I have just been reading two articles on Intelligent Design which appeared in The Guardian recently: Science in God’s image (May 3, 2010) and
Intelligent design is an oxymoron (May 5, 2010). After reading the articles, I decided to write a detailed commentary on them both.
The first article is by Professor Steve Fuller and represents his personal view. Although his personal “take” on intelligent design is a controversial one in ID circles, Professor Fuller certainly has a clear grasp of what ID is and where it is heading.
The second article is by Professor Michael Ruse. Professor Ruse has previously debated ID proponents, including Professor William Dembski, so one might reasonably expect him to write a well-informed critique. However, after reading his latest article, I regret to say that Professor Ruse never seems to have understood the nature of the Intelligent Design project in the first place.
1. My comments on Professor Steve Fuller’s article
The most interesting paragraph of Professor Fuller’s article is also the most controversial one. It warrants careful analysis.
The most basic formulation of ID is that biology is divine technology. In other words, God is no less – and possibly no more – than an infinitely better version of the ideal Homo sapiens, whose distinctive species calling card is art, science and technology. Thus, when ID supporters claim that a cell is as intelligently designed as a mousetrap, they mean it literally. The difference between God and us is simply that God is the one being in whom all of our virtues are concentrated perfectly, whereas for our own part those virtues are distributed imperfectly amongst many individuals.
Before I comment on this paragraph, I’d like to recall what I wrote in a post entitled In Praise of Subtlety (22 April 2010), on the philosophy of John Duns Scotus, a medieval theologian known as the Subtle Doctor:
Scotus held that since intelligence and goodness were pure perfections, not limited by their very nature to a finite mode of realization, they could be predicated univocally of God and human beings. To be sure, God’s way of knowing and loving is altogether different from ours: it belongs to God’s very essence to know and love perfectly, whereas we can only know and love by participating in God’s knowledge and love. Also, God’s knowledge and goodness are essentially infinite, while our knowledge and goodness are finite. However, what it means for God to know and love is exactly the same as what it means for human beings to know and love.
However, God is not a Superman. Speaking as a Christian who professes the Catholic faith, and who happens to admire certain aspects of Duns Scotus’ philosophy, I would reverse Professor Fuller’s statement that God is an infinitely better version of the ideal Homo sapiens, for two reasons: first, it exposes believers to the charge of anthropomorphism, and of making God in our own image; second, the ideal Homo sapiens is still an embodied being, whereas God is a spirit. What I would say instead is that human beings possess intelligence and moral goodness to a finite degree, precisely because they are made in the image and likeness of the infinite God. But whereas God is Intelligence and Goodness personified, humans can only know and love by participating in God’s intelligence and love.
What about Professor Fuller’s statement that “biology is divine technology”? This is a statement which no scientist or theologian needs to fear, if by “technology” we simply mean the generation of things whose creation requires skill. By “skill” I mean an activity performed by an intelligent agent acting intentionally, and resulting in information that generates a specific pattern or form. Skill, as I define it here, does not have to include the physical activity of assembling the parts of a thing, piece by piece. God is perfectly free to create as He chooses, using either natural or supernatural means. The term “divine technology” therefore refers to God’s intentional activity of creating certain patterns in nature which embody a very specific kind of information.
As I see it, the main point of the ID program is that certain identifiable features of living things had to have been explicitly specified by the Creator of the biosphere – whether directly (through an act of intervention), or indirectly (either by fine-tuning the initial conditions of the universe, or by building highly specific laws into the fabric of the cosmos, in order to generate the desired features). How God specified these features is unimportant; the question ID attempts to answer is: which features of the biosphere can be shown to be specified? Did God specify the design of the okapi? I have no idea. But ID proponents can confidently claim that the design of the first living cell, the body plans of the 30+ phyla of animals living today, and numerous irreducibly complex systems found in the cells of organisms (including the bacterial flagellum and the blood clotting system) were explicitly specified by the Creator of the biosphere. And the list of specifications is likely to keep growing.
Of course, religious believers are right to point out that even in the absence of any identifiable specifications, the cosmos, and every thing in it, would still need to be kept in being by God. For the cosmos is contingent; it cannot explain its own existence. This is a metaphysical fact, which believers (including many in the ID camp) will assent to. But ID itself is not a metaphysical project, but a scientific one. The question it seeks to answer in the biological arena is: are there any empirically identifiable features of living things that had to have been explicitly specified by their Creator, and if so, which ones?
The other paragraph I’d like to highlight from Steve Fuller’s essay is the following:
But the basic point that remains radical to this day is that, in important ways, the divine and the human are comparable. Notwithstanding Adam’s fall, we are still created “in the image and likeness of God”. From this biblical claim it follows that we might be capable of deploying the powers that distinguish us from the other animals to come closer to God. Such is the theological template on which the secular idea of progress was forged during the scientific revolution.
I agree with the theological point Fuller is making here. Of course the divine and human are comparable, despite the vast differences that separate them: even to say that God’s intelligence is infinite while that of humans is finite is to make a comparison, as it involves predicating intelligence of both God and human beings. The human intellect, which scientists use whenever they do science, is made in God’s image. Fuller’s modest statement that we “might be capable” (emphasis mine) of coming closer to God by using our intellects, which distinguish us from the other animals, is a worthy and pious hope. It is an historical fact that the pioneers of the scientific revolution thought they were thinking God’s thoughts after Him, and the contemporary scientific quest for a mathematically elegant “theory of everything” has a strong mystical streak: at heart, it reflects an endeavor to second-guess the way in which God, the Supreme Intelligence, would have designed the fundamental parameters of the cosmos.
This mysticism at the heart of science explains why Albert Einstein, although not a believer in a personal God, felt impelled to make declarations such as these: “I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research,” and “What I am really interested in is knowing whether God could have created the world in a different way; in other words, whether the requirement of logical simplicity admits a margin of freedom.”
Not being an historian of science, I do not wish to take issue with Professor Fuller’s assertion, which he makes later on his article, that ID “is no more anti-science than the original Protestant reformers were atheists,” or with his view that the Scientific Revolution was to a large degree inspired by Protestant thinking. I will simply point out in passing that the scientific revolution is commonly considered to have begun with the publication of two ground-breaking works in 1543: Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) and Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human body). Both of these works were written by Catholics. On the whole, I believe Christianity – whether Catholic or Protestant – to be a science-friendly religion.
In my opinion, however, Fuller’s observation that people today are taking science into their own hands, just as they took religion into their hands in the 16th and 17th centuries, is sociologically accurate, and he is surely right to draw parallels between the role of the Internet as the means by which people are now calling into question assertions made by experts in various scientific fields (think of global warming, for instance), and the role of the printing press in the 16th and 17th centuries as the vehicle through which statements by authority figures in the religious domain were brought into question.
2. My comments on Professor Michael Ruse’s article
I am very sorry to say that Professor Ruse’s article, Intelligent design is an oxymoron, contains about as many factual and logical inaccuracies as it contains statements. These inaccuracies relate to science, philosophy and religion. To illustrate my point, I shall quote excerpts from the article and briefly comment on each.
At the heart of Steve Fuller’s defense of intelligent design theory (ID) is a false analogy. He compares the struggles of the ID supporters to the travails of the Protestant Reformers. Just as they stood against the established Catholic church, so the ID supporters stand against establishment science, specifically Darwinian evolutionary theory. Where this comparison breaks down is that the Protestants were no less Christians than the Catholics. It was rather that they differed over the right way to get to heaven. For the Protestants it was justification through faith, believing in the Lord, whereas for Catholics, it was good works. Given that Saint Augustine, some thousand years before, had labeled the Catholic position the heresy of Pelagianism, the reformers had a good point.
The first paragraph of Professor Ruse’s article is riddled with factual errors. Where to begin?
(1) Full marks to Professor Ruse for acknowledging that Protestants and Catholics are both Christians. At least he got that right.
(2) Professor Ruse is quite wrong in claiming that Catholics believe good works will get you to Heaven. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares the contrary: “We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved” (paragraph 2005). Paragraphs 1987-2029 of the Catechism explain what the Catholic Church actually teaches on grace and justification. Readers will be pleasantly surprised to learn that Catholics and Protestants are a lot closer on these issues than is popularly assumed.
(3) Pelagius, according to the same catechism, “held that man could by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God’s grace, lead a morally good life” (paragraph 406). As the catechism mentions in a footnote, Pelagius’s teachings (including a watered-down version of his views, called Semipelagianism) were officially condemned by the Catholic Church at the Second Council of Orange in 529 A.D.
(4) Saint Augustine did not label the Catholic position “Pelagianism.” On the contrary, he did everything in his power (including lobbying two Popes) to get the Catholic Church to condemn Pelagius’ errors – an endeavor in which he was finally successful.
(5) The Catechism of the Catholic Church approvingly cites St. Augustine no less than six times in its article on Grace and Justification (paragraphs 1987-2029). Which is a pretty odd thing to do if St. Augustine said the Catholic Church was in “heresy,” don’t you think?
Not a good start. And I’m afraid it doesn’t get better. Here’s another excerpt:
In the ID case, whatever its supporters may say publicly for political purposes – in the USA thanks to the First Amendment you cannot teach religion in state-funded schools – the intention is to bring God into the causal process. ID claims that there are some phenomena (like the bacterial flagellum and the blood-clotting cascade) are so “irreducibly complex,” that to explain them we must invoke an “intelligent designer.” As they admit among themselves – the philosopher-mathematician William Dembski is quite clear on this – the designer is none other than our old friend the God of Christianity.
(1) “Bring God into the causal process”?? The notion makes absolutely no sense. According to religious believers, no causal process could exist without God in the first place. God sustains the universe in being; it would not exist, even for a second, without Him.
(2) Irreducibly complexity doesn’t come in degrees; either a system is irreducibly complex or it isn’t. Professor Ruse’s phrase “so irreducibly complex” (emphasis mine) betrays a misunderstanding of this point.
(3) Professor Dembski’s views on the identity of the intelligent designer form no part of Intelligent Design theory, as contained in ID textbooks. Intelligent Design as such is a scientific project.
(4) Professor Dembski’s religious views and motives are no more germane to the scientific merits of Intelligent Design theory than the atheistic views and motives of most neo-Darwinists are of relevance to the scientific merits of neo-Darwinism.
Professor Ruse opens his third paragraph with the following jaw-dropper:
The trouble for the Fuller analogy is that science simply does not allow God as a causal factor.
Now, if Professor Ruse had claimed that science does not explicitly invoke God as a causal factor, he would have been on strong argumentative ground. But to say that science does not allow God as a causal factor is patently absurd. Or does Ruse really think that scientists can legislate God out of existence?
Professor Ruse goes on to cite a nineteenth-century Anglican divine, William Whewell, on the limits of science:
“The mystery of creation is not within the range of her [science’s] legitimate territory; she says nothing, but she points upwards.”
Three points in reply:
(1) Whewell’s view on the limits of science is a venerable and respected one; but that does not make it right. In the end, science is the quest for the best explanations of the phenomena we observe. In the last few decades, modern science has encountered certain highly specified phenomena, within the domains of both physics (finely tuned constants of nature) and biology (specified complexity within the cell). Maybe methodological naturalism needs to be questioned.
(2) Intelligent Design theory does not specify the identity of the Designer, as Professor Ruse is well aware.
(3) Even if ID proponents were to reason like Professor Fuller would like them to do, and try to reverse-engineer the cell, assuming it to have been designed by an infinitely intelligent Being (God), the modus operandi of the Creator would still remain a mystery. Thus even if scientists were to abandon methodological naturalism and embrace theism, creation would retain an aura of mystery for them.
Professor Ruse continues:
In the 20th century, two of the most important Darwinian biologists – Ronald Fisher in England and the Russian-born Theodosius Dobzhansky in America – were deeply committed Christians.
Now, Fisher was indeed a devout Anglican, despite his rather Darwinian views on eugenics; but Dobzhansky’s religious views were anything but Christian, according to this interesting article by Denyse O’Leary. A eulogy published by Dobzhansky’s pupil Francisco Ayala in 1977 described the content of his religion thus: “Dobzhansky was a religious man, although he apparently rejected fundamental beliefs of traditional religion, such as the existence of a personal God and of life beyond physical death. His religiosity was grounded on the conviction that there is meaning in the universe. He saw that meaning in the fact that evolution has produced the stupendous diversity of the living world and has progressed from primitive forms of life to mankind. Dobzhansky held that, in man, biological evolution has transcended itself into the realm of self-awareness and culture. He believed that somehow mankind would eventually evolve into higher levels of harmony and creativity.” [Ayala, F.J., “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” Journal of Heredity, Vol. 68, January-February 1977, p. 9.]
Professor Ruse goes on to accuse ID proponents of being defeatists, and hence no true scientists:
As Thomas Kuhn pointed out repeatedly, when scientists cannot find solutions, they don’t blame the world. They blame themselves. You don’t give up in the face of disappointments. You try again. Imagine if Watson and Crick had thrown in the towel when their first model of the DNA molecule proved fallacious. The very essence of ID is admitting defeat and invoking inexplicable miracles. The bacterial flagellum is complex. Turn to God! The blood clotting cascade is long and involved. Turn to God! That is simply not the way to do science.
(1) Contrary to what Ruse claims, ID proponents are eternally grateful to Watson and Crick for persevering in their quest to identify the structure of DNA. Without their persistence, scientists would never have known that DNA is a digital code, which contains a large amount of specified information. It was precisely this feature of DNA that Dr. Stephen Meyer highlighted in his recent book, Signature in the Cell, in which he argued that only the intentional activity of an intelligent agent could adequately explain the occurrence of DNA.
(2) ID proponents would never urge a scientist to give up trying to understand a process that is already known to occur, such as heredity. We should never give up trying to understand what things are; that’s science. The question that preoccupies ID is where they came from, or what process generated them in the first place.
(3) ID invokes an Intelligent Designer only when it has established that the probability of a specified biological feature arising as a result of the laws of nature coupled with random processes, falls below a well-defined threshold. Thus if evolutionary naturalism is true, then the emergence of this feature would be astronomically improbable. In a situation like this, invoking an Intelligent Designer is not “giving up”; on the contrary, it simply amounts to a rational decision to stop flogging a dead horse (evolutionary naturalism).
(4) As a scientific project, Intelligent Design does not equate the Designer with God, even if many ID proponents happen to believe that the Designer is in fact God.
In any case, there’s no need to worry, Professor Ruse assures us: science has succeeded in explaining away the very phenomena that gave rise to ID theory.
And as it happens, both the flagellum and the cascade have revealed their very natural, law-bound mysteries to regular scientists who keep plugging away and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
(1) Regarding the flagellum: curious readers may like to click here to hear Professor Michael Behe explain why, in his view, the flagellum is irreducibly complex, on Intelligent Design the Future. Behe also examines the two currently proposed evolutionary explanations for the assembly of the flagellum, co-option and homology, showing why both proposals fall short in uncovering the origins of this molecular machine. See also Behe’s recent blog post, “Reducible complexity’ in PNAS, which debunks claims that the evolution of the flagellum has now been explained in naturalistic terms, without the need for a Designer.
(2) As regards the blood clotting cascade, readers might like to begin with In Defense of the Irreducibility of the Blood Clotting Cascade: Response to Russell Doolittle, Ken Miller and Keith Robison (July 31, 2000), by Professor Michael Behe, as well as Casey Luskin’s recent recap, Kenneth Miller, Michael Behe and the Irreducible Complexity of the Blood Clotting Cascade Saga (January 1, 2010), which has links to eleven follow-up articles on the blood clotting cascade.
I am not a scientist; but my impression is that Professor Behe acquits himself well in this dispute.
Professor Ruse has argued robustly, if erroneously, up to this point. But suddenly his tone changes from aggressive to wounded:
ID is theology – very bad theology. As soon as you bring God into the world on a daily creative basis, then the theodicy problem – the problem of evil – rears its ugly head. If God works away miraculously to do the very complex, presumably in the name of goodness, then why on earth does God not occasionally get involved miraculously to prevent the very simple with horrendous consequences? Some very, very minor genetic changes have truly dreadful effects, causing people life-long pain and despair. If God thought it worth His time to make the blood clot, then why was it not worth His time to prevent Huntingdon’s Chorea?
(1) ID as such does not claim that God interacts with the world on a daily basis. Another possibility, for those who accept ID, is that God fine-tuned the initial conditions of the cosmos at the beginning of time, so as to bring about the eventual emergence of irreducibly complex systems, such as the blood clotting cascade. No supernatural intervention is required on this scenario.
(2) Repairing mutations which occur in millions of individuals, and relate to thousands of different diseases, would demand a lot more Divine intervention than the single act of creating an irreducibly complex system.
(3) “What about preventing these mutations from happening in the first place?” I hear you ask. Easier said than done, and until we know the biological cost associated with doing that, it’s premature to complain about God not doing so. Some of these mutations might be beneficial in certain circumstances; removing them might not be a good idea.
(4) Religious believers would add that the Fall of our first parents might well have prevented God from intervening to prevent human suffering as often as He would have liked, during human history. Perhaps God’s hands are tied to some extent, by His promise to respect our freedom.
(5) The rhetorical argument proves too much, and could be used against any kind of personal religion: “If God thought it worth His time to [answer a prayer or work a miracle], then why was it not worth His time to prevent Huntingdon’s Chorea?”
Professor Ruse concludes:
Keep God out of the day-to-day functioning of things. If, like the archbishop of Canterbury, you absolutely must have God do law-breaking miracles – apparently he would give up and become a Quaker if the tomb had not been empty on the third day – then at least restrict His activities to the cause of our salvation.
Three short comments in reply:
(1) God conserves everything in being. Like it or not, God is involved in the “day-to-day functioning of things.”
(2) As the Creator of the cosmos, God is entitled to work miracles as rarely or as often as He wishes, and for whatever reason He wishes.
(3) Professor Ruse should not try to tell God what to do.