Shermer’s attack was brought on by a comment of Rabbi Reuven Bulka, published in the Citizen on July 7. Bulka had written:
“By the way, for the record, I have no problem with evolutionary ingredients in creation. This can co-exist quite comfortably with intelligent design, or God’s design, which is stretched out on an evolutionary canvass.” http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/opinion/story.html?id=efe4cbf9-dd5d-4e33-b1ed-0c0334095047&p=2
Shermer appears to scoff at Rabbi Bulka’s position. He opens his article with these words: “Can you believe in God and evolution? Yes, if you keep the two separated in logic-tight compartments.” From there he goes on to elaborate his notion of the distinction between religion and science, and to employ that distinction to argue (a) that God’s intentions (supposing God exists) are indetectable by scientific means, and (b) that intelligent design purports to detect the scientifically indetectable, and therefore is not science.
For Shermer, religion deals with the supernatural, and science with the natural. To say of anything that “God designed it” is to invoke the supernatural, whereas science must always refer only to the natural. So if God did something, science wants to know how God did it, and that means enumerating the chain of physical causes by which God achieved his desired result. Any attempt to explain something without reference to such a chain of physical causes is, for Shermer, not science. Since Shermer believes that intelligent design theory refers causation directly to God, without specifying the natural causes through which God works, he concludes that ID is not science.
There are other things in Shermer’s article which could be discussed, such as his equation of “reality” with nature, and “unreality” with the supernatural. In such remarks, Shermer reveals his own religious biases. But these biases, while perhaps indicative of his underlying motivations, are not directly relevant to his argument, and so, in order to stay focused, we will concentrate on the notion of “science” which underlies his critique of ID.
Shermer does not appear to understand the difference between two different kinds of explanation: explanation in terms of efficient causes and explanation in terms of final causes. An efficient-cause explanation focuses exclusively upon reconstructing the series of prior energy/matter interactions which have led inevitably up to the thing that one is trying to explain. Borrowing an example (from a letter-writer to The Ottawa Citizen who was critical of Shermer), if I try to account for a shot which sinks the pink ball in a game of snooker, and leaves the cue ball perfectly positioned to sink the black ball on the next shot, I can do so in purely causal terms: force applied, spin applied, initial direction of shot, loss of velocity after collision, angle of reflection off the cushion, friction from the felt, etc. “Science,” in Mr. Shermer’s narrow conception of the term, offers only this sort of explanation.
Not all explanations, however, are couched in terms of efficient causes. I can also “explain” the result of the snooker shot in question in terms of the intentionality of the shooter: his goals or aims in light of the rules of the game, including the order in which the colored balls are to be shot once the red balls are gone, and his desire to leave himself in a good position for the black ball after the sinking of the pink ball. This sort of explanation, which is explanation in terms of “final cause,” provides information which the simple efficient-cause analysis cannot provide. It answers the question “why” the balls end up where they do on a different level from the “physics” sort of answer given by the efficient-cause explanation.
Note that these two explanations, both of which answer the question “Why do the balls end up where they do?” are not incompatible. In fact, the efficient-cause explanation is in an important sense subordinate to the explanation in terms of the shooter’s designs: it is only because the shooter planned his shot in a certain way, that the chain of efficient causes took place. Had the shooter intended something different, the balls would have ended up in a different place. The “physics” explanation for the snooker shot is, therefore, in an important sense, not a full or satisfactory explanation for what occurred.
Intelligent design, as Mr. Shermer and almost all critics of ID fail to perceive (or pretend to fail to perceive), is not an explanation in terms of efficient causes. It is an explanation in terms of final causes. It argues that, whatever the chain of physical causes which led to the first formation of, say, the cardio-vascular system or the DNA-protein machinery, those causes were somehow orchestrated towards an end, and that this orchestration can be demonstrated by a mathematically precise science of design detection. ID does not attempt to reconstruct the series of efficient causes by which the emergence of biological structures was first orchestrated; however, if it is true that design is inherent in certain biological features, and that design cannot be explained without intelligence, then “intelligent design” is a legitimate cause of the biological system, just as it is the cause of the snooker shot which sinks the pink ball and leaves a person perfectly positioned for the black ball.
Further, since intelligent design is not wedded to any particular causal story, it can be understood in such a way as to leave the chain of efficient causes untouched; it doesn’t require any miraculous breaking of Mr. Shermer’s precious natural laws, any more than the snooker shot does. As snooker shots can re-arrange the balls, making use of fixed laws of physics, so biological systems can be arranged, through the fixed laws of chemical bonding and the motions of matter established at the beginning of the universe.
Thus, the rabbi’s original contention, to which Mr. Shermer objected, is correct: without keeping one’s mind in “logic-tight compartments,” one can believe simultaneously both in “evolution,” as a process of natural development, and in design by a brilliant mind of some kind, which in religious thought is usually termed “God.” Evolution and design, on such a view, are not contradictory but complementary and mutually reinforcing modes of explanation. Evolutionary explanation, couched in terms of mechanistic physics and chemistry, can suggest to us how the atoms in living things came to be arranged in the way that they are, but cannot explain to us the happy circumstance that atoms have just exactly the right set of properties to produce carbon-based life on earth. The design hypothesis accounts for why the atoms have just exactly those properties. Just as a full set of snooker balls thrown randomly on a pool table don’t sink themselves in the right order, so a set of chemical elements that was not carefully designed would not have produced life on earth or a genetic code capable of modification to form new species.
Thus, Mr. Shermer is wrong to suggest that “science” and “religion” necessarily either contradict one another, or must be kept in separate compartments. Science, in setting forth the efficient causes by which evolution proceeds, is only fully intelligible in light of an overarching design, which religion interprets as proceeding from the mind of God, and religion, which with the aid of mathematical analysis perceives the overarching design, can give no account of how the design was executed without science. The two work together hand in glove, efficient causes realizing the goal established by the final causes discerned by the religious thinker (or for that matter, by any truly rational philosopher or scientist).
To the view that I have sketched above (that a guiding mind or intellect works through natural laws to produce the designed phenomena of life), there is a putatively scientific alternative: the Neo-Darwinian theory. Neo-Darwinism asserts that the apparent designs in living things are produced, ultimately, by chance (for even chance filtered by natural selection boils down to chance). In other words, at the heart of the apparent rationality of the universe is a fundamental irrationality. Unreason produces reason; chaos produces order. By a strange cosmic irony, blind efficient causes (which cannot see or feel or plan or think), have produced living things (which have such abilities). Mr. Shermer does not appear to blink an eye as he endorses these improbable claims as the irrefutable results of “science.” It would appear that, when Mr. Shermer reads Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas or William Paley or Michael Behe, he reads with ruthless skepticism, but when he reads Carl Sagan or Michael Ruse or Will Provine or Richard Dawkins, he swallows pretty well any unsubstantiated efficient-cause speculation with complete credulity.