Thursday, May 01, 2008

Allowing Intelligence

After hearing all the buzz and hype, I decided to see Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed this afternoon. I was thinking about seeing it, but this morning I edited the latest episode of Radio Worldview, in which hosts Bill and Jeff offer commentary on it, and I decided to take the time this afternoon to view it for myself.

On the whole, I have been fairly silent on the issue of Intelligent Design on my blog. In college, I took a class on the philosophy of science, a course I'm convinced should be mandatory for every science student, in which we used ID and the (back then) recent Dover, PA Kitzmiller court case as a springboard. My senior year, I took a seminar on Intelligent Design that was taught by not only philosophy professors, but also an evolutionary biologist and a historian of science. There were about as many professors in the classroom on a weekly basis as there were students. The class started with the historian of science outlining the histories of both the creationism movement and the intelligent design movement, showing that they came out of very different kinds of soil. Then, then evolutionary biologist lectured for a few weeks on what darwinian evolution is. Finally, one of the philosophy professors took us through William Dembski's ID argument. The argument was very technical and even I, the philosophy major, found myself asking for simplifications. To round my educational pedigree out, I took an introductory biology class, taught by Darwinists.

One of the assignments for the Intelligent Design seminar was to write a paper, a portion of which I reworked into a blog post a few weeks ago that attracted more than a little controversy. In sum, the point I made was that the anti-ID crowd is either acting out of ignorance or with suspicious motives when they dismiss ID as "creationism." I took a look at the taxonomy and concluded that while ID and Creationism are related, as far as ideas go, it is more fitting to call Creationism "Intelligent Design," than vice versa. My argument is a little more nuanced than that, but rather than rehash it here, I'll simply direct you to read it here.

Ok. Now to the subject at hand: Expelled

I enjoyed Expelled and I thought it was a well-made and well-thought out documentary. Stein did good at backing up his claims of intellectual discrimination and at talking to scientists on both sides of the issue. If you read my past post on ID, you will understand why I particularly appreciated Dembski pointing out that ID is a "low-commitment" theory, unlike Creationism, which requires a much more rigorous series of beliefs. Even Richard Dawkins, toward the end of the film, admitted that ID was possible, provided the designers were extra terrestrials, a theory also proposed by the late Francis Crick.

In the last third of the movie, one of the interviewees made the point that we would all like to think that science is what is driving the worldview of the scientist, but said that he fears that the worldview is driving the science. This is an issue that cannot be brought up too often. Our assumptions about the nature of reality dictate how we will interpret reality.

Another important point Stein brought up is the necessity of Darwinian ideas for something like Nazism and Eugenics. As Stein stated multiple times, Darwinism does not always lead to it, but opens the door to the possibility. I think this is a good point to make, especially when you have Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris running around, talking about how religion only brings war and terror. Science, as well as religion, has been used for evil ends.

At one point, Ben Stein asks Richard Sternberg, who lost his job on account of allowing a paper that mentioned ID in its conclusion to be published in a journal, what he would say to those who think he was rightly expelled. His answer, in essence, was "who are you and what right do you have to decide what is and is not science?" That is possibly one of the biggest and more important questions raised in the film, and it is a shame that Stein did not probe it further. The demarcation problem of science (the question of what is and is not science and how scientific knowledge is different from other kinds of knowledge) is something philosophers of science have been aware of for a long time, yet few in the scientific community seem interested it wrestling with the issue.

On the whole, I think Expelled served its purpose well and will hopefully result in more discussion of the issues. If you are hoping of a systematic exposition on the finer points of irreducible complexity and Bayesian probability, then you are going to be disappointed. If you have not seen it, I encourage you to see it for yourself before you judge it. Even if you are not positively inclined toward ID, it might do you well to see how many people view those who quickly brush off ID as "creationism" and refuse to discuss it.


Kyle said...

As a young scientist, one thing that struck me was the realness of the interviews with anti-ID folks. When I heard them bad mouthing ID or creationism, their attitudes and demeanors were very authentic.

I think one of the major effects of the movie is to bring the issues of ID and intellectual freedom from the shadows of the public conscience into the mainstream. I think it'd be fair to say that in the past ID had been ignored by folks who ignored (yawned at) the creation/evolution controversies. This movie I think really got some folks starting to think.

Jacob said...

What is your field, Kyle?

After reading several books and essays, especially by people like Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins, I wasn't really surprised by the rhetoric that I heard. What more surprises me in when I hear a critic of ID have his say with civility. You don't hear many ID proponents calling Darwinists "stupid," which is exactly what Dawkins (and one or two others) did.

I agree that this film is a lot more accessible than other films (such as Bill Jack's) and I'm sure Ben Stein's mainstream, pop-culture reputation is what's doing the trick. The guy walks down the street in Seattle and random by-passers know who he is.