The Imagination Stopper

Carl Zimmer has a post on the Loom that discusses irreducible complexity along with some examples. I found it very interesting how we start with a bicycle as irreducibly complex, a claim of an intelligent design (ID) advocate, and then see how the irreducible is reduced through the magic of Google.

There are many ways in which ID is less irrational than young earth creationism. For example, ID requires one to deny things that are much nearer the cutting edge of science, whereas young earth creationism requires one to deny well established theories from a wide variety of disciplines.

But there’s one area in which I think ID has managed to be more destructive to sound science than young earth creationism, and that’s in causing atrophy of the imagination. Because ID provides an answer to many things that are not known, or purports to do so, it tends to make people quit looking or quit trying to imagine what might be. This atrophy of the imagination winds up with ID advocates not even checking to see if the problem they propose has already been solved.

This is simply one instance of a more general problem: Satisfaction with existing answers. There is nothing like being satisfied with the answers you have to prevent you from finding new and better ones. This satisfaction often manifests itself in the “insurmountable problems” attack on any form of new technology. “It doesn’t work now and it never will,” the critics announce with great solemnity. The answer to which, of course, is to overcome the problem.

Similarly, the attack can come in the form of damning with faint praise: “Sure, that will work, sort of, but it won’t solve the whole problem.” In the creation-evolution debate, this argument is repeated over and over in stages.

“There are no transitional fossils.”

So paleontologists find one.

“There are not enough transitional fossils.”

So paleontologists find dozens more.

“Well, you found a few, but there are still not enough.”

It doesn’t end.

Now ID advocates could turn this argument against me, or more purposefully against scientific opponents of ID. Are we too satisfied with current answers? Are we damning with faint praise? Well, I think we’re all safe from the “faint praise” accusation. Successful prediction #1 has yet to be made so that it might be praised faintly and thus damned.

But is there the possibility that satisfaction with current answers is preventing progress? This one is more difficult to tell. The absence of any new answers to actual questions is a bad indicator for ID, but I wish they would go ahead, spend some time in the laboratory, and attempt to produce such an answer so that it could be criticized. Since the beginning of discovery, the proper answer to the critic who says it will never work, or will never provide a satisfactory answer, is to go out and make it work or provide that answer.

As it is, it is the ID crowd who are trying to make us satisfied with an existing answer, and are trying to prevent us from finding a new one.

I’m not a scientist. I don’t work in the natural sciences. But I do read a wide variety of materials from various fields, and I have to say that the field of evolutionary biology looks nothing like the static sort of field stuck in a 19th century theory that hasn’t changed which is described by some (see the Dispatches comment on Steve Fuller.) It isn’t a field that is blocking discovery or trying to defend an entrenched orthodoxy. It is a field that is constantly producing new ideas. In fact, one of the great resources of its critics is the criticism of existing ideas produced within the field.

The ID critics perform an interesting sleight of mind when they both use quotes from various working evolutionary biologists (normally taken out of context, but still!) to show how the whole theory is falling apart, while at the same time say that the whole field is static and is blocking new ideas. That very active criticism and reexamination is the sign of a healthy field of science, involved in serious discovery and growth.

And just what have the ID advocates produced to match? What I see is defense after defense of a static position, one that is much, much more deserving of the epithet “18th century social theory” than is the theory of evolution.

3 comments to The Imagination Stopper

  • The argument over transitional fossils is ludicrous. I tend to just send them to transitional fossils and be done with it.

    It’s a waste of time arguing with people who freely admit that NO evidence and NO argument will ever change their mind. In those cases, I think mockery is an appropriate response.

  • You are right on target about imagination stopping, and about the non-static nature of mainstream biology.


  • Just to play devil’s advocate…when does a dissatisfaction with current answers just become Leonard in Memento, chasing after something after intentionally forgetting that he already caught it?

    For a second, let’s forget the debate about whether ID is science. The question of origins is philosophical at it’s root. There’s no proving how life came about in the first place, let alone the actual evolutionary process, because any experiment would be tainted by the intervention of intelligence.

    ID extends beyond evolutionary biology to cosmology, astronomy, and physics. How will we test a scientific hypothesis on the creation of matter? Or on the existence of laws of thermodynamics? We can’t; this is a philosophical debate between naturalists and supernaturalists. The sooner naturalists admit their (as yet)unprovable, unstated faith assumption (there is nothing beyond the natural world), the sooner the debate will become civil.

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