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Incompatible Magisteria

By Mark Perakh

Posted on September 4, 2002

Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. "Contra evidentia credo" versus "Credo quia evidentia"

  3. Are the magisteria indeed nonoverlapping?

  4. The cousins of religion -- crank science, psychics and superstitions

  5. "Intelligent Design" as a "Z-factor"

  6. Achnowledgements

  7. References and notes

1. Introduction

If I were asked to give a brief definition of science, I would have a hard time to come up with a definition which, on the one hand, would encompass everything that belongs in science, and on the other hand, leaves out everything which is not science. In the paper [1] a descriptive definition of science is offered as "a human endeavor consciously aimed at acquiring knowledge about the world in a systematic and logically consistent manner, based on factual evidence obtained by observation and experimentation."

Of course, as stated in the same article [1] this definition does not pretend to encapsulate in one sentence such a multifaceted and complex human activity as science. It leaves out many important features of science, such, for example, as the question of the quality of evidence or of the proper rules for the interpretation of evidence, and many others. It is just a first-approximation definition painted with a wide brush.

If I were asked to give a definition of religion (which I have never tried) I would have an even harder time finding a brief sentence which would encompass everything that belongs in religion and leave out everything that is not (because there are so many religions and they often are so vastly differing from each other). Be that as it may be, I think that religions, like science, also try to comprehend the world, but using very different means.

Philosophy, which is neither science nor religion, hangs in the no-man's land between them, sometimes leaning toward science and sometimes toward religion. In this article I will omit discussions of philosophy and its place between science and religion (which is briefly discussed in [1]). And of course I will not go anywhere close to theology.

I also do not intend to delve into nuances, thus leaving out the many well known variations in the principles and practices of various religions, concentrating instead on the most crucial overall difference between religions in general and science. Therefore some of my statements may sound too categorical, but I believe that, while they ignore many subtle points and can therefore invoke indignation or denials on the part of adherents of this or that faith, they do nevertheless reflect certain real features common to all religions.

I will try to suggest tentative answers to two questions: (1) What is the most substantial difference between the ways science and religion approach the task of explaining the world? (2) Why do so many people fervently adhere to a religious dogma even when it obviously contradicts the scientific data supported by experience and reason?

2. "Contra evidentia credo" versus "Credo quia evidentia"

The two Latin expressions in this section's title seem to grasp in a succinct form the principal difference between the attitudes of religion and science to the search for truth. (The first three Latin words translate as "I believe despite the evidence," and the last three words as "I believe because of the evidence.")

The first maxim reflects the attitude of religions, and the second -- of science.

Of course, as in the case of science, these are just intentionally simplified generalizing statements painted with a wide brush and ignoring many facets of such a complicated phenomenon as religion, in particular the attempts at rationalizing its foundations. In the same intentionally simplified way, it seems possible to succinctly state the following:

Religions are based on faith. Science is based on evidence. Reason seems to favor science. Emotions often favor religion.

I can easily imagine the indignation by many a believer at the above assertions. He is confident that his faith is based on evidence and logic. I'll return to the discussion of the supposed rational foundations of faith a little later, wherein I'll try to offer a justification for the above general formulation of the basic difference between the approaches of religions and of science to the comprehension of the reality.

I could have stopped at that point because there is little of essence that can be added to the above succinct rendition of the principal difference between religion and science. However, many additional questions are vexing in their own right, calling for an elaboration of the above maxims.

If reason favors science, why are religions so widespread and so stubbornly persistent even when faced not only with the lack of evidence in favor of their veracity, but also with overwhelming evidence against their tenets? Indeed, another version of the first maxim in the title is "credo quia absurdum," which has been pronounced by prominent defenders of religious faith [2] and which means "I believe because it is absurd." Even if adherents of some religions other than Catholicism may deny that they share the above maxim, I believe it applies to a certain extent to all religions, even if not always in such an extreme form.

The quoted maxim implies the antinomy between "knowledge" and "faith." It seems to imply furthermore, that we "know," for example, from scientific evidence that the earth is billions of years old. However, according to the above maxim, a believer may adhere to the notion that the earth is only about 6,000 years old, not because he "knows" that but because he "believes" in that, however absurd the latter notion may be in view of the contrary evidence; moreover, the very absurdity of the notion in question is claimed by the quoted maxim as the reason to believe in it. Precisely because it is absurd from the rational viewpoint, its acceptance requires belief.

Of course, the believers are often confident that their faith has also strong rational foundations, and religious apologists of all varieties work hard to supply alleged proofs of such rational foundations. Christian apologists [3, 4] point out the alleged historical evidence supporting the story told in the gospels, for example, quoting ancient writers like Josephus Flavius or Suetonius. Jewish apologists [5, 6, 7, 8] refer to the allegedly uninterrupted tradition forwarded through generations from the entire nation of Israelites witnessing Moses's receiving the Torah directly from Jehova; or they point out the alleged fulfillment of the prediction made in the Torah in regard to the history of the Jewish people. Islamic apologists [9] developed the so-called Kalam argument allegedly proving the existence of God (in its Islamic version). In our time, Islamic apologists maintain huge websites [10] wherein a variety of allegedly rational arguments are offered for the veracity of the Islamic faith. Various specious rationalizations have also been developed by Hindus, Druses, Bahais, Buddhists, Sintoists, Taoists, etc., (although some of them are much more limited in scope and sophistication).

Another form of exegesis which has been practiced mainly by Christian and Jewish writers is devoted to the alleged reconciliation between the biblical story and science by interpreting the former in various metaphorical and non-literal ways [11, 12, 13, 14, 15].

However, the existence of various forms of exegesis does not eliminate the prevalent feature of religions -- their reliance on faith rather than on evidence.

So, why do billions of people adhere to religious faiths even when they contradict facts established by science via a process of a rational investigation based on evidence?

Whereas the answer to that question may require an excursion into human psychology, for which I have no taste whatsoever, there seem to be relatively simple ways to survey certain facts relevant to the difference between the scientific and the religious approaches to understanding the world we live in.

There are various estimates [16] of how many religions exist on our planet. It is obvious though that their number is in thousands. There are certain similarities between some of those religions, but the differences between various religious systems, often to the extent of complete incompatibility, are much more pronounced. Even those religions which have stemmed from the same root, as, for example, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have developed many more differences than preserved similarities, not only in secondary details, but also in the basic concepts inherent in their foundations. Within each of them there are numerous variations, both in details and in fundamentals. The Baptists have a conceptual framework vastly different from that of, say, the Catholics, and the Mormons from the Pentecostals. The Shiah Moslems do not accept at all many of the firm beliefs of the Sunni Moslems. Druses, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and a myriad of other sects, sub-sects, and systems of beliefs, vastly differing from each other, each have their own fervent adherents unshakably confident in the veracity of only their faith and denying the plausibility of all other faiths.

Of course, if the matter stopped at that and members of different faiths simply adhered to whatever is a commonly accepted belief within their communities, a reasonable attitude to that divergence of beliefs would be to benignly accept this as simply a fact of life. Unfortunately, the peaceful coexistence of various faiths seems to be more of an exception than a rule. Remember the horrifying history of crusades [17]. Overwhelmed with a whipped up religious fervor, the crusaders, on their way to the Holy Land, mercilessly killed uncounted thousands of Jews in Europe. In Northern Ireland, the Protestants kill the Catholics and the Catholics kill the Protestants, both speaking the same language, coming from the same ethnic stock and largely sharing the same history. In Kashmir Hindus kill Moslems and Moslems kill Hindus at every opportunity. Both are of the same ethnic origin, share their early history, and often speak the same languages.

Of course there are many factors besides religions which spawn hatred and murders, and it may be equally possible to point to the positive role played by religions in certain historical periods and in certain countries. However, in the above cases it is religious faith that converts those uncounted thousands into murderers.

Let us now note the following facts. It is common knowledge that conversion from a religion a person was raised in to some other faith is relatively rare. How many Lindhs [18] are there in the US and Europe? A very small percentage of the population. How many Moslems have converted to Christianity? A tiny percentage of the Moslem population. However, even these numbers are much larger than a conversion of, say, Moslems or Christians to Judasim, Bahai, or the Sikh faith. Are Judaism, Bahai and Sikh faiths "worse" than other religions?

It seems obvious that the conversion caused by a person's sincere realization of the truthfulness of a religion other than the one he grew up with is a rare phenomenon indeed. A much more potent incentive for conversion seems to be pressure from the social environment.

This leads us to the conclusion that adherence to a certain religious faith is caused mainly (albeit not necessarily only) by indoctrination at an early age.

Such indoctrination (or instruction, if one prefers a milder term) creates powerful emotional ties, inextricably connected to the person's subconscious traces of the impressions gained in the early childhood. Therefore, a person born in Salt Lake City quite probably will grow up and remain a Mormon, a child born in Tel-Aviv, most likely, will be a part of the Jewish community for the rest of her life, and a boy born and raised in Islamabad hardly can be expected to be anything other than a Moslem, and, with a considerable probability, a very fervent one.

As was mentioned earlier in this article, religious apologists routinely offer allegedly rational arguments in favor of their beliefs. Even if we will not discuss numerous holes in those allegedly rational arguments, the natural question seems to be: if these arguments are indeed convincing, why are they accepted only within the communities of co-religionists? Why Christians do not seem to be impressed by the Islamic apologetics, and Hindus, by the Christian one? The two indisputable facts -- the very existence of thousands of religions with their often incompatible tenets, and the rare occurrences of conversion from a faith one grew up with -- make the apologetics of any variety quite doubtful, and with it equally doubtful the supposed rational foundations of faiths.

Now, what about science? Isn't the "knowledge" and hence acceptance of the facts and theories of science also indoctrinated through education and media?

Yes, it is. There are, however, fundamental differences between the indoctrination in a religious faith and indoctrination in science.

Look, say, at physics, or chemistry, or mathematics, or engineering. Are there many or even a few differing physics, each fervently adhered to in specific countries or parts of the world? No, there is only one "physics," the same in the USA, Russia, Northern Ireland, Pakistan and Japan. Are there dissenters among the physicists? No, if the basic concepts of that science are in question. Yes, if specific theories or data are under discussion. Does in science the concept of a heretic exist? No. Although heated disputes among scientists happen regularly, they do not usually lead to killing one's opponent. Differing views are tolerated, and after sometimes prolonged discussions, a consensus is usually reached, accepted in Tokyo as well as in Moscow or Pasadena, CA.

What are the criteria usually applied in religious disputes? Appeals to authority. In a religious dispute within a community of co-religionists a proper quotation from the "holy books" of the faith decides the controversy. The authority of a "holy book" is above any other considerations and arguments.

What are the criteria applied in scientific disputes? Appeals to facts and reason.

In religious indoctrination, assertions are made from authority and one is invited (or, better, pushed) to accept them on faith. As to the allegedly rational reasons to believe, they play a subordinate role in the religious indoctrination, and are designed mainly to bolster the faith of the doubting believers rather than to indoctrinate the young.

In scientific indoctrination, statements directed at the uninitiated are also made from authority, but one is invited to accept them for reason and to look for their verification.

In a religious indoctrination, doubts in regard to the principal dogmas of the faith are discouraged. In some religions (like the Russian Orthodox faith) even discussion of small details of the rites are not permitted. Even in those religions wherein various interpretations of the sacred texts are common (like in Judaism, where the Talmud is an immense compendium of often conflicting teachings by various early Rabbinic authorities) the main tenets (such as the divine origin of the Torah which is considered the depository of everything that can be known about the world) are out of discussion's limits. Indeed, here is what one of the most revered Rabbinic authorities, the 12th century rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) wrote in his famous codex Mishneh Torah (Laws Regarding Idolatry, chapter 2, law 3): "Not only one is forbidden to follow idolatry even in his mind, but we are forewarned not to entertain any thought whatsoever which is capable of shattering a person's faith in one of the main principles of Torah... Thus our Sages said on this matter: Ď means heresy, means fornication." (The Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 12b). Of course this partial quote does not reflect Maimonides's views in all of their complexity and thus may create an unjustified impression of his dogmatic and complete rejection of all and every dissent in the matters of faith. However, even this relatively tolerant and wise religious thinker was obviously not willing to compromise in the "main principles" of his faith. Since the question of what constitutes "main principles" can be answered in many ways, including quite restrictive ones, the boundaries of the matter allowed for discussion and dissent can be (and actually often were) set right at one's elbow.

Faith does not presume the existence of an escape route from the faith's tenets. An apostate is despised and hated.

In a scientific indoctrination doubts are expected and an escape route is always available, while the possibility of change or even of a complete rejection of the existent concepts is always accepted, provided new evidence is discovered. There are mavericks and iconoclasts in science, but no apostates. The worst an iconoclast may expect from other scientists is an ironic condescension, but more often just a cautious reservation until the dissenting ideas have been tested by normal means of scientific exploration.

An apostate will never earn respect from his former co-religionists, and normally would be expelled from his former community, and in the extreme cases may be even killed.

An iconoclast may become a highly respected authority if his unusual ideas find confirmation in the normal process of scientific inquiry.

Science freely admits that knowledge is incomplete and imperfect. However, the established concepts of science more often than not have at least some truth in them, even if it is not perfect, and this truth is the same in New York, Kyoto, Jerusalem, and Canberra. Religions all insist that they possess the ultimate and perfect truth, which, strangely, is very different depending on where it is proclaimed to be such, in a mosque, church, synagogue or any of the multitude of various temples and shrines.

3. Are the magisteria indeed nonoverlapping?

The late biologist Stephen Jay Gould, known equally as a staunch defender of the evolution theory and as an iconoclast in its interpretation, published in 1997 an article [19] (reprinted in 2001 [20]) titled "Nonoverlapping Magisteria." The term magisterium, used by the Catholic Church to denote the teaching authority of the Church, stems from the Latin word "magister" meaning "teacher." Brilliantly written, as most of Gould's essays were, this article had gained a considerable popularity. Gould's main idea is that the two "magisteria," that of religion and that of science, have both legitimate areas of reign and have no reason to overlap and even less to engage in a war. Regarding the conflict between religion and science Gould wrote, "No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority -- and these magisteria do not overlap..."

It is easy to see that Gould's position has nothing in common with the attempts to reconcile the biblical story with scientific data which are practiced by scores of religious authors (see, for example [10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15]). The goal of the listed writers is to interpret non-literally the biblical story in order to show that its contradictions with science are illusory and disappear if only the Bible (mainly the book of Genesis) is properly understood in some allegorical way. Gould's thesis is principally different. He is not in the business of reconciling the story told in Genesis with the data from astronomy, physics, and biology. However, although Gould himself claimed to be an agnostic, his position, as expressed in the quoted article, seems to be close to that succinctly expressed by a quotation often attributed to Galileo, "Science tells us how the heavens go, and the Bible tells us how to go to the Heavens."

As befits a brilliant but contradictory man who combined one of the best defenses for the evolution theory with a rather strong attack on some of its commonly accepted parts, Gould wrote, just a few paragraphs later, "... in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deeper questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer -- and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult."

Of course, for a man of Gould's intellectual caliber, the controversy inherent in his views can be expected and accepted as a legitimate reflection of the complexity both of his mental make-up and of the problems he endeavored to face in his publications. However, when we try to form our own opinion regarding the often strained relationship between religion and science, we are entitled to note the controversy in question and to proceed to draw our own conclusion.

On a personal level everybody has to do his own thinking to determine an attitude to the religion vs science dilemma. Many scientists manage successfully to keep the faith they grew up with and convert into methodological naturalists (which may be better defined as "operational agnostics" [21]) at the moment they step into their labs. However, for this discourse, what counts is not how individual scientists cope with the discrepancies between their science and their faiths. My goal is to try to determine what the objective stand of religion from the standpoint of science is and vice versa.

Such an approach forces us to conclude that Gould's proclamation of a peaceful co-existence of the two nonoverlapping magisteria is more what is desired than what is real. In reality, regardless of how well individual scientists reconcile their faith (if they adhere to one) with science, objectively religious faiths and science do overlap in a number of areas which both endeavor to elucidate, and are plainly incompatible in many of those areas wherein they overlap.

There are numerous books, articles, and web postings, written by Christians, Jews, Moslems and representatives of other religions wherein their authors do their best to prove that the religious revelations in the Torah, or in the New Testament, or in the Quran, can and must be interpreted in a way showing their compatibility with the data of modern science (see, for example, the already mentioned books [4, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15] by the "Old Earth Creationists"). Another category of such publications includes books and papers which admit the discrepancy between scientific data and religious beliefs and assert the superiority of the religious dogma over science (for example, the literary production of the "Young Earth Creationists" [22, 23, 24]).

While the latter category can be justifiably characterized as obscurantist, with an often ridiculous denial of incontrovertible evidence, the very starting point of those obscurantists, namely the admission that the scientific data are incompatible with this or that religious dogma, is certainly much more credible than the mental acrobatics by religious apologists of non-literalist type [11, 12, 13, 14, 15] , which is often utilized to allegedly prove the harmony between the Bible and science.

Regretfully for those who wish to believe the thesis about nonoverlapping magisteria, the two magisteria do not simply overlap, they cannot be plausibly reconciled because of the incompatibility of their attitudes to reality and of their methods of searching for truth, and because of their reliance on different criteria for the veracity of argumentation.

Science is based on evidence. It says, credo quia evidentia.

Religion is based on faith. In extreme cases it says, essentially, credo quia absurdum.

Science is science and faith is faith, "and never the twain shall meet" [25].

4. The cousins of religion -- crank science, psychics, and superstitions

Many religions can be viewed as siblings, even when they are adversarial. They all have in common the absence of factual evidence, and therefore they all offer different, but always equally arbitrary, and often quite fantastic pictures of reality. They also have many cousins, although quite often religions would vigorously deny being in any sanguineous relations with those cousins. Despite such denials, religions and their cousins have many features in common.

Among the cousins of religions are various kinds of beliefs which are based on the same appeal to gullibility as religions are, and which are often not any less popular than religions. These include astrology, ESP, spiritualism, geomancy, "ufology," "pyramidology," spiritual healing, and many other forms of superstitions, sometimes disguised as pseudo-science and in other cases being frankly counter-scientific.

In this country, which on the one hand is leading the world in medicine, computer science, nanotechnology, and which has the largest number of Nobel laureates in the world, on the other hand, the most popular TV talk show host regularly interviews charlatans claiming, to the delight of gullible fools, that they communicate with dead. Most big newspapers regularly print astrological charts and predictions. The popularity of all these completely unsubstantiated beliefs is due to some of the same factors which are responsible for the power of survival of religions. Too many people, either because of insufficient education or because of the improper education, readily fall for the bait of comforting beliefs and superstitions [26].

If religious people, as seems to be the case, are often less prone to share the listed superstitions, it is because of the same reasons they reject religions other than their own. Essentially, the popularity of superstitions and crank sciences is based on the same grounds as the popularity of religions.

Like religions, their cousins are not supported by evidence. They play up to people's eagerness to believe in miracles. Like religions, they appeal to authority and often become the domain of unscrupulous manipulators who shamelessly exploit the crowd's gullibility for monetary gain.

In a slightly different category belongs crank science. Its purveyors are often honestly dedicated to certain ideas which in their minds constitute great discoveries but which are not recognized by the mainstream science, either, as they believe, because of envy or because of the closemindedness of other scientists. There are among crank scientists quite talented people, who, for various psychological reasons, go astray from the proven path of painstaking scientific investigation and, conscious of their own "genius" and of greatness of their supposed breakthroughs, persist in pursuing the acknowledgment of their grandiose claims by the scientific community.

A very fine description of crank science was given by the renowned essayist Martin Gardner, who wrote in his popular book [27] first published some fifty years ago, that among the typical features of cranks is "a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined." Gardner further wrote that a crank does not have to be a dunderhead. In some cases an obvious crank may nevertheless be quite "capable of developing incredibly complex theories. He will be able to defend them in books of vast erudition, with profound observations, and often liberal portions of sound science. His rhetoric may be enormously persuasive. All the parts of his world usually fit together beautifully, like a jig-saw puzzle. It is impossible to get the best of him in any type of argument. He has anticipated all your objections. He counters them with unexpected answers of great ingenuity."

The crank science may sometimes be harmless, invoking only smiles of mainstream scientists. Examples of such are well known. Among them are the preposterous "theories" by Velikovski [28], the alleged discovery of cold fusion [29], or a theory [30] suggesting that elementary particles, such as electrons, possess consciousness. In other cases (for example [31, 32, 33]), though, crank science, supported by the eloquent propaganda of its able purveyors, may become a distracting nuisance for scientists and because of that even impede the progress of real science. Its similarity with religions and superstitions is in that it is not based on evidence like genuine science but rather on either illusion, erroneously interpreted data, or on some seemingly logical but actually arbitrary idea born in the mind of its author.

If crank science is coupled with a political or religious agenda, it may turn into a serious menace to science and society at large.

Probably the most infamous example of crank science coupled with a political agenda was Marxism-Leninism. It has all the deceptive appearance of science, thus having captured the imagination of whole generations of "intellectuals" and the result was the horrifying social experiment in which tens of millions of innocent men and women played the role of guinea pigs mercilessly sacrificed for the allegedly noble goals of equal justice for all.

Here is an example on a much smaller scale, which nevertheless is egregiously repugnant in its own right. In the early sixties of the last century, a certain X, an instructor of physics in one of the provincial Russian universities, came up with a supposedly revolutionary theory in optics, suggesting that the well known phenomenon of total internal reflection is actually non-existent and the explanation of that effect found in all textbooks on physics is erroneous. He sent articles describing his novel theory to scientific journals, but all of them rejected X's submission. The reason for rejection was quite simple. First, the commonly accepted theory which X criticized and which is found in textbooks is based on the ray model of light (i.e. is within the framework of the so-called geometric optics) and its imprecision, allegedly discovered by X, was long known in physics. Second, a more precise model, based on Maxwell's theory of electromagnetic waves, was developed already in the 19th century (of which X was obviously unaware). It explained those subtle features of the effect which are ignored in the simplified ray model. X's model which seemed to be quite convoluted and ostensibly supported by sophisticated arguments was actually far inferior to Maxwell's theory. X's denial of the very existence of the total internal reflection was contrary to facts, since this allegedly non-existent effect finds wide use in optical technology (for example in light guides, periscopes etc.). In other words, this was a typical example of crank science. X tried to win recognition by sending type-written copies of his article to as many physics departments in the USSR as his supply of postal stamps allowed. None responded. Finally, X, desperate for recognition, arrived in the Institute of Optics of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, carrying a cardboard tube like those used for rolled-up architectural drawings. He requested an audience with the institute's director. When in director's office, X pulled out of his tube a shotgun with a sawed-off barrel and shot to death the professor who had the misfortune to serve as the director of the Institute of Optics.

Of course, a well-known example of crank science which had tragic consequences was Lysenko's pseudo-biology, imposed on the country's biologists by decree of the ruling in the USSR communist party.

Now we are witnesses to one more crank science attempting to win place under the sun by all means, including both political maneuvers and masquerading as genuine science. It has adopted the deceptive name of the Intelligent Design theory [31, 32, 33, 34, 36, 37] supposedly disconnected from any religious motivations. That it is a crank science becomes rather clear when we can't find in the continual stream of the publications by the ID practitioners any evidence in favor of their assertions, but only specious argumentation, sometimes quite ingenious [32, 33, 34, 35], and in other cases rather primitive [31, 36, 37].

If crank science is coupled with dilettantism, it is an easy target for debunking, but still, if delivered with sufficient eloquence (as in [37]), it may appeal to many a unsophisticated layman, especially if it is in tune with the latter's religious sentiment. The laymen elect Boards of Education. This may result in replacing genuine science in the school curricula with pseudo-science. Such a replacement, even partial and limited to a few localities, may become detrimental to the development of real science by curtailing the supply of scientists in the forthcoming generations.

5. "Intelligent Design" as a "Z-factor"

In this section I will discuss one rather vivid example of crank science which is supported by considerable financial resources, is trying very hard to pass for genuine science and is fighting tooth and nail to be taught in our schools. Of course I mean the already mentioned Intelligent Design movement, whose most active detachments call themselves a Wedge [38]. This question has political aspects which I will not touch. In accordance with the overall theme of this essay, I will concentrate only on the methods of studying reality suggested and applied by the Intelligent Design theorists, and first of all by the guru of that movement, mathematician, philosopher and theologian William Dembski. Dembski's literary output was discussed in detail in several articles (for example in [39, 40]). I will not repeat here that critique but will instead discuss one specific element of Dembski's discourse which is relevant to the topic of this article.

Let us turn to Dembski's recently published book [32]. On pages 86-92 Dembski discusses in detail what in his parlance is referred to as "Z-factors." He defines the latter (page 87) as "... some entity, process or stuff outside the known universe" which "...purports to solve some problem of general interest and importance..." He chooses for discussion four such "Z-factors," which are "the bubble universes of Alan Guth's inflationary cosmology, the many worlds of Hugh Everett's interpretation of quantum mechanics, the self-reproducing black holes of Lee Smolin's cosmological natural selection, and the possible worlds of David Lewis's extreme modal realist metaphysics." (These four "Z-factors" are described in [41, 42, 43, 44].)

The utilization of "Z-factors," like those listed above, constitutes, in Dembski's view, "inflationary fallacy." The latter term means, in Dembski's usage, inflation of probabilistic resources aimed at supporting the attribution of events to chance in those cases when the actually available probabilistic resources are insufficient for such an attribution. In this article I am not interested in analyzing either Dembski's concept of inflationary fallacy or his choice of the examples of "Z-factors" (although the reasonableness of placing theories of physicists Guth, Smolin and Everett in the same hat with the purely philosophical exercise of Lewis could be disputed). Nor have I an intention of defending the above theories which, as I agree with Dembski, albeit ingenious, are so far speculative. I am interested however in some of the arguments Dembski suggests against the "inflationary fallacy."

The four "Z-factors" reviewed by Dembski, have, in his view, a certain explanatory power. He writes, "Each of the four Z-factors considered here possesses explanatory power in the sense that each explains certain relevant data and thereby solves some problem of general interest and importance" (page 90). However, continues Dembski, possessing explanatory power is not sufficient for accepting a theory. What is also necessary is independent evidence in favor of the theory in question. He writes, "Independent evidence is by definition evidence that helps establish a claim apart from any appeal to the claim's explanatory power. The demand for independent evidence is neither frivolous not tendentious. Instead, it is a necessary constraint on theory construction so that theory construction does not degenerate into total free-play of the mind."

Dembski discusses as an example a "gnome theory of friction." Such a "theory" suggests that friction is caused by tiny creatures which resist the motion of bodies over a rough surface. He writes, "Suitably formulated, the gnome theory of friction can explain how objects move across surfaces just as accurately as current physical theories. So, why do we not take the gnome theory of friction seriously? One reason.... is the absence of independent evidence for gnomes."

Disregarding Dembski's dubious assertion that the gnome theory can explain friction as well as current physical theories (whose discussion would be beyond the topic of this article but which could be strongly disputed), it seems easy to agree with Dembski that a theory, to be accepted by virtue of reason, is supposed to provide explanatory power (otherwise it is hardly useful) and to be supported by independent evidence (otherwise it would "degenerate into total free-play of the mind").

So, why not apply these two criteria -- explanatory power and independent evidence - first to the Intelligent Design theory energetically promoted by Dembski and his colleagues in the Intelligent Design movement, and, second, to religions (for one of which Dembski is a fervent advocate [45]) if the latter are to be judged for their ability to compete with science in explaining the world?

The Intelligent Design theory claims that it is possible to establish design by some rational procedure whose principal features are encapsulated in a scheme Dembski calls the Explanatory Filter (EF). The detailed analysis of EF has been given elsewhere (for example, in [39, 40, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52]). At this time I am interested only in testing whether the ID theory, one of whose elements is EF, meets the two criteria Dembski suggested -- explanatory power and independent evidence.

It has been stated more than once [47, 48, 49] that Dembski's method is essentially eliminative. Design is inferred if all explanations other than design (in Dembski's scheme they are either regularity or chance) have been eliminated. However this is not what is of interest for this discourse. Design inference is made, after all, according to Dembski, if the event in question, first, has a very small probability (which Dembski views as tantamount to large complexity) and second, displays specification [34]. Let us accept at this point that the small probability and specification can somehow be determined regardless of the elimination of regularity and chance (although this approach has serious problems discussed elsewhere [39, 40, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52]).

Does Intelligent Design theory provide explanatory power? To do so, it should have provided some information about the details of design, and to this end about the nature of the designer. However, the ID theory deliberately avoids the answers to this question. The ID advocates insist (for example, in [34]) that their theory is not tied to any concept of a designer but just provides means to distinguish between chance, regularity, and design as the causal antecedents of the event in question.

It seems that in the ID theory the alleged designer is just one more "Z-factor," i.e. that the ID theory is characterized by the same "inflationary fallacy" Dembski so decisively rejected in his four examples we discussed earlier. The difference, which is though not in Dembski's favor, is that in the examples discussed earlier Guth, Smolin, and Everett at least suggested ideas in regard to the features, properties and behavior of their "Z-factors," while in the ID theory the attributes of "Z-factor" are deliberately left beyond consideration. Moreover, certain ideas have been suggested for a possible indirect empirical tests of some of the listed Z-factors, while nothing even close to that can be found in the opuses of the ID advocates.

Obviously, in such a rendition the ID theory does not seem to have any explanatory power. To simply state that an event is due to intelligent design is not to explain anything, since essentially the term designer has no defined meaning in that theory and the modes of the designer's activities remain mysterious and unexplained. Hence, while Dembski has stated the necessity of explanatory power in any theory which has any usefulness, he strangely forgets about that requirement when turning to his own favored theory.

Trying to deflect the criticism in regard to their refusal to discuss the nature of the alleged designer, ID advocates often suggest examples wherein a design inference is made despite the lack of knowledge about the designer. For example, Dembski asks, is the design inference legitimate in the case of Stonehenge? We all agree that it is. However, says Dembski, nothing is known about the designer in that case either. It is amazing that Dembski, so highly acclaimed for his "formidable intellect" [53] does not see the fallacy of his example. In the case of Stonehenge and other similar cases, the inference is certainly to a well known type of a designer, a human one. We attribute the creation of the Stonehenge to a human designer precisely because we know so much about the features of a human design and see those features in the object observed.

In another example [54] Dembski refers to Ratzsch [46]. The latter suggests imagining that an expedition to some planet of the Solar system finds there a bulldozer standing in a field. Obviously we will conclude that it was designed rather than happened to exist by sheer chance. However, insists Dembski, our inference to a designer is made in this case without any knowledge about who the designer was and what his characteristics could be. So why, asks Dembski, cannot the same attitude be applied to a disembodied designer?

Again, the fallacy of such an argument has strangely escaped Dembski's mind. If we see a bulldozer on an alien planet, we certainly would not fail to notice that this object has features testifying to certain characteristics of its supposed designer and to the possible use for which it was designed. The bulldozer would have tracks evidently designed for motion, a seat evidently designed to accommodate a creature anatomically similar to earthly humans, pedals evidently designed for feet similar to those of earthly humans, and many other features providing good ideas as to what kind of a designer must be responsible for designing the observed object and what it was designed for. In Ratzsch's terms [46], a bulldozer displays an obvious artifactuality, and in Shanks and Joplin's terms [55, 56] it is antecedently recognizable as an artifact. It is because we know so much about both bulldozers and the humans who design them that we would infer design if a bulldozer were found on Mars. Moreover, the design inference in the case of that bulldozer will be made without any relation to Dembski's acclaimed Explanatory Filter which is utterly useless for the design inference in the discussed hypothetical case. (Of course, the bulldozer example is irrelevant for many other reasons as well. It is not a living organism which can reproduce, develop, etc. The bulldozer, however, is actually used by Dembski in his example as a model of a living organism, because the question of design inference becomes controversial only with respect to biological entities. When we see a tractor or a poem, there is no controversy; they are unequivocally attributed to design because of our extensive ken in regard to such objects and to the human "designers" creating them).

Parents do not design their offspring. A child is not designed by parents but inherits a mix of genes from both sides. A tractor is definitely designed by an engineer and built by laborers according to the engineer's design. Dembski and his colleagues seem not to see the obvious difference between these cases.

Unlike with tractors or poems, there is nothing known either about the alleged disembodied designer of the ID theory or about what his creations should look like. Therefore a reference to such a designer lacks any explanatory power.

Then, according to Dembski, an even more important requirement for a theory to be accepted is independent evidence supporting that theory. It is hard not to agree with this thesis. Strangely, Dembski and his colleagues in the ID enterprise forget about the criterion of independent evidence as soon as they turn to their own theories. Where is the independent evidence supporting the ID theory? There seems to be none. The multiple publications of the ID advocates almost exclusively belong in philosophy wherein often the "free-play of the mind" is the rule rather than exception. (I have no intention though of disparaging philosophy as a whole, in particular because I myself have a penchant for philosophizing, and more so because sometimes philosophers happen to understand science better than some scientists). Despite substantial financial resources, the advocates of ID have so far failed to come up with a real scientific research program indulging instead in philosophical discourses and political maneuvering [38].

The absence of explanatory power and of independent evidence, according to Dembski's own criteria, signify the degeneration of the ID theory into a "total free-play of the mind," which Dembski seems to disapprove in relation to all theories except for his own and his cohorts' favored theory.

If superstitions and pseudo-sciences like astrology or ESP can be viewed as cousins of religions by virtue of their using similar appeal to authority (and often using plain deception as well), theories like Intelligent Design can be referred to as descendants of religion. As becomes clear when perusing the program statements or theological tracts by "ID theorists" like Dembski [45] or Johnson [36], their zeal in pushing the ID theory stems from their religious sentiments.

The ID theory inherits from its religious ancestors the selective treatment of facts wherein everything that seems to provide even a semblance of an argument in favor of ID, is hailed as its proof, while everything that does not fit the expectations of the ID promoters is either ignored (if handled by amateurs like Johnson [37] or Heeren [14]) or creatively misinterpreted (when handled by more sophisticated ID advocates like Dembski [32], Behe [35], or Wells [33]).

Let us discuss Dembski's criteria of explanatory power and independent evidence in relation to religions. Do religions provide explanatory power and independent evidence? To answer this question, note that Dembski views explanatory power as a category independent of evidence. Indeed, the "gnome theory of friction," in his view, is capable of providing explanatory power despite the lack of evidence for the existence of gnomes. It can be argued though that explanatory power without evidence is meaningless. In fact, the "gnome theory of friction" could not plausibly explain friction because of the absence of evidence for the gnomes' existence. It would remain pure speculation having no real explanatory power. The latter is meaningful only if it is based on facts and evidence. To say that friction is caused by gnomes is not to explain anything because we have no knowledge about what kind of a behavior those postulated gnomes may have. In fact, a theory can have a plausible explanatory power only if it is also supported by evidence. Dembski's separation of explanatory power from evidence is artificial; it is just another version of the "free-play of the mind" he so categorically condemned in the same pages of his book [32].

However, for the sake of discussion, let us provisionally accept Dembski's separation of explanatory power from evidence.

If we accept the dubious scheme of two separate, non-interfering categories of explanatory power and independent evidence (and only if we accept such a premise) we will be able to state that many religions possess, conditionally, certain explanatory power (the condition being the acceptance of the above premise).

However, even if we conditionally agree that religions have explanatory power, the verifiable independent evidence in their favor is non-existent. Therefore, by Dembski's own criteria, even having accepted his dubious separation of explanatory power from evidence, religions cannot be trusted because of the lack of evidence for their tenets.

Religions do not appeal to evidence, they appeal to the human gullibility and to the strong human desire to believe in miracles. They fulfill the emotional needs of the mortal man, who faces the inevitable darkness of death, is puzzled by the complexity of the world, and desperately wants to find meaning in his existence. These all are serious and respectable reasons. They deserve analysis and discussion. They assure religions' enormous power of survival. They belong in philosophy and theology. Alas, they are beyond the tools of science.

Neither religion nor science can answer many vexing questions regarding the intrinsic essence of the world we live in, but science does not pretend to know more than it is capable of discovering through observation, experimentation and interpretation, based on facts and reason. Religions, on the other hand, claim to know the ultimate truth, based on supposed revelations via channels unreachable through scientific methods.

With all the limitations of science, its enormous achievements are beyond dispute. These achievements constitute the foundation for the trust in science.

There is only one science, which freely admits its imperfection, but nevertheless obviously works. There are many thousands of different "ultimate truths" claimed by various religions. This mere fact makes it doubtful that religious dogma may be trusted even to such the limited extent which would constitute just a small fraction of the level of trust in science.

6. Acknowledgements

My heartfelt thanks to Alexander Eterman, Alec Gindis, Eliezer Reinstein, Ephraim Rubin, Niall Shanks, and Matt Young, for valuable comments regarding the initial draft of this article, which helped to sharpen my argument, corrected some errors, and advised how to improve it.

7. References and notes

[1] Mark Perakh, (online) Science In the Eyes Of a Scientist, also at Mark Perakh's homepage, accessed on August 11, 2002.

[2] This maxim is attributed to Tertullian, in his De Carne Christi. (See The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations, G & C Merriam Company, Springfield, MA, 1976).

[3] Grant R. Jeffrey, The Signature Of God, Frontier Publishing, Toronto, Canada, 1996.

[4] Hugh Ross, The Genesis Question. Scientific Advances and the Accuracy of Genesis, NAV Press, Colorado Springs, CO, 1998. There are number of other books by the same writer on the same subject.

[5] Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), The Guide for the Perplexed, Roth, 1948.

[6] Yehuda Halevi, The Book of the Khazars, ed. by I, Heineman, 1947.

[7] Lawrence Kelemen, Permission to Receive. Four Rational Approaches To the Torahís Divine Origin, Targum/Feldheim Publishers, Southfield, MI, 1996.

[8] Dovid Gottlieb, Living Up To the Truth, self-published in Jerusalem in 1999; the full text of the 3rd revised edition is available at the Ohr Somayach site (accessed on August 11, 2002).

[9] Al-Ghazali, Tahafut al-falasifah. (1095) Translated by S.A.Kamali. Pakistan Philosophical Congress, Lahore, Pakistan, 1963.

[10] Harun Yahya (aka Adnan Oktar). An Invitation To the Truth (online). Accessed on August 15, 2002.

[11] Gerald L. Schroeder, Genesis and the Big Bang. The Discovery of Harmony Between Modern Science and the Bible, Bantam Books, New York, 1990.
There are two more books by the same writer, The Science of God, The Free Press, New York, 1997, and The Hidden Face of God, The Free Press, New York, 2001.

[12] Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning. Biblical Creation and Science, KTAV Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1990.

[13] Don Stoner, A New Look at the Old Earth, Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon, 1997 (eighth edition).

[14] Fred Heeren, Show Me God. What the Message from Space Is Telling Us About God, Day Star Publications, Wheeling, Ill, 2000.

[15] Morris Engelson, The Heavenly Time Machine. Essays on Science and Torah, Joint Management Strategy, Portland, Oregon, 2001.

[16] It is impossible to precisely count the existing religions even if only because the term religion can be interpreted in various ways. Systems of beliefs or variations of a worldview which could be counted as religions under one interpretation of that term, may be viewed as not meeting the definition of religion under another interpretation. Although no definition of the term religion is offered in this paper, it is meant here in a broad sense, as any system of beliefs or any systematic conceptual system of a worldview which is based on imagination, supposed revelations from supernatural sources, or on legendary information received from tradition, rather than on a factual foundation, i.e. on observation and experimentation followed by a logical interpretation.

[17] Kenneth. M. Setton (editor). A History of Crusades, vols. 1-5, Cambridge, 1951-54, 1990.

[18] John Walker Lindh, an American-born Taliban fighter, captured by the US troops in 2001 in Afghanistan. A son of Christian parents in California, at the age of 16, Lindh converted to Islam.

[19] Stephen Jay Gould, Nonoverlapping Magisteria, Natural History, March 1997.

[20] Stephen Jay Gould, Nonoverlapping Magisteria, reprinted from [11], in coll. Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, ed. by Robert T. Pennock, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001, p.737.

[21] The expression "operational agnosticism" has been proposed by Steve Reuland in a message posted on the talkdesign.org forum. I also benefited from a variety of Steve's (as well as of other forum members) messages on the same forum which triggered a number of ideas developed in this article.

[22] Henry Morris and Duane Gish, The Battle of Creation, Creation-Life, San Diego, CA, 1976.

[23] Henry Morris and John Morris, Science, Scripture, and the Young Earth, Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, CA, 1989.

[24] Henry Morris, Duane Gish and George Hillestad, Creation: Acts, Facts, Impacts, Creation-Life, San Diego, CA, 1974.

[25] The last portion of that sentence is a part of the following line from Rudyard Kiplingís The Ballade of East and West: "O, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet..." (see, for example, The Works of Rudyard Kipling, Blackís Readers Service, Roslyn, NY, not dated).

[26] Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things. Pseudoscience, Superstition and Other Confusions of Our Time, W. H. Freeman & Co., 1998.

[27] Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Dover Publications, 1957 (originally the book was published by G.P. Putnamís Sons in 1952 under the title In the Name of Science).

[28] Immanuel Velikovski. Worlds In Collision, New York, Macmillan, 1950.

[29] Alan Cromer, Uncommon Sense. The Heretical Nature of Science, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993. On pages 160-166, a rather detailed discussion of the alleged discovery of "cold fusion" is discussed.

[30] Raoul Nakhmanson, Informational Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (online). The author of this article seems to have decent scientific credentials; however, his argument sounds like a parody, wherein he seriously considers the possibility that elementary particles possess consciousness. In his discourse, heavy on scientific jargon, displaying a reasonable erudition in physics and information theory, and offering sometimes ingenious arguments, he seems to intentionally meet all the characteristics of crank science, as described by Gardner (see reference 27).

[31] Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin On Trial, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill, 1993.

[32] William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch. Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Inc, Lanham, Maryland, 2002.

[33] Jonathan Wells, Icons Of Evolution: Science Or Myth. Why Much We Teach About Evolution Is Wrong. Regner Publishing, distributed by National Book Network, Lanham, Maryland, 2000.

[34] William A. Dembski, The Design Inference. Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1998, 1999.

[35] Michael J. Behe, Darwinís Black Box, Simon and Shuster, New York, 1996.

[36] Phillip E. Johnson, The Wedge of Truth. Splitting the Foundation of Naturalism, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill, 2000.

[37] Phillip E. Johnson, Sinking the Battleship, in collection Mere Creation, ed. W. A. Dembski, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill, 1998.

[38] Barbara Forrest, The Wedge At Work: How Intelligent Design Creationism Is Wedging Its Way into the Cultural and Academic Mainstream, in collection Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, ed. Robert T. Pennock, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001.

[39] Mark Perakh, A Consistent Inconsistency (online), also at Mark Perakh's homepage, accessed on August 11, 2002.

[40] Mark Perakh (online) A Free Lunch In a Mousetrap, also at Mark Perakh's homepage, accessed on August 11, 2002.

[41] Alan Guth, The Inflationary Universe: The Quest For a New Theory of Cosmic Origins, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1997.

[42] Lee Smolin, The Life Of the Cosmos, Oxford University Press, Oxford, GB, 1997.

[43] Hugh Everett III, "Relative State" Formulation of Quantum Mechanics, Reviews of Modern Physics, v. 29, p. 454-462, 1957.

[44] David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds, Basil Blackwell publishers, Oxford, 1986 (cited in reference 32; I have not read this material and have not checked the reference).

[45] William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design. The Bridge Between Science and Theology, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill, 1999.

[46] Del Ratzsch, Nature, Design and Science, State University of New York Press, New York, 2001.

[47] Richard Wein, [online], accessed on November 22, 2001.

[48] Richard Wein, [online], accessed on April 24, 2002. See also Not a Free Lunch But a Box of Chocolates.

[49] John S. Wilkins and Wesley R. Elsberry, The Advantages of Theft over Toil: The Design Inference and Arguing from Ignorance, Biology and Philosophy, 16 (2001): 711.

[50] Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit, Information Theory, Evolutionary Computation, and Dembskiís "Complex Specified Information." A preprint made available through a private communication.

[51] Branden Fitelson, Christopher Stephens and Elliott Sober, How Not To Detect Design -- Critical Notice: William A. Dembski, The Design Inference, Philosophy of Science, 66, (1999): 472. Reprinted in the collection Intelligent Design Creationism And Its Critics, ed. Robert T. Pennock, the MIT Press, 2001, p. 597.

[52] Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000.

[53] Andrew Ruys, a blurb in W. Dembskiís No Free Lunch (see reference 32).

[54] William A. Dembski, If Only Darwinists Scrutinized Their Own Work as Closely: A Response to "Erik.", (online).

[55] Niall Shanks and Karl H. Joplin, Redundant Complexity: A Critical Analysis of Intelligent Design in Biochemistry. Philosophy of Science, 66 (2) (June 1999): 268

[56] Niall Shanks and Karl H. Joplin, Of Mousetraps and Men: Behe on Biochemistry.


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