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Intelligent Design: Science, Philosophy, or Theology?

Following Stephen Meyer’s talks in NZ, a few people will be thinking more about intelligent design. What is it, and why does it matter?

The central claim of the intelligent design movement is that design is 1) empirically detectable (distinguishable from ordinary ‘natural’ processes), and 2) instantiated in the natural world. 

There are different claims that fall under this idea of intelligent design. Probably most controversially, the claim is about certain aspects of biological organisms that are said to particularly clearly evince design, but other areas in which evidence of design is said to be found include cosmology, astronomy, and chemistry/biochemistry.

As such, intelligent design seems to be a scientific kind of hypothesis. Perhaps not purely scientific, if we decide, firstly that science must be constrained by methodological naturalism, and secondly that design as a kind of cause falls outside the appropriate definition of naturalism; but still dealing with the same general realm that science generally does. Perhaps ‘natural philosophy’ or ‘meta-science’ might do as a term.

Inferences about the nature of the design observed quickly move into philosophical territory. But the same is probably true when dealing with anything near the foundations of science. 

So, the concept that design is evinced in the natural world includes aspects of science and of philosophy. Intelligent design, however, is not theology. It comports well with some theological claims, for sure – but so does belief in scientific law, and no-one calls the work of theoretical physicists acts of theology.

Proponents of intelligent design often argue that Christians must believe in it, because the Bible says that the universe declares things about God. I disagree with them – it may be that, indeed, the universe declares things about God – but that the nature of the declaration is not scientific or empirical in quite the way that ID sees it. Reformed epistemologists such as Alvin Plantinga, for example, have spoken about design beliefs being a ‘properly basic’ response to the natural world, rather than based on what we’d think of as an evidence-based inference. His book ‘Where the conflict really lies’ is a fascinating discussion of many things relating to the ID question. There are lots of interesting theological questions over whether God provides us with ‘scientific’ evidence of his existence.

Atheistic opponents say that ID is merely theology disguised in thin pseudo-scientific garments. But I disagree with them too – ID is compatible with very many different kinds of theologies, including many non-traditional views of God/gods/spirit/aliens etc and complete agnosticism on the existence of any kind of deities. Theistic opponents argue on the other hand that it is insufficiently theological, failing to identify the designer as e.g. the God of biblical Christian theism. Given that ID doesn’t claim to be theology, the critique as often made seems misplaced. The fact that it gets flak from both atheists and theologians says to me that ID occupies a very interesting place!  Along similar lines, both atheists and people with a theological bent often argue that ID is simply a ‘god of the gaps’ approach – and so both bad reasoning and bad theology! Bad reasoning for ignoring other possible natural causes, and bad theology for implying that God only acts in ‘gaps’ in the natural order’. 

However, it may be (heresy as it is to suggest it) that we don’t actually live in a causally closed universe – all theists, I think, should be at least sympathetic to the possibility, and it may well be required by theism. If God, or some other mind, does genuinely intervene in nature at one or more points in history, then perhaps ordinary natural processes will not be sufficient to explain the products of such action. In some cases, the gap may be large enough, and the product of the action similar enough to what we would tend to see as ‘designed’ to legitimately infer the action of a designer. Theologically, it is perfectly coherent to say that God has multiple methods of action – sometimes He acts specially in history (e.g. at the resurrection), presumably in a way that isn’t entirely explicable in terms of physical law and the initial conditions of the universe. If He acted in that way then, then why not also in other cases? This doesn’t prevent us believing that He also upholds the universe from moment to moment, by way of the ‘ordinary’ means of physical law. It may also be, as suggested before, that God does intervene but that this is not detectable (at least definitively) by the scientific kinds of means employed by ID theorists – this seems to me to be an interesting open question.

Finally, a philosophical suggestion: the evidence for design suggested by ID arguments (spanning the gamut from cosmology to molecular biology), while not an exercise in theology per se, certainly has theological implications. The kind of mind revealed or at least implied by ID arguments (if they succeed – perhaps e.g. the arguments from cosmology do succeed, but those from biology don’t – as many theistic evolutionists seem to think) fits better with biblical Christian theism than it does with a vague kind of deism, panentheism, or such. On biblical Christian theism, we have reason to expect that God has an interest in life, and particularly in human life. On the existence of some unspecified kind of cosmic mind, we have less (if any) reason to expect the outcomes we see. The arguments offered by the intelligent design movement (whatever their merits) imply a broadly ‘personal’ God, rather than an impersonal computer somewhere out there.

R.C. Sproul Interviews Stephen Meyer

Ligonier Ministries have uploaded several videos on YouTube of R.C. Sproul in conversation with Stephen Meyer, author of the book Signature in the Cell. They discuss philosophy, evolution, education, Intelligent Design, and other issues.

The interview is in five parts.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Panel Discussion of Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell

On January 28, the C.S. Lewis Society hosted a panel at Tampa, Florida, to discuss Stephen Meyer’s new book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. The audio from that discussion is now available on the Society website. Download it here.

On the panel was the book’s author Meyer, mathematician and popular author David Berlinski, and apologist and professor of theology Tom Woodward. Radio host Michael Medved chaired the exchange. The discussion lasts for over two hours and explores the evidence for  intelligent design and Meyer’s central claim that the information in DNA demonstrates a designing intelligence behind the origin of life.

Stephen Meyer’s book is available on Amazon.

Here are some of the book’s endorsements:

Signature in the Cell delivers a superb overview of the surprising and exciting developments that led to our modern understanding of DNA, and its role in cells.   Meyer tells the story in a most engaging way.  He retained my interest through many areas that would normally have turned me off.  He is careful to credit new ideas and discoveries to their originators, even when he disagrees with the uses to which they have been put.  The central idea of the book is that the best explanation of the information coded in DNA is that it resulted from intelligent design.  Meyer has marshaled a formidable array of evidence from fields as diverse as biochemistry, philosophy and information theory.  He deals fairly and thoroughly with even the most controversial aspects and has made a compelling case for his conclusion.  The book is a delightful read which will bring enlightenment and enjoyment to every open minded reader.
—Dr. John C. Walton, School of Chemistry, University of St. Andrews

Signature in the Cell is the quintessential work on DNA and its implications for intelligent design.
Greg Koukl, host of Stand To Reason

How does an intelligent person become a proponent of intelligent design? Anyone who stereotypes IDers as antiscientific ideologues or fundamentalists should read Dr. Meyer’s compelling intellectual memoir. Meyer as a student became fascinated with the ‘DNA enigma’—how the information to produce life originated—and at considerable risk to his career hasn’t given up trying to solve the mystery. Meyer shows how step-by-step he concluded that intelligent design is the most likely explanation of how the DNA code came to be, but he’s open to new evidence—and in so doing he challenges defenders of undirected evolution to have the courage to explore new alternatives as well.
— Dr. Marvin Olasky, provost, The King’s College, New York City, and editor-in-chief, World

In this engaging narrative, Meyer demonstrates what I as a chemist have long suspected: undirected chemical processes cannot produce the exquisite complexity of the living cell. Meyer also shows something else: there is compelling positive evidence for intelligent design in the digital code stored in the cell’s DNA. A decisive case based upon breathtaking and cutting-edge science.
Dr. Philip S. Skell, National Academy of Sciences and Evan Pugh Professor at Pennsylvania State University, emeritus

(HT: Brian)

Challenging naturalism: David Gordon on the Nagel controversy

David Gordon of the Ludwig von Mises Institute has made some interesting comments about the recent controversy created by Thomas Nagel’s endorsement of Stephen Meyer’s new book on Intelligent Design. In reviewing Nagel’s Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002–2008, Gordon writes:

Although he does not accept Intelligent Design, Nagel refuses to dismiss the movement as merely religious. Critics claim that design cannot be a legitimate scientific hypothesis; but at the same time, they maintain that the theory can be shown to be false. Nagel pertinently asks, how can both of these assertions be true together? Further, Nagel sees no constitutional obstacle to teaching Intelligent Design.

Nagel’s opinions on this issue have led to a remarkable episode. Brian Leiter runs a blog, Leiter Reports, which is read by philosophers, owing to detailed accounts of promotions, jobs, and other news about philosophy departments. Leiter’s comparative rankings of philosophy departments also attract much attention. Leiter obtrudes his own political and social views on his audience; were he to present these in a separate venue, it is a safe bet that his audience would vastly diminish. Among Leiter’s many aversions, the Intelligent Design movement ranks among the foremost: he often attacks what he calls the “Texas Taliban.”

When Nagel’s article on Intelligent Design appeared, Leiter could not contain his rage. We were presented with the unedifying spectacle of Leiter’s speaking in abusive and condescending terms about one of the foremost philosophers of the past half-century. Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism, The View From Nowhere, and the essays collected in Mortal Questions are classics of contemporary philosophy.

Matters worsened when Nagel recommended in The Times Literary Supplement Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell as one of his “Best Books of the Year.” Meyer is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and his book argues that naturalistic accounts of the origin of life on earth confront severe difficulties. Only a designing intelligence, Meyer contends, can account for the intricately specified information contained in DNA. Nagel did not endorse Meyer’s conclusion but praised the book for its account of the “fiendishly difficult” problem of life’s origin.

This recommendation aroused Leiter to new heights of contumely. It seems quite likely that Leiter never bothered to look at Meyer’s book. He quoted from an English professor of chemistry protesting Nagel’s claim that natural selection cannot account for DNA because it presupposes its existence. The chemistry professor, echoed by Leiter, said that natural selection exists in the preorganic world: was not Nagel ignorant to deny this? Both Leiter and the chemist ignored the fact, much emphasized by Meyer, that such resorts to natural selection are controversial. To appeal to the fact of their existence against Nagel is to assume what is much in dispute. Leiter extended his attack to accuse Nagel of ignorance of the relevant fields of study. Nagel has never claimed authority in biology; but had Leiter bothered to read Nagel’s well-known essay, “Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness,” he would discover that Nagel has more than a passing acquaintance with neurobiology.

I have gone on at some length about this, because the attempt by Leiter and others to block inquiry that challenges naturalism seems to me altogether deplorable. To some people, evidently, the first line of the False Priestess in In Memoriam is Holy Writ, not to be questioned: “The stars, she whispers, blindly run.” But even if these avid naturalists are correct in their metaphysics, debate needs to be encouraged rather than suppressed. Perhaps Leiter should reread On Liberty. Pending that happy event, one can only say of his abuse that the barking of Bill Sikes’s dog just tells us that Bill Sikes is in the neighborhood.

(Source: Bill Vallicella)

Atheist philosopher slammed for endorsing Meyer's book on Intelligent Design

Thomas Nagel’s recent endorsement of Stephen Meyer’s latest book, Signature in the Cell (2009), has generated a firestorm of debate. In the Times Literary Supplement, the atheist philosopher and professor at New York University, wrote:

“Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.”

Nagel’s positive review provoked instant outrage from his fellow atheists. While Nagel has been critical of scientific naturalism in the past, the recommendation of Meyer’s book as one of the years’ best brought fierce condemnation in the blogosphere and beyond. Brian Leiter has described him as a disgrace and more, while Stephen Fletcher, a chemist and professor at Loughborough University, is simply incredulous:

“The belief that we share this planet with supernatural beings is an old one. Students of magic and religion have identified innumerable varieties of them – gods, devils, pixies, fairies, you name it. A familiar motif is that they operate at the very fringes of perception. While the scullery maid sleeps, they are busy in the kitchen making the milk go sour. For a society with no concept of bacteria, this is, perhaps, a forgivable conceit. But for a modern university professor to take this idea seriously is, I think, mind-blowing.”

Thomas Nagel has responded to Fletcher, in a letter to the Times,

Sir, – Stephen Fletcher objects to my recommending Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell in Books of the Year. Fletcher’s statement that “It is hard to imagine a worse book” suggests that he has read it. If he has, he knows that it includes a chapter on “The RNA World” which describes that hypothesis for the origin of DNA at least as fully as the Wikipedia article that Fletcher recommends. Meyer discusses this and other proposals about the chemical precursors of DNA, and argues that they all pose similar problems about how the process could have got started.

The tone of Fletcher’s letter exemplifies the widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics. There are reasons to doubt this that have nothing to do with theism, beginning with the apparent physical irreducibility of consciousness. Doubts about reductive explanations of the origin of life also do not depend on theism. Since I am not tempted to believe in God, I do not draw Meyer’s conclusions, but the problems he poses lend support to the view that physics is not the theory of everything, and that more attention should be given to the possibility of an expanded conception of the natural order.

THOMAS NAGEL
29 Washington Square, New York 10011.

But not all are critical of Nagel. Bradley Morton disagrees with Leiter and has more sympathy for Nagel’s comments. John Walton, a chemist and professor at the University of St Andrews has come to Nagel’s (and Meyer’s) defense. Walton, also writing to the Times:

Sir, – The resilience of the “prebiotic soup” myth, in spite of torrents of counter-evidence, is truly astonishing. Even professionals such as Stephen Fletcher (Letters, December 4), criticizing Thomas Nagel’s recommendation of Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer (Books of the Year, November 27), apparently still believe in it. Fletcher asserts that “Natural selection is in fact a chemical process as well as a biological process, and it was operating for about half a billion years before the earliest cellular life forms appear in the fossil record”.

Actually the operation of neoDarwinian natural selection depends on the prior existence of entities capable of self-replication. Variants are produced in their genetic material by mutations, the variants are copied by the organism’s biochemical machinery, and then natural selection ensures the most “fit” survive. Before the arrival of organisms capable of reproduction, this process could not operate. In the words of the renowned evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Prebiological natural selection is a contradiction in terms”. It follows that, even in principle, some quite different explanation is required to account for the origin of life. Fletcher is pinning his hopes on a supposed RNA world. He tells us: “Indeed, before DNA there was another hereditary system at work, less biologically fit than DNA, most likely RNA (ribonucleic acid)”.

It is an amusing irony that while castigating students of religion for believing in the supernatural, he offers in its place an entirely imaginary “RNA world” the only support for which is speculation! Intense laboratory research has failed to produce even one nucleotide (RNA component) under geologically plausible conditions. As for the chains of nucleotides required for the RNA world, there are insuperable problems associated with their information content, as well as the chemical selectivity needed for their assembly. Furthermore, the earth’s oldest Precambrian rocks show very good evidence that life was present from the start, so the half-billion years Fletcher counts on were actually not available for chemical evolution.

Rather than just kowtowing to the creaky naturalist “prebiotic soup” scenario, Meyer engages with the whole range of origin of life problems. Anyone interested in discovering where the evidence leads will find this a fascinating book.

JOHN C. WALTON
School of Chemistry, University of St Andrews, North Haugh, St Andrews.

William Lane Craig on his recent Intelligent Design debate

I guess we all know by now that Richard Dawkins refused to debate Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, and recently also refused to debate Dr. Stephen Meyer, even though their paths crossed in the USA.

Ayala

But Dawkins may just well be feeling relieved, however, given the outcome of Craig’s latest debate at Indiana University. By all accounts, Craig appears to have soundly beaten his opponent and advocate for evolution, Francisco Ayala. Ayala is no dummy either, and in debating the topic Intelligent Design: Is it Viable? he should, at least on paper, have been a serious contender with Craig. Professor of biology and philosophy at the University of California, Ayala is described by the New York Times as the “Renaissance man of evolutionary biology”, authoring or editing over 980 articles and 34 books. In 2001 he was awarded the National Medal Of Science and throughout his carer has been recognized by numerous other Institutes and Academic organizations (Craig isn’t kidding when he says Ayala “has as many medals as an Argentine general!”) But Ayala was outperformed. Even the moderator of the debate was less than impressed with the evolutionary biologist and viewed it in Craig’s favour (“Ayala didn’t really engage with Craig, but instead presented his own information, ignoring the arguments that Craig was giving.”). Luke Muehlhauser, the blogger at Common Sense Atheism was even more blunt, suggesting Ayala was getting ‘womped’ by Craig:

Ayala’s presentations were meandering musings on evolutionary theory, the history of science, and anecdotes about Darwin. Ayala also discussed the evidence for common descent, apparently unaware that intelligent design theory is compatible with the existing evidence for common descent. In his opening speech, during which he was supposed to present the case against intelligent design, Ayala did not even mention intelligent design. Craig, as usual, cut very clearly to the heart of the disagreement between Ayala and Intelligent Design theory. He then showed how Ayala’s objections to intelligent design were invalid.

Download the audio from the debate and judge for yourself. But, lastly, here are William Lane Craig’s own thoughts from his November Newsletter:CRAIG

As I write this letter, I’m on my way home from my debate last night at Indiana University on “Is Intelligent Design Viable?” My opponent was Francisco Ayala, an eminent and highly decorated evolutionary biologist who, judging by his lengthy resumé, has as many medals as an Argentine general! I had heard Ayala lecture on Intelligent Design last year in China and was dismayed by the caricatures and misrepresentations he gave to the Chinese students. So even though I had never debated intelligent design in biology before, I decided to take on this debate to try at least to set the record straight. The last few months I prepared diligently for this debate, reading Ayala’s work, familiarizing myself with relevant new developments in biology, studying the recent works of ID proponents, conferring with colleagues who work in this field, and formulating the best strategy for the debate. The key to my approach was a distinction helpfully drawn by Ayala himself. Ayala distinguishes three aspects of the contemporary evolutionary paradigm:

  1. Evolution: the process of change and diversification of living things over time.
  2. Evolutionary history: the reconstruction of the universal tree of life (common ancestry).
  3. “Darwinism”: the mechanism behind evolutionary change is natural selection operating on random variations in living things.

This makes it clear just where ID theorists and Ayala part company. It is not on evolution or even common ancestry but on “Darwinism.” Indeed, prominent ID theorists like geneticist Michael Denton and biochemist Michael Behe espouse the same view of evolutionary history as Ayala. What they deny is that the mechanisms of random variation and natural selection are adequate to explain the evolution of biological complexity. Significantly, Ayala states in his published work “The evolution of organisms is universally accepted by biological scientists, while the mechanisms of evolution are still actively investigated and are the subject of debate among scientists.” He says, “To reconstruct evolutionary history, we have to know how the mechanisms operate in detail, and we have only the vaguest idea of how they operate at the genetic level, how genetic change relates to development and to function.” So I decided to just ignore both “evolution” and common ancestry and to go for the jugular, “Darwinism,” since that is the pivotal point on which the disagreement of ID theorists with the contemporary evolutionary paradigm turns. By taking this approach, I could also keep the debate sharply focused. Since the question we were debating was not whether intelligent design is true but merely whether it is viable, it was up to Ayala to disqualify ID as a live option. In his published work, he tries to disqualify ID both scientifically and theologically, so my opening response fell neatly into two parts. First, I argued that Ayala fails to disqualify ID scientifically because he cannot show that the Darwinian mechanisms are capable of producing the sort of biological complexity we see on earth. Then I argued that the theological arguments he presents against the designer’s being all-powerful and all-good are simply irrelevant to drawing a design inference (however interesting and important they may be for theology) because the design argument doesn’t aspire to show that the designer is all-powerful or all-good. The debate turned out to be virtually one-sided! Ayala utterly failed to engage with my arguments. It was almost as if I wasn’t even there. It was pretty obvious to everyone that he was just presenting canned arguments which had already been refuted in my opening statement. I responded to all his points and even went beyond them to tackle the theological problem of natural evil as well. I was also able to call him to account for his misrepresentation of Michael Behe’s work. Ayala likes to indict Behe for saying that the human eye is irreducibly complex, even though it isn’t. Holding up Behe’s book and reading aloud the relevant passage, I responded that this allegation was surprising in light of the fact that Behe says on pages 37-38 that the eye is NOT irreducibly complex and therefore he does not use it as one of his examples of irreducible complexity! Another interesting feature of this debate was the moderator, a young philosopher from the University of Colorado, Boulder, named Bradley Monton. Though a self-confessed atheist, Monton is convinced that the typical refutations of ID that pass muster today are in fact fallacious, and so he has written a book defending not only the scientific status of ID but even its being taught as an option in public schools! Having read his remarkable book in preparation for the debate, I was able to quote “our esteemed moderator” to good effect during the debate itself to counter Ayala’s assertion that ID was not science. I learned so much during those months of preparation for this debate: about features of human anatomy like the appendix, which is not a vestigial organ at all, or the coccyx, which anchors the muscles that keep the anus from just draining freely, about genetics and the incredible molecular machinery of the cell, about malaria and its war of attrition with humanity, about the molecular basis of drug resistance in bacteria and viruses, about the origin of pathogenic parasites, which were once free-living organisms that “devolved” to become parasitic, about Archaeopteryx and feathered dinosaurs, which to my surprise, are now recognized by evolutionary biologists not to be transitional forms to modern birds even though they have both reptilian and avian features, about biomimetics, how engineers repeatedly find that nature has anticipated (and usually exceeds) the best designs of human engineering, about Pod Mrcaru lizards off the Croatian coast which have unexpectedly developed new anatomical structures, about the hierarchy of pain awareness in animals and man’s unique status of having a second order awareness that one is oneself in pain, an awareness that God, in His mercy, has apparently spared the animals (see this week’s Question of the Week for more on this absolutely fascinating subject). One of the things I love about the ministry which God has given us, wholly apart from the practical application in speaking and debates, is the incredible stimulus and personal growth that such study brings.

Craig’s next debate is at the University of North Carolina on the existence of God with Dr. Herb Silverman, in March. And Stephen Meyer is soon to debate Michael Shermer in a superstars of wrestling style “Origins-of-Life tag-team debate at the end of this month. But the question is, where is Professor Dawkins?

UPDATE: Wintery Knight has posted the video to Craig’s opening speech from the debate.

Wilberforce Forum – Intelligent Design and Darwinism

MP3 Interview with leading Intelligent Design proponent Dr. Stephen Meyer here.

“The inaugural radio Forum will be Sunday, May 30, 2009 featuring Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, Director and Senior Fellow of the Center for Renewal of Science and Culture, the Discovery Institute, Seattle, Washington. He demonstrates that the digital code imbedded in DNA points to a designing intelligence and brings into focus an issue that Darwin did not address.”

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wilberforceforum/2009/05/31/Wilberforce-Forum-Intelligent-Design-and-Darwinism-

http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/steve-meyer-interview-concerning-his-new-book/