Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

Neither Matter Nor Magic But Mind


Uncommon Ground has a brief note today titled “Natural Law and Intelligent Design,” in which the author plugs a longer piece by Matthew Yglesias titled “Nature and Super-Nature” (go here). This piece is rife with misconceptions about the nature of science and the status of methodological materialism as a normative rule for science. Since these questions are very much at the forefront of current legal and educational battles, let me weigh in here. The key is to understand that the nature-supernature distinction poses a false dilemma. There is a third option.

Yglesias tacitly assumes a normative principle for science known as methodological naturalism or methodological materialism. Moreover, for him ID’s rejection of this principle entails that ID must be committed to a form of supernaturalism. This, in turn, makes ID for him a religious belief.

The impression Yglesias leaves is that whereas conventional evolutionary theory is engaged in the hard work of real science, intelligent design appeals to the supernatural and thus gives up on science, substituting magic for “natural explanations.” But what are “natural explanations”? Indeed, what constitutes nature remains very much an open question. If one reviews the ID literature, one finds that early on there were quite a few references to “the supernatural,” but that by 2000 (especially with Baylor’s Nature of Nature conference, which I helped organize), references to the supernatural largely disappear. The reason for this is that the very term “supernatural” concedes to materialists like Yglesias precisely the point at issue, namely, what is nature like and what are the causal powers by which nature operates.

Yglesias wants to say that nature operates only by natural causes and is explained scientifically only through natural explanations. But what does Yglesias mean by nature? In a previous blog entry at ID the Future (go here), I briefly criticized methodological materialism. There I cited Eugenie Scott as follows:

Most scientists today require that science be carried out according to the rule of methodological materialism: to explain the natural world scientifically, scientists must restrict themselves only to material causes (to matter, energy, and their interaction). There is a practical reason for this restriction: it works. By continuing to seek natural explanations for how the world works, we have been able to find them. If supernatural explanations are allowed, they will discourage—or at least delay—the discovery of natural explanations, and we will understand less about the universe. [For context go here.]

In response, I noted that

There are two problems with this [Eugenie Scott’s] statement. First, if methodological materialism is merely a working hypothesis that scientists employ because “it works,” then scientists are free to discard it when it no longer works. Design theorists contend that for adequately explaining biological complexity, methodological materialism fails and rightly needs to be discarded. Second, and more significantly, in defining science as the search for natural explanations, Scott presupposes precisely what must be demonstrated. If, by natural explanations, Scott simply means explanations that explain what is happening in nature, there would be no problem, and intelligent design would constitute a perfectly good natural explanation of biological complexity. But that is not what she means.

By natural explanations, Scott means explanations that resort only to material causes—as she puts it, to “matter, energy, and their interaction.” But that is precisely the point at issue, namely, whether nature operates exclusively by such causes. If nature contains a richer set of causes than purely material causes, then intelligent design is a live possibility and methodological materialism will misread physical reality. Note, also, that to contrast natural explanations with supernatural explanations further obscures this crucial point. Supernatural explanations typically denote explanations that invoke miracles and cannot be understood scientifically. But explanations that call upon intelligent causes require no miracles and give no evidence of being reducible to Scott’s trio of “matter, energy, and their interaction.” Indeed, design theorists argue that intelligent causation is perfectly natural provided that nature is understood aright.

Because so much of this debate over intelligent design hinges on the nature of nature, I need to expand on these remarks. Nature, as conceived by Scott, Yglesias, and many other critics opposed to ID, consists of material entities ruled by fixed laws of interaction, often referred to as “natural laws.” These laws can be deterministic or nondeterministic, which is why some scientists refer to nature as being governed by “chance and necessity.” (Cf. Jacques Monod’s book by that title.) Obviously, these laws of interaction rule out any form of intelligent agency acting real-time within nature. They operate autonomously and automatically: given certain material entities with certain energetic properties in certain spatio-temporal relationships, these entities will behave in certain prescribed ways.

An inescapable question now arises: How do we know that nature is in fact a set of material entities ruled by fixed laws of interaction? In particular, how do we know that everything that happens in nature can be accounted for in terms of antecedent material conditions and the processes that act on them characterized by these laws of interaction? Once the question is posed this way, it becomes an open question whether nature comprises a set of material entities ruled by fixed laws of interaction. In fact, it becomes a live possibility that nature, so conceived, is radically incomplete. In my book No Free Lunch I summarize what’s at issue here as follows:

In arguing that naturalistic explanations are incomplete or, equivalently, that natural causes cannot account for all the features of the natural world, I am placing natural causes in contradistinction to intelligent causes. The scientific community has itself drawn this distinction in its use of these twin categories of causation. Thus, in the quote earlier by Francisco Ayala, “Darwin’s greatest accomplishment [was] to show that the directive organization of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process, natural selection, without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent.” Natural causes, as the scientific community understands them, are causes that operate according to deterministic and nondeterministic laws and that can be characterized in terms of chance, necessity, or their combination (cf. Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity). To be sure, if one is more liberal about what one means by natural causes and includes among natural causes telic processes that are not reducible to chance and necessity (as the ancient Stoics did by endowing nature with immanent teleology), then my claim that natural causes are incomplete dissolves. But that is not how the scientific community by and large understands natural causes. (pp. xiii-xiv)

The point to appreciate here is that Yglesias and his compadres, in assuming methodological materialism, have assumed precisely the point at issue. Specifically, to say, as Yglesias suggests, that science is the search for natural explanations of natural phenomena is to presuppose that such explanations exist for all natural phenomena. But how is this claim to be justified? Rather than justify it, Yglesias begs the question. To see that Yglesias has indeed made a question-begging assumption here, consider the following analogy drawn from the game of chess. In chess, there are initially thirty-two pieces arranged on an eight-by-eight chessboard as follows:


Moreover, chess operates by certain fixed rules. For instance, bishops move diagonally, pawns only move forward and only take one square diagonally, etc. In this analogy, the chess pieces in their initial configuration correspond to the material entities that for Yglesias constitute nature and the rules of chess correspond to the laws of interaction that for Yglesias govern nature.

Given the initial position of chess pieces and the rules of the game, we can ask whether the following position is possible:


It turns out that it is not. There is no way to get from the first position to the second by the rules of chess.

So too, intelligent design purports to show that there exist configurations of material entities (e.g., bacterial flagella, protein synthesis mechanisms, and complex organ systems) that cannot be adequately explained in terms of antecedent material conditions together with processes characterized by fixed laws that act on them. Granted, chess constitutes a toy example whereas the biological examples ID theorists investigate are far more complicated. Moreover, whereas chess operates according to precise mathematical rules, the laws of interaction associated with material entities are probabilistic, so the obstacles to producing complex biological configurations of material entities are not logical impossibilities but empirical improbabilities. But the point of the analogy still holds. Whenever you have a theory about process — how one state is supposed to progress into another — it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether the process in question is capable of accounting for the final state in terms of the initial state.

It follows that the charge of supernaturalism against intelligent design cannot be sustained. Indeed, to say that rejecting naturalism entails accepting supernaturalism holds only if nature is defined as a closed system of material entities ruled by unbroken laws of material interaction. But, as we have just seen, this begs the question. Consider the following riddle: If one calls a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have? The correct answer is: Four — calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.

Likewise, defining nature as a closed system of material entities operating by fixed laws of interaction doesn’t make it so. Nature is what nature is, and prescribing methodological materialism as a normative principle for science (as so many critics of ID do) does nothing to change that. ID theorists argue that methodological materialism fundamentally distorts our understanding of nature. For the purposes of this case, the crucial thing is not whether they are right but whether they might be right. Given that they might be right, methodological materialism cannot be taken as a defining feature of science, much less should it be held dogmatically. To make methodological materialism a defining feature of science commits the premodern sin of forcing nature into a priori categories rather than allowing nature to speak for itself.

To sum up, Yglesias and company present us with a false dilemma: either science must be limited to “natural explanations” (taken in a highly tendentious sense) or it must embrace “supernatural explanations,” by which is meant magic. But there is a third possibility: neither matter nor magic but mind. ID theorists are not willing to concede the materialist claim that a designing intelligence (mind) interacting with matter is “supernatural.” Indeed, investigations by ID theorists are beginning to demonstrate that this interaction is perfectly natural — that nature cannot be properly understood apart from the activity of a designing intelligence.

If you're willing to ignore any level of improbability then random mutation is capable of creating anything within the realm of the physically possible. It's possible for a volcano to spit out a Swiss watch, wound up and with the time set correctly for the volcano's time zone. Possible but not bloody likely in a finite universe. In an infinite universe it's not only possible, it's assured sooner or later, as that's the nature of infinity. Back in Darwin's day it was generally accepted that the universe was constant and infinite. That's not true today. Since the big bang theory was more or less verified by successfully predicting a nearly uniform cosmic microwave background radiation there is now a temporal bound imposed on what can happen via random events. As time & space was bounded by scientific discovery, science also found an exponentially increasing complexity in the basic machinery of life. Darwin's postulation that vast amounts of time & space could overcome improbabilities in evolutionary change simply became more and more incredible as time passed. Combine this with the widely mistaken belief that Darwin was not a Lamarckian and it gets even worse. Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characters would be vastly, VASTLY faster at producing beneficial mutuations than random mutations. Now add in the fact that the fossil record, which Darwin believed would eventually testify to the gradualism of evolution, 150 years later stands in stark contradiction and shows abrubt emergence of differentiated species that remain constant until extinction... well, any other theory in science would have been admitted as being falsified after failing in so many ways. Karl Popper is rolling over in his grave. Every last thing that offended Popper about Marxist theory's failure to be abandoned after its predictions were found untrue has happened with the Darwinian theory too. It seems no amount of failed predictions can falsify mutation/selection. It isn't a theory anymore. It's a religious dogma. It's Darwin of the Gaps. It's disgusting. DaveScot
In response to post #5 Scientist that will claim to fully understand evolution seem not apply, like those at talkorigins. When refering to something out of bounds they reply with a 'scientist' like response “hmmm…that’s not supposed to happen.” Of such configurations stimulating breakthoughs are made." Does talkorigins admit such about the Flagellum? Of course not. This kind of post would be more appreciated if it came from a respectable source in reference to the argument Dembski proposes. Instead of admitting such about Darwinism though, talkorigins will refer to indirect methods for the falgellums existance, is that a stimulating breakthrough about nature? Shoving the problem off to chance and discovering a new breakthrough about the laws of nature are two completely seperate things in my book. Anyway more to the point. Talkorigins is still assuming that if a new (in reference to the laws of nature) mark was found it would have an explainable natural source - which is the entire point being made here. We dont know if it would or would not. Sure the new discovery would be boiled down to what we consider another part of nature, but does that still mean nature is a deterministic/inderterministic force not driven by intelligence? In reference to something like string theory nature as a whole is driven by one physical characteristic. If nature is driven completely by one physical characteristic what then gives that drive its physical characteristic? Is the drive intelligent or random? Is it outside of time - not happening in a cause and effect dimension? So many unanswerable questions that are assumed a certain way for the case of materialism. The problem is deeper than 'it has a natural explanation' its 'what is a natural explanation'? T.Witt
I must admit, I'm no scientist, but isn't it possible that there are laws of nature (produced by a external Intelligence) that cannot yet be measured by our modern-day equipment? Another question, isn't it true that we don't measure laws themselves, but the effect those laws have on objects? I.e., we know that the wind is blowing because we can see the trees moving. We know there's gravity because of the way it affects bodies which are in proximity. Couldn't this be ture for an Intelligence? You may not be able to measure the Intelligence itself, but we can surely see the effects of it in our physical reality (i.e., design inferences). The very fact that some Intelligence has indeed caused things to happen in our universe makes the agencies it uses, by definition, natural if not necessarily materialistic. Just to be clear, in the chess example, we were clearly talking about a violation of the rules of chess, otherwise how could the pieces have gotten there? Is that what is being suggested about natural laws, or does the analogy break down there? If this is just mindless babble, feel free to ingore it, but responses would be appreciated. reblevins
Please clarify: are you saying human-made things evolve? g arago
Dr. Dembski wrote: “the rules of lots of games ‘evolve’” Why put “ ” around evolve? It may be important to clarify if (lots of) games ‘evolve’ or if they evolve, especially since we can all agree that games are not natural, in the sense of the game of chess. Chess is made and ‘adapted’ or ‘modified’ by human beings. Please clarify or verify. If there are multiple meanings of evolution to be used differently in various places, then I could understand how intelligent design is considered by some as an appropriate foil. If the laws (or rules) of games ‘evolve’ then how can the ‘laws of nature’ be said unable to evolve? Is there evidence they don’t evolve? Human-made versus nature-made – is this the distinction that is being applied? I don’t comprehend the rationale behind the argument: “The laws of chess can and did evolve because they are not natural” Is this to suggest that non-natural things (‘because they are not natural’) ‘evolve’ while natural things do not? This would seem to be a reversal of previous evolutionary logic (or illogic!). Natural vs. artificial is an old dichotomy, as we all know. To speak openly for the positive, I agree with both persons here that the rules of chess couldn’t change ‘naturally,’ that is, ‘on their own,’ because they are a human-social product, invention, construction and/or fabrication, etc. Likewise, they are not mere 'configurations of matter.' To answer Dr. Dembski’s question, I also would not say the laws of nature (can) ‘evolve.’ Though, by the logic being applied in this thread, our interpretations of the laws of nature certainly (can) evolve. Our interpretations of Darwinism are obviously ‘evolving,’ if such a phrase may be used. This leads to something else entirely. On the other case, I certainly would not say that the laws/rules of chess ‘evolve’ because those laws/rules are not random, due primarily to environmental pressures, fitness landscapes, or special-probabilistic logic. Even if the laws/rules are ‘differentiated’ in various places (e.g. house rules) it does not stand to reason that they evolve in the same way as nature is said to evolve. Why choose to say they evolve and not use some other metaphor instead? Human beings are choosing to ‘change the rules’ (e.g. one-two square pawn moves), the rules are not being forced upon them from above or the ‘outside.’ Making it more ‘fun’ may be an acceptable category for scientific speculation, but modifying the rules of Risk in one’s private den doesn’t count for ‘evolving’ the rules of Risk; those stay fixed with the instructions on/in the box. EVO-Chess Logic: better be careful or soon someone will en passant your Queen! The king has already fallen; his tombstone is shown on this weblog. Why do some people want to turn him into a pawn...and then call it an ‘evolution’ or ‘revolution’ of the game? Nice to meet you Andrew arago g arago
Checkmate! Secular science can't see it coming, but it is only a few moves away... They are playing against a higher intelligence here, and even if they manage to take a few more peices their defeat is inevitable. They dont realize that the chess board itself was designed...let alone less the pieces and rules! Jedi Deist
Arago, The laws of chess can and did evolve because they are not natural; instead they are designed by intelligent beings who changed their minds about how the game should be played over the course of the game's history. They couldn't have changed "naturally," that is, on their own, or even in a computer simulation because neither chess pieces or computers are intelligent. If the laws of nature have evolved, there must therefore be some higher force guiding this evolution, but natural selection can't come to the rescue because it is itself a law of nature; the chess piece can't evolve the rules of the game itself. For the laws of nature to evolve, science would have to postulate something higher or beyond nature, i.e., God. Which is exactly what they cannot do. Andrew Nichols
Re the laws of chess evolving: Several hundred years ago, pawns could only move forward one square at a time. To expedite the game, pawns were subsequently allowed to move two squares on the first move and for subsequent moves only one square. This change in rule, however, necessitated another rule, namely, capturing en passant (i.e., capturing a two-square moving pawn as though it had only moved one square). I don't know my history of chess rules all that well, but I wouldn't be surprised if castling (moving the king and rook simultaneously to get the king out of harm's way and to facilitate development of the rook) was also such a modification. Actually, the rules of lots of games "evolve" to make them more fun (I seem to recall playing Risk in high school and modifying the rules). Question: Is there any evidence that the laws of nature evolved? William Dembski
Dr. Dembski wrote: [b]"the laws of chess are not evolving (they did at one point, but they’ve been fixed now for several hundred years)."[/b] Would he please explain how the 'laws of chess' were 'evolving'? I don't think the 'laws of chess' are 'natural'...or are/were they? This is a question about the 'nature' of chess. Thank you for linking to the "Nature of Nature" conference. It helps explain the transformation of the ID Movement by re-reading the paper titles and biosketches of plenary speakers from that 2000 event. I had just finished a paper on the 'disenchantment of education' at that same time, though had not heard of theories of intelligent design or didn't remember them yet. arago g arago
I don't know why this has to so complicated. If rational man evolved by natural means then intelligence is a natural phenomenon. If rational man evolved by intelligent means it does not follow that the prior intelligence is unnatural. Church of Darwin members contradict themselves when it comes to intelligence and natural origins thereof. They claim that intelligence arised naturally but it's unnatural if it happened more than once. Huh? Error. Does not compute. The problem with Church of Darwin members is that they believe, as a matter of faith, there is only one intelligence that operates in the universe - rational man. This is the very definition of geocentrism and is contrary to the Copernican Principle which states that the earth, and life on the earth, is not a special creation, not the center of the universe, but rather it is an unremarkable, average place in every way until proven otherwise. SETI is inspired by the Copernican Principle - a tacit acknowledgement by science that intelligence is assumed to be a common thing in the universe. The enlightenment began based on the Copernican Principle. The Church of Darwin, by discarding the Copernican Principle, is a throwback to the dark ages. DaveScot
Re comment #7: Science changes by not by scientists changing their minds but by the old guard being replaced. Dawkins & Co. are dinosaurs on route to extinction. A new breed of scientists will replace them. I'm already seeing signs of this. William Dembski
[...] ID doesn’t go Poof! Dembski strikes against Ygelsias and co. with his article, Neither Matter Nor Magic But Mind, but not everybody gets it. Heaven is not the sky respons [...] Weapons of Warfare » ID doesn’t go Poof!
Intelligent Design Versus Materialism What exactly is this "intelligence" that is neither matter, nor energy, nor any interaction between the two?... Heaven is not the sky
I'm glad you're blogging on these issues, not only to counter Yglesias but also (more knowledgable?) blogs like Thoughts From Kansas. I have a practical question for you: granted that methodological materialism is the vastly predominate view among scientists today and that even the possibility of anything else is treated with contempt, how can this paradigm ever be shifted? If a scientist refuses to make a judgement on the metaphysical question, claiming it isn't his turf, yet continues to assume the answer that he thinks science must assume, how can his mind ever be opened? Can science be changed? Andrew Nichols
The issue is not whether we know all of the laws of nature. The issue is whether there are configurations of matter that are inaccessible from other configurations of matter via processes governed by those laws -- whatever those laws happen to be. The story is told of former world chess champion Raoul Capablanca learning chess as a small boy watching grown-ups play the game. Clearly, he didn't know all the rules from the start. But even so, there would have been no way to get from the first chess configuration that I gave to the second. This post on talk.origins confuses epistemology with ontology. Just because we don't know all the laws does not mean that they are not fixed and don't constrain what can happen. Moreover, just because we don't know all the laws doesn't mean that we can't reliably do eliminative inductions and rule out certain possibilities on the basis of those laws (cf. the 2nd law of thermodynamics). The only way this post on talk.origins can be justified is if the laws of nature are themselves evolving. But we have no evidence that they are. Likewise, the laws of chess are not evolving (they did at one point, but they've been fixed now for several hundred years). William Dembski
Would anyone care to respond to the following talk.origins post arguing against Dembski's chess analogy? "[Dembski] presents a chess board with the pieces in a configuration that cannot be achieved by the rules of chess. He then compares this to ID, suggesting that, like the board, biological complexity cannot be explained by the rules of natural processes. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that there was an intervention of something beyond the rules to achieve the configuration. "Granting for the moment (an extraordinarily large and extraordinarily unwarranted grant) that this chess configuration *is* analogous to biological complexity, it seems to me that Dembski misses the true value of this comparison as regards science. "What the chess configuration-biocomplexity is really offering is the chance to discover something new about how the natural world operates. Chess is a finite operational system, all the rules are known. No one, I hope even Dembski, would suggest that the same holds for biology. There are new things to be learned, new mechanisms to be uncovered. New rules to be understood. And Dembski's unattainable chess board is perfectly analogous to that moment when a scientist looks at some data about the natural world and mutters, "hmmm...that's not supposed to happen." Of such configurations stimulating breakthoughs are made. "As often happens with Dembski's arguments, he got it partly right, it just doesn't mean what he thinks it means. That he believes this example shows why inference to the supernatural is warranted underscores not only how little he understands real science, but also how little he values it." http://groups-beta.google.com/group/talk.origins/browse_frm/thread/cd9414cd1048e987/befb777a18d51c28?hl=en#befb777a18d51c28 eswrite
Good post. There are two major criticisms of ID: 1) ID falls outside of science; 2) ID is not in peer-reviewed literature. Perhaps there's another: 3) There are no evolutionary biologists who doubt evolution. It's good that you are tackling the first objection. I recently read an interesting paper by a professor that I know that suggests that consciousness is the fundamental entity in the universe (as opposed to matter). The professor suggested that the physical world is actually just a user interface that conscious agents use to interact with each other. I don't know if I would totally agree with that, but it is an interesting perspective. anteater
Transitional forms of an ideology Dembski's latest post, Neither Matter Nor Magic But Mind, has some good ideas and intriguing questions, and also seems to show an interesting ideological shift in process. The good thoughts first: If one reviews the ID literature, one finds that e... Heaven is not the sky
I totally agree with you Bill. Such reductive explanations as far as the universe and biology are highly equivocal. It is only the naturalists who are ardently holding to some blind faith in material processes to account for everything we see. The analogy of the chess board was good. When you argue your case for ID,whether it's at school, the court or elsewhere this analogy plus the previously mentioned naturalists will totally drive the point home. It's ironic how the scientific materialists blame the religionists for hampering the progress of science. However, it looks like they are repeating the same atrocity. For example, it took 25-30 years to accept the big bang theory. In it's inception, the materialists strived fervently to espouse an oscillating universe. Although untenable, they continued to push their case. Simply because it made them uncomfortable. Once again, we are seeing the same thing happening. Only now in biology. A place where teleology and design have been exile for about 150 years. Do we honestly need the materialists to hamper the evidence again? Beyond science it just becomes pure philosophy. Case in point, Weinberg, Dawkins, Sagan, Gould, Lewontin and many more. Benjii
ID pioneer Michael Polanyi had 2 Nobel Laureate pupils, one was Eugene Wigner (whom I consider a grandfather of ID), and the other his son John Polanyi. It was through a "proof by contradiction" in quantum theory that Wigner introduced mind as an irreducible entity that influences nature. Ironically, the origin-of-life researcher, Harold Morowitz, who testified against the creationists in the landmark McLean vs. Arkansas, had this to say, which is sympathetic to ID: "The views of a large number of contemporary physcal scientists are summed up in the essay "remarks on the Mind-Body Question" written by Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner. Wigner begins by pointing out that most physical scientists have returned to the recognition that thought--meaning the mind--is primary. he goes on to state: "It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness." And he concludes by noting how remarkable it is that the scientific study of the world led to the content of consciousness as the ultimate reality. .... Third and last, atomic physics, which is now understood most fully by means of quantum mechanics, must be formulated with the mind as a primitive component of the system. .... What emerges from all this is the return of "mind" to all areas of scientific thought... " from his book, "Cosmic Joy" scordova

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