Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Is ID a pseduo-scientific creationist conspiracy? Peter Hearty on Intelligent Design Theory - a critique

Peter Hearty, with whom I debated ID on Premier Christian Radio a few weeks ago (cf., has an article on the National Secular Society website entitled 'Intelligent Design Leads Religious Renaissance'. Here is his article with my interjected comments (in blue):

Religion is enjoying a world-wide Renaissance, but while the demise of the medieval world heralded an upsurge in art, literature and science, this latter day Renaissance is a very different beast. [Is it me, or is Peter implying that the demise of the medieval world co-insided with a demise in religion and that this demise is to be thanked for a resulting upsurge in art, literature and science? If so, he has surely got his historical facts wrong. Science was created against a backdrop of theism which nurtured it. The first experimental scientists were Christians. And as for art, renaissance art is predominently religious art!] To it, science is a mortal enemy. [This is a sweeping statement. It certainly does not apply to the proponents of ID, many of whom are professional scientists!] Science offers an alternative path to truth, to fill in the gaps once occupied by an almighty god. [Science does not 'fill in the gaps once occupied by an almighty god'. Theists are as keen to avoid belief in the so-called 'god of the gaps' as are atheists. Advances in science merely constitute advances in our knowledge of the mode of God's action in relation to the world, whether by creating (primary causation) and then sustaining (secondary causation) a general and reliable physical order, or by additional 'primary' causation within that physical order.] It shows contempt for authority, demanding evidence and argument to back its assertions. There is no room for blind faith in a world of experts and peer reviews. [There is no room for 'blind faith' in the religion of the Bible either. I know very few religious people who are keen on 'blind faith'. The Bible tells us to worship God with our minds, to reason together with God, to 'test all things', to always be ready to give a rational defence of our beliefs (1 Peter 3:15), of Paul reasoning and arguing and proving in debate, etc.] For four hundred years the European god has been in retreat in the face of this onslaught. [God is not European! If anything, God is Middle Eastern! Europeans have in general been retreating from belief in God, that is no doubt true - although more do still believe to one degree or another than not. In other parts of the world, belief in God has been on the rise. Worldwide, theism is the dominant viewpoint. As for the philosophical situation, God has not been in retreat in the face of a scientific onslaught at all, although some of our ideas about the particular mode of divine action in particular cases may have been.] Now the faithful are fighting back, and in the vanguard is the theory of Intelligent Design [it should be noted that some ID theosrists are not religious]. Intelligent Design, or I.D., postulates that there are aspects of nature, particularly in biochemistry, which have so many interdependent parts, that they could not have evolved gradually [actually, that's 'could not have evolved gradually by a direct evolutionary pathway and are very unlikely to have evolved gradually by an indirect evolutionary pathway'. Peter only focuses on the issue of 'irreducible complexity' here, ignoring the wider issue of 'specified complexity' which applies to the fine-tuning of the big bang as well as to various biological examples]. The only possible alternative is the intervention of an anonymous, benevolent, designer. [This is not true, of course. Why think the designer is benevolent? Saying that something is designed does not allow one to say that the designer was necessarily a good person!] Except of course that the designer is not anonymous. We all know exactly who he’s meant to be. [Careful logic should not be confused with rhetoric. The conclusion that something is designed leaves open a wide variety of possible designer candidates. God is naturally one of those candidates, and one that people who already believe in God will readily make a connection with in this context. However, 'intelligent design' does not necessitate 'divine design'. As David Hume pointed out, the most any design argument can hope to achieve falls far short of proving the existence of 'God'. The designer may be singular or multiple, good or bad, necessary or contingent, natural or supernatural, cleaver or stupid, temporal or atemporal, an alien, a time travelling scientist, Plato's demiurge, a member of a polytheistic pantheon, an angel, a demon, etc. Any propper presentation of ID would make clear this inherent limitation of empirical argumentation and make clear that ID is logically compatible with a variety of naturalistic as well as supernaturalistic worldviews. In sum, the deisgner may or may not be 'God', and the question of whether or not the deisgner is God is a philosophical debate quite distinct from the soundness of ID as a scientific theory. Of course I think the designer is God, but saying 'I don't believe in God therefore there is no designer' is a non sequiter. It's like looking at a crop circle and saying to a UFO enthusiast 'I don't believe in aliens, therefore this crop circle is not the product of design. It must be explicable in terms of some natural process'! But of course, the crop circle is clearly designed (because it exhibits specified complexity), and there are any number of designer candidates one must consider, including humans!] The theory, and its chief protagonists, the Seattle based Discovery Institute, exist for one reason and one reason alone: to get the god of Abraham back into American schools, thus subverting the ruling of the Supreme Court and the American constitution. They failed with simple creationism, now they’re trying a more subtle approach. [Where to begin! Neither the Discovery Institute nor ID theorists like Dembski or Behe (or myself) 'failed with simple creationism' for the simple reason that none of us ever tried it! None of us are 'young earth creationsits' (although some ID theorists are), and ID is simply not the same thing as creationism. If Peter's conpiracy theory were on target, ID has to be the most bungled conspiracy in the history of conspiracies! ID theorists explicitly claim that their theory is neutral with regard to the identity of the designer, and they explain that this is because the design inference is incapable of taking us further by its very nature. Then again, Discovery Institute explicity supports the seperation of church and state and does not support getting the ID theory taught in schools!] I.D. pretends to be a scientific theory [it would be fairer to say that its proponents genuinelly believe that ID is a scientific theory - although many people disagree with this viewpoint]. With typical religious dishonesty, there is no mention of their god [Again, the ad hominem accusation that ID theorists like myself are dishonest. Again, careful logic should not be confused with dishonesty. ID theorists who believe in God do mention God, to say that they believe on grounds outside of ID as a scientific theory, that the designer is God.] It uses the language of science, christening itself a “theory”. [This is because it is a scientific theory.] It employs otherwise eminent biologists to find intricate mechanisms in nature whose evolution is poorly understood. [Peter here assumes that all intricate mechanisms in nature did in fact evolve, whilst admitting that we currently lack evolutionary explanations for how they may have done that. He is not saying we can take every intricate mechanism in nature and show that it can and did evolve - like x - and that we therefore know, on the basis of evidence, that they all evolved. He is simply assuming that every intricate mechanism evolved.] It vilifies its detractors, portraying itself as a victim for daring to utter scientific heresy – the champion of the unorthodox. [Well, ID is certainly unorthodox - and ID theorists do champion this unorthodox view. Many who have uttered this scientific heresy have indeed been victimised in one way or another. Indeed, some who do not themselves support ID but have merely supported the contention that ID deserves a place at the table or have allowed ID material to be published have been victimised (e.g. Steve Fuller). Peter vilifies ID theorists in this very article by saying that they are dishonest. In other words, Peter is calling me a liar. He says that 'dishonesty' is 'typical' of 'religious' people. I am a religious person. Therefore, dishonesty must be typical of me. Moreover, I am an ID supporter. Peter says that ID supporters failure to mention God within ID is an example of typical religious dishonesty (rather than a sensible acknowlegdement of the limitations of the design inference and the fact that non-theists can and do support ID). Quite aside from the question of whether or not this charge of my being a liar is true (in this instance I protest that it is not true) - it is clearly a charge that 'vilifies' me!] Then it demands equal billing in school science classes: “All we ask is that children be allowed to hear both sides of the argument”. [This is incorrect. The Discovery Institute does not support giving ID equal billing in schools: cf. 'Discovery Institute's Sicience Education Policy'.] Perhaps I.D. should be taught in science classes? As one commentator on the Newsline discussion forum said, it would take about five minutes to dismiss; to show that, once you abandon investigation and cause, you abandon science. [In what way does ID abandone investigation and cause?! ID depends upon observational investigation of empirical facts combined with rational, scientific criteria for distinguishing between which of the logically possible range of causes - chance and/or necessity or design - is the best explanation of the facts in any given case. Would Peter accuse a SETI researcher who concluded that a given radio signal was caused by an intelligent source - because it encoded a series of prime numbers (to take an example from Cosmos) - of having abandoned investigation and cause?!] The rest of the semester can then be spent on real science. But the I.D. zealots [This is a rather loaded term (even if it is technically accurate), at least if we are not to refer to Neo-Darwinists as 'Evolution zealots' (even if it is technically accurate). I don't think we should do either] will not stop there. Give them a wedge in the science curriculum and it won’t be long before they demand more. In a country where the science curriculum is decided by popular vote, there is everything to play for. In a democracy, it is not only human institutions which must be governed by the will of the majority, but the very universe itself.

Religions in the U.K. have no such fiddly little problems to contend with. Here, old fashioned creationism can be taught with government blessing and state funding3. [Doesn't this fact put a rather large hole through Peter's ID conspiracy theory? If ID is, as he says, a conspiracy to smuggle God into American schools by getting around the American legal system, why on earth does ID have supporters in countries, like Britian, where there is no seperation of church and state and where there are no legal problems with teaching creationism?] Politicians have realised that most voters have little concern for the niceties of the science curriculum. Faith groups, on the other hand, can be persuaded to vote en-masse. All of a sudden, it has become respectable to wear a belief in magic on your sleeve. From Bush to Blair to Putin, leaders of every political colour are realising that believers have votes. [How does Peter square this theory with the fact that while only 26% of the British population believe ‘in a personal God’ and only 17% regularly attend church, in the recent MORI poll for the BBC 44% of British adults said creationism should be taught in school and 41% supported including intelligent design?]

It is said that in the U.S. it is possible to have a black president, a woman president, even a gay president, but if you are an atheist then forget it. Surely such a state of affairs could never happen here? Yet we learn only this week that Robin Cook, one of the most intellectually admired and principled members of Tony Blair’s ex-ministers, felt himself unable to join the National Secular Society for fear that it would damage his political career. [Since only a minority of Brits believe in God, why would Robin Cook think his political career would be harmed by being honest about not being a theist? Indeed, although it seems that our Prime Minister does believe in God, Downing Street is very warey of this ever being dwelt upon. One aid reportedly responded to journalitic questions about whether Tony prayed about policy decisions by saying 'we don't do God'! In my opinion, a widely known active religious belief would on the whole be an electoral disadvantage in Britian. I see in the Observer article referenced by Peter the suggestion that Mr Cook felt that the cabinet was dominated by Christians and that open atheism on his part would hamper a possible return to cabinet after Tony had stepped down. If so, I think this is indeed a shame.] And therein lies the danger. Our religious leaders no longer wear vestments and mitres, instead they sit around the cabinet table. They do not preach damnation or proscription for those who fail to conform – those who do not share their enthusiasm for blind faith, any faith, are quietly sidelined. What use are voters who do not believe what they are told – who do not accept the authority of their religious superiors? And for that last bastion of rationality, science, they have the Theory of Intelligent Design. [I think Peter is saying that religious people have power in government and then impose their beliefs on the population through the power of the state and that they are trying to subvert science by imposing ID on the population. If so, I'm not sure that this is an accurate portrayal of the situation, even in America. The political leaders are elected by the people who agree with their outlook, and the courts have independent guardianship of the constitution (as the Dover case shows) - and whether or not ID is being used by political leaders, the question of whether ID subverts science depends upon the question of whether ID is science. I have argued here and elsewhere that ID is science and that ID is not a conspiracy to smuggle God into American schools. First of all the logic of ID leaves the identity of the designer to philosophical discussion. Secondly the American proponents of ID propper support the seperation of church and state and do not support including ID in school science lessons. Third ID has supporters in countries where there is no seperation of church and state or problem teaching creationism. The conspiracy theory advocated by Peter Hearty simply doesn't come to grips with these facts. Now, I really enjoyed my time dicussing with Peter both on and off air at Premier Christian Radio. I found him a friendly, self-reflective and open discussion partner. I just think that he misunderstands intelligent design theory. No doubt many American Christians do see ID as the 'next best thing' to the creationism they really support, and no doubt some want to get ID into schools for that reason - but this is not the attitide of the theorists who proposed ID. And this is not my attitude. I think that Peter's theory, that ID is a pseudo-scientific creationist conspiracy, is adequately rebutted by the following papers: Bradley Monton, 'Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision'; John G. West, 'Intelligent Design and Creationism are Just not the Same'; Jonathan Witt, 'The Origin of Intelligent Design'.]

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