Vic Reppert links to a foolish and arrogant interview with Granville Sewell, the guy who sold Dembski on thermodynamics arguments against evolution (an achievement for which all critics of the ID movement are indebted to him). Here’s the core of the interview:
In fact, although this may come as a surprise to our students, mathematicians are trained to value simplicity. When we have a simple, clear proof of a theorem, and a long, complicated, counter-argument, full of hotly-debated and unverifiable points, we accept the simple proof, even before we find the errors in the complicated argument. There is a clear, simple, argument against Darwinism — indeed, against any attempt to explain the development of life without reference to intelligence. It is just that unintelligent forces cannot do intelligent things, and the layman understands this quite well.
If this argument appeared in Aristotle, it would be an interesting mistake. Made by Samuel Clarke, it would at least be excusable. But made by anyone in the 21st century, it represents a profound ignorance of half of the most important scientific developments of the last 150 years or so. The appeal to mathematical methodology is nonsense, because mathematical theorems are never folksy one-liners, they require a clear idea of what’s going on in each step of the proof, even if the proof is short. Sewelle’s notion of intelligence, in contrast, is extremely vague, and it’s clear he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about scientific discoveries in cognitive psychology, computer science, neuroscience, and so on.
Another noteworthy quote in the piece:
A typical college physics text I read contains the statement “One of the most remarkable simplifications in physics is that only four distinct forces account for all known phenomena.” Most people just haven’t ever thought about things in this way, that if you don’t believe in intelligent design, you must believe this claim, that the four unintelligent forces of physics caused atoms on Earth to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants, spaceships and computers…
For me, the strongest argument for intelligent design is to clearly state the alternative, which is that physics explains all of chemistry (probably true), chemistry explains all of biology, and biology completely explains the human mind; thus physics completely explains the human mind and all it does. One of the chapters in my new book is a short fictional account of an attempt to develop a computer model for all that has happened on Earth, starting with the initial positions of all the elementary particles and calculating the effect that the four forces of physics would have on these particles. Would we expect that this computer simulation would result in libraries full of books, computers, airplanes and the Internet? When one thinks about the idea that physics alone can explain all that has happened here, the intelligent design alternative doesn’t seem so unscientific after all.
In some ways, I like these paragraphs because they show an actual understanding of what physicalists believe. But obviously, the “four forces explain everything” view isn’t the only alternative to intelligent design. There could be a fifth force, or special effects found inside blackholes, or influence from dark matter, or (as Roger Penrose proposes) some yet-understood aspect of quantum mechanics that explains consciousness, and a hundred other possibilities besides.
Anyway, none of what I just said is my reason for writing this post. I actually hesitated in writing it, because as far as I know, Sewell isn’t anybody important in the ID movement, and it seems kinda unfair to hold him up as an example of what’s wrong with it (there are more prominent people who say things almost as wrong). But the sort of fallacious reasoning in the first quote is actually really common. The specific line “unintelligent forces cannot do intelligent things” isn’t terribly common, but I do hear things like “how can life come from non-life?” and “how can minds come from non-minds?” a lot. Beyond that, the idea that effects have to resemble their causes has actually been influential in the history of philosophy, particularly Medieval philosophy. You see it in the very first of of Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God, actually, and it drove Aquinas (and other medievals, for all I know) to make the odd claim that the Sun resembles everything on Earth, because the Sun supports life on Earth.
The claim is nonsense of course: As one of my professors at Madison pointed out, getting hit with a baseball may cause a bruise, but baseballs don’t resemble bruises. The idea is enormously strange, and I have a very difficult time understanding why so many people find it intuitive. At any rate, it’s worth being on the lookout for if you follow religion debates, because it comes up so often.