SocraticGadfly: Darwin's Black Box is Michael Behe's braincage

February 08, 2005

Darwin's Black Box is Michael Behe's braincage

Or, what’s in Behe’s fallacious bag of tricks?

Want proof? Take a look at this New York Times column Behe penned Feb. 7.

Before going into a detailed breakdown, let me look at an overall pattern. It is IDers, not their critics, who exemplify closed-mindedness on this issue. Behe illustrates this with a variety of classic means of fallacious argumentation, including false dilemmas, appeals to the crowd and more.

Behe repeatedly argues that machinery implies design, with the unstated implication this, in turn, implies design by a designer. From the fact that he has no way of knowing whether analogizing from human macro-scale machinery to cellular micro-scale machinery is either logically or empirically doable to the fact that he simply cannot or will not consider the possibility of bootstrapped design. Ergo, he is arguably engaging in the fallacy of false analogy.

As my reference book, “The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion,” says: "It is the business of analogy to illustrate or suggest, not demonstrate; the fallacy is committed when one argues from the analogy to a conclusion claimed to follow necessarily."

Now, I don't think Behe only does that. My version of this fallacy that I see in him is a false analogy in that I don't think he has situations that are really as analogous as he claims.

This reminds me of a book by a 1960s-70s theologian named J.B. Phillips, called “Your God is Too Small.” Behe’s “design” is too small, as far as his ideas of what can cause design, or bootstrap design, without the invocation of intelligence.

He makes this clear near the end, when he says, “The next claim in the argument for design is that we have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn't involve intelligence.”

First, as many people have pointed out, Darwinism is about the evolution of life forms, not the development of life per se. So, Behe is dishonestly shifting tables. This is near a version of the fallacy of composition, but maybe not quite the same thing; it goes beyond fallacy to changing terms of argumentation.

No matter. While it is true that the details of early amino acid synthesis, protein development, etc. is still hotly debated in many details, the general idea that development of living forms from nonliving forms is doable without an Intelligent Designer is widely accepted today.

If it weren’t, NASA wouldn’t have forked over the money for Cassini to go to Saturn and the European Space Agency certainly wouldn’t have paid for Huygens to land on Titan. But they did, precisely to look at different directions in which “proto-living”compounds could have developed, or gotten design.

Speaking of that, there’s no need to run from the word “design,” in my opinion. Rather, we need to continue to develop better counter-analogies that are readily understandable by the general public.

Now, some specific observations.

First comes the claim that “And intelligent design itself says nothing about the religious concept of a creator.”

In a word, bullshit.

“Intelligent design” implies an “intelligent designer” and Behe is surely well aware of that. Following “The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, this could be called a fallacy of hasty generalization, argument from ignorance, or black-or-white fallacy, depending on exactly how I analyze this.

Now, he might semantically argue that I am inferring ID implies Designer. However, I have no doubt that, to the degree that Intelligent Design is the old gray mare of the philosophically fallacious argument from design gussied up with a Thoroughbred’s racing silks, “intelligent design” as its founders’ pet phrase is designed to conjure up images of an intelligent designer.

That’s clear from his examples by analogy of Mount Rushmore and William Paley’s famous watch. He offers up no examples of apparent design without an actual designer.

My inference of implication follows logically from Behe’s next statement: “Rather, the contemporary argument for intelligent design is based on physical evidence and a straightforward application of logic.” That, in turn

Then, note his use of attempted argument-tilting emotional language (technically normally considered a variant of the fallacious appeal to the crowd) such as “Modern Darwinists disagree with Paley that the perceived design is real, but they do agree that life overwhelms us with the appearance of design.” (Emphasis added.)

Or, this choice phrase:

“Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, once wrote that biologists must constantly remind themselves that what they see was not designed but evolved. (Imagine a scientist repeating through clenched teeth: ‘It wasn't really designed. Not really.’)”

But Behe is not anywhere near done with his bag of fallacious argumentation tricks. Note this classic false dilemma:

“Scientists skeptical of Darwinian claims include many who have no truck with ideas of intelligent design, like those who advocate an idea called complexity theory.”

Of course, there’s no conflict at all between Darwinism and complexity theory, despite Behe’s implications of one.

And finally, we have this appeal to the crowd, via antiscientific populist obscurantism:

“Besides, whatever special restrictions scientists adopt for themselves don't bind the public, which polls show, overwhelmingly, and sensibly, thinks that life was designed.”

Well, if that were the case, we might still be teaching Ptolemaic theory solar astronomy, er, terrestrial astronomy, in many Southern states.

Update, Feb. 16: Welcome to all visitors from Skeptics' Circle 2. If you're interested in further reading, please go to my home page and browse the headers for related posts. I have put up two brief posts as the beginning of an extended review of “Debating Design,” an excellent 2004 book which gives equal air time to orthodox neo-Darwinians, IDers, non-IDer theistic evolutionists, and non-orthodox neo-Darwinians, such as Stuart Kauffman, talking up how complexity theory can shed non-Darwinian new light on evolution inside the naturalistic framework.

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