Evolution and Intelligent Design: August 2005 Archives

Ryan Miller at The Buckingham Inquirer raises some interesting worries about Intelligent Design arguments. I'm having trouble understanding what the argument is supposed to be, though. He says that intelligent design arguments confuse final and efficient causes. As I argued in a previous post, you can accept final causes in nature based on God's purposes without denying efficient causes that a naturalist might have accepted. I don't think it follows that a strong view of God's providence "makes no claims about efficient causes", as Ryan claims. Final causes are what things point toward, but why do they point toward them? In God's providence, Judas' betrayal of Jesus served the plan of redemption, and that doesn't require that God efficiently caused Judas' betrayal of Jesus, but it does require that God oversaw the efficient causes in a way that ensured that Judas would do it. It thus does make a claim about efficient causes. The efficient causes had to have been what they were, or the final cause never would have been realized. Whatever your view on how God ensures that final causes will be realized, you have to admit that God's provides isn't completely unrelated to efficient causes. It in fact requires God's oversight of efficient causes, including efficient causes behind the creation of human beings, however that might have come about.

I'm really having trouble with Ryan's statement that final causes must be a "fundamentally religious matter". The statement is given in support of the claim that we shouldn't be sure of any final causes (except, presumably, those we have on religious grounds that we should be sure of for entirely religious reasons). I know Aristotle wouldn't have liked that idea. He thought it was just obvious that leaves are for absorbing light and that teeth are for chewing food. Those are final causes. The efficient causes involve chemical processes that lead to the growing of teeth and leaves, and none of that requires talking about what they're for. Final causes don't seem to me to require religious talk at all, at least on the level of describing them and concluding which ones there are. Some final causes might indeed be knowable only through revelation of some sort, but that doesn't mean final causes are in principle knowable only through revelation. I'm not sure final causes make sense without God, but that doesn't mean you need specific information from God about a cause to know of a particular final cause in nature. I don't think Thomas Aquinas would have been any more friendly to Ryan's claim than Aristotle would have been, for exactly the reasons I've been explaining.

Larry King had a number of guests discussing what he called "creationism or as it's now called intelligent design versus evolution" last night. I missed it, but am now reading the transcript (scroll down). For those who saw it, what were your impressions?

Right off the bat, I noticed that Larry King thinks creationism and intelligent design are equivalent (see the quote above). I know this is what evolutionists typically claim (i.e. "intelligent design is creationism in a cheap tuxedo"), but I don't buy it.

Abednego linked to what people have been calling Alvin Plantinga's press release on evolution and Christianity. I'm particularly interested in the following quote, which I thank Dick Cleary for noticing first:

[The claim that] human beings and other living creatures have come about by chance, rather than by God's design, is also not a proper part of empirical science. How could science show that God has not intentionally designed and created human beings and other creatures? How could it show that they have arisen merely by chance. That's not empirical science. That's metaphysics, or maybe theology. It's a theological add-on, not part of science itself. And, since it is a theological add-on, it shouldn't, of course, be taught in public schools.

His interesting conclusion is that those who oppose teaching ID in schools on the grounds that it's religion are themselves teaching something that's explicitly a religious view by their own criteria. If they just wanted to teach the theory and what it's supposed to explain in terms of efficient causes, that would be ok, but that's not what you get in most high school biology classes. Evolutionary theory is often presented as an explanation in contrast to creationist accounts (where I mean 'creationist' broadly to refer to any view with God as any sort of explanation). Any account that means by 'chance' something that precludes a designer is offering a view that is at least as religious as any of the Intelligent Design arguments are. Just to be clear, I don't think any of this is religious. It's a philosophical conclusion, one very similar to other philosophical conclusions that scientists consdider part of scientific argumentation. I'm just pointing out that the standards of the political hacks who think ID is religion require applying the same conclusion here. Both claims are about things that they themselves consider to be outside the realm of science. Yet they do it themselves.

Science on Kansas

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Science Magazine has the following News of the Week item on the Kansas Board of Education decision (subscription probably required):

The Kansas Board of Education last week endorsed science standards that would allow for the teaching of alternatives to evolutionary theory. Scientists say the new draft standards are a thinly disguised attempt to slip intelligent design (ID) into the curriculum by highlighting uncertainty and gaps in current scientific thinking. But it's an open question whether they will translate into changes in the classroom.

Plantinga and Schonborn

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It looks like I forgot to point this out because I was traveling: Plantinga commented on the recent NYT editorial by Cardinal Schonborn, where Schonborn points out that what some people mean when they say "evolution" is incompatible with the teaching of the Roman Catholic church. Plantinga says essentially that Schonborn "has it right". You can see the whole story at Prosthesis; it's worth reading the whole thing if you are at all interested in the evolution/Intelligent Design debate.

As an aside, someone elsewhere called Plantinga's approach here "philosophy by press release". I thought that was funny.

David Klinghoffer has a column in National Review Online today on continuing developments in the case of Richard von Sternberg, the individual who was in the unfortunate position of being the editor who accepted (based on peer-reviews) an intelligent design article for publication. He has been treated rather unpleasantly since then.

And on a related topic, Telic Thoughts has a recent post with some academics' responses when asked whether they thought being an intelligent design proponent would disqualify a candidate for an academic position.

UPDATE: The WaPo has an article on the Sternberg story. I may say more on this in the near future, but check it out if you're interested.

Purposes in Nature

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Abednego recorded some of his observations of the design language of scientists at a conference he was at. I wanted to connect this with some of the stuff I've been looking into among the ancient and medieval philosophers I've been reading a lot of lately. These scientists are basically doing what Aristotle did. He would speak of trees as having roots in order that they can derive nutrients from the soil, which is for the purpose of growing tall. Most of the materialist philosophers of that time, particularly a number of pre-Socratics, the Hippocratic school, and the Epicureans, said this didn't make any sense, because you can tell an entirely material story about how one thing causes another and leads things to happen, without mentioning purposes at all.

Aristotle wanted to say that this is just ignoring the different kinds of explanations for things. There are efficient causes, which those materialists were talking about, and then there are the final causes, which are goals or aims built into nature. This isn't supposed to be what we nowadays call a cause but simply a purpose that things, by their very nature, tend toward. Some of the neo-Platonists made the point that you could have divine causes and materialist causes, just talking about different levels of explanation.

What happens with Aquinas is very interesting. Before his time there wasn't much interaction with Aristotle, because his texts had been lost. Aquinas thoroughly absorbed Aristotle's works once they were translated into Latin, and he accepted the Aristotelian picture on this issue, with one modification. He didn't think Aristotle had a right to be talking about these purposes in nature unless a mind had given those purposes. He still saw them as final causes, not efficient causes, and thus they would be the sort of thing that modern science isn't supposed to talk about. Yet modern scientists do talk about it all the time. It's just that they have no right to, Aquinas would say, unless they're also willing to talk about an intelligent designer. Aristotle didn't want to call it design, but his view amounts to pretty much the same thing as what contemporary scientists call design when they don't want to speak of a designer. The question is whether they can get away with it if they don't believe in a designer.

Update: Mark Olson sees the main issue here as Why vs. What questions. That's not quite the idea. It's Why vs. How. Efficient causes explain how something comes about. Empedocles makes fun of those who offer divine explanations by pointing out that a bull born with one horn isn't caused in some miraculous way by a god but can be explained through normal mechanisms of nature. That's how it came about. Plutarch the neo-Platonist steps in to say that that's just the how. The why might well be a divine explanation for why those efficient causes were arranged in the way they were in order to produce a creature born as an omen. Final causes answer why, and efficient causes answer how.

Just wanted to give a heads-up to those who missed it: Laurence Krauss and Michael Behe were on the News Hour last night debating intelligent design in the wake of Bush's remarks about teaching it in schools. Right now you can access the section from this page, although I doubt it will stay there permanently. It's a pretty short segment and worth watching.

I've returned from a research conference and another meeting, but I'll be traveling again next week.

I keep hearing talks at conferences that I find rather amazing. For example, in the areas of systems biology and biological networks, I've heard several talks about how these systems are "designed". Sometimes (as in the talk I just heard) speakers will go beyond saying that the systems "appear designed", and state that the evidence shows that they are designed. This seems scientifically well-received as long as the speakers avoid suggesting that there was actually an intelligent designer who did the designing (and perhaps instead suggest that natural selection was the designer). I find it remarkable that it is scientifically accepted to talk about design in biological systems, as long the designer is left out of the picture or assumed to be unintelligent. But many scientists vehemently oppose any suggestion of an intelligent designer.

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