Monday, September 14, 2009

Kenneth Miller's Faulty Philosophy

A friend from church recently approached me to ask what I thought about the fact that his son, who will soon start his freshman year at the University of Cincinnati, was given Kenneth R. Miller's book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul as required reading for his freshman orientation. My friend's son is enrolled in one of the colleges of science in pursuit of an eventual medical degree. His concern about his son having to read the book is that the point of it is clearly spelled out right on the front cover: "in a few concise chapters, Mr. Miller pretty much dismantles all the claims, such as they are, for the intelligent design movement."

In other words, a university -- which by definition exists to promote free inquiry toward a unified view of truth -- somehow finds it acceptable to indoctrinate its newest students with a dogmatic view of science that has nothing to do with science education. Why is that?

The answer has little to do with the practice of science. It is not even about the definition of science as folks like Kenneth Miller insist. Instead, it is about the philosophy of science and the kind of implications that science is "allowed" to draw.

Let me first say that no one from the Intelligent Design (ID) community that I have ever read would disagree Miller's view of what science is or how it should be practiced. Science is a systematic human endeavor meant to understand the way the world works. It is practiced by implementation of the scientific method that we all know and understand. No argument there.

But Miller wants us to think that ID proponents are trying to change the definition of science for religious purposes (he says exactly that on page 187). This is the core idea of his book and he offers as proof a change that was made by the Kansas school board regarding the definition of science as it appeared in the state's educational standards. The original definition was ...
"Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us."
The proposed change was this ...
"Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation, that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building, to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena."
Miller rejects the new definition because he believes it will bring science as we know it to a standstill (p. 197) and lead to the murder of the ingenuity and rationality of America's "soul." How so?

Notice that the proposed change in the definition of science above does only two things. First, it simply spells out in more detail our understanding of the scientific method. This is not controversial by anyone's standards -- even Miller's.

Second, it changes the goal of science from seeking "natural explanations" to "more adequate explanations." This is what Miller cannot accept. But notice that, for all his bloviating about the preeminence of science, the difference that sets him off is not scientific -- it is philosophical.

Miller will only accept naturalistic explanations for all observable phenomena. Think about that for a minute. If we were to apply Miller's way of thinking to forensic science, an investigator analyzing a recently-deceased body would only be allowed to declare natural causes for the victim's death. Any attempt to imply that the death may have been due to murder -- the action of an intelligent agent -- would not be acceptable.

Miller rules out implications based on an arbitrary presupposition -- that natural explanations are the only ones that are reasonable and allowable.

That would be fine ... except that he wants to impose that arbitrary bias on everyone else. Apparently the University of Cincinnati (among most other institutions of higher learning) agrees with him and is happy to impose the same kind of intellectual prejudice on its students by means of a forced propaganda program aimed at incoming freshmen.

Free inquiry indeed.

Once you are aware of it, Miller's self-proclaimed defense of real science is exposed for the thinly-veiled philosophical objection it really is:
"We live in a material world ... modern biology arises out of a conviction of the material nature of life ..." (p. 118)
"[natural history] tells us that the specific details of today's living organisms were not the direct product of a flash of design in the dim and distant past. If they had been, life wouldn't be about change; it would be about stasis. The work of a designer would have been manifest in the perfect balances of nature, in the enduring constancy of his creations." (p. 123-4)
How does Miller know these things? More importantly, how can he prove them under his own definition of science? The answer is that he can't.

Rocks and waterfalls are also material in nature but surely don't constitute living things. Why are they not also "alive"? Apparently the material composition of a thing is not enough to fully determine whether or not it constitutes life.

Things like conceptualization and imagination (just to name two) are products of the human mind but they can certainly not be explained by the physical interaction of chemicals in the brain for the simple reason that they are not physical themselves. We could hook detectors up to someone experiencing such a thing, monitor every electrical pulse going on inside their brain, and never know what they were "conceptualizing" unless they told us themselves.

Miller claims to know not only how a designer "would" do things, but what constitutes a "perfect balance" in nature. If this isn't the height of arrogance, I'm not sure what is. Maybe Miller, knowing what an intelligent agent such as himself "would" do, ought to go about constructing a perfectly balanced nature for all of us -- or at least for himself.

Here an ironic fact rears its head -- Miller would certainly consider the previous paragraph nonsensical and dismiss it as laughable because he knows he could do no such thing. Miller is a brilliant man; brilliant enough to know that such a goal would be impossible to achieve. The irony lies in the fact that he expects us to accept that the purposeless, unintelligent, "blind watchmaker" of natural selection is perfectly capable of doing such a thing.

The fallacy in the arguments of Miller et al is that they operate under a philosophical paradigm that disallows intelligent causation in the natural world, and are therefore forced to interpret data with that presupposition in place. This is just basic circular reasoning -- assuming what you are trying to prove. The fact that a university would demand that its newest students adhere to this type of fallacious reasoning before they even show up at school should be troubling to those who think that the purpose of higher education is promote free inquiry.

No one is questioning the way we do science. What the ID community is questioning are the conclusions we are allowed to draw from the data we evaluate in that endeavor. The implications of our study of nature are the most fascinating aspects of the pursuit of science. Some would say they are the only reason we do it at all. How such a thing could damage our collective soul or undermine the systematic approach we use to pursue the truth is beyond me, as is the reason Mr. Miller finds it so troubling.

My disagreement with Dr. Miller hinges on his faulty philosophy. But his philosophy is not all that is wrong. The problem magnifies itself when his philosophical deficiency serves to undermine his whole case when it leads to an improper evaluation of the scientific case he makes against ID.

More on that next time ...

4 comments:

  1. "But Miller wants us to think that ID proponents are trying to change the definition of science for religious purposes (he says exactly that on page 187)."

    People who invoke intelligent design are invoking magic. Magic is a idiotic idea that belongs in the Dark Ages, and there's nothing scientific about magic. Calling magic by another name (for example intelligent design) does not make it any less childish.

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  2. "Faith has gotten a bad rap. It is active trust based on evidence and reason. It's not "blind." It's not a "leap." It's not wishful thinking. And it's definitely not something that requires you to check your brain at the church door ..."

    Really? Then why are virtually all the top scientists in the world atheists?

    Faith is the process of not thinking. Faith is how cowardly people avoid reality. I noticed the more faith people have, the more uneducated they are, and the more scientifically illiterate they are.

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  3. Well bobxxxx:

    This is an assertion, not an argument defending your claim. You took a quote out of the post and completely ignored what followed it. If you'd like to discuss why ID is not "magic" I'd be glad to. But, so far, I have nothing to respond to ...

    Thanks for reading.,
    Bob

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  4. Really? Then why are virtually all the top scientists in the world atheists?

    Evidence for this empty assertion, please?

    Faith is the process of not thinking. Faith is how cowardly people avoid reality. I noticed the more faith people have, the more uneducated they are, and the more scientifically illiterate they are.

    Interesting take. I think: Copernicus, Boyle, Newton, Francis Bacon, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Galileo, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, William Henry Perkin, George Stokes, Lord William Kelvin, Charles Coulson, and (most recently), Francis Collins might disagree with you. All of them are devout Christians in case you weren't aware.

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Though I do not moderate comments, I reserve the right to delete any comment that I deem inappropriate. You don't have to agree with me, but I don't tolerate abusive or objectionable language of any kind.