When to go Materialist, When to go Design

from Uncommon Descent

Denyse recently linked to a presentation by Scott Minnich regarding the bacterial flagellum.  Minnich is probably among the dozen or so leading experts in the world on the bacterial flagellum.  Much of the information in his presentation will be familiar to followers of the issues, but a few points bear further examination.

First a couple of bench-science items that jumped out at me:

Minnich and his team discovered that DNA has a regulatory function in the form of a temperature switch.  Let me be clear, it is not that DNA codes for some molecular machine that is a temperature switch.  The DNA itself is the switch.  In simple terms, the coding portion that codes for a particular protein is bounded by stretches of DNA that are arranged in such a way that they do not permit transcription.  However, when the temperature reaches 37 degrees, those DNA stretches change their configuration and permit the coding section to be transcribed and the protein to be produced within the cell.

Very cool! DNA as actual physical/chemical switches… and not just the ‘software’ that codes a switch.

Don’t ask how this is supposed to create itself.

Despite the empirical evidence Minnich and his team presented for this mechanism, it was initially dismissed by the healthcare community because it didn’t line up with the normal dogma: namely, that DNA just codes for stuff, the old “DNA makes RNA”.  The evidence has now accumulated to the point of vindicating Minnich’s early research and a greater understanding of one of the controls for bacterial activity is now more widely accepted, thanks to Minnich’s failure to bow to the traditional evolutionary dogma and thanks to his persistence in the face of institutional and intellectual inertia.

Christians don’t only need to do better science, just to get a hearing: they need to be tenacious and stubborn, as there’s a lot of dead inertia out there.

AND they should still be optimistic and good-spirited, so their souls don’t get cranky and bitter in the long fight to a better land. What’s the use of the struggle, if you cannot enjoy the victory?

Much of today’s Establishment strength will wash away with the end of the welfare state and government funding; more of it will end with the continual decline of the gatekeepers.

(The latter bit is happening as we speak…)

But even after these benefits, it’s going to be hard slogging. The work must actually be done, for the liars to be stripped of legitimacy.

But one more good point for Christians: obedient believers have children, and secularists mainly don’t. Raise your children yourself, homeschool them — and don’t let them be kidnapped by perverts with government badges — and things will work out.

How many times have we seen this before?  Science professionals refusing to consider evidence that contradicts their current dogma.  In his presentation Minnich also mentioned in passing that evolutionary theory is essentially useless to the work he is doing.  “We are doing reverse engineering,” he notes.

THAT is what we ought to be doing – in science, in law, and in many other fields.

God has laid down the pattern, but it takes work and applied intelligence and commitment (and often a decade or three) to

  1. uncover the pattern, and
  2. put it to good work.

That is just part of the Dominion Mandate. But if Jesus Christ Himself has to learn obedience through suffering (Hebrew 5:8), even though He was sinless, then we definitely need to bring our own crosses to the place of victory — just as He did.

FIRST serve, THEN rule.

One of the questions asked by a student was essentially as follows:

“Even though Darwinism doesn’t explain something like the bacterial flagellum, shouldn’t we keep looking for a materialistic explanation, rather than jumping to a conclusion of design just because we don’t have a materialistic explanation?”


The Philosophical Issues

Problem #1: Materialism is Preferable

The student’s question assumes that a materialistic explanation is preferable, before even looking at the evidence.  If we have competing explanations, we should weigh them, see which one explains the evidence better, which one is more consistent with our understanding of how the world works, and then we choose the better explanation.  That is how we search for truth.  We don’t just assume that a materialist explanation has some inherent value or is inherently preferable over a non-materialistic explanation.

But what about the great success of materialist explanations in accounting for natural phenomena?  Sure.  But why were those explanations accepted in particular cases?  Because they explained the evidence better than other competing explanations and because they were more consistent with our understanding of how the world works.  Not because they were materialistic.

Finally, the obvious is spelled out!

Furthermore, the “success” of materialist explanations for things in biology like the bacterial flagellum has not been great.  It has been terrible.  As in non-existent.  We don’t need to defer to materialistic explanations in this arena just because they have been good at explaining other natural phenomena.  Such an approach commits a category mistake.

So the focus needs to be on weighing and examining the competing explanations, just as Darwin said in The Origin.

Some people, unfortunately, who recognize the lack of a good materialist explanation will say, “Well, we should reserve judgment about inferring which explanation is better, because we might find a materialist explanation.”  In other words, they are really saying that even though there is not a good materialist explanation, they are going to withhold judgment about which explanation is preferable.  And they are going to withhold judgment until a materialist explanation is found, at which point they will choose the materialistic explanation.

That isn’t science.  That isn’t an objective search for truth.  That is philosophy.  It essentially says, I will only accept a materialistic explanation, even though there isn’t a good materialistic explanation, and even though there is a competing non-materialistic explanation that is preferable to any materialistic explanation we currently have. *

Welcome to the Establishment:
“It isn’t about ‘truth’, whatever that is supposed to be. It’s about the Narrative.”

Problem #2: Distinction between function and origin

We are all seeking a natural explanation, in the sense that we expect to find, within the organism, systems and DNA and structures and switches and feedbacks that, within the parameters of physics and chemistry, will explain how the organism functions on an ongoing basis, how the flagellum, for example, operates.

We do not expect that there is no natural explanation — that God or the angels or the demiurge of ancient philosophy are personally intervening to cause the flagellum to spin . . . constant intervention, on trillions of flagella, all around the world.  No.  We expect to find a way to explain the flagellum, based on what we see in nature and what we find in the organism.**

Let me state this again, because it is important: We expect to find a natural explanation, and to be able to successfully reverse engineer the flagellum, and to understand which molecules are involved and what they do.  We hope to be able, eventually, to write a complete engineering-level set of specifications for the bacterial flagellum, specifications that could be used to create our own bacterial flagellum using nanotechnology.  All without even mentioning God or deity or anything beyond what is “natural.”

So there is no question that when looking at how the flagellum functions, how it works, how the principles behind it can be utilized for future engineering, there is no question that we are looking for a natural explanation – natural in the sense of something that can be understood, documented, analyzed, and repeated.

However, something functioning within the parameters of natural laws and processes and something being the product of purely natural and material forces are two very different things.  In that sense, we have to distinguish between finding a natural explanation for how something currently works and assuming a naturalistic or materialistic explanation for its origin.***  Conflating the two is a serious logical error.

The materialistic claim goes beyond the science.  It claims that not only does the flagellum operate in a natural way within the parameters of physics and chemistry, but that the flagellum came about through purely natural and material processes.  That is a very different claim.  That is a claim that goes beyond the bench science and the reverse engineering.  That is a claim that is contrary to the evidence and what we know about how the world works.

Function is different from Production.

We all know that a working car is rooted in various mechanical, well-understood processes that can be described by various mathematical laws.

Nobody expects a car to merely assemble itself, with no design or reason or thought behind it. For the same reason why there is no materialistic reason for the physical laws that allow a car to function.

We aren’t concluding design just because Darwinism doesn’t have a good explanation.  Yes, that is part of it.  Any time we have competing explanations we need to weigh them.  So, yes, we do weigh the Darwinian explanation as part of our analysis and when we find it completely lacking in substance we reject it.  But that isn’t why we accept design.  Someone could, and many do, reject the Darwinian explanation without inferring design.  Indeed, the questioner seemed to do so.

(Let me add in passing that the negative case isn’t a negative case against Darwinism alone.  There is a strong negative case against a materialistic explanation generally.  Law-like processes are anathema to what we need to produce in biology.  And random processes also cut against what we need in biology, in addition to not having the available resources.  So we aren’t just rejecting Darwinism as a poor explanation, we have good reason to reject materialism generally, including the various self-organization theories.)

If materialism doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. No need to clutch it tightly like a security blanket… a security blanket against a Observant, Judging Deity above/outside the material universe, in this case.

Yet in addition to the negative case against the competing Darwinian and materialist explanations, there is a positive case for intelligent design.  When examining a possible explanation we look at the evidence we do have and what we do know about how the world works.  What we are dealing with in something like the bacterial flagellum is a highly-complex, functionally-integrated, information-rich system.  Based on our uniform and repeated experience, across billions of known examples, every time we see this kind of system it has arisen from an intelligent agent, from a mind.

So, no, dear student.  In the case of something like the bacterial flagellum, we aren’t just going to naively hold out for a materialist explanation with the false pretense that we are being “objective”.  When the numerous materialist explanations have completely failed and when, based on the best science and evidence we do have, design is the more likely explanation, we are fully justified in drawing a reasonable inference to design.  Any demand to hold out for a materialistic explanation in the face of such evidence is really more about a philosophical stance than about an objective search for the truth.

And why should we engage in an objective search for truth, when the vast majority of today’s intellectual leaders far prefer an uncompromising search for power?

Because God demands truth, as a hard foundation to make right judgement and right action. That’s why.

*   We can agree that the non-materialistic explanation is tentative, like all things in science.  But, once we examine in detail the evidence in a case like the bacterial flagellum, we need to be clear that it is tentative in the sense that our appreciation of physics is tentative, that our understanding of chemistry is tentative.  This isn’t some wild unsupported guess.  It is a thoughtful inference based on extensive experience and careful analysis.

**   Design theorists absolutely include natural laws and principles in their explanatory toolkit and look to them whenever possible.  One of the rhetorical cultural myths regularly put forward by materialists is that people who are open to any kind of non-materialist explanation will “abandon science” and stop looking for natural explanations.  That is nonsense, as demonstrated historically and currently.  A design theorist certainly isn’t going to invoke design to explain things that can be readily explained by purely natural laws and principles.

Furthermore, beyond the objective scientific approach of design theory, even religious people who believe in miracles expect things to generally operate according to natural laws and would look for that kind of explanation in doing science.  Ironically, in contrast to the materialist’s rhetorical talking-point, the very concept of miracles assumes that nearly all the time things do work according to natural laws and principles.

***   For the most part, science can proceed quite nicely without an origins story.  Bench science, applied science, and reverse engineering do not depend on origins.  They are concerned with what is, with how it works.

True enough.
But you are going to need a Lawgiver to protect the need to find the truth of the matter, rather than “find/say whatever gets me what I want.”
Without the search for truth, without the drive for integrity — neither of which can be grounded on atheistic-materialistic premises — science becomes just another superstition, yet another power-n-control tool.
“The white-coat priesthood says…”
In Christianity, there is a concept, “The priesthood of all believers.” Perhaps we should look into it sometime, and apply it in all of our lives, as well as within the four walls of a local church (where it would break up a lot of today’s folly ground…)

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