15 March 2006

Plantinga, Intelligent Design, and Uninformed Opinions

One of the better posts mentioned in yesterday's Tangled Bank can be found over at Adventures in Science and Ethics. In that article, Janet provides a clear and detailed explanation of the limits of scientific expertise. As she reminds us, scientists are not near-omniscient beings, endowed with some sort of infailable ability to assess ideas across all the fields of scientific research. Scientists are primarily qualified to comment on matters within their own field. If a scientist is not an expert in an area of science, he or she should give the scientists within the other field the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they have a better understanding of their own area. As Janet points out, scientists (and other adademics) should be responsible enough to know their own limitations.

This sense of responsibility seems to be somewhat lacking among some of the more prominant proponents of Intelligent Design. It's shown up in any number of places, including a recent article by well-known philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga pontificates at length on Judge Jones' ruling in the recent Kitzmiller v. Dover Intelligent Design lawsuit, but his rant seems to be entirely disconnected from the actual facts of the case - or, for that matter, any real understanding of what the ID proponents actually advocate.

The monumental depth of Plantinga's ignorance becomes clear fairly early on in the paper, when he discusses the Intelligent Design view of evolution:
Consider, for example, the claim that ID is just creation science in drag, as it were. That ruling is relevant in that previous court decisions have gone against creation science. But the kind of creation science those decisions had gone against is characterized by the claim that the world is a mere 6,000 to 100,000 years old, rather than the currently favored age of 4 billion or so years old.

Second, those creationists reject evolution in favor of the idea that the major kinds of plants and animals were created in pretty much their present form. ID, as such, doesn’t involve either of these two things
It is possible that Plantinga is correct here, since it is notoriously difficult to determine what ID, "as such," actually involves for any particular aspect of science. (That's the inevitable side effect of having a "theory" that entails no positively testable hypotheses.)

The problem for Plantinga's argument comes when one moves from the undefined principles of an idealized "Intelligent Design as such" to those of Intelligent Design, as outlined in the various "resources" provided to the Dover High School students. A quick look at the "textbook" at the center of the case is all it takes to see that Plantinga's position does not hold up well when evaluated using reality-based criteria:
"Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency with their distinctive features already intact. Fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings..."
(Of Pandas and People, quoted in Forrest trial testimony)
That may not reflect Plantinga's view of Intelligent Design, but it clearly involves the idea that the major kinds of animal were created in more or less their current forms, and it clearly links that concept with the definition of Intelligent Design. It's also a view that the Discovery Institute doesn't seem to have too much of a problem with - they've called the book that it appears in "an excellent educational resource."

It seems clear to me that Plantinga is talking about some form of Intelligent Design that exists only in the realm of the ideal. Here, on Earth, we are dealing with a different form of Intelligent Design. The form of Intelligent Design that we are coping with doesn't have much to do with working on developing new scientific knowledge in the future. Instead, it is about what some people want to teach in the secondary school classroom right now.

Plantinga might have been able to see this if he had taken the time to look at what ID proponents do, rather than just what they say.
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