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At BioLogos, Stephen Meyer Clarifies the Disagreement Separating Intelligent Design from Theistic Evolution


DebatingDDsmall.jpegThe theory of intelligent design has supporters and detractors both among religious believers and among atheists and agnostics. An atheist sympathizer like Thomas Nagel, the renowned New York University philosopher, is an interesting case. No less so are those Christians and Jews who dislike the idea, despite the fact that traditional theism prompts us to expect objective evidence of design in nature.

Regarding the latter and their style of critique when it comes to ID, I think you could advance a two-part hypothesis: Religious believers who are not familiar with the relevant science feel free to criticize ID on scientific grounds. However those who do know the science are more likely to reject ID not on scientific but on theological or philosophical grounds. That is rich with implications.

Currently at the theistic evolutionary website BioLogos, Discovery Institute's Stephen Meyer helps clarify this. BioLogos published a series of critical reviews of Meyer's book, Darwin's Doubt, and graciously invited him to reply. Dr. Meyer writes:

I have especially appreciated how the reviews in this recent series have unexpectedly clarified the nature of disagreement between proponents of the theory of intelligent design (ID) and the proponents of theistic evolution (or evolutionary creation) associated with BioLogos. I -- and many others -- have long assumed that the debate between our two groups was mainly a scientific debate about the adequacy of contemporary evolutionary theory. Surprisingly, the reviews collectively have shown that the main disagreement between ID proponents and BioLogos is not scientific, but rather philosophical and methodological.

In particular, the reviews have revealed that the central issue dividing the BioLogos writers from intelligent design (ID) theorists concerns a principle known as methodological naturalism (MN). MN asserts that scientists must explain all events and phenomena by reference to strictly naturalistic or materialistic causes. The principle forbids postulating the actions of personal agency, mind, or intelligent causation in scientific explanations and thus limits the explanatory toolkit of science to strictly material processes or physical causes. The principle of methodological naturalism is, of course, not a scientific theory nor an empirical finding, but an allegedly normative methodological rule, against which I have argued in depth, both in Darwin's Doubt (see Chapter 19) and in my earlier book, Signature in the Cell (see Chapters 18 and 19). My colleagues have also argued against MN in their responses to some of the BioLogos reviews of Darwin's Doubt (see, for example, here and here).

Recall that Darwin's Doubt argues that intelligent design provides the best explanation for the origin of the genetic (and epigenetic) information necessary to produce the novel forms of animal life that arose in the Cambrian period. In making this case, I show first that neither the neo-Darwinian mechanism of natural selection acting on random mutations, nor more recently-proposed mechanisms of evolutionary change (species selection, self-organization, neutral evolution, natural genetic evolution, etc. -- see Darwin's Doubt Chapters 15-16) are sufficient to generate the biological information that arises in the Cambrian period. Instead, I show -- based upon our uniform and repeated experience -- that only intelligent agents have demonstrated the power to generate the kind of functional information that is present in biological systems (and that arises with the Cambrian animals). Thus, I conclude that the action of a designing intelligence provides the best ("most causally adequate") explanation for the origin of that information.

Now, one might have expected that Ralph Stearley, a paleontologist, and Darrel Falk, a geneticist, both of whom have extensive knowledge of evolutionary theory, would have critiqued the main scientific argument of Darwin's Doubt on scientific grounds. In particular, one might have expected that they would have argued that either the neo-Darwinian mechanism, or some other evolutionary mechanism, does have the creative power to produce the information necessary to build new forms of animal life. Instead, except for raising a few minor objections about incidental scientific matters, both acknowledged that evolutionary theory has left the problem of the Cambrian explosion unsolved -- i.e., that the mutation/natural selection mechanism lacks the creative power to account for macro-evolutionary innovations in the history of life.

As Stephen Meyer notes, the difference between ID and theistic evolution, as articulated by theistic evolutionists who are also scientists or philosophers of science, centers on an issue apart from the science:

Of the three reviewers, Wheaton College philosopher of science Robert Bishop was the least persuaded by DD's arguments -- but, interestingly, he was also the most explicitly committed to the principle of methodological naturalism. Indeed, he objected to the thesis of the book precisely because it openly rejects (and violates) the principle of methodological naturalism.

Consequently, his four-part critique, by far the longest in the BioLogos series, said very little about my scientific arguments. (He did argue that I was wrong to claim that newer models of evolutionary theory represent significant deviations from neo-Darwinian orthodoxy. Yet, notably, biologist Darrel Falk's review affirmed my assessment of these newer theories over and against Bishop's.) In any case, Bishop focused his critique on what he called my "rhetorical strategies," giving particular attention to philosophical issues concerning the legitimacy of design inferences in biology.

In Bishop's judgment, intelligent design flagrantly violates the rule of methodological naturalism -- a rule that he regards as normative for the practice of all natural science because he believes (incorrectly, as it turns out) that "methodological naturalism is the way scientific investigation has been done since before the time of the Scientific Revolution." Indeed, as my colleague Paul Nelson pointed out in his response to Bishop's critique, Bishop badly misreads the history of science. The design arguments developed by Isaac Newton -- in the Opticks and the Principia, for instance �-- alone contradict Bishop's claims.

You sense that between the view of Stephen Meyer and Robert Bishop there is room for a fascinating and profound discussion -- not so much about the science, though, as about philosophy. Meyer observes:

Unfortunately, methodological naturalism is a demanding doctrine. The rule does not say "try finding a materialistic cause but keep intelligent design in the mix of live possibilities, in light of what the evidence might show." Rather, MN tells you that you simply must posit a material or physical cause, whatever the evidence. One cannot discover evidence of the activity of a designing mind or intelligence at work in the history of life because the design hypothesis has been excluded from consideration, before considering the evidence, by the doctrine of methodological naturalism (and the definition of science that follows from it).

Nevertheless, having a philosophical rule dictate that one may not infer or posit certain types of causes, whatever the evidence, seems an exceedingly odd way for science to proceed. Scientists tend to be realists about the power of evidence, but skeptics about philosophical barriers -- which, if it is anything, the rule of MN surely is. Placing the detection of intelligent design out of the reach of scientific investigation, before the evidence has had a chance to instruct us, looks like rigging a game before any players have taken the field.

Exactly. Still, an in-depth conversation between Meyer and Bishop would be something to watch. When it comes to religious folks who don't know the science, it's different. There the discussion tends to circle back on itself very quickly. In a blog for the Jerusalem Post, for example, writer R.P. Nettelhorst swings wildly:

I've disliked the Intelligent Design concept since I first heard about it several years ago. From the theological standpoint, I believe that the theory is deeply flawed.  It is simply a new version of a very old error: the God of the Gaps fallacy.  To put it simply, the God of the Gaps fallacy argues that God is to be defined as mystery.  Where there is mystery, there is God: if we find something in the world we don't understand, the explanation is always the same: God did it. 

This is an incredibly lazy approach to the world.

"Lazy," you say? But obviously, as anyone knows who has followed the debate about ID, that's not at all how intelligent design advocates argue, not remotely close. I tweeted to Nettelhorst, who teaches Bible at Quartz Hill School of Theology in Southern California, to ask how deeply he had studied the science behind ID, to allow him to judge it so harshly as science and as theology. The answer: Not too deeply. What books has he read by ID advocates?

All right, so he read a book several years ago. That probably puts him at an advantage compared to Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman, of the group Sinai and Synapses.

Reactions to the fantastically popular Eric Metaxas article in the Wall Street Journal, arguing for intelligent design at the cosmological level, attracted criticism from Rabbi Mitelman, among others, writing at the Huffington Post. From his credentials, Rabbi Mitelman sounded like he must be a thoughtful guy. I tweeted with him too, and received a variety of comments on ID's inadequacy as science.

See here for Casey Luskin on peer review and other signs that ID has the upper hand. As for not wanting to hear about ID from anyone associated with the intellectual hub of the ID movement, that would clearly handicap any scientific exploration he chose to do. But okay, I asked, how about physicist and Nobel laureate Charles Townes? No comment from Rabbi Mitelman.

What has he actually read on the subject?

If there was an answer on that, I missed it. I urged him to study up a bit, since the frontier of science and religion is advertised as his area of expertise. The best I could get from him was an agreement that informing himself, despite a priori objections, would do "no harm."

On ID as testable, falsifiable science, see here, here, and here for an introduction.

So there you have it. When they're familiar with the science underlying the design inference, they give you philosophy. When they don't know the science, they talk about the science, or simply make a hash of the two. Speaking of inferences, you can draw your own.

I'm on Twitter. Follow me @d_klinghoffer.