Writing in the religious journal First Things University of Delaware physics professor Stephen Barr lays into the ID Movement. Here’s the first paragraph:
It is time to take stock: What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.
Preach it, brother!
Sadly, much of what comes after this most excellent opening is not very persuasive. Let us take a more detailed look:
Here’s paragraph two:
Very few religious skeptics have been made more open to religious belief because of ID arguments. These arguments not only have failed to persuade, they have done positive harm by convincing many people that the concept of an intelligent designer is bound up with a rejection of mainstream science.
I can not imagine how Barr presumes to know any of this. He certainly does not provide any evidence to support his claims. I have no doubt the ID crowd will come back with philosopher Antony Flew, who, after a lifetime of defending atheism, became more open to religious claims as the result of ID-style arguments.
I hope he is right about no one being moved toward religious belief by ID writing, but I do not think he is. The ID folks are tapping into deep intuitions people have that complex, functioning structures do not arise from natural, non-intelligent causes. Many are already uncomfortable with the naturalism of modern science and see evolution as dehumanizing and implausible. They like the idea that modern science can provide some rational support for theism. My experiences at ID gatherings suggest to me that an awful lot of people are being led just where they want to go. Certainly the public opinion polls show a great deal of sympathy for ID, to the point of wanting it taught next to evolution in science classes.
The ID claim is that certain biological phenomena lie outside the ordinary course of nature. Aside from the fact that such a claim is, in practice, impossible to substantiate, it has the effect of pitting natural theology against science by asserting an incompetence of science. To be sure, there are questions that natural science is not competent to address, and too many scientists have lost all sense of the limitations of their disciplines, not to mention their own limitations. But the ID arguments effectively declare natural science incompetent even in what most would regard as its own proper sphere. Nothing could be better calculated to provoke the antagonism of the scientific community. This throwing down of the gauntlet to science explains not a little of the fervor of the scientific backlash against ID.
ID posits the incompetence of science only if you begin from the premise that everything we find in nature must have a natural cause. As many philosophers and theologians, such as Alvin Plantinga, have asked, why should that be the expectation from a theistic standpoint? Perhaps we should expect that many things, perhaps most things, in nature will yield to scientific explanations, since God needed to create a natural world in which we could live. But certain other things might be found to be best explained by direct action by God.
In that case ID arguments, if they were correct, could be viewed as a great triumph for science. It seems a bit odd to say that conclusive scientific evidence of intelligent design, which is what the ID folks claim to provide, represents a failure of science. Biology is not “incompetent” for having found God’s “signature in the cell.”
The biggest problems with ID lie not in abstract philosophical considerations or in drawing clear lines between science and theology. ID fails so completely because its arguments are simply wrong. They are not even interesting. They are simply retreads of old arguments that are easily refuted by anyone with basic scientific education.
“Throwing down the gauntlet to science” explains nothing of the scientific backlash against ID. If the ID folks were just throwing down gauntlets, scientists would be happy to ignore them. The backlash is the result of the obvious political dimension of the ID movement, coupled with the ludicrous caricature of modern science they present in their publications and public talks.
The older (and wiser) form of the design argument for the existence of God–one found implicitly in Scripture and in many early Christian writings–did not point to the naturally inexplicable or to effects outside the course of nature, but to nature itself and its ordinary operations–operations whose “power and working” were seen as reflecting the power and wisdom of God.
There certainly is a long tradition of interpreting the general orderliness of nature as evidence of divine design. But the idea of locating design in the complexity of living organisms also has a long tradition within Christianity. The style of argument used by modern ID folks is not some aberration within the context of Christian theology. Indeed, in the nineteenth century Paley’s version of the design argument was one of the centerpieces of natural theology. This is precisely why the theory of evolution was such a blow to the enterprise.
Furthermore, it is not much of an argument to say that the orderliness of nature is evidence for God. Unbroken natural law is too easily and plausibly interpreted as evidence for an impersonal universe. The power of Paley’s argument was to find something that seemed to nearly everyone at the time that was explicable only by the assumption of some intelligence far greater than man’s. Certainly you could level abstract, philosophical arguments at Paley, such as those made by David Hume. To which Paley could reply, “All fine points. But you still have not explained how adaptive complexity can arise from purely natural causes.”
I do not believe that Paley was guilty of bad theology. I see nothing inherently wrong in the sort of argument he was making. He just did not have all the relevant facts.
The emphasis in early Christian writings was not on complexity, irreducible or otherwise, but on the beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made. As science advances, it brings this beautiful order ever more clearly into view.
So much the worse for the early Christians. They made the best arguments they could given what was known at the time. It does not reflect badly on the ID folks that, in addition to basing their beliefs on the beautiful order of nature, they also make use of what is now known about biochemistry. Their arguments are not offered as an alternative to the more general sort of design argument Barr is endorsing. As they see it they are enriching this older body of thought with the most recent insights of modern science.
Note that “atoms of the world” are not irreducibly complex, nor is “every part of the world.” Irreducible complexity has never been the central principle of traditional natural theology.
How is that an argument against irreducible complexity? As Michael Behe first introduced it, irreducible complexity was applied specifically to the fine structure of biochemical systems like flagellae and blood-clotting cascades. Previous generations of Christians would not have been able to make such arguments since the relevant science was not yet known. Why should natural theology not expand to encompass the latest scientific developments? Is the whole enterprise nothing more than expressions of awe at the beauty of nature?
Once again Barr completely misses the point. The problem with Behe’s argument about irreducible complexity is that it is wrong. Simple as that. The problem does not lie in some perceived change in focus relative to early Christian writers.
Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous “explanatory filter” of William A. Dembski, one finds “design” by eliminating “law” and “chance” as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature.
That religion in its most common forms has frequently served as a substitute for a scientific understanding of nature is hardly a caricature created by atheists. It is the obvious conclusion of how so many religious people and religious institutions have behaved over the centuries. Barr may be unhappy about the fact, but the creationists and ID folks do represent a huge segment of American religious thought. I hardly think atheists can be faulted for pointing it out and objecting.
Far be it from me to defend William Dembski, but this paragraph is not a correct presentation of his argument. He is very clear in his writing that he sees evidence for God in all aspects of nature, and he certainly would not object to using the general orderliness of nature as evidence for God. His argument about the explanatory filter, as he presents it, is not about finding evidence for God at all (though in his view when his methods are applied to certain phenomena in nature they point very strongly in that direction). It is about locating phenomena that can only be explained by recourse to an intelligent agent. He is not handing those things science can explain to the atheists. He sees God in them just as surely as in everything else. Instead he would say simply that such things do not compel you to infer design.
There is almost no end to the number of things that are wrong with Dembski’s argument, starting with the fact that he has never managed to formulate it in a consistent, coherent way. The fact remains, though, that Barr has been unfair to him in this paragraph.
So, when the ID movement came along and suggested that its ideas be taught in science classrooms, it touched a nerve. This is one reason that the New Atheists attracted such a huge audience.
It’s nice that in this paragraph Barr finally gets around to noting both the scientific vacuity and the political ambitions of both creationism and ID. But where is his evidence that hostility to teaching ID in science classrooms was one reason for the huge audience for the New Atheist books? (On the other hand, if Barr is right about this then I would say that we finally found something good that came out of ID.)
There is a bit more to Barr’s essay. It is disappointing that such a promising beginning should give way to such a poorly-argued mess. Still, it is certainly very helpful to have a high-profile religious publication like First Things publish such an essay.