Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Michael Behe Presentation at Penn State

Lehigh Professor Michael Behe gave a presentation at Penn State and this article caught my eye: "Author defends intelligent design". There were several things, starting with the title of the article. Apparently the reporter saw this as defensive in nature and I think that was understood from Behe's own presentation or the opinion of the author going into the presentation.

Apparently Behe started with a disclaimer that his beliefs were not supported by Lehigh University nor his colleagues. He supported his position by identifying what he considered obvious indicators of intelligent design. OK, here is one of my many question, 'obvious to whom?'. Just because they are obvious to him doesn't make them obvious to anyone else. in fact if they are so obvious, why doesn't his own colleagues see them?

Well I guess they sort of do because another comment Behe said was

" . . . that those in the science field agree that aspects of biology appear designed . . ." [I am quoting the article, these may not be Behe's exact words].
Please note another point I have made in other posts, 'appear designed'. Since when is the appearance of design the confirmation of design, let alone intelligent design? How about never! Just because things share an appearance doesn't mean they must be designed, nor does it mean even if you manage to prove design, that there is a guiding intelligence behind it! You could make the argument for Natural Selection could very well be the guiding 'force' behind the appearance of design, but you would never hear that from Professor Behe.

Then Behe went off on his usual material on how non-living things that have been obviously designed and how that easily supports his contention. I have to disagree. His whole idea of irreducible complexity has been a non-starter for any serious scientific research, another point behe admitted during the Dover Trial. Neither he, nor anyone he knows, is performing the research to prove his ideas. Of course he claims a massive conspiracy of silence to quiet down his supporters . . . Hmm so how many bills were offered in the Pennsylvania Legislature against him? I am of course referencing Oklahoma State Representatives trying to silence pro-evolution advocate and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins. Hmm, so which side of this discussion can be accused of a conspiracy?

Here is the fun part, and one he certainly stated during the Dover trial.
"Many people think science should stay away from something beyond nature," Behe said. "I disagree."
So here is a basic question, should science address things beyond the bounds of the 'natural'? I have a better question, by what possible methodology can science do this? None that I know of! This is not a question for science, but a question for metaphysics. Behe did state that for intelligent design to be accepted as part of science the basic definition of science would have to change to include supernatural causation. He's just re-stating the opinion that pretty effectively destroyed his own arguments during the trial.What I also question is this:

"A conclusion of intelligent design is rationally justified," Behe said.

Granted I wasn't there to hear his presentation, but I read the Dover Trial transcripts, I have read his "Darwin's BlackBox" book and a number of other books on Intelligent Design and I do not find a shred of empirical evidence to support his conclusion. It all comes down to 'appearance' and 'belief'.

The final point I found interesting was the two student reactions to his presentation:

"I thought it was very comprehensive but it was chockfull of fallacies," said Tristan Buckley (sophomore-film).

Tim Chopourian (freshman-meteorology) agreed, adding that "it felt like what he was doing was explaining evolution but where we have blanks, he filled those in with God," he said.

'Chockfull of fallacies' and 'filling gaps with God'. Apparently not a very effective presentation. I'm sure other students from the group that sponsored him, the Science and the Bible club, have a different opinion. I would be interested to know if those two are members of the club, or if any members of the club offered any other opinions of the talk. In fact I email the club advisers with those questions and I am very interested in the result.

I do applaud the club for bring such a speaker on campus to give his presentation. I can understand why they would sponsor him and not say the Biology Department, but that is neither here nor there. The fact he has such a forum open to him is a pretty considerable argument against any form of conspiracy. I wish he, and his compatriots, over at the Discovery Institute would do the actual science to support intelligent design and get away from this 'appearance = fact' argument. But so far, the science side has been very quiet!


  1. I did hear back from the Science and Bible club. The two students quoted in the article were not members of the club. Now I really wish the reporter had gotten a reaction or two from the hosts.


  2. Michael Behe's argument can basically be summed up as: "If Michael Behe can't understand it, it must not be true."

    It's kind of neat, his concept of irreducible complexity could certainly show that a structure or process couldn't have evolved incrementally. But there are so many ways around the idea that he sketched out in DBB that it was basically a useless in the form he presents it in. I'd like a version of irreducible complexity that has some more rigorous support than Behe's own lack of imagination.

  3. Peter,
    So would I. But so far everyone who discusses irreducible complexity uses Behe's definitions and examples. So far none of them have had any evidnece showing them to be irreducible. While some of them didn't have a lot of study before Behe published his "Darwin's Black Box" book, if nothing else his book pushed study into that area.

    Irreducible complexity has also been described as a modern version of Paley's Watchmaker analogy and little more than a logic fallacy called "God in the Gaps" argument. in other words if it is currently unexplainable, claim divine intervention, or in Behe's case 'designer intervention'.

    The problem, as pointed out by St. Augustine a very long time ago, what happens when the gap is filled with new learning?

  4. The interesting thing to me about the studies that have demonstrated ways around Behe's description of irreducible complexity is:

    When I read DBB, and he was describing IC with a mousetrap analogy, I was thinking of an arch analogy. If you remove any part of a stone arch, the whole thing collapses. The arch an architectural analog of IC. Ergo, an arch can't be built?

    Nonsense, of course: you build a scaffold, or you could assemble the arch lying flat on a board or something, and then stand the board up (I think I saw Don Herbert do that).

    And I thought of the sort of evolutionary analogs of a scaffold approach: perhaps there were more steps in the molecular cascade, and they were obsoleted, and either atrophied over time or the system was more efficient without them so they were trimmed out by selection. And the analog of the uprighting an arch on a board is sort like the molecular process evolving in one environment to the point where it will work in other environments that it wouldn't have worked in it's earlier forms. Gould's idea of "exaptation" also seemed like a way around IC in some cases.

    And I've seen people explaining Behe's examples using just those types of routes around IC. The blood clotting cascade was shown to have evolved in low-blood-pressure organisms, fish if I recall, until it would be able to work in high-blood-pressure organisms--sort of the change-of-environment exception. And I don't know off the top of my head what the example of exapting of scaffolding would be, but I'm pretty sure I've seen some of both. Not that I am at all on top of the biology journals.

    And not ironically at all, the work that ended up explaining the evolutionary pathways of Behe's examples were the exact type of work Darwin suggested be undertaken in the Origin concerning the IC of the miraculous eye: look around the living world for simpler/more primitive analogs of the complex system you are trying to understand.*

    And btw, no, I wasn't aware of the Pioneer anomaly, thanks for the info. It looks to me like it's probably measurement error and perhaps asymmetrical radiative heating, rather than new physics or dark matter. Well, maybe I just don't get why the satellites would be affected and not outer planets and planetoids. But on a related note, the April Scientific American has an article saying that the observed cosmological acceleration of very distant supernova might better be explained by us being in the center of a gigantic cosmic void--i.e. no "new" physics. I was disappointed, because they didn't give a good idea of how close we'd have to be to the center to be consistent with the observed isotropy of the cosmic microwave background. I suppose I could look it up, but my general relativity is probably rusted beyond salvaging.

    *and of course, people have looked, and found simpler functional analogs of the camera-type eye from eyespot, to recessed eye-spot, to deep recessed eyespot, eye channel with viscous fluid lens, or pinhole eye, to full camera-type eye