Anti-ID: Confusing Motivation and Theoretical Basis

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One of the most common arguments against intelligent design seems to me to confuse motivation with theoretical basis. In defense of the charge that ID is religious creationism, many opponents of ID point out that most people who support ID believe in a creator God for religious reasons. This happens to be true. Actually, they usually say that all who support ID believe in a creator God for religious reasons, and that's false. Antony Flew supports cosmological ID, and he isn't religious at all. There's a whole blog of ID proponents who are not advocating theism (I believe it's Telic Thoughts, but I couldn't find their statement on this if so). But it is true that most ID supporters are religious theists of some sort.

Here is the important distinction that those who give this argument cannot, or in some cases simply refuse to, see. Members of the Discovery Institute offer arguments for the existence of God. These are classic philosophical arguments that go back at least as far as Plato, who had no contact with Christian (Christianity didn't exist) or Jewish (no Jews were anywhere near him) monotheism. These arguments conclude that it seems likely that there must have been some designer for whatever particular phenomenon the argument is concerned with, e.g. the origin of the cell, the origin of some particular organ, the cosmological constants of the universe, etc. The Discovery Institute also happens to believe the designer that the argument's conclusion speaks of is the Christian God. They even admit that they have religious motives for wanting people to accept the argument. But the fallacy anti-ID people regularly engage in is to take that motivation to be the basis of the argument. It's simply not, and that kind of confusion would lead an introductory philosophy student to fail a critical thinking assignment.

The argument is based on some empirically observable fact, taken together with a philosophical view about what that fact should lead us to conclude rationally and without religious presuppositions. The conclusion is that there was some sort of designer. The empirically observable fact is, as far as I can tell (though I'm not in a great position to judge this), indisputable and a result of our best science. That philosophical view is, as far as I can tell (and I am in a good position to judge this), controversial but well within the mainstream of contemporary analytic philosophy. Philosophers as good as Peter van Inwagen, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, Roger White, and at one point Neil Manson were endorsing at least parts of this argument, and now former atheist and current deist Antony Flew has come on board.

When someone happens to believe in God for other reasons and thus is further motivated to want others to see how convincing this argument is, that detracts exactly zero from the value of the argument. The argument stands or falls completely independently from the motivation someone is using to promote it. The objection to ID as religious creationism just confuses the theoretical basis of an argument with someone's motivation for wanting someone to accept the argument. Those are very different things. The fact that many people who try to use these arguments to persuade are doing so for religious reasons has no bearing whatsoever on whether the argument is religious creationism. Many people have had political motivations for supporting minority rights of various sorts, but that doesn't mean the arguments for why we should allow everyone a vote regardless of race are merely partisan arguments. It just means some of the people who voted for this were doing it just to retain power in Congress. Someone's motivations for supporting something are simply irrelevant to how we should describe the argument itself.

Even if the same people who came up with the argument are the ones who are promoting it for political reasons, it is the argument itself that must be evaluated and not the motivations of those who are supporting it. Anything else is basically anti-intellectualism and the denial of the need to evaluate positions and arguments reasonably and fairly. The anti-ID movement is, as far as I can tell, spearheading a new movement to forget about reason and simply dismiss positions out of dislike for them. That kind of anti-intellectualism should not be tolerated, and it's shameful that scientists and philosophers have gotten on board with the kind of irrationality that this objection to ID assumes.

Case in point: Wikipedia's Intelligent Design entry. Unconscionably, they rely on exactly this sort of fallacy in their justification for continually lumping ID together with religious creationism. Take a look at the archives on the discussion page. There's a whole behind-the-scenes discussion between the powers-that-be and those who have tried to have a viewpoint-neutral, indeed an accurate, description of ID. The flow of that conversation reveals that they are immune to argument. No amount of reason or distinction-making is going to change their fundamental and unargued presupposition that ID is religious creationism, and it's a shame that Wikipedia tolerates such nonsense. The only support given for this intellectually dishonest practice is that many of the leaders in the ID movement have religious motives, which as I've just explained is completely irrelevant to whether ID is religious creationism. I tried to make this distinction to see how they would respond, and they deleted my comment and said not to edit discussion archives whose discussion has ended. The key was that the discussion was ended. Their mind is made up, and no amount of reason could ever convince them. That's anti-intellectualism, and it strikes me as a deep irony that anti-ID folk seem to want to portray ID supporters as anti-intellectual while displaying anti-intellectual behavior in order to make that point.

I say all this as someone who is not at all convinced that the biological forms of ID are very good arguments. I happen to think the cosmological fine-tuning ID argument is better, but I can see how someone would resist it. It has some assumptions that I think are plausible to hold but also might be plausibly denied (as long as they're not being denied in order to resist the conclusion, which would be question-begging). I really don't have much desire to push any form of ID, just to make sure it's presented fairly and accurately. But the people who oppose ID have so willingly given up any sense of careful thinking that it just seems to me that they are the clear losers in this fight, at least on the intellectual level. I wonder if the reason this view that they think is so implausible has become so popular is that those who are initially attracted to it have seen that those who oppose it aren't saying anything that touches it. If the opponents of ID would give fair presentations of the issues and then point out where they disagree with the assumptions of the arguments, perhaps many ID supporters would see that some of their premises or inferences are more difficult to support. As it stands, very little that the anti-ID movement says is worth listening to, because the good is drowned out by the misrepresentation of the ID position and the subject-changing tactic of bringing up irrelevant information to distract from the real argument.

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About Telic Thought's stance on theism: We don't have any. We are a group of various persuasions - I'm an agnostic, and Macht is pretty open about his theism. Instead of focusing on our general worldview, I think it's more instructive to look at our approach to intelligent design: We are interested in the topic for its own sake, not because of the theological or socio-political aspects that so many (supporters and critics alike) see in it.

As I said, I'm not sure if that was the blog I was thinking of. It might have been one of your posts I was thinking of. I know Macht is a theist. I didn't know he posted on your blog, though. I've mostly read his stuff at his own blog.

You're right - simply saying that many supporters of ID are Christians proves neither that ID is Creationism nor that ID is wrong. However, neither does it prove the opposite. There are several genuine problems with ID, both scientifically and theologically.

I think that my largest problem with debating ID (and with the "ID crowd" in general) is that the label "ID" is used to describe a staggering variety of opinions, from young-Earth Creationism through Behe-style ID to theistic evolutionism. It's become almost useless as a result of this - before discussing it, we have to spend a while defining exactly what we mean by the term!

pax et bonum

I'm simply talking about the classic teleological argument form, which has many varieties. Some of them are better arguments than others. I'm not talking about where they can be criticized in this post. I've got a post coming sometime soon on the details of the cosmological fine-tuning ID argument, but it has to wait until the grading rush subsides, and I need to do my moral arguments post first. But this post is simply talking about an extremely poor criticism of ID.

I agree that there are issues to work out with ID theologically, but those are simply classic philosophical theology problems, e.g. how does the divine design interact with natural causes (i.e. what is divine providence like), how does it fit with things in the world that don't seem designed (i.e. the problem of evil). I also think there are good answers to those questions.

I don't know of any scientific problems with it. The problems I see in the argument have to do with inferences that someone question, but if that's a problem then it's a philosophical one. The hardliner positivists who can't seem to see that metaphysics is regularly treated as a part of science (see this post for my arguments on that) shouldn't treat those problems as scientific problems, and those who do should allow ID arguments as legitimate within science as the part of science called metaphysics.

The theological problems with ID are far greater than simply integrating divine design with natural causes. The main contention of ID is that there are distinct modes of divine activity (those that follow "natural law" and those that don't - the latter class being those that produce evidence of "design"). This introduces a dangerous dualism into any Christian understanding. There is also a tension in the nature of the Creator that is described by ID theory and that described by Christianity. And the attitudes towards Creation produced by ID can be injurious to a correct understanding of the Incarnation. And those are just for a starter! ID is not really very friendly to orthodox Christian theology.

As for scientific problems, you might have noticed that most scientists (including Christian ones like myself) do not find the arguments for design convincing. For example, no evidence for Irreducible Complexity has yet been produced that withstands even cursory examination (that is, there is no example that demonstrates that design is the only plausible explanation; standard evolutionary explanations are always possible and plausible). Even Dembski's theory of specified complexity has yet to be worked out in any realistic fashion (i.e. with actual real numbers rather than hand-waving).

Personally, I don't discount the possibility of Design of some sort. However, I do not think it particularly probable (it doesn't chime with the evidence I see in science and I don't think that it matches the God revealed in Christ). The work that will be required of the ID camp to gain real scientific credibility is huge, and there is little evidence that this work is really being done. There is much effort being put into political campaigning and mass-media communications, and almost none into actual science.

pax et bonum

ID arguments are consistent with not making the distinction between natural laws and other things that are supernatural "violations" of natural laws. See my previous posts Final and Efficient Causes in ID Arguments and Intelligent Design's Neutrality on Evolution. So I don't think any of the objections you're talking about are really in any way tied to the ID argument itself. Someone may add in an extra view that isn't implied by the argument, and that may be worrisome, but I don't see how it connects to the mere teleological argument.

Design has to be more than probable if you're a Christian. It has to be true. Maybe you just mean that you don't think you can argue that it's true based on scientific evidence, but that's not the same thing as thinking it's improbable altogether or not there at all. That would be atheism. If God created the universe, then God designed it.


"The main contention of ID is that there are distinct modes of divine activity (those that follow "natural law" and those that don't - the latter class being those that produce evidence of "design"). This introduces a dangerous dualism into any Christian understanding."

You may want to check out Uko Zylstra's paper "Intelligent-Design Theory - A Case for Biotic Laws" found in the March 2004 issue of the journal Zygon. He specifically argues against this kind of dualism. I've put forth similar views here.

If you want to know more about the details of my criticisms, you might like to read my recent discussion on my blog with Peter Williams, in which we covered much of this ground. For the moment, though, I'll just say that I'm not addressing your teleological argument directly (I said as much at the start). Rather, this is a separate issue - that by adding a layer of explicit "design" that stands beyond natural law (and this is the distinguishing feature of any theory that can come under the umbrella "intelligent design"), ID becomes dualist by requiring dual activities of the Designer (God, in our context). From this follow the various unfortunate theological consequences.

Thanks for that. Your article is interesting and you seem to share my criticism of ID as dualist. However, I would like to point out that the position you are supporting doesn't seem to be in any meaningful sense "intelligent design". It doesn't help any discussion to extend terms far beyond their usual meaning - it just leads to confusion.

pax et bonum

I share your frustration. I attempted to make this point, and I was repeatedly told that I'm the only one not willing to admit it is creationism. I finally gave up and wrote something on my (old) blog, although not as eloquently as you. Here are the comments I got regarding ID:

After this experience, I concluded that apart from a just and gracious God, Neitzchze is right. The will to power wins.

MWC, I notice a very interesting argument by FeloniusMonk on your Wikipedia talk page. He basically says that the article must not be biased in terms of point-of-view and then supports that by saying there's a long-standing tradition of people who don't support ID who agree with everything in the article, while ID supporters have been claiming bias all along. That's somehow supposed to show that it's not biased. I'm not sure how he can say this with full intellectual honesty. He basically supports your claim that it's biased and then concludes that it's not.

That was (what I wanted to be) my point the whole time. I certainly got sidetracked in the sources, but the main point I tried to make was it didn't deserve quite the criticism that it was getting, and that the page should offer equal pro/con arguments as well as being mostly focused on the merits of ID, not the motivations behind the leading proponents. Several times I pointed out how his arguments were question-begging--namely, the question of whether there is anything to the actual theory. The article doesn't give it a chance. While I'm not willing to admit ID should be on equal footing with what has been established as micro-evolutionary science (I think there is more to show before it is accepted as such), I certainly want it to be considered if it can explain more of the data than the macro-evolutionary theory has.

There's more where that discussion came from, if you are interested in the arguments:

And look at this silliness:

It's pretty amazing. Now, I will give this FeloniousMonk some credit. There are instances of abuse, but this guy's got something very personal riding on the topic, so it seems.

I've read a lot of that stuff. It was somewhere in Archive 16 that I tried to make the point I make in this post, that they were confusing motivation and theoretical basis. This post came out of my frustration in trying to raise the issues at all there. He just kept telling me not to edit the archives, which was where the discussion was.

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