27 October 2007

Fermi's Paradox and Intelligent Design

Although the intelligent design movement has lost considerable momentum over the last year and a half or so, I would like to add a belated note to the controversy. Much of the debate seems to consist of evolutionists proclaiming that Darwinian evolution—the phenomenon of common descent with modification—is none other than an empirical fact, while the not-so-intelligent intelligent design triumphalists vociferously controvert this claim. The entire dispute, though, can be transposed to avoid the (in my opinion) misguided fact vs. non-fact issue. This is how: most scientists are fallibilists, where this term means not only that one might be, but that one is likely to be incorrect about some theory. Indeed, the enterprise of science progresses (or at least seems to) by new theories supplanting old theories, where these new theories today are tomorrow’s old theories, and so on.

Evolutionary biology in the past several decades has witnessed an attack on the “hardening” of Darwinism (i.e., the empirical adaptationist view that natural selection is the preponderant mechanism of evolutionary change, that all organismic features are adaptations, and so on). In other words, evolutionary theory as Darwin formulates it has undergone modifications, and been the target and numerous trenchant critiques from other evolutionary biologists (e.g., Gould & Lewontin). It may very well turn out, at some point in the future, that only small fragments of the original theory is preserved within the accepted paradigm. Thus, it seems fatuous to claim that evolutionary theory is “fact”—at least in the usual sense of ‘fact’ as an irrefragable datum, i.e., something that is indisputable, or something like that.

The transposition of the argument involves simply pointing out that, whether or not evolutionary theory as contemporarily conceived turns out to be the (complete) truth about the phenomena falling within the explanatory domain of evolutionary biology, the “epistemic status” of evolutionary theory is significantly better (this cannot be emphasized enough) than that of intelligent design. In other words: Who cares if evolutionary theory is erroneous? As far as theories that explain sets of data go, evolutionary theory far out-performs intelligent design. This, I think, is the best approach to the issue, not arguments predicated on the facticity of evolution.

Part of the refutation of intelligent design, then, involves showing the utter poverty of corroborative evidence. One needs only note that approximately 99% of all the organisms that have ever lived are now extinct, or that, as Neil deGrasse Tyson has pointed out, the universe is not a particularly hospitable place. In fact, it wants to kill us. Indeed, one might invert Fermi’s paradox to something like: given the poor design exhibited in nature, it’s a wonder that we see life at all.

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