Sunday, October 25, 2009

Gordon Glover on Alien Intervention

There is a guest post over at Science and the Sacred by Gordon Glover. It dates back to the beginning of the month and I meant to post about it then but it got away from me. Gordon is, as usual, very thoughtful in the essay as he tackles the logic of Intelligent Design, using the same tactics one of the professors on my dissertation committee used: posit something perfectly harmless and then blow it full of holes. He writes:
On the surface, Intelligent Design seems to be a perfectly reasonable approach to studying complexity. In our everyday experience, there is certainly nothing controversial about attributing the purposeful arrangement of components to an intelligent agent.

This is often the idea that sucks most people into the acceptance of intelligent design. It is the argument that William Paley made in the 1820s—that so many things in nature showed the unmistakable signs of having been designed. This is the idea that Charles Darwin reverse-engineered once Charles Lyell provided him with all the time in the world, and Thomas Malthus provided him with a biological imperative.

Gordon uses the creation of Stonehenge to illustrate the problem of admitting ID into the arena of science. Problems in explaining how the stones got where they are abound and easy solutions are not forthcoming. That does not stop modern archaeologists from using the best available science to solve the problem. So where does ID enter?
But mainstream archaeology is content to treat these knowledge gaps in our understanding of the past as simply that, and NOT as proof that primitive man had some outside help. Besides, who or what else could possibly have intervened during the building of these ancient structures?

Oh, ye narrow-minded expert! Hath not thou considered the alien? Why bias your investigation of archaeological complexity towards earth-bound engineers?

Enter the alien enthusiasts. Not the dispassionate ones who merely concede the possibility of life outside of our solar system (a viewpoint that many scientists would share), but the hardcore fanatics. You know who I'm talking about. The ones who spend their summer vacations dressed up as aliens in Roswell, New Mexico. The true believer wants the world to acknowledge not just the probability of extra-terrestrial life, but that intelligent beings from outer space have physically visited earth and made contact with mankind. So they search out the mysteries of the ancient world looking for opportunities to preach their UFO gospel. There might not be any credible evidence of UFO visitations to planet Earth, but if there are questions that mainstream archaeology can't sufficiently answer, you can guarantee that alien believers will plug E.T. into these gaps. Does this strategy sound familiar?

Why, yes it does. It is the primary strategy that is used by those promoting Intelligent Design. This is the same strategy that allows a scientist like Michael Behe, one of the primary supporters of teaching Intelligent Design, to sit in front of a judge and say that under his definition of science, astrology would qualify. Just because we don't know why something happened, does not mean that we can posit an explanation that cannot be hypothetically tested and call it science.

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  1. Anonymous7:24 AM

    Any news on this ? When do you think we will find out what they discovered?

  2. No, nothing yet. I spoke to the department head at UT and he did not know anything, either. I will keep my ear to the third rail.

  3. The 27th Comrade1:09 PM

    Actually, I think there is a bigger chance that the builders of Stonehenge had developed the modern crane (and have subsequently lost the technology until recently) than that, say, the bones of Ardipithecus kadabba represent a variant on the dog.

    My point is that Gordon is wrong in general, because if no inferences for design can be permitted to be made from looking at life, then no inferences of the kind that paleontologists rely on can be made. The paleontologist's claims, after all, are much sketchier than the ID theorist's (unfortunately).

    Or let's say: the stone tools of the early man are, in fact, just seemingly so, and until we can figure out how nature may generate a hand axe, it is not permissible to impute the hand axe in this find to a hominid.
    (Aren't we a sad lot?)

  4. Provocative. What Gordon is getting at (I think) is that, while inferences can be made about design in the archaeological record, they cannot be tested. As such, they should not be included in a standard science class. You make the claim that the inferences made by palaeontologists are much sketchier than those of the ID theorists. How is this so?

  5. The 27th Comrade12:37 PM

    "You make the claim that the inferences made by palaeontologists are much sketchier than those of the ID theorists. How is this so?"

    Well, the real problem is not what the paleoanthropologist is inferring, but rather how much is being inferred.
    So, the claim that your parents need glasses can be made from looking at your picture, but it would be much weaker to say that your parents like posing in green t-shirts with white pithecine badges emblazoned on their left-hand side. The latter, justified or not, correct or not, is a much weaker claim than the former, justified or not, correct or not. (Compare the information in the fossil of Lucy to the detail in the museum rendition, for example.)

    In the case of the paleoanthropolgists, the latter may be correct and the former wrong, but, ceteris paribus, the former (analogous to the ID claim) is stronger than the latter (analogous to the paleoanthropologists' claim). Also, every single paleoathropological inferrence on a fossil has too many exceptionally-weak (and therefore necessarily tacit) assumptions on it.