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

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sat May 23 2009 - 18:52:46 EDT

I thank Keith Miller for his reply. Some follow-up comments:

1. I thank him for the reference to Harris. I cannot speak of Harris as I neither know him nor have followed his career. The question is whether Harris is actually an ID theorist, i.e., one who does work in biochemistry, physics, mathematics, philosophy etc. which actually advances ID conceptually, or merely a supporter of ID. By ID theorists I mean Behe, Meyer, Dembski, Wells, Denton and people of that sort. I am not defending the views or religious beliefs or social activities of everyone who calls himself an ID supporter. ID is a pretty big tent, and I am only interested in its theoretical core. Many IDers may have YEC leanings, but YEC is not part of the theoretical core of ID. Many IDers may reject macroevolution, but rejecting macroevolution is not part of the theoretical core of ID. Even believing in the existence of God is not part of the theoretical core of ID. (Many agnostics, such as Dave Scot, formerly of UD, are strong ID supporters.) Certainly proving that God exists by means of prayer studies is not at the theoretical core of ID. That God acts upon prayer is not ruled out by ID, but it is not part of ID. And, as I have already indicated, I find prayer studies offensive. How would they work in a scientific manner? Would one pray for half of the children dying from cancer, and not pray for the other half, and see if God heals more from one group than the other? The idea should be sickening to any Christian.

2. I haven't read Phil Johnson's books and don't want to comment on what he might have meant by any brief passage, because I wouldn't have enough broader context and might misinterpret the passage. I can only argue on the basis of my own understanding of ID, which is drawn mainly from the theoretical writings of Behe, Dembski, Meyer, and Denton.
3. No, by "Darwinism" I do not mean "methodological naturalism". Darwinism implies methodological naturalism, but not the other way around. For example, as Ted Davis has indicated, Robert Boyle believed firmly in "methodological naturalism" in science (though of course he did not use the term), but he was no Darwinist -- he thought that God had created species directly. A further point to be made along this line is that one can go far beyond Boyle, and accept "methodological naturalism" regarding the origin of life, origin of species, etc., and still be very anti-Darwinist (e.g., Michael Denton). Put another way, "Darwinism" is a naturalist account of origins, but it is not the only naturalist account. "Naturalism" is the genus, and "Darwinism" is but one species within the genus.

4. If one is going to complain about the misuses of "Darwinism", one should also complain about the misuses of "methodological naturalism". No one doubts that scientists try to find natural explanations for the events that we observe, e.g., the motion of Mars, the development of an embryo, etc. No one doubts that scientists avoid explaining such things by special divine interventions, magic, witchcraft, etc. An ID biochemist splices a gene in exactly the same way, and using exactly the same model of DNA, as an atheist or TE biochemist. An ID physicist calculates the path of a spacecraft to Mars in exactly the same way that an atheist or TE physicist would. Methodological naturalism, understood in an honest and non-political way, is non-controversial among all the parties.

The misuse of "methodological naturalism" takes two forms:

(a) It is one thing to say that the origin of new phyla and the origin of life *may* be explicable scientifically, in which case scientists trying to explain such things will of course properly appeal only to natural explanations. It is another thing to say that we can know, in advance of the evidence, that the origin of new phyla or the origin of life *can in fact* be explained scientifically. In the first case, we have an entirely legitimate branch of scientific investigation; in the second, we have a dogmatic enterprise guided by a metaphysical decree. It is important that science textbooks make this distinction. So, for example, if they say: "Science does *not yet* have an explanation for the origin of the first cell", they are slipping in a metaphysical doctrine which has no place -- on Keith Miller's definition of science -- in a science textbook. What they should say is something like: "If the origin of the first cell is to be explicable by the methods of science, it must be sought in the properties of macromolecules and their behaviour under such conditions as prevailed upon the early earth, and this is the path that scientific investigators have taken." That would be descriptive of what scientists do, rather than metaphysically prescriptive about the options available to those who seek explanations for the origin of life.

(b) In the phrase "methodological naturalism", the word "naturalism" is often ambiguous. Sometimes it is understood in contrast with "supernatural" causes, and sometimes with "intelligent" causes. The two are not the same thing (though of course a cause might be both at once). Aristotle, for example, did not believe in "supernatural" causes, but he did believe in "intelligent" (in a broad sense) causes, and he saw intelligence, taken in a certain sense, as built into nature itself. Thus he could be a thoroughgoing "naturalist" with respect to supernaturalist claims, yet believe that intelligence was legitimate part of scientific explanation. Similarly, ID has never tried to detect "the supernatural" as such. What possible test could detect "the supernatural"? But there are tests to detect intelligence. Such tests are used all the time in forensic science, cryptography, anthropology, etc. Whether such tests apply in biological matters can fairly be debated, as Keith Miller and Randy Isaac are doing, but the rejection of design detection in biological cases must be based on *argument*, not insisted upon by definitional fiat. In any case, people like Eugenie Scott play ruthlessly upon the ambiguity of the word "natural", and milk it for all it is worth, for political reasons rather than reasons of theoretical clarity. They want the public to think that ID is a front for miracle-mongerers who would undermine the practice of science.
5. Regarding the IDNet passage, see my remarks above. I think that the IDNet passage traffics in the same ambiguity about "naturalism" that Eugenie Scott traffics in. On all sides of this debate, including the ID side with which I am sympathetic, theoretical clarity is frequently lacking, and sloppy, careless and misleading statements are made. The statement should have read:

"Intelligent Design attempts to apply modern scientific methods in an effort to determine whether or not the input of intelligence is required to explain the origin of biological systems."

This more cautious statement, I would support. The original IDNet statement is too intellectually fuzzy to be sure what it means, and therefore I would not support it. If that means that I must disagree with Mr. Harris, then so be it.
6. ID *proper* is not about detecting divine action. ID does not define divine action, characterize divine action, or even discuss divine action. ID is a response to the view of nature -- expressed by generations of Darwinists and neo-Darwinists -- which asserts that necessity and chance can provide or have provided satisfactory explanations for the origin of biological systems. It believes that nature looks much more like the product of intelligence (or intelligence combined with elements of necessity and chance) than like the product of chance and necessity alone, and it believes that nature, carefully studied, may provide solid evidence to justify this as a sound inference. And it does not believe that any discussion of divine action is necessary to conduct its investigations. ID is based not on the assumption of God, but on the assumption that "intelligence" -- divine, human, alien, or other -- has certain telltale features that make its existence detectable. One can indeed criticize ID as inadequate for *not* discussing divine action -- as Ted Davis sometimes appears to do -- that is a possible theological or philosophical criticism. But one cannot say that ID purports to discuss divine action or makes divine action part of its theorizing. That is simply a false statement about the nature of ID, and I wish TEs would stop making it.

7. On the other hand, I regard the argument of Randy Isaac and Keith Miller -- that one cannot infer "intelligence" from the arrangements of nature -- to be a legitimate argument (invalid, in my view, but legitimate). It is legitimate because it is based on ID's own self-described goals, not on a misunderstanding or caricature of ID. I plan to respond to it later on.

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Keith Miller
  To: Cameron Wybrow ; AmericanScientificAffiliation Affiliation
  Sent: Saturday, May 23, 2009 2:47 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents

  Cameron wrote:

  I will only reply briefly to the comments that relate directly to my response to Cameron previous question to me.

    I thank Keith Miller for his reply. I understand that he cannot undertake to continue the conversation; however, others might wish to. I will offer a few rejoinders.

    1. First, I cannot think of a major ID proponent who has argued that "prayer studies" are good science (or good theology for that matter). I wish Keith Miller would name names here. If I may use myself as an example, I'm sympathetic to ID, but I find the idea of putting God to the test in that way to be sacrilegious. In any case, since Keith admits that this point is not central to his case against ID, I won't pursue it.

  The study in question was authored by William S. Harris who is the cofounder of the Intelligent Design Network <>. This organization was the primary force behind the efforts by ID advocates to change the Kansas State Science standards. The IDNet has the full support and backing of the Discovery Institute (including Dembski, Behe, and many others). Before Dover, Kansas was thought to be where ID advocates would make their primary effort at a legal challenge.

  The article coauthored by Harris is :
  William S. Harris, et al., 1999, "A randomized controlled trial of the effects of remote intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit." Arch. Intern. Med., v. 159, p. 2273-2278.

  A discussion of this article appears on another ID website -- <>.

    2. Second, most of the Christian ID proponents that I know of would agree that God lies behind all the phenomena of nature, not just special ones such as the bacterial flagellum. They would see God in the thunderstorm or the sunset, just as Keith Miller does. And, on the other hand, they would also see natural causes in the thunderstorm and the sunset, just as Keith Miller does. There is no debate between ID and TE proponents on this matter.

  However, comments by individuals such a Phil Johnson suggest that design that is not detectable by scientific methods is not of any value. This degradation of the witness of Creation (the only kind of witness to which scripture points) is a serious theological error. Johnson demands that God's action be testable. This is a huge barrier to people truly seeing God as present and creatively active in all of creation.

  He has stated, "God-guided evolution would be genuinely theistic, but the doctrine of methodological naturalism rules out the possibility that God did the guiding in any way that is testable. ... The theism is in the mind (or faith) of the believer. For this reason, I have written that theistic evolution can more accurately be described as theistic naturalism." (Darwinism Defeated? p.50)

  For me the statement above runs completely counter to scripture. My acceptance of a crucified redeemer and creator is an act of faith. Period. What else could it possibly be? As I have stated repeatedly, seeing the Creator in nature is an application of revelation to our understanding of nature. Not the other way around.

    3. If the question is asked, "Well, if ID proponents see God *everywhere*, why then do ID proponents put so much emphasis on special cases such as the bacterial flagellum?" The answer is straightforward. Nothing tricky is going on in ID behaviour. It is simply that in such cases the "design" features become most striking, and the claim that non-intelligent causes alone can explain them appears the most implausible. This does not mean that ID proponents do not see "design" in less celebrated cases. Indeed, most ID proponents that I know of see "design" everywhere in nature. (See Michael Denton's writings, in which there is design from top to bottom in nature; yet Denton still mentions the flagellum and the avian lung and so on as particularly striking cases.) There is no inconsistency here. There is nothing intellectually dishonest about focusing on the most dramatic demonstrations of a principle.

  These are theological arguments. My point was that the inference to God's action is theological NOT scientific. Science can make no such inference.

     4. Darwinism (defined as I've repeatedly defined it here, i.e., Darwinism "in its pure form") claims that the origin of all biological species, systems, structures, organelles, etc. can be explained in terms of the interplay of necessity and chance (natural selection, mutations, etc.), without any reference to intelligent causes. This is either a personal metaphysical requirement of Darwin -- in which case it is not a scientific statement of any kind, and scientists are under no obligation to take it as a working assumption -- or it is a scientific hypothesis. If it is a scientific hypothesis, then it cannot be treated as a necessary truth; it must be regarded as subject to falsification.

  I will not get into the use of the term "Darwinism" which I find completely useless and usually highly abused in the public discussion of evolution. It has its proper historical place, but that is rarely how it is used by the public. I will not use the term.

  To the extent that your are discussing MN, it is an underlying assumption that applies to all of modern natural science. It is not prescriptive but descriptive of how science proceeds. I am unaware of any scientific research, including that by ID advocates, that is not consistent with standard scientific practice and MN.

    7. The rest of Keith Miller's argument is more or less the same as Randy Isaac's. He argues that one cannot infer design without some prior knowledge of the designer or the means. I would like to make two points about this (A) Even if he is right, he still has not established that ID tries to "investigate divine action". Design-inference in ID is not God-inference (all IDers concede that God can be identified with the designer only by non-scientific arguments), and in any case, God's *effects* are not the same as God's invisible *actions*. ID as a theory, therefore, does not "investigate divine action", in any reasonable sense of that phrase. But it makes great theological rhetoric, which is why TE people keep using it. This greatly disappoints me. (B) The argument that prior knowledge of either the designer or the means is required for design detection strikes me as unsound, but to establish that will require a separate post. So I will leave it here for the moment.

  I have addressed this in my previous post. A cause cannot be invoked if its possible actions and limitations are not known. A particular agent cannot be claimed as the cause for an observed effect if the properties of that agent are unknown. A divine agent has no limitations and to appeal to such an agent as a scientific explanation is no explanation at all. It is absolutely indistinguishable from ignorance.

  It is nonsensical from a scientific perspective to speak of identifying "effects" of a causal agent, and yet denying any interest or ability to investigate the action of that agent. Without the connection of a plausible means of causing the observed effect, there is no basis upon which to invoke the agent.

  Also the definition of Intelligent Design given on the webpage of the IDNet is:

  "Intelligent Design is an intellectual movement that includes a scientific research program for investigating intelligent causes and that challenges naturalistic explanations of origins which currently drive science education and research."

  That sounds fairly close to "investigating divine action" to me. To argue that someone is "investigating intelligent causes" without any attempt to understand the "action of the intelligent agent" seems to me unsupportable. Also remember that William Harris is one of the leaders of the IDNet and a coauthor of the prayer study. I don't think that he would be trying to force the distinction that you are making.


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Received on Sat May 23 18:54:01 2009

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