The False Dichotomy

In the last entry, we saw that biologist John Avise argues that traits which are gratuitously complicated, function poorly, and debilitate their bearers, all count as evidence against design.  And as I noted, I agree with this assessment.  In fact, Avise is unknowingly participating in one facet of the Design Matrix – the criterion of rationality.  What’s missing from his argument are two things: 1) Assign a numerical score to better nail down and communicate this judgment of irrational design and 2) An acknowledgement that a fair-minded and open-ended analysis would have to include the willingness to score things in the other direction, such that traits which are not gratuitously complicated, function exceedingly well, and do not debilitate their bearers, count as evidence for design.  To argue otherwise would be to engage in apologetics.

But there is a more fundamental problem with Avise’s argument.

Recall the objective of the paper:

my focus in this paper is on a relatively neglected category of argument against ID and in favor of evolution: the argument from imperfection, as applied to the human genome in this case.

Did you catch that the first time around?  Let’s try it again with the key element highlighted:

my focus in this paper is on a relatively neglected category of argument against ID and in favor of evolution: the argument from imperfection, as applied to the human genome in this case.

Avise’s case is premised on the perception of evolution and design being in opposition, as if the two concepts are somehow mutually exclusive and cannot co-exist.  In fact, despite the fact that Avise acknowledges the “standard “argument from design” traces back at least to the classical Greek philosopher Socrates” and would thus exist independently of any notions about evolution, his argument depends on defining intelligent design as “the latest incarnation of religious creationism.”  In other words, Avise clearly equates design with anti-evolutionism.

What this means is that Avise’s entire argument is built on a logical fallacy – the false dichotomy:

The logical fallacy of false dilemma (also called false dichotomy, the either-or fallacy) involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are other options.

The option that Avise completely ignores in the one in which both design and evolution are in play.  That is, evolution itself has been somehow recruited, by design, to carry out some objective.  We know that this option is viable because of artificial selection, the very process that Darwin himself invoked as an analog of natural selection.  As such, artificial selection might represent just one way, albeit a crude way, of evolution being utilized by design.  We know this option is also viable because there is no law of nature that would prevent design from co-existing with evolution.  The only serious obstacle for this option is not knowing to what extent evolution can be shaped by design.  But this lack of knowledge is simply a function of a lack of exploration which, in turn, stems from the dime-a-dozen perspective that frames evolution and design as mutually exclusive concepts.

So what is the consequence of Avise’s false dichotomy?  The bulk of his paper is a detailed exploration of the “outlandish features of the human genome that defy notions of ID by a caring cognitive agent.”  While this is an argument that works against design that is coupled to special creation, it fails against design that is coupled to evolution.  To see this, let’s pick one of the “outlandish features” that Avise explores.  We’ll do that in the next entry.

One response to “The False Dichotomy

  1. Another false dichotomy informs:

    As I have cautioned repeatedly about associating outcomes with intelligence or rationality even when there is no question the outcome was produced by design.

    I have suggested associating rationality, intelligence, and design with operations, actions, and only (with some caution) with outcomes?

    Why would I do that? And of what possible relevance could it be?–God, after all, is perfectly aware of the outcome of every action he takes.


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