Saturday, 11 October 2014

Confounding factors in evaluating intelligent design

Confounding factors in evaluating intelligent design

Opponents of the intelligent design hypothesis generally damn it as pseudoscience and religion in disguise and reject it without considering it. They have used the law in Britain and America to prevent it even being discussed in schools. ID is viciously misrepresented, attacked and lampooned in the main stream media. We will consider this approach later but today I want to consider the issue of confounding factors.

confounding factors exist everywhere

Confound: to perplex, baffle, or confuse (Oxford reference dictionary). every scientist who wishes to do a decent bit of research that his peers will respect has to take confounding factors into account. for example, if research is being done to find out whether alcohol taken in moderation has a net positive or negative effect on health, you would want to make sure that the research was not being funded or having its terms of reference set by the alcohol industry. Or for that matter by Alcoholics Anonymous. They would bring their bias to the table which would influence the findings and invalidate their conclusions. That seems obvious, and simple to achieve, but powerful vested interests have ways of exerting influence beyond direct funding or bribery. You would have to carefully vet any research team to avoid bias.

Jury vetting acknowledges the reality of everyday bias

in criminal trials, juries are vetted to minimise bias. In medical trials, both the participants and the researchers have to be 'blinded' to avoid open or subliminal bias. If you were doing research to see who was the greatest football team in the world, it would be no use doing a survey of the opinions of Manchester United supporters. I could multiply examples, the point is that the issue of confounding factors in any sort of scientific research is universally recognised. Confounding factors can completely invalidate research findings and cause a paper or finding to be rejected.

In asking the question 'is intelligent design religion?' we need to first define the terms intelligent design and religion, then set the terms of the enquiry i.e. how are we going to investigate this question. One of the things we need to do is identify confounding factors.

If we were designed and created, then we are not autonomous

I am not going to attempt to make a full list of confounding factors this post, but the first one is very obvious. If the intelligent design hypothesis can be shown to have considerably better explanatory power than evolution, or even to falsify evolution, then we would have evidence pointing to a Designer of unimaginably greater wisdom and power than ourselves. And that Designer might be God. And a lot of people REALLY don't want there to be a God, because, to put it simply, a Deity big enough to have created us would have rights over us and so bang goes our autonomy.
People will do almost anything to gain or retain their autonomy. Autonomy is basically being able to do whatever you want.

philosophical assumption of materialism.

The second confounding factor is the philosophical assumption of materialism. This is a background assumption so basic it is rarely stated, let alone questioned, but it is a philosophical assumption that we need to recognise. Assuming materialism works fine for metallurgy, hydraulics, ballistics, agriculture and medicine. No disagreement. But as has often been said, you cannot use nature to investigate the question of whether there is anything beyond nature. A God who could be investigated in a laboratory would not be a God, it is childish for materialists to say 'Show me god in a test tube or telescope and then I'll believe' (*). I need again to repeat that ID is not about proving that there is a God, let alone the Judaeo Christian Deity, but about studying living things from a design perspective based on known scientific observations, and attempting to falsify evolution using the methodology of science.

The philosophical assumption of materialism tends to rule out intelligent design as not worth investigating. But this is illogical, since ID does not identify a Designer but studies features of design and attempts to falsify molecules to man evolution by using arguments from biology and mathematics. If these arguments can be shown to fail, that is another matter. But ruling ID out of court a priori cannot answer the question, it merely states that the question is out of order and may not be put.
More about this later.

So, a fixed determination that there MUST NOT be a Designer and a philosophical determination that there cannot, must not, is not, anything beyond nature are at least potentially a confounding factor which may prevent open and free investigation. We should by now asking ourselves whether it is free thinking, honest scepticism, logical or good science to rule out one of only 2 possibilities before starting an investigation.

(*) This is no straw man caricature. Yuri Gagarin commented from the first Soviet manned space flight that he couldn't see God anywhere. Modern atheist Eugenie Scott has demanded the invention of a 'theometer' to detect God.

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