Monday, November 29, 2004


Van Till In Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith

Howard van Till is one of my favorite spokespeople against Intelligent Design. Howard is an astronomer who is the author of the book The Fourth Day, what the Bible and the Heavens are Telling us About the Creation (reviewed here). Prior to the development of Intelligent Design, Howard was a steadfast critic of Young Earth Creationism and he's been in the trenches against ID practically since its inception. He has criticized ID on a theological basis as a form of episodic creationism and thus a god-in-the-gaps theological position and he has made specific criticisms of assumptions underlying Bill Dembski's explanatory filter.

His latest foray appears in the December 2004 issue of PSCF, the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, a fellowship of scientists who are Christian. There is an article exchange in this issue. First James Madden and Mark Discher, philosphers and theologians discuss ID, van Till responds, and Madden and Discher respond to van Till's comments.

Without going into great they said-he said detail, here are a few points that I found interesting in the exchange. Discher and Madden seem a bit out of touch with the stated goals and rhetoric of the ID movement. They criticize some ID proponents - notably Michael Behe - for (they say) going beyond trying to detect the presence of design in nature and to posit that a designer might exist, while commending him for not making claims about the attributes of the designer. Their view is that there is no warrant for the existence of a designer because the existence of design might be consistent with interventionist creationism (a designer), Aristotelian forms, or atheistic panpsychism, which they describe as fundamental particles purposefully taking particular states (I don't get it either, but they cite Mary Midgely and Thomas Nagel as examples of the idea).

Two points on this. First, depending on the venue, ID proponents do or do not identify the designer. When they go in front of the Texas State Board of Education they are quite coy and do state that the designer could be anyone, little green men even. But the ID proponents who go on Hank Hanegraff's radio show overtly state that the designer is the Christian God, see also Phil Johnson _Reason in the Balance_ and Chuck Colson _How Now Shall We Live_. The reason why they shy from identifying the designer is that they know that it is inappropriate and unconsititutional to teach creationism in public school and they want to smear evolution proponents with the epithet of misleaders when evolution proponents call ID a creationist program. The reason they shy from describing the designer is not in respect for the concept that they don't have a warrant to describe the designer just because they demonstrate design.

Secondly it is precisely the failure to discuss the designer that constitutes one failure of the ID program. It gets circular. How can you detect design without considering the intent of the designer and how can you consider the intent without considering the identity?

Van Till aptly notes that the non-interventionist creationist options that Madden and Discher offer, in the context of the ID movement in North America, are "radically unacceptable on theological grounds, leaving divine interventionism as the only attractive option available for serious consideration. It is in the light of this reality that I see ID and compensatory, hand-like, supernatural action as effectively constituting a package deal" (emphasis added).

Madden and Discher get to the heart of the matter when they note that the value of ID is to serve as a "materialism-defeater" thus opening biology up to an interdisciplinary program in which philosophers, theologians, and biologists all work; to their credit, they admit that this interdisciplinary program would be beyond empiricism. Way, way beyond. I appreciate their frankness in making this statement. While it is true that ID proponents want to change the rules of science, they are frequently not so frank about this goal. Rather they state that they simply want "more science" to be taught or the "weaknesses" of a particular theory to be taught. So it's refreshing to see the cards out on the table.

Stepping back from their argument for a moment, they appear to consider some basic assumptions of science to be unseemly. Frequently in modern science it may be unclear how exactly something works or why it reacts the way it does. There are a few methods of attacking the problem (1) try to study it (2) try to study systems like it (3) let it be a mystery for the moment and study what you can, such as how it reacts with other objects. Basically, letting "I don't know" be an acceptable answer. And yes, methodological naturalism does dictate that whatever scientific explanation you posit for the "I don't know" situation, it's gotta be testable and it's gotta be a natural cause. Madden and Discher find this unattractive. They consider this "promissory-note materialism" and state that one is warranted in rejecting it for ID until materialistic Darwinian natural selection (yes, folks, they do commit that error of considering natural selection as the only factor in the evolutionary account of biology) provides a complete accounting for biological complexity. Big words for "the argument from incredulity is ok." Well. It's not as though scientists claim to be able to explain everything. I think they are also hung up on some apologetics stuff, in that they fail to distinguish between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism and appear to consider these positions as hostile to theism.

Anyway, van Till makes a few nice points I would like to just quote.

The ID movement's success as a 'materialism defeater" is wholly dependent on its ability to make a scientific case. If that scientific case cannot be made, however, then the movement has no basis whatsoever for asking that the concept of "intelligent design" be presented as an alternative to mainstream science's understanding of bioltic evolution in a pubic(sic, how embarrassing) school science classroom. Public school board members and legislators need to know this.
(Emphasis in original).

Yes, and they need to know that when Discovery Institute was asked point-blank in Texas last November if they were seeking to put ID in the textbooks and why not, they said they were not because it had not been productive as a scientific endeavor. Bill Dembski stated a little over two years ago, "We have done amazingly well in creating a cultural movement, but we must not exaggerate ID's successes on the scientific front." And ID's scientific breakthroughs since that time have been less than stellar. Possibly the time that the ID heavy hitters have been spending lobbying Boards of Education to include "weaknesses" of evolution in the curriculum could have been spent in the lab instead.

ID theorists are now unable, and will necessarily remain unable , to reach a computationally warranted conclusion any more forceful or specific than this: In the absence of a detailed and causally specific scientific account of the particular sequence of natural processes and events that can fully explain the formational history of formational history of biotic system X, it is logically permissible to posit that the actualization of X required at least one instance of non-natural action. That is certainly true, but the logical permissibility of positing a religiously attractive, non-natural explanation in the context of incomplete knowledge is a weapon far too weak to defeat (or even bruise) naturalism of any type.

This is important. Just because it's logically permissible doesn't make it true or scientifically acceptable. There is much more to empirical science than a simple logic game. And I have to give you the footnote, because it's a classic:

A few thousand years ago, in the absence of knowledge about electrostatic discharge, and in the context of religious beliefs held by polytheisitic cultures, it was both logically permissible and religiously attractive for some people to posit that lightning required the direct action of a divine agent. In the long run, however, a belief that is both logically permissible and religiously attractive remains vulnerable to defeat by knowledge based on empirical science. Lightning, we now know, is an electrical phenonomenum.

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