I’d like to critique Jason Rosenhouse’s critique of Stephen Barr’s critique of ID. I know, round and round we go, where we stop, no one knows. Rosenhouse appreciates the first paragraph of Barr’s analysis, but is disappointed with the rest. I am disappointed with it all. But Rosenhouse does make a few good points in taking stock of the ID movement’s influence with the public:
I hope he is right about no one being moved toward religious belief by ID writing, but I do not think he is. The ID folks are tapping into deep intuitions people have that complex, functioning structures do not arise from natural, non-intelligent causes. Many are already uncomfortable with the naturalism of modern science and see evolution as dehumanizing and implausible. They like the idea that modern science can provide some rational support for theism. My experiences at ID gatherings suggest to me that an awful lot of people are being led just where they want to go. Certainly the public opinion polls show a great deal of sympathy for ID, to the point of wanting it taught next to evolution in science classes.
So far, ‘sort of’ good. However, Rosenhouse falls of the wagon shortly after:
The biggest problems with ID lie not in abstract philosophical considerations or in drawing clear lines between science and theology. ID fails so completely because its arguments are simply wrong. They are not even interesting. They are simply retreads of old arguments that are easily refuted by anyone with basic scientific education.
This is followed by a short discussion of the political forces inherent in the ID/Evolution tension. The assertion that ID’s arguments are wrong just lounges there with no support. Last I checked, a discussion of politics is not support to an argument in science. I would say that Rosenhouse’s argument, aside from not being interesting, is not even wrong, for it is not even an argument. The biggest problem with Rosenhouse lies not in abstract philosophical considerations, nor in drawing clear lines between science and theology, for he has no abstract philosophical considerations nor lines between science and theology. Rosenhouse fails so completely because he doesn’t even provide an argument. This is not even interesting. This is simply retreading of old assertions that are easily refuted by anyone with a basic understanding of reading.
The real problem Rosenhouse has against Barr, in which he does make an argument, is that Barr is missing the point in contrasting a general appreciation of nature evidencing design (which Barr considers legitimate) and the more nuanced complex-specific and irreducibly complex appreciation of design in nature (which Barr considers illegitimate). Rosenhouse is right, there is no dilemma between the two. But that fact, of course, does not mean that they are the same thing.
Barr writes (as quoted by Rosenhouse):
Note that “atoms of the world” are not irreducibly complex, nor is “every part of the world.” Irreducible complexity has never been the central principle of traditional natural theology.
How is that an argument against irreducible complexity? As Michael Behe first introduced it, irreducible complexity was applied specifically to the fine structure of biochemical systems like flagellae and blood-clotting cascades. Previous generations of Christians would not have been able to make such arguments since the relevant science was not yet known. Why should natural theology not expand to encompass the latest scientific developments? Is the whole enterprise nothing more than expressions of awe at the beauty of nature?
I agree that the two arguments, appreciations of nature’s design by early Christians and ID, need not conflict. I disagree that they are the same enterprise. This sentiment Rosenhouse gets wrong. ID is a multi-faith, and a multi-nonfaith enterprise, just ask Antony Flew, Bradley Monton, Gerald Schroeder and David Berlinski if they are nothing more than advanced first century Christian theologians making natural theological arguments.
But again, Rosenhouse’s argument against ID is nonexistent:
Once again Barr completely misses the point. The problem with Behe’s argument about irreducible complexity is that it is wrong. Simple as that. The problem does not lie in some perceived change in focus relative to early Christian writers.
That’s not a truncated quote, that’s literally the whole paragraph.
Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous “explanatory filter” of William A. Dembski, one finds “design” by eliminating “law” and “chance” as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature.
That religion in its most common forms has frequently served as a substitute for a scientific understanding of nature is hardly a caricature created by atheists. It is the obvious conclusion of how so many religious people and religious institutions have behaved over the centuries. Barr may be unhappy about the fact, but the creationists and ID folks do represent a huge segment of American religious thought. I hardly think atheists can be faulted for pointing it out and objecting.
And the argument supporting Rosenhouse’s assertion that religious people deserve the caricature of anti-science is supported by what? Does he think it’s supported by the fact that a large population of America is creation or ID oriented? How do sheer numbers of a population of America have any bearing on an argument of behavior? Is the argument “religious people substitute religion for science by being the majority”? How does that even make sense? I can only assume that Rosenhouse takes it for granted that being religious or advocating ID necessarily means being anti-science. I reckon he considers creation or ID and science to be mutually exclusive. I might be wrong, but Rosenhouse’s argument, without this hidden assumption, makes no sense. Again, I’d like to see a real argument against ID, so I can have something to respond to.
Rosenhouse does, however, make an argument against Barr’s previous quote:
Far be it from me to defend William Dembski, but this paragraph is not a correct presentation of his argument. He is very clear in his writing that he sees evidence for God in all aspects of nature, and he certainly would not object to using the general orderliness of nature as evidence for God. His argument about the explanatory filter, as he presents it, is not about finding evidence for God at all (though in his view when his methods are applied to certain phenomena in nature they point very strongly in that direction). It is about locating phenomena that can only be explained by recourse to an intelligent agent. He is not handing those things science can explain to the atheists. He sees God in them just as surely as in everything else. Instead he would say simply that such things do not compel you to infer design.
Every time I think I can start to agree with Rosenhouse, I just read a bit further, and my hopes are dashed:
There is almost no end to the number of things that are wrong with Dembski’s argument, starting with the fact that he has never managed to formulate it in a consistent, coherent way. The fact remains, though, that Barr has been unfair to him in this paragraph.
Again, no argument against ID. I already knew that Barr was wrong.
Rosenhouse ends with this:
There is a bit more to Barr’s essay. It is disappointing that such a promising beginning should give way to such a poorly-argued mess. Still, it is certainly very helpful to have a high-profile religious publication like First Things publish such an essay.
Interesting. While disparaging ID as creationism and religion, he is encouraged by religion helping in publishing such an argument against itself; essentially as religion arguing against religion. His entire thesis is that ID is creationism, religion repackaged, so he uses religion, when it suits him, as making a valid argument, but only insofar as it argues against the validity of religion. If religion is valid then it is valid, if it is invalid it cannot be a valid argument. He would have to assume it as valid in order to assume it as invalid. But if it is invalid, it is invalid in an argument. His entire purpose is to argue against religion as a whole. He cannot have it both ways.