Evolution Intelligent Design

Michael Shermer in the LA Times

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Michael Shermer had an op-ed in the LA Times a week and a half ago. I’m reprinting a fuller version of it here with his permission and including some commentary in italics. Thanks, Michael.

God and Evolution

Intelligent Design Theory, George W. Bush, and the Question of God

By Michael Shermer

Intelligent Design (ID) creationism has resurfaced in the news again after President George W. Bush’s remarks were (mis)taken by IDers to be a solid endorsement by the president and his administration for the teaching of ID in public school science classrooms. There was considerable media hype over the story, and I did a number of interviews, including a live debate on CNN with lead Intelligent Design theorist William Dembski. As this story unfolded, however, I discovered (to no great surprise) that IDers, along with many in the media, and pundits on both the right and the left, greatly exaggerated Bush’s remarks.

[“Greatly exaggerated” is itself exaggerated. Ask yourself whether Bush would be happy with only Shermer’s brand of evolution taught.]

On Monday, August 1, Bush gave an interview at the White House to a group of Texas newspaper reporters in which he said that when he was governor of Texas “I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught.” When a reporter asked for his position today on whether ID should be taught alongside the theory of evolution, Bush replied that he did “so people can understand what the debate is about.” But when pressed as to his opinion on whether ID is a legitimate scientific alternative to the theory of evolution, Bush wisely equivocated: “I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.” Well of course, but that’s a different question.

[There’s the text and the subtext. Is there really any doubt about President Bush’s subtext?]

So, the claim by IDers and several Christian groups, along with complaints by liberals that President Bush endorses ID, is exaggerated. In fact, Bush’s science adviser, John H. Marburger 3rd, said in a telephone interview with the New York Times that “evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology” and “intelligent design is not a scientific concept.” He added that the president’s comments should be interpreted to mean that ID be discussed not as science but as part of the “social context” in science classes, and that it would be “over-interpreting” Bush’s remarks to conclude that the president believes that ID and the theory of evolution should be given equal treatment in public school science courses.

[Marburger is a company man, and the company he represents is mainstream science — just look at his credentials here. To be sure, they are impressive. But they are entirely status quo. Also, let’s remember that he is a science advisor to the President. He does not make policy. That’s the President’s job, who can overrule him any time he likes. Indeed, one can see President Bush’s recent remarks as just such an act of overruling — does anyone really think that Marburger was pleased with the President’s recent remarks, much less his actual views on ID?]

When a reporter from Time magazine asked for my opinion about whether one can believe in God and the theory of evolution, I replied that, empirically speaking, yes you can, the proof being that 40 percent of American scientists profess belief in God and also accept the theory of evolution, not to mention the fact that most of the world’s one billion Catholics believe in God and accept the theory of evolution. But then this reporter wanted to know is if it is logically consistent to believe in God and the theory of evolution. That is, does the theory of evolution—if carried out to its logical conclusion—preclude belief in God? This is a different question. My answer appeared in truncated form in an Opinion Editorial that ran in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, August 7, under the title “Why God’s in a Class by Himself.” This was the editors’ title choice, and it is an interesting one considering what I have to say on the subject. Here is my longer answer.

You can believe in God and evolution as long as you keep the two in separate logic-tight compartments. Belief in God depends on religious faith. Belief in evolution depends on empirical evidence. This is the fundamental difference between religion and science. If you attempt to reconcile religion and science on questions about nature and the universe, and if you push the science to its logical conclusion, you will end up naturalizing the deity because for any question about nature—the origins of the universe, life, humans, whatever—if your answer is “God did it,” a scientist will ask, “How did God do it?, What forces did God use? What forms of matter and energy were employed in the creation process?” and so forth. The end result of this inquiry can only be natural explanations for all natural phenomena. What place, then, for God?

[This Gould’s NOMA combined with methodological materialism. Gould’s NOMA, by placing religion and science in airtight compartments, actually destroys traditional theistic belief because it invariably plays havoc with divine action in human history. Essentially, all it leaves religion is ethical values and religious experience, which is far too thin a soup on which to nourish a robust Christianity — which may explain why Shermer, though once an evangelical Christian is one no longer. As for methodological materialism, the view that nature operates purely by material entities (force, energy, matter), that is precisely the point at issue. Shermer took part in Baylor’s Nature of Nature conference back in April 2000, so he knows that this is the issue. His view of nature begs the question. For more on this, see my recently posted article In Defense of Intelligent Design, in particular the subsection on methodological materialism, at www.designinference.com.]

One could argue that God is the laws and forces of nature, which is logically acceptable, but this is pantheism and not the type of personal God to which most people profess belief. One could also argue that God created the universe and life using the laws and forces of nature as his creation tools, which is also logically fine, but it leaves us with additional scientific questions: which laws and forces were used for to create specific natural phenomena, and in what matter were they used? how did God create the laws and forces of nature? A scientist would be curious to know God’s recipe for, say, gravity, or for a universe or a cell. For that matter, it is a legitimate scientific question to ask: what made God, and how was God created? How do you make an omniscient and omnipotent being? Finally, one could argue that God is outside of nature—super nature, or supernatural—and therefore needs no explanation. This is also logically consistent, but by definition it means that the God question is outside of science and therefore religion and science are separate and incompatible.

[Given a faulty premise, there’s no surprise that the subsequent reasoning is all mucked up. With theism, God is self-subsistent, just as for Shermer, Nature (writ large) is self-subsistent. Artistotle called these principles. They are starting points, and it does no good to look for some further resting point of explanation. As for divine activity being “supernatural,” that of course depends on what one means by nature. What if intelligence is a perfectly natural feature and capacity of reality? Materialists like Shermer have gotten so used to stacking the deck in their favor that they no longer appreciate what a fair shuffle looks like.]

One more analogy may help make the point. In my January, 2002, Scientific American column, entitled “Shermer’s Last Law,” I modified Arthur C. Clarke’s famous “Third Law” (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) thusly: Any sufficiently advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence is indistinguishable from God. God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent. Since we fall far from the mark on these traits, how could we possibly distinguish a God who has them absolutely, from an ETI who, relative to us, has them in copious amounts? Thus, we would be unable to distinguish between absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence. And if God is only relatively more knowing and powerful than us, then by definition God would be an ETI!

[A super-advanced ETI could relatively easily be distinguished from the real God. Seth Lloyd at MIT has shown that in the known material universe there are most 10^120 bit operations possible throughout history (Physical Review Letters a few years back). This places an upper limit on the amount of information that an intelligent being confined to the known material universe can process and input into the universe. Given the chaotic dynamics of the weather, it follows that such a being will not be able to predict the weather, much less control it.]

Therefore, when Intelligent Design Theorists use science to go in search of their God, what they will find (if they find anything) is an alien being capable of engineering DNA, cells, complex organisms, planets, stars, galaxies, and even universes. If we can engineer genes, clone mammals, and manipulate stem cells with science and technologies developed in only the last half century, think of what an ETI could do with, say, 10,000 years of such science and technology. For an ETI a million years more advanced than us, engineering the creation of planets and stars will be doable. And if universes are created out of collapsing black holes, which some cosmologists think is highly likely, it is not inconceivable that a sufficiently advanced ETI could create universes at will.

[Cosmologist think all sorts of things. That’s why they have an inside joke that states: there’s speculation, wild speculation, and cosmology. Lee Smolin’s hypothesis of self-reproducing black holes is highly speculative and admits no independent evidence. The only evidence for it is indirect, namely, that we should be living in a universe that optimizes the formation of black holes, and the evidence for that claim is hardly compelling. As for technologically advanced humans creating stars and planets, at this point this is sheer wish-fulfillment. Where’s your evidence, Michael? Extrapolation from the success of science and technology can’t get you there. As for our ability to engineer genes, clone mammals, and manipulate stem, all of this is parasitic on life being present in the first place. We engineer genes using biomacromolecules that we ourselves did not engineer but that life gave us. I remember having Harold Morowitz give some lectures at a seminar on ID that I was giving at Calvin College, and asking him if a certain metabolic cycle that he thought might be implicated in the origin of life had been produced abiotically. He immediate shot back, “You mean without enzymes?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “No.” It’s not at all clear that ETIs, regardless of their technology, could take inorganic matter and transform it into living matter. Moreover, even with living matter, it’s not clear how far technology can take us. Just as with predicting the weather, there may be inherent physical obstacles that block progress.]

Since IDers say they make no claim on who or what the intelligent designer might be, I contend that if they continue to try to reconcile their religion with science the end result can only be the discovery of an extra-terrestrial intelligence and the naturalization of their deity.

[This naturalizing of the designer follows only by making naturalism/materialism a premise in the argument. There no need to admit the premise.]

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com), a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and the author of How We Believe, The Science of Good and Evil, and Science Friction (Henry Holt/Times Books).

13 Replies to “Michael Shermer in the LA Times

  1. 1
    jzs says:

    “I contend that if they continue to try to reconcile their religion with science the end result can only be the discovery of an extra-terrestrial intelligence and the naturalization of their deity.”

    While it can be argued that wouldn’t be goals of ID, why does Shermer say “only”? Discovering extra-terrestrial intelligence and a deity, even a ‘natural’ one, would be amazing, no?

  2. 2
    taciturnus says:

    Hasn’t Shermer sawn off the branch on which he is sitting?

    I thought the issue for atheists like Shermer was that ID is necessarily religious because it implies God as a cause. Now he’s gone to great lengths to establish that design, even if found, wouldn’t imply a supernatural creator. Whatever the merits of his argument, hasn’t Shermer undermined his own reasons for not allowing ID in the science classroom?

  3. 3
    neurode says:

    Regarding two of Bill’s comments:

    1. “Given a faulty premise, there’s no surprise that the subsequent reasoning is all mucked up. With theism, God is self-subsistent, just as for Shermer, Nature (writ large) is self-subsistent. Artistotle called these principles. They are starting points, and it does no good to look for some further resting point of explanation. As for divine activity being “supernatural,” that of course depends on what one means by nature. What if intelligence is a perfectly natural feature and capacity of reality?”

    2. “This naturalizing of the designer follows only by making naturalism/materialism a premise in the argument. There no need to admit the premise.”

    Regarding 1, we should of course be clear on the total absence of proof that God and Nature are respectively self-subsistent, or that they are distinct ontological “starting points”. That is, a full description of nature may entail God, and a full description of God may entail nature. (In fact, I know that if I were to argue a definitional equivalence in any logic-driven debate, it would prevail.)

    Regarding 2, it should be pointed out that according to the above reasoning, a proper definition of nature would effectively naturalize God, and a proper definition of God would effectively theologize nature. Despite what Shermer seems to think, this would not necessarily favor pantheism over Christian monotheism.

    If this general line of polarization between ID and scientific naturalism persists, it will certainly prevent any sort of reconciliation between them. Unortunately, that would amount to a permanent impasse, for in this debate, a lasting one-sided victory is neither possible nor desirable.

    Of course, I’m in substantial agreement with the rest of Bill’s comments.

  4. 4
    DaveScot says:

    “I contend that if they continue to try to reconcile their religion with science the end result can only be the discovery of an extra-terrestrial intelligence and the naturalization of their deity.”

    I wouldn’t say that’s the ONLY possibility but it IS a possibility. If it turns out to be the truth so be it.

    “Supernatural” continues to annoy me whenever I encounter the term. What it really means is something outside the generally accepted understanding of nature. The history of science is nothing if not an exercise in expanding our understanding of nature – to explain the unexplained. Many things supposedly supernatural in the past have become natural within an expanded understanding of what all nature encompasses. If there is an entity that can create universes and direct their evolution that entity will only be “supernatural” until we understand it and then our concept of “nature” will expand to include such entities.

    Dembski labels this natural/supernatural schism “the nature of nature”. For me, I instantly understand what Bill means by that phrase and the implications. He doesn’t need to explain it any further for me. It’s frustrating when others, no matter how much you try to explain it, just don’t get it.

  5. 5
    Ben Z says:

    “If there is an entity that can create universes and direct their evolution, that entity will only be “supernatural” until we understand it and then our concept of “nature” will expand to include such entities.”

    I thnk the point is that since it’s supernatural, there’s no way to understand it. How do you test what’s outside of anything you can observe? We’d have to “undrestand” it only in terms of its actions, which is like phenomenalism or something… like making a person identical to his actions and forgetting the mind.

  6. 6
    DaveScot says:

    Neurode

    I think Bill is on the same page as you and I with regard to the nature of nature.

    One of the things I like to point out, to make clear how far short we are in understanding the nature of nature, is that the current best understanding of the physical nature of the universe is only 5% of it. Only 5% of the “stuff” that makes up the universe is normal matter and energy. 95% of the universe is made of something that we have no clue about other than its gravitional effect upon known forms of matter and energy. The stuff is called “dark matter” and “dark energy”.

    So 95% of the universe, as evidenced by the behavior of normal matter and energy, is a complete mystery to experimental and theoretical science.

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Dawkins, than are dreampt of in your NeoDarwinian fairytale.”

  7. 7
    DaveScot says:

    Ben Z

    What’s unobservable today is often observable tomorrow.

  8. 8
    Ben Z says:

    “What’s unobservable today is often observable tomorrow.”

    Yeah, but physical things are always potentially observable. The question is how did the physical thing come about to do the designing in the first place.

  9. 9
    Gumpngreen says:

    I’d say there IS a point where religious faith must come into play but I do not believe it need begin at the mere existence of “God”. The existence of “God” could be determined based upon scientific inference, but the CHARACTER of God ultimately has to be taken on faith even if you can prove the historical veracity of some aspects of the Bible or some other religious text.

  10. 10
    DaveScot says:

    The renewal notice for SciAm is sitting on my kitchen table unpaid. This is the first time in decades I’m seriously thinking about not renewing. Not because I don’t like the magazine but because I don’t care for Michael Shermer and John Rennie. Neither are scientists. Neither writes or has ever written a damn thing that is worth the paper it was printed on. Their words are nothing but pollutants in an otherwise fine general science journal. I’m between a rock and a hard place with this decision. Either sacrifice a lot of great science articles or stop helping to pay the salaries of two dumbasses that somehow manage to get their shite printed in it.

  11. 11
    DaveScot says:

    Ben Z

    “The question is how did the physical thing come about to do the designing in the first place.”

    The same way the matter and energy that life is made of popped into existence from nothingness 14 billion years ago would be my guess.

    What’s your guess?

  12. 12
    JohnLiljegren says:

    DaveScot,

    About SciAm. Last March, I bought a copy of SciAm to read on the flight home. I am not a scientist and thought it would be good to stretch my mind and maybe subscribe to the magazine.

    I first read Michael Shermer’s diatribe against ID. I had no idea who this guy was, but I thought the writing-thinking was, at best, at the level of a high school sophomore. [The issue also contained a worshipful piece about some totally discredited authors of a global warming article, another interest of mine]

    I figured the magazine was so lacking in funds that it has no editors. Or at least no good ones. Not one editor has the basic skills to ask its article writers for some evidence to back up ‘questionable’ claims. The obvious lack of decent editors caused me to lose any confidence that I could trust anything I would ever read in the magazine. So I never subscribed.

  13. 13
    DaveScot says:

    I’ve been reading SciAm for going on 40 years, much longer than John Rennie has been the editor-in-chief and much longer than Michael Shermer has had the “Skeptics” column. It’s only recently I discovered that the non-science chuckleheads were vehemently anti-ID. They don’t write anything except opinion articles.

    I tend to agree Rennie is predisposed towards the Chicken Little global warming theorists but in his defense he did publish an article some time ago that supported Bush’s decision to back out of Kyoto. The article pointed out that when Kyoto was first written it included substantial credits for any country that replanted forests (on the theory that forests serve as CO2 sinks). Well, the U.S. replants a LOT of forests, both domestic and foreign. When we came up with a hard number for the amount of credits for reforestation the other potential signators, who don’t plant many trees, balked and rewrote the protocol drastically reducing the credits available for reforestation. Bush then understandably told them where they could stick their modified protocol. I have to thank SciAm for publishing that article.

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