Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design, “Naturalism” & “Materialism”

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I now and then see it claimed that, among its various contributions, one key benefit of Intelligent Design is that it poses a direct challenge to naturalism, or materialism. The problem I have with this sort of talk is that one of the key planks of ID is a kind of metaphysical neutrality – the recognition that any designer or designers responsible for this or that particular design in the natural world can, at least in principle, be (for lack of a better-word) “non-supernatural”.

This is claimed often enough by Dembski, Behe and company, but my favorite quote on this front comes from a post right on this site: ID’s metaphysical openness about the nature of nature entails a parallel openness about the nature of the designer. Is the designer an intelligent alien, a computional simulator (a la THE MATRIX), a Platonic demiurge, a Stoic seminal reason, an impersonal telic process, …, or the infinite personal transcendent creator God of Christianity? The empirical data of nature simply can’t decide.

The problem is that if this is accurate – and frequent, consistent attestation by a number of prominent ID proponents seems to indicate as much – then it seems to me false to think of ID in and of itself as representing a challenge to either naturalism or materialism. Indeed, ID – even if ID inferences are not only strong, but ultimately true – seems entirely compatible with both positions, at least in principle. But I think it’s possible to recognize that, while at the same time explaining how ID can nevertheless represent a challenge to these positions, at least in a qualified manner.

So, let’s get right on that. The explanation I have in mind is simple, but important.

As I said, I think ID – given its own ground rules – does not in and of itself challenge either naturalism or materialism, because ID concedes that it’s possible for the designers in question to be natural or material anyway. At the same time, ID does not make the demand that any designer be material or natural – if there really is an Immaterial Mind or immaterial minds, or what have you, then it’s entirely possible that such minds were responsible for any ID in question. That’s something for the philosophers and others to figure out.

Instead, what I see ID as challenging is the presumption of non-intelligence in popular & natural science – the idea that no designing mind or minds are or were responsible for most aspects of nature, regardless of whether this mind was natural or not, material or not. It makes intelligence and design into a kind of elephant in the room – the possibility that everyone knows exists in principle, that we have some undeniable first-hand data regarding, yet which must forever be ignored because to recognize it just introduces far too many inconvenient questions. Better to regard a question as unanswerable, or to reject causality altogether, than to acknowledge certain possibilities as live options.

But again, I want to stress: It doesn’t matter if the intelligence in question is considered natural, even material. And oddly enough, even as someone who rejects both naturalism and materialism (indeed, I find the the former category to be nigh-meaningless anymore, and the latter to be close to meaningless), I consider this to be one of ID’s greatest strengths. Whatever metaphysical position a person holds to, almost everyone* can recognize the sheer existence of both minds and design. And that sheer existence is enough, if one is consistent and thoughtful, to bring some interesting possibilities front and center when it comes to understanding the universe we inhabit.

(* I say ‘almost everyone’ because there’s always someone out there who’s willing to deny this or that idea, no matter how self-evident it is.)

10 Replies to “Intelligent Design, “Naturalism” & “Materialism”

  1. 1
    Joseph says:

    Intelligent Design is about the DESIGN, which exists in nature and as such is natural.

    That design is (part of) this physical, observable world and as such is open to investigation.

    And in the absence of direct observation or designer input the only possible way to make any scietific determination about the designer(s) or specific processes used, is by studying the design in question. And that is what ID is all about.

    That said, what happens if we confirm, with 99.999999% certainty, the design inference is warranted and with all due diligence the investigation leads us to the supernatural?

    As Dr Minnich once said- ‘if the evidence leads us to the metaphysical then so be it’- meaning we go with it.

    It matters not to science, either way.

  2. 2
    Heinrich says:

    The problem is that if this is accurate – and frequent, consistent attestation by a number of prominent ID proponents seems to indicate as much – then it seems to me false to think of ID in and of itself as representing a challenge to either naturalism or materialism.

    From the About page on this very site:

    Materialistic ideology has subverted the study of biological and cosmological origins so that the actual content of these sciences has become corrupted. The problem, therefore, is not merely that science is being used illegitimately to promote a materialistic worldview, but that this worldview is actively undermining scientific inquiry, leading to incorrect and unsupported conclusions about biological and cosmological origins. At the same time, intelligent design (ID) offers a promising scientific alternative to materialistic theories of biological and cosmological evolution — an alternative that is finding increasing theoretical and empirical support. Hence, ID needs to be vigorously developed as a scientific, intellectual, and cultural project.
    (emphasis added)

    Sounds like a challenge to materialism to me!

    Actually, I agree that ID could still be tenable under philosophical naturalism (biological ID more so than cosmological ID), but it does just push the origins question back one step – where did the material Designer come from?

  3. 3
    lars says:

    @Joseph, I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “That design is (part of) this physical, observable world”…

    It seems like “design (n.)” is used in a few different senses… e.g.

    (a) a set of components that are arranged in a way that produces an effect, thus suggesting a purpose and intent

    (b) a purpose and intent motivating a selection and arrangement of components to produce an effect

    (I’m sure more refined definitions than these have been put forward, so humor me.)

    If you mean (a), then it is clear how that is part of the physical world; if (b) then it doesn’t seem to be part of the physical world.

    So I guess you mean (a) but I wanted to clarify. In this case inferring (b) would be a goal or product of ID, while (a) is its object of study.

  4. 4
    GilDodgen says:

    I guess it all comes down to definitions. For the Darwinist, naturalism and materialism concerning origins explicitly preclude design from any source. Only the illusory appearance of design is allowed.

  5. 5
    kairosfocus says:

    Null:

    The central move of the design approach is to put cause and causal factors back in the middle of the investigatory table.

    That which begins to exist has a cause, which may be traceable to chance, mechanical necessity and/or art. Therein lieth the rub, a priori materialism in the guise of science is bent on reducing art to a wholly secondary nature as cause, ruling a head of the facts speaking that it MUST reduce to chance and mechanical necessity.

    Accordingly, the tendency is to cast the contrast, nature [= blind chance + necessity] vs the supernatural, which is strictly verboten. But in fact this begs the question as your friendly local food package tells us another contrast: natural vs ART-ificial.

    Where, surely, both natural and artificial factors leave empirically observable traces.

    And, once we see that, we can then ask concerning signs that point to the various causal factors, what are their characteristic traces, and how may we reliably decompose an overall causal process into the dynamics and driving factors.

    Further to this, we can see that to a priori lock out artificial causal factors as a possibility is to beg the question, hampering scientific work from unfettered inquiry into the truth of things.

    Finally, let us remember that there are two levels of major relevant design inference. Biological and cosmological. It is the latter that speaks beyond the cosmos we know, through looking at the traces of its cause we see in its features.

    Ironically, that is the level of design that the materialists seem most hesitant to touch.

    No prizes for guessing why.

    GEM of TKI

  6. 6
    nullasalus says:

    Gil,

    For the Darwinist, naturalism and materialism concerning origins explicitly preclude design from any source. Only the illusory appearance of design is allowed.

    I agree, but in a qualified way: For the typical Darwinist, yes, design concerning human origins is excluded. But it’s not materialism or naturalism which is driving that exclusion, much less science. (Indeed, as our science and technology improves, the question of design becomes harder to ignore under either metaphysic.) And insofar as ID does not require the “supernatural” to be at work for design to nevertheless be real, the conflict ID presents is – oddly enough – not with near-meaningless metaphysical positions like “naturalism”.

    KF,

    Where, surely, both natural and artificial factors leave empirically observable traces.

    Of course, if someone denies this, then it’s an even bigger hobbling of the typical “naturalist” view. Go figure.

    Maybe what we study isn’t the natural versus the artificial. Maybe it’s artificial all the way down. After all, we can be certain that artificial things exist – that which is “natural” is assumed rather than demonstrated. But if artificiality can reasonably explain all we see, well…

    Still, I maintain that ID is expressly compatible with both naturalism and materialism, even if it mandates neither. I think part of the problem here is that both sides tend to attribute much more to either ‘naturalism’ or ‘materialism’ than is truly warranted – making what are at this point nearly contentless metaphysical positions seem fuller than they really are. As has been pointed out before, to give a physical explanation of how my computer works does not establish that my computer was not designed. To point out how selection and variation works does not mean that this specific breed of dog was therefore not a product of artificial selection.

  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:

    Null:

    I have defined “natural” on the stochastic chance contingencies and regularities tracing to the mechanical necessities of forces tracing ultimately to the classical four forces.

    That does not suggest that nature itself is not an artifact, that is working out as it was designed to. But it does suggest that nature has empirically detectable signs.

    Similarly, art does so too.

    And in a given situation, we may assess nature vs art in that sense. Law, chance or art?

    Then, at the level of the cosmos itself, we may ask if it is the product of deeper law, chance and/or design. On contingency and fine tuning design.

    But that does not mean that here are no dynamics that play out on initial circumstances and forces, with chance disturbances.

    GEM of TKI

  8. 8
    nullasalus says:

    kairosfocus,

    I have defined “natural” on the stochastic chance contingencies and regularities tracing to the mechanical necessities of forces tracing ultimately to the classical four forces.

    And naturalists are able to accept that some things are “artificial”. Really, naturalists can accept pretty much anything, from utter acausality to brute facts to biological and cosmological ID to otherwise. Somehow this gets forgotten by all sides, or seems to.

    I don’t want to turn this into yet another thread where the validity of ID is argued for. I’m granting it here for the sake of argument, and really, we’ve got a billion threads making the case for ID’s success (As well we should – that’s the theme of the site. But I think there’s other issues very relevant to ID that go under-discussed.)

    So in this case, I’d rather focus on the compatibility of “naturalism”, even “materialism”, with ID. Since one lingering issue with ID is the idea that it mandates supernatural intervention, which is nonsense. At the same time, there’s a problem with the idea that ID in and of itself challenges naturalism or materialism as philosophical positions, rather than the particular beliefs of this or that naturalist.

  9. 9
    kuartus says:

    I have to say that if actual design in the universe exists, then that excludes both naturalism and materialism from being true.Here’s why.If we find information in natural systems,say life,and if information only comes from an intelligence as ID asserts,then by regression we have to conclude that information ultimately proceeds from a source outside of the universe. If we say that the information in life is there due to some intelligent aliens, then one could ask who designed the aliens. And who designed them and so on. The information present in the universe could never have arisen from an entity which is contingent on the universe, since nature cant produce information. The information could have only come from an entity outside the universe. Such a being would by definition be supernatural.
    And there go naturalism and materialism.

  10. 10
    nullasalus says:

    kuartus,

    One problem here is that materialists and naturalists are both happy to answer problems like this by embracing infinite regress (perhaps intelligent agents have always existed.) Another is that I’m not sure ID itself marries one to the claim that nature cannot produce information, though specific ID proponents may argue as much.

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