Intelligent Design's Neutrality on Evolution

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It's occurred to me that a common complaint against intelligent design is a huge mistake. In particular, it misrepresents the ID movement. That's no surprise to regular readers of this blog, who should have been explose to numerous misrepresentations of the ID position by now. This one isn't a stupid mistake, though. I can understand why people might make this mistake, but it's a mistake nonetheless and a philosophical one.

I've seen ID opponents make the complaint that ID requires special creation even if the people making ID arguments claim otherwise. By special creation here, I don't mean the creation of the universe to begin with. Any theist will believe in special creation in that sense. Special creation here means miraculous intervention to create certain biological elements that we don't have explanations for at this point. Immediately, I already see one problem with this. Intelligent design requires no such thing, because some intelligent design arguments have nothing to do with biology. Some are about fine-tuning of the cosmological constants. But even leaving that issue aside, I think this misunderstands those who endorse the biological ID arguments, including most notably Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Philip Johnson.

Biological ID argues that we don't have an explanation for certain characteristics in biology, e.g. parts of the cell wouldn't likely occur on their own because they have no purpose except as parts of the cell. So it's extremely unlikely that they could come together just by chance unless it's as a result of a plan by some designer who intended them to come together. That's all that biological ID argues, and it's all Behe, Dembski, and Johnson think the argument entails. But what's crucial to note about the argument is that the conclusion says nothing about what might have caused these parts to come together. It says nothing about the process. All it says is that the unlikelihood of their coming together needs an explanation. Everything they say is consistent with the view that humans came into existence roughly as we are with no common descent from animals. But that doesn't mean the argument requires it, and it doesn't mean people endorsring the argument would necessarily agree with such a view.

They themselves insist that these arguments are perfectly consistent with the standard causal story told by naturalistic evolution, except that they don't think naturalism is true and believe it all fits into a divine plan of some sort. The argument I'm critiquing claims that they can't say that. It claims that they have given an argument that entails special creation. But the ID proponents' claim is fully honest. Everything the ID arguments say is consistent with a closed physical system that acts in a fully deterministic fashion, with each event being caused by previous events. It seems extremely unlikely that a deterministic system of that sort would lead to needless structures that all happen to come together to serve a better purpose, in particular a purpose that leads to something as morally significant as the kind of human being we have today. That fact cries out for an explanation, Philip Johnson would say. But the explanation need not be God interfering with natural causes in the midst of the development of things. It may simply be that the divine plan from the beginning included natural laws and initial conditions that would, given the deterministic outworking of the universe that ensued, lead to exactly the right conditions that would form useless structures that would combine to form a working living cell. And so on. The entire picture of the origins of humanity presented by Richard Dawkins, minus his claims that it is a mindless process not guided by anything, is perfectly consistent with everything intelligent design "creationists" claim.

So those who claim that ID is an argument against evolution are just wrong. It's not anti-evolution, and its supporters can see that. Why can't its opponents? I think there's one main reason, but I'm going to leave that for another post.

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12 Comments

"Everything the ID arguments say is consistent with a closed physical system that acts in a fully deterministic fashion.." "...the divine plan from the beginning..." Your interpretation here sounds alot like deism.

While I'll take your word that this may be consistent with writings of ID proponents (I haven't read much of their work), I would guess that the idea of ad hoc divine intervention is an important part of the appeal to supporters as well as being a target of objections from critics.

Best regards - Steve Esser

When the ID movement first started, it was actually distinct from creationism, as you suggest, and it's original proponents continue to posit a view like this. This version of ID is merely the view that there exists a successful "teleological argument" for the existence of God, i.e. that observation of the world can be used to demonstrate that some intelligence brought the world into being (which is what the name "intelligent design" suggests). However, I don't think it is only ID opponents who have collapsed ID into creationism. I think that many of its supporters in the political debate (e.g. in Dover, PA) have done this as well. Today, those who believe something like you are describing would be well-advised not to use the term ID, which has been tainted by misuse in the political sphere.

On Steve's charge of deism, it should be noted that on a timeless (as opposed to merely everlasting) picture of God, God does not have to interfere in a manner that undermines physical determinism in order to escape deism, since God has a single complex volition throughout all of eternity. Furthermore, in order to be true deism, a view must claim that the universe is not dependent upon God for its existence, so a view that claims that God wills the same natural laws to hold without exception at each moment would not be a deist, since God's will must continue in order for the universe to continue to operate.

The deism claim certainly is wrong, even without timelessness (not that I would deny that). Deism is the view that God can be known only rationally and not through revelation, which is a completely different topic altogether. Some people present deism as the view that God sets things up from the beginning but doesn't care how they resolve, but that's a historically insensitive definition, and it's also not what I was describing. What I was describing is more like G.W. Leibniz or Jonathan Edwards than Ben Franklin. It's more like John Calvin than the recent Antony Flew.

I never said anything about God not caring about how things develop. A sufficiently strong view of God's providence actually requires something more akin to theological determinism than the opposite. That's not deism. It's standard compatibilism. If things are working out even in the smallest details according to God's plan, then you don't even need to bring in timelessness to show that God cares about the details much more than in any other view. The issues here are about how God works it out, not about whether God does. On the view I had in mind, God (indirectly) causes everything. That's not deism. It's more like occasionalism or pre-established harmony.

Even leaving all that aside, I wasn't presenting this theologically deterministic picture as the only alternative to special creation as a resolution to all Behe's objections to the standard scientific account. My point was that even pure theological determinism with no miraculous intervention at all except to set it all up is consistent with ID. So surely any indeterministic view that doesn't have moments of special creation all over the place to explain human origins will be kosher as far as Behe is concerned. Evolution as it's commonly held is consistent with ID arguments, whether in a closed or unclosed system, whether deterministic or not.

I stand corrected on bringing up deism in this context, as opposed to a consistency of ID with a theological determinism.

I'll test your patience with a follow up question. The whole flash point of the public ID movement is not philosophical or theological: it is a movement to have ID presented as a critique of and an alternative to evolution in public high school classrooms. If ID is consistent with evolution, what in the world are these folks up to?

My understanding of the political movement, when you really look at what people who know what they are talking about, is that it's a movement to present the problems within current evolutionary theory, i.e. things not explained yet, including what led Stephen J. Gould to postulate a very different model of evolution from the standard account and including the unexplained items that people like Behe point out. That falls far short of teaching something as an alternative to evolution itself. It's just an insistence that the problems within the theory be taught. That's what Kansas has done, if I remember correctly. It's certainly all the Discovery Institute has endorsed.

If you're talking about Joe Schmoe or even Joe Politician who doesn't know any science but wants ID taught because he thinks it conflicts with evolution, then maybe you have something, but what you have is simply ignorance of ID. It's not as if it's coming from the ID arguments themselves, though. In any case, it's no more of a mistake than the ID opposition has made consistently.

What you refer to as the public ID movement seems to me to be a small portion of the ID movement. The bulk of it, as far as I can tell, is simply presenting the arguments and defending the overall view. That's how it started, and that's what fills the books about it from the side of its defenders. What you do with that politically seems to me to be a completely separate question.

You also need to be aware of an ambiguity in the word 'evolution'. To some, evolution is proved because changes within a species are observable, but no one in the ID movement ever denies that sort of evolution. It's common descent that many of them deny. But even with the common descent usage of the term, there are two ways to read it. As some people use the term in some contexts, it refers to common descent plain and simple. In another context, it means blind and undesigned common descent, i.e. common descent with the assumption of naturalism.

The kind of evolution that ID is opposed to would be the latter kind. Some people simply mean that when they use the term. Philip Johnson, for instance, sometimes uses it that way (though he's careful to acknowledge the multiple ways it's used). Many scientists who endorse that view use it that way as well. So some people who say ID is an alternative to evolution mean that it's an alternative to naturalistic accounts of common descent. I know that some opposition to evolution teaching in schools has to do purely with the naturalistic component, and Johnson's presentation of these issues probably creates that way of describing it. I imagine this might have led to some of the misinterpretations of ID, but that's just from not reading Johnson carefully if his work is the source of this.

Thanks, Jeremy.

If ID is neutral on evolution, why aren't any ID advocates taking Jonathan Wells to task for his unfair and inaccurate criticisms of evolution?

Oh, yeah -- the difference between the ideal and reality. Hypothetically, ID doesn't need to be opposed to evolution. In reality, that's all it's got.

My first thought was that perhaps he was just some unimportant guy they'd never heard of, but I guess he's on the Discovery Institute list. I've certainly never heard of him, so I wouldn't think of him among the heavy-hitters.

ID people regularly distance themselves from the people who describe themselves as doing creation science. They've been doing this since Philip Johnsons first book on the subject, Darwin on Trial. He says he's not primarily targeting Darwinism per se but more the naturalistic assumptions of Darwinism as standardly taught in schools. His later work brings this out more clearly.

The reality is that Walter Bradley and Howard Van Till accept the standard evolutionary picture without its assumptions of naturalism, and they are at the center of the ID movement. Their work appears in the main anthologies on ID. They don't include the work of those who disagree with ID arguments. They do include evolution supporters who agree with ID arguments. If someone who argues against evolution also presents ID arguments independent of that stuff, then they will treat it as ID, because it is. I assume that's why they have both Wells and those other guys in their midst. They all support ID. That just confirms my point.

None of what I said prevents ID supporters from critizing particular components of standard evolutionary theory. If Stephen J. Gould can do that, then why shouldn't people associated with the Discovery Institute? This could even extend to a complete questioning of the whole Darwinian framework and an adoption of six-day creationism. I don't know how far Wells's work goes, because I've really never even heard of the guy. He wasn't even close to my radar. My point was simply that you could hold to the standard evolutionary account in terms of causal explanations while holding to Intelligent Design in the full sense in terms of final causes. It was about consistency. That someone might support the Intelligent Design arguments while also thinking there are arguments against the evolutionary picture in smaller details or even in terms of the whole structure is simply irrelevant to my point. Intelligent Design is not anti-evolution. Those who are anti-evolution might agree with it, and they might not. Those who are pro-evolution might agree with it and might not. They're two separate issues, so it's not surprising that you'll find diversity within an ID group on what amounts to a different issue.

Howard van Till accepts evolution, but he's no ID advocate. Walter Bradley is a young-Earth creationist in most applications, though I've heard him waffle on the age of the Earth. He's no biologist, and his writings about evolution are pure religious apologetics.

Intelligent design was devised to be anti-evolution. Over the years, some of the more erudite IDists have discovered they sound like raving lunatics when they adopt all anti-evolution arguments -- so they stay quiet on those that would irritate whatever audience they happen to be in front of.

Jonathan Wells was the poster child for ID for a good long time after his scurrilous book was published. He's fallen into eclipse lately, I think because so many looked at his writings seriously, and saw that he, too, is a raving lunatic on the issues of science.

Perhaps it can be said that an intelligent design advocate is someone who has yet to appear to be a raving lunatic against evolution. At some point, however, an argument against science needs data. At that point people become either former ID advocates, or full, raving-lunatic ID advocates.

You said: "It may simply be that the divine plan from the beginning included natural laws and initial conditions that would, given the deterministic outworking of the universe that ensued, lead to exactly the right conditions that would form useless structures that would combine to form a working living cell. And so on. The entire picture of the origins of humanity presented by Richard Dawkins, minus his claims that it is a mindless process not guided by anything, is perfectly consistent with everything intelligent design "creationists" claim."

So intelligent design is pure reactionary response to Richard Dawkins?

That's pretty much what Judge Jones determined in Harrisburg, in the Dover case: No science, but pure reactionary response.

I was sure Walter Bradley took the same view as Howard Van Till, but I guess not. There's a book that they both contributed to that seems to list them as taking opposed views. I was sure Van Till had a paper in one of my ID books, but I don't have them with me. He certainly does believe in an intelligent designer. You can't well be a theistic evolutionist without being a theist. He does critique certain arguments, particularly the biological ones, making the same mistake many make. He seems to think the arguments require efficient causes apart from the natural order, which they don't. (His actual claim is even stronger, but that's not relevant here.)

Whatever he says about biological arguments, he certainly endorses one intelligent design argument. He thinks the universe is obviously fine-tuned in a way that he thinks argues for a designer, but he also thinks that argument supports what many call theistic evolution (though he doesn't like that term).

I'm not sure how anything in ID counts as an argument against science, though.

I found a direct quote from Behe on this that I thought should be here:

"I find the idea of common descent ... fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it.... However, I do not believe it [natural selection working on variation] explains molecular life." from Behe's Darwin's Black Box, p.5.

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