Thursday, December 15, 2005

Intelligent Design Counfounds Another Author

I was perusing a few sites I visit looking for juicy post topics when I ran across this article by one J.M. Tyree called, “Malevolent Design: Intelligent Design isn’t just bad science, it’s bad religion” on The Revealer, a generally informative website dedicated to religion in the media and news.  At first I had hoped for an interesting take on the possible extensions of Intelligent Design like a plurality of gods, an über-intelligence, or something else novel (near the end of the article, the author finally made it to the surmises of a malevolent designer).  Instead, I got a barrage of bad research, bad thinking, and the same old hackneyed responses to ID.

In a few ways, you could tell the author had done their homework on some of the general philosophical background involved, but unfortunately, most of that research had nothing to do with the background of ID.  More on that below.  For instance, the author quotes Duane Gish as a defender of ID.  Talk about a stretch for a straw man.  Here is his quote:

"How are you going to explain that step-by-step by evolution, by natural selection," says an ID proponent named Gish. "It cannot be done!"

Note two things (besides Gish not being part of the ID cadre of scientists).  First, Gish’s quote regards gradual macroevolution, not design.  Second, it is clearly used as an inflammatory device within the article and not in a means conducive to charitable representation.

Now for the bad thinking.  Instead of dealing with the scientific claims of ID, the author quickly morphs into the classic stand-by reaction to theism: the problem of evil.  The reason this is a bad leap in reasoning is that ID does not make moral claims on the design and current shape of the universe.  Certainly many of its adherents are theists, and they would make such claims, but ID is about the science of “specified complexity,” and other, biological, mathematical, and chemical realities.  And as so many of ID’s defenders have pointed out, the science of ID does not make any claims stemming from or leading directly to any specific religion.  ID’s claims are not moral.

One of the core passages in the author’s train of thought:

Hume, a notorious antagonist of religion, wrote in carefully and artfully constructed forms like the quasi-fictional Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1777), perhaps in order to avoid trouble with the authorities. There, Hume put forward what are now considered the classic objections to the teleological argument, which also apply in spades to ID. The most devastating objection is that even if you assume the world was designed, it does not appear to be designed by a very nice deity. Bearing in mind that the Christian God must be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, wouldn't there be some way for God to prevent events like the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, or Nagasaki? As Hume pointed out, if he can't, he's not all powerful, and if he won't, then he's not all good. Theologians do have answers for these problems -- God must allow the universe to proceed in an orderly fashion, and an orderly universe appears to require storms, earthquakes, and volcanos -- but the answers are not very satisfying when confronted with the epic scale of human suffering.

It is fine if someone wants to write on the problem of evil and the teleological argument, but they should pick the right context.  The author makes the religious jump himself (I don’t know if J.M. is male or female), and then claims ID is religious by its very nature.  A little disingenuous.  This is a little bit like me picking on the recent spate of Christmas-in-the-public-square issues and arguing for the return of prayer in public schools.  There may be some connection on some level, but it is the wrong argument to make given the context.  

Either the article is about the science of ID, or about providence.  If the author wanted to deal with the problem of evil and providence, he should have dealt with a segment of ID’s supporters and their theology rather than painting ID with a theological brush and assuming there is no difference between the science of ID and the theology of Christianity.

Additionally, this quote highlights the jump in reasoning made by the author from scientific and mathematical claims to religious and moral claims.

Speaking in religion's own terms, ID is not only an argument from design, it's also an argument for providence, God's good guidance of the universe, human history, and individual moral choice.

The author is apparently assuming ID is a kind of theology and hence is responsible for answering all the religious issues held by the author.  Again, some who like the ID movement will make the jump from the science to providence, but ID doesn’t do that.

What happens in this article is nearly universal in ID’s critics.  Instead of taking a real look at the scientific claims, they summarily dismiss even the possibility of ID being a science and then proceed with a self-derived sense of justification to the ad hominum attacks.  As an example:

Yet aside from its nonentity status as a scientific theory -- a "theory" must be provable or disprovable ("falsifiable") by experiment, therefore Intelligent Design doesn't qualify…

And macroevolution and atheism are “provable or disprovable…by experiment”?  As I have noted elsewhere, using the notion of “falsifiability” is a slippery one for a theory whose primary premises are just as philosophical as anyone else’s.  And besides, those who understand ID could remark that there are highly developed mathematical models in support of ID’s contentions that can be tested in this fashion.

The argument is called "irreducible complexity," a term that along with the even more voodooish "specified complexity," forms the bedrock of ID's pseudoscientific vocabulary.

I guess you win if you label your competition as “voodooish.”

Instead of being something thoughtful or something that addresses some of the real issues out there surrounding ID, this article seems to simply be a way for the author to get some frustration off of his chest.


Macht said...

I had read this article a while ago and what struck me was that one of the author's main argument was essentially what most ID people have been saying all along - that ID doesn't say anything about the designer.

Brian B said...

Obviously, most advocates of ID are theists, and most would feel perfectly comfortable using the results of ID as premises in arguments for the truth of theism. Perhaps most have that as a motivation (possibly among others) for accepting ID. And surely the opponents of ID know that as well, which explains why, like Phil I think correctly points out, they immediately attack the inference from ID to theism by attacking theism (which is then supposed to show the falsity of ID via modus tollens).

But that is "dialectically inappropriate." It would be like attacking the truth of (various aspects of) evolutionary biology by showing that it is (often) used in arguments for atheism. It would miss the mark entirely to try to "disprove" evolutionary theory by disproving atheism - even if that second inference is one often made by advocates of evolution. Evolutionary theory - and ID - must be evaluated on its own merits. Many think it is perfectly consistent to accept both evolutionary theory and theism, so the fact that it is sometimes used to support atheism cannot be a sufficient reason to reject it. Opponents of ID, then, make the same mistake that many Christians do - both reject a certain scientific view because they don't like the service to which it has often been put. It is to place the ideological cart before the evidential horse (or something).

Phil Steiger said...
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Phil Steiger said...


I hadn't seen that explicitly, but you are right. Thanks for that view on this article. I think it also goes a long way toward helping people engage the detractors of ID when they attack the theism sometimes derivative of the science of ID.


As is usual you manage to say more, more acutely in fewer words than what I attempted to say in many more. I like the "ideological cart before the evidential horse" line.

David said...

I found the comments in response to that article just as interesting as the article itself. It seems critics can't help themselves in arguing that ID is a trojan horse for Christian apologists. One fellow even wondered, in an exasperated tone, why Christians don't just leave their religion where it the church. It's difficult to know where to begin in critiquing a statement like that!