Friday, February 09, 2007

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Intelligent Design

This is the fifth in a series of posts that I am writing about the presentations given at Beyond Belief 2006.

The fifth presenter at that conference (and the first presenter in Session 2) was Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The lesson that I would like to draw from Tyson’s speech is that we need to teach intelligent design. It would be nice to have students learn about intelligent design in school. However, this is not likely to happen. There are too many people arguing for keeping intelligent design out of our schools. However, in teaching intelligent design, they really should teach the truth about intelligent design. That is what schools are supposed to do, right? This means teaching the problems with intelligent design. Because our school system requires this forced ignorance of the problems with intelligent design, our population remains vulnerable to those who continue to take advantage of the public ignorance (or who fall victims to that ignorance).

This ignorance inflicts a heavy cost on our society.

Tyson began his presentation by focusing on the fact that some of the brightest people today and in the past have accepted some form of intelligent design. If some of the best and brightest in the history of science can be taken in by such a theory, then perhaps it is somewhat over demanding to expect a lay person to do any better.

I want to put on the table the fact that that you have school systems wanting to put intelligent design in the classroom, but you also have the most brilliant people who have ever walked this earth doing the same thing.

Tyson’s claim that many of the best and brightest scientists continue to believe in God starts with the same surveys that atheists often cite that show that the vast majority of top scientists do not believe in or doubt the existence of God. A survey that shows that 93 percent of the nation’s top scientists are atheist or agnostic also shows that 7 percent are theists. (Note: Tyson asserted that 15% were theists, but this is not the number reported in the polls.)

This shows that it is possible to be fully educated in the marvels of science and even be an active participant in scientific progress and still hold a belief in God.

From this, Tyson concluded that it is simply false to think that all you need to do is to educate a person in science and you can eliminate his believe in God.

He also went through history to show that many of the greatest scientists in history accepted some form of intelligent design.

Ptolomy, writing at the boundary between what is known and unknown, wrote,

I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral. But when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch the earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus myself and drink my fill of ambrosia.

Newton’s theory of gravity handled the attraction between two bodies, but could not account for the long-term stability of the system. At this point – the boundary between what is known and unknown, Newton wrote:

The six primary planets are revolved about the sun in circles concentric with the sun and with motions directed towards the same parts and along the same plane, but is it not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions. This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the council and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.

Christian Huygens nowhere writes about God until he gets to the boundary between what is known and unknown.

I suppose nobody would deny but that there is somewhat more of contrivance, somewhat more of miracle, in the production and growth of plants and animals than in lifeless heaps of inanimate bodies, for the finger of God and the wisdom of divine providence is in them much more clearly manifested than in the other.

Importantly, these people did not invoke God for the purpose of trying to smuggle religion into science class. They were not trying to advance some hidden agenda. They said these things – the best and the brightest in science – because they believed these things.

This sounds like a defense of intelligent design. One could go on from this to argue that if the best and the brightest minds in science, past and present, hold that there is room for divine influence in nature, then it may be argued that there is no good reason to leave it out of the science classroom.

However, Tyson offers a different conclusion. He argues that the acceptance of intelligent design, even among scientists, even among the best and brightest minds in science, is a problem. The problem is that where scientists (and others) evoke intelligent design, they quit studying, and they quit learning. They draw a line in the sand and refuse to venture past it.

Here, Tyson referred back to Newton.

Or, more precisely, to an 18th century scientists Pierre-Simon Laplace who took the full power of calculus and applied to the motions of the planets and showed that the planetary orbits are stable over time. To do this, he perfected a type of mathematical modeling called perturbation theory. In doing this, he answered a question that Newton did not answer, and where Newton evoked intelligent design.

I deliberate said that Newton ‘did not answer’ this question, not that Newton ‘could not answer’ this question, because Tyson later argues that Newton could have answered this question.

The lesson, then, is not that we need intelligent design in the classroom. The lesson, according to Tyson, is:

Even if you are as brilliant as Newton, you reach a point where you start basking in the majesty of God, and then your discovery stops. It just stops. Your kinda no good any more for advancing that frontier, waiting for somebody else to come behind you who does not have God on the brain, and who says, ‘That’s a really cool problem. I want to solve it.’ They come in and solve it.

But look at the time delay. This was a hundred year time delay.

And the math that is in perturbation theory is like crumbs for Newton. He could have come up with that. The guy invented calculus just on a dare practically. When somebody asked him, ‘Ike, how come planets orbit in ellipses and not in some other shape?’ and he couldn’t answer that, he goes home for two months, comes back, out comes integral differential calculus because he needed that to answer that question. So, this is the kind of mind we are dealing with Newton. He could have gone there, but he didn’t.

He didn’t. His religiosity stopped him.

So, we have religiosity to blame for the fact that an important advance in science was discovered a century after it could have been discovered. Intelligent design, at least according to Tyson’s argument, delays advances in science because it tells people to quit looking.

To be honest, Tyson's assertion here is scientifically weak. A lot more needs to be done if one is going to demonstrate that the proposition, "intelligent design causes delays in scientific advancement" is true. There is little evidence here to back up such a claim. It is, at best, intuitively plausible, and we all know how dangerous intuitive plausibility is.

However, in spite of that problem, Tyson's conclusion still has merit - that there are reasons to teach intelligent design. He says that it should be taught because it is a real phenomena in the history of science and of how the brain works at the boundary of knowledge. He also suggests that this is a problem in that it stops scientific advances. People should be taught that intelligent design makes even the most brilliant mind, “. . . kinda no good any more for advancing that frontier.”

However, all of this means teaching the problems with intelligent design. Whenever people tend to speak about teaching intelligent design, they talk about presenting it as a viable option to scientific theory. Yet, if we were to teach intelligent design honestly, the lesson would actually be one of explaining why intelligent design fails to stand as a viable alternative to any scientific theory.

One legitimate response to those who insist on including lessons on intelligent design would be to say, "Sure. I think it is a great idea. Students really should know about all of the philosophical, historical, and cultural problems with intelligent design so that they would know why so many thinking people reject it." Because, in fact, if we were to teach intelligent design in school, and teach it honestly, most of the intelligent minds in that school would learn why intelligent people tend to reject it.

In fact, if I were running a private school, I would have those students learn about intelligent design. When they graduated, they would know the problems with intelligent design and be able to explain those prolems to others. I have the philosophy that a good education is one that makes a student better able to contribute to the well-being of society, and that understanding the problems with intelligent design helps to improve society by making it less vulnerable to those mistakes. So, yes, a graduate should be able to contribute meaningfully to the social discussion on intelligent design.

Since the schools are not going to teach intelligent design (or will not teach the subject honestly) then there is a need to fill in the gaps on our children’s education. We must take the time to teach children about intelligent design theory, so that they can speak intelligently about it to other students, and so that they will be less vulnerable to the myths of intelligent design.

So, I must ask, because I do not know, where is there a good book on intelligent design for children? If nobody can find one, then maybe this is a project worth taking up.


Dan Doel said...

As far as this goes, it seems to me that fine tuning arguments have become popular these days, sometimes even amongst scientists who do not believe in god. Those that do of course use such arguments as supports for their idea of god, however, there seems to be a trend of people not pointing out that the argument is faulty (which it is), but instead pointing out other scenarios compatible with the argument being sound, like multiverses and anthropic selection.

Realistically, there are a few objections to the argument itself, including:

1) It typically assumes that humanity/life is somehow significant or special in some kind of cosmic sense, and thus fine tuning for such a thing would, too, be significant, rather than the possibility of life simply being a by-product of the way the universe happens to be.

2) The arguments, when invoking a designed universe (designed planet arguments are simple to dismiss based on the anthropic selection angle, since there actually are billions of candidate planets operating within established laws of physics), are inevitably based upon what seem to be made up 'probabilities' that the various constants of nature are the way they are. What is the probability that the gravitational constant might be more or less? Well, nobody knows. There's no meta-universe background upon which to even speak about the probability of one of many given universes having a particular gravitational constant. So arguments based on this sort of thing, whether you like to use them to infer god or a multiverse, amount to little more than making up stuff we have no evidence for/reason to suggest, which is hardly a basis for an argument.

Now, 1 is an easy enough philosophical objection to raise to such arguments, even to youngsters. However, to make 2 rigorous would probably require a non-trivial understanding of Bayesian probability theory, which even expert scientists might not have, depending on their area of expertise (I'm a math junkie, and I won't claim to have the requisite understanding to make anything beyond the hand-wavey argument I present above).

Anyhow, I suppose I'm rambling, but my point is that you and Tyson are right that one doesn't need to be a moron to fall for some of these arguments, as they're tricky for someone who isn't good at spotting such flawed logic 'from the gut,' and who has little expertise in a technical area the argument uses. Perhaps more training in logic and the like would be a boon in this area, perhaps taking such arguments as examples, and explaining why they fail (although perhaps teaching probability theory in primary or secondary school is wishful thinking, as most people don't even get it in college these days).

And, really, a nice article. I'll at least have to rethink my stance on the position, although I have my doubts that this is the sort of curriculum that would be implemented if ID advocates got their way into a school (as opposed to simply presenting misinformation about evolution). Maybe such a curriculum could be reached in the name of compromise, though (although I doubt they'd be happy :)).

Fletcher said...

@Dan Doel, I agree with you, and I believe your last sentence was the most important. If it were possible to honestly teach ID, and it's flaws in comparison to science, I would not completely object to that. However, I do not believe that hardly anyone who advocates for it to be taught in schools believes that it should be taught in such a way. I'm sure they wouldn't be happy about their theory being taught as a historical viewpoint and then explained why it is scientifically false. Those who advocate it want it to be taught as a contemporary and competing theory, which is why I don't believe that any such implementation would satisfy those who think that ID should be taught in schools.