Dr. R. Strikes Back

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

Dr. R. has reasserted himself, this time not so pleasantly. I am supposing he didn’t enjoy being pressed the way I pressed him during our last meeting – and especially being compelled to admit so many shortcomings in his world-view, and even confess a need for faith. I suppose once alone he felt faintly embarrassed by the whole thing. Or perhaps he got with materialist colleagues who bucked up his materialist resolve. Whatever, he came at me with guns blazing today. We talked until after the restaurant had cleared. Most of his assertions themselves were articles of faith really, although he pressed them as though they were gold plated facts. I had my hands full.

First, R. jumped all over my use of the word “materialism.” He insisted that this is a misnomer; he says what he advocates is naturalism, not materialism, and methodological (not philosophical) naturalism at that. He argued that within a scientific context, an assumption of naturalism (versus explanations that assert causal actors – intelligences – other than natural phenomena) is required because predictive hypothesis testing would not be possible without it – an intelligence with the power to design living systems could do anything it pleases, in any order, and hence any empirical finding would be consistent with the hypothesis of intelligence. I think that was his argument. Here is the example he used:

R. dug into some work I had mentioned by Scott Minnich at the D.I. on the evolution of secretory pumps (this is when I knew he was loaded for bear). Ken Miller claims to have shown that much of the flagellar mechanism so often offered by Michael Behe as an instance of irreducible complexity was evolutionarily coopted (or exapted, as SJ Gould liked to say) from an older structure, namely the secretory pump. Minnich claims to have demonstrated that secretory pumps arose after the flagellar mechanism, which would obviously preclude the exaptation of secretory pumps to flagellar locomotion in the manner hypothesized by Miller. I find that pretty damaging for Miller: If this is so, Miller’s argument is refuted and Intelligent Design supported. Moreover, here we have a clear demonstration of the empirical testability of intelligent design science. I think this shows that ID can be a science.

Dr. R. insisted that this is backward. It is true that Miller’s model may be falsified through experimental investigation. That the secretory mechanism will be found to have arisen before flagellar propulsion is a prediction of Miller’s evolutionary hypothesis. Miller’s model would indeed be falsified were it found that the secretory mechanisms arose after the flagellum. Miller would take his lumps and move on. This is how science works, says R., and evolutionary biology is a science.

But R. insists that what Minnich’s test of Miller’s model does not exemplify is an empirical test of ID (I struggle with this part). Quite the reverse: ID makes no predictions on this score. A designer could easily have fabricated these molecular components in the order predicted by Miller, caused them to arise simultaneously, or given rise to secretory mechanisms after the design of the flagellar mechanism. Hence empirical findings regarding the order in which the secretory and flagellar mechanisms arose can never be a test of ID. Indeed, says R., this example again demonstrates that ID arguments boil down to nothing more than attacks on evolutionary science that are otherwise devoid of testable content. ID itself is not science. R. also insisted that this supports the call for methodological naturalism, and demonstrates the confusion that can arise when its strictures are violated.

As if this weren’t enough, Doc R. also pressed the point that empirical refutation of Miller’s position would not help ID in any event (although it would further evolutionary biology by eliminating one hypothesized pathway and directing research to the task of finding a better explanation). This is so first because of the obvious fact that the failure of one evolutionary hypothesis does not show that all evolutionary explanations are incorrect. Moreover, even if Miller’s hypothesis is rejected, it still represents trouble for Michael Behe’s repeated statements regarding the irreducible complexity of the flagellum. Behe has argued that the flagellar mechanism is irreducibly complex because no evolutionary pathway to such a complex mechanism, attained solely by means of natural selection, is even logically possible. However, Miller has suggested one such logically possible pathway using cooption/exaptation. Whether that pathway actually occurred in evolutionary history is a separate question: Behe is saying that no evolutionary pathway is possible; Miller shows us a possible pathway, and Behe’s position is refuted.

Or so it goes. I’ll admit that it was my turn to be nonplussed, in part by Dr. R.s angry intensity (why are materialists always so angry?) but also by the logical force of his argument. I’m going to have to give this some thought. I’m sure he’s got this wrong, but am not sure how to respond.

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3 responses to “Dr. R. Strikes Back

  1. What study from Minnich? Minnich hasn’t published anything on this question.

  2. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Dembski’s book “The Design Revolution” in which he answers dozens of the most common counter arguments to ID point by point. It sounds like some of your friend’s objections may be addresses in that book.

  3. professorsmith

    Thank you for your comments…

    The Minnich work was described by Stephen Meyer of the DI during the course of a debate that occurred in Seattle in 2006. I think there is a description posted at the DI site – I’ll poke around and get back when I have more time. I think they’ve also done a book chapter with similar content.

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