February 18, 2003

Does Certainty Carry No Burden?


By Paul Nesselroade

In the last column I tried to advocate for an “open question” policy in the ongoing discourse on origins, suggesting that a search for truth deserves nothing less.

Unfortunately many students simply don’t get that opportunity. A recent story drawing nationwide attention concerns Texas Tech biology professor Michael Dini’s insistence that students seeking his recommendation for medical school first confess personal belief in the evolution of man. Apparently some students not only must refrain from asking others their questions, to appease certain professors, they must also refrain from really asking even themselves.

Although specific cases of intellectual bullying are interesting, it is the tie that binds them together which I find most intriguing – that is, the sense of absolute certainty the orthodoxy often seems to exhibit regarding their own beliefs. With respect to biological origins, on what evidence is the certainty of unintelligent causes based? In the spirit of open inquiry, here are a few questions to challenge that sense of unassailable certainty.

If, let’s suppose, some biological structures existed which were, in fact, designed, would we be able to detect them as designed? If yes, how? What would biological design look like and how could we determine what is and what is not designed? If one believes there are no such criteria, then why the adamant certainty that design can’t possibility exist in biology? Furthermore, why are the criteria used for detecting design in countless other scenarios somehow not appropriate for biological systems? Isn’t it incumbent upon the person who is certain of unintelligent causation to adequately answer these questions?

How might unintelligent forces account for the existence of structures exhibiting irreducible complexity? Are these accounts supported by evidence, or are they purely speculative? Isn’t there a burden of proof to be met by anyone who wishes to argue that biological systems which have the distinct appearance of design are really the product of unintelligent forces - particularly if it is held as a matter of such unquestionable certainty?

If we are asked to adopt certainty in unintelligent causation, then presumably there exists a set of straightforward and easily understood examples that clearly demonstrate the creative powers of unintelligent forces. But, what are these? The “icons” of evolution appear to be crumbling under closer inspection. Are there new ones to take their place?

Logical necessities merit certainty. Demonstrable realities also merit a degree of certainty. But in the absence of these, prevailing opinion does not merit absolute certainty no matter who the prevailer happens to be. In fact, it rings a bit hollow – kind of like the way it used to feel to be told, "Because I said so!" in a third grade playground dispute with the class bully.

At first blush, many things in nature appear to be designed. This appearance has not dissipated with advances in knowledge. To the contrary, it has grown as we learn of exquisite sub-cellular order and complexity beyond anyone’s anticipation or explanation. Is not the willingness to at least consider design requisite to an exhaustive search for the truth? Isn’t truth what we are after? Just why are we so certain the issue is settled?

Copyright 2003 Paul Nesselroade. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 02.18.03