Thursday, April 27, 2006

Is Intelligent Design Distinguishable from Deism?

SOURCE: Dispatches from the Culture Wars

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

There is a very interesting thread at Dispatches from the Culture Wars on the difficulty (and importance) of distinguishing between deism and "intelligent design theory (IDT)." Specifically, there is a long discussion between several posters on whether IDT is fundamentally different from “theistic evolutionary theory (TET)” (which is, IMO, indistinguishable from simple deism).

In particular, several of the posters have argued that if IDT and TET are equivalent, then there is literally no science in IDT at all. That is, if God (remember, as I have posted earlier, it’s easier and more intellectually honest to type "God" than “the intelligent designer”) created the universe with just exactly the right set of natural laws that things like the bacterial flagellum could have evolved by purely natural processes alone (i.e. without further supernatural intervention), then that version of IDT is indistinguishable from deism (DEI). In that event, both would be entirely without scientific value, since both IDT and DEI would thereby accept the operation of all natural laws as both necessary and sufficient to produce all natural objects and processes.*

This means that if we are to distinguish between IDT and DEI (and, by extension, from TET) it must be incontrovertably shown that natural laws as they now exist are insufficient to produce existing natural objects and processes. As many others have pointed out, this requires proving a negative. That is, unless we assume that all currently known natural laws are literally all there are or even can be (as Lord Kelvin infamously did at the end of the 19th century), then it is possible that in the future new versions of purely natural laws will be discovered that can explain the existence of those entities now claimed to be possible only through supernatural intervention.

This, of course, leads to all kinds of logical fallacies, chief among them the problem of “supernatural incompetence.” If IDT = DEI = TET, then God is indeed omnipotent and can create natural laws that make the evolution of all natural entities possible without further intervention. In that case, IDT, DEI, and TET are indistinguishable from each other and none add anything of use to the generally accepted methods and principles of empirical science. This means that nothing more need be said about them by scientists, and we can go on doing science (including evolutionary biology) the way we have been doing up until now.

However, if IDT is not DEI nor TET, then perforce God must not be omnipotent. That is, He cannot create a set of natural laws that can in the fullness of time produce the objects and processes we observe around us.

Therefore, it seems to me that there are only two logical positions to take on this subject:**

1) God is omnipotent and therefore created the universe with natural laws of sufficient power and subtlety to allow purely natural processes to produce all natural objects (and therefore IDT is unnecessary).


2) God is not omnipotent and therefore cannot create a universe in which natural laws are sufficient to produce all natural objects and processes. This means that God (who is, by definition, incompetent) must intervene at specific times and places to alter nature in direct contravention of His originally created (and incompletely effective) natural laws.

These two positions have obvious and devastating implications for theology as well:

If (1) is the case, then God is only relevent to nature during it creation. From then on, He does not participate in it in any material way (and therefore prayer is useless, as all intercession by God violates His original created order), or

If (2) is the case, then God has left incontrovertable evidence of both His existence and actions in the structure of nature itself, and therefore faith is no longer necessary (and both justification and salvation through faith are pointless).


*It also seems that this version of deism is indistinguishable from what some ID theorists (including Michael Behe) are now referring to as "front-loaded" IDT (FLIDT). That is,


all of which are irrelevent for and useless to science.

**Alert readers may notice that there is a third option: God is omnipotent, but chooses to create a universe in which His natural laws are insufficient to produce all natural objects and processes without his intervention. This strongly implies that God is either meddlesome or capricious (or both), conclusions that I suspect would not be palatable to most ID theorists, deists, or theistic evolutionists.

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At 4/28/2006 05:04:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All those theories being about the relation of G. (I'll use this demure designation) to natural laws as such, they would in fact pertain to G.ology, a discipline quite similar to theology. If this is the case, your first alternative might count on the theologically well-established doctrine of G.'s knowledge of future contingents: when G. creates this contingent world, G. already knows that on a certain planet etc. As a matter of fact, since hints exist that the universe has had a history, to maintain that its own ways can't produce its present state, requires that the Intelligent but Unpretentious G. is prepared since the beginning to actively meddle with natural processes; but this, in turn, is simply part of the steady creating action that G. is anyway required to exert on its finite and thus inherently insufficient creatures --not so far from certain tenets of British latitudinarian theology in the age of Newton. So the difference between various forms of G.ism is available, but it is to be defined on the basis of theological issues. Theories that must be discriminated on the basis of theological issues don't seem to belong to natural science, even if they deal with its results within the field of natural G.ology, or natural theology. But of course some centuries later their historical study might be fascinating.

At 4/28/2006 01:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Do you see this discussion as somehow relevant to your planned course?

"This means that if we are to distinguish between IDT and DEI (and, by extension, from TET) it must be incontrovertably shown that natural laws as they now exist are insufficient to produce existing natural objects and processes."

Why must it be incontrovertibly shown? Is incontrovertible proof the scientific standard?

In what way is Darwinism distinguishable from Deism and TET?

I guess I don't really understand your interest in this and would like to know why it is even relevant. Aren't these all theological issues? Is the real question at issue whether ID can be distinguished from theology?


At 4/28/2006 01:21:00 PM, Blogger David said...

I don’t think I have read such a poorly written essay in, well, months. Where to begin?

“However, if IDT is not DEI nor TET, then perforce God must not be omnipotent. That is, He cannot create a set of natural laws that can in the fullness of time produce the objects and processes we observe around us.”

That’s an idiotic statement. If God chose to be interventionist (IDT), it does not demand that He was incapable of arranging everything through suitable initial conditions. You can not conclude that he is not omnipotent, you can only conclude that if he is omnipotent, it pleased him to operate in the manner that he did.

To state that the “two logical possibilities” that you describe comprise a complete set is absolutely fatuous. You must have (at least) a third, namely, God is omnipotent but he chose to intervene in creation. Why? That doesn’t matter—there needn’t be a why—the possibility is self-evident. But maybe he simply wanted to create discontinuities.

Since your premise is flawed—not just a little but fatally—any conclusions you reached regarding the consequences for theology are meaningless.

Even accepting you faulty premise, just for the sake of argument, you make additional mistakes—that is your argument from false premises is not even self-consistent. You write:

“and therefore [if ID is correct] faith is no longer necessary (and both justification and salvation through faith are pointless).”

This would only be a remotely justifiable conclusion if faith meant “blind faith.” But biblical faith does not mean blind faith, so evidence of design, if it exists, would be consistent with biblical faith and with God as revealed in scripture.

Here is a little reminder that blind faith is never called for—and that God does not shy away from offering physical proof:

• In the book of Judges, Gideon asks for multiple physical proofs that God was God. The proofs were given. The bible does not contain a footnote that reads: “and Gideon, after serving his military purpose, was cursed for demanding proof.”

• When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God complied with the request. The bible does not contain a footnote that reads: “And Moses’ inability to rely solely on blind faith is the real reason he wasn’t allowed into the Promised Land.”

• Psalm 19 teaches that the heavens declares God’s glory. The bible does not contain a footnote that reads: “but only as a crutch for the weak-minded.”

• When Jesus forgave the sins of a lame man, he then healed the man. Instead of containing a footnote that reads: “and for those who required the latter, let them be anathema,” the bible reads that Jesus said it was so we may know the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins.

• When Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. He showed them he was flesh and blood, and that he could even eat. The bible does not contain a footnote that reads: “and their rewards in heaven were diminished because they relied on physical proof rather than blind faith.”

• Paul writes, in the letter to the Romans, that since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. The bible doesn’t have a footnote that reads: “but pay attention to that evidence at your own peril.” Instead, Paul adds that the reason for this (scientific data) is so that men are without excuse.

• Even in the case of “doubting” Thomas, where Jesus allows Thomas to examine His wounds, and even though Jesus blesses those who believe without seeing, the bible does not contain a footnote that reads: “and Thomas was cast out for his reliance on proof.”

This idea that ID would render faith unnecessary does not, of course, originate with you. I have seen it many times—always from people who don’t know what they are talking about—who think that faith means believing without seeing.

At 4/28/2006 08:13:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

EP wrote:

"Theories that must be discriminated on the basis of theological issues don't seem to belong to natural science..."

Indeed, and this is yet another reason why ID theory is not, properly speaking, part of science either. As I tried to point out (apparently not quite successfully), when an explanation that necessarily requires the existence (if not outright participation) of a supernatural entity is proposed for an apparently natural process (such as common descent or the origin of adaptations), then the inferred (and inferable) properties and propensities of such an entity become fair game.

If I understand Dembski's "explanatory filter" (EF) and Behe's "irreducible complexity" (IRC) correctly, both strongly imply that active intervention by a supernatural entity (i.e. "God") is necessary to create IRC entities and adaptations. Therefore, one may legitimately ask why such a supernatural entity is not capable of creating a universe in which such intervention is not necessary. Alternatively, one may ask why such an entity chose to create a universe so deficient in "natural" function that His intervention would necessarily be required to bring about the creation of IRC and adaptations.

Implicit in both questions is a commentary on the qualities of such a supernatural entity and His motivations, which (although not usually considered to fall within the purview of science) must necessarily be considered if a theory that requires the active intervention of such an entity is to be somehow included in what we think of as science.

And so, once again, we come back to the problems of mechanisms (i.e. by what mechanism has God intervened in the creation of IRC and adaptations) and of empirical testability. Michael Behe has said that these were accomplished by "a puff of smoke" (see ) - not a particularly testable hypothesis. Neither Dembski nor Behe has suggested any method of empirically testing any mechanism by which either of these could be accomplished (and Dembski has said that such "dirty work" is the responsibility of evolutionary biologists, not ID theorists).

At 4/28/2006 08:19:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

In response to David:

Your response to my original post is exactly the kind of evidence one would need to show that ID theory is not science at all, but rather a peculiar (and probably pernicious) form of theology. I attempted (in my own rather incompetent way) to outline the necessary logical connections between the metaphysical implications of ID theory and science. What I got in return was quotations from the Bible. Is it really necessary for me to point out that this cannot possibly be related to either logic or science in any meaningful way?

At 4/29/2006 07:17:00 AM, Blogger David said...


“Your response to my original post is exactly the kind of evidence one would need to show that ID theory is not science at all, but rather a peculiar (and probably pernicious) form of theology”

That’s fine—I’ll point out that I never stated (here or elsewhere) that ID is science, so I’m not sure what your point is.

It was your post that attempted, rather poorly, to prove that ID is incompatible with God’s omnipotence. My comment had nothing to do with science, it simply pointed out the obvious: regardless of whether ID is correct, it is not incompatible with God’s omnipotence.

As for the bible verses, they demonstrate the error of your secondary point, that ID would be a theological problem because (I’m paraphrasing) it weakened reliance on faith. You have a misconception about what faith means—equating it more or less to “believing without evidence”. The verses demonstrate that such a faith is not called for and that ID would not be inconsistent with the kinds of physical evidence God is known to have provided.

At 4/29/2006 10:35:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

One more comment from me on this issue:

Michael Behe has asserted that acceptance by scientists of his doctrine of "irreducible complexity" would save them a lot of unnecessary work (sorry, couldn't find the exact reference), since they would no longer have to find natural explanations for something that had only a supernatural explanation.

It would be difficult to imagine something more antithetical to the spirit of empirical science. In 1900, Lord Kelvin stated "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement" (and five years later, Albert Einstein published his paper on special relativity, revolutionizing physics). If evolutionary biologists were to take Behe's advise, we would be in approximately the same position as Lord Kelvin: that is, at the brink of massive voluntary stupidity. Natural science has progressed only insofar as it has not accepted statements and theories like Behe's, but has continued to search for empirically verifiable naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. ID theory does just the opposite: it asserts (on the basis of virtually no empirical evidence) that such a search is both unnecessary and unwise. This isn't science, it's quite literally anti-science.

As to the "God-of-the-gaps" argument (GOG), that is precisely what Behe and Dembski's arguments are. Again, to assert that natural objects and processes have supernatural causes (and therefore cannot be explained with reference to known natural laws) is to make any further attempt to find such natural causes unnecessary. This is nothing more than an attempt to preserve the gaps in the GOG argument, so as to retain some tiny domain for the influence of the kind of pitiful naturalistic deity they seem to be committed to defending.

At 5/01/2006 01:34:00 AM, Blogger James said...

Hi Allen,

Thankyou for your helpful comments.

I feel that the standards you raise against supernatural agents would count against entities in physics as well.
When physicists encounter an unexplainable phenomenon they postulate a particle to explain it - for example Fermi's postulation of the Little Neutrino. Little Neutrinos cannot be seen or touched, and if I remember correctly they have next to no mass. We only infer their existence quite indirectly, through their interactions with other particles.

There are strong parallels between Fermi's postulation of the little neutrino and the ID postulation of God. ID theorists postulate an intangible entity which can only be tested indirectly - God - to explain a phenomenon which at present is unexplainable.

It seems to me that your GOG argument will always apply when a new entity is postulated or a paradigm shift occurs - there is always the worry that maybe the new hypothesis is unnecessary and that the old one was better or that the phenomenon which we explained by postulating a particle can be explained in other ways.

James (undergraduate student studying philosophy and mathematics)

At 5/02/2006 05:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just one thing, David. Faith means acceptance without evidence. The bible quotes you cite are just bible quotes. The bible itself claims to have been written by God, essentially. That being the case, trusting it is clearly flawed. It's like trusting that a person has some given skill based on their say-so. We don't do that, instead we require them to perform some task using the skill, or supply confirmation from other people who know that our candidate possesses the skill. Using the words of the bible, when it is a self-proclaimed expert on events that are purely historical in nature, is using the wrong (and an inferior) source. Evidence that is part of a written historical record is the correct place to draw from when conclusions about events in biblical times are needed. These sources are confirmed and re-confirmed through peer review and are therefore trustworthy. The bible has none of that credibility. You cannot attempt to prove the existence of god using the words of the bible. That's just a ridiculous illogical thing to do.


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