An ally on rhetorical science

One of the best chapters in Debating Design is that by Michael Roberts. That is because he’s capable of seeing the weaknesses both of those to whom he is sympathetic and those he opposes.

It’s a little difficult to parse where he stands in the “culture wars”, and that’s probably a good thing: he opposes both ID and Creationism, but hints at the weaknesses he finds in unguided evolution, whether materialist of theist. In fact the introductory chapter says he refuses to be identified with any strand of theistic evolution, though he clearly wishes his science to be rigorous. So I think he’d make for an interesting discussion partner, even though I’m sure I’d disagree on a lot, not least his rather censorious attitude (outside the chapter) towards allowing Creationists to speak in schools. This, quite incidentally, reminds me of the 16th and 17th century bishops, many of whom I admire, who had a tendency to turn conformity (over square hats, for example) into persecution. Surely it’s better, in the public arena, to argue “You’ve heard what this man has to say, and this is why it’s mistaken,” rather than, “We don’t let that sort in here, because this is kind of nonsense they’d say…”  Followers of the evolution culture wars will be familiar with the latter approach, and my one beef with Roberts in this chapter is that he misrepresents the actual position of ID, as I’ll briefly mention later.

On the whole, though the great strength of his chapter is in presenting a balanced historical account of the arguments over design in science and theology. It really is helpful to have a careful scholar debunking the myth of both secularists and Creationists that prior to Darwin all Christians were 7-day Creationists. In setting up that background (which it’s not my purpose to go into here) he gives great insight into the path that led to the current entrenched positions in the debate on origins.

A major focus of his treatment is the rhetoric of much of the discussion from the very beginning, a rhetoric that he sees as the fatal central weakness of Intelligent Design. Indeed, he sees ID as essentially a rhetorical position, a conclusion that I’d question in its absolutism, although it clearly has some basis in truth. What makes his case valuable is that he even-handedly demonstrates that the rhetoric started with Darwin, pointing out that the “ordinary view of creation” which he attacks in the Origin is a straw man, since “six-day creationism had virtually disappeared by 1855.”

I could have wished that Michael had also emphasised the degree of rhetoric employed by ID’s antagonists not only in the current scientific community, but amongst theistic evolutionists, as amply demonstrated in earlier chapters of the book and in my last few posts. This is demonstrated by a particularly telling argument he directs at Michael Behe, but which, in my opinion, would be better aimed at the currently prevalent theistic evolution position.

Roberts picks on Behe’s statement that “[if] a biological structure can be explained in terms of those natural laws, then we cannot conclude that it was designed.” So Behe, he says, attributes the blood-clotting cascade to design, but not haemoglobin. Roberts then recalls thinking of that whilst climbing in the Alps, he mused that his ability to scramble up to the summit at high altitude, dependent on non-designed haemoglobin, was not God-given. However, should he fall, the clotting of his wounds would be the result of God’s design. Then he goes on to wonder whether the awesome, but chaotic landscape before him was designed, or merely awesome and wonderful (his final conclusion being, however, not quite clear!).

The illustration is very instructive, though I think unfairly applied to Behe. As far as I know, not least from his own chapter in the same book, his position is that design is most likely to have been somehow front-loaded in the evolutionary process from the beginning, contrary to Roberts claim that “ultimately, Intelligent Design demands that one believes that atoms can flash into living tissue.” Conservatively, Behe appears happy that natural selection can account for much of evolution – and though he doesn’t spell it out, that does not preclude design – but that NS can’t account for his irreducibly complex systems, which are therefore evidence for design.

William Dembski, in his own chapter, spells out more plainly still that lack of demonstrable evidence for design does not imply lack of design, but only the limitations of his design filter in letting through false negatives. To my mind, the cautious limitations on the methodology of both Behe and Dembski should be congratulated rather than misinterpreted as a two-tier view of creation.

Another of the very positive insights Roberts brings to us is the system of classification of views on divine action formulated by R Hooykaas back in the sixties (and sadly out of print). These categories are atheism, deism, semi-deism, supernaturalism … and the biblical view. Amen to all that – both Michael and I would I think be able to agree largely on what the biblical view is, and on the fact that we both espouse it in contrast to the others. The terms are, I think, self-explanatory in the context of current discussions except, perhaps, for semi-deism, which I’ve mentioned before, which is the belief that God generally leaves nature to run itself, but occasionally intervenes. This view Roberts attributes firmly to ID. As I’ve suggested, I think that’s unfair (though it does apply to some lesser supporters of ID on, say Uncommon Descent). It’s surprising that he makes less mention of the rampant semi-deism in theistic evolution, to which attention has been drawn by David Willcox, by R J Russell in his term “statistical deism”, and in previous chapters of Debating Design itself. He mentions Howard van Till’s pejorative term “punctuated naturalism,” but fails to point out how van Till’s own disciples have adopted it wholesale.

As I have described of several of the TE authors in recent posts, a mainstay of their case is that (a) God couldn’t have designed the things we see in nature that are defective or evil and (b) that he must leave creation free to self-create or be a tyrant. Yet in, say, Polkinghorne, amongst others, the necessity of God’s involvement in creation in any form of theism is stressed, so that quantum events for example might, in an unstated proportion of cases, be controlled by God (is that not a bit like saying that “atoms can flash into living tissue”?)

I agree with Michael that to attribute blood-clotting to God’s purpose and to leave haemoglobin out of it is bizarre and untheological: are we not to give thanks to God for our good aerobic condition on mountains, for our healing if we are injured and the sublimity of the landscape we view? And does that not imply that his will and purpose are present in all, whatever secondary causes he may have used to produce them? If not, worship is entirely inappropriate, or even idolatrous.

But equally, is it not absurd to praise God for the fact that I have teeth to deal effectively with the many things I receive from his hand to eat, yet attribute my wisdom teeth to some other creator for cursing? Is it not ridiculous to thank God for the Escherischia coli that facilitate the function of my digestive tract to benefit from that same food, but to attribute the pathogenic E. coli that put my child into hospital as being from some other source? Is that not just as much a two-tier creation as that Michael Roberts attributes to Michael Behe?

Semi-deism is destructive of practical faith, whether it is propounded by ID people or Creationists. But it is far more prevalent, in my opinion, in theistic evolution, and at a deeper and more damaging level, too. Behe may, arguably, agree that God has given some leeway to the evolutionary process to operate under natural law. But never, as far as I can see, does he pit evolution against God as TEs do, consigning vast swathes of nature to error and evil. That kind of semi-deism is actually dualism.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to An ally on rhetorical science

  1. James says:

    Hi, Jon.

    I agree with you here. It is a common mistake of TE critics of ID to try to drive a wedge between “designed” and “not-designed” things and to try to embarrass ID folks by suggesting that this distinction denies the divine involvement in a large part of creation. But there is no basis in ID theory for this. ID theory doesn’t say that the only designed things in the universe are those to which design detection methods apply. ID is consistent with the view that the fall of every sparrow and the shape of every blade of grass is designed. But in the majority of cases such design cannot be *demonstrated*. So ID writers naturally focus on things like the flagellum, the cardiovascular system, the eye, etc., where they think the design can be demonstrated.

    Why do they focus on what can be demonstrated? For the same reason that Paley did. If the goal is to disprove the thesis that all that we see arose by chance interactions of matter, one only needs a few solid demonstrations of design — in fact, strictly speaking, one needs only one. This is why Dawkins, etc. are always at pains to attack *every* ID example and show that it is invalid. If even *one* ID argument survives examination, then to that extent the world is not the product of chance and natural laws alone. And of course Dawkins’s camp cannot tolerate that conclusion, because of its extraneous religious (i.e., anti-religious) motivations.

    In short, people like Roberts are mistaking an argumentative strategy of Paley and ID people for a theological statement about God’s non-involvement in some parts of nature.

    As for your further comments, I agree that semi-deism is much more common among TEs than among ID or creationist people. I’ve said over and over again that TEs are deeply shaped by the Enlightenment. Even when they rage against certain aspects of the Enlightenment — e.g., they criticize Hume’s rejection of miracles — their rejection of the Enlightenment is highly selective; they in fact embrace about 90% of it. And that goes hand-in-hand with their non-traditional understanding of the Bible. Once Enlightenment premises are accepted, one *can’t* read the Bible in a traditional way any longer. One can at best create an Enlightenment-Christian hybrid, a modern philosophy-religion which tries to affirm human autonomy and Christian humility side-by-side.

    I wouldn’t mind this so much if TEs would come out and say that Christianity has to change with the times, and that the Enlightenment made Christianity better by forcing it to drop some bad parts of itself. That would at least be consistent. What is most irksome is that they represent a half-secular Christianity as faithful to what the Bible and tradition has been all along. Whether this springs from actual intellectual dishonesty on their part (concealing their disagreement with parts of the Bible and the tradition in order to appeal to evangelicals who reverence both), or only from intellectual confusion (not grasping the fundamental conflict between the spirit of the 18th century and the spirit of the Gospels), it’s constantly irritating.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi James

      I guess the same Enlightenment baggage is common to many. Creationism, of course, has an unconscious view of “what God did” as opposed to “what just happened”, or it would be unlikely to react so badly to the whole concept of evolution. And as I said above, it’s probably only because “rank and file” ID persons tend to avoid theology that they don’t lapse more often into saying that bits of nature weren’t designed. Some of them, taking the “it needn’t be Yahweh” theme seriously, are happy even to talk about the Designer doing bad design.

      But I do think the main ID exponents make their point of view pretty clear, so that the more interesting thing is why their opponents are so often blinded by their own rhetoric.

      I concentrate on TEs (a) because that’s my position, (b) because they so often seem blind to their being pots calling kettles black and (c) because as the position most publicly committed to bringing good science and good theology together, it’s more surprising that they fall into traps they ought to recognise.

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