Fishing trip: A short essay on Intelligent Design, theology and metaphysics
|February 3, 2014||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
My previous post, An exchange with an ID skeptic seems to have kicked off a firestorm of criticism. So many readers of this post have rebuked me with the question, “Why didn’t you argue [XYZ], when you were debating Dr. McGrath?” that I feel obliged to respond.
My goals, in engaging with Dr. McGrath
First of all, my dialogue with Dr. McGrath was an exchange of views, as I clearly stated in my opening paragraph. It was not a debate, and it was never intended to be such. Consequently, questions about who won are entirely beside the point. I wasn’t aiming for a “knock-out blow.” Dr. McGrath did a very good job of defending his viewpoint; and for that, I salute him. However, my real intention, in our little exchange, was to sound him out, and elicit from him what kind of Christianity he espoused.
And that brings me to my second point. I was engaging Dr. McGrath as a fellow Christian. He is, after all, an Associate Professor of Religion, and he repeatedly declares on his blog that Christians don’t have to believe in Intelligent Design or Creationism – indeed, he even considers these views theologically harmful. I wanted to know what beliefs he considered essential to Christianity.
In other words, I was quite deliberately encouraging Dr. McGrath to talk theology. To use an angling metaphor, you could say that I was on a fishing trip. I was hoping he would “bite” – and he did. (By the way, the image above is courtesy of Adrian Pingstone and Wikipedia.)
So, what is essential to Dr. McGrath’s version of Christianity, as someone who believes God made a self-organizing universe? The short answer is: not much. Dr. McGrath believes in God; however, he seems to identify with panentheism (“Panentheism is a term that I find helpful”) – the view that Nature is in God. Dr. McGrath doesn’t necessarily believe that God is a spirit: he writes that the radical panentheistic view that God always has a body, and that the universe is His body, “is not inherently antithetical to Christianity since the rise of creation ex nihilo in Christianity seems to have emerged in response to Gnosticism.” He doesn’t necessarily see God as a Creator of the cosmos, either: indeed, he speaks highly of “radically emergent theism, or process thought which has God relating to the world akin to a soul and body.” As far as I can tell, Dr. McGrath doesn’t necessarily think God created the laws of Nature; nor does he believe in miracles. As might be expected, he doesn’t believe in the Divinity of Christ. Additionally, Dr. McGrath doesn’t appear to believe in an immaterial human soul; rather, he says that our minds are an inevitable outcome of our DNA (“it is DNA which gives rise to minds which create language with syntax”) – indeed, he even argues that DNA moulds our thinking, leading us to think of everything in terms of information (“Humans think in terms of information, but we are products of DNA,” as he puts it). I was very struck by the fact that Dr. McGrath appeared wedded to emergentist materialism in his account of mind: the philosophical arguments I put forward against materialism relating to the intrinsic intentionality (or meaningfulness) of our thoughts, appeared not to make the slightest impression on him. To be fair, however, Dr. McGrath rejects determinism.
I thought that this information, in and of itself, would have made very interesting news for readers. Dr. McGrath was opposing Intelligent Design as un-Christian, but his own theological viewpoint could hardly be called Christian: it would be better described as post-Christian. Indeed, I was quite surprised at how far “left of center” Dr. McGrath had drifted, under the influence of his theological presuppositions.
What Intelligent Design has to say about metaphysics and theology
Speaking of theological presuppositions brings me to my third point. Intelligent Design, as a scientific research program, has no theological presuppositions whatsoever, but it certainly has theological and metaphysical implications galore. Here are some metaphysical implications:
(i) information is a basic category, irreducible to matter and energy;
(ii) teleology cannot be eliminated from science: it is a fundamental feature of the universe;
(iii) biological life is a highly specific target, with a very low probability of eventuating as a result of a blind search;
(iv) therefore the only reasonable conclusion is that the source of the information that produced life is intelligent;
(v) the source of the information that produced life cannot be reduced to purely material or natural causes, as these, too, would have had to have been loaded with information;
(vi) hence mind cannot be reduced to the machinations of matter – for even if we were somehow able to show that the human mind arose from living matter (self-replicating DNA), the mind that generated the information contained in the matter that originally gave rise to life must itself be beyond matter.
And now for some theological implications. If the ultimate source of the information contained in life and the cosmos is indeed God, then we can make the following statements about God:
(i) He is immaterial and transcendent;
(ii) He designed the universe to be informationally porous. That means miracles are possible, in principle, although front-loading is also a theological possibility;
(iii) He couldn’t have made a universe capable of rapidly locating small, highly specific targets (such as organic life) without the need for the input of any information, either at the beginning of time or subsequently (I’ll say more about this below); and
(iv) As well as being a “top-down” God Who makes things function and designs them with a certain built-in teleology, He’s also a “bottom-up” God, Who focuses on form, since the biological ends He wishes living things to attain do not, in and of themselves, dictate the structure and arrangement of the molecules He uses to accomplish His ends.
Hence – and this brings me to my fourth point – I was inclined to let Dr. McGrath’s remark slide when he wrote, “I do appreciate that you are not pretending that ID is not about God and metaphysics – such honesty is refreshing compared to many ID proponents I have talked with in the past.” Some readers have asked why I did that, as the remark insinuated that many ID proponents were being deceitful. It was a rather snarky thing to say, but my over-riding objective, in our exchange, was to give Dr. McGrath a chance to talk about his theological worldview. I also sensed that he had a lot to get off his chest, as he had been banned from Uncommon Descent seven years ago, and was still fuming about it. (See here [as far as I can tell, Dr. McGrath was perfectly civil in his comments, before he was banned], here and here.)
I had a hunch that if Dr. McGrath were given the opportunity to talk for as long as he liked, he would finally reveal his true colors, theologically speaking. And that is precisely what he did. Letting a barbed remark slide was a small price to pay, for what I got in return. We can now see where Dr. McGrath’s theology leads: towards a view of the world as God’s body.
Fifth, I thought, nevertheless, that Dr. McGrath’s remark (quoted above) contained a valid point, however ungraciously expressed it may have been. Intelligent Design is indeed a scientific research program, but as we saw above, it does have quite a lot to say about theology and metaphysics. Hence to claim that “ID is not about God and metaphysics” is arrant nonsense. Indeed, practically every field of human inquiry is about God and metaphysics, to some extent, and it is difficult to think of a single field of knowledge that doesn’t touch on one of the “Big Three” questions raised by the artist Paul Gauguin – “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”
Even if science cannot positively tell us what God is like, it can still tell us what He is not like. Darwin’s Origin of Species, for instance, claimed to rule out the existence of a certain conception of God that was very widespread in the 19th century: an interventionist Deity Who created each and every species. It also claimed that even the most advanced forms of life could be explained as the product of simple laws like gravity, working inexorably over the course of time. Whatever we may think of Darwin’s arguments, they were obviously about God and metaphysics, to a very large extent. The religious and metaphysical bias in evolutionary thinking continues to this day. As Intelligent Design proponent Cornelius Hunter roundly declares, “Evolution is a religious theory… Religion drives science, and it matters.”
And insofar as the Intelligent Design worldview clashes with Darwin’s, then obviously, it’s going to have to say a lot about about God and metaphysics, also. (If X is a metaphysical statement, then so is the negation of X; and of course, the same goes for theological statements, too.)
What God can and cannot do
Sixth, in response to those readers of my previous post who claim that God could have made a universe capable of making itself, but that He simply chose not to, my answer is: “No, He couldn’t.” I would suggest that these readers go and re-read Dembski’s and Marks’ paper on Life’s Conservation Law. On page 23, Dembski and Marks describe the Law of Conservation of Information (LCI) as “a family of theorems sharing certain common features.” Note that word: theorems. LCI is a mathematical result that makes no assumptions whatsoever about the laws of Nature. Don’t believe me? Go and have a look at the paper, and show me where Dembski and Marks assume the truth of any physical laws in the three Three Conservation of Information Theorems they derive in Part 6. That means it’s logically necessary – i.e. true in all possible worlds, and not just in this one. God could no more make a universe that was infallibly capable of hitting very small, highly specific targets (such as biological life) in a very short time, than He could make a square circle.
Nevertheless, the idea that God could have made the world by an accidental process dies hard. No less a figure than Fr. John Henry Newman (who looked kindly on Darwin’s theory) wrote to his friend Canon Walker in 1868, arguing that we show no disrespect to God if we suppose that “He gave matter such laws as by their blind instrumentality moulded and constructed through innumerable ages the world as we see it… and I do not [see] that ‘the accidental evolution of organic beings’ is inconsistent with divine design. – It is accidental to us, not to God.” What this talk of accident vs. design obscures is the point (emphasized by Dembski and Marks in their paper) that you cannot explain a system’s ability to hit a target (say, conscious life) better than chance would, simply by going back in time. No matter how far back you go, you confront the dilemma: either the system itself is built with an internal bias that enables it to reach that goal, or something has to be added to it to bias it in that direction – and what’s more, the level of bias required never decreases as you go back in time. That’s why you can’t start with a simple unbiased universe, and arrive at us.
A false dichotomy?
Seventh, with regard to the related assertion (made by several readers of my previous post) that “Dr. McGrath’s central argument is a false dichotomy,” I wouldn’t be inclined to brush it off so easily. As readers will recall, In his original post, Dr. McGrath had posed the following dilemma to Intelligent Design proponents:
Either God can create a universe that can organize itself, in which case the claim of ID fails; or God cannot create such a universe, in which case the proponent of ID ought to be asked to explain why they view God as limited in this way.
The kind of reasoning Dr. McGrath employed goes back to the Middle Ages: it is encapsulated in the formula, potuit, decuit, ergo fecit, which roughly translated means, “He was able to do it, and it was fitting that He do it, therefore, He did it.” The middle premise is of course the critical one, for Intelligent Design critics. What I have realized, especially in the course of debating religious critics of Intelligent Design, is that it clashes with their aesthetic preconceptions of what God would do. Even the notion of front-loading offends them: what they want is for Nature to produce complexity, by its own steam. Typically they argue as follows: if it were possible for God to produce a cosmos like ours in every respect, from a few simple laws, without the need for any information to be input by Him – even at the Big Bang – then a principle of economy of effort would dictate that God do it that way. But, they say, it surely seems conceivable that the universe could have been made in this simple fashion. Therefore it was.
Know what? If one were to grant their premise that God could have made a self-organizing universe, then I think these critics would have an excellent rhetorical argument – not a knock-down one, as we’ll see, but a very strong one. I know that some readers will object at this point, appealing to God’s perfect freedom to do as He pleases, while others will say that we cannot understand the Mind of God. But if God is a Designer, then efficiency is surely one attribute that we would want to ascribe to Him.
Intelligent Design critics also buttress their theological argument by appealing to a “plenitude” argument: by denying Nature the opportunity to generate life all by itself, God is essentially robbing things of their “thinghood” and thereby stunting them as things, since they aren’t as active (i.e. as “thingy”) as they could have been, if God had allowed them to organize themselves. Once again, I find that this argument has a certain force, too.
The real logical flaw in these arguments, in my opinion, does not lie in the potuit, decuit, ergo fecit style of reasoning they employ, but in the confusion of different senses of the word “possible.” ID critics argue that a universe that organizes itself from a state of zero information at the start is conceivable, but that does not make it really possible (i.e. possible in reality), or even logically possible (i.e. free from logical contradictions); it merely makes it epistemicallypossible (i.e. possible for all we know). Many states of affairs fall into this category, even though they later turn out to be logically impossible: after all, it seemed quite conceivable to the Greeks that there were only a finite number of prime numbers, until Euclid came along and showed that this was mathematically absurd, and that there had to be an infinite number of them.
But this kind of response is apt to leave Intelligent Design critics unmoved. That’s because their arguments appeal to the heart as well as the head: they spring from deep-seated intuitions about the nature of God. To counter these arguments effectively, then, it is therefore necessary to do more than to merely show that they are not logically watertight; for even if they are not compelling, they are still highly persuasive, on a gut level. Rather, what we need to do is provide a convincing explanation as to why God could not, and would not, act in the way that ID critics suppose He would.
As to why He could not act in that way: I argued in my previous post that since life is characterized by large amounts of semantic information (contained in our genetic programs), and since it is impossible in principle to generate large amounts of semantic information from a few simple formulas (such as the laws of Nature), Dr. McGrath’s notion of a universe that makes itself was a pipe-dream. And in my subsequent exchange with Dr. McGrath, I argued that since the Law of Conservation of Information (expounded by Dembski and Marks) dictates that we can never dispense with the need for information in order to locate small, specific targets, no matter how far back in time we go, we must at least suppose that the universe was loaded with information at the beginning.
As for why God wouldn’t have made a universe capable of organizing itself: I have argued previously, in a recent post on fine-tuning, that one of God’s aims in making the universe was to reveal Himself to creatures. Given that aim, it is much more probable that He would make a fine-tuned universe or multiverse (which would reveal His existence more easily) than that He would make a cosmos which wasn’t finely balanced. For that reason alone, then, we would expect to find a cosmos that needed to be loaded with information at the start.
Should Intelligent Design avoid even trying to say something about the Designer?
Eighth, I have to respectfully disagree with nullsalus’s statement:
“What the designer(s) may be in principle is left wide open, precisely because ID itself is not capable of answering this. It doesn’t even try, and it shouldn’t try. Leave that to theology, philosophy and other kinds of reasoning.”
Nullasalus is essentially saying here that since ID is a science, we should keep God out of ID, and leave him to the philosophers and theologians. No, thank you! To be quite frank, I think the philosophers and theologians need some assistance from science: rightly or wrongly, people living in the 21st century certainly won’t be convinced of God’s existence on the basis of philosophical arguments alone.
And I certainly don’t believe that “God-talk” lies outside the scope of legitimate scientific discourse. That’s methodological naturalism, and it’s tantamount to putting science in a straitjacket. On the contrary, I think that science has had quite a lot to say about God in the past 400 years. What it tells us, among other things, is that if there is a God, then He’s a Master Mathematician, and a very elegant one at that. He’s also a Master Programmer, and once again, a very good one, especially if you focus on the original biochemical designs common to all living things. Third, it appears that He’s not a determinist. (This isn’t absolutely certain, however, as there are both deterministic and non-deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics.) Finally, it seems that He’s left some room for top-down causation in living things – especially in conscious life-forms with complex brains. If free will is real, then this is where it must lie.
I might add that Intelligent Design can surely rule out some hypotheses about the Designer, at least in principle. If, for instance, we have good scientific grounds for thinking that the origin of life anywhere in our observable universe was a fantastically improbable event, then clearly we can rule out the hypothesis that life on Earth was produced by aliens from another planet: at the very least, we’re going to have to look somewhere outside our universe. And if the multiverse itself turns out to exhibit identifiable signs of fine-tuning, as Dr. Robin Collins argues it does, then we can rule out the notion of a designer who is bound by space and time. At the very least, we’ll have to posit an immaterial designer instead.
Even if Intelligent Design as a scientific research program avoids theological speculation, there can (and in my opinion, should) still be rival Intelligent Design hypotheses about how, when, where and why the Designer acts in Nature, which are motivated by different theological conceptions of the Designer’s goals and modus operandi, so long as these hypotheses are scientifically testable in some way.
My own belief is that most of the opposition to Intelligent Design is, at root, theological. I suspect that even atheists who scoff at Intelligent Design reject it primarily because it clashes with their preconceptions regarding how they think God would act, supposing He actually existed. The scientific objections take second place.
If my hunch is correct, then Intelligent Design will only harm itself in the long term by avoiding the theological objections to ID. Rather, we should embrace them. At the very least, we should attempt to provide solid arguments showing that they rest on doubtful assumptions; but more importantly, we need to provide scientific reasons as to why a Designer would not have acted in the way that ID critics expect. That will take time, of course.
The scientists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were nothing if not ambitious: many of them were actively engaged in an attempt to “think God’s thoughts after Him” and reverse-engineer creation itself. It will take similar boldness on the part of present-day Intelligent Design researchers, if they are to successfully address the religious objections to ID, in the twenty-first century.