XFiles Friday: What is evidence?

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 5)

I hate to get bogged down in Chapter 5, but Geisler and Turek are belaboring a fairly fundamental misconception or three that I think deserve to be highlighted and corrected.

Why then do Darwinists come to the conclusion that the first life generated spontaneously from nonliving chemicals without intelligent intervention? Spontaneous generation of life has never been observed. Ever since Pasteur sterilized his flask, one of the most fundamental observations in all of science has been that life arises only from similar existing life. Scientists have been unable to combine chemicals in a test tube and arrive at a DNA molecule, much less life. In fact, all experiments designed to spontaneously generate life—including the now-discredited Urey-Miller experiment–have not only failed but also suffer from the illegitimate application of intelligence…

Misconception number one: if science hasn’t done it yet, this proves that it cannot be done. At the time Geisler and Turek wrote the above paragraph, it was true that scientists had not yet artificially assembled a complete DNA molecule. It was only a matter of time, however, before they succeeded in doing just that. But there’s another misconception here, and that is that if scientists manage to recreate abiogenesis, that means they’re “illegitimately” injecting intelligence into the process.

That’s clearly a red herring: if the forensics team recreates the scenario under which the murder occurred, that doesn’t mean they’re injecting their own motives into the crime. If scientists apply their intelligence towards the task of artificially constructing a living cell, then yes, that would be a case of intelligently-designed life. If, however, scientists merely reconstruct the environment under which abiogenesis might have happened spontaneously, and then simply observe whether or not life does arise, then there’s nothing illegitimate about it, unless you want to claim that the initial conditions also require intelligent design. (Few creationists, however, claim to see evidence of intelligent design in ordinary mud puddles.)

And by the way, there’s more to Urey-Miller than Geisler and Turek would lead you to believe. But there’s yet another, even more fundamental misconception in this chapter.

Do Darwinists insist on spontaneous generation because they just don’t see the evidence for design? Not at all. In fact, exactly the opposite is true—they see the evidence clearly! For example, Richard Dawkins named his book, The Blind Watchmaker in response to William Paley’s design argument we cited in the last chapter. The appearance of design in life is admitted on the first page of The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins writes, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Two pages later, despite acknowledging “the intricate architecture and precision-engineering” in human life and in each of the trillions of cells within the human body, Dawkins flatly denies that human life or any other life has been designed. Apparently, Dawkins refuses to allow observation to interfere with his conclusions.

You might think, from reading the above, that Geisler and Turek had actually presented some kind of evidence for design. But, as we saw earlier, they haven’t. They made the unsupported assertion that Nature does not spontaneously produce lengthy “messages,” and then immediately disproved their own contention by citing the common and naturally-produced DNA molecule as an example of a lengthy message. Then they confused abiogenesis with spontaneous generation, and made the spurious accusation that scientists are still clinging to beliefs that Pasteur disproved long ago. And then, in the above paragraph, they commit the fatal blunder that so commonly plagues creationists and Intelligent Design fans: they fail to distinguish between subjective, indefinable perceptions, and objective, measurable evidence.

I’ve said before that science is essentially the art of giving practical application to the principle that truth is consistent with itself. Another way to describe science is to say that it is the art of distinguishing what appears to be true from what really is true. As fallible observers, and especially as fallible observers with strong social instincts, we are particularly prone to making subjective observations that assign intentional purposes where there are none. This tendency lies at the heart of animism, one of the most primitive and pervasive of the superstitions experienced by men. Before we knew that diseases were caused by germs and genetic defects and so on, it was commonly “observed” that they were intentionally inflicted, either by evil spirits or by some offended deity. The “evidence” for Intelligent Infliction was everywhere. Do modern doctors not see this evidence, or are they simply refusing to allow their observations to interfere with their conclusion that diseases come from germs and genes and viruses and other non-intentional causes?

What Geisler and Turek fail to mention, let alone address, is that The Blind Watchmaker documented the fact that nature can and does produce amazingly intricate and sophisticated structures and processes, just by the natural interaction of a relatively few simple laws and properties. Despite the naive and subjective “observation” that things “appear” to be designed, we can observe mechanisms already present, verifiable, and measurable in the natural world that are sufficient to account for this apparent “design.” The art and duty of science is that we apply ourselves not to be content with mere subjective appearances, but to seek an objective and verifiable interpretation of the unbiased evidence.

The first step in scientifically evaluating whether or not the evidence is consistent with a design hypothesis is to specify what, exactly, is meant by such things as “design,” “intent,” “purpose,” and “goal,” in objectively measurable terms. We need to be able to specify what observable consequences should be present if design is true, and absent if design is not true. This, needless to say, is something neither Geisler nor Turek nor anyone else has ever done: ID, like creationism in general, consists of leaping to the subjective conclusion and then trying to discredit any and every attempt to apply scientific methods of assessment to the question.

“Evidence for design” ought to mean “evidence that is more consistent with design than with alternative possibilities.” That’s a bit of a tricky proposition, however, because design is always assessed post hoc. There is no way to describe what consequences should result from intelligent design because there is no way to objectively assess what an intelligent designer would want to create. We see this all the time whenever ID fans try to explain why so many things about the “design” of life are measurably sub-optimal. “Just because the Designer wanted us to suffer from bad backs and trick knees doesn’t mean that He didn’t intelligently choose to make us that way!” And so on.

Thus, there is no possible evidence which some creationist could not reconcile, somehow, with the design assumption, and therefore there cannot be any evidence which supports design. Like a watch that always claims the time is 2:47 no matter what the actual time is, the “evidence for design” is meaningless, because believers are always going to harmonize the evidence with the design assumption, whether design is true or not. There is nothing in ID or in creationism (or science, needless to say) to distinguish between a design assumption that is true, and a design assumption that is false. ID tells you that design is always true the way a broken watch tells you the time is always 2:47.

What Geisler and Turek are calling “the evidence of design” is, in fact, nothing more than ordinary superstition: they see something they don’t understand, and they attribute it to a cause whose existence cannot be verified, and whose connection to the effect cannot be verified, and indeed can’t even be described in specific, measurable terms. They argue that the things we see ought to be interpreted as evidence that animistic superstitions are correct, but the evidence itself is irrelevant, because no matter what it is, they’ll reconcile it somehow with their assumption of design. Anybody can do that, but to do real science and to work with objective assessments of real evidence, you have to describe your model in enough measurable detail that we can determine what what consequences would—and would not—be consistent with it.

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