As explained earlier by idnet.com.au, Michael J. Murray and Jeffrey P. Schloss have contributed a paper at PNAS answering an argument in a previous paper, also published at PNAS, by John C Avise. idnet.com.au did a fine job explaining the details of the argument, I intend on focusing on the paper from Murray and Schloss in a kind of exegetical manner.
In a recent issue of PNAS, Avise (1) presents a helpful survey of suboptimal features of the human genome that are best understood as products of evolution, but in venturing to offer theological commentary on intelligent design (ID) and religious belief in general, he errs on three counts.
Those three counts are:
First, the central claims of ID have been abundantly critiqued on strict empirical grounds (2), leaving no need for recourse to his theological objection that imperfections are unworthy of deity. Laplace’s dictum about the role of God in explanations of nature—“I have no need of that hypothesis”—has become the guiding principle for science. Arguing that the presence of “genetic evil” undercuts appeals to divine agency is superfluous and detracts from rather than advances scientific discussion.
ID is not critiqued on empirical grounds, it is critiqued exactly on theoretical grounds which come from evolutionary presuppositions which are themselves based on other presuppositions. The only critiques (which are not actually critiques) I see of the work of Dembski, Marks, Ewert and Montanez at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab, for instance, are that their peer reviewed papers are not really peer reviewed at the IEEE (the world’s largest professional organization for the advancement of technology) or that these evolutionary algorithms have no purchase on actual biology. But if evolutionary algorithms have no purchase on actual biology, then neither do the programs like Avida and ev which are supposed to be evidence for biological evolution. In neither case are there empirical grounds that critique ID.
Secondly, Laplace’s dictum that God (or any intelligence presumably), is a priori ruled out of what is science as the guiding rule for science is a philosophy, which is certainly not empirical. They have just smuggled in a philosophical point of view which is exactly what they begrudge Avise for doing (arguing on philosophical or theological grounds, and not empirical, against ID). I need not labor the point that for different sciences there are differing scientific lines of demarcation, and some sciences certainly do allow for the intervention of intelligent forces. If this option is ruled out a priori, then the issue of what science is becomes definitional, and begs the question.
Second, the line of argument made against ID is, in addition to being superfluous, actually unsound. ID contends (wrongly, it turns out) that irreducibly complex structures require intelligent intervention in their causal ancestry and not that structures caused by intelligent agency are optimal. Anyone stumbling on the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge would immediately conclude that it was a designed artifact, despite the equally apparent evidence of poor design that ultimately caused its collapse. Natural imperfections may (or may not) be irreconcilable with a divine designer, but this is an entirely theological issue and not a scientific one suitable for PNAS.
Irreducible complexity has not been answered, period. It has been mis-cast, mis-characterized, and co-option has been trotted out as a potential argument against it, philosophically, with just-so stories, but they are not empirical. The contention that parts of a mousetrap, such as the metal clasp being used as a tie clip, the wood as a door stop, and that the coming together of all of these parts (without intelligence) into a coherent and useful structure for killing mice, is simply fancy. It has not been shown that the origin of life and the nanotechnological city and the language in the DNA code that exists within the cell has come about by happenstance, or any other process outside of intelligence. If I am making an argument from incredulity, so be it. The argument from incredulity is a sound argument when you realize what is involved with regard to irreducible complexity. It is not a matter of whether the complexity of parts can be individualized theoretically and used for other and simpler purposes; to empirically validate that claim, the parts have to evidenced as actually being used for those purposes and coming together and forming the new purpose, all without intelligence. You can always tell a story about what parts could possibly be used for, as an idea, but that is not empirical. If the argument against irreducible complexity is based on a notion that ID folks are making an argument from incredulity when defining what is irreducibly complex, it should be remembered that the argument against ID is an argument from incredulity as well, one based on a philosophical presupposition that there must be a step-wise and gradual cataract of events for anything and everything natural. But as I said before, this is a issue of how you first define science, and cannot then be used to say that ID is not scientific without begging the question.
They are correct that the argument from optimal design is unsound as an argument against ID. ID never claimed it as a hard and fast criterion for design detection. To even claim that something is sub-optimally designed is to say something about design. There are obviously design constraints given what is involved, such as weight, placement, functionality, etc. of the designed object. Nevertheless, I agree that this is not an argument against ID, but I do not agree with their reason for rejecting this argument. They contend that “Natural imperfections may (or may not) be irreconcilable with a divine designer”, while ID contends that that the intelligent designer doesn’t necessarily mean divine design. They are both, on this point, arguing for or against a mischaracterization of ID, which is not a scientific one and is not suitable for PNAS by their own contention.
Third, contrary to Avise’s culminating exhortation (1), evolution does not “emancipate religion from the shackles of theodicy.” We no longer need to agonize over God’s responsibility for massive suffering, he opines, because the blame now rests on natural evolutionary causes. However, positing that God delegated the task of generating life to insentient evolution merely ushers in an explanatory regress that serves to illuminate rather than ease the problem of the evils resulting from the operation of nature.
Now we are obviously back to a theological argument, a theological argument that, Murray and Schloss contend, is not worthy of discussion at PNAS. I agree that evolution, a secondary cause, does not make a theodicy, does not remove all responsibility of the first cause. But again, ID is not a religious point of view, and therefore not concerned with theodicy. There are prominent supporters of ID who are atheist and agnostic. I have written about the difficulty of this “once-removed” theodicy, which gives all the blame to evolution and none to God, here when I wrote about Darrel Falk, who contended the same theodicy as Avise.
Finally, Avise (1) concludes that evolution constitutes “salvation for theology.” Whether this is or even could be true of any scientific theory is highly debatable. Less debatable is that rather than being made in a journal of scientific research, such a claim ought to be vetted in a venue appropriate to rigorous assessment in light of relevant philosophical and theological literature.
I wrote all of the above and sent it to Murray and Schloss to get their responses before I published this entry. Murray responded with the following: