Notes From Babel

More on the Limits of Science

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E.D. Kain responded to my last post regarding science, natural selection, and intelligent design.  Here was my reply:

Lest I get too far into this debate without defining my actual position on intelligent design, I am at best a faint of heart supporter.  I recognize that science, by definition, must assume a purely naturalistic order of the universe.  Positing the supernatural when happening upon inexplicable observations puts an end to scientific inquiry.  I want to be on record as saying this is a bad thing (though I don’t believe this is what serious advocates of intelligent design support).

Part of the reason I am only a faint of heart supporter of ID is because I am not a trained scientist or even an enthusiast.  I have no more than a cursory familiarity with the work of folks such as those at the Discovery Institute.  I’m even agnostic on how we got here.  I’m a Christian, but as far as God’s interaction in human affairs, I tend toward the deistic position—i.e., that God “wound up” the universe and let it go its course.  Maybe we came from monkeys.  Maybe God made each of us and the whole universe a half an hour ago, complete with memories about the past and fossils laying around everywhere so that we believe the universe is billions of years old.  Maybe we’re in The Matrix.  Who can say?

The reason I give any support to intelligent design at all is not so much because I think it’s a swell theory.  It’s instead because I see science-ists pushing the bounds of science beyond its proper limits and shrinking the bounds of human knowledge in an effort to fit all of one within the other.  My position is not a cheer for intelligent design but a “boo” to folks like Ed Brayton, who say things like “there is no such thing as a ‘scientific fact’, there are just facts.”  This attitude hurts both science and human inquiry.

I agree with E.D. when he says that science is “[t]he exploration of how the natural world ticks.”  Zeal for science is a good thing when we want to build a better toaster oven or an MP3 player or a spaceship.  And insofar as intelligent design means positing God as soon as we get stuck, again, that would be bad.

But what happens when we approach the limits of science?  Dinesh D’Souza has pointed that the likelihood of the Big Bang and the subsequent chain of events that occurred to make human life possible is even less than the odds of buying a lottery ticket in all 50 states and winning every time.  These odds are not lost on scientists, who account for this infinitesimal likelihood of our existing by borrowing a page out of Leibnitz and positing multiple universes—there are trillions of universes in which life as we know it did not occur until, finally, chance got things “right” and here we are.  In this way, say the scientists, it’s not so unlikely at all that we got here—we just got to spin the really big roulette wheel a trillion times.

The point is, at the outer reaches of human knowledge, science starts to get really silly.  So silly, in fact, that the argument can be made that the explanations offered by science actually seem less likely than alternatives.  When I was thinking about this problem on the drive home from work this evening, I thought about the movie The Matrix—that wonderful Cartesian playground that provides endless examples for philosophical discussions.  I wondered whether science, strictly adhered to, could have ever led Neo out of the matrix.  How would one account for the “déjà vu” experience with the black cat?  The scientific explanation would have dismissed out of hand the possibility of an embedded reality, which in fact was the case.  Science would only have allowed one to posit explanations that could be tested by empirically observable facts.  Rightly so?

Perhaps.  But science is permitted to make hypotheses that posit all kinds of data that are unobservable, but which scientists hope one day can be observed.  This goes for 95% of our universe, which scientists believe is composed of what they call “dark matter.”  It’s called “dark” precisely because it’s not observable in any way.  Same thing with all the “dark energy” in the universe we can’t detect.  After wading around in all this dark stuff and the trillions of universes in our “multiverse,” it shouldn’t be any wonder that there are serious scientists who are eager to re-engage the discussion about the limits of scientific inquiry.

Unfortunately, my time this evening prohibits me from discussing my position on teaching ID in schools.  I will try to tackle that tomorrow.  Thanks for the discussion, E.D.

[Update: This will probably my last contribution to this topic for a bit:

As I said, I am a faint of heart supporter, and by that I mean there is at least a kernel of scientific legitimacy to ID. Sadly, another reason I am “Faint of heart” in my support is because of the reactionary and emotional nature of ID’s opponents. All the overheated scienceniks really come out over this issue.My real point is that were scientists quietly doing their work and otherwise staying out of culture and law and politics, I wouldn’t have much motive to support ID at all. I already made clear my position against positing some supernatural designer to the extent it would end inquiry on any question. But I think this is an egregious straw man that has sadly made its way into the common understanding of what ID is. At its essence, it simply questions the assumption that all natural forces are guided by nothing. Even Richard Dawkins admits that it is indeed a valid scientific approach to merely suggest that there may be a purposive signature to natural phenomena. He just attributes the purposive force to aliens—who must have evolved through unguided, nonpurposive natural selection. Whatever sustains the buoyancy of one’s water vessel, I say.

Anyway, ID’s kind of an interesting theory in my book, were I a science enthusiast. But I’m not interested enough in science to seriously advocate it. Generally I try to stay out of the path of overzealous science ambassadors, but when I come across a post like E.D.’s, I feel some sort of civic duty to push back a bit. ]

Written by Tim Kowal

January 11, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Intelligent Design

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