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Is Intelligent Design Bad Theology? A Response to Vernon's "Review" of Signature in the Cell

Over the years, ID proponents have spent much of their time developing the theoretical tools for inferring design and developing the empirical case for design in fields such as cosmology, astronomy, origin of life studies, and molecular biology. In contrast, many critics have spent their time attacking the supposed theology behind ID.

In the last few weeks, The Guardian (in the UK) has been publishing responses to the following question: "Is Intelligent Design Bad Theology?" Philosophers Michael Ruse and Stephen Fuller have weighed in on the question. Recently, Mark Vernon responded to the question by "reviewing" Stephen Meyer's book, Signature in the Cell. Based on his interpretation of Meyer's argument, Vernon concludes that ID is "bad science, bad theology, and blasphemy." That puts it strongly. Unfortunately, Vernon's strong language is not supported by strong arguments.

Surprisingly, Vernon's brief summary of Meyer's argument is actually pretty good; but then he quickly goes off the rails. His complaint, initially, is that Meyer's argument leads to the conclusion that ID is the best explanation for the origin of life to date; but, "in truth, no one really knows what life is, let alone how it arose. The work in the last half century or so on DNA has only deepened the problem -- vastly deepened it."

The obvious response is, So what? As Meyer argues in his book, there is far more to life than the little bit we know at the moment. Meyer argues that there is far more information in a cell, for instance, than is present in the coding regions of DNA. But Meyer's argument is based squarely on what we do know about life and its informational properties, not on what we don't know. Vernon seems to think that if we don't know everything about life, any argument based on what we do know will be an argument from ignorance. This is bizarre. Such curious "reasoning," if applied consistently, would mean we could never make arguments or draw conclusions about anything, since there would always be something we don't know. The only thing we could do is remain silent. Frankly, I don't think Vernon means what he says here. If he did, he would be giving the same advice to everyone, and not just to ID proponents.

As it is, everyone is in the same boat. Good arguments will be based on what we know at the moment. And that's exactly what Steve Meyer does in Signature in the Cell.

"Religious" Explanations
Building on the argument described above, Vernon then proceeds to his theological complaint. Although his critique is directed officially to Signature in the Cell, it becomes clear that he intends his critique to apply to ID more generally. An early sign that his critique will misfire is his reference to "Newton's view of the universe" as "a deistic belief in a divine architect." Only problem: Newton was not a deist. Deism is the view that God starts the world on its course and then doesn't interact any more with it. Newton, in contrast, thought God not only set up the world at the beginning, but also constantly upheld and interacted with it in a variety of ways. He was a harsh critic of Cartesians who seemed to consign God a place only at the cosmic beginning. Whatever one makes of Newton's specific views, they were a far cry from deism.

Vernon faults ID with similar inaccuracy for "assuming that God could be a scientific explanation at all. To do so has long been observed to be ridiculous."

Unfortunately, he doesn't cite any sources from the ID literature to substantiate his characterization of ID. That's hardly surprising, since ID proponents have explained over and over and over again that ID per se isn't committed to a specific mode of divine causality. ID is about detecting the effects of intelligent agency within nature (divine or otherwise). Either there is evidence for such effects within nature, or there is not. Detecting the effects of design is different from specifying how the design is implemented, or by whom.

Apparently oblivious to these distinctions, Vernon tries to seal ID off in a "religious" compartment. "Belief and science are two different kinds of explanation, one moral, the other material," he explains. "Explanations based on 'belief' have to do with morals, not science." To insert one type of explanation in place of the other, according to Vernon, is to make a category mistake.

Now let's set aside the fact that he's confusing an argument for agency in explaining something in nature with religious belief, and just focus on what he says about the nature of religious belief. It's clearly false. Even the most superficial student of religion knows that various religions, such as Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, intend to explain all sorts of things about the world. No religion is obligated to restrict its explanations to morality, and few have done so. So as a description of what real religions actually do, Vernon's assertion is baseless.

Blasphemy
Based on his analysis of "scientific" and "religious" explanations, Vernon concludes that ID is bad theology. Indeed, he claims that it's blasphemy, because it purportedly invokes God to explain something in the world:

God is something else again, which Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian, explored in the notion that creation is "out of nothing". The "ex nihilo" is not supposed to be a demonstration of God as a scientific whizz-kid, so amazing that he doesn't even need matter to make the cosmos. Rather, it's to say that the universe was created with no instrumental cause. It is the original free lunch, offered purely out of God's love. You can argue about whether you'd have picked what's on the menu. But to insert God into the causal chain is a category mistake and, in fact, technically a blasphemy. It implies that God is one more thing along with all the other things in the universe. You're not dealing with divinity there, but an idol.

So ID proponents are guilty of both blasphemy and idolatry.

What to say? Well, it's clear that Vernon is confusing a cartoonish stereotype of ID for the real thing. No ID theorist has ever said: "Insert God here." ID theorists offer detailed arguments for why intelligent agency is the best explanation for various features of the natural world--or of the natural world itself. For instance, Steve Meyer goes into extraordinary detail in Signature in the Cell explaining why chance, mere self-organization, or chance plus a blind selection mechanism are inadequate to explain biological information. He also provides detailed positive arguments for why we should attribute such information to intelligent design. His argument has clear theological implications, but it doesn't rest on narrow theological premises. He simply asks that intelligent design be considered a possible explanation.

But let's set the details about ID aside and consider Vernon's theological assertion on its own terms.

Let's imagine someone who does explicitly invoke God in explaining some feature of nature, someone like Thomas Aquinas. Does "inserting God into the [natural] causal chain" commit "a category mistake" and make one guilty of "blasphemy"? Would it imply that "God is one more thing along with all the other things in the universe"? Specifically, would such a claim contradict a fundamental principle of Christian theology? No, of course it wouldn't.

Christianity has traditionally taught that God is omnipotent, free and sovereign over his creation. God is qualitatively more powerful than mere human beings. He can do far more than human beings, not less. Since human beings, despite our limitations, can build 747s, there's nothing preventing God from doing the same (though we have no reason to think he has done so).

Like Michael Tkacz, to whom I responded earlier, Vernon is trying to use the doctrine of creation ex nihilo as a catch-all, to suggest that the doctrine somehow bars God from acting in other ways within the universe. There's no basis whatsoever for this move in Christian theology. It's invented from whole cloth. The fact that God created the universe ex nihilo doesn't mean that that's his only way of acting. The only justification I can think of for limiting God's freedom to act within the created order would be to square Christian theology with naturalism. But then it would cease to be Christian theology.

In reality, Christianity is firmly committed to God doing all sorts of things within the created order. According to Christian theology (which is relevant since Vernon appeals to Thomas Aquinas), God creates the world from nothing, he raises people from the dead, he became incarnate as a human being, he caused Mary to become pregnant without the benefit of a human male, and so forth. If the latter claim is true, then the proper explanation for Mary becoming pregnant is the direct causality of God within the natural order.

Every educated Westerner, whether believer or unbeliever, knows perfectly well that Christians believe that God is both the creator of everything that is, and that he acts within nature. In fact, it's hard to think of a less controversial claim. Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury both know this. So it's just silly for Vernon to assert that invoking God as a cause within nature is "blasphemous."

What about his assertion that invoking divine causality within nature somehow makes God "one more thing along with other things in the universe"?

Unfortunately, this is just an assertion. Vernon doesn't provide even a pretense of an argument. And it's hard to think of any argument in its favor. If God is free and sovereign over his creation, then he can do what he wants to do. He's under no obligation to conform to Mark Vernon's rules of tidiness and propriety. If he wants to act directly within the created order for his own purposes, he can certainly do that. And in so doing, God doesn't become "one more thing along with all the other things in the universe." He continues to be God. Vernon is confusing cause with effect. God may act directly in the created order, and the effect of his action would become part of that order. But that doesn't mean that God therefore becomes merely one more member of the universe.

Of course, the claim that God acts directly in the created order might seem blasphemous to a theology that has fully capitulated to naturalism, such as the deism that Vernon falsely attributes to Newton. Vernon is free to defend such a theology, and to define everyone who claims that God can act within nature as a blasphemer. But in that case, he should explain that according to his view of God, every traditional theist on the planet is guilty of blasphemy. And he should distinguish such anti-deistic "blasphemy" from ID, which doesn't entail a specific mode of divine causality.