Elliot Sober: Confusing Religion and Philosophy

| | Comments (3)

[cross-posted at Prosblogion] Elliot Sober has a new paper, "Intelligent Design Theory and the Supernatural: The 'God or Extra-Terrestrials' Reply", in the latest issue of Faith and Philosophy (January 2007). I received my copy today, and I was amazed that this paper could get past the reviewers of a top philosophy of religion journal without serious modification, even from such an important philosopher of science as Sober.

Sober makes the following argument. Defenders of intelligent design often point out that ID arguments are not religion, and one support for this (a relatively less important one, in my view) is that the conclusion of ID arguments is silent on what the designer is like other than that the designer is intelligent and must have worked purposes into nature somehow. Sober's paper is a response to that argument, and his response is extremely strange. He argues that supernatural assumptions are implicit in the ID argument, and thus the ID defender is committed to a conclusion that there is some supernatural being.

Suppose that's all true. I'm not invested very seriously in whether that part of his argument is correct, since I happen to believe there is a supernatural being. I don't even care whether ID defenders are committed to the existence of a supernatural being, since I know no one who accepts ID who doesn't also accept a supernatural being. So I'll assume for the sake of argument that Sober is correct, and ID arguments do involve a commitment to the existence of some supernatural being. My question is how this helps Sober. His point in the paper is to show that ID arguments involve a religious conclusion. The only way he should be able to conclude that is if he thinks being implicitly committed to the existence of a supernatural being is somehow itself religious. Yet it isn't.

Lots of people think moral evaluation commits you to the existence of a supernatural being. They don't necessarily think that calling an action wrong is a religious practice. So it doesn't seem that being implicitly committed to the existence of a supernatural being is the same as practicing a religion. What's worse is that plenty of people accept theistic arguments on philosophical grounds without being religious practitioners. I personally know several people myself who do exactly that. Their theism is merely a philosophical view. It is not religious in any sense. It doesn't even affect their life. They are areligious. So how can implicitly being committed to the existence of a supernatural being amount to religion when even being explicitly committed to theism doesn't count as religion?

Now perhaps there's a deeper argument Sober could make, and we should interpret these strange claims in the light of that deeper argument. Maybe he thinks you could only accept the premises of the ID argument if you are already religious. If that's what he has in mind, then maybe it would show that ID arguments are religious. But of course he'd be relying on a false premise. People can and do accept ID arguments without accepting any religion. There's no necessary religious support for ID arguments. They are entirely theoretical (as opposed to practical) arguments for a philosophical conclusion, with no need for religious premises. The argument relies on one scientifically observed premise about a certain kind of complexity in nature, and it relies on a further philosophical inference to a best explanation. Neither the scientific premise nor the inference is religion. One is science, and the other is philosophy, and ID arguments are a common enough kind of philosophical inference in science. That doesn't make them good arguments, but it does mean they are not religion.

This leaves me thinking that Sober is either fundamentally confused about what religion is or simply redefining it to suit his political purposes the same way he would insist that the ID movement redefines science to suit its political purposes. Neither should be true of a paper published in a top philosophy of religion journal.


The reference to Extra-Terrestrials in the paper's title suggests that Sobel thinks that the ID advocates he is trying to engage claim that ID arguments alone do not entail the existence of an intelligent supernatural being. The designers could be aliens. Maybe Sobel is mischaracterizing the claims of some ID advocates, but from what I can glean, he may for all I know be using the terms "religion" and "religious" in a generous sense, perhaps borrowed from some ID advocates, to refer to supernaturalism. The question of whether ID is religious in this sense does seem significant.

Though I'm not as familiar with the debates around ID as you are, it seems to me that political/popular advocates of ID don't just want to reject the claim that ID is religious in the sense suggested at some points in your entry, i.e., as something that affects their lives or that involves a bunch of practices. They want to reject the idea that it entails or involves an implicit commitment to certain beliefs about the nature of the designer, perhaps that the designer is some supernatural being (if not, Sobel may be attacking a straw man, but that's not a charge you explicitly make against him). Now, practically all prominent ID advocates may in fact believe in a supernatural being, but it is their denial of the entailment or implicit commitment that is crucial. Denying that ID is religious in the sense you suggest seems rather trivial and inconsequential and so I'm inclined to think that your sense is not the sense they're denying (assuming they're arguing in good faith and not equivocating). The belief that Allah is the only God and that Mohammed is his prophet also seems not to be religious in your sense since I can believe it without letting it affect my life and without engaging in practices revolving around the belief. Someone who argued that it's consistent with church-state separation to teach such a belief in schools because such a belief is not religious in this sense, though, wouldn't deserve to be taken seriously. This, of course, isn't to suggest that the supernaturalism that may (if Sobel is right) be implicit in ID is on a par with such detailed religious beliefs. Those with such detailed religious beliefs may not care whether ID is on a par with them, but that does not mean that the question whether ID is narrowly religious / supernaturalistic is not an important one.

Nathan, the issue of a generous sense of religion comes up in the conversation at the Prosblogion cross-posting. I don't really want to repeat everything I said there, but it still sounds disingenuous to me for reasons I detail there.

In my experience, ID advocates like William Dembski insist that unguided natural process would be very unlikely to lead to a result like what we can observe in science. The immediate argument is not about whether the designer is supernatural in the sense of breaking the laws of nature. It's about whether there is design or intention involved. What they insist on is something outside the system of natural laws, either something that intervenes with those natural processes or something that set them up to reflect a purpose. But that could easily be a natural being in a previous universe who set up the laws of nature deterministically in this universe, for all the argument itself assumes.

Now I don't know if Sober is wrong about that point. That's the part of his argument that I'm not dealing with here. What I do know is that presenting (but not necessarily agreeing with) a philosophical argument for a supernatural being does not count as being religious in the sense required for excluding something on first amendment grounds.

The belief that Allah is the only God and that Mohammed is his prophet also seems not to be religious in your sense since I can believe it without letting it affect my life and without engaging in practices revolving around the belief. Someone who argued that it's consistent with church-state separation to teach such a belief in schools because such a belief is not religious in this sense, though, wouldn't deserve to be taken seriously.

But that would be a straw man of the ID movement. They argue that the ID arguments themselves be taught in science classes alongside the consensus views, with both views represented and criticisms of ID as part of the package. That does not in any way constitute teaching even bare theism, never mind any particular view of what God is like or what people might be prophets of God.

The claim that such a policy is somehow teaching religion is pure invention on the part of the anti-ID political movement, and I simply cannot see Sober's reference to religion here in this context as anything but feeding such nonsense in the guise of doing serious philosophy. The fact that he doesn't use the word in the paper suggests either that he was willing to modify it in the face of objections from referees, but somehow it slipped through in the abstract in its original form, or maybe he realizes its inappropriateness in the actual philosophical argument but wants to use it for political reasons in his abstract. Either strikes me as bad.

I noticed the stuff at Prosblogion a while after I posted the comment. Thanks. Interesting. As for the Allah example, I suppose I could have made things more explicit, but it was not meant to represent the ID proposal on education. It was, rather, meant as a sort of reductio of your suggested undersanding of the term "religion" and related terms, i.e., if such beliefs do not in and of themselves count as religious on your definition unless they have some significant effect on one's life or lie at the core of some practices, then I think your understanding is too strict (as compared both to the popular sense and the legal sense). I doubt you think this attempt at reductio succeeds, so I won't press the point. I just want to make clear that the example was definately not meant to represent the ID proposal on education.

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff


    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible

    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)

  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04