Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents

From: Keith Miller <kbmill@ksu.edu>
Date: Fri May 22 2009 - 10:50:24 EDT

Cameron:

About a month ago you made the following inquiry of me. At the time,
I was overwhelmed with other responsibilities and did not have time
to compose a response. I make a brief response below.

> I would like to raise some questions concerning one of your
> statements about intelligent design. On April 14, you wrote:
>
> “ID advocates consistently appeal to the ability of science to
> study human action as a validation of their argument that science
> can investigate divine action.”
>
> It seems to me that the words “investigate divine action” require
> clarification. These words might mean:
>
> 1. Attempt to catch God in the act of altering the normal course
> of nature.
>
> 2. Study and theoretically expound the metaphysical and/or
> physical ways and means of God’s interaction with the world of nature.
>
> 3. Draw an inference, based on the results seen in nature, that
> God has acted.
>
> In the works of intelligent design theory that I have read, I have
> never seen examples of 1 or 2. Nor have I ever seen any indication
> that design theorists even wish to engage in 1 or 2, as scientists
> at any rate. My impression is that most design theorists would
> regard 1 as absurd, and that all design theorists would regard 2 as
> an activity belonging to theology, not science. Further, even
> regarding 3, design theorists (a) regard the identification of the
> intelligent designer with God as an extra-scientific supplement to
> the design inference proper, and (b) even after such an
> identification is made, do not claim to detect the actual divine
> action, but only its effects. In light of point (b), the phrase
> “investigate divine action” is a bit of a stretch as a
> characterization of ID theorizing.
>
> So if “investigate divine action” means something like 1 or 2
> above, it is simply a false description of the activity of design
> theorists, and the phrase should be withdrawn. On the other hand,
> if "investigate divine action” means something like 3 above, then
> it would be formally correct to say that intelligent design
> theorists believe that one can “investigate divine action”, but,
> since it would be materially misleading, the phrase should be avoided.
>
> Further, the phrase “investigate divine action”, out of context,
> sounds horribly presumptuous, or even blasphemous, as if ID
> theorists are determined to pry into the hidden affairs of God, or
> lay bare the secrets of His divine nature, and, like Dr.
> Frankenstein, inquire into matters “that man was not meant to
> know”. I therefore think that such expressions are demagogic in
> effect, even if not in intention, and whip up religious sentiment
> against ID, which then cuts off rational discussion.
>
> The very modest sort of design inference that I see in ID is
> nothing more than “This bloody well didn’t happen by accident.” I
> fail to see how such a minimal form of natural theology, which no
> Christian but the most hardened ultra-Barthian would object to,
> constitutes an impertinent trespass upon the Divine Majesty.
> Thomas Aquinas would certainly not have thought so; nor would
> Augustine, nor would most of Church Fathers. I am told that even
> the metaphysics-wary Calvin accepted a minimal natural theology.
>
> So I ask for clarification: What is the precise basis of the
> charge that ID theorists want to “investigate divine action”? And
> what exactly is the theological offense in concluding that the cell
> and the eye, like the heavens, declare the glory of God?
>
> Cameron.
>

I agree that explaining or examining the action of God in the first
two senses you give above are impossible from either a scientific or
theological perspective. Science cannot inquire into such questions
and revelation is silent. Although I do not see ID proponents
attempt to address the second sense, they do come close to the first
on occasion. This surfaces in issues such as the attempted
scientific study of the efficacy of prayer, which at least some ID
advocates have used as evidence that science include divine agents in
its scientific explanations. This would seem to me to fall into the
first or your stated categories.

As others have pointed out such studies cannot actually detect the
intervention of a divine agent because God is being treated as a
predictable causal agent. God is not some magical power that is
required to respond to the appropriately made incantation. This is
really putting God to the test in a very literal sense. I see no
reason theologically for God to play such a game. To put it into a
scientific context, a causal agent cannot be invoked without
knowledge of its capabilities and limitations. God is unlimited and
unconstrained and therefore has no explanatory value within science.
An agent that can do anything has no explanatory value within science.

It is in the third sense that you mention above that ID does focus
its attention. It is this aspect that I had in mind. I would, ands
do, argue quite strongly that scientific investigation can make no
such inference. At most, science can conclude that a particular
event or process is currently not explicable based on present
scientific knowledge. That is as far as science can ever go -- it
cannot conclude that God did it. Individuals are free to make such a
conclusion based on theological or philosophical grounds, but such a
conclusion is not itself a scientific one. It is not possible to
exclude the possibility of future discoveries that would provide a
cause-and-effect natural explanation for what is currently
inexplicable. As I have stated repeatedly, there is no way within
science to distinguish between current ignorance and a true gap in
scientific explanation. The entire concept of the ID design filter
is to leave "Design" as the default when other explanations fail.
Stating that “This bloody well didn’t happen by accident” (besides
begging any number of questions about the meaning of "accident" from
both scientific and theological perspectives) has virtually no value
as a scientific conclusion.

I would take issue with your statement below:

>> Further, even regarding 3, design theorists (a) regard the
>> identification of the intelligent designer with God as an extra-
>> scientific supplement to the design inference proper, and (b) even
>> after such an identification is made, do not claim to detect the
>> actual divine action, but only its effects.
>>
One cannot talk about effects without talking about a cause or agent
for those effects. Describing effects without reference to cause is
simply data collection. Similarly, you cannot infer agency (a
"designer") if you claim ignorance of how that agent actually acts.
I cannot make a scientific claim that a particular causal agent is
responsible for an observed effect if I have no conception of how
that agent actually acted. This is a very serious flaw in the
reasoning of ID proponents. You simply cannot "get there from
here." You cannot claim ignorance of the nature, capabilities and
limitations of an agent and then at the same time infer that agent's
action. No scientist would ever accept such reasoning.

It is absolutely critical that it be understood that we can infer the
hand of the Creator in the natural world - that God has acted, is
acting and will continue to act in creation. However that conclusion
is brought TO our understanding of the natural world FROM revelation
-- the revelation of the incarnate WORD. I am very much with George
Murphy here. We do not learn about God by scientifically studying
the natural world. It is the other way around. We understand
creation, and our place in it, through the revelation of Christ.

The other critical point is that God is active at all times in and
through creation and its history. When asked my view, I always
describe myself as a Continuous Creationist. That is - God is
actively upholding all of physical reality in every moment of its
existence, and God's will and purposes are accomplished within it. I
do not look for God in areas of scientific mystery, I see God in the
everyday created reality. I will repeat a statement that I have made
in other essays -- If a person cannot see God in a sunset or a
thunderstorm, they will not see God in a mitotic spindle or bacterial
flagellum. The testimony of God's creative power is in the very
things that we do understand from a scientific perspective. I have
also stated repeatedly, that any scientific explanation, however
complete, does nothing to diminish God's action.

Ending Note: I will not be able to engage much in discussion, if any
is forthcoming. I will be leaving in a couple days for a two week
vacation with by family in PA. When I return, I have a major report
that must be written, and I must prepare for a June symposium at the
North American Paleontological Convention. This has been an
extraordinarily busy year for me -- and will continue to be so for
awhile.

Keith

Keith B. Miller
Research Assistant Professor
Dept of Geology, Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506-3201
785-532-2250
http://www-personal.ksu.edu/~kbmill/

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Received on Fri May 22 10:52:48 2009

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