Does intelligent design have a dualistic assumption, not a theistic one?

While reading Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer, I realised something important that I had previously overlooked in the debate between pro- and anti-ID camps. It’s always perplexed me why ID proponents, especially those at the Discovery Institute, constantly talk about “materialistic evolution”. If their contention is that ID is secular, why muddy that position by bringing in what seems like a theistic idea – non-materialism?

In Chapter 2 of Signature, Meyer goes through a reasonably brief history of the scientific debate between biological materialists and biological vitalists (logically, biological non-materalists) in the 19th century, which addressed the question of whether or not matter needed some “vital force” in addition to its constituent molecules in order to become a part of living organisms. Clearly, in the chapter, Meyer tries to set up a link between the biological materialists of the 19th century and the “Neo-Darwinists” of the 20th and 21st centuries through the supposed shared link of “materialism” – that life is matter and nothing more – and therefore attempts casting preconceived philosophical notions onto his opposition. That’s a fairly standard strategy by the Discovery Institute, nothing new there.

But then it struck me: what if Meyer is also, even implicitly, making a similar connection between vitalists and modern-day ID proponents? Both posit that there is a missing ingredient to get from non-living matter to living organisms – for vitalists it was a non-specific “vital force” and for ID proponents it’s the ill-defined concept of “biological information”. Put that together with the fact that Meyer and his Discovery Institute peers contend that such “information” can only originate from an intelligence, and it’s beginning to look like he is assuming that all ID proponents are or should be dualists.

Dualism is a philosophical position that states that the mind cannot be reduced to an emergent property of the brain and is a separate, non-physical entity. As such, anything that comes from the mind – in this context, “information” – has a non-physical origin. If “Neo-Darwinism” does not allow for intelligence to be a source of “information”, as is claimed by ID proponents, then within their set of notions it must therefore be materialistic.

If true, this is rather interesting. Firstly, it opens up a huge can of worms. Do ID critics now have to delve into the philosophy of mind to pry apart pro-ID arguments? Will the debate be reduced to that level? I certainly hope not, but you can’t choose where logic and arguments will take a debate, you just have to go with it.

Also, does the Discovery Institute “officially”1 think a materialist/naturalist can be an ID proponent? Is design still special if it has a physical origin? If the answer is no, this is another point of difference between the DI’s concept of intelligent design and my (unfinished) hypothetically scientific version.

It also explains why some fellows and affiliates of the Discovery Institute aren’t theists: they might be atheists or agnostics2, but they are still dualists. Believing in the existence of a deity is not a necessary requirement for believing that the mind is non-physical.

I think I need to ponder about this a bit more. Perhaps Stephen C. Meyer will address the question later on in Signature, I don’t know. But has anyone else made this connection before? Surely they have, they must have.

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  1. By this, I mean from their PR platform – internally they are very almost exclusively theists and probably have no doubts that non-materialism/supernaturalism is correct.
  2. If one assumes those terms are independent of each other.

Why do supposedly savvy intelligent design proponents disparage naturalism?

While reading my copy of “Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives“, I came across an essay by Phillip E. Johnson entitled “Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism”1, which had been included to give a semblance of balance to the book (in the hopes of directly addressing arguments made by ID proponents in their proper context, as opposed to more generalised, context-free arguments). Phillip’s essay, as you could probably guess by the title, attacks what he sees as the “establishment of naturalism” in the scientific community – scientists aren’t open to explanations that aren’t based in the natural world. The essay (written in 1990) predates the main intelligent movement by a number of years, but it lays down one of its longest-running ideas: modern science wrongly excludes supernatural explanations a priori.

This sentiment is reflected in modern ID writings. You only have to search briefly to find examples of proponents waving the term “naturalism” around in a critical manner. So what’s the deal? Why do ID proponents seem so opposed to (methodological) naturalism in science?

The answer is that the intelligent design movement is predominantly religious – they’ve taken a secular, unscientific idea and wrapped it up in basic theological language, all the while denying that ID has roots in religious, even Christian, thinking. Every ID critic already knows this and sees the movement as a modern branch of creationism. It’s no surprise – the Designer is God, according to a majority of ID proponents.

But, as I mentioned, they deny this. They deny it a lot, in fact, and they’ll throw off the sparkly robe of God whenever threatened, stashing it hastily in the closet as they quickly recite memorised lines about how intelligent design is a “scientific hypothesis” that is testable, falsifiable and makes predictions. However, this opposition to naturalism is a flaw in their façade, a corner of fabric rudely peeking out for all to see.

Why is ID a supernatural explanation? This follows from the repeated claim that evolutionary biologists, and scientists in general, are committed to only natural explanations – if an explanation isn’t natural, it is, by definition, supernatural. This clearly excludes the possibility of the Designer being an extra-terrestrial intelligence, which is at least as, if not more, probable a cause for the “apparent design” of life than a deity or supernatural entity. Where is the love for aliens, guys? Where is their love?

This tips the ID movement’s hand markedly with regards to their religious agenda. Why does ID require methodological naturalism’s removal from science? What basis do proponents have for implicitly insisting that the Designer be supernatural? I wonder how they would answer those questions.

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  1. Originally published in First Things, 1990, no. 6, pp. 15-22

More Dialogue with Dan from Dante’s Inferno

Back in May, a blogger named Dan (or facilis on this site) posted a response to one of my rare articles on religion and atheism on his blog, Dante’s Inferno. I, of course, being the argumentative person that I am, had to respond.

Dan, after much thinking/real life work, presumably, has returned fire, addressing all of my main points in some description. What else can I do besides respond again?

For those who didn’t read the first post, this is a debate about five arguments a commenter on the blog Uncommon Descent laid out in support of theism (aka. belief in God). It also has a little bit of a naturalistic ethics discussion going on at the start of it. Let’s just say, if you like The Atheist Experience, you’ll like, or at least understand, this post.

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What is Philosophical Naturalism, and why do I accept it?

The question in the title of this post is a question that relates more to my skeptical and atheistic leanings than my evolutionary ones, as creationism and intelligent design fall on their own scientifically, and evolutionary theory has more than enough evidence to support itself without resorting to some fallacy-ridden argument based on the non-existence of God/s. Not that I would ever do that, of course, as my beliefs follow where the evidence leads: in other words, I am a scientific skeptic. If evolution failed to have evidence to support it, I would not invent arguments to prop it up. I’m not ideologically bound to any theory, even evolution.

Philosophical naturalism is something that most skeptics, and even atheists, shy away from, as they think that it makes them seem close-minded to the believer in God/the supernatural. Rejecting the existence of something a priori without evidence is, in their mind, obviously something that should be avoided in conversation and argument, if not removed from your personal worldview altogether. The philosophical naturalist who believes that the supernatural cannot exist is no different to the fundamentalist theist who believes in the existence of their deity because they take it on faith, right?

I think the last statement is incorrect, to put it bluntly. Don’t worry, I’m going to justify everything I say: I’m not one to invoke the demons of bad logic and leave massive unreasoned holes in my arguments for others to find and take me to task in patching up. Well, at least I think I don’t do that. Please tell me if I’m wrong.

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Dialogue with Dan from Dante’s Inferno

I love debates and arguing. Not sure why, perhaps it’s just the cynical skeptic in me who wants to lash out at things I don’t agree with and pull them down a peg or two. And by “lash out”, I mean in an intellectual way… Oh, why do I even need to qualify that? The violent atheist stereotype should be long dissolved by now, the operative word there being “should”, of course. Pity it’s not.

This post is kind of about that. Well, not really, it’s more about sharing ideas and communicating between two rival camps. But what the hell.

Some of you who read this blog might know Dan from the comments he has posted under the name facilis. Yes, he’s a Christian creationist. But we’re going to leave that latter word aside for now, and focus on just the Christianity.

Dan has kindly opened a discussion/debate/dialogue/any other synonym starting with “d”, between himself and me, basically a back-and-forth about the recent post I wrote about Uncommon Descent and reasons to believe in God. Yes, this one. He wrote a long response to it over on his blog, Dante’s Inferno, which you can find here. And so, of course, I shall respond. It’s the way the Internet works, if you haven’t figured it out already. Continue Reading…

CreationWiki: Evolution is still only a theory

Carrying on from an earlier post, I’m here to continue discussing this article. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this.

So, where was I? Oh yeah…

Also the fields quoted above deal mostly with two things: similarities among species of an organism (by that I mean different groups of bacteria, or different groups of bees), which is not the grand scheme of evolution according to which we came from single-celled organisms or ancient fish, but the small variation within families of organisms; and also similarities outside of families which are not readily accounted for by evolutionists. The fact that a pig’s heart has some similarities to a human heart does not actually tell us that we are descended from pigs [2], only that there are similarities between different organisms. Again, this is not evolution. Anyone, regardless of their belief, can observe similarities. Evolution is simply an atheistic, naturalistic explanation for the similarities that goes beyond science into philosophy and untestable axioms. So the writer is giving more credit to evolution than it is really due.

Unfortunately, evolution is testable, and can be tested by examining organisms and seeing if what we see matches up to what evolutionary theory predicts. Evolution predicts that all organisms descended from a common ancestor, and this is backed up by genetic evidence as well as morphological similarities between creatures in the fossil record. To say that this is not evidence is simply moving the goalposts.

Besides the theory, there is the fact of evolution, the observation that life has changed greatly over time. The fact of evolution was recognized even before Darwin’s theory. The theory of evolution explains the fact.

It is true that people believed that non-living things could produce living things; that is abiogenesis, or spontaneous generation. That was disproved by Louis Pasteur.

Nuh-uh. Abiogenesis, or the scientific explanation for how non-living organic molecules gave rise to living biochemical systems, is not spontaneous generation. Spontaneous generation, the antiquated notion that decaying organic material could give rise to organisms, was put to rest by Louis Pasteur after he performed controlled experiments looking into the growth of microorganisms in mediums that had been removed from outside contact. Abiogenesis is different, and does not try to explain where entire organisms came from, but where the first self-replicating molecular sequences came from, upon which all life was based.

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CreationWiki: Evolution is only a theory

Carrying on with the not-so-strictly-Answers-in-Genesis-debunking series of posts, today I’ll be looking at a new acquaintance of mine: CreationWiki, the creationist’s answer to TalkOrigins or EvoWiki.

This fine website is basically what it says it is: a wiki on Christian creationism. This time I’m looking at an article/page on the site that is titled “Evolution is only a theory (Talk.Origins)“. It’s a ‘refutation’ of a TalkOrigins refutation of the claim that “evolution is only a theory”. Let’s have a look at what they have to say (the TalkOrigins quote is in the blue box):

The word theory, in the context of science, does not imply uncertainty. It means “a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena” (Barnhart 1948).

The claim that in science the word theory does not imply uncertainty is a grand overgeneralization of the use of the word “theory” among scientists. “Theory” is an ambiguous word that can speak either of a well substantiated explanation of aspects of the natural world or of a tentative (doubtful or provisional) hypothesis about the natural world. Even the definition given by TalkOrigins does not remove doubt or uncertainty, but simply says that a theory is one way of thinking, not THE only way of thinking, based on some consistent logic.

When they say this, creationists are usually addressing a non-scientific audience, for whom “theory” invariably means something that is only a possibility. They are not addressing scientists in scientific language.

The obvious problem here is that creationists use this argument all the time, usually, as they say, to a layperson audience. This is not an innocent mistake. The general public uses the word ‘theory’ to mean a guess, and this is how they interpret this argument: “Evolution is a guess” Why use the word “theory” at all, if you know what it means to both scientists and laypeople? You just confuse the issue. The claim is completely false anyway: evolutionary theory is not a guess in any sense, due to the vast amount of evidence that supports it and the correct predictions that have come from it.

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