April 11, 2008

The Logic Of Teleological Biology Forces A Concession That Intelligent Design's Intellectual Foundation Is Flawed

The “leading” “academic” source of discourse on Intelligent Design theory has just published a report that says: Complexity can arise without intelligent design, but complexity is not the same thing as design. But isn’t the basis for intelligent design “theory” the idea of irreducible complexity? So here we have the backbone of the “theory” of ID refuted by an ID advocate, on Dr. Michael Egnor, a creationist neurosurgeon who practices and teaches at SUNY Stony Brook.

Obviously, this does not resolve the ongoing ID-versus-evolution controversy. Dr. Egnor attempts to indicate that ID and evolution (disparagingly and labeled “Darwinism”, which to the scientific hair-splitter is technically inaccurate in the same reason that it is inaccurate to say all Christians are Baptists) are the falsification of one another; ID can be proven false if it can be proven that a complex organism evolved from a different complex organism.

This is incorrect, too. One might posit a designer who somehow creates a complex organism – or rather, the designer creates many instances of that organism, both male and female – and then sets them free in an uncontrolled environment. The organisms then adapt over a few generations to that environment, and as the environment changes, they adapt further to the new changes, and so on, until thousands of generations later the adaptations have accreted to the point that these descendent organisms are no longer the same organisms that were originally designed. Thus, you have ID – the organisms were initially designed and created artificially – followed by evolution. Has this actually happened? Doesn’t matter – what matters here is that the occurrence of either ID or evolution in that hypothetical chain of events does not logically preclude the occurrence of the other at a different phase of the process.

While I’m not so sure there is any profit in splitting semantic hairs with Dr. Egnor on his conflation of “evolution” with “Darwinism,” I do think there is profit in looking at his misuse of the phrase “teleology.” He proposes that “[b]y teleology, I mean purpose, intelligent agency — design.” But note that the word teleology has multiple meanings. “The study of design or purpose in nature” is one such meaning, but so too is “the doctrine that phenomena are guided towards a goal.” What is the “goal” of ID? Presumably, the “goal,” some sort of desired end-state, has been determined by the designer. If that designer is God, then religion provides the answer to the question of biological teleology – the entire universe, and in particular the functions of biology, has been structured to steer the immortal souls of humanity towards salvation. The “goal” of a non-divine ID cannot help but seem more sinister – why would time travelers or aliens guide our biological development, if not to exploit us for their own selfish purposes? (But I'm being silly. No one even in the ID movement has yet seriously suggested that the "Designer" is anyone or anything but Jehovah.)

The “goal” of life’s existence to an evolution advocate is much more mundane – life seeks to survive through reproduction. Adaptive organisms reproduce more successfully than unadaptive ones because they can continue to reproduce in environments that vary from the ideal. Adaptation is the building block of the phenomenon of evolution, because it is the mechanism by which both gross and subtle changes in the organism take place across the generations and in response to varying environmental incentives. The only “goal” or “purpose” of life is more life, not salvation. But this is not something that scientists can answer. The “purpose” of life is the domain of metaphysics and philosophy, not of biology.

Which brings me to yet another meaning of teleology, which is “a doctrine explaining phenomena by final causes.” It’s very easy to slip into fallacious reasoning – we are complex, self-aware beings as a result of the manner in which we were created, so the goal of our creation must have been to be complex and self-aware; thus, the universe exists to make us complex and self-aware.” Wrong. The universe exists, but we cannot infer a purpose or a final cause to it – at least, not from the mere fact of its existence. And doctrine is the enemy and opposite of free intellectual inquiry.

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