Friday, March 28, 2008

Debating Popular Intelligent Design

A recent article on Wired sparked a debate in the online comments section about the relative merits of evolution and popular intelligent design; it is with some dismay that I've seen this and similar debates enacted in a variety of forums.

I think part of the problem with the evolution vs. intelligent design debate is a conflation of ontologies that is ultimately the failure of the American education system. Even calling intelligent design a theory is problemmatic: this is the element of satire behind the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The propositions of popular intelligent design are, in the vocabulary of the sciences, best described as hypotheses (although in ordinary speech, "theory" and "hypothesis" are often used interchangeably). Just as we use different vocabularies to describe sports, medicine, and law, science and religion also use different vocabularies. There is certainly some overlap: just as law has things to say about the practice of medicine, religion has things to say about the practice of science. Where things get problematic is when different vocabularies make use of what seem like similar phrases, but which are, nevertheless, understood quite differently in different disciplines (a "low score" is good in golf, but bad in basketball). These vocabularies need not be inherently contradictory, but frequently, inferences made about one vocabulary using the terms of another lead to statements that are by and large nonsensical.

There is an important difference in the sciences between descriptive accounts and explanatory models, which is often neglected in this debate. Questions about why God made evolution and why evolution made humans address very different problems. In the popular debate, those on the side of scientism don't often see that their views are biased by cultural perceptions of "the onward march of progress." In the scientific understanding, humans are not objectively the "most advanced" or "most evolved" species on the planet; in quantitative terms, ants have been far more successful than humans in propagating their genes, and have been continuing to evolve over a longer stretch of time than humans. The bias of progress also appears in discussions of technology: today's most "advanced" digital cameras are just starting to catch up to the amount of detail found in a typical photograph from 100 years ago. Needless to say, ants don't engage in such nuanced social behaviors as art; but by the same token, art is different from science: in general, we don't talk about the Mona Lisa in terms of the chemical composition of the pigments, but rather, we usually discuss it in terms of how the colors make us feel and what the forms make us think about as individuals.

Many reasonable people, from the time of our earliest cultural memories, have held that there is something mystical to be found in art. Many reasonable people have held that there is something mystical to be found in geometry. Given that the mathematics of geometry have figured prominently in art and religion for centuries, it seems reasonable to suppose that religion and science aren't the mutually-exclusive disciplines we often consider them to be today.

Much of science works with the language of mathematics; mathematics provides a "lingua franca" whereby different scientific disciplines can compare their propositions and results. To many people, this language is quite foreign or esoteric; therefore, in order for science to be relevant to daily life, many of science's mathematical assertions must be expressed in ordinary terms. When the consequences of mathematical statements are translated into plain language vocabularies, some consequences have to do with how we describe the world, and others have to do with how we explain the inherently meaningful things we experience on a daily basis; unfortunately, there's no rigorous curriculuum to sort out when scientific propositions are meant to be understood as descriptive and when they are meant to be understood as explanatory.

I think that part of the frustration many creationists may feel in expressing their experience of the world to scientific audiences is that even the dichotomy of description and explanation is a function of a scientific vocabulary, and those motivated by an ideological scientism are enculturated to dismiss other vocabularies categorically, without looking for patterns in the assertions typically formulated in those other vocabularies.

From an anthropological/linguistic perspective, we have these different vocabularies because they usefully identify distinct phenomena. Why do we think things are meaningful? Religion provides one set of answers which in many cases -- such as Buddhist psychology -- are rational and in many respects empirical.

It is often useful to discuss things in terms of dichotomies such as good and bad, or true and false; at the same time, we often experience things in shades of grey. When we do things, it is usually because of psychological states that fall into one of two categories: reasoning and emoting. But we can have three possible categories for describing the motives behind an observed action: rational, irrational, or arational (just as we have theists, atheists, and agnostics).

Just because we don't see the reason behind an action doesn't mean it's contrary to reason; one can arrive at the right answer to a math problem even if one's arithmetic is wrong. But we also believe people act from the heart: through ideology, through conviction, through intuition, or through a love of life. In this realm, reason doesn't always apply to motivation (although the results of such actions can often be described as grounded in morals, ethics, and what is generally considered acceptable social behavior).

When we negate the linguistic validity of an ontology, perhaps we too often ignore that diverse vocabularies come into use for a reason, and that embodiments of that reason often result in some emotional satisfaction, which is a form of validity.

Perhaps creationists should stop trying to describe God in scientific terms, and accept that science is a demonstrably insightful description of God's acts of creation. There are so many problems with trying to describe God in scientific terms. Algorithmic information theory provides a fairly precise definition of "complexity" -- the subject of the Wired article under discussion -- that is intuitively satisfying, intellectually rigorous, and useful in the applied sciences. This and closely related understandings of complexity will become more important for anybody who uses modern computers or anything made with modern computers, and who also wants to see any sense of the world. This is so for numerous reasons: as the science of thermodynamics and the science of information systems move closer together linguistically, mathematically, and theoretically, we will see ever more profoundly in our daily lives the applied effects of emergent phenomena such as self-organizing systems, dissipative systems, stochastics, and heuristics, all of which will leave traces of their activities in our experiences and our discourse; and these traces will often be felt in constructed social phenomena such as art, politics, media, and the like, which rely in many ways on scientific research (the use of digital media in the arts, the demographic or economic consequences of legislation, or the psychology of marketing and advertising in the mass media).

To be blunt: would a creationist argue that computers don't at all exist today? Many would consider doing so irrational, except perhaps in the limited context of a philosophy grounded in something like Spinoza (his is the only Jewish excommunication of which I am aware) or Leibniz or Berkeley. At the same time, a creationist and a scientist might agree that computers don't do what we think they do; such claims may furthermore be grounded in theories of mass communication, ethics, morality, or intuition.

There is scientific evidence (from cybernetics, for example: if you had to consciously spell out and deliberately move each individual muscle in your mouth to produce utterances, you'd hardly get a word out) as well as religious evidence (Taoism is a successful religion with a rich history that has very much influenced the idiom of Zen Buddhism) that intuition is often well-grounded, and to deny its validity would present a serious problem to any rational discourse that asserts that past events have occurred or that the perception of free will exists (divine foreknowledge -- omniscience -- is perfectly compatible with free will: just because you know something knocked off a table will hit the floor doesn't mean that knowledge is what brings the event about).

There is a wonderful blog called Acts of Being which discusses contemporary science from the perspective of St. Thomas Aquinas's religious philosophy, in ways that are quite sensitive and insightful. Those who have "taken sides" in the debate and are interested in getting at the essence of what "the other side" has to say might benefit from thinking about the discussion there.

My own opinion is that ultimately this isn't really a problem of science or religion, but a problem with the vocabularies that we as a culture have available for distinguishing and reconciling what different types of claims are meant to say about the world. Needless to say, things only get more confusing when politicians get into the "business" of redefining ordinary terms in radical ways for motivations that often seem less than savory ("the lesser of two evils is still evil"), and often more like marketing, spin, or a corporatist form of damage control ("we don't want this lunatic to hurt the Party's image, but we like how this other lunatic unites the Party base").

In a more tangental connection, I'm reminded of Paul Valery's assertion that philosophy should be properly considered a branch of literature. I think there's a certain poetic truth to this idea, which is relevant to the discussion: in the beginning was the Word. I imagine part of Valery's reasoning for making this assertion has to do with his discussion elsewhere to the effect that science and philosophy pursue qualitatively different sorts of Truth; this is why Copernicus is today studied as history while Plato is still studied as philosophy.

Where the debate touches on public education in America, the arguments of opposing camps are often motivated by what is perceived as the threat of false indoctrination; yet we live in a society founded upon the exercise of civil liberties and free will. Art and philosophy offer valuable ways to carry out this debate in constructive ways that don't reduce to one side spewing nonsense at the other; unfortunately, art and philosophy are often treated by our culture as overly academic or as elitist pastimes, and often given short shrift in schools. Art can be devotional or experimental, but needn't be either by necessity.

My gut feeling on the matter is that the debate has more to do with expressing a cultural dissatisfaction at people being treated like specialized cogs in the social machine, but that those who have organized into opposing camps are blinded by their own language, and thus unable to see that they share the emotional thrust of their dissatisfaction with those that they oppose.

OK kids, here's your homework: look up any unfamiliar terms in two sources, re-read this text, and write a four-paragraph critique. In the first paragraph, identify which assertions you will address in your critique. In the second paragraph, summarize those assertions and address why you chose them for your critique. In the third paragraph, offer your critique; provide counter-examples. In the fourth paragraph, examine the consequences of your critique in relation to one of your personal interests or acquired skills: what is the Tao of your hobby or passion? Ask at least one other person if he or she sees any problems with your analysis, however minor. Try to avoid preconceptions about what the process will teach you.

OK teachers: don't forget to write your representatives. Just a reminder: you have State and local representatives too. I haven't had much luck with them myself, but maybe yours will be different. The volume of constituent feedback derived from statistics about consumer behavior too often outweighs the expression of individual voices, even in chorus. They've emptied the pews with promises of an American idolatry.

OK media: stop feeding us garbage.