Monday, October 25, 2004

Todd's posts on Panda'a Thumb

The Panda's Thumb is an anti-anti-Evolution site with some surprisingly civil and constructive discussions.

Some recent posts of mine there:

(1) On Del Ratszch and his take on the design concept in science:

I think the key to appreciating the relationship between Del Ratszch and ID
is in his comment “We don’t yet have a good definition of science,” rather than
his comments on design.

His comments on design raise the reasonable
philosophical question of whether (and when) viewing something as designed helps
you understand it and theorize about it. Dan Dennett approaches a similar
question in The Intentional Stance, regarding whether it sometimes makes sense
to view something as having goals or intentions that don’t break down into other
causal models. He concludes that it does indeed.

In the case of viewing the universe as designed, of course we have a
long legacy of dispute. Humans have a demonstrated temptation to see
“agency” where it doesn’t in fact exist, but we also see it when it does make
sense to see it.

The question becomes whether the design inference contributes more than
the risk of misperceiving it, and most parties are right to point out that it
has not demonstrated any such thing yet, but could “in theory.”

So we return to what I consider Ratszch’s more critical claim, that we
have no adequate definition of science. That’s where the open
philosophical question of the value or danger of assuming “design” becomes
assumed to be solved, by being introduced into science as if it were established
canonical principles equivalent with evolutionary biology. Should we teach
people to gather data and ask questions based on the assumption that the
universe is designed, and biological differences are “gifts” from some sort of
‘telic’ or planned design process or entity. Or should this be the
province of people who are already educated as scientists and choose to spend
their time in this way.

That’s where I think we need to raise objection to Ratzsch’s
characterization, the point where we supposedly have no reliable way to
distinguish established science from frontier science, proto-science, or
“pseudo”-science. We do have a way of distinguishing them, and ironically
for the tradition of positivism, it is a social criteria. Scientists work
together in networks that share assumptions and ways of reasoning, so they can
work on the same questions and apply evidence to them in the same way.
Some of them are independent of each other, but we choose the most reliable and
well established over time and the best generalized principles for textbook
We can agree somewhat with Feyerabend’s scientific anarchy
regarding what might possibly constitute potential science, without it making
any sense at all to introduce it as textbook science. As much as frontier
science and proto-science may be defensible in principle, we don’t teach them as
if they were basic. That’s where the *anti-secularist* element of
anti-evolutionism rears its ugly (imo) head, quite apart from the speculations
about “design inference.”

The “teach the controversy” concept is ridiculous at the grassroots
level that the antievolution political movement is trying to introduce it, even
if it makes sense to many people as a philosophical and theological
question. It is not a controversy of basic science, it is partly a
philosophical division and partly a political anti-secularist movement.

kind regards,

(2) On varying perceptions of the evidence for natural selection:

Charlie Wagner writes:

How come you folks spend *all* of your time
and effort asttempting to
debunk intelligent design and not one single erg
of energy or second of time
defending evolutionary theory? It would seem to
me that the best defense would
be to elucidate a comprehensive and
believable alternative to ID, something
which evolutionists have NEVER

I have to agree strongly with some of the other posts. In my
experience, there is a small literature critical of intelligent design, but
is dwarfed by the literature of evolutionary biology, a significant
portion of
which is dedicated to exactly what Charlie is asking for.
He is reading
very selectively. Many authors who are critical of ID’s
slant still make similar points to the ID theorists in other
ways, as ID authors
often point out.

In general, it occurs to
me that people who approach this topic either
find ubiquitous adaptationism
plausible or they don’t, based on how they’ve been
conditioned to see
it. They either read Origin of Species (if they bother
to read it) and
think, “wow, what a remarkable way of thinking about life’s
diversity,” or
they think it seems to have limited plausibility but to be a
suspicious. The folks that find it a bit suspect either become
critical of universal Darwinism and ubiquitous adaptationism like Gould, or
anti-evolutionist like Dembski. They differ widely on how much they
can be explained solely by “selection and mutation” and on what they
think the
missing piece or pieces might look like. They fill in the
blanks from
whatever they do happen to find plausible.

My own
impression is that the suspicion itself is healthy. The
reason that ID
is particularly threatening to many is probably more its
anti-secular aspect
than just its anti-adaptationist aspect. To me, we
should remain
suspicious of how much any grand theory of form and function can
but we should also use it to build and test hypotheses. Even if
“design” is plausibly useful to build testable hypotheses, adaptation has a
successful track record in fruitful hypothesis testing. To me,
that it does not simply demonstrates a failure to look very hard
for it, or an
unwllingness to accept anything as an adequate example of
adaptationist explanation.
kind regards,
(3) On the relationship of political orientation and temperament:

The thought that politics and temperament are somehow related
apparently occurs to nearly every one of us at some point, and is not entirely
unfounded. However, at the very least, a great deal of evidence gathered
in political science shows the relationship between temperament and political
orientation to be extremely complex, and varying with various kinds of
circumstances, not the least of which is the varying composition of each of the
various historical parties. I’m not the first to notice with some irony
that in the U.S. for example the party of Lincoln is also the party of

Yet there are different ways that people think about the same
issues, ways that can be reasonably linked to ideological vantage points.
Different ways of defining such central abstractions as personhood, loyalty,
fairness, justice, and human nature.

It seems likely to me that these
are distinct traditions or styles of reasoning that are each coherent to their
practitioners, the people that interact with each other using the same kind of
reasoning. Political party leaders are people who rely paerticularly
heavily on the abstractions of one style of reasoning and are motivated to avoid
engaging different ones.

For most of us outside of politics, that is
usually not the case. We are less politically polarized because we are
less reliant on and immersed in a particular tradition of reasoning, although we
may still tend to think more from a particular tradition most of the time when
forced to make choices related to the relevant abstracts.

challenge for intellectuals seems to me not to be to pick a tradition of
political or moral reasoning and argue for it, but to recognize what each is
talking about and translate it into common terms as far as possible so that more
universal criteria of value can be applied to the reasoning. What it seems
to take is to enter into a particular way of reasoning by interacting with
people who reason in that way and picking up on the way they treat the various
important abstractions.

This is an activity that probably cannot take
place within the context of politics because political activism is neccessarily
ideological and neccessarily dependent upon garnering a broad base of support,
which requires a single coherent way of framing the “issues.”

We need
to keep reminding ourselves that polarized thinking within each tradition of
reasoning seems perfectly logical within each tradition, but is based on
different ways of defining abstractions and thus distorts understanding of the
underlying reality.

There need to be intellectuals and journalists who
can translate between the different ways of thinking and help us see what each
is saying, in order to make more intelligent choices between them rather than
being driven mostly by fear mongering or radical idealism.

That is, if
the ideal of intelligent civic responsibility is still worthwhile.


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