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Randy Isaac on "Creationism" and "Intelligent Design"


In my previous post, I discussed Randy Isaac's distinction of "evolutionism" and "evolution" in his essay "Science and the Question of God," published at the BioLogos Foundation website. After proffering a distinction between "evolution" and "evolutionism," Isaac talks about (young earth) creationism. I have some quibbles with what he says on the subject, especially with respect to biblical authority; however, I do share his concern that many young earth creationists appeal to the "tu quoque" argument. That is, many argue (in effect) that since everyone holds arbitrary presuppositions, it's no problem for Christians to do so. But saying that everybody begs the question is hardly a reasonable rebuttal to the charge that I'm begging the question. This strategy makes the evidential task far too easy, since very quickly, the only question you're obligated to answer is whether you're going to hold atheistic assumptions or young earth assumptions. Pushed to its extreme, this view seems like irrationalism and anti-realism to me. But let's not tarry on this subject, since it is clearly not the central concern of Isaac's essay. He seems much more interested in critiquing ID, which he sees as more of a threat than creationism.

"Intelligent Design"

Isaac speaks of intelligent design generically, so you might expect him to treat the subject broadly. But instead, he focuses exclusively on Steve Meyer's argument from Signature in the Cell. There is much to be said in response to his argument, but I'll leave much of it to Steve Meyer. I will limit myself to three points.

First, Isaac claims that to appeal to the activities of an intelligent agent, you first need to independently establish evidence for that agent's existence. Presumably he means that we need evidence that is independent of the evidence of design itself. This is quite a claim. And yet he provides no reason for thinking it's true. Moreover, a moment's reflection will reveal that it clearly is not true.

Imagine, for instance, that we found detailed artifacts on an extrasolar planet relevantly similar to human artifacts. These artifacts included written text that, with some effort, we were able to decode. When we did so, we found that the text detailed instructions for finding underground caves and springs, which also contained detailed artifacts. According to Isaac, we would have to remain agnostic until we got some other type of evidence, such as meeting the aliens directly. But this is absurd. We could obviously be warranted in inferring the actions of an intelligent agent or agents in such a situation, whether or not we knew anything else about the agents. That is, we could infer design on the basis of the evidence for design, even if we hadn't previously met the aliens in question at a Sports Bar.

But apparently Isaac thinks there's some epistemic law that blocks just that inference if the agent in question might be God. This is clearly incorrect. What if God (unbeknownst to us) had directly created the artifacts discovered on the extrasolar planet mentioned above? What difference would that make to the design inference involved? We would still be inferring design on the basis of exactly the same evidence. The identity of the designing agent makes no difference to the inference, so this assertion of Isaac's is clearly wrong. Contra Isaac, we can infer design, at least in some circumstances, even if we have no additional independent evidence for the existence of the agent.

Isaac claims that "evolutionary processes can easily be observed to increase, decrease, or modify DNA and epigenetic information in living cells. This occurs in different ways in the development of every organism, in the reproduction process of every species, and in specific biological processes such as antibody formation." Of course, Meyer's argument concerns the origin of genetic (and other information), not its subsequent "evolution." I'll let Steve respond to Isaac's other claims about biological information, many of which are superficial and orthogonal to Steve's actual argument. I doubt anyone who has read Signature in the Cell with an open mind, and understood it, will find Isaac's comments here the least bit compelling.

Isaac concludes the ID section of his essay with this:

The case for an intelligent designer as laid out by the ID community is not compelling for the scientific community. Science has not answered the question of God even in the less stringent form of an indeterminate intelligent agent.
In articles critiquing ID, you can be pretty sure that when you start reading sentences that report the judgment of "the scientific community" and see "science" used as if it were an agent that makes judgments and decisions, then the argument is at an end. Not compelling for the scientific community? Who is that exactly, and how is membership in "the scientific community" determined? There are probably a dozen generally complementary but distinct arguments for ID in various scientific disciplines. It's not clear that Isaac is familiar with all of them, since he discusses only one in his essay, and even that one is mischaracterized.

In any case, obviously there are plenty of scientists who do find some or another of these arguments compelling, or Isaac wouldn't bother writing essays on the subject. Moreover, given the fact that even Christians like Isaac concede a materialist definition of science (which even he seems to admit is an artifact of the nineteenth century), it's hardly surprising that many scientists oppose ID arguments. But this is a sociological fact, not an inference from the evidence of science.