William Dembski: Intelligent Design's Broad Scope

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Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars has been claiming that intelligent design is incompatible with the following sort of view:

God created the universe, having designed it from the outset to produce the kind of particular results God wanted, and there are signs of that creation, but it didn't involve intervention at a later time. Instead, it resulted from the natural laws God set up at the beginning that directed the universe toward the sort of thing that ID arguments are now concluding to be signs of God's design.

This was in response to my claim that ID arguments are consistent with this sort of view. The main thrust of his argument has been to affirm my claim that design arguments can result in such a view but to deny that the people who came up with the term 'intelligent design' wouldn't tolerate this. He says they consistently and repeatedly disallow this sort of view, saying that it wouldn't allow the kind of intelligent design arguments that they are giving. He says Howard Van Till holds exactly the view I was sketching, and they don't count Van Till among the ID people because of his holding this view. I think their statements about him are easily explained in terms of other things they disagree with him about, and Macht has done a good job explaining why in the comments on the post. But I think a positive case can be made that they deliberately do include the sort of view that Ed says Van Till holds. I decided to get out Mere Creation to see what William Dembski, one of the founders of the ID movement, had to say in his introduction to intelligent design arguments. What follows is an adaptation of a comment in the aforementioned discussion.

Dembski first distinguishes between "mere creation", by which he means theism, and "undirected natural causes", by which he means naturalism without any directedness whatsoever. In this distinction, Van Till clearly is on the theistic side of the fence. He then explains that the history of design arguments as a basis for belief in God is simply to argue for some sort of designer-creator. There's nothing here so far about how God designed and whether it requires the suspension of natural laws at certain points. When that issue comes up, he clearly places people who answer no on his side rather than on the naturalistic side.

He even lists two groups of people who are on his side in this debate: "One advocate of creation thinks it is essential that God intervene in the causal structure of the world. Another thinks it essential that God not upset the causal structure of the world." He goes on to explain how he thinks unifying these groups against naturalism with intelligent design arguments is the goal of the book. Naturalism, as he defines it, is the view that undirected causes within nature explain everything. The view I was sketching says there are no undirected causes, never mind any that explain anything. On naturalism, there's no sign of God's handiwork (though he is willing to extend the term to include a divinely caused world with no signs of design).

I think part of the problem is his use of the term 'self-contained'. The careful reader will see that he distinguishes between a self-contained world with divine intent and recognizably designed features and a self-contained world without those, i.e. naturalism. He then speaks of God "interacting with the world" in a way that might include Van Till's sort of view, i.e. a world closed in the sense of no efficient causes outside the deterministic order set up at the beginning, as long as the signs of design are present in the universe. A noticeably designed but causally close universe is not, as he is using the term, self-contained.

When he finally indicates what ID is about, he says it's about denying undirected natural causes and affirming intelligent causes. It's not about distinguishing between natural and supernatural causes, which is how Ed was presenting the ID movement. He's distingushing between those who allow final causes and those who insist that naturalistic efficient causes are the only explanation. He says ID doesn't presuppose miracles. It's compatible with evolution, because it's merely about whether there are signs of intelligence in the causes, not about how those causes came about.

He does say that ID is incompatible with a view commonly referred to as theistic evolution, but when he makes it clear what he means he's not talking about people who take the view I'm sketching. The view he's calling theistic evolution that he says ID is incompatible with is the view that natural causes are undirected. He's thinking of people like Ken Miller, who if I remember correctly says he believes in God but insists that there are no signs of anything but undirected natural causes in nature. If Van Till takes the sort of view I've been sketching, as Ed has been saying, then Dembski would have no problem with that as far as this introduction goes.

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I think some of the reluctance to admit that there is nothing inherent in theistic evolution that is in conflict with ID is because the idea that ID = creationism carries a lot of rhetorical weight. If it is admitted that ID isn't in conflict with theistic evolution, then ID can't be creationism.

I actually don't think that Van Till's position can be called ID for the reasons I gave in the thread at Ed's blog. But that has more to do with his views on what science can tell us.

Here is a good webpage on some different things people could mean by "design."

If ID is not the current equivalent of creationism, it can't carry the water of the anti-naturalism movement, as Phillip Johnson wishes and urges.

The problem is not in the stars, once again.

As usual, Ed, it depends on what you mean by calling it creationism. Most ID advocates admit that they are creationists in that they happen to think the designer is God, and theism is creationism in the most general sense. That doesn't mean the argument itself implies theism, since it clearly doesn't. That's been one of the primary objections to design arguments for the existence of God for over a millenium. The point is whether the argument requires creationism of any sort, and it clearly doesn't. The point is not whether those who happen to be advocating the argument are creationists in the broad sense. Almost all of them are not. But that's irrelevant to what sort of view the argument is compatible with.

Very few of them are creationists in the narrow sense of six-day creationism, of course, which is what the anti-ID folk want to tar them with. Otherwise there'd be no point to using the term as if it's bad. It's the standard anti-ID bait-and-switch to get ID folk to admit to being creationists in the broad sense and then to tar them for being creationists in the narrow sense.

As for the anti-naturalism movement, anyone who is careful about this will admit that ID arguments are not anti-naturalism across the board. Some of them are opposed to an unguided natural cause for a particular piece of biological development, e.g. the eye, the cell, the flagellum, etc. This doesn't mean naturalism is false, because an alien could be the mind behind it, and the alien might have come about by purely unguided natural causes. An argument that one thing is not caused by unguided natural causes doesn't mean that everything is that way.

But there is at least one ID argument that is opposed to naturalism. The alien hypothesis wouldn't work for the cosmological fine-tuning argument. If that argument is any good, then we should reject naturalism as having the resources to explain why the laws of nature are what they are. So ID proponents who include that argument as one that they endorse will be opposed to naturalism without intelligent causes in terms of how the universe came about.

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