21 January 2007

Crying "uncle" to Dr C but not to ID

Participating in the discussion of information (and sundry other things around and about that theme) with Dr C is exhilarating, eye opening and mind expanding. I'm enjoying it immensely, and learning from it even more. Dr C has put up two posts (Commenting before moving forward and Some thoughts on information - II) since I last rejoined. As Jim Putnam put it, after the first of them, the ball is in my court now.

The trouble is ... like all information, the content of the discussion balloons. In each of Dr C's posts there are more intriguing avenues than I can shake a stick at; each avenue deserves a post in reply; and there are only so many hours in the day. So, I'm going to cry "uncle" at this point. I'm not pulling out; but I am just accepting the latest post (Information II) with admiration and broad agreement. I will "stay tuned", as Dr C says, and draw breath, and hope to contribute something meaningful to the next phase...

I will, however, deal with one area of side dish - because it is one which resurfaces from time to time, and putting a public reply now may save me time in the future. That area is how evolutionists should view proponents of creationism and/or Intelligent Design.

From Information II:

Concerning Intelligent Design:

Human beings, as I said in an earlier post, are a package evolved by evolution (or, if you are from the other shop, designed) to meet a very different world from the one within which robotics are developing.

I disagree with the Growlery on tossing a bone to the intelligent design crowd. While they pretend to be scientists, their agenda is clearly political and it pains me that we have to continually recognize their influence. Hopefully it is waning.

Having said that I haven't the time to write, I won't try to generate original material; what follows is largely edited from an email conversation with two correspondents, a while back along, about the teaching of ID in science classes.

This is, to me, all about intellectual freedom. Intellectual freedom is, like all freedoms, indivisible - and needs to be exercised regularly if it is to remain strong. We cannot ring fence ideas we like, ostracising those we regard as pernicious, and still remain intellectually free.

While I personally regard evolution as the only explanation which makes sense, I also regard as absolutely vital the fact that I was allowed to come to this conclusion for myself, having weighed it against the alternatives - of which creationism was one, and ID is now another.

Theories, and ideas in general, also evolve in a Darwinistic way. Many forms and mutations are thrown up, all are tested by their environment, and only the fittest survive. The environment, for an idea, is discourse and debate; the hazards against which they are tested are observation, experiment, critical thinking, coexistence with or vanquishment of competing ideas.

That Darwinistic process has driven the development of thought across millennia. We didn't get to where we are today at a single intellectual bound, with Darwin and Paley. The process started back in the mists of prehistory. It is visible in the astronomical obsessions of Babylonian priests, and the early natural philosophy of people like Anaximander.. It started with magical explanations of existence, which eventually succumbed to more sophisticatedly structured religious ones, and evolved later still to the more rigorously investigated of science. It produced the enlightenment, and the extraordinary battles fought within their own minds by people like Isaac Newton. John Maynard Keynes rightly said that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago."

The theory of evolution is just that. A theory, albeit a theory which offers (so far) a more robust explanation than any of its competitors. A theory which has been revised several times and is currently being radically revised again in the light of genome sequencing. It is, in a very real sense, science's highest and proudest moment. To pretend that it is more than a theory, to ask that people accept it as a variety of holy writ without testing it against other contenders with their own critical faculties, is unscientific. In fact, it is a complete betrayal of all that science is supposed to be. If evolution cannot survive in open debate against the likes of Intelligent Design, that doesn't say much for its value. If it can survive the encounter, it will have demonstrated its fitness for purpose - and perhaps have further sharpened itself up in the process.

To banish ID from the science classroom, or to exempt it from scientific challenge, is to say "if you consider this scientifically, and weigh it against our preferred theory, you are either stupid or heretical". I had hoped that we might have moved further from the middle ages than that. It is the approach which religion adopted in the face of science.

ID seems ridiculous to me - but only because I have learned to think logically and scientifically. How did I learn to think that way? Not by being presented with predigested intellectual faits accomplis, but by risking the examination of ideas other than orthodoxy. If ID is as ridiculous as I think it is, it will not survive being welcomed out into the light of discourse and critical judgment. It will be a quickly discredited theory. It will be a quickly forgotten theory. Banishing it into dark corners, however, gives it an allure which may prolong its life and influence considerably. An idea which is suppressed in any way, however, can often exert a fascination that is hard to break. Refusal to even consider it as science is a form of suppression, protecting it from critical scrutiny.

Instead, present it as a testable theory, proceed to test it alongside evolution, and its complete lack of any supporting evidence becomes clear - as does the abundance of testable evidence for evolution.

I understand that this is a stiffer issue in the US, where ID has a very real political agenda and seeks to undermine teaching of rational critical thought in the opposite direction, than in the UK where it is (so far) firmly on the lunatic fringe. But the answer is not to play into the hands of that agenda by becoming as theocratic as the opposition.

As a scientist and evolutionist I am frightened by the determination to exclude any idea. To do that is to show a lack of trust in our ability to think for ourselves.

"I don't care about their different thoughts:
Different thoughts are good for me..."
(Tanita Tikaram: Twist in my sobriety)

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