Back in February, paleontologist Robert Asher wrote this essay for HuffPo. The essay was called, “Why I am an Accommodationist,” and it defended the compatibility of science and religion. As regular readers of this blog are aware, I don’t much care for that view. So I wrote this reply. After a long break, Asher has now replied to my reply, over at The Panda’s Thumb. I thank him for taking the time to have to done so. However, I am not moved by his remarks to revise anything I said in my original post. So let’s go one more round, and have a look at what he has to say.
After a brief introduction Asher gets down to business with this:
Consider the argument that anti-theists and creationists have something in common, for example when I wrote in my Huffington Post blog
For many theists, even if they would phrase it differently, “religion” requires a deity who leaves behind evidence in a similar fashion as a human being might do, like Santa Claus not finishing his cookies or a toga-clad Charlton Heston dispensing rules on stone tablets, capriciously ignoring his own natural laws. Many anti-theists agree: if God exists, “he” has to leave behind evidence in a human-like fashion. Notably, such a perspective is at the core of the so-called “intelligent design” movement, which claims to find evidence for clever intervention in biology, relegating what its adherents call “natural” and “random” to the profane.
He referred to the above paragraph as “complete caricature”, arguing that in the case of atheists,
absolutely no one is saying that God has to do anything. We simply observe that a God who works entirely through natural forces is hard to distinguish from no God at all. We ask for the evidence that God exists, and since nature fails so completely to provide that evidence we begin to suspect that maybe there is no God.
This complaint is less about the point I was making and more a result of ignoring it. He falsely attributes to me an oxymoron, as if I had said that an atheist’s god “has to do anything” since they are, after all, atheists. Rather, I was addressing his expectation about the category of evidence that he, as an atheist, thinks a deity should leave behind in order to be credible. Does being “religious” demand that you think that God works like a human with superpowers, regularly sticking his hand into nature? Many think it does, others don’t. Agreeing with the former, Rosenhouse has “asked for evidence that god exists” and found that “nature fails so completely” in providing this evidence. On the other hand, maybe God doesn’t work like a human with superpowers, in which case the existence of nature in the first place might comprise evidence.
Asher has simply misunderstood my point. I was not attributing to him an oxymoron. Nor was I making any assertion about what sorts of evidence must exist for belief in God to be credible or rational. My charge was that Asher misrepresented the logic of the most common atheist arguments. We do not argue by modus tollens, asserting, “If God exists then we must find evidence of that in nature, we don’t find such evidence, therefore God does not exist.” Instead we argue (again, most commonly, I’m sure you can find individual atheist writers who commit various logical fallacies) that for belief in God to be credible there must be some evidence for his existence, and as it happens nature fails completely to provide that evidence. We have not overlooked the possibility that God may choose to work through entirely natural means, leaving no overt trace behind. We simply view that possibility as comparable to arguing that we don’t see elephants hiding in trees because they hide very skillfully. That is, it seems a bit desperate. Nor do we overlook the possibility of forms of evidence that would not generally be considered scientific, such as the prevalence of claimed religious experiences among the faithful. We simply think there are good reasons for being skeptical of such non-scientific forms of evidence.
Rosenhouse is right to point out that “no God at all” is a possibility that has to be dealt with by believers. I do so by arguing that his suspicion that “maybe there is no god” is no more justified than my suspicion that maybe God acts through nature. Furthermore, my view has the advantage that the consistency across, and existence of, natural laws follows reasonably from positing an agency behind them. While such an assertion isn’t necessary to understand the mechanism(s) by which a given natural law functions, it does lead to the expectation that such laws should not only exist, but also make sense.
Now we are getting into murkier philosophical waters, since we are essentially arguing about who bears the burden of proof. I would argue on grounds of parsimony and Occam’s Razor that the suspicion that “Entity X does not exist” should always be regarded as better justified than the suspicion that, “Entity X exists but it has attributes it deliberately acts in ways that make it impossible for us to detect its presence.” To borrow a famous example from Carl Sagan, by Asher’s argument you would have to agree that your suspicion that there is no dragon in my garage is no more justified than my suspicion that there is an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon living there.
I strongly disagree that the mere existence of natural laws is any evidence at all for the presumption of an agency behind those laws. Not, at any rate, unless Asher can provide an argument for concluding that a universe not superintended by such an agency should not be expected to be governed by natural laws.
Skipping ahead a bit:
Getting back to what Rosenhouse said of my “caricature” of others’ views, my worst infraction was not about the atheists, but about Intelligent Design itself:
Asher has also badly misstated the ID position. There, too, there are no assumptions being made about what God must have done. I am not aware of any ID proponents who say that if God exists it simply must be the case that He has left behind, tangible, scientific evidence of His presence. Instead the claim is simply that, as it happens, there are, indeed, certain biological facts whose only plausible explanation involves the intentions of an intelligent designer.
This is an odd accusation, possibly based on how he sees an inductive chronology in the mind of an Intelligent-Design advocate. He seems to think observation of “certain biological facts whose only plausible explanation” leads to an “intelligent designer”, and only then does the ID advocate dutifully proceed to a conclusion about “what God must have done”. This objection reminds me a bit of Darwin’s aged mentor Adam Sedgwick, who upon reading Origin of Species complained that Darwin had “deserted … the true method of induction”, meaning that Sedgwick expected Darwin to refrain from theorizing until he had crossed some undefined Rubicon of fact-collecting. In reality, it was Sedgwick who didn’t realize that testing an already-existing theory against repeated data-collection is not only OK, but reflects the way the human mind generally works.
My argument had nothing to do with the “inductive chronology” of the beliefs of an ID proponent. I was simply pointing out that, once again, Asher has misrepresented the logic of the argument the ID folks are making. They, also, do not argue by modus tollens. In their role as ID proponents, their argument is simply that certain aspects of nature possess characteristics that can only be plausibly explained by the action of an intelligent designer. One of the points about which they are most adamant, for heaven’s sake, is that the intelligence they claim to have discovered cannot be identified as the Christian God, at least as far as their science is concerned. Plainly, then, when they are arguing as ID proponents, they are not pointing to the facts of nature as the sole basis for the credibility of the Christian faith.
Of course many of them come to the subject with prior faith commitments, but so what? That is completely irrelevant to the point I was making. Asher’s argument can be paraphrased as, “Both ID proponents and certain atheists argue that we must find clear evidence of God in nature for belief in God to be credible, but both have overlooked the possibility that God might choose to work through entirely natural means.” The reality is that neither ID proponents nor atheists argue as Asher suggests and neither has overlooked his alternative possibility. That’s the point.
Continuing from where the last quote left off:
All of us—creationists, theistic evolutionists, and anti-theists—start with some idea of how the world should operate given the presence of a god, and it’s just wrong to claim, as Rosenhouse does, that in ID
there are no assumptions being made about what God must have done. I am not aware of any ID proponents who say that if God exists it simply must be the case that He has left behind, tangible, scientific evidence of His presence.
Really? Isn’t the whole point of the Intelligent Design movement to distinguish biological complexity as a product of “design” vs. chance or regularity, based on our experience of “design” in its human context? I’d agree that design inferences per se don’t have to be about a deity. However, such “design” has been promulgated for about three decades now by ID-advocates who have left a substantial paper trail linking them to previous iterations of creationism. When applied to the origin of life, and biological evolution thereafter, by individuals who have been eagerly attacking Darwin’s theory since the 1980s, “design” clearly does entail expectations of how the “designer” of the anti-Darwin movement operates— like a superhuman would.
Yes, obviously, most ID proponents believe that the intelligence they have detected is the Christian God. But that belief goes beyond what they think their science can support. And yes, again obviously, we can reasonably suspect that there are political motivations lying behind their insistence that they are not arguing for any form of creationism. This is all true, but totally irrelevant.
That God behaves in some sense like a super-engineer is the conclusion of their argument, not the premise. Their argument is that the natural world features attributes (like “specified complexity”) which, when they are found in human artifacts, are immediately recognized as signs of intelligent design. Neither Asher nor myself has any sympathy for that argument, but it is what it is. They then argue that those same features found in the natural world should also be attributed to intelligent design. This is not at all the view that Asher originally attributed to them. They don’t start from the premise that God, if He exists, must act like a super-engineer, and then go dutifully out into nature and look for that evidence.
In the comments following Rosenhouse’s essay, consider this response by veteran ID-critic and biologist Nick Matzke to Rosenhouse’s statement that in ID, there are “no assumptions being made about what God must have done”:
Actually, IDists do make that argument pretty regularly, in response to theistic evolutionists and deist-like arguments against an interventionist God. IDists will say something like, well, if you believe the Bible, we have an interventionist God on our hands, one who likes to work miracles, so there is no reason we shouldn’t see this in biological history.
Rosenhouse responds to Matzke as follows:
But that’s not the argument Asher put in the mouths of his hypothetical ID folks. There is a big difference between saying that if God exists then he must leave evidence behind, which was Asher’s formulation, and saying that there is no reason why we shouldn’t see evidence of God’s action in biological history, which was your formulation.
It’s revealing to deconstruct the key sentence of Rosenhouse’s response by redacting the double negative:
1) “if God exists then he must leave evidence behind” (Rosenhouse paraphrasing Asher)
2) “there is
noreason why we should n’tsee evidence of God’s action in biological history” (Matzke)
See any major differences here? Me neither. Both represent the argument that “Asher put in the mouths of his hypothetical ID folks”, i.e., that the god of Intelligent Design is indeed expected (explicitly or not) to leave behind evidence in a more or less similar fashion as a human-like intelligence would.
The difference looks pretty stark to me. Formulation (i), which Asher does not reject as an accurate presentation of his view, is a blunt conditional statement. It says that if God exists, then a certain sort of evidence must also exist. That statement is not an accurate presentation of ID thinking. Formulation (ii), proffered by Matzke, suggests simply that in doing science we may or may not find direct evidence of God’s activity in nature. We don’t know until we look. ID proponents would go on to argue that, as it happens, we do find evidence of design in nature, and while we cannot be certain we have detected the Christian God, this is nonetheless a boost to faith. They would probably go further and argue that even in the absence of such evidence there would still be good reasons to believe in God.
I’m puzzled by Asher’s inability to see the difference. But perhaps we can settle this. William Dembski’s blog “Uncommon Descent” is probably the main repository of ID thinking on the internet. I happen to know that several contributors to that blog read my blog regularly. So perhaps one of them would like to weigh in on whether they think Asher or myself has presented the more accurate picture of their thinking.
Rosenhouse is correct to note that creationists object to the notion of a weak Imago Dei; that is, a remote, apparently distant god, is repellent to many ID-friendly theists:
Since God is commonly said to love His creatures, we are certainly entitled to wonder why He would create through a process as cruel and savage as Darwinian natural selection. It is not plausible to suggest evolution as God’s means of creation, since the mechanics of evolution are at odds with the attributes God is believed to possess.
So Rosenhouse actually does think ID (and creationism generally) makes “assumptions about what God must have done”, but objects to my interpretation that such assumptions can be material—whereas he prefers the theological or emotional ones. Henry Morris made such objections to theistic evolution in the 1970s, and they led him to believe in a young Earth. If all suffering and death were precipitated by the Genesis fall, the argument goes, an evolutionary mechanism involving differential survival could not have pre-dated Adam & Eve by eons of geological time. Most Christians do not buy this argument, whether or not they sympathize with ID. Rosenhouse was peeved that I did not provide great detail on these theological objections in my 800-word essay, so I hereby agree that they exist (and never denied them in the first place). Rebuttals of them from a Christian perspective have been made regularly, for example by authors I cited in my February post, among others.
No, the assumptions are not about what God must have done. The assumptions are about the attributes that God is said to possess, and the obvious conflict they pose with the actions Asher is suggesting God might have taken.
This is the reason I reacted so strongly to Asher’s essay. If the only problems were that he misrepresented the logic of atheist and ID arguments I might have let it slide. The problem is that those theological objections Asher couldn’t be bothered to address are precisely where the debate is actually raging. The title of Asher’s post suggested he was going to show us why science and religion (and specifically evolution and Christianity) could live in harmony, but then his essay never even addressed any of the real reasons so many of us think they can’t live in harmony. There is a debate raging over here about the relation of the problem of evil to evolution, and the effect that the demise of the design argument has for Christian faith, and other weighty matters, and Asher is standing over there talking to himself about banalities that do not address the real issues. It is a very weak argument to say that evolution and religion are compatible because God might have acted through natural means, when the natural means being proposed are directly at odds with the character God is believed to have.
But Asher’s point about 800 word blog posts is well-taken. So in the interests of offering a constructive note let me offer a trade. I see he has written a book, where he no doubt provides the details that had to be left out of his blog post. I also have written a book explaining my views in more detail. So, Robert, how about a trade? I’ll send you a copy of my book if you send me a copy of yours!
Asher concludes with:
Rosenhouse then asked me a question:
I’d also like to know more about the agency in which Asher believes. This agency, did it create the world through an act of its will or not? If it did, then I fail to see how it is importantly different from the anthropomorphic God he criticizes. If it did not, then whatever it is, it surely is not the God who lies at the heart of the world’s religions.
I don’t know how the agency behind the laws of the universe did its creating. Obviously on that scale we’re not really close to anything remotely human-like, so probably it didn’t have a “will” like you and I have. What I do know is that we seem to be inside of its creation, the laws of which exist whether or not us humans are around to notice. But not only do we notice, we can actually understand some of them. I also know that Judeo-Christian scripture tells us to love our neighbor, not to lie, and that we can accomplish more together than on our own. Despite its human imperfections, the global infrastructure that we have to promote these ideas, including religion, is a good thing. Good writers who are science-literate (like Jason Rosenhouse) should strive to improve this infrastructure, not trash it.
Let me close with a question for you, Jason: Why did Charles Darwin include the following quote by Francis Bacon on the title pages of every edition of Origin of Species?
To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.
Asher is certainly within his rights to say nothing at all about the agency in which he believes. But then he has not really made any contribution to the discussion about “accommodationism,” which at least in these sorts of internet arguments is generally taken to refer to accommodating science with Christianity.
I’m afraid I simply disagree that that portion of the global infrastructure that includes religion is a good thing. It’s harmful aspects seem far more obvious to me than its benefits, and so I think we should be dismantling large chunks of it with all possible speed. I’m sure Asher would agree, for example, that the almost completely secular countries of Scandinavia are far more pleasant places to live than the theocracies of the Middle East, just to pick one obvious data point. So I think Asher will need to provide a bit more nuance before he convinces me that religion’s contribution to human discourse is, on balance, positive. But that is definitely a topic for a different day.
As for the Darwin quote, I’m not sure what I’m being challenged to address. When I think of Darwin and religion, I think of how he was driven to agnosticism in large part because of the cruelty that was so manifest to him in his studies of nature. I don’t understand how Asher can be so cavalier about lauding the mystical agency he sees behind nature while ignoring all of that savagery.
Well, so much for that. But two final points. The first is that posts like this tend to attract a lot of comments, so please keep things civil and on point. The second is that normally I would be happy to participate actively in such a comment thread. Sadly, while my back is slowly healing, it is still very uncomfortable for me to sit up for than a few minutes at a time. So I will not be participating actively in the comments. Please do not interpret that as lack of interest, though.