Intelligent Design

Dialogue with a person struggling to understand the conflict between Darwinism and intelligent design

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Recently, while I was getting ready for a meeting on the Darwinism-ID issue, a person who was wrestling with the issues took the trouble to engage me in an e-mail dialogue. I thought the questions he raised were interesting. I have reworded them to avoid violating privacy, and have reproduced my responses.

1. Darwinism does not explain the complexity of nature. But how is that a repudiation of macroevolution or evidence for Divine intervention? We have merely pointed out a flaw in an existing theory; we have not shown that God did it. What if another theory comes along to explain it all in the future? What if Lavoisier, after disproving the phlogiston theory of burning, then concluded that – insofar as phlogiston doesn’t explain chemical interactions – burning must be a miraculous process?

From Denyse: Darwinism does not explain the complexity of nature? To the extent that it doesn’t, the fact is, we don’t know how evolution occurred. That’s not – at least not to me – a repudiation of macroevolution. But I refuse to accept Darwinism on faith alone. I already have a faith that doesn’t need Darwinism. Darwinism was originally packaged as science, and if it doesn’t make it as science, it just doesn’t make it.

Divine intervention? Darwinism purported to show that divine intervention is unnecessary. If Darwinism is not the correct explanation for the life we see around us, that does not demonstrate that divine intervention IS necessary. It only means that divine intervention can be considered as a possible explanation, where warranted.

Another theory could come along? Yes, but that is true of everything, always. We must do the best we can with what we have. What we mustn’t do is assume that whatever theory replaces Darwinism must resemble it – that is, be naturalist and materialist in character. That would be like Lavoisier disproving phlogiston and then suggesting that the correct answer is fridgiston. Of course, another materialist theory will undoubtedly be offered in place of Darwinism, but it must overcome all the same hurdles – and they are pretty substantial hurdles.

2. Secondly, we use methodological naturalism [assume that all events have a material cause] as a basis for our objections to Darwinism, so we must be assuming (rightly) that naturalism is correct. But naturalism does not permit miraculous events. We cannot rely on naturalism as a basis for our objections to Darwinism, and then, after refuting the other side, claim that miracles occur.

Use naturalism as base for objections? Not sure what you mean here. I never use naturalism as a basis for objections because I am not a naturalist in any sense. My own objections to Darwinism are based on defects in the evidence for Darwinism as a creative mechanism. I accept it as a mechanism for conserving healthy genomes by eliminating unfit specimens.

So our reliance on methodological naturalism means that we believe that a naturalistic explanation will be found for evolution and that it will not involve God. So God didn’t do it.

There will eventually be found a naturalistic explanation? If you mean that there will be found an explanation of how enormous amounts of information can be quickly produced and transmitted without any intelligent causes at all, I frankly doubt it. That is like the alchemist’s search for a means of turning lead into gold, if you ask me. But we can agree to disagree about an unknown future. Because I am not a naturalist, I am not compelled to believe that anything like that will happen, and I am disinclined to believe it because it sounds implausible. I do accept, however, that many implausible naturalistic mechanisms will be put forward for all kinds of things that probably require intelligent causes.

It seems to me that either (a) you throw the current idea of naturalism out, or modify it greatly to allow for one-time miracles or something or (b) you accept it in it’s current form, which will not allow for God’s physical intervention.

Not to worry. I do throw naturalism out. But first, miracles should be distinguished from intelligent causes. An intelligent cause is not a miracle unless we think that all our thoughts are miracles.

For the record, a miracle, as I understand it, is an intervention in nature by God for the purpose of communicating with his intelligent creatures.

Characteristics of miracles:

– They violate the regular workings of nature as generally understood. In the Christian tradition, for example, the virgin birth of Jesus. (My understanding is that males cannot be virgin births because women do not have a Y chromosome.) Or the resurrection of Jesus (reversing 48 hours of death processes in a traumatized body).

– Miracles are not a mere unusual event, like a viable six-legged kitten, no matter how rare or how implausible the event appears.

– Miracles occur at serious junctures in salvation history, not in trivial or merely difficult situations.

– Their primary purpose, as Jesus pointed out, is NOT to solve people’s problems but to teach or announce a divine truth. Jesus’ miracles were intended to demonstrate the kingdom of God at hand, not to relieve suffering in local villages. See his first sermon in Luke, at the synagogue, where he says there were many poor widows but Elijah was sent only to one of them (Luke 4:25-27) . All that the miracle does is authenticate the fact that God himself is speaking.

– Miracles do not have life-changing effects on anyone who does not appropriate the divine message that they authenticate. Their purpose is not in fact to change lives, but to authenticate the divine message – rendering the witnesses who saw the miracle without excuse if they ignore that message. That was why the Lord was so hard on the Israelites in the desert. They had seen remarkable deliverances and yet they acted as though they had been sent out there to die alone.

None of this has much to do with the question of whether the high level of information in life forms was encoded at the Big Bang or in the genome later, and if so, by what means. Those are the good, but difficult questions one faces when one recognizes that there is virtually no possibility that it all happened by natural selection acting on random mutations (Darwinism).

In any event, as I have said, I reject all forms of naturalism. Methodological naturalism would only be useful if I knew that metaphysical naturalism is true, and I think that the evidence shows it is false. The question in any given situation is, what is the explanation that best fits the evidence?

11 Replies to “Dialogue with a person struggling to understand the conflict between Darwinism and intelligent design

  1. 1
    nullasalus says:

    I fail to see why there cannot be both a naturalist and “ID” explanation for evolution. Or rather, why any act of intelligence in the creation of life and the evolution of life forms must be supernatural.

    If an IC structure were seen to spontaneously assemble under the microscope (mind you, I’m not arguing this is how ID proponents envision it happening) would that be a witness to a non-naturalistic event? Or would it be a naturalistic event with natural forces we do not immediately understand? Sure, we could postulate that there was some kind of intelligence behind what we observed – but that, to me, doesn’t seem to automatically lead one away from naturalism, anymore than it would if a human constructed an IC structure in a lab.

    Mind you, I’m not coming at this from the angle of ‘ID doesn’t posit who the Designer was’ – that’s established. What I’m saying is that if ID is correct, and if that Designer is God, then does naturalism fail? Or does naturalism simply expand to accept some kind of God as a natural force? Both seem to work, depending on how you want to view it all.

  2. 2
    jerry says:

    Here is my crack at defining the evolution problem and trying to help Denyse’s correspondent.

    I think the problem of explaining and understanding evolution becomes simple with a basic definition and then a partition of the basic problems. We too often conflate unrelated issues and this confuses discussions.

    The definition: evolution is the change of the frequency of alleles in a population over time.

    Two basic issues

    1. What causes this change in frequency of alleles? Studied by population genetics and includes the part of the Haldane’s dilemma now being discussed on another thread that involves how fast an allele can spread. This is the domain of natural selection and genetic drift.

    2. What causes new alleles to come into existence? This is the bread and butter of the evolution debate and is the domain of mutations, the hypothesized way new alleles are created. Here is the origin of the so called “gradualist” approach of Darwin. It also includes the possibility of large scale changes in alleles that would bypass a gradualist approach but also be due to natural causes.

    This is the area ID is primarily interested in when it hypothesizes that some allele creation defy any ability of naturalistic process to accomplish.

    All the different meanings of evolution can be examined in this framework and understood using this simple delineation of the problem.

    So Denyse’s correspondent could be directed to part 2 and the problem of new allele creation. Neo Darwinism hypothesizes gradual changes in alleles but there is liittle or no evidence for this. Because of this several researchers have hypothesized large scale changes in alleles but none have a specific mechanism in mind other than vague speculation. ID says that some of the changes are so improbably by any natural means that it postulates an intelligence to help accomplish the creation of new alleles.

    That is it. Now each of these areas can be expanded but this outlines the basic problems.

    Summary: No support for a gradualist approach so several researchers hypothesize large scale changes by naturalistic means without identifying how these would be accompliished. ID says there is little or not evidence for gradual changes and some large scale changes are so improbable either by a one time change or any sequence of smaller changes that an intelligence must be involved at some point.

  3. 3
    mgarelick says:

    Methodological naturalism would only be useful if I knew that metaphysical naturalism is true, and I think that the evidence shows it is false.

    1) What is an example of evidence that shows that metaphysical naturalism is false?
    2) What is the alternative to methodological naturalism?

  4. 4
    Janice says:

    Methodological naturalism is not the same as metaphysical naturalism.

    Methodological naturalism is used in the natural, nomothetic, sciences because the whole point of these sciences is to discover how nature regularly and repeatedly works. If we assume some additional -ism (say, Marxism) then we have ceased trying to discover how nature works because we believe we already know how it works. In that case we are not doing science. We are doing ideologically driven pseudoscience. See Lysenkoism. See also Aristotelianism and the case of Galileo.

    The historical sciences are not in the business of trying to discover how nature regularly and repeatedly works. They are in the business of trying to explain what specific past event, or set of events, caused some some currently observed effect.

    Now the observed effect needs to be properly observed so measurements of all sorts will be made so that it can be described as fully as is possible. If tests are done on it or its constituent parts these will be conducted within the framework of methodological naturalism. But this is not the primary work of the historical sciences. This is preparatory work that can be compared to investigations undertaken in the practice of medicine – history taking, clinical examination and the ordering of relevant tests.

    The primary aim in medicine is not to fully describe the patient’s signs and symptoms but to make a diagnosis. Once as much as possible is known about the patient’s current state then that knowledge is compared with what is already known about how disease states can manifest themselves and an inference is then made to the cause that best accounts for the observed effects. That is, the primary work of the historical sciences is basically a form of data mining using abductive reasoning which commits the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. (A causes to B; B; therefore A; – but what if C, D, E and F also cause B?)

    Most of the time abductive reasoning works well in medicine because a great deal is already known about what causes what. If multiple causes suggest themselves then most of the time there are ways of distinguishing between them and, if not, then often one can wait for the true cause to declare itself in some new symptom(s) or sign(s).

    The General Theory of Evolution (macroevolution) uses science in the same way that medicine does, i.e., to inform abductive reasoning. Reasoning is what philosophers do and, indeed, what every person does multiple times a day. Reasoning is not a ‘scientific method’. To assume metaphysical naturalism when reasoning in the historical sciences is not to be scientific but to be naturalistic and, therefore, to be atheistic and, therefore, to assume what is to be proven, which is not science but pseudoscience.

    Since the argument about whether medicine is an art or a science has yet to be resolved I think it is eminently reasonable to require a similar argument about the scientific status of the historical sciences, or better, meta-sciences. In particular there should be such an argument in relation to macroevolution since what people believe about where they came from has a major impact on how they live their lives.

    Ideas do have consequences and we are now seeing the consequences of a hundred odd years of indoctrination of children into the notion that that life, because it’s supposed to have just happened, has no purpose and no meaning. I regard the teaching of macroevolution in schools as a form of child abuse and look forward to the day when a class action suit is launched against government education departments for sponsoring atheism (now recognised as a religion; see here) in public schools.

  5. 5
    gpuccio says:

    I would try to stay simple, because indeed the problem is simple.

    1) We have, everywhere, myriads of living organisms. We know something (probably a small part) of the almost infinite complexity and function in these organisms.

    2) We assume, reasonably, according to what science knows, that these organisms came into being at a certain time. They have not always been here, at least on this planet.

    3) No known physical law can explain how living beings came into being at first (OOL), or how new, more complex species came into being afterwards. In particular, the generation of the necessary amount of information has, at present, no reasonable explanation according to known physical laws.

    4) “Science” has provided a dogmatic explanation of the appearance of new, more complex species, that is darwinian evolution (including all variations of the theory); and many fantasy-driven explanations of OOL, including the RNA world scenario. All these theories are evidently false, unsubstantiated by facts, logically impossible.

    5) Whatever explanation one can suggest, there is a theory which can easily explain the information problem in living beings (although, obviously, many implementation problems stay open). That theory is ID. The information is there because a designer is responsible for it. That approach is perfectly satisfying, because we have every day examples of designed structures exhibiting (although at a lower level) the kind of complexity and function we see in living beings.

    6) So, at present, design paradigm should naturally be the main interpretative approach to research about living beings, and should stimulate a corresponding and appropriate volume of thinking and analyzing at the scientific level.

    7) If that is not happening, the only reason is a dogmatic defense against ID and its implications, based only on irrational faith in a specific, and very unsatisfying, interpretation of reality: reductive, deterministic materialism.

  6. 6
    mike1962 says:

    nullasalus, “If an IC structure were seen to spontaneously assemble under the microscope…would that be a witness to a non-naturalistic event?”

    Yes.

  7. 7
    Rude says:

    Man creates (tools, the wheel, aircraft, computers) and it’s not a miracle; but if God creates (habitable planet, living cell, plants, animals) then it is? It’s always amazing to see the highly educated grapple with “the controversy”—they seem so stupid! But then I recall what Ronald Reagan would say: “It’s not that liberals are ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”

  8. 8
    nullasalus says:

    mike1962,

    I disagree, only on the grounds that the event we see would be able to be filed under naturalism if the naturalist really wanted to do so.

  9. 9
    shaner74 says:

    “If an IC structure were seen to spontaneously assemble under the microscope (mind you, I’m not arguing this is how ID proponents envision it happening) would that be a witness to a non-naturalistic event?”

    Your example practically rules out anything *but* a non-naturalistic event. If you saw an automobile spontaneously assemble in front of you, would you consider that to be a naturalistic event, or, as you were running away in fear, would you consider the possibility of supernatural forces at work?

    “What I’m saying is that if ID is correct, and if that Designer is God, then does naturalism fail?”

    Not unless God announces to us that He’s responsible. If ID is true, then design is going to have to be accepted, sooner or later. When that happens, I’ll bet the SETI program will have quite a bit of pressure placed on it to find the designer, because folks would much rather believe in alien-design than divine-design.

  10. 10
    nullasalus says:

    Shaner74,

    “Not unless God announces to us that He’s responsible.”

    Here’s the particular problem I have when it comes to this. Turning this up for the definition of naturalism:

    “the view of the world that takes account only of natural elements and forces, excluding the supernatural or spiritual.”

    And you said that the spontaneous forming of an IC structure (or a car) would be a supernatural event. But have you ever looked at what a supernatural event is defined as? It’s essentially ‘we have no idea, but it’s not natural.’

    What I’m saying is that, if a divine designer exists, and if it’s somehow proven (or the evidence strongly implies such), then said designer may as well be considered natural. Granted, it’s not the naturalism modern naturalists want – as you said, any conclusion but that one. But I maintain that ‘proof of the supernatural’ will just become, oddly, ‘proof that the supernatural is part of the natural order.’

  11. 11
    TerryL says:

    The basic problem with metaphysical naturalism is in its core assumption: because what we examine when we begin any scientific investigation IS nature, we assume that whatever answers we find to the questions we raise must therefore be IN nature as well.

    This is like the old joke with the man looking for his lost dime under a certain streetlight “because the light’s better over here!”–when he lost the dime somewhere down the block. Its result is to impose an unwarranted and unnecessary restriction upon scientific inquiry.

    The problem is, this restriction has gone on for so long and has become so widely accepted that anyone who suggests that the dime might be found somewhere down the block is immediately castigated as a pseudoscientist, or, worse yet, a–gasp!–CREATIONIST! At which point the scientific establishment starts boiling the hot oil for the barbarians at the gate.

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