In a newspaper article entitled “The extraterrestrial is my brother,” a Vatican astronomer named Jose Gabriel Funes declared that it is entirely possible, within the Christian framework, that extraterrestrial life exists. I just thought that this article was interesting because I’ve always believed that life on other planets poses no problems for Christianity. Many Christians claim that since nothing about it is mentioned in the Bible, we should assume that there is no life on other planets, but this seems to express a rather naive view. It seems to me, we have no reason to expect that God would reveal that kind of thing to us in the Bible.
Funes speculates that such extraterrestrials, though most likely benefiting in some way from God’s grace, would not have experienced an incarnation of Christ, which is a unique event. 1 This is an interesting theological question, though I see no problem with presuming that an Incarnation of some form could possibly be manifested to other species.
Main Feature: Intelligent Design and the Philosophy of Science
In the aftermath of the Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed movie, and in light of the continued heated controversy about Intelligent Design taking place in the schools, courtrooms, and scientific establishment, I would like to focus today’s podcast on the issue of Intelligent Design. I have not written much about this on my website, other than a review of Darwin’s Black Box and a review of the Expelled movie. There are several reasons for this omission.
First of all, I view the whole issue as somewhat unneeded as far as a defense of Christianity is concerned. From my perspective, even the truth of full-blown evolutionary theory is fully consistent with theism and is quite possible on Christianity. Indeed, many great Christian philosophers, theologians, scientists, pastors, and laypeople believe the evolutionary account. Although this may bring up questions of interpretation concerning the book of Genesis, it seems to me that this difficulty would hardly prove fatal to the entire Christian worldview. Christianity, at root level, requires the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ for our sins.
Secondly, given the fact that this issue is unnecessary for a defense of Christianity, I prefer to stay away from this controversial topic. Don’t get me wrong- I have no problem whatsoever holding to and defending controversial and unpopular views. Nevertheless, I try to avoid setting up stumbling blocks that aren’t needed.
Finally, I am simply not scientifically astute enough to weigh in on the debate in a sufficient fashion. To truly understand what’s going on I would need to be well-informed in the areas of chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, and so on, and I lack the expertise.
Nevertheless, despite my relative scientific ignorance, I think that much could be gained from a philosophical analysis of this debate. Many, if not most, of the debates occurring about Intelligent Design don’t have anything to do with scientific issues- they are purely about philosophical issues. In fact, I think it is remarkable that most scientists who critique Intelligent Design critique it at the philosophical level. Unfortunately, these critiques are notoriously bad.
It is my thesis that none of the philosophical and polemical arguments raised against Intelligent Design are successful, so that the debate must lie in the realm of scientific facts. Please note that this does not constitute an endorsement, for I am mostly agnostic on this issue. But this debate must be resolved using scientific reasoning.
Before I begin, a brief overview of Intelligent Design (often abbreviated ID) and the controversy surrounding it are in order. Intelligent Design is the theory that at least some features of biological organisms are the product of a designing intelligence. It explicitly rejects the thesis that the development of life can be fully explained with reference to naturalistic processes. However, contrary to the claims of many critics, Intelligent Design does not promote any particular designer. ID theory is perfectly consistent with a broad range of beliefs, including atheism. For example, on an atheistic worldview the designing intelligence could be an advanced alien species. This is important because, as we’ll see later, one of the main polemical techniques used to combat ID theory is to claim that it is just another form of Biblical creationism.
The Intelligent Design movement seemed to pick up major steam and prominence with the publication of Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe, a biochemist. 2 In the book, Behe argues that some features of biological organisms, when analyzed on the biochemical level, reveal the feature of ‘irreducible complexity.’ Something that is irreducibly complex requires more than one part to be simultaneously present with other parts in order to retain any function. He offers the classic mundane example of a mousetrap. Take away any piece of the mousetrap, and you don’t have a mousetrap at all. Multiple parts are absolutely necessary for any relevant function to work.
Behe argues that Darwinian evolution is not up to the task of explaining the existence of irreducibly complex structures. This is because evolution can only work with adaptable changes, in other words, with changes that increase the likelihood of survival for the organism. But, if an irreducibly complex structure doesn’t have any function unless it is fully built, then Darwinian pathways will prove elusive.
Behe’s book produced a firestorm of controversy, and it is hard to imagine a more vicious response from some members of the scientific community. This has persisted up till this day, with vitriolic criticism of Intelligent Design advocates, especially on the web. Some of the outcome of this has been documented in the film Expelled. Even if you deny that ID advocates are being persecuted, it is undeniable that they are faced with extremely harsh criticism.
Yet, the Intelligent Design movement has continued to grow, much to the chagrin of many in the scientific community. The debate has, regrettably, also entered into the courtroom and the classroom. However, these social movements are irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of Intelligent Design theory. With that brief introduction out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the most prominent criticisms of ID theory.
Intelligent Design and the Philosophy of Science
One of the most common criticisms is that Intelligent Design does not count as science. If Intelligent Design is not even a scientific theory, than it simply is not a contender, it is disqualified from competition. Does this claim have any merit?
I must say that I am shocked at how willing most critics of ID are to ‘define’ science with some sense of authority and declare that ID is out of bounds. In actuality, the definition of science is a controversial philosophical issue. It is illegitimate for scientists who criticize ID to simply define science without offering any sort of defense for their claims. Simplistic critics of ID cannot be allowed to get away with making bold pronouncements on a controversial philosophical issue.
There are two main theses of science that are often proposed to be at conflict with ID theory- falsificationism and methodological naturalism. We will analyze both of these in turn. First, I will show that these theses are controversial even within the philosophy of science, and therefore cannot be taken as givens in the debate about Intelligent Design. Moreover, I will argue that there are several major problems with both of these theses. Secondly, I will show that, rather ironically, Intelligent Design theory can meet both of these criteria anyway, so that even if both of these controversial ideas about the nature of science were true, ID would still be a contender.
First, let’s consider the criterion of falsification. Many critics claim that a theory must be capable of being falsified if it is to count as a scientific theory. The philosophy of falsificationism, according to which theories are never really confirmed but can only be falsified by contradictory evidence, is usually identified to have originated with Karl Popper, a philosopher of science born in the early 1900s. But is it true that a theory must be falsifiable in order to be scientific?
Although Popper has been very influential, his thesis has not gone unchallenged. For example, Carl Hempel has argued that falsificationism fails with regard to certain scientific claims, such as the following;
“For every metal, there is a temperature at which it will melt.”
This statement cannot be either falsified or justified by any possible scientific observation. Yet, it certainly seems to be a scientific hypothesis.
Elliot Sober has argued that scientific theories require auxiliary assumptions in order to cohere with observations, and so it is always possible that the auxiliary assumptions and not the scientific theory itself are falsified.
In any case, Intelligent Design theory is eminently testable, easily satisfying this criteria of science. All it takes to refute ID theory is to demonstrate that a plausible naturalistic account of irreducibly complex structures in biological organisms is available. In fact, many critics of ID argue that this has been done! This would obviously nullify the charge that ID is unfalsifiable. Indeed, many critics seem to claim both that Intelligent Design is unfalsifiable and actually falsified by the evidence. You can have one or the other, but you cannot have both. Scientific criticisms of ID are implicit recognitions that the theory is testable.
In fact, ID seems to be, in this regard at least, much more falsifiable than Darwinian evolution. In order to falsify the Darwinian hypothesis, you would have to prove the universal negative that no naturalistic, evolutionary pathway could possibly lead to the development of the irreducibly complex structure. Proving a universal negative like this is obviously impossible. On the other hand, the Darwinian can refute Intelligent Design merely by offering one possible and plausible naturalistic, evolutionary explanation for the irreducibly complex structure.
Indeed, the relative unfalsifiability of Darwinism vis-a-vis Intelligent Design can be seen in the many pronouncements made by Darwinists in defense of their theory. For example, Allen Orr wrote a critique of Darwin’s Black Box, in which, among other things, he compared the development of an organism to the writing of a computer program. He says,
“Indeed, because the very act of revising a program has a way of wiping out clues to its history, it may be impossible to reconstruct the path taken. Similarly, we have no guarantee that we can reconstruct the history of a biochemical pathway. But even if we can’t, its irreducible complexity cannot count against its gradual evolution any more than the irreducible complexity of a program does—which is to say, not at all.” 3
Thus, under Darwinism, the inability to find any sort of plausible reconstruction for an organism or a biological feature is no evidence against the theory. Therefore, when it comes to explaining the actual development of organisms, Intelligent Design theory is remarkably more falsifiable than Darwinian evolution. But as mentioned before, this is largely irrelevant, because falsifiability is not required of a good scientific theory, particularly historical theories that attempt to reconstruct the past.
Falsifiability totally fails as a criteria to eliminate ID from consideration. In the first place, there are good reasons to think that falsifiability is not necessary for a scientific hypothesis, in the second place, Intelligent Design is eminently falsifiable, which can be demonstrated both by theoretical considerations and also by looking at the criticisms of scientists who attempt to falsify the theory. Finally, Darwinian evolution has more of a problem with falsification than does ID, so it seems that the shoe is on the other foot.
We now turn to the issue of methodological naturalism. This is the view that science must restrain itself to explaining phenomenon within the physical universe. Basically, the idea can be boiled down to this- science must be approached as if supernatural entities do not exist. This view only has to do with the methodology, or the practice, of science, and therefore does not say anything about what actually exists. Nevertheless, according to this thesis, science must advance using the assumption that the physical universe is all there is and supernatural entities are not interfering in the natural order.
What is the justification for this claim? The idea is that we must restrain scientific explanations to causes within the physical universe, or else anything goes. If we allow God or angels or demons into the picture, then all sorts of so-called theories could be cooked up, with little or no respect for the physical evidence and experiments. Moreover, this could lead to a stagnation of scientific progress. Why labor to conduct meticulous experiments when you could simply say that “God did that” and go home? Allowing God into scientific theories could lead to a breakdown of science and all that it has accomplished for us.
But are these claims justified? Let us suppose that we reject methodological naturalism, would it lead to a total breakdown of science? I say no- I think that these claims are essentially unjustified paranoia, for both logical and historical reasons.
First, let us consider the history of science. It is important to note that the flourishing of this idea of methodological naturalism is relatively recent on the scene. But we must remember that most of the founders of science in the modern age were not only theists- but they often mixed their theology and their science! Isaac Newton, commonly regarded to be one of the most, if not the most, brilliant scientists of all time, was a committed theist who wrote more about religion than he did about science. Moreover, he integrated his science and theology. For example, he believed that God assisted the motion of the planets in some way- thus, physics did not operate only mechanically.
One of his contemporaries, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, criticized Newton for this view- which he regarded as theologically inadequate. Leibniz was as much a committed theist as Newton, but he argued theologically that God would not create a universe that he needed to correct in such an ad hoc fashion, rather, He would create the universe like a perfect clock that operated with no need for interference.
One of the points of this discussion is that even though both of these important scientists integrated God into their science, they did not bring science to a screeching halt. On the contrary, they did terrific work in science. The same goes for virtually every important scientist up until the modern age- Kepler, Maxwell, Kelvin, and so on. Historically, the claim that allowing the supernatural into science, in principal, will lead to a breakdown of science is nonsense.
Moreover, this concern overlooks an important fact about scientific theories- their tentativeness. The fact of the matter is that scientists will always continue to revise their theories and look for new, better theories. For example, consider the Big Bang model of the origin of the universe. Even though this theory is supported by plenty of evidence, and is embraced by the majority of the scientific community, it has not stopped scientists from critiquing the model, attempting to improve it, and offering alternative theories.
So, let’s suppose that scientists come to believe that the best explanation for the origin of the universe is that God created it out of nothing. Why should we suppose that scientists will all accept this conclusion and science will come to a halt on this issue? The historical precedent, plus everything we know about human nature, tells us that they won’t. When Newton proposed that God nudged the planetary orbits to keep them in check, some people, including Leibniz, challenged his theory. Eventually, new theories developed, and Newton’s theories were superseded. The concern that scientific progress will stop if we allow supernatural explanations is just paranoia.
Finally, I would argue that worried scientists hardly needs to look beyond their group of fellow methodological naturalists to find troubling examples of wild speculation. Given current scientific speculations- particularly in cosmology- the ‘anything goes’ approach hardly needs theology. Cosmologists regularly invoke alternate realities, alternate universes, and unseen extra physical dimensions in their theories. Sometimes the entities postulated in these theories are not only unknown but theoretically unknowable! Indeed, in order to avoid the conclusion of design (ironically enough), some scientists are more than willing to invoke an unproven and unprovable multiverse. These speculative theories are a dime a dozen, so I lack confidence that methodological naturalism can really restrain scientific discourse in any meaningful way.
So much for the actual basis for upholding methodological naturalism. But there are also several important critiques of this thesis which must be addressed.
1.) First of all, by limiting explanations to ‘naturalistic’ hypotheses, methodological naturalism artificially restricts the number of live possibilities and therefore may hinder, rather than help, the discovery of truth. Many individuals are convinced that the goal of science should be to discover the truth about reality. What happens, however, if some phenomenon has actually been caused by a supernatural agent? If this is the case, then scientists will spin their wheels fruitlessly, trying to piece together the most feasible naturalistic explanation for a certain hypothesis. Even if they succeed in devising the most plausible naturalistic hypothesis, it may lack the plausibility of the non-naturalistic hypothesis and, more importantly, be untrue!
A theoretical example will help us focus on the actual issue here and see the importance of this problem. Let’s suppose that scientists, peering into the genome of some animal, discovered the entire King James Version of the Bible encoded. This would certainly be an amazing finding, but a bit awkward for the methodological naturalist. What explanation should they offer for this massive statistical improbability? Presumably, they would have to labor away at describing the most probable naturalistic theory. But surely, this would be a farce- even if the scientists engaged in the futile and humorous effort to explain this phenomenon naturalistically, in their heart of hearts they would realize that their finding virtually proved that the Christian God designed the creature in question.
At best, methodological naturalism should only mean that, all things being equal, a naturalistic theory should be preferred. But hardening this into a wooden principle forbidding the entry of the supernatural into science, even in theory, is unjustified.
2.) Second of all, design explanations are frequently used in other domains of science, and so we need some sort of good argument to explain why they cannot be used in the biological sciences. Archaeologists look for signs of design in rocks to ascertain if they are an artifact, and SETI researchers hope to discover the existence of extraterrestrial life by looking for patterns in radio signals that would suggest a personal cause. If we can readily appeal to design causation in these scientific enterprises, why the restriction on certain sciences like biology, chemical evolution, and cosmology?
Again, there is no doubt in my mind that we must avoid being too quick to use God’s primary causality as an explanation of a scientific phenomenon, but denying wholesale the possibility does not free up science, it only leads to its paralysis. Indeed, I personally believe this has occurred in cosmology and in origin of life studies. Cosmologists spin out speculative and absurd theories all the time in order to explain the origin of the universe- it seems to me that the best explanation for the origin of the universe is the personal agency of a supernatural being. And origin of life researchers seem to be spinning their wheels trying to discover how life could originate from chemicals- again, I think the best explanation involves a Creator. But these personal beliefs, even if challenged, don’t effect my fundamental critique of methodological naturalism.
But let all that pass; let’s assume that methodological naturalism is a compelling thesis that we should embrace in our pursuit of science. Intelligent Design theory is not affected in the slightest. As all ID advocates insist, the theory does not specify the nature of the designer. It is simply silent on this point. The designer could be God, but it could also be Zeus, Hercules, or an intelligent alien race. Note that this last possibility, an alien race, is perfectly compatible with an atheistic worldview. Let’s explore this possibility in more detail.
Given that ID theory claims that some features of biological organisms are designed by an intelligent agent, it seems quite clear that an intelligent alien race could be this designer. After all, in a universe with trillions upon trillions of stars in countless galaxies, it is certainly possible that intelligent life exists on other planets. Indeed, Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel, operating within a naturalistic perspective, already offered this as a possibility for the origin of life in their article Directed Panspermia 4
Crick and Orgel mention the possibility that life was seeded on the planet earth over 4 billion years ago. This may strike many people, myself included, as absurd and contrived, but it is hard to deny that it is a theoretical possibility. If Crick and Orgel are allowed to mention this possibility, why cannot Intelligent Design advocates do the same?
At this point, many critics simply declare that ID advocates who mention the possibility of alien designers are really being insincere. Nobody really believes that, it is just used as a way to legitimize a version of creationism. In reality, ID advocates believe that God is the designer.
This response fails for several reasons. First, it is simply irrelevant. Frankly, I don’t care whether or not ID advocates are sincere when they appeal to the possibility of alien designers. The important point is not their sincerity but the validity of their point. And it is ludicrous to try to deny the validity of their point; to do so one would have to demonstrate that it is logically impossible for alien designers to be the designers appealed to in Intelligent Design theory. Good luck proving that.
Second of all, the point is false, because not all Intelligent Design advocates believe that God exists. David Berlinski is one of the most prominent ID proponents, and he is a secular Jew. Michael Denton likewise doesn’t believe that God exists. These counterexamples defy the critic’s claim that Intelligent Design is really just a charade composed of fundamentalist Christians attempting to smuggle God back into science.
In fact, perhaps the staunchest critic of Intelligent Design theory, Richard Dawkins, discussed the possibility of alien designers in the recent movie Expelled. Dawkins is furious and claims that he was duped into participating in the documentary, but he should actually be proud of himself for getting something right. In the film he mentions the possibility of discovering some kind of code hidden in the genome that was planted by an alien designer wishing to leave us a message. Note that this theoretical example is very similar to my example, where we find a King James Version Bible in the genome. Obviously, Dawkins’ example demonstrates the possibility of an alien designer and therefore the consistency of Intelligent Design theory and methodological naturalism.
Critics of Intelligent Design will not stop calling ID theory a form of creationism, or labeling it with dismissive epithets like “creationism in a cheap tuxedo,” and “theology masquerading as science.” These are important polemical tools used to smear ID theory. But sound thinkers should not be swayed by this rhetoric. As I’ve shown here, Intelligent Design is not explicitly connected to Christianity or even theism, and in fact is compatible even in an atheistic worldview.
Other Objections to ID as Science
Other than falsification and methodological naturalism, a variety of other critiques of Intelligent Design are frequently found in the literature. I will now take a look at these critiques.
Dawkins offers a classic objection in his book The Blind Watchmaker. He claims that “[To explain via] a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like ‘God was always there,’ and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there,’ or ‘Life was always there’ and be done with it.” 5
In the first place, I’d like to note again that ID does not depend upon a supernatural designer. But in any case, Dawkins’ critique is misplaced. The main problem with this argument is that it makes a fundamental mistake about the nature of explanation. In order to offer a good, compelling explanation of some phenomena, one does not need to offer an explanation of the explanation. If you think carefully about this, then you may notice that we could never explain anything using the Dawkins approach. Such an approach leads to an infinite regress. Any explanation you offer would need an explanation, that explanation would require an explanation, and so on forever. It would literally be impossible to have any knowledge.
Moreover, we can see that Dawkins approach is invalid with a few simple examples. For instance, if archaeologists discover a piece of pottery, they are justified in inferring that the pottery was designed by some unknown group of people. Even if they had no idea who designed it, where they came from, or how they designed it, this inference would still be justified.
Or, suppose that astronauts found complicated machines on an extra-solar planet. They would justifiably infer that some intelligent extraterrestrials designed and created the machines, even if they had absolutely no idea what such beings were like, what planet they came from, or how they designed the complicated machines. Clearly, it would be absurd for the astronauts to say, “since we don’t know anything about any possible alien designers, we cannot conclude that these machines were designed.”
Another common criticism is that ID theory does not make any predictions, and as such it cannot be a scientific theory. But once again, the idea that a theory must make predictions in order to count as scientific is controversial. After all, scientific disciplines like archaeology, anthropology, and even evolutionary theory itself mostly try to reconstruct the past, not predict the future. We may distinguish these historical sciences from the empirical sciences- fields like physics, chemistry, and astronomy.
But in any case, it seems false that Intelligent Design theory makes no predictions, or at least it is false that Intelligent Design cannot make any predictions. For example, ID predicts that some biological organisms will have features that exhibit irreducible complexity and specified complexity. ID predicts that no plausible naturalistic account of irreducibly complex mechanisms will be forthcoming. This is an extremely risky prediction, as noted above, all it takes is one plausible naturalistic account and ID is overturned, while a Darwinian may rest easy in his convictions because nothing short of a logical disproof of the possibility of evolution will suffice to overthrow his paradigm.
I would regard these as the primary predictions of ID theory, but others could be offered as well. For example, ID may predict that much of the genome, currently regarded as ‘junk DNA,’ will actually be found to have a purpose in the near future.
Finally, some claim that Intelligent Design does not create any fruitful scientific research. This objection seems to me to be particularly weak. Even granting that ID does not create the possibility for any fruitful research, this has no bearing on its truth value. Say that we assume that ID is true, should scientists continue to dedicate all their time and energy to Darwinian evolution, simply because it provides the possibility for so-called fruitful research? It seems to me that the important matter is truth, not usefulness. Plenty of bogus scientific theories may be able to provide all of the fruitful research one could want, but that is no reason to adopt such theories.
And in any case, the claim that ID creates no opportunity for fruitful research seems to be, at best, controversial. Just as an example, an ID theorist who believes that so-called ‘junk DNA’ is likely to have an underlying purpose will be more likely to pursue fruitful research in this area than an evolutionist who assumes that it is all evolutionary junk. Moreover, there is plenty of research that can be conducted on the limits of natural processes in biological development, an issue largely ignored by Darwinists who simply assume that anything living has in fact evolved. In fact, scientific research on these types of questions is already underway- one prominent example is the Biologic Institute. So the claim concerning the fruitfulness of ID is both irrelevant and false.
What if ID is Not Science?
Let us grant for the sake of argument that Intelligent Design theory does not qualify as true science. What interesting conclusion follows from this?
It seems to me, very little. True, this would mean that there was absolutely no place for it in the science classroom, but I am not really too concerned about that. Nothing would follow objectively about the nature of reality and the universe we inhabit. After all, the main thesis of Intelligent Design is either true or false; it is either true that a designer is at least partially responsible for the existence and form of biological life on this planet, or it is not true. Even if it is outside the purview of science, this is still an interesting question with which we should actively engage. Simply closing our eyes, shutting our ears, and yelling “It’s not science” will not change the facts of the matter.
Some Miscellaneous Objections to Intelligent Design
Finally, let us consider some other attacks that are leveled against Intelligent Design which do not necessarily have to do with its status as a scientific theory.
First, some will argue that ID has been ruled out in the court of law, particularly in the famous Dover trial. But I don’t see how anything interesting follows from this. Courts, especially in America, rule all sorts of stupid things all the time and I am in no way obliged to think that they are right. Even when it comes to teaching ID in the schools, a hugely controversial issue, I don’t see any reason to think that Dover got the issue right. Indeed, the decision was largely based on the type of faulty reasoning and bold, so-called ‘scientific’ pronouncements that I have been critical of in this podcast. But even if the Dover trail correctly judged that Intelligent Design should be kept out of the classroom, this has no bearing on the truth or falsity of the theory.
Although I mentioned it in passing, I would like to address once again the claim that ID is merely ‘creationism in a cheap tuxedo,’ as it is commonly called. I think that all attempts to link ID to creationism are deceptive rhetorical ploys used to persuade gullible individuals. A serious reading of the ID literature, and a mature conception of what ID proponents actually propose, reveals that ID cannot simply be equated with creationism in the negative sense implied by the slur. Indeed, as I’ve shown, ID is perfectly compatible even within an atheistic worldview. Critics of ID frequently misrepresent what the theory actually proposes and entails, which is inexcusable. In order for fair dialogue about any issue to proceed, it is essential that the opposing side allows the other to describe their view themselves. One may fairly argue that a position implies something else as a necessary consequence, but it is unfair to then impute this belief onto the person who explicitly rejects it. For example, suppose that a person were to argue that evolutionary theory entails atheism. That is, if evolutionary theory is true, then atheism is necessarily true. That person may legitimately offer arguments that purport to show why atheism follows from evolution. But it would be unfair for them to claim that, therefore, evolutionists are all atheists. In fact, many evolutionists explicitly reject atheism. At worst, the person could claim that evolutionists have failed to recognize the necessary consequence of their views and are therefore self-decieved. But it is unfair to label them with a view that they explicitly reject.
The same goes for Intelligent Design. Critics may try to argue that Intelligent Design theory necessarily entails the existence of God, and therefore that ID is an inherently religious theory. If they can offer a good argument for this, then fine. But, it is not fair to claim that ID theorists are offering a religious theory, which they explicitly reject. The worst that can be said of ID proponents is that they fail to recognize the consequences of their own theory.
Critics who try to label ID as an inherently religious movement oftentimes make seriously flawed arguments and inferences. For example, they may claim that all, or the overwhelming majority, of ID theorists are also theists, and Christian theists at that. But again, to claim that this impugns ID theory in any way is to commit the genetic fallacy, where you judge the merits of a theory on the basis of the person who proposes it. As I’ve shown here, ID is not necessarily religious, so the fact that its proponents are religious is irrelevant. And in any case, not all ID proponents are Christian theists or even theists, which refutes the simplistic claim of the critic.
You may notice in this debate that critics often argue from particulars to universals. Thus, they may look at the explicit theism of one member of the ID movement and conclude that ID is a religious theory masquerading as science. Here’s another common case- apparently, an Intelligent Design textbook was changed recently, the only substantive change being that the word ‘creationism’ was replaced with ‘intelligent design’ throughout the book. This is demonstrated as proof that ID is just stealth creationism. But at most this only proves that this particular author is using ID as stealth creationism, not that ID in and of itself is necessarily a theory of stealth creationism.
To sum up, we have looked at a variety of objections to the theory of Intelligent Design. While this has not been comprehensive, we have analyzed a great number of philosophical critiques of ID and found them all to be lacking. Therefore, this controversy must be settled on scientific turf.
The Evidential Argument from Evil
For our book review, I’d like to take a look at “The Evidential Argument from Evil”, edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder. In the last podcast episode I tried to tackle the Problem of Evil, and this book may prove to be a very helpful supplement to that discussion.
The Evidential Argument from Evil is a collection of scholarly articles written by the top philosophers currently writing in the field. It includes both defenders and critics of the evidential argument from evil. Many of the contributions are excellent and greatly enhance the discussion.
For the most part, the theistic critics of the Problem of Evil tend not to focus directly on the issue of theodicy, or providing reasons why God may permit evil in the world. Richard Swinburne is the only contributor who attempts to offer a full-fledged theodicy, though Eleanore Stump offers a discussion on the book of Job that approach a theodicy as well. The main emphasis is on defenses, or merely possible accounts that are logically possible, and an appeal to our cognitive limitations. Basically, most of the theistic writers try to demonstrate that we are simply not in a cognitive position to judge with any certainty whether or not God has a sufficient reason for the evils that exist in the world.
This is one aspect of the Problem of Evil that I did not emphasize in my discussion. I tend to think that a bare appeal to our cognitive limitations is inadequate. However, the theistic critics make a good case that we should not truly be surprised if we are unable to think of the reasons why God allows so much evil and suffering in the world. Thus, when the defender of the Problem of Evil jumps from the premise that we don’t know why so much evil exists, to the premise that God does not have a sufficient reason for permitting the evil that exists, they improperly assume that we are in the type of cognitive situation where we should expect to find reasons even if they existed.
The atheist defenders of the problem offer several different formulations of the argument throughout the volume. As Bruce Russell notes, there are several different formulations of the evidential argument from evil, so theistic critics must be careful not to jump the gun and assume that a critique of one type constitutes a critique of all types. Of particular note is the type of argument developed by Paul Draper. Draper does not challenge the theist to explain apparently gratuitous evil, he offers a hypothesis competing with theism that he believes explains the evidence concerning the distribution of pain and pleasure in the world better than theism. This is a powerful argument that must be addressed, and it cannot simply be lumped together with all other types of arguments from evil.
Ultimately, I wish that more authors attempted to develop substantial theodicies like the soul-making theory or the free will defense. Nevertheless, this book contains a number of excellent essays that advance the discussion of the problem of evil. Many of the essays are quite technical and challenging, but for the reader who is prepared for such an advanced discussion, this book will prove useful. However, for a comprehensive overview of the problem of evil, the reader may have to look elsewhere.
My rating for this book: 4 stars out of 5.
Now it’s time for the audience question. Siegmund asks what I think about the arguments for Intelligent Design and creationism. Obviously, I spent the bulk of the podcast critiquing the objections to Intelligent Design that are based upon philosophical arguments. I think that Intelligent Design stands up very well against these objections. So the issue must be settled on scientific turf.
Also, as I mentioned, I try to take an agnostic stance with regard to this controversy. I am not an expert in biochemistry or any such field, so I want to exercise caution before I make pronouncements beyond what I should. If I had to state what I truly think about the matter, I believe that some of the arguments for Intelligent Design are compelling. In my opinion, by far the strongest support in favor of ID has to do with so-called irreducibly complex mechanisms.
The important issue is this- is irreducible complexity a real objection to Darwinian evolution? Michael Behe admits that it is not logically impossible to account for irreducibly complex structures within the evolutionary framework. Irreducible complexity merely blocks off direct Darwinian pathways. Indirect pathways are always a possibility. If we admit this much, then what difference does the presence of Irreducible Complexity actually make? Doesn’t this simply represent a more sophisticated form of the classic creationist claim of incredulity?
Well, I think that the concept of irreducible complexity is legitimate, for two reasons. First is the positive case it represents for design. Critics of ID frequently claim that it is nothing but an attack on evolutionary theory. But I think this is untrue- as all advocates of design maintain, the presence of irreducibly complex structures is a marker of design and actually clues us in to the fact that an intelligent designer is responsible for the biological feature. This is somewhat analogous to the hypothetical case where we find some sort of code hidden within the genome. Just like the code clues us in to the existence of the designer, so do irreducibly complex features clue us in. Many of the inventions that we make use of in the modern world are similarly irreducibly complex, and so it can be argued that irreducible complexity is actually a marker for design. Moreover, this claim can be further developed using notions of probability, specified complexity, and so on, as many advocates of Intelligent Design are doing.
The second reason irreducible complexity is legitimate is because it represents a serious challenge to Darwinian explanations. Irreducibly complex structures are not merely very complicated structures that evolution has a hard time accounting for. They are a different type of structure altogether, one which is particularly challenging to evolutionary explanations. By eliminating direct Darwinian pathways, irreducibly complex structures are very difficult to account for without a designer. This is especially true if Darwinian evolution is never able to offer a plausible account of the development of any irreducibly complex feature.
To make this point clearer, William Dembski points out in his paper Irreducible Complexity Revisited that the argument from Irreducible Complexity makes three key points; one logical, one empirical, and one explanatory. 6 The logical point is that Irreducibly Complex structures cannot be accounted for via direct Darwinian pathways utilizing small, successive, adaptive changes. This is because such a process would need to create the structure de novo in one step. The mathematical improbability of such an occurrence is prohibitive, and, for all intents and purposes, impossible.
The empirical point is that indirect Darwinian pathways are nowhere to be found. And it is not as though nobody has looked, indeed, Darwinists are very interested in finding such pathways. They are occasionally theorized, but usually they are offered abstractly or they involve vague notions rather than specific examples. If this is true, then it is illegitimate for Darwinians to fall back on these supposed indirect pathways. There simply is no evidence that any convincing such pathways exist.
The explanatory point is this; design explanations are explanatorily superior to non-design explanations when it comes to irreducibly complex structures. We have plenty of evidence that intelligent designers can create such structures, but, if the empirical point is correct, we don’t have any evidence that such structures can be created without the aide of an intelligent designer. Thus, ID is explanatorily superior to its rival theories, including Darwinian evolution.
This all seems right to me. In my opinion, the point comes down to the empirical point. Are there any convincing Darwinian accounts of how an irreducibly complex structure could evolve? ID is very vulnerable at this point, because in order for the theory to be successful there has to be a total or a near total lack of such convincing accounts. ID theorists cannot simply select one irreducibly complex structure that they think is particularly hard to explain and hope that Darwinists never are able to come up with a convincing account. Rather, the presence of just a few convincing accounts of the gradual evolution of truly irreducibly complex structures would destroy the empirical point of the argument.
So, this is where the debate lies, and it is also where I feel least confident making any pronouncements. If I had to hazard an opinion, I would say that Darwinians have failed to offer any convincing accounts of the evolution of irreducibly complex structures. But if just a few such convincing accounts are available, then I think that the case for Intelligent Design collapses. Far from being untestable, I think that ID is extraordinarily vulnerable to potential falsification. I would prefer to stand back and see how the debate progresses in the future.
But note here that one of the errors commonly made by Darwinists in this debate is that they simply assume that evolution is true unless proven false. Yet, why should they be given such an easy burden? If Darwinists cannot explain any of the large number of irreducibly complex structures in nature, then why should they get a free pass simply because it has not been proven that they haven’t evolved?
2. Behe, Michael J.. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York City: Free Press, 2006.
3. Orr, H. Allen. “Darwin v. Intelligent Design (Again).” Boston Review. 1 Sep. 1997. 17 Aug. 2008
4. Crick, Francis, and Leslie Orgel. “Directed Panspermia.” Icarus 19 (1973): 341-346.
5. Dawkins, Richard, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1986), p. 141.
6. Dembski, William. “Irreducible Complexity Revisited.” Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design 3.1 (2004): 1-47.
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