Science: July 2007 Archives

The Problem of Waste

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A while back, Stephen Colbert had biologist Ken Miller, who teaches at my alma mater (although I never took a class with him), on his show to talk about evolution and intelligent design. Miller is known for being a devout Catholic who supports the scientific consensus of contemporary evolutionary theory. It's a a strange interview. One of Miller's main points is that people who deny evolution can't explain why we need flu shots every year, since the flu virus evolves to the point that old vaccines won't cut it. This is, of course, a terrible straw man argument, because even the most vehement critics of evolution don't deny evolution within a species, what they call microevolution.

But one argument struck me as particularly strange. Miller seems to think waste is a problem for intelligent design, since God designed things that went extinct. Oops! Fossils show God's mistakes. Miller thinks he has a higher view. God set in motion a process that gave rise to everything on this planet, and it shows God's greatness that he used evolutionary processes. So he has a theological reason for favoring the non-ID model.

But wait a minute. Doesn't the theistic evolution model have the same problem? Aren't there all these things that resulted from the process that God initiated that got left behind? If God set in motion the processes that lead to evolution of more complex species, you still get species that result from that process that die out. You get waste. Did God intend that result? If so, then the same problem arises for Miller. Something God designed died out. If not, then we seem to have a denial of God's purposes in creation. Is this the idea common in deism that God sort of set things up but didn't concern himself with the details of how it turned out? That's not very Catholic of Miller, who claims to be a pious, orthodox Catholic. But those seem to be his only options. Either there are forms that were designed by God that no longer exist, or those forms were not designed by God and do not fall under his plan of providence.

So it turns out that this is really an argument against theism and a doctrine of providence, not an argument against intelligent design. This is just puzzling. I don't know Miller's views on providence, but it seems to me that his argument is misdirected either way it turns out, and it should apply as well to any theistic evolutionary view that holds to the theological positions of the Roman Catholic Church. It's really just a particular case of the problem of evil, and I don't really know his views on that issue either. But whatever else is true, this isn't a problem for ID any more than it is for theistic evolution.

Update: Check out the excellent comments on Ted Poston's Prosblogion post on this subject. I'm in full agreement with almost all of the comments to this point (7:42 EST Aug 1, 2007), and some of them are making some of the points I wanted to make in this post but in a much better way. There are also some considerations there that hadn't occurred to me at all but seem right.

[Cross-posted at Prosblogion]

At Prosblogion, Trent Dougherty links to an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Michael Ruse called Creationism. The SEP is usually very good, and I have to say that Ruse is much more reasonable on these issues than many in the anti-ID movement. He understands the positions he's criticizing a little more accurately and usually represents them a little more fairly. Any philosopher knows a lot more philosophy than Richard Dawkins, but Ruse stands out as someone willing to discuss the philosophical issues as philosophy, while many in the debate are dismissing them as other things (usually as religion or as bad science).

But this piece reveals that in some ways he does display a number of symptoms that I find throughout the anti-ID movement. Trent calls the article deplorable, and I do wonder how this got published in the SEP. It's not as bad as anything you'd find in Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins, but it's actually worse in some ways than the Wikipedia entries on these issues, which I don't have a very high opinion of.

Devin Carpenter asks in a comment why Trent finds the piece deplorable, and I decided to type up my reasons, which quickly got long enough that I didn't want to leave it as a comment. So here are some of why I consider this to be a fairly bad Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy entry. This is only after a quick skim and then once through with a closer read, so I may have misunderstood him in some places (although a couple times I think he may be at fault if I did). But I'd be very surprised to have gotten him that wrong on all these issues. Some of these are more minor and may well just be pet peeves of mine, but I think a number are much more serious. I'm listing them in the order they occurred to me as I was reading through the article more carefully.

1. He claims that six-day creationists are enthusiastic about Intelligent Design, which is simply false if he's referring to the arguments of Dembski, Behe, and Johnson (which his later section on ID makes likely). Most creationists in the narrow sense do not support ID arguments of that sort, since they think such arguments concede too much to evolutionist and to old-earth creationism. The ID leaders want to include six-day creationists, but they've had a hard time winning them over.



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