Monday, July 12, 2004

Koons, Part 3 In the previous posts of this series I considered Koons' arguments that modern evolutionary theory cannot account for biological complexity. I pointed out that whereas Koons pretends that natural selection is an abstract, all-purpose explanation that allows scientists to avoid dealing with the problem of complexity, in reality it allows scientists to form testable hypotheses about the formation of complex systems. I also showed that Koons has no understanding of basic concepts of biology and that he has made no attempt to understand the biological literature. Finally, I outlined the explanatory hurdles Koons believes evolutionists must jump through and showed that they are preposterous.

In this installment I consider a further aspect of Koons' argument. It is his contention that in understanding the origin of species the presumption should be in favor of ID. In his telling, evolution and ID are not rival scientific explanations; rather, ID is king of the hill and evolution is the young upstart trying to knock it off its perch. He writes:

The Western philosophical tradition has thus bequeathed to us two competing metaphysical models: one in which everything is to be explained ultimately in terms of blind and purposeless forces (the materialistic model); and one in which purposefulness is a fundamental and irreducible reality (the teleological model). The most important question, from an epistemological point of view, is this: where should we locate the burden of proof? There are compelling grounds for placing the burden of proof on the materialistic model. ...Only familiarity dulls our sense of wonder at the craftsmanship of nature. (P. 7)

And later:

As attractive as such agnosticism might be, this argument for epistemological equivalency seems to overlook the central fact that I have been trying to press home in this essay: that the natural presumption about the cause of life lies with the intelligent agency position. Darwinism must progress to stage three or four before this presumption can be overcome. The intelligent agency position faces no such imperative since the inference from complex, interdependent functionality to intelligent agency is the natural, default position. (P. 17)

What these excerpts make clear is that Koons has no interest at all in doing science. As far as a scientist is concerned, Koons' preferred teleological explanation is no different from saying “I don't know how it happened”. This is a simple fact that most creationists seem utterly incapable of grasping.

At no point does Koons get around to telling us what, exactly, scientists should be doing differently in their day-to-day work. He's just sore that most scientists find evolutionary explanations to be convincing, while he does not. The purpose of his essay is to provide excuses for people who want to brush aside the evidence for evolution.

As I have argued before in this blog, science is about predicitability and control. It is not about ultimate truth. That Koons does not understand this simple fact is made obvious by his comments on methodological maturalism. For example:

Methodological naturalism, the rule that the natural sciences must proceed without invoking intelligent causes, would be justified if Darwinists first provided adequate, independent grounds for clieving that natural, unintelligent causes produced may of the sophisticated biological functions we observe. (P. 3)


In the twentieth century, the most important factor contributing to confusion about the epistemological status of Darwin's program has been the widespread adoption of “methodological naturalism”, a dogmatic definition of the very essence of science that excludes by fiat any reference to any explanatory principle that doesn't pass muster within the materialistic, anti-teleological model of metaphysics. The term “methodological naturalism” is itself a rhetorical tour de force. First, by appropriating the label “natural” for the materialistic tradition it subtly excludes the Aristotelian and Augustinian view, which sees nature as intrinsically and irreducibly teleological. Second, it has seduced many who subscribe to the teleological worldview as a matter of private conviction into embracing a merely “methodological” naturalism that supposedly poses no threat to their teleological ontology. (P. 14)

Koons' arguments collapse as soon as you understand that science is about rendering nature predictable and controllable. Koons wants to know about ultimate reality. Wouldn't we all. But science can't give that to us.

Methodological naturalism is not a rule, and it is not a dogmatic definition of the very essence of science. It is a simple acknowledgement of the fact that in the entire history of science it has never once happened that invoking non-natural explanations has enabled us to bring some aspect of nature under our control. That supernatural explanations are completely and totally worthless is obvious to anyone who has ever entered a lab in the hopes of obtaining a useful result. Koons, I suspect, has never done that.

In the first quote above, Koons equates methodological naturalism with the idea that science must not invoke intelligent causes. He should tell that to William Dembski, who routinely informs us that many branches of science (such as forensic pathology) are based on distiniguishing intelligent from non-intelligent causes. It is fine to invoke intelligent causes in science, as long as the intelligence in question is known to exist, and as long as something is known about the sort of capabilities the intelligent agent possesses. What you can not do is concoct out of thin air an omnipotent intelligent who acts in ways that are utterly mysterious.

The only reason science poses any threat to teleological views of the world is that it has been so successful for so long, that non-natural explanations now seem superfluous. It is not that any particular finding of science shows that God does not exist. Rather, it is that the relentless march of scientific progress has made God seem unnecessary as an explanatory principle.

That's how I see it, anyway. Plenty of other people are perfectly happy to leave God out of their scientific papers, but attend church on Sunday nonetheless. No seduction there.

Koons makes a weak attempt to address this point by pointing to cases where a teleological viewpoint has aided scientific progress. He writes:

In medicine and anatomy, the progress achieved by Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey depended not only on their willingness to go beyond Aristotle but also upon their continued efforts to build on the foundations that Aristotle had laid. Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood because he believed in a divine architect who had created all things “for a certain purpose, and to some good end”. Such teleological thinking has proved indispensable in biology until the present day. To identify a protein as an “enzyme” or a DNA molecule as a “code” is to use irreducibly teleological concepts, as is any reference to adaptations or disease. (P. 16)

I can't imagine what point Koons thinks he's making here. He is simply confusing the manner in which a scientist is led to formulate an hypothesis with the hypothesis itself. So what if Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood was motivated by his belief in God? The fact remains there is nothing non-natural in his description of blood circulation.

Of course modern biology is filled with teleological thinking of the sort Koons describes. Again, so what? In explaining the formation of complex, biological systems it is often helpful to act as if the system was designed for a purpose. This is because the prolonged action of natural selection effectively mimics many of the attributes we expect of an intelligent designer. That doesn't change the fact tbat there is nothing supernatural in modern biological explanations.

Koons writes as if calling upon some vague notion of teleology in forming hypotheses is somehow equivalent to accepting the reality of God. Of course, they are entirely different notions.

Incidentally, no one describes a DNA molecule as a code. A DNA molecule lying on the sidewalk is in no way code-like. This is just another example of Koons using scientific terminology he doesn't really understand.

For someone who makes his living writing about the philosophy of science, Koons seems strangely uninterested in considering the problems scientists face in the field and the lab. He seems far more interested in propping up his own assumptions, and with finding reasons for rejecting uncomfortable facts. There is nothing in his essay to suggest that modern biology needs to change what it has been doing. Even worse, there is nothing to suggest that today's crowd of anti-evolutionists has anything useful or interesting to say.


At 11:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of Koons, Jason wrote, "That supernatural explanations are completely and totally worthless is obvious to anyone who has ever entered a lab in the hopes of obtaining a useful result. Koons, I suspect, has never done that."

I'm reminded of Robert Heinlein's remark in one or another of his books that "A philosopher is a scientist with no thumbs."


At 4:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A modern Harvey would surely have said: the complex and expensive pumps and valves we find associated with blood in animals must surely have a useful function, since otherwise evolutionary pressure would cause to effectively disappear.... How does that effectively differ from the putative hypothesis of Harvey quoted?

David Margolies

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