Critque of Michael Ruse on Creationism

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[Cross-posted at Prosblogion]

At Prosblogion, Trent Dougherty links to an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Michael Ruse called Creationism. The SEP is usually very good, and I have to say that Ruse is much more reasonable on these issues than many in the anti-ID movement. He understands the positions he's criticizing a little more accurately and usually represents them a little more fairly. Any philosopher knows a lot more philosophy than Richard Dawkins, but Ruse stands out as someone willing to discuss the philosophical issues as philosophy, while many in the debate are dismissing them as other things (usually as religion or as bad science).

But this piece reveals that in some ways he does display a number of symptoms that I find throughout the anti-ID movement. Trent calls the article deplorable, and I do wonder how this got published in the SEP. It's not as bad as anything you'd find in Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins, but it's actually worse in some ways than the Wikipedia entries on these issues, which I don't have a very high opinion of.

Devin Carpenter asks in a comment why Trent finds the piece deplorable, and I decided to type up my reasons, which quickly got long enough that I didn't want to leave it as a comment. So here are some of why I consider this to be a fairly bad Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy entry. This is only after a quick skim and then once through with a closer read, so I may have misunderstood him in some places (although a couple times I think he may be at fault if I did). But I'd be very surprised to have gotten him that wrong on all these issues. Some of these are more minor and may well just be pet peeves of mine, but I think a number are much more serious. I'm listing them in the order they occurred to me as I was reading through the article more carefully.

1. He claims that six-day creationists are enthusiastic about Intelligent Design, which is simply false if he's referring to the arguments of Dembski, Behe, and Johnson (which his later section on ID makes likely). Most creationists in the narrow sense do not support ID arguments of that sort, since they think such arguments concede too much to evolutionist and to old-earth creationism. The ID leaders want to include six-day creationists, but they've had a hard time winning them over.

2. He confuses deism with a view some deists happened to hold. Deism was the denial of divine revelation while retaining much of the philosophical core of theism. Some deists such as Thomas Jefferson held that God has moral standards for us to follow, just not all the ones the Bible gives. They tended to deny miracles as breaking the laws of nature, but deism is not the same view as the view that God does not intervene (and that very notion assumes a clear notion of which metaphysical picture of God's interaction with the universe counts as intervention, something I find very unclear; one can view God's interaction with creation as identical with God's setting up the laws of nature, all without being a deist, particularly if one accepts divine atemporality, but I don't think that's required).

3. His third paragraph begins by saying, "All are adamantly opposed to evolutionary beliefs". All of who? He's just defined two senses of creationism, one very broad and the other very narrow (with no sense of a middle ground, I should note). One might expect that he's saying this about all creationists then, meaning all from both groups. I suspect not, since he had just said that often narrow creationists are enthusiastic about ID, and maybe he's then saying that all narrow creationists are opposed to evolution. That's the charitable reading. But it's not the most obvious way to take it.

4. He presents the evolution that (presumably narrow) creationists deny. The first sentence of that description doesn't in any way go beyond the micro-evolution that narrow creationists endorse. He doesn't mention that where they disagree is about common descent. This does make it seem as if they are taking an even more radical position than they actually take.

5. He confuses philosophy and religion by calling the view that humans have souls a religious claim. Plato and Descartes would beg to differ. Aquinas would say that it might be known by philosophy and by religion, but that doesn't make it a religious claim. It just means that many hold it because their religion teaches it.

6. He treats theistic realism as contrary to metaphysical realism. This may be just a typo, but it infects the entire rest of that paragraph and is at best very confusing.

7. He seems critical of the view that genuine Christianity actually believes in God (i.e. is theistically realist).

8. Johnson's main target is naturalism. That's what he's trying to argue against. It's a little strange to present Johnson as trying to put theism and naturalism on par. He doesn't think that at all. He does rightly think they are two philosophical attitudes that go beyond the mere statement of evolution in biology, and he does think they stand or fall together in terms of whether they should be allowed in the classroom. But it's very strange to present him as seeing them on par as if Johnson is a metaphysical relativist.

9. He claims that methodological naturalism and evolution are a package deal. You can't have one without the other. But surely there are plenty of people who accept natural selection, random chance, and common descent with animals as the main factors of explaining human origins but who do not insist on metholodical naturalism.

10. His discussion of miracles leaves out a fairly obvious view, i.e. that miracles are a result of natural laws but not laws of physics. There are larger laws than that. This would still, then, be law-governed behavior, but methodological naturalism restricts us so we can't consider such possible laws. This means that the laws as a whole are not violated by miracles, because more fundamental laws that explain the laws of physics also explain the miracles. So one need not think of miracles as violations of the laws of nature just because one accepts miracles as not explained by the laws of physics. One would not appeal to these laws in science if one were a methodological naturalist, but he's limiting the theist's options too much by presenting just the views he includes.

11. He seems to have little room for a view in between literalistic six-day views and theistic evolution.

12. He claims that Behe is arguing for the impossibility of natural selection and unbroken law as the only explanations. But he confuses two kinds of explanation in making this claim. On the level of efficient causes, Behe says nothing against those being the only explanations. What he insists is that there must be some final cause, some intent, some purpose behind those efficient causes. That doesn't mean that the natural laws are broken by some violation of them or insertion of an act from without. It doesn't mean that natural selection isn't the guiding force used by the intelligent designer. His general argument does not rule out natural selection as a tool of the designer. What he thinks irreducible complexity shows is not that evolution is false or that miracles as breaking the laws of nature have ocurred. What he thinks it shows is purposes in nature, which would be consistent with theistic evolution. Ruse even mentions this not too much later when he admits that Behe thinks it could have all been built into the laws.

13. He dismisses the idea of front-loading the purpose of evolution into the laws by rejecting a very simplistic way of how that might be done. ID is silent on what the designer must be like other than that it's a being who could somehow arrange for things to develop in a way that leads to life as we know it (or at least life with the irreducibly complex features), but one plausible such designer is the tradition theistic God, who is omnipotent and omniscience and could guarantee from the laws and initial conditions that life would arise in exactly the way it did. It need not be encoded in genes for that to happen. All that needs to happen is the right unlikely occurrences of events, but if God arranges all things to work out so those occur then life will come about in exactly the way we see it to have done

14. He brings up the problem of evil as if it undermines ID. He even verges into the old problem of attributing good to God but not evil, a problem that has long been discussed by theistic philosophers, who have had lots to say that he pretty much ignores. If he's going to discuss these problems, he ought to discuss them or at least acknowledge that theists have had lots of responses to them for a very long time.

More to the point, if there are satisfactory answers to the problem of evil, then it's no problem for ID. If there aren't, then it's a problem for theism whether ID arguments are good or not. So I don't see why it's worth mentioning if he isn't going to present other objections to the existence of God such as divine hiddenness.

15. This essay is a diatribe. It does not have the tone of an encyclopedia article. It does not represent a consensus among philosophers, given that many philosophers who know any philosophy of religion would recognize at least some of what I've pointed out. It misrepresents some of the main figures it discusses. It appeals to emotion. It has a conclusion that's strikingly political in focus and intent. So what is it doing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy? Perhaps there are other things Trent had in mind. Maybe I haven't even gotten to his major objections. But some of these seemed to me to be good reasons not to think very highly of the article.

3 Comments

Jeremy,

Thanks so much for this post. I read this article about 2 years ago and was absolutely appalled! I nearly wrote a letter to complain. I thought it was like having Karl Marx writing the entry for Capitalism. The ending reminded me of the end of the Communist Manifesto. Intelligent people unite against this hideous evil trying to corrupt American thought. It was definitely more an editorial than an encyclopedic entry. And an uncharitable and poorly informed one at that. But you're right, Ruse is most the time far more reasonable than many. This article is really an embarrassment to SEP. I wonder if there's an article in SEP about giving charitable readings to those with whom you disagree.

He does not treat the objections at the level they are presented by creationists--he gives superficial explanations for why evolution can overcome this.

Talking about getting a sentence with random activity by fixing the letters as they match a predetermined outcome completely misses the fact that evolution is not targeting anything.

I agree with you about him misunderstanding the ID approach and the YEC approach, that while having overlap are not identical.

He doesn't even touch on information as a quality of DNA which creationists insist is real, is not intrinsic to the chemical constituents of DNA, and that all mutational analysis shows loss of information.

And he finishes saying that he hasn't written an article about the issue at hand but a polemic against teaching this in class rooms.

The fact of the matter is many prominent creationists understand the evolutionary position extremely well and evolutionists don't know squat about creation theory.

There are plenty of people who oppose contemporary evolutionary who don't understand evolutionary theory very well. The fact that you can still hear the "evolution is a theory, not a fact" nonsense is testament to that. Some of Ruse's responses to things creationists say are actually correct. So while I've going to stand by my criticisms of this article, I could never endorse a statement like your closing one.

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