Re: [asa] on science and meta-science

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Mon Nov 09 2009 - 16:29:54 EST


I have been trying to distinguish, in all my posts, between the question of miracles and the question of design. But no matter how many careful qualifications I put in my posts, I seem to be misunderstood. I do not know the cause of this, as often the people who are misunderstanding me are quite intelligent, and should be able to grasp my meaning. Perhaps the answer lies in the difference between scientific and philosophical training, or perhaps it lies elsewhere. In any case, I shall try one last time, and in my answer I will address not only your remarks below, and not even primarily your remarks below, but a whole set of "allied remarks" which have been made over the last several months, by others as well as yourself.

Natural science is the study of nature by means of observation, experiment, and reason. It attempts to explain why nature behaves in the way that it does, or why nature shows the features that it does. In doing so, it speaks of "causes". The dispute I have with the people on this list is not primarily over miracles [when I raise the subject of miracles (as in the paragraph you quote) it is over a separate issue, i.e., the inconsistency of TEs regarding Biblical miracle], but over a narrow and intellectually crippling understanding of "cause".

The TEs here (or most of them) continue to insist that any notion of design is out of court for science. They lump in design with religious belief in God, or else (in an even greater confusion) with notions of "ultimate purpose", or "meaning" or "value". "Design", as ID theorists proper mean the term (when they are acting not as lobbyists at school board meetings, but a thinkers doing their proper theoretical work), has nothing to do with ultimate purpose, meaning, or value, and it is not particularly connected with God, except indirectly, insofar as it happens to be unlikely that the designer of the fundamental laws of nature could be anyone other than God.

In design theory, intelligent design is just as much a "cause" of a natural event or phenomenon as gravity, friction, etc. are. It is a real contributing factor, one not necessarily requiring miracles (disruptions of nature) but quite possibly operative within the realm of nature. The architect who designs a house is not a supernatural being, but is *every bit* as much the "cause" of the house's existence as are the material factors (wood, nails) and the efficient causes (cranes, workmen). You cannot explain, in natural terms, the existence of the house without positing an architect. (Even if there is not an actual architect, and the crew is putting up the house by sheer experience, without a blueprint, there is a *de facto* architectural plan guiding the construction.)

What the design theorists are saying is that you cannot explain nature, even on the scientific level, with the methods of Dawkins and Coyne. Dawkins and Coyne insist that no final causality is necessary, only efficient and material causality, to explain *every* phenomenon in nature. Design theorists say that they are wrong. Design theorists say that nature, *as Dawkins and Coyne conceive it to be*, does not have the power to arrange itself in the manner that they suppose. Therefore, if macroevolution is a fact, then nature must be something other than what Dawkins and Coyne conceive it to be. That leaves open at least two broad explanatory options, one involving no miracles -- the option that nature is "rigged" to produce life and species (Denton, and apparently Conway Morris) -- and the other involving miracles, with some sort of artificer playing some sort of efficient-cause role (as some DI folk and many grass roots ID people believe).

Because there are two options possible, design theorists might say that "a particular event or process was a direct *or indirect* result of God's action", where by "indirect result" they have in mind wholly naturalistic processes which produce integrated complexity (e.g., "front-loading"). But too often people here, in criticizing ID, have in effect shortened your remark to "a particular event or process was a direct result of God's action". Behe does not claim that. Denton does not claim that. Sternberg does not claim that. In the three theoretical books I have read by Dembski (I haven't read his apologetics books, so I make no comment on them), Dembski doesn't claim that, either. ID has never claimed to be able to pinpoint single actions of God. Rather, ID infers the activity of a designer from patterns in nature. Just as one cannot look at a shingle on the roof of a house, and say, "Aha! That shingle could only have got there if there was an architect" (false, since the wind might have blown it up there and some gummy substance might accidentally have fixed it in that position), but *can* look at an entire house and say, "Aha! That house could only have got there if there was an architect" (true), so also ID infers a cosmic architect from the patterns in the phenomena.

I am fully aware that the limitations inherent in science are not limitations of God. But modern science, as championed on this list, has other limitations besides its inability to speak of God. It is actually unable to give a coherent account of many aspects of the world even on the purely natural plane, because it rejects notions of final causality. The rejection of final causality in science was a deliberate choice made by early modern philosophers. They expected that it would bring great dividends in understanding and, most of all, in power over nature (Descartes, Bacon). They were right; it did. But much was sacrificed, including the possibility of a balanced and comprehensive account of nature. If you look through at the world through a green lens, all the world appears green. If your only tool is a hammer, you are going to be inclined to think of the whole world as a pile of nails. Modern science in effect looks at nature through green lenses and approaches it with hammers, and it gains in power by losing in comprehensiveness. This loss was not evident when modern science mainly concerned itself with moving bodies; there, clearly, the modern analysis was superior to the ancient analysis. But when the subject is life, the modern analysis flounders. Determined to find a mechanistic explanation for evolution (albeit a more complicated one these days than the one Darwin proposed, but still along the same lines), and for the origin of life (again along similar lines), modern science (as understood on this list, anyway) will not consider the evidence for teleology that is staring it right in the face. And that is sheer, pig-headed stubbornness. It shows an inflexible determination to make nature fit our interpretive methods, when the proper thing to do is to expand our repertoire of interpretive methods in order to understand nature. And I repeat: expanding our interpretive methods to include final causation does not logically entail admitting miracles.

If the TEs here wish to reject final causation from science, then fine; I understand their reasons (sacrificing intelligibility and comprehensiveness for consistency of method and technological fruits) even if I don't agree with them. But I cannot abide this constant repetition of entirely false claims, i.e., that belief in final causation implies belief in miracles, and that ID, in its theoretically proper form, claims to be able to pinpoint direct actions of God. Such claims betray a desire to argue against straw men. As Flew said when he criticized Dawkins, the job of a thinker is to criticize your opponent's position at its strongest, not at its weakest. Many of the objections to ID here are not aimed at ID at its strongest, and therefore are of no intellectual value.

A fair argument against ID, aimed at ID at its strongest, would be a demonstration that stochastic processes alone can explain the origin of life, the origin of new body plans, etc. If such demonstrations are ever produced, then ID is dead. But at the moment such demonstrations are far away.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Keith Miller
  Sent: Monday, November 09, 2009 1:44 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] on science and meta-science

  Cameron wrote:

    I don't believe that this conception is *entirely* accounted for by empirical evidence, i.e., evidence that God has acted in nature only through natural laws. When it comes to origins, we are, for the most part, in the dark about how God chose to act. Yet most TEs have a strong *preference* for a naturalistic explanation of origins. And the source of this preference is not scientific but metaphysical. This is why I have a hard time accepting the criticism of ID from TE quarters which says that ID people confound the scientific and the metaphysical, thus doing damage to both science and theology. As far as I can see, TE is based on a metaphysical preference -- that, outside of a few (in the case of some TEs, *very* few) Biblical miracles, God always acts and always has acted exclusively through natural causes. Given this preference, TE people are in no position to accuse ID people of contaminating the objective study of nature by imposing metaphysical requirements upon it.

  You seem to be confusing assumptions that are necessary for the doing of science, with broader claims about reality. As I have been saying, science as a discipline simply cannot test whether or not a particular event or process was a direct or indirect result of God's action. Science attempts to discover the cause-and-effect actions of physical agents and measurable forces (the properties of energy and matter). Science will continue to pursue the discovery of such cause-and-effect processes when none are currently known. Such unanswered questions are what drive scientific research.

  But, this limitation does not apply to one's broader metaphysical worldview. As I have stated, I have no theological objection to God acting in ways that break the continuing of cause-and-effect processes (although such times must be rare in order for the created universe to behave in a generally predictable and understandable fashion). It is just that science cannot resolve such questions.

  The limitations inherent in science are in no way a limitation of God.


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Received on Mon Nov 9 16:30:26 2009

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