The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

On the Intelligent Design Movement

There's been a lot of talk lately about the Intelligent Design movement. I think it is the most irrational public discussion in, well, in the history of the world. The words "Intelligent Design" seem to work like a magic spell transforming its speaker into a raving lunatic or an ignoramus (I've taken a special potion to counteract its effects, in case you're wondering). That is, otherwise calm and rational people become extremely aggressive and dogmatic when discussing "Intelligent Design" and people who usually wouldn't make statements using terms they don't understand seem to make statements of the utmost firmness and import when it comes to "Intelligent Design" even though they don't even have a basic understanding of the term (thus the scare quotes around the term here). This is so on both the pro and con side but, in my experience, considerably more so on the con side.

The term Intelligent Design movement is best understood as that movement centered around the work of William Dembski and advocating two theses: 1. Dembski's Argument is valid and reasonable; 2. As a result of 1, some kind of statement contextualizing evolution can rightfully be added to public school discussions of the theory of evolution.

Dembski's argument is an ingenious extension of classical statistical inference. That is beyond all doubt. However, I think his argument is invalid: I think classical statistical inference is of very limited use. Eliminating chance through small probabilities works in some contexts, but not in others. Consider a lottery of any size you want, suppose the odds are one in a trillion trillion and I win. It's no good suggesting it was rigged in my favor *just* on the basis of how unlikely that it was that I would win. I could have said the same thing had you won. The *context* of the low-probability event makes all the difference to whether or not we infer non-chance explanations.

I do think there is a valid design inference to be made, I just don't think Dembski makes it and so I think the Intelligent Design movement is misguided at its core. However, this judgement depends on quite rarified debates in the theory of probability, so I don't think it has any implications for public policy. Fortunately, few things philosophers say do have any influence on public policy.


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