Thursday, February 10, 2005

What's Wrong with this Article?

With the current social and political climate leaning precariously towards the "faith-based" approach to life, examples of faulty logic and language abound. One topic generating much heat concerns the so-called "theory of intelligent design" proposed as a serious alternative to simple evolution as an "explanation" for Why We are Here.

In this NYT article, biologist Michael Behe presents what he undoubtedly intended as a cogent and irresistable argument in favor of Intelligent Design. He insists that ID proponents in the scientific community do not incorporate a religious aspect into their theory, but simply question the ability of natural processes to produce sub-cellular appropriate technology in such variety as we now understand exists.

Behe says cell are more like watch mechanisms than William Paley ever could have imagined: "There are little molecular trucks in the cell to ferry supplies, little outboard motors to push a cell through liquid." The presence of such mechanisms, so similar to things we know to have been designed underlies one of the prime arguments put forth to support ID.

As a general semanticist, I have to gently correct Mr. Behe. We know from our studies of how language influences perception, that his statement says nothing about the cell and everything about the speaker. If you see intelligent design in the similarity between a cellular body and a motorboat, it's because an intelligent being designed the motorboat! That's why we say "form follows function." We can't imagine a spontaneously arising mechanism so similar to one that we made with our intelligence, ignoring the fact that some of the ideas for the design of motorboats comes from the simple need to meet certain requirements--moving through a thick medium, needing to steer against currents etc. If you need something to quack like a duck, you watch ducks quack and then do something similar. If you later come back to the duck and find miraculously that their quack sounds a lot like your mechanical quacker, and from that derive a theory of intelligent design of the duck, you are being fooled by your own language and forgetfulness.

As for his closing remarks that we should not "search relentlessly for a non-design explanation for Mt. Rushmore"--what he is trying to do there is to equate the design we *think* we see in nature with something that any human would recognize as designed. Continuing research on evolution has nothing to do with explaining things we *know* were the results of design, like tattoos on Maori warriors, or the appearance of bound feet in ancient Japan. Nobody cares to find the reason behind the making of Mt Rushmore. In fact, science has no *need* to find the reason for evolution or any other natural process either. If evolution answers the most questions about how things work, then it suffices until something comes along that does it better. That's how science works. And "intelligent design" does absolutely nothing for the advancement of scientific understanding. By definition, that makes it something other than science--like religion perhaps?

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Design for Living

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