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The Undermining of Science?

If intelligence is a real causal power in the natural world that is not reducible to the law-governed interactions of matter and energy, then how can intelligent design avoid undermining science? This worry can be restated as follows: If two scientists conduct the same experiment in different places and on different dates, and get different results, to infer the action of such an intelligence seems then to undermine science because, in that case, the different results come about from intelligence intervening in the experiment and thereby suspending the laws of nature at the moment of the experiment.

This worry makes two assumptions that are themselves problematic. Let’s start with the reference to “the same experiment.” In what sense are scientists ever conducting the same experiment? There are always differences. And those differences can produce different results even on purely materialistic grounds. Take a chaotic system like the double pendulum: go here and here. Chaotic systems have the feature that even if they appear identical to us (regardless of our precision of measurement), because of sensitivity to initial conditions, their behaviors will be different.

Now, with chaotic systems, one might still argue that if the systems in fact were given identical initial conditions and not merely given initial conditions that appear identical to us, then they would behave identically. Because the equations of motion for dynamical systems are deterministic, there would be merit to this argument provided that the universe as a whole operates according to deterministic equations of motion.

But quantum mechanics doesn’t seem to allow this option, indicating that there are indeterministic processes at the subatomic level. These indeterministic processes can filter up and be amplified by chaotic phenomena, so the ideal of chaos being deterministic at the microlevel can in practice never be sustained. The one way out of quantum indeterminism is to posit some hidden determinism, either through Bohmian hidden variables or quantum many-worlds. But besides constituting speculative interpretations of quantum theory (they are not identical with quantum theory as such), these options have no practical relevance to our initial worry, namely, that identical experimental set-ups should produce identical results. Identity at the quantum level is in principle beyond the power of observers to determine. This is the measurement problem, and its practical import does not go away regardless of one’s interpretation of quantum mechanics.

It appears, then, that reproducibility of experimental results is an ideal to which science aspires and yet an ideal that only makes sense in quite limited circumstances where it is possible to contrain an experimental set-up sufficiently so that similar set-ups lead to similar results. There is no compelling reason, however, to universalize this ideal so that it applies across the board. Indeed, why should we think that different circumstances can be matched up in all relevant respects so that they become law-governed and thus behave identicially?

This brings us to the other faulty assumption in worrying that ID undermines science, namely, that the laws of nature characterizing the interaction of matter and energy are causally complete — in other words, that they completely prescribe the behavior of physical systems. There is no reason to grant this point. Just because certain physical systems when configured in certain ways lead to predictable behaviors does not mean that all physical systems are like this. Alternatively, just because reproducibility holds for some experimental set-ups doesn’t mean that it holds, or should hold, for all experimental set-ups.

Here’s an experimental set-up: a room with a desk, blank music paper, a quill and ink, and Mozart. What laws characterize the music that Mozart is going to write? Put Mozart in that room and let him write some music. Now go back in time and put Mozart back in that same room. Is he going to write the same music? No one knows. Moreover, the integrity of science is not threatened either way.

Bottom line: reproducibility of experimental outcomes is great when you can get it. But there’s no reason to think that you can always get it. In fact, reproducibility should be viewed as the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, most circumstances are far too messy to admit the experimental control that makes reproducibility possible. And to think that this messiness can somehow be eliminated or that it disappears at the fine structure of the universe is itself an unsubstantiated article of faith.

In closing, I want to consider two diagrams from Marty Hewlett and Ted Peter’s book Evolution from Creation to New Creation. How such diagrams locate ID in relation to other views follows directly from faulty views of science like the one addressed here.

Hewlett-Peters Diagrams

Neither of these diagrams does justice to intelligent design. ID is compatible with any form of divine action that makes a difference in the natural world, and this includes everything from Teihardianism to Scientific Creationism on the first diagram. ID makes an epistemic claim about the detectability of design in nature, not about its implementation. As a consequence, the second diagram also misrepresents ID: ID is fine with design working through secondary causes, primary causes, or some combination of the two.

Properly speaking, ID is not a slice on these continua but a swath that includes all slices that take teleology seriously.

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One Response to The Undermining of Science?

  1. A hypothesis that fits all the observations, conspicous by its absence below, immediately comes to my mind…

    http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn7924

    Four fissures in the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus are spewing out a plume hundreds of kilometres high, the Cassini probe has revealed, and the ejecta is leaving a vapour trail that rings Saturn.

    Scientists are shocked by this volcanic activity on what should be a small, quiet moon. “It is a stunning surprise,” said Dennis Matson, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, US. But researchers are beginning to develop theories about what is going on.

    Matson and other members of the Cassini spacecraft team revealed the latest data on Enceladus in London, UK, on Tuesday. Cassini snapped an image of the fissures, nicknamed “tiger stripes”, when it flew past Enceladus on 14 July 2005, skimming within just 173 kilometres of the moon’s surface.

    Meanwhile, Cassini’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer picked up unexpectedly strong infrared radiation (heat) from the south pole. “It’s like flying by Earth and discovering that Antarctica is warmer than the equator,” says John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, US. Zooming in, CIRS found that the fissures are at least 90° kelvin (-183°C), 15° warmer than most of the moon’s surface.

    Ice bombs
    The tiger stripes are strange in other ways too, showing the spectral signatures of organic molecules and a form of ice that can only exist at relatively high temperatures.

    Other instruments on Cassini sampled a vast plume of water vapour towering above the south pole, almost certainly coming from the hot fissures. Scientists have speculated before that Enceladus might supply material for one of Saturn’s rings, the E-ring, and the new observations seem to confirm it. Water is pouring out at a rate of half a tonne per second – enough to keep the E-ring topped up.

    Cassini has also seen 20-metre boulders near the moon’s south pole. Could these have been blown out of the fissures, like giant, icy lava bombs? “They are awfully large” to have been ejected, says Torrence Johnson of the Cassini imaging team, “but Enceladus’ gravity is weak, so it doesn’t take much to lift stuff off the surface”.

    Tidal friction
    Internal heat must be driving all this activity, but the source of the heat remains a big puzzle. Natural radioactive decay in the moon’s rocky core might warm the interior just enough to produce a sludgy plume of water and ammonia. This could heat the surface ice just enough to allow water to evaporate slowly.

    But Cassini also detected dust and whole ice grains in the plume, implying that the material is squirted out of Enceladus with some force. That would need a lot of heat – far too much to come from the core.

    An alternative is the tidal pull of Saturn’s gravity, which makes the moon flex and produce heat by internal friction. But initial calculations put that at only 1% of the heat from the core.

    Johnson speculates that thousands of years ago the orbit of Enceladus may have been different, producing much more severe tidal heating. Today, researchers just see leftover heat escaping.

    Or perhaps all the tidal stresses on Enceladus are focused on those four fissures, rubbing the surfaces together to melt the ice. “Somehow Enceladus is doing it, so we’re going to have to figure out how,” says Johnson.

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