Disputes over ID are often fruitless, not least because most critics (and often many advocates), of the theory, devote an inordinate amount of time to addressing socio-political issues and the mere categorisation of ID. Critics guilty of this offence seem … Continue reading
Elliott Sober is a highly respected professor of philosphy at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His main fields of interest are philosophy of science and philosophy of biology.
Sober has interacted quite a bit with ID theorists, and has published several interesting papers and books advancing his take on ID and evolution. To my mind he is a very thoughtful critic, whose responses to ID present quite a strong challenge. That being said, I think design advocates have also done a good job at replying to Sober’s criticisms. Sober’s output is pretty vast so in this post I have only link to his published works related to evolution and ID:
(Sober’s papers directly related to ID can be found at the bottom of his page)
Popper’s Shifting Appraisal of Evolutionary Theory-(with Mehmet Elgin
William Dembski responds to Sober in:
-No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence (Roman & Littlefield, 2002) in chapter 2: Another Way to Detect Design?
-The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (Inter-Varsity Press, 2004) at various points.
Bradley Monton Responds to Sober on p.42-46 of Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design (Broadview Press, 2009)
David Reuben Stone responds to Sober in The Loftus Delusion: Why Atheism Fails and Messianic Israelism Prevails (2010) in chapter one ‘Intelligent Design and Modus Tollens’.
(Papers & Articles)
Firing Squads and Fine Tuning: Sober on the Design Argument-Jonathan Weisberg
Sober on Intelligent Design and the Intelligent Designer-John Beaudoin
Another Way to Detect Design? A Preliminary Reply-William Dembski
Another Way to Detect Design? Lecture Notes-William Dembski
Elliott Sober’s Independent Evidence Requirement for Design– William Dembski
Sober’s “Progenic Fallacy”-William Dembski
Elliott Sober, Alvin Plantinga and the Design Argument-Graham Veale & David Glass
On the Logic of Evolution and the Vanity of Scientism-Thomas E. Elliott
Epistemology, Miracles, and the God Who Speaks-Lydia McGrew
Historical Inquiry-Lydia McGrew
Testability, Likelihoods, and Design -Lydia McGrew
On Likelihoodism and Intelligent Design-Sebastian Lutz
Where the Design Argument Goes Wrong: Auxiliary Assumptions and Unification–Maarten Boudry & Bert Leuridan
Deconstructing Sober-Dave S
Sober Analysis-Logan Gage
Cornelius Hunter’s Blogposts on Sober
Nagel and his critics, Part III-Edward Feser
Elliott Sober: Confusing Religion and Philosophy-Jeremy Pierce
Sober on ID being Inherently Supernatural-Bradley Monton
In the next two (potentially three) articles I’ll be taking an in-depth look at an excellent paper written by Jeffrey Koperski, a philosopher of science at Saginaw Valley State University. Koperski has written about ID in several publications (1), which I highly recommend, and he takes a balanced and sensible approach to this topic. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t accept ID, but takes a constructively critical stance, so his work is well worth engaging with.
As one can tell from the title of the paper, Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Goods Ones(2), Koperski critically analyses two common criticisms of ID, suggesting that they are highly dubious lines of argument. He then goes on to suggest two better ways of trying to refute design. In this first part, I’ll be taking a look at what he sees as two bad arguments. In the next article I’ll then turn to what he sees as two better arguments, and find out whether or not they withstand scrutiny.
Guilt by Association & Motive Mongering
The first faulty line of reasoning that gets examined, is an argument commonly used by philosopher Barbara Forrest and many others. According to Forrest, ID is little more than stealth creationism. The arguments used in favour of design are highly suspect primarily because the major figures in the movement have religious motives and therefore don’t genuinely care about science. However, the blanket label “creationism” or “creationist” is too vague to be meaningful and only serves as a rhetorical slur. In one sense, all theists are creationists because they believe a god created the universe. However, as Koperski notes, this entails the absurdity that Christian neo-Darwinists such as Kenneth Miller are creationists but ‘No one familiar with the debate would consider him a creationist.'(3), (at least in the sense that Barbara Forrest means). To confuse matters further, there are ID proponents such as Paul Nelson, who are young earth creationists and also proponents like Michael Behe who accepts an old earth and common ancestry. Whatever the label “creationist” refers to, it’s clear that it is something religious, and to most people creationism conjures up images of religious fanatics who deny an old earth and other scientific evidences, based on literal readings of Genesis. Koperski essentially argues that this tactic is ‘what some logic texts call “stereotyping”.'(4) It could also be said that, as a response to the arguments ID advocates make, critics commit a type of ad hominem fallacy known as guilt by association, in effect saying that ID arguments fail in virtue of its advocates being creationists, and having theological motives.
The key problem with the appeal to motives, is that it tells us almost nothing at all about the quality of the arguments in question. No matter how much ‘dirt’ ID critics dig up, in the form of allegedly revealing quotations by ID theorists about what’s really driving them, it does nothing to rebut their specific arguments. Koperski writes ‘Lysenko’s theory of inheritance was not bad because the Communist Party in the Soviet Union promoted it: it was bad because the theory was an experimental failure.'(5) He also rightly calls attention to figures like Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce who were explicitly motivated by their religious views. In his book The Physics of Theism, Koperski points out that most of the founders of modern science were unequivocal about their religious motivation. He includes a quote by Isaac Newton that sounds similar to the ‘incriminating’ quotes by ID supporters that critics wield to show ID theorists are merely religiously motivated fanatics:
When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme… I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the beliefe of a Deity & nothing can rejoyce me more than to find it usefull for that purpose.(6)
Does Newton’s admission here mean he was really a covert creationist, and therefore his work should be kept out of science? Of course not. And it’s telling that we never hear critics make the same accusations toward these other scientists and their work. Apparently, one is permitted to have a religious motive, unless you’re an ID proponent. Koperski concludes:
Newton had a religious motive for this work. The same goes for Boyle, Faraday, and many other scientists past and present. This fact does not make their work nonscience or bad science. Good science can be produced from a variety of motivations, including religious ones.(7)
Motive mongering gets the argument nowhere. If ID critics obsessively point to the theological motives of their opponents, those on the other side can do likewise, and it’s a relatively easy thing to do. Richard Dawkins remarked that ‘Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.'(8), and therefore allies his atheism to his views on evolution. Similarly, ID critic Eugenie Scott signed the third humanist manifesto.(9) Perhaps her aversion to ID is merely a cover for her atheism? One can find similar atheistic associations amongst many other ID critics. Let’s just focus on the arguments because ‘…it seems “guilt by association” is a game that each side can play.'(10)
Before I move on to examining the second bad argument that ID critics use, I want to briefly highlight a paper that was published in response to Koperski’s paper. Christopher Pynes, a professor of philosophy at Western Illinois University, wrote a paper called ‘Ad Hominem Arguments and Intelligent Design’(11) in response to Koperski’s examination of this line of attack. Quite astonishingly, Pynes actually attempted to justify using ad hominem attacks against ID theorists. Pynes paper is one of the worst papers I’ve come across in the ID debate and I’m surprised it was published. Various good responses have been made to his paper.(12)
Methodological Naturalism: A Ground Rule or A Metatheoretic Shaping Principle?
The dispute over biological design raises a plethora of issues. One area of disagreement at the heart of considerations of the scientific status of ID, is methodological naturalism, a ‘metatheoretic shaping principle.'(13) Critics such as Robert Pennock, and in fact most critics, fall back on this objection, alleging that ID violates an essential ground rule of scientific explanation, because it appeals to non-natural concepts like intelligence. It is often claimed that methodological naturalism purifies science by keeping supernatural explanations out of the explanatory toolbox. This claim, however, has little historical support as it seems to be the case that that ‘historical confrontations between naturalism and design hypotheses were settled by inference to the best explanation…'(14) That is to say that the reason that design hasn’t been appealed to, is not because it circumvents a rule of science, but because it lacks explanatory power.
If methodological naturalism is not, after all, a logically necessary pillar of science, it could still be seen more as a provisional guideline. But as Koperski argues:
A crucial assumption in all of this is that once a concept achieves the status of a shaping principle it becomes an immutable axiom for all future science. That is a false assumption, if the history of science is any guide. Almost everything in science has been subject to change, from data and models to theories and laws.(15)
Koperski helpfully documents many cases in the history of science where various rules and shaping guidelines have been violated and changed drastically. There is no in principle reason why methodological naturalism should be exempt from similar revisions, should the evidence necessitate it. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to see why design, supernatural or otherwise, could not count as a scientific explanation. If there are good reasons why such explanations should be excluded, Robert Pennock has neglected to provide them.
One reason that is often given is that if appeals to intelligence and supernatural agency are permitted, what is to prevent scientists from falling back on these explanations on a whim? Surely it would hold back genuine scientific research and ignore better naturalistic explanations? Koperski sees this as a plausible objection. Of course, such worries are always a risk, however this would not be a problem for scientific explanations per se, but a potential problem for the conduct of certain scientists. Furthermore, it’s important to look to history to see whether this is a legitimate worry. Is it historically the case that scientists who were theists, and didn’t formally affirm a doctrine of methodological naturalism, became lazy and quickly resorted to supernatural explanation? It certainly wasn’t a problem for Isaac Newton and ‘The history of science remains uncooperative on this point…'(16). To sum up, Koperski argues strongly that methodological naturalism isn’t an inviolable law of science. When viewed more wisely as a provisional shaping tool, it takes away the luxury of excluding design explanations in principle, and forces us to consider the biological evidence on its own grounds. If our scientific study of the natural world cries out for an explanation that appeals to design, so be it.
Critics of ID ‘often use fallacies that should be familiar to any logic student.'(17) This is a curious tendency that I have often found in my reading of the critics also. Of course ID proponents aren’t always blameless, but logical fallacies (informal ones at least), amongst ID critics seem conspicuously pervasive. The two arguments examined in this article are just a couple of examples of the weak argumentation that are used to refute ID. In the next article I will examine the two additional arguments which Koperski reckons are more promising lines of attack.
- Koperski has written about ID in Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Good Ones, (Zygon, vol.43, no.2 , June, 2008), Intelligent Design and the End of Science, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 77 (4):567-588 (2003), The Design Revolution (book review), American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 78 (4):674-679, (2004), Motives Still Don’t Matter: A Reply to Christopher Pynes (co-authored with Andres Ruiz), Zygon 47 (4):662-665, (2012), Teleological Arguments for God’s Existence (co-authored with Del Ratzsch), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015), and in chapter 5 of his book The Physics of Theism: God, Physics, and the Philosophy of Science (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015)
- Jeffrey Koperski, Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Good Ones, (Zygon, vol.43, no.2 June, 2008).
- ibid. p.434
- ibid. p.435
- ibid. p.436
Edward B. Davis, Newton’s Rejection of the ‘Newtonian World View’: The Role of Divine Will in Newton’s Natural Philosophy (In Facets of Faith and Science: The Role of Beliefs in the Natural Science, edited by Jitse M. van der Meer), Vol. 3, 75–96. Lanham: University Press of America (1996), p.78
- Jeffrey Koperski, The Physics of Theism: God, Physics, and the Philosophy of Science (Wiley-Blackwell 2015), p.207.
- Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (Norton & Company, Inc, 1989), p.6.
- Katy Hall, Eugenie Scott, Available at: http://skepticsonthe.net/eugenie-scott/
- Francis Beckwith, How to Be An Anti-Intelligent Design Advocate, University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy 4.1 (2009-2010), p.39.
- Christopher Pynes, Ad Hominem Arguments and Intelligent Design: Reply to Koperski, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 47(2):289–97, Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264651838_Ad_Hominem_Arguments_and_Intelligent_Design_Reply_to_Koperski
- Koperski, along with Andres Ruiz, responded to Pynes in ‘Motives Still Don’t Matter: Response to Pynes’. Casey Luskin also wrote two responses to Pynes here and here.
- Jeffrey Koperski, Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Good Ones, p436.
Everyone who has taken part in the intelligent design debate will know of William Dembski. For those who aren’t familiar, Dembski is the primary architect with regard to the theoretical underpinnings of ID. Since his involvement with the movement, he has published extensively in books, papers, and blogs, and has vigorously championed his ideas in many public lectures and debates.(1)
Back in 2005, Dembski wrote a sarcastic blog post on Uncommon Descent, announcing his retirement from ID, due to the ‘rancour and daily vilification'(2) by many critics of his views. Fast forward to ten years later, and again, Dembski announces that he is retiring from intelligent design, only this time it’s no joke.
In November 2015, he refurbished his website and in his first post noted that ‘In the last few years, my focus has switched from ID to education, specifically to advancing freedom through education via technology.'(3) In a revealing interview with Christian apologist, Sean McDowell he also noted that:
With regard to my research, it has shifted quite a bit these days. I’m largely retired from intelligent design. My last serious writing effort on intelligent design was my 2014 book Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information. It encapsulates my two decades work on intelligent design, and I’m not sure I have a whole lot more to add.(4)
Finally, in a post in the following month, he clarified that:
I really am retired from ID. I no longer work in the area. Moreover, the camaraderie I once experienced with colleagues and friends in the movement has largely dwindled.(5)
Dembski has held many formal associations with ID organisations, including his Discovery Institute fellowship, but he notes further in the post that he has also resigned from these.
What to make of Demski’s decision? Soon after these remarks were made, inevitably there were several responses from hostile ID bloggers. In one post, the blogger at The Senuous Curmudgeon, not a particularly sensible ID commentator, attempted to speculate about the reason behind Dembski’s decision. The author ponders whether there had been a fallout with the Discovery Institute, financial problems, or he just realised that ID is a dead end. Some even more unsavoury speculations can be found in the comments section, should you wish to torture yourself. Of course, given the hatred directed at Dembski by many critics of this ilk, nobody is content to take him at his word and be happy with the fact that he might have just moved on because he wants to focus on other matters.
There’s no evidence to suggest a fall out or that Dembski thinks ID has had its day. In fact he has stated, ‘I’m not talking about any falling out. It’s simply that my life and interests have moved on. It’s as though ID was a season of my life and that season has passed.'(7) He reiterates that most of the action in ID is in a two-pronged approach, with the information-theoretic work at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab and the molecular biology research at the Biological Institute. As to the state of his work and the ID viewpoint as a whole, he still sees it as being in very good shape, at least in terms of its scientific validity:
I would say that we have by far the better argument. Indeed, the Conservation of Information results described in my book Being as Communion (cited in the last question) and developed at length by me and my colleagues at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab seem to me to show that Darwinism cannot succeed as a complete theory of evolution, and that it requires hidden sources of information that it must smuggle in and that are best conceived as the product of intelligence. So I would say we have shown (as in demonstrated and not merely gestured at) that naturalistic evolution is a failed intellectual and scientific enterprise.(8)
It is clear that Dembski’s ‘retirement’ from ID is fairly mundane. He simply wishes to move on. He gives no indication of repudiating his work or thinking that ID’s present and future prospects are negative. As he notes in some of the posts and the interview I have cited, he’s not completely done yet, and still has a few things yet to be published including second additions of The Design Inference and No Free Lunch, and a new book on evolutionary informatics with Winston Ewert, and Robert Marks. So, still something to look forward too.
Finally, in terms of my own reaction to hearing Dembski’s statements, I have to say that I was a little disappointed. Dembski was almost single handedly responsible for rigorously developing the theoretical foundations for design theory. I for one have enjoyed reading Dembski’s work for several years now. Whether or not you agree with his work, I don’t think it can be rationally denied that he’s produced some highly original, and thought provoking arguments in favour of design. Though he won’t be publishing much else on this topic, he has left behind a pretty substantial body of work that will continue to be argued over for years to come.
- Dembski’s primary works include his first book, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (Cambridge University Press, 1998), No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (IVP,2004), The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, 2008), and Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information (Routledge, 2014). Much of his other work can be found in various articles and papers, including his more technical work with The Evolutionary Informatics Lab
- William Dembski, My Retirement From Intelligent Design, Available at: http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/my-retirement-from-intelligent-design/
- William Dembski, A New Day, Available at: https://billdembski.com/a-new-day/
- Sean McDowell, How is the Intelligent Design Movement Doing? Interview with William Dembski, Available at: http://seanmcdowell.org/blog/how-is-the-intelligent-design-movement-doing-interview-with-william-dembski
- William Dembski, Official Retirement From Intelligent Design, Available at: https://billdembski.com/
- The Senuous Curmudgeon, William Dembski is “Moving on”, Available at: https://sensuouscurmudgeon.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/william-dembski-is-moving-on/#comment-96947
- Dembski, op cit
- McDowell, op cit
Each month I’ll be selecting a quote that’s relevant to the ID debate. The quote I pick could be supportive or critical of ID. Accompanying each quote will be a few of my own thoughts, but ultimately I’d like it to be a chance to focus on it and get some thoughts from readers.
This week’s quote is taken from William Dembski’s 2002 book, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence. Here Dembski attempts to give us a general account of the design process, beginning from the designer’s initial end goal and ending with the designed object:
How a designer gets from thought to thing is, at least in broad strokes, straightforward: (1) A designer conceives a purpose. (2) To accomplish that purpose, the designer forms a plan. (3) To execute the plan , the designer specifies building materials and assembly instructions. (4) Finally, the designer or some surrogate applies the assembly instructions to the building materials. What emerges is a designed object,…
(William Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence (Langham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), p.xi.)
Dembski notes that this process is uncontroversial in cases of human design at least, and that one of ID’s main objectives is to provide a criteria that we can use to infer design in cases where we lack knowledge of this design process, affectively using effect to cause reasoning.
What do readers think?
Are there additional steps that could be added to this?
And is this a good approximation of the process of design?
Does our knowledge of human design processes permit us to infer it in cases where we know that the designer wasn’t human?