in terms of their predictive consequences. He puts the blame squarely on ID for failing to commit to a substantive conception of the intelligent designer – a practice that Sober happily continues. Sober could have just as easily put the blame on himself for operating with a maximally inclusive conception of evolution – i.e. anything that isn’t directly caused by God is caused by some evolutionary process or other (and there’s one for every occasion). However, I want to stick with ID’s muteness about God.
As Sober realizes, Darwin had a rather limited view of the scope for divine agency: For Darwin, if a particular life-form (from organ to organism) does not itself appear optimally designed, then it probably wasn’t designed at all. And given the surfeit of imperfection in the natural world, Darwin found it very easy not to see God in the works. However, theologians had recognized this problem at least two centuries earlier and turned into a discipline expressly aimed at reconciling the empirical reality of nature with the rational demands of divine creation: theodicy. All the imperfections of the world were to be seen as part of God’s optimal design package. Perfection in the whole need not – and probably does not – imply perfection in the parts. This is the idea that Voltaire ridiculed as ours being ‘the best of all possible worlds’, no matter how bad it seemed. (I discuss this in more detail in chapter 5 of Dissent over Descent.)
However, the idea is not so ridiculous if one takes seriously that the God of Genesis creates in a resistant material medium — the world does not simply arise from a divine snap of the fingers. God may be omnipotent in the sense of ultimately getting what he wants but how he manages it is up for science to discover – and, depending on one’s reading of the Bible – improve and complete. Thus, scientific inquiry is justifiable as an extension of rational theology. This whole way of looking at things seems strange now because, after Kant, it has become common for secular thinkers to treat the great ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about nature as radically distinct rather than mutually informative. (Religious thinkers will have already encountered this distinction in Aquinas.) What normally passes today for ‘theistic evolution’ (i.e. the position of Ken Miller, Francis Collins and, in Britain, Denis Alexander) openly promotes just such a dichotomy: God sets the natural world in motion – perhaps even by a toss of the chemical dice – and what follows can be explained as if God had never existed. It implies that however our thoughts about the nature of God might change, they cannot affect our science – and vice versa. It is to ID’s great credit that it refuses to accept this intellectually craven stance.
Theistic evolution provides a safe haven for the craven by killing two awkward birds with one stone: On the one hand, it gives atheists everything they want (i.e. a science unbothered by God) and, on the other, it offers comfort to theists who worry that their belief in God might be shaken by whatever science happens to turn up. After all, if we can agree at the outset that it is better that the world should exist than not – admittedly Schopenhauer would dissent – then God is safe in the hands of scientists, whose findings we can accept blindly because they can’t bear on God’s nature. It is therefore not surprising that Sober, presumably an atheist, finds theistic evolution philosophically defensible: Its conception of God is so devoid of content as to provide no particular role for the deity in science — except perhaps as a logical placeholder for the unmoved mover of all things. It is only out of politeness that Sober does not then question the point of believing in such a God at all.
But what would it mean for answers to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions to be ‘mutually informative’, the position I attribute to ID? The answer most clearly related to my book is that beliefs about divine agency should yield scientific benefits, namely, in the form of testable hypotheses concerning hidden entities, variables and processes that capture the expression of supernatural power in empirically restricted settings. Either out of historical ignorance or philosophical dogmatism (or more likely a bit of both), Sarkar fails to see that the sort of ‘supernaturalism’ relevant to ID is ultimately no more than scientific realism informed by a strong sense of rational theology, which provides a prior motivation for thinking that there is more to nature than empirical regularities relating to forms of contact motion. Here I am not merely trying to reinterpret supernaturalism to make it look respectable in retrospect. It is the most reasonable historical interpretation of what the likes of Newton, Leibniz, Boscovich, Hartley, Priestley, Faraday, Maxwell, etc. were up to when trying to make sense of the elusive physical phenomena associated with, say, gravity, energy, electricity and magnetism. I also think it is why Mendel understood the mechanism of heredity so much better than Darwin, who was completely bereft of a theological imagination.
Of course, life is much easier for Sarkar’s Punch-and-Judy style of naturalism to identify supernaturalism exclusively with what he calls ‘divine intervention’, which entails the outright suspension of natural law. But unfortunately – as anyone in HPS should know – matters are never quite so simple. So I quite happily plead guilty to Sarkar’s verdict that ‘Fuller’s is not a sense of “supernatural” that would excite real creationists or inflame any of their critics’, since for Sarkar the only ‘real creationist’ is someone who believes that God simply zaps things in and out of existence when he feels like it and ‘their critics’ are people like himself who are dumb enough to think that this is what their opponents really believe. Much of my testimony in Kitzmiller aimed to dispel this unproductive stereotyping of the debate.
To be sure, some people treat the existence of a supernatural realm as a science-stopper – and do so happily. For example, many self-avowed theistic evolutionists advance just this position when they suggest that there are aspects of our being or reality more generally that science should never expect to comprehend. But ID does not let God opt out of scientific relevance so easily. Theories of ‘complex specified information’ and ‘irreducible complexity’, regardless of the flaws in their particular formulations, do not begin to make sense unless the supernatural is treated as scientifically tractable. Perhaps the background assumption that is not made sufficiently clear in this debate is that ID advocates regard easy Neo-Darwinist appeals to chance-based processes as themselves prima facie irrational and mysterious, especially when the evidence on offer for them is indirect – as in inferences we might make about what happened millions or billions of years ago. Here it is worth recalling the long line of ID theologians – most notably Thomas Bayes — who contributed to the interpretation of probability theory as a measure of belief, whose uncertainty gradually decreases with further inquiry. For them ‘chance’ was simply a dispirited way of dealing with our ignorance of design.
3. Sarkar’s Particular Criticisms I: The More Editorial Ones
In the rest of my response, I shall quote Sarkar’s criticisms in bold face and respond below them.
Let me take the following two criticisms together:
“Logical positivists, and not just Popper, are supposed to have labeled Darwinism a “metaphysical research program” (p. 133). I am not aware of a single logical positivist (or logical empiricist) text that supports this claim. Given that for the logical positivists (in contrast to Popper) “metaphysical” was a term of opprobrium, it is unlikely that any of them would have embraced this formulation. The logical positivists may well have believed physics to be of more fundamental importance than biology, but the latter science nevertheless belonged to the pantheon. The foundations of biology were intended to be part of their Encyclopedia of Unified Science.”
“Around the same time, Lamarck is supposed to have held that “lower organisms literally strove to become higher organisms, specifically humans, who at some point in the future would be Earth’s sole denizens” (p. 146), a view to be found nowhere in the Lamarckian corpus.”
These criticisms illustrate what I have called the ‘New Yorker magazine view of the world’ that afflicts some analytic philosophers. (I originally made this claim against a philosopher who actually began his career as an editor. Oops!) It basically reduces the history and philosophy of science to checking for facts and grammar, respectively. However, as so often is the case when dealing with editors, the fact-checker goes astray when he decides to venture opinions of his own. So even if it is strictly true that only Popper called Darwinism a ‘metaphysical research programme’ and the official logical positivist line was anti-metaphysical, it is equally true that the positivists themselves did metaphysics in everything but name (e.g. Carnap’s Aufbau), not least in the IEUS volume on biology that attempted to lay down the discipline’s axiomatic foundations. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Popper wrote the obituary for its author, Joseph Woodger, in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science in 1981.
On the point concerning the ‘Lamarckian corpus’, again I am happy to concede that the man himself never explicitly stated the thesis I attributed to him. As it turns out, the passage Sarkar quotes refers to Lamarck and Comte together as representatives of a pro-human line of evolutionary progress that was opposed to the more ecocentric line taken by Darwinists attempting to influence British sociology in its early years. Whatever Lamarck’s actual views on the ultimate fate of humanity (which are up for debate), it is clear that the Lamarckian tradition has been generally committed to what the historian Charles Gillispie called an ‘escalator of being’ on which all creatures were moving, with humans currently on the top floor. A clear expression of the view I attributed to Lamarck can be found in his most visionary 20th century follower, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who envisaged the Earth as someday becoming one ‘hominised substance’.
But some of Sarkar’s editorial antics are simply mischievous, if not symptomatic of someone gripped by attention deficit disorder:
“The idea that a difference should make a difference is attributed to Gregory Bateson in 1979 (p. 62) even though (as Bateson explicitly acknowledged) its source is in the work of William James several decades earlier.”
Interesting observation in some possible context — but not mine, which has to do with information theory, which is also Bateston’s own context.
“The “Darwinian doctrine” is supposed to consist of the belief that “chance mutations are the driving force of evolution” (p. 31). One wonders what happened to natural selection. Fuller has an answer: “compounded historical accidents” are also known as “natural selection” (p. 48). This issue is particularly troubling because what separates the neutral model of evolution from the selectionist or “Darwinian” model of evolution is the question whether chance mutations drive evolution: the neutralists claim they do whereas the selectionists argue for the primacy of natural selection. For some mysterious reason, Fuller has reversed the selectionists’ position.”
The alert reader will notice that the two quotes consist of phrases taken 17 pages apart – indeed, they are in two different chapters – and clearly not part of the same argument, which in neither case is the one Sarkar constructs on my behalf. Of course, I accept that evolutionists travel under a big tent that allow for both neutralists and selectionists, though if Sarkar is so fussy about distinguishing the mechanisms of evolution, he might start in his own backyard, since Francis Ayala appears to conflate the two in his recent paper, “Darwin’s Greatest Discovery: Design without a Designer”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 (15 May 2007): 8567-73.
“Pearson and Galton’s biometry is supposed to have been based on a “blending theory of inheritance” (p. 145) even though Pearson explicitly denied assuming any theory at all and Galton reported experiments to refute the blending theory.”
Had Sarkar cast his gaze higher up on the same page, he would have seen that I recognize that Galton was trying to overcome the blending theory through both scientific experiments and public policy proposals. But you don’t try to overcome something unless you recognize it in the first place. In any case, to claim that Galton outright ‘refuted’ the blending theory is to put the matter too strongly. And as for Pearson not assuming an theory at all, that observation should be classed with Sarkar’s earlier one that the positivists didn’t do metaphysics.
“All microevolution is supposed to have been designed by humans (p. 141); presumably ancient humans were privy to enough biological warfare techniques to design malaria and cause the spread of the sickle cell allele in tropical and subtropical populations.”
More mischief, I fear: The instances of microevolution that I am referring to are the ones cited by Science magazine to make 2005 ‘The Year of Evolution’, all of which consist of laboratory experiments. I do not say anything about microevolution in general.
The following criticisms appear to get closer to matters of substance – but not quite perhaps…
“Newton is supposed to have “presented his mathematical physics as the divine plan that was implicitly written into the Bible [emphasis added]” (p. 54). Fuller must have access to an otherwise unknown veridical edition of the Principia.”
No, of course I do not have access to any such edition. However, once one adds some context — Newton’s correspondence, successive editions of the long interpretive essay he attached to the Principia, called the General Scholium, as well as his other major work, the Opticks — it becomes clear that Newton intended his physics to be a decoding of hidden biblical truths. Again this point should be obvious to anyone schooled in HPS. Such a person would be mindful of the tricky 17th and 18th century conventions concerning the expression of theological opinions in scientific tracts. Indeed, knowledge of that period is good preparation for ID proponents trying to navigate their way around repressive environment of today’s US legal culture.
“In the early nineteenth century, Cuvier and Agassiz were supposed to have been thinking of climate change (p. 59)”.
This criticism of my use of the phrase ‘climate change’ epitomizes Sarkar’s intellectual blinders: He appears to be so wedded to science du jour that all climate change must be anthropogenic because that is how scientists tend to think about it today. The non-anthropogenic floods and ice ages proposed by these catastrophist natural historians do not appear to count as climate change for him. Or maybe this slip merely reveals Sarkar’s lack of historical imagination and/or anti-religious bigotry — that he cannot imagine that the Noachian narrative might inspire a scientifically fruitful line on inquiry.
“Mendel is supposed to have had his work rejected by scientific experts before he published it in a local journal in Brünn (p. 61), a rejection of which no other historian is aware.”
Well, here is one historian familiar with the original sources who is aware. (Keep in mind that Mendel’s paper was published in 1866): “When Mendel explained ‘‘the general application of the law of formation and development of hybrids’’ in his lectures to the members of the Natural Science Society in 1865, the listeners did not understand that he addressed the research question that had arisen from the discussion between local breeders and naturalists thirty years ago.” [Vitezslav Orel, ‘Contested memories: Debates over the nature of Mendel’s paradigm’. Hereditas 142 (2005): 98-102.]
“The modern theory of evolution is often interpreted to be a synthesis in the 1930s of Mendel’s theory of inheritance with Darwin’s theory of natural selection (along with natural history). But, for Fuller, it was a synthesis “between molecular genetics and natural history” and it is supposed to have happened a decade before 1955 (p. 58) even though there was no possibility of a molecular genetics before the Watson-Crick double helix model of DNA which, incidentally, appeared in 1953. (Elsewhere in the book he accepts the standard interpretation of the synthesis [e.g., p. 134].)”
I may be guilty of sloppy usage here, but I’m afraid our editor has overstepped the mark when he says ‘there was no possibility of a molecular genetics before Watson-Crick’. No possibility? There was plenty of possibility once Warren Weaver started seeding projects for the Rockefeller Foundation in what he called ‘molecular biology’ in 1934, one aim of which would be to understand the molecular character of genetics.
But admittedly, Sarkar scores some direct hits:
“William Jennings Bryan is supposed to have been an “expert witness for the prosecution” (p. 115) in the Scopes trial, rather than what he was: the prosecutor who famously agreed to be an expert witness for the defense.”
This is true. My mistake. Sarkar will be pleased to learn that I spotted the error before he did and corrected it in subsequent work. Bryan’s role in the trial is correctly attributed in Dissent over Descent on p. 35.
“Thanks to molecular biology, genes are supposed to have been “[broken] down into ordered strings of amino acids” (p. 135); one wonders what happened to DNA nucleotide bases.”
This is the most substantial error that Sarkar has caught. And, truth to be told, it is not the first time I have confused the amino acids that make up proteins with the bases that make up DNA. The correction is appreciated and I will try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
4. Sarkar’s Particular Criticisms II: The More Substantive Ones
“Fuller predicts that Darwinism (by which he means the entire framework of evolutionary theory) will be dead by the end of the twenty-first century and will be replaced by something more akin to ID creationism. No particular reason is given for this pious hope other than that Marxism underwent a similar denouement during the twentieth century (though, obviously it was not replaced by ID).”
What I claim will be dead by the end of this century is ‘Darwinism’ as a covering scientific ideology, which will have resulted from the dismantling of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. What I mean is that molecular biology, genetics, natural history and field biology – the major disciplines that currently constitute the synthesis – will no longer be under any special epistemological obligation to sing from the same Darwinian hymn sheet. Why do I say this? The most obvious reason is that articles in the professional journals of these fields make little reference even to evolution, let alone the signature Darwinian process of natural selection. In short, biologists can conduct their normal business regardless of where they stand on the ID-evolution divide (This is discussed on pp. 131-2 of Science vs Religion).
It is unlikely that the Neo-Darwinian synthesis would have much epistemological salience at all if philosophers like Sarkar didn’t make a career out of what I would call The Higher Knitting, i.e. the active maintenance of a sense of synthesis by showing how all the different parts of biology really cohere together, if all the semantic confusions are clarified in just the right way so that the overall logic is rendered transparent. For their part, professional biologists (as opposed to wannabes like Sarkar) operate with a much more relaxed view of the so-called synthesis. They prefer the content-lite phrase ‘modern evolutionary theory’, which enables them to move between loose various characterizations of evolution that occasionally escape strict Darwinism.
In fact, many biologists seem so unaware (ungrateful?) of the philosophical knitting done on their behalf that they complain that talk of ‘Darwinism’ is just a creationist ruse to expose them to more scrutiny than they think they deserve. The unrequited love of philosophers of biology for professional biologists would make an interesting research project in the sociology of science. (A good starting point would be Werner Callebaut’s interviews in Taking the Naturalistic Turn, Chicago 1993.) Why philosophers should relate to the biological sciences in such a strongly ideological fashion is an open question, but no doubt it has to do with the larger cultural issues surrounding biology (ranging from creationism to eugenics) that professional scientists prefer to avoid. If not outright shills, philosophers like Sarkar relate to biologists as Plato’s guardians did to his philosopher-kings.
“Fuller goes on to claim (without argument) that not allowing creationism in science classes constitutes an institutionalization of atheism (p. 112).”
‘Without argument’ is a verbal tic of analytic philosophers who want to do two contradictory things at once: Disagree with you, while denying that you’ve said anything worth disagreeing with. If materials designed for the science curriculum can be excluded simply because they are religiously motivated, regardless of their scientific merit, then I infer institutionalised atheism. And that seems to be the position of the US after Edwards v. Aguilard. Kitzmiller complicated the matter because the proposed materials, especially Of Pandas and People, were both religiously motivated and scientific deficient – a point I never contested. But equally banned, it seems, would be a science textbook that, for reasons of teaching science more effectively to Christian students, demonstrated the relevance of Newton’s reading of the Bible to his physical theories, even if the underlying history, philosophy and science were all true.
“Moreover, even if ID was once central to science, it does not follow either (i) that science has not since moved beyond that stage or (ii) that it should not now maintain a healthy distance from ID. (Think of an analogy: it is easy to argue that determinism was crucial to the rise of physics. Does that imply that physics still clings — or should cling — to determinism even after the rise of quantum mechanics?)”
I’m glad Sarkar poses the matter as a hypothetical, since it would be nice to know when – and to what extent – science has truly ‘moved beyond’ ID, especially when it comes to motivating the pursuit of science. There still seem to be many scientists – and philosophers – who promote scientific inquiry in order to arrive at a maximally unified understanding of reality. But why think that such a goal makes sense, if ID is completely off the table? In fact, as the history of determinism itself illustrates, it is crude, to say the least, to argue that a deep metaphysical assumption of science like ID is simply discarded in light of empirical findings or even a change in theories. Rather, like determinism, it gets reformulated and may even be used to challenge the intelligibility of the theories and findings of science. Were Sarkar more of a philosopher, and less of a wannabe scientist, he might have figured that out himself.
“Ultimately, the claim that Fuller wants to defend is a normative one: that science should re-embrace ID. But this normative claim does not follow from the descriptive claim that science once embraced ID (leaving aside the question whether the descriptive claim is true). Some further argument is necessary and Fuller offers none.”
The problem with challenging my thesis this way is that it presumes that science has indeed given up its ID-based assumptions. (That assumptions are not acknowledged doesn’t mean that they have been abandoned.) The overarching sense of scientific progress and its concomitant faith in greater explanatory unity and increased predictive control of nature over time: All of these trade on an ID-based view of the world, in which human beings enjoy a special relationship to reality that enables us to acquire a deep knowledge, most of which affords no particular reproductive advantage and more likely puts our continued survival at risk. Armed only with a Darwinian view of the world – and without the implicit ID backstory – it becomes difficult to justify the continuation of the scientific enterprise in this full-bodied sense. (I have recently made this argument in the context of the Richard Dawkins’ plan to establish an atheist version of the Templeton Foundation – but what has atheism ever done for science?)
In this respect, ID offers a much stronger antidote to postmodernism and relativism than anything naturalism has to offer. If anything, the naturalistic turn in the philosophy of science has played into postmodernist and relativist hands by promoting the ‘disunity of science’ thesis, which would have each science justify itself in terms of its own specific research trajectory. Unfortunately, such a narrow view of epistemic legitimation is a hostage to fortune in a science policy environment on the lookout for diminishing returns and collateral damage. After all, empirically speaking, it is hard to dispute that science wastes a lot of time, money and effort, leads to much trivia and many dead ends, and causes much harm. Why then persist in the more grandiose projects that excite not only philosophers but also the larger culture that accords ‘Science’ the significance it continues to enjoy?
Sarkar himself promotes the idea – which hitherto I thought had died a long overdue death – that the theory of evolution by natural selection is itself ‘value-neutral’, though bad people – and maybe some good ones – have twisted it to bad effect (See his ‘”Intelligent Design” Creationism Is an Immoral Fraud’). This idea would begin to make sense if there were some canonical formulation of the theory beyond the level of sloganeering. The most plausible candidates for ‘value-neutral’ theories are ones fully expressible in agreed mathematical terms. Physics is the obvious model here, and population genetics as a stand-alone discipline may be the only branch of biology that approximates this model. Modern evolutionary theory as a whole is quite a flexible feast that would seem to allow both a Richard Dawkins and a Steven Jay Gould to dine out on its fruits. As Kim Sterelny brilliantly observed in Dawkins vs. Gould (Icon 2001), between these two lay vast differences of opinion over the main mechanisms of evolution and the relative weighting of evidence – not to mention the world-view each takes to follow from evolution. Of course, philosophers like Sarkar engaged in The Higher Knitting try to construct a fantasy value-neutral object of Neo-Darwinian inquiry that circumvents these public disagreements. But even the philosophers disagree amongst themselves, albeit in more discreet, technical settings.
“Throughout the book Fuller takes great pains to emphasize the uncontroversial point that science and religion have on occasion shared goals in the past. But this fact does not establish the claim that intelligent design was central to the rise of science except to the trivial extent that the worshipped deity was typically supposed to be intelligent.”
This is the sort of argument that would be unwittingly funny if found in an undergraduate exam, but pathetic coming from someone holding a Ph.D. in HPS. First Sarkar insists on treating science and religion as if they were two separate activities, so that he imagines the relevance of intelligent design to science as simply a matter of scientists happening to worship an intelligent deity! He seems never to have run across the idea (discussed throughout Science vs. Religion, especially chap. 1) of an ‘intelligible’ reality as a necessary precondition for science. Intelligibility implies that all of reality – not just the bits we need for everyday living — is constructed in such a way that we can make sense of its fundamental nature. And why would anyone think such a thing? The answer is that whoever or whatever produced reality, it has a mind rather like ours – only much, much better. So, science then becomes a matter of reverse-engineering the divine artifact. Sarkar may not like this mix of scientific and religious motivations, but this strong reading of the intelligibility condition for science goes to the very heart of what ID is about. To be sure, it does not follow that the specific empirical conclusions reached by operating on this basis will always be correct, but that does not deny its scientific fruitfulness – or its religious basis.
Let me conclude on what, for my money, this is Sarkar’s biggest howler:
“Fuller does not even address the question whether the development of evolutionary theory, and its naturalistic explanation of adaptation (through blind variation and natural selection), made it possible for the first time to have a non-teleological account of the world. Did Darwin and Wallace achieve something special? On Fuller’s account, they apparently did not.”
Leaving aside whether Wallace’s account of evolution by natural selection is truly non-teleological (which I seriously doubt), it should be obvious to anyone who has taken HPS 101 that ‘non-teleological accounts of the world’ were being given long before Darwin – even without taking into account that many of the principals in the Scientific Revolution presented their versions of the mechanical world-view as if it were non-teleological so as to avoid religious problems. In terms of precedents to Darwin’s own theory, De Rerum Natura, the classic poem by the Roman Epicurean, Lucretius, immediately springs to mind – and it returns us to my central thesis that apparently flew over Sarkar’s head, since I raised it first on page 2 of my supposedly ‘content-free’ introduction: Non-teleological accounts of the world do not inspire the sustained pursuit of scientific inquiry – and so not surprisingly there are no good Darwinian accounts of science’s own significance for Homo sapiens.
Historians have long marvelled at the extent to which the metaphysical assumptions and speculative explanations of the ancient atomists anticipated a range of revolutionary scientific achievements over the past 150 years, both in physics and biology. Yet the ancients who held these views were not moved to do science. They were so convinced by their arguments that they were inclined to engage in a ‘therapeutic’ brand of philosophy that aimed to reassure people that there is ultimately no meaning to life other than to minimize suffering, which typically resulted when people adopted the arrogant attitude that they could master the chance-based character of reality and turn it to their systematic advantage. Atomism became such a powerful force in the Scientific Revolution only once it underwent theological domestication, such that chance came to be seen as a mechanism that God used to good effect as part of an overall design strategy.
Darwin’s uniqueness comes from being someone whose ID sympathies provided the impetus for sustained scientific inquiry but then found his belief in ID disconfirmed by the evidence. He flourished at a time – the middle third of the 19th century – that was probably the high watermark of rational theology’s cultural support of scientific inquiry, and so the deflationary implications of Darwin’s ‘one long argument’ for humanity’s grasp of nature had yet to sink in. However, near the end of his life, Darwin’s great defender T.H. Huxley acknowledged that the 20th century would face the challenge — given Darwin’s deflated view of humans — of maintaining our confidence in the scientific enterprise. This point should resonate with today’s philosophers of science who, notwithstanding Kuhn, Rorty and a host of relativists and postmodernists, can’t seem to disabuse themselves of the idea that science displays a sense of ‘progress’ that is not only a ‘progress from’ but also a ‘progress to’. But why think that science is heading anywhere at all, especially towards explanatory unity or greater predictive control of the world? This is because ID is still very much with us.