Evolution, Intelligent Design and Extraordinary Claims – Part III

This my third installment of a discussion I began here and continued here on the validity of the claim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, or what I call the EC-EE claim. In the first installment we looked at the EC-EE claim itself and asked whether the EC-EE claim is an example of an EC-EE claim that failed to live up to its own standard. In the second installment, we looked at what exactly are the extraordinary claims being made by ID that so require such extraordinary evidence, or is it Darwinian evolution that is really making the extraordinary claim and so far has failed the EC-EE test?

In this third post I want to look at the evidentiary side of the EC-EE claim and ask what constitutes extraordinary evidence and how has ID failed to meet the standard? Is there even such a thing as extraordinary evidence in the first place?  How does one determine what makes evidence extraordinary?

Before jumping off, though, I want to begin by looking at what we mean when we say that observation X is evidence for phenomenon Y. The first thing to note is that no observation of any artifact or phenomenon is going to indicate by merely being there to observe what it is evidence for. Put another way, things we observe – artifacts in nature, phenomenon, behavior and so forth – do not come to us with a little label attached telling us what they are evidence of. To see this, suppose we come upon a scene where we observe two cars pretty smashed up, one still injected into the side of the other. Additionally we immediately observe EMT crews and stretchers and a flurry of activity in and around the cars. Most likely we would conclude a car accident had very recently taken place. And that would probably, but not necessarily, be right. However, merely observing the cars and the scene would not tell us who was at fault or how the accident occurred. If we were insurance agents looking to assign fault for insurance purposes, we’d have to do quite a bit of investigation before determining all those things. In other words, neither the cars nor anything else at the scene would have a sign saying “this is evidence that auto A plowed into auto B and is at fault.”

Further, it might turn out that the entire scene is staged and is being filmed for a new movie so no accident whatsoever took place. Again, merely observing the immediate scene might not tell us that either. Or, it might be a staged EMT drill to train EMT workers on how to handle a disastrous automobile accident. Whatever the case, the point is that the mere fact that the scene is observed does not immediately tell us exactly what happened or how, and nothing on the scene will have a little note telling us those things either.

Rather, we would upon further inspection connect the observation with a conclusion about what took place. To do that we would be applying additional bits of background information and reasoning that allow for making a reasonable, warranted claim that what we observed at the scene is indeed evidence that a tragic accident just took place. It follows that the evidence – the car crash scene – is not evidence per se, but rather we observers assign it evidentiary status based on other background considerations that allow us to have warrant in tying the evidence to the conclusion that an accident had indeed just taken place. Such background considerations would be things like we know when cars hit each other at fairly high speeds, a lot of damage is usually the result; we know certain laws of physics such as two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time; we know that observing such a scene on a public highway is almost always because an accident had taken place; we know that most likely one of the two drivers involved is at fault in some way…and so on. All of these things would allow our conclusion based on the evidence to have warrant. I use a common event example merely to illustrate how we normally connect evidence to a conclusion.

Now, let’s apply this to the EC-EE claim. In the EC-EE claim, any dispute that some EC has no EE is not really a dispute evidence per se, but over what background principles and other considerations are allowable in connecting some phenomenon or artifact to some claim. Philosopher of Science, Del Ratzsch puts it this way:

To see what is involved, we need to look more closely at the relationship between theories and evidence. Suppose that in 1900 someone had suggested that atoms could be split into smaller parts or that several atoms could be squashed together to form a single larger one. Given the then-current views that atoms were indestructible, the idea would probably have been rejected. In fact, most scientists would probably have claimed that there was no evidence to support such a claim. But in a sense there was shining evidence for such a view: it rose every morning and set every evening. If atoms were immutable, there would be no sunshine. Thus the very existence of sunshine was powerful evidence for the mutability of atoms.

But of course, in 1900 no one knew that. No one knew that sunshine was evidence of mutability for the simple reason that no one knew of any theory that connects the generating of sunlight with that mutability. If no one knows the connection between two things, the one cannot be reasonably to be evidence for the other. It is only after the connection is known (or at least suspected) that such claims are justified. In general what we perceive to be evidence and what we take it to be evidence for is relative to the background theories we accept.

Del Ratzsch, Science and its Limits, Intervarsity Press, 2000, Downers Grove, IL, pp 101-102

Ratzsch has nicely described what really is at stake when we observers attempt to connect some observation to some claim. With respect to the EC-EE claim then, any dispute about a particular claim being unwarranted for lack of evidence is really not a dispute about evidence, but a dispute about what principles and background theories are acceptable to give warrant to making the connection. To see this, consider many (or most) philosophical naturalists’ claim that theistic belief lacks warrant because there is simply no evidence for it. From their perspective, theistic belief is an extraordinary claim that lacks any kind of evidence. What the naturalist completely overlooks here is that the dispute is not about evidence at all. Let’s consult Del Ratzsch again for further insight on this.

Now the Christian might, for instance, hold that the existence of a world, or the existence of life, or her own existence, or perhaps some sorts of experiences she has had, can best be explained by references to certain religious principles or to a Creator. She believes that those things constitute evidence for her beliefs. When the religious critic says that there is no evidence, he certainly does not mean to be denying the existence of the world, or of life, or of himself, but is serving notice that he does not accept the background principles that give evidential status to those things. By claiming that there is no evidence, then, the critic is really saying in effect that the background principles that a believer holds – for instance, that there could not have been a world had it not been for a Creator – are false.

…the critics claim that there is no evidence implies that any principle connecting existence to createdness is false and that no one will know of any such connection, ever…

…In any case, what is important to realize here is that despite appearance the dispute is really not a dispute over evidence but over background principles relevant to the interpretation of things everyone accepts. By making it sound as though it is a question of evidence that is either there or not there, the critic makes his charge sound much more substantial than it is.

Ratzsch, IBID, pp 102-103.

Let’s apply this to the comments of both Niall Shanks and Michael Shermer that I referenced in the first two installments. Their critique of ID is that there is not a scintilla of evidence for it. As we can now see from the clarification provided by Ratzsch, what Shermer and Shanks really mean is that they are giving notice that they do not accept any of the background principles that allow any observation, say the presence of CSI in a biological system, to be evidence for the claim of intelligent cause. In saying ID lacks evidence, then, they are not denying the existence of biological systems, or of tightly organized and complex sub-systems with biological organisms, or even the presence of CSI. Shermer and Shanks along with all ID proponents are observing the same biological systems. Rather, they are denying that there can be any background principles or theories that give warrant to the connection of those things to intelligent cause. And since they are stressing the importance of evidence in making the EC-EE charge against ID, what is their evidence for that denial?

By now it should be pretty clear that any claims or disputes about evidence that is either there or not there is not really about evidence at all. But the issue doesn’t stop there. For philosophical naturalists like Shanks and Shermer, the problem with ID lacking evidence goes even further because they reject any explanation that does not fall within the parameters of naturalism (whether just methodological or the full on philosophical variety) because they adhere to a principle that demands that naturalistic explanations must always take precedence over any other explanations.

I’ll let Del Ratzsch elaborate on this as well.

…the principle that naturalistic explanations take precedence over other explanations, is not above suspicion either. Why, if one has a naturalistic explanation of something and a nonnaturalistic explanation of that same thing, should one automatically be obliged first to choose between them (implying that they are competitors), and second, to give priority to the naturalistic one? What is the argument for that competition and that priority, or are those simply someone’s philosophical preferences?

Ratzsch, IBID, p 106

What Ratzsch shows here is that by denying or rejecting that there could be any background principles or theories that could provide warrant to connect some bit of evidence with the claim of intelligent cause ,the critics are merely asserting an a priori philosophical prejudice and not basing such rejection on anything confirmed or substantiated by actual science. This is a real problem for Shermer and Shanks and other ID critics who take the same line. It is also a major problem for the entire sweep of the EC-EE claim.

As we have seen in the first two installments of this series,  there is no principled way to divorce any claim that this or that claim is extraordinary from one’s underlying worldview. It follows then, that there is no principled way to determine what an extraordinary claim is, let alone what would constitute extraordinary evidence for it. And finally, we have seen that the real dispute here is not about evidence at all, but about what principles are allowable to give warrant to connecting evidence to a claim. Unless we have independent verification that the naturalistic worldview is actually the true state of affairs in the cosmos, there is no reason to accept the naturalist’s rejection of background principles that connect evidence – say, CSI, – to intelligent cause. Further, in lacking independent verification, the naturalists’ view of what constitutes an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence is not in any way epistemically superior to any competing view.

What all this amounts to is that the entire EC-EE claim is entirely misguided and is good only for emotive work for those who attempt to wield it as a sword against views that run afoul of one’s accepted worldview. There is no principled way to apply or enforce it, and it certainly does nothing to further understanding of the world and how it works or do damage to opposing views. It is time to put the EC-EE claim out to pasture.

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4 Responses to Evolution, Intelligent Design and Extraordinary Claims – Part III

  1. DM:

    A thought-provoking summary, which brings to mind Simon Greenleaf’s remarks on the error of the skeptic, which I have descriptively termed selective hyperskepticism:

    In the ordinary affairs of life we do not require nor expect demonstrative evidence, because it is inconsistent with the nature of matters of fact, and to insist on its production would be unreasonable and absurd . . . The error of the skeptic consists in pretending or supposing that there is a difference in the nature of things to be proved; and in demanding demonstrative evidence concerning things which are not susceptible of any other than moral evidence alone, and of which the utmost that can be said is, that there is no reasonable doubt about their truth . . . .

    [27] . . . . In proceeding to weigh the evidence of any proposition of fact, the previous question to be determined is, when may it be said to be proved? The answer to this question is furnished by another rule of municipal law, which may be thus stated:

    A proposition of fact is proved, when its truth is established by competent and satisfactory evidence.

    By competent evidence, is meant such as the nature of the thing to be proved requires; and by satisfactory evidence, is meant that amount of proof, which ordinarily satisfies an unprejudiced mind, beyond any reasonable doubt. . . . . If, therefore, the subject is a problem in mathematics, its truth is to be shown by the certainty of demonstrative evidence. But if it is a question of fact in human affairs, nothing more than moral evidence can be required, for this is the best evidence which, from the nature of the case, is attainable.

    Greenleaf was writing in the broad context of his famous work on Evidence, applied to the particular case of certain bits of C1 classical literature known as the gospels. However, his work clearly directly extends to issues of fact and their credible best explanation in science and other fields of responsible inquiry.

    Maybe, the matter can be simply summed up:

    extraordinary claims require extraordinary [adequate] evidence

    The bottomline is, we must be consistent in standards of warrant, and should not allow hidden worldview a prioris and preferences to decide the matter in such a way that evidence and analysis brought forth by responsible people on a different side of an issue are ruled out of court before they can speak.

    That, sirs, is closed mindedness.

    And, when backed by abuse of institutional or community credibility, influence or power, it is censorship. Censorship that can all too easily end up in modern day witch hunts — though these days, secularists speak of “Creationists” as once people who thought witches were a real menace, thought of witches.

    Given the current incident with Hedin and the sort of attitudes emanating from Barker, Coyne and co [cf. my discussion here -- podcasts I suspect are not even on the cards for UD's blogging restrictions]], I think we need to take serious pause.


  2. KF

    And, when backed by abuse of institutional or community credibility, influence or power, it is censorship. Censorship that can all too easily end up in modern day witch hunts — though these days, secularists speak of “Creationists” as once people who thought witches were a real menace, thought of witches.

    Given the current incident with Hedin and the sort of attitudes emanating from Barker, Coyne and co [cf. my discussion here -- podcasts I suspect are not even on the cards for UD's blogging restrictions]], I think we need to take serious pause.

    Exactly! One of my aims with this whole series is to show just how worldview laden the EC-EE claim is. It follows then that using the EC-EE claim against ID (or theism or in defense of naturalism) is, at root, riddled with a priori worldview commitments and can not in any principled way be divorced from them. Unless and until the wielders of the EC-EE sword against non-naturalism foes can demonstrate independently that Naturalism (or something very much like it) is the way things really are, then all claims of lack of evidence or “inconceivable!” are tied directly to what may be (and probably is), a faulty premise.

    As ID proponents and critics of naturalism in general and Darwinian evolution in particular, we must not allow our arguments or concepts to be dismissed on such shaky, faulty grounds as an impotent EC-EE charge. We need to expose the worldview that drives it for what it is and make the other side defend that!

  3. DonaldM:

    Very good indeed.

    I must say that I have never liked the word “evidence”. I don’t know really what its connotations are in english, but in italian it strongly suggests that “something demonstrates something else”.

    Now, IMO that is a strong error in category. In pure logical thinking, we have logical demonstrations. That is deductive reasoning, and the conclusions are unavoidable, provided one accepts the whole logical system in discussion.

    In empirical sciences, instead, we look for explanations of what we observe in reality. Now, an explanation is always a mental structure superimposed to reality itself. The role of observations, of facts, is to “support” the explanation, not to “demonstrate” it. We are here in the much more elusive field of inferential reasoning: nothing is definitely true, theories can be supported or unsupported by facts, sometimes definitely falsified by them (let’s leave something for Popper, after all), but never finally “proven”.

    Going back to your very well framed arguments, how would this kind of statement sound?

    “Extraordinary theories require extraordinary facts”.

    And so, what is an extraordinary theory? And above all, what is an “extraordinary fact”? Fats are facts. They happen, or they do not happen. Why should a fact be extraordinary, and the fall of an apple be ordinary?

    But let’s try to reformulate the statement with more correct epistemological terms:

    “Any theory requires some facts that support it, and possibly no facts that definitely falsify it”.

    That sounds better, doesn’t it?

    Now, neo darwinists have an “extraordinary” :) record of theories that are completely unsupported by facts. They do believe that dFSCI can come out random or unguided systems, while nobody has ever observed that happen. They believe that silly genetic algorithms are good models of NS, when it is obvious that they are not. They believe that living beings made of RNA may exist and did exist, when nobody has ever observed them, and there is no trace of them in natural history. And so on.

    Now, I don’t know if their theories are really “extraordinary” (I simply find them silly), but they are certainly unsupported by facts.

    On the other hand, what do we IDers believe?

    We believe that designed objects ccn be often detected as such (extremely supported by facts).

    We believe that some formal property of some designed objects allows design detection with 100% specificity. Whether we call that property CSI, or dFSCI, or in any other way, and whether our definitions may be slightly different in the details, the fact remains that design detection based on compex specified information happens every day, and has never been falsified.

    We believe that a very simple inference by analogy can be made about the greatest mystery in observed nature: thousands, probably millions, of different structures that vastly exhibit CSI, and for which no non design explanation even starts to sound credible. Our inference is extremely simple: they look designed, they exhibit a formal, detectable property that allows design detection with 100% specificity, and which has never been falsified when used as a tool for design detection. Strangely, we do infer that those structures are designed.

    By whom? The answer is simple. By some conscious intelligent being, like all designers are. Is that an “extraordinary” idea?

    No, it isn’t. For millennia, humans have naturally thought, and believed, that biological beings are designed by some conscious intelligent agent. They may have called them gods, or angels, or demons, or aliens, or simply spiritual principles. Strangely, billions of people in all ages have easily believed that.

    Were they fools? Were they stupid? Were they illitterate? Were they mad?

    I don’t think so. I believe exactly the same things, and I still have a minimum respect for my intelligence and for my sanity of mind.

    So, are darwinists fool, stupid, and so on?

    No, they are not. They believe what they believe, and they are free to do that. Others have believed similar things in the past. They were a minority, but they were not stupid.

    Reductionist materialism is not an invention of modern times. It is an old philosophy. Anyone can accept it or deny it. Like theism, in all its forms. These are personale choices, they are usually called “worldviews”.

    So, let anyone keep his worldview. I respect them all.

    If you ask me,are those worldviews “extraordinary”, my answer is simply: no.

    There is nothing extraordinary in theism or materialsism, or solipsism, or idealism, and so on. They are different, they all have their fans, some of them have been more fashionable in some times, others in others.

    Nothing “extraordinary”, except the arrogance of those who think their worldview is the only one that shoud exist.

    But if you ask me a much more specific question:

    What is the explanation for biological information which is best supported by known facts?

    them my answer is, beyond any doubt: ID theory.

    Indeed, I would say that we have no other credible explanation available. At present, and maybe for all times to come…

  4. gpuccio in #3:

    Going back to your very well framed arguments, how would this kind of statement sound?

    “Extraordinary theories require extraordinary facts”.

    And so, what is an extraordinary theory? And above all, what is an “extraordinary fact”? Fats are facts. They happen, or they do not happen. Why should a fact be extraordinary, and the fall of an apple be ordinary?

    But let’s try to reformulate the statement with more correct epistemological terms:

    “Any theory requires some facts that support it, and possibly no facts that definitely falsify it”.

    That sounds better, doesn’t it?

    It certainly does…and it makes a whole lot more sense. Further, it is completely scientific, which the EC-EE claim is not. But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the naturalism crowd to start using it…except in support of their own theories.

    You entire post is well stated and your points very well taken! Thank you! (and thank you for your kind words about my post!)

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