ID’s volte-face on the importance of meaning and evidence, since the time of Paley

IDists like to claim that they have a “new theory” that is being suppressed.  Needless to say, they don’t.  However, when one reads Paley and compares him to the current sorry crop of apologists, one realizes that Paley was genuinely (if not very successfully) trying to explain many aspects of organisms according to a “design” which was close to our actual understanding of what design is, and appears to see the very real flaws in some of the non-creation, including evolutionary, theories of his day.  The lack of supporting evidence for Buffon’s “theory of forms” to explain life, and of what are now called “Lamarckian” theories of evolution came under attack by Paley.

I have discussed the differences significantly in the past, like in this recent post.  However, I would like to quote extensively from Paley’s discussions of the failings of both Buffon’s conception of how life appeared, and the prominent evolutionary idea of his day, to show how he uses fairly competent criticisms, and how he contrasts those to design in life that he really thought was like our own, and thus considered to provide meaningful evidence.  For, altogether, Paley manages to attack pseudoscientific ideas for being meaningless and for being lacking in evidence, while holding ID to the standards of both meaning and evidence like a genuine scientist would do. 

Paley is hardly the person to which a person should turn to understand science.  He calls his output “natural theology,” not to distinguish it from science, but to suggest that science and theology may in fact be the same thing.  I can hardly applaud something like that, nor his many factual errors.  Nevertheless, he is a beacon of science and of good sense compared with the current bunch of IDists, and  I wish to demonstrate this fact through a passage of some of his best thought.  Today’s ID simply withers when one applies Paley’s standards, which should be obvious in the following piece.  The passage begins with Paley criticizing Buffon’s concept of “internal molds” producing life:

Lastly; these wonder-working instruments, these “internal moulds,” what are they after all? what, when examined, but a name without signification; unintelligible, if not self-contradictory; at best, differing in nothing from the “essential forms” of the Greek philosophy?  One short sentence of Buffon’s work exhibits his scheme as follows:  “When this nutritious and prolific matter, which is diffused throughout all nature, passes through the internal mould of an animal or vegetable, and finds a proper matrix, or receptacle, it gives rise to an animal or vegetable of the same species.”  Does any reader annex a meaning to the expression, “internal mould,” in this sentence?  Ought it then to be said that though we have little notion of an internal mould, we have not much more of a designing mind:  The very contrary of this assertion is the truth.  When we speak of an artificer or an architect, we talk of what is comprehensible to our understanding, and familiar to our experience.  We use no other terms, than what refer us for their meaning to our consciousness and observation; what express the constant objects of both; whereas names, like that we have mentioned, refer us to nothing; excite no idea; convey a sound to the ear, but I think do no more.

Another system, which has lately been brought foraward, and with much ingenuity, is that of appetencies.  The principle, and the short account of the theory, is this:  Pieces of soft, ductile matter, being endued with propensities or appetencies for particular actions, would, by continual endeavours, carried on through a long series of generations, work themselves gradually into suitable forms; and at length acquire, though perhaps by obscure and almost imperceptible improvements, an organization fitted to the action which their respective propensities led them to exert.  A piece of animated matter, for example, that was endued with a propensity to fly, though ever so shapeless, though no other we will suppose than a round ball, to begin with, would, in a course of ages, if not in a million of years, perhaps in a hundred millions of years, (for our theorists, having eternity to dispose of, are never sparing in time,) acquire wings.  The same tendency to locomotion in an aquatic animal, or rather in an animated lump which might happen to be surrounded by water, would end in the production of fins; in a living substance, confined to the solid earth, would put out legs and feet; or, if it took a different turn, would break the body into ringlets, and conclude by crawling upon the ground.

Although I have introduced the mention of this theory into this place, I am unwilling to give to it the name of an atheistic scheme, for two reasons:  first, because, so far as I am able to understand it, the original propensities, and the numberless varieties of them (so different, in this respect, from the laws of mechanical nature, which are few and simple,) are, in the plan itself, attributed to the ordination and appointment of an intelligent and designing Creator; secondly, because, likewise, that large postulatum, which is all along assumed and presupposed, the faculty in living bodies of producing other bodies organized like themselves, seems to be referred to the same cause; at least is not attempted to be accounted for by any other.  In one important respect, however, the theory before us coincides with atheistic systems, viz. in that, in the formation of plants and animals, in the structure and use of their parts, it does away final causes.  Instead of the parts of a plant or animal, or the particular structure and use of the parts, having been intended for the action or the use to which we see them applied, according to this theory, they have themselves grown out of that action, sprung from that use.  The theory therefore dispenses with that which we insist upon, the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent, designing mind, for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear.  Give our philospoher these appetencies; give him a portion of living irritable matter (a nerve, or the clipping of a nerve) to work upon; give also to his incipient or progressive forms, the power, in every stage of their alteration, of propagating their like; and, if he is to be believed, he could replenish the world with all the vegetable and animal productions which we at present see in it.

The scheme under consideration is open to the same objection with other conjectures of a similar tendency, viz. a total defect of evidence.  No changes, like those which the theory requires, have ever been observed.  All the changes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses might have been effected by these appetencies, if the theory were true; yet not an example, nor the pretence of an example, is offered of a single change being known to have taken place.  Nor is the order of generation obedient to the principle upon which this theory is built.  The mammae of the male have not vanished by inusitatem; nec curtorum, per multa saecula, Judaeorum propagini deest praeputium.  It is easy to say, and it has been said, that the alternative process is too slow to be percieved; that it has been carried on through tracts of immeasurable time; and that the present order of things is the result of a gradation, of which no human records can trace the steps.  It is easy to say this; and yet it is still true, that the hypothesis remains destitute of evidence. Natural Theology

One might first ask why ID should be privileged over evolution via appetencies, or Buffon’s “theory of forms,” at least if these were updated to avoid the problems that these ideas had (aside from no evidence).  The flying spaghetti monster is one thing, for even if it has provided a good deal of fun at the expense of IDists, it appears to be yet another “intelligent designer,” thus not an actual competitor with ID.  The ideas that Paley criticizes, on the other hand, were serious ideas a couple of centuries ago (the lack of evidence was not an immediate problem, since no well-evidenced theory–including design–existed at the time, and future evidence might have conceivably supported them).  And if they are seriously devoid of explanatory ability and evidence, so is today’s ID.

Secondly, how could Paley’s complaint about the meaninglessness of “internal moulds” not apply equally to present-day notions of ID?  They do not tell us what “design” means (except by illegitimately conflating what we know, that life is complex, with “design”), nor what “intelligence” is supposed to produce, rather they try their very best to avoid predicting known design principles behind organisms’ forms:

Another problem with the argument from imperfection is that it critically depends on a psychoanalysis of the unidentified designer.  Yet the reasons that a designer would or would not do anything are virtually impossible to know unless the designer tells you specifically what those reasons are.  One only has to go into a modern art gallery to come across designed objects for which the purposes are completely obscure (to me at least).  Features that strike us as odd in a design might have been placed there by the designer for a reason–for artistic reasons, for variety, to show off, for some as-yet-undetected practical purpose, or for some unguessable reason–or they might not.  DBB, 223

I have quoted this previously, but it is a frequent–if intellectually-unsound–excuse trundled out nearly every time we ask for evidence of design.  That it goes against other claims of Behe to find “purpose” in life should go without saying–for anyone who has read his books, that is (he claims that design is visible as the purposeful arrangement of parts–until he denies that we should be able to find purpose, as in the above passage).  But it also goes against a far more honest version of ID, that of Paley, who contrasted the pseudosciences of his day with an ID that appealed to observation and experience:  “When we speak of an artificer or an architect, we talk of what is comprehensible to our understanding, and familiar to our experience” (Paley, long quote above).  Well, Behe most certainly does not, for he is not trying to explain anything, except how it is that he is not required to produce evidence for his statements.

There is not much sense in belaboring these points.  Suffice it to say that, unlike Paley, Behe and the rest of the “DI fellows” do not mean anything more with terms like “purpose,” “Intelligence,” and “design,” than Buffon’s “internal moulds” had meaning (indeed, they really mean less, because Buffon’s terms still have a kind of abstract meaning, while the IDists use terms that do not comport even with abstract meanings of their words), and they are completely uninterested in providing evidence in favor of ID.  They wish to claim that scientific evolution is “insufficient” and to suppose that “design” (of indeterminate meaning) is the only alternative, even though at least several ideas at least as explanatory (that is to say, little if any) and with equal evidence (that is, little to none) have previously been broached.  That an IDist like Paley found fault with the alternatives, often on the exact same grounds with which we fault today’s meaningless and unevidenced ID, is either lost on today’s sorry apologists, or they ignore the fact as asiduously as they ignore virtually all empirical matters.

I would like to point out that both before and after the long Paley quote, the over-reliance upon analogy found in these alternative concepts came under Paley’s fire–just one more case where the old ID would be forced to condemn the new ID, if it were consistent anyhow (I do not say that Paley would denounce today’s ID if he encountered it, or that he would not.  That would be idle speculation).    The issue was too much to discuss here, other than this mention, since Paley’s criticisms of both the meaninglessness and the lack of evidence of pseudosciences (at least later they would be understood as such) of his day were far more important and meaningful.

ID has not always been a vapid attempt to avoid the meanings of terms and of the evidence.  It is not fair to Paley’s legacy for today’s ID to make the “design hypothesis” appear as though it was always a pseudoscience intent on destroying the standard’s of science so that even the most worthless ideas could be given the label of “science.”

This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.

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One Comment on “ID’s volte-face on the importance of meaning and evidence, since the time of Paley”


  1. […] yeah, Behe, then why have you backed away from all of the positive evidence that Paley adduced as being the effect of a m… That Paley lacked tightness of argumentation and exactness of fit between cause and effect I do not […]


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