Grayling's New Book Is Hampered by an Embarrassment of Errors - Evolution News & Views

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Grayling's New Book Is Hampered by an Embarrassment of Errors

Atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling, whose debate with Peter S. Williams I wrote about yesterday, recently published a new book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism. I was particularly interested in reading Chapter 11, which is devoted to the subject of creationism and intelligent design. The chapter contains so many errors and is so poorly researched that one hardly knows where to begin. Grayling claims that,

ID theory is a disguised version of [Young Earth Creationism]. It does not invoke either of the two creation myths in Genesis directly, but tries to argue on putative scientific grounds that there is irreducible complexity in nature that can only be explained as the outcome of conscious and intelligent design. Its proponents thereby construct a Trojan Horse for Creationism by arguing that their theory, as a scientific theory, should have equal time in schools with Darwinian biology.

[...]

[T]he money, organisation, propaganda effort and persistence of the religious lobby is remarkable. A notable example of the bodies set up to promote the agenda is the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which describes itself in its promotional literature as 'a nonpartisan public policy think tank conducting research on technology, science and culture, economics and foreign affairs'. The apparent neutrality of this description is belied by the fact that its major if not sole endeavour is to promote ID theory and to get it taught in schools, at the very least alongside standard (which means, evolutionary) biology, although doubtless the eventual aim is to displace standard biology. [emphasis added]

Contrary to Grayling's assertions, ID is most definitely not "a disguised version" of creationism. Furthermore, it has been the long-standing policy of the Discovery Institute not to advocate the mandating of the teaching of ID in public schools (and it has consistently opposed attempts to do so). Discovery Institute is also involved in other projects besides ID (contrary to Grayling's claims). It is the Center for Science & Culture that is chiefly concerned with developing the science of ID. Later in the chapter, Grayling writes,
The lack of success that Creationists and ID theorists have had in challenging the scientific consensus and in getting their views into education, has encouraged them to try alternative channels. They cannot be faulted for persistence. In the United States the alternative strategy has been to get state legislatures to pass 'Academic Freedom' bills which would allow or even require teachers in high schools and colleges to teach 'Creation Science' and ID theory alongside or even instead of evolutionary biology and any science that is inconsistent with religious dogma.
As anyone who knows anything about academic freedom bills knows full well, however, they explicitly do NOT protect the teaching of creationism (which is unconstitutional). Nor for that matter do these bills protect the teaching of intelligent design. The bills only cover those subjects that are already part of the science curriculum. To take the recent Colorado bill as an example, the text states that "This bill only protects the teaching of scientific information, and this article must not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion." As for intelligent design, the bill explicitly only covers "existing scientific theories covered in a given course." Since intelligent design isn't currently covered in any public school science curriculum, it isn't protected under the bill.

I was somewhat taken aback by Grayling's rather presumptuous assertion that,

What appears to underlie ID theory's insistence that complex structures cannot be explained as outcomes of the accretion of simpler structures is that they do not know enough chemistry or biology to see how in fact it happens.
Given that Grayling is not a biologist or a chemist, it seems somewhat arrogant (not to mention insulting) to claim that a community of chemists and biologists "do not know enough chemistry or biology. " Grayling continues,
The really surprising thing about ID theorists is that they miss the larger point about explanation, which is that to explain something by invoking something itself unexplained is to provide no explanation at all. Exasperated parents sometimes put an end to persistent 'why?' questioning by small children with, 'Because it just is!' This is in essence the ID theorist's view about the origins of the universe and life, and about complex natural structures: any difficulty in understanding them invites from them the closure of 'God did it'. But what work does this claim actually do? The child's question presses: if the universe and life in this corner of it had to be designed by a god, what is this entity that it could do such a thing? Is it complex, and therefore -- on the terms of the ID theorist's own argument -- in need of a designer in its turn? If so, that designer must have been complex too, if not indeed more so, and would need another designer in its own turn -- and so on ad infinitum.
Grayling writes later in the chapter that "It appears not to have occurred to them [ID proponents] that attributing the origins of the universe and life to a conscious agency merely defers the explanatory task." Really? Does Grayling seriously think that we have never encountered the "who-designed-the-designer" rejoinder? What he seems to miss is that every causal chain requires a termination point. Grayling's critique of ID, if applied consistently to all scientific explanations, would destroy science itself -- for nothing would ever be explained without some infinite regress of causal explanations. Moreover, top-down explanations are not at all infrequent in science. By Grayling's own logic, one would not be able to infer a mind behind The God Argument since a human brain is far more complex than strings of alphabetic characters on the pages of his book.

Grayling's concern that the hypothesis of design (which does not, incidentally, assert that "God did it") will put an end to science betrays his ignorance about the worldview that lay at the foundations of the scientific revolution. Indeed, the founders of modern science (including Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Robert Boyle) believed that the natural world was accessible to the human mind precisely because the universe was the product of a rational agency.

Grayling goes on:

This prompts consideration of the real motivation behind the ID theorist's desire to persuade us that there is not just room but a need to accept the existence of a designer. Clearly, it is to open a conceptual gap into which the deity of traditional revealed religion can be inserted. The aim is to establish premises for an antecedently accepted conclusion. ID theorists know in advance the answer, and are seeking to arrange the right questions to get to it; they know what they wish to prove, and are suborning evidence which, when properly applied and understood, leads to very different conclusions. They subscribe for non-rational reasons to one of many creation myths from the infancy of mankind -- the Judaeo-Christian biblical one; this applies to Islam too, which is a product of this tradition -- and are looking for justifications in support of it. This is as far from science, rationality and intellectual honesty as one can get, and it is the essence of the Creationism-ID project.
And how exactly does Grayling know the motivations or the psychology of ID proponents? I could just as well claim that Grayling's "aim is to establish premises for an antecedently accepted conclusion, " that he knows "in advance the answer, and [is] seeking to arrange the right questions to get to it, " and that he is "suborning evidence which, when properly applied and understood, leads to very different conclusions." These allegations may be true or they may be false. But they are hardly relevant in judging the validity of Grayling's claims. Such a baseless exercise in psychoanalysis gets us nowhere. Speaking for myself, for each of my beliefs I could list potential observations that could in principle persuade me to change my mind. Scientific propositions, for me, are not a matter of arbitrary personal taste. I am simply interested in knowing what's true.

This chapter on intelligent design and creationism -- the first chapter in the book that I happened to read -- was, as I said earlier, so poorly researched and argued that I had serious reservations about reading the rest of what Grayling had to say. If he doesn't know what he's talking about on those subjects that I know well, why should I trust him on topics that I don't know so well?