Correcting Kirk Fithzhugh's Misunderstandings About Intelligent Design - Evolution News & Views

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Correcting Kirk Fithzhugh's Misunderstandings About Intelligent Design

In my prior post, I noted that for years I've owned a graduate assignment on evolutionary classification by LA County Museum of Natural History scientist Kirk Fitzhugh. After completing this "Classification" project, he went on to earn his PhD in biology and today is Curator of Polychaetes at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC). Fitzhugh was part of the internal discussions at NHMLAC that I've been writing about, in which participants at one point planned to tell the California Science Center (CSC), "We urge you to cancel this event."

Fitzhugh, however, is not nearly so private about his disagreement with ID as some of his NHMLAC colleagues. It's important to note that Dr. Fitzhugh should have every right hold, publish, and discuss his views that dissent from ID in the public square and within the scientific community. Does he extend such academic freedom to ID proponents? Let's assess Fitzhugh's criticisms of ID and ask (1) Do they accurately represent ID?, and (2) Would they cut against his own Darwinian viewpoint, if they were applied fairly?

Wrong about ID and the Supernatural
First, in his writing on the Internet, Fitzhugh repeatedly and inaccurately describes ID as appealing to the "supernatural." For example, he explains that "science has no means of elucidating evidence to critically evaluate any supernatural theory or hypothesis, contra Dawkins or ID advocates." In fact, he has misrepresented ID, for ID does not claim to be able to determine whether the designer was supernatural:

"[I]ntelligent design nowhere attempts to identify the intelligent cause responsible for the design in nature, nor does it prescribe in advance the sequence of events by which this intelligent cause had to act. . . . Intelligent design is modest in what it attributes to the designing intelligence responsible for the specified complexity in nature. For instance, design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the remit of science. As Dean Kenyon and Percival Davis remark in their text on intelligent design: 'Science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy.'" (William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, pp. 247-248 (InterVarsity Press, 1999).)
Fitzhugh misunderstands how ID works. ID starts by observing how intelligent agents act when they design things. Human intelligence provides a large empirical dataset for studying the action of intelligent agents. Such observations show that intelligent agents generate high levels of complex and specified information (CSI). ID then reasons that when we find high levels of CSI in nature, we can infer the prior action of an intelligent agent.

However, this scientific method only allows us to infer intelligent action, not supernatural action. If we infer the supernatural, we go beyond what the data can tell us. Stephen Meyer explains this:

Though the designing agent responsible for life may well have been an omnipotent deity, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine that. Because the inference to design depends upon our uniform experience of cause and effect in this world, the theory cannot determine whether or not the designing intelligence putatively responsible for life has powers beyond those on display in our experience. Nor can the theory of intelligent design determine whether the intelligent agent responsible for information life acted from the natural or the "supernatural" realm.

Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, pp. 428-429 (HarperOne, 2009).)

It is important to reiterate that the refusal of ID proponents to draw scientific conclusions about the nature or identity of the designer is principled rather than merely rhetorical. ID is primarily a historical science, meaning it uses principles of uniformitarianism to study present-day causes and then applies them to the historical record in order to infer the best explanation for the origin of the natural phenomena being studied. ID starts with observations from uniform sensory experience showing the effects of intelligence in the natural world. Scientists have uniform sensory experience of intelligent causes (i.e. humans), making intelligence an appropriate explanatory cause within historical scientific fields. However, the "supernatural" cannot be observed, and thus historical scientists applying uniformitarian reasoning cannot appeal to it.

I was always taught that good scholarship must critique a theory as it is presented by its proponents. By wrongly claiming ID is an appeal to the supernatural, and then dismissing ID on that basis, Fitzhugh misrepresents ID and only knocks down a straw man version of it.

ID meets Fitzhugh's Standards of Scientific Testability
Having wrongly said that ID appeals to the supernatural, Fitzhugh claims that ID is "immune to testing." Fitzhugh writes:

For ID testing to be possible we would have to witness initial, causal conditions so as to be able to empirically identify the presence of the intelligent cause to which predicted effects could or could not be associated. Unfortunately, there are no conceivable test conditions under which such cause-effect relations can be discerned.
But as we've already seen, ID is based upon the principle of uniformitarianism and uses present-day observations to find a cause-and-effect relationship between the presence of high levels of CSI and intelligent agency. When we find high CSI in nature, we are justified in inferring intelligent causation.

And how does Fitzhugh propose to test a theory? His criterion for testability is that "When causal conditions of type x occur, effects of type y will occur." ID easily meets this standard. When intelligent agents act, high levels of CSI are generated.

And what happens when ID is tested? Fitzhugh writes "If effects are as one predicted, then the effects provide confirming evidence for the theory, giving one reason to conclude that the theory has, at least for the moment, some worth as a tool for acquiring understanding." But this is exactly what we find with ID, as the following predicted effects of ID are confirmed by the data:

Predictions of Design (Hypothesis):

(1) Natural structures will be found that contain many parts arranged in intricate patterns that perform a specific function (i.e., complex and specified information).
(2) Forms containing large amounts of novel information will appear in the fossil record suddenly and without similar precursors.
(3) Convergence will occur routinely. That is, genes and other functional parts will be re-used in different and unrelated organisms.
(4) Much so-called "junk DNA" will turn out to perform valuable functions.

(See "The Positive Case for Design")

In dismissing ID as "immune to testing," Fitzhugh is simply wrong. Further discussions will come in a subsequent post.