Review: Intelligent Thought pt. 2

Continuing from part I, here are my comments on the last eight essays in the collection, with a short summary at the end:

Essay #9: Scott Atran, Unintelligent Design – Having seen a clip of anthropologist Atran standing up (well, he was sitting down, but still) at the Beyond Belief conference against some of the tripe being spewed forth, I was rather disappointed at this essay. About the only good point he really makes is that science doesn’t hold the answer to everything, which is why things like religion exist. There’s definitely some truth to that. The rest of the essay is spent on dysteleological arguments (remember Coyne’s hand-waving?), as though the multiple functions of the mouth (breathing, ingestion, talking), the design of the human eye, the multiple functions of the male urethra, and so forth somehow diminish the idea that there is design apparent in these things. Remind me, Scott – was the Ford Pinto not designed, either? I mean, that design was so stupid that I can’t believe any intelligent person designed it. Therefore, it wasn’t! (More on arguments like this at a later time.)

Essay #10: Steven Pinker, Evolution and Ethics – Having read this far, I was this close to writing a nasty letter to Brockman about relevance. Like the White & Shubin essay, Pinker didn’t even seem to touch ID theory or even the movement as Susskind did, instead pondering why people might be prone to disbelieve evolution. “I’ve got it!” says Pinker. “It’s an ethical problem!” Uh, yeah, Stevey boy. Next thing you’re going to be telling me is that religion can’t provide ethics.

Wait, nevermind – you did. And then you give a thorough defense of atheism. Why should I take you seriously again?

Essay #11: Lee Smolin, Darwinism All the Way Down – Smolin, a physicist, gets thumbs up #3 for a good essay that approaches the subject from a truly scientific perspective. He tackles what I think is the much bigger issue for Darwinists: cosmology. In response to what he calls the “improbable biofriendliness of the universe and its laws” (p. 157, emphasis his) – what many refer to as the “fine-tuning” of the universe – he posits four options for solving the problem: 1) a universal Designer (from the strong anthropic principle), 2) the necessity of mathematical constants (which he rejects, with the possible exception of string theory), 3) a static multiverse of which we are one of the universes that is inexplicably hospitable to life (following from the weak anthropic principle), and 4) a Darwinistic multiverse where black holes spawn new universes, keeping the beneficial qualities of its “parent” universe but where the laws of particle physics change in small increments. He of course argues for #4, continuing to say that “a creator is not necessary to explain the biofriendliness of our universe” (p. 165). Of course, everything about the theory he presents is totally theoretical, based on conjectural arguments (like the probable mass of black holes) and no experimental data. Sorry, Lee, I don’t buy it, but you at least get an A for effort.

Essay #12: Stuart A. Kauffman, Intelligent Design, Science or Not? – This was probably the shortest essay, which is strange given the author’s background in biocomplexity and information. Kauffman focuses on self-information, but since the next author deals with that in more depth, I will note that the last paragraph of the essay reflects just how bad it can be when someone doesn’t proofedit well enough:

And therefore, intelligent design should surely not be taught as “another theory” worthy of consideration. It is not logically impossible that intelligent design is correct, and America should be loath to give it credence. (p. 178, emphasis mine)

Essay #13: Seth Lloyd, How Smart is the Universe? – We continue the trend of looking at the universe rather than biotic life in this essay, which starts off with the peculiar claim that the universe is smart. We jump then from that claim to trying to measure the universe’s “computational capacity” (p.179). At this point, I hope that some of you are scratching your heads: you’ve just been attacked by the fallacy of equivocation (or ambiguity). Lloyd goes from talking about how much information the universe can compute (a claim which I cannot verify nor criticize) to saying that this makes it relatively simple for the universe to produce life. However, following Dembski’s lead, I think intelligence is best defined as the ability to choose correctly between options (etymologically, intelligence is derived from the Latin inter “between” + legere “choose, pick out, read”). What’s more, the claim seems to be that the universe processes information in the same way that humans do – through binary “off”/”on” switches, like neurons firing – which is very clearly a reductionist view of information that I find highly questionable. Even by this logic, though, Dembski notes (beware of PDF) that an exhaustive blind search for a protein 100 amino acids long (which is 150-200 AAs shorter than the average protein) would require processing of 1.27×10130, citing Lloyd’s 2002 figure of 10120 (which IT updates to 10122) for the maximum number of operations that the universe could have performed, which is notably below the threshhold.

Essay #14: Lisa Randall, Designing Words – Randall discusses the ambiguity of scientific terms (yes), the fact of evolution versus the mechanism of evolution (uh huh), and what constitutes a theory (right, I’m sure you’re angry that people keep emphasizing the “theory” part of ‘evolutionary theory’ derisively). Oh, wait, missed another dysteleological argument that redefines “intelligence” as “smartness” (see p.197).

Essay #15: Marc D. Hauser, Parental Guidance Required – Ah, now the science is done. We move instead to public policy with Hauser, an evolutionary psychologist. But thankfully for us, Hauser talks about education instead, positing a hypothetical school where teachers offer interdisciplinary courses like the philosophy of mathematics and the history of physics. Wondering what Hauser’s point is? Well, insofar as there is one, he seems to be implying that controversy isn’t meant for the classroom, or at least not for a course on concepts of biology. He does recommend teaching complementary courses on the history of evolutionary biology (including the debate over ID) and evolution and the humanities (oh boy). As a prospective educator, having interdisciplinary courses is a good idea, but this doesn’t sound like an objective approach in the least. I vote No on this prop, Marc.

Essay #16: Scott D. Sampson, Evoliteracy – Finally, almost done. This final essay is interesting because it is essentially Sampson complaining about how a majority of Americans don’t believe evolution is true (and although it is not specified, I would imagine that number has to do more with Darwinistic evolution than evolution in general) and what he thinks should be done to enhance the public awareness of evolution. He quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky about how “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution (qtd. on p. 216) to establish his lamentation over the poor state of education (but of course, there is disagreement about whether Dobzhansky is even right in the sense that biologists can and have worked without consideration for Darwinism at all). Unfortunately for him, this raises the question from part I: What if people understand it and just disagree? Sadly, I just don’t think this option crosses their minds.

And that’s it, minus the section on Kitzmiller. It is hard to judge a collection of essays like a coherent whole, but there are at least a few problems of coherence in here. The most obvious is that there is disagreement over whether ID has any sort of falsifiable claims in it. This is a pretty common criticism – “ID isn’t falsifiable, and it’s already been falsified”. That’s the sort of mixed message that gets presented across the board with criticism of ID. Brockman’s done a pretty good job of organizing the essays, but there was a lot of dead weight that didn’t really address the issue without caricaturing the movement. Overall, this book was about 20% relevant information, 50% irrelevant information, and 30% defeating straw men. Not a bad read, but don’t waste your money if you’re thinking of buying it.

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