The Carte Blanche of Intelligent Design

As an alternative to biblical creationism, Intelligent Design infers a less obtrusive God to explain life on Earth. This deity doesn’t hurl bolts of lightning, unless it’s with the express purpose of sparking abiogenesis in the primordial soup. On EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse dismisses probabilistic arguments against the likelihood of complex organisms, explaining that even the most improbable-seeming outcome of natural selection is more or less inevitable. As a flawed analogy, he imagines flipping a coin 500 times. This will always manifest a sequence of heads and tails that only had a one in gazillion chance of occurring. But of course, nature has no mercy upon arbitrary outcomes. Rosenhouse writes, “The prolonged action of natural selection ensures that most gene sequences have a probability close to zero of ever occurring (or persisting for long if they do occur) while the small percentage of functional sequences have a relatively high probability.” On Pharyngula, PZ Myers aces a quiz that was meant for him to fail. PZ writes that ID “was intentionally formulated in response to court decisions that prohibited gods and faith-based arguments — they literally rewrote their texts to exclude god to circumvent church-state conflicts.” No surprise: it’s hard to sway skeptics with a true believer’s plan B.

Thus it was an uphill battle that Ken Ham lost in his debate against Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Nye was widely perceived as the winner, even in religious circles.  Greg Laden sums up Ken Ham’s argument as “We know everything, we understand the most important issues of origins, creation, and evolution, and all of this information comes mainly from the Bible.”  This in contrast to Nye, who presented “science, science, science and more science” clearly and convincingly.  Greg continues “During the few moments when we were allowed to see the evangelical audience during Bill Nye’s presentation they looked, frankly, charmed.”  PZ Myers sounds a note of dissonance amongst the praise for Nye, saying “Nye is good at communicating a passion for science, but fails to note the conflict when he pretends that science is about being a better, more employable widget maker for Big Widget, Inc.”  In other words, Nye focused on the economic advantages of scientific understanding to the exclusion of aesthetic and philosophic advantages.  PZ sees science as an art, and argues we should practice science for science’s sake.

As for Ken Ham, with even Pat Robertson disavowing biblical creationism, he may have been flogging a dead horse.  The invention of Intelligent Design as a shield for traditional religious beliefs may have backfired on creationism. The faithful are comfortable abandoning the idea of a Young Earth to embrace geology and evolution, as long as they have the carte blanche of Intelligent Design to provide a hypothetical role for the Almighty.

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Horror Vacui

Aristotle thought that there could be no lasting void in the natural order, that any emptiness would be instantaneously filled. Of course Aristotle was full of batty ideas. But this one came to be rephrased by philosophers and Vulcans alike as “nature abhors a vacuum,” enduring as a powerful metaphor if not a precisely factual truth. In terms of critical thinking, scientists too abhor a vacuum, and are usually eager to fill in the blanks. On Pharyngula, PZ Myers criticizes a review of long-established brain anatomy, freshened with primary colors and a hypothesis that makes no sense. Describing the original purpose of an apparently useless neuron, PZ writes “It’s like sending a kite string across a chasm, then using the string to pull a rope across, and then using the rope to pull a cable across, and pretty soon you’ve got a bridge.” On EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse glimpses the formlessness underlying the arguments of Intelligent Design proponents, saying “there is ultimately nothing more to their argument than the claim that at some point in natural history, an unnamed intelligent designer did something.” Can we be a little more specific, please?