In my earlier post on this subject, I attempted to address the question of whether or not the claim “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, or what I called the EC-EE claim, was itself an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence. In this post, I want to take a step back from that and just grant that the EC-EE claim is valid, at least as a general guideline, along the order of, say, Ockham’s Razor.
That granted, let’s see where that may lead us with respect to how the EC-EE claim is used as an argument against certain kinds of claims on the basis that they are “extraordinary”. For my point of departure, I’ll revisit the quote from Michael Shermer I referenced in my earlier post and a companion quote from the late Philosopher of Science and staunch defender of evolution and ID critic, Niall Shanks. My purpose in citing Shermer and Shanks is not to single them out, but to simply use their claims as representative of a line of thought that is quite pervasive among the defenders of Darwinian evolution. First Shermer again as a reminder:
Darwin’s original claim of evolution by means of natural selection was an extraordinary claim in its time, so he was required to provide extra ordinary evidence for it. He did, and evidence has continued accumulating ever since. Today, the burden of proof is on creationists and Intelligent Design advocates to provide extraordinary evidence for their extraordinary claim that a supernatural being of great power and intelligence performed a supernatural act in place of or contrary to natural law. They have yet to do so.
(Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, Henry Holt and Co., LLC, 2006, pg 50)
Shermer’s claim here is of a piece with what Shanks, wrote:
The conclusion, once again, was that we had been given no serious evidential case upon which to base further investigations into supernatural intelligent design. The late Carl Sagan advised that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence for their validation. Intelligent design advocates have not merely failed to offer extraordinary evidence but indeed have failed to offer even humdrum evidence to support their case. In fact, intelligent design theory, for all its blather about being the science of the twenty-first century, is little more than old medieval theological wine in new biochemical and cosmological bottles.
(God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory, Niall Shanks, Oxford University Press, Oxford UK, 2004, pg 226)
Both Shermer and Shanks agree that there is a paucity of evidence where ID is concerned and that whatever evidence is cited for it far falls short of the required extraordinary evidential bar. But are the core claims of ID extraordinary in the first place, and if so, what makes them so? Further, why does Shermer think that the burden of evidence lies with the ID proponents and not with Darwinian evolution? Is it really the case, as both Shermer and Shanks suggest, that in modern times anyone who thinks that the cosmos in general or biological systems in particular give evidence of intelligent cause is making an “extraordinary” claim?
So, let’s examine these questions in turn and see where we get to. Are the core claims of ID extraordinary in some sense? There are a couple ways to look at this question. Both Shermer and Shanks have equated the core ideas of ID and ID’s appeal to intelligent cause with supernatural cause. However, this misrepresents the actual case. There is no requirement in ID per se that the intelligent cause must be supernatural, or, more to the real worry that Shermer and Shanks have, that the cause is God. What both of them fail to see is that ID as a scientific enterprise merely seeks to identify and separate intelligent causes from undirected, natural causes. So, the comparison between undirected natural causes on the one hand and supernatural causes on the other is off the mark. William Dembski has made this abundantly clear in his book The Design Revolution where he wrote:
Now from the vantage point of intelligent design, treated strictly as a scientific inquiry, no theological or atheological position has a privileged place. Intelligent design, as a scientific research program, attempts to determine whether certain features of the natural world exhibit signs of having been designed by an intelligence. This intelligence could be E.T. or a telic principle immanent in nature or a transcendent personal agent. These are all, at least initially, live options…Forget about the term supernatural and the presuppositional baggage it carries. What if the designing intelligence(s) responsible for biological complexity cannot be confined to physical objects? Why should that burst the bounds of science?…But the contrast between natural and supernatural causes is the wrong contrast. The proper contrast is between undirected natural causes on the one hand and intelligent causes on the other…Design has no prior commitment against naturalism or for supernaturalism. Consequently, science can offer no principled grounds for excluding design or relegating it to the sphere of religion.
(The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design, William A. Dembski, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 2004, pp 188-190)
Thus we see that the actual comparison is undirected natural causes versus intelligent cause, with no reference to supernatural. Even a modicum of research would have shown both Shermer and Shanks that this was the case, yet they persisted in misrepresenting the case, as have many other critics of ID. By conflating ‘intelligent cause’ with ‘supernatural cause’, Shermer and Shanks have, in effect, set up a straw man which they then proceed to beat up in order to claim victory over ID.
ID as a scientific enterprise does not attempt to identify the designer, but rather attempts to identify and quantify artifacts in nature that exhibit the effects of intelligent cause, most notably the presence of complex, specified information (CSI). So stated, the core claim of ID hardly seems worthy of the label “extraordinary”. After all, there are many sciences wholly devoted to discerning intelligent causes, as has been noted many times over the years: forensic science, archeology, certain forms of cryptography and many others. No one thinks anyone in these sciences is making an extraordinary claim when a conclusion of intelligent cause is indicated from their research. So why think any differently where biological artifacts are concerned? If we remove supernatural causation from consideration, and that is precisely what ID as a scientific enterprise does do as we have seen, then what precisely is the problem? Are Shermer and Shanks suggesting that nothing in nature exhibits anything that could be taken to be evidence for intelligent causation? If so, what would be the scientific basis for making such a claim? It has never been established scientifically that all phenomenon in nature past, present and future can only be the result of undirected, natural causes. If that is what Shermer and Shanks do think (and it’s a pretty safe bet that it is), then they are not basing that claim on anything scientific, and their claim, that everything we observe in Nature is the result of undirected natural causes, begins to look just as extraordinary as they think the claims of ID are. At the very least, such a claim would go well beyond the bounds of anything that has been confirmed scientifically and betrays an a priori commitment to a particular worldview.
To see this, consider the following scenario. As you drive down a country road you observe a small grove of trees. Upon further inspection, you notice that the trees of this grove are all the same kind (pine, let’s say) and that they appear to be more or less equidistant from one another. You further notice that the trees are so arranged as to spell out the name “Smithson” on the side of the little hill upon which they stand. What would be your most likely inference regarding the origin of this particular grove of trees? Would anyone, including Shermer and Shanks or those of their ilk, conclude that the grove, like all the other nearby forests, was simply the end result of undirected, natural causes? Or would the more likely conclusion be that the grove was intentionally planted according to some design plan by someone…perhaps a nearby farmer named Smithson? That conclusion would be pretty straightforward and unextraordinary, and most likely correct. Trying to explain the existence of the grove through undirected, natural causes would require some difficult explanatory work as to how such causes would bring about a nearly perfect grove of trees all pretty much equidistant from one another spelling out the name “Smithson”. Further, any such explanation would most likely be dismissed out of hand on the basis of Okhham’s famous razor. Yet, for all that, there could be no denying that the little grove exhibits CSI.
But now we leave the grove of trees and observe CSI in a biological system. This arrangement of matter is far more complex than the simple grove trees. Yet, Darwinians, like Shermer and Shanks, have no problem whatsoever conjecturing that this level of CSI can easily be accounted for as the result of undirected, natural causes through Darwinian evolution. (We’ll leave aside for the moment that no one has yet provided any plausible explanation in Darwinian terms for CSI). The reason for this seeming disconnect is that in the case of the trees, it would be argued, we know that people can and do plant trees and crops, so it’s a simple inference that someone planted the trees in that precise configuration. However, they would further argue that we don’t know of any intelligence in nature that could account for the greater level of CSI exhibited in a biological system, so it must be the result of undirected, natural cause. In making this claim, they would not necessarily be denying the existence of CSI in the biological system any more than they would deny the CSI in the grove of trees. Rather, they are denying that there is no known intelligent agent in nature that can account for it. What they fail to see is that whether such an agent is known or not, there should be no problem in seeing the effect of intelligent cause in the form of CSI. Further, eliminating intelligent cause out of scientific bounds a priori is to make a metaphysical commitment as to what there is and to what science may appeal as cause for a given effect. In short, whether or not an appeal to intelligent cause is extraordinary with respect to CSI in a biological system is worldview laden and can not be divorced from that in any principled way.
Whatever the case here, the point to be appreciated is that once the concept of ‘supernatural’ is rightly removed from ID as a scientific enterprise, the remaining core claim becomes a simple, one could say ‘humdrum’, appeal to intelligent causes, whatever or whoever those causes might be. Not knowing the identity of the designer is of no consequence whatsoever with respect to seeing that something is, in fact, designed. This takes a lot of the starch out of the EC-EE claim where ID is concerned as it reduces the actual claim of ID to a straightforward, everyday claim of intelligent cause as opposed to undirected, natural cause. Divorced from any particular worldview commitments, nothing seems extraordinary in that.
Shermer wants to go even further, though, and claim that the burden of proof must lie with those claiming intelligent cause. This gambit is used often among ID critics. However, if we rightly understand what the actual core claim of ID is, with any appeal to supernatural cause removed, then the claim that the appeal to intelligent cause is somehow extraordinary is greatly reduced or eliminated, so why think that the burden of proof has somehow shifted to the ID proponents? Here Shermer betrays his underlying prejudice that undirected, natural cause in the form of Darwinian evolution has fully accounted for all that we observe in biological systems,(indeed he says so in the above quote) including the presence of CSI. (if Shermer doesn’t think that, then why bother claiming that the burden of proof has shifted to ID?) But whether or not that is even true is a significant part of the issue and thus Shermer’s entire argument is little more than begging the question. Given what we know about CSI, and given that in every case where an artifact exhibits CSI and we know it causal history, intelligent cause is always the explanation, then it would seem reasonable and logical to say that the extraordinary claim here is not the simple claim of ID of intelligent cause, but the claim that the blind, purposeless forces of matter and energy interacting over eons of time through chance and/or necessity are capable of producing biological systems that exhibit CSI. To paraphrase Shanks, it seems safe to say that proponents of the undirected, natural cause story “have not merely failed to offer extraordinary evidence but indeed have failed to offer even humdrum evidence to support their case.”
However one wishes to look at this, the claim that ID is making “extraordinary” claims for which there is not even “humdrum” evidence, let alone the requisite “extraordinary” evidence, is way off the mark as it based entirely on a (deliberate?) misrepresentation of what ID actually claims. At the very least, it seems plausible to say that the EC-EE claim leveled against ID is fairly misguided and does little more than emotive work in defense of Darwinian evolution or as a criticism of ID. While the EC-EE claim might make an ID critic feel better, it does little to actually diminish, let alone defeat, ID or promote Darwinian evolution. If anything, it is the Darwinian account of undirected natural causes being capable of producing CSI in biological systems that smacks of the ‘extraordinary’.
In my next installment on this subject, I want to look more closely at the EE side of the EC-EE claim and the question of evidence and what would make evidence rise to the level of being extraordinary, or even if such a thing is possible. For now, let’s discuss whether or not there really is anything ‘extraordinary’ about any of the claims of ID, when all appeal to supernatural cause is removed, or is the appeal to undirected natural causes as explanation for CSI the real ‘extraordinary’ claim?