Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Theology and North American ID. Part 1

When Stephen Meyer comes over to the UK why isn’t he speaking to the Faraday Institute and Christians in Science? Something is seriously wrong here.

The above is a video of Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute giving a presentation on Intelligent Design at the Royal Horse Guards Hotel, London. Meyer is part of the same North American ID culture that embraces IDist William Dembski. In many ways I like these people; they are intelligent sensitive scholars of the faith who are prepared to reason and will not hold it against your faith if you disagree with them. They are a far cry from the hardened heretic burning cranks of many a fundamentalist sub-culture. (In this presentation we find Meyer, like Dembski, very anxious to dissociate himself from Young Earthism). Nevertheless, they have still been abused by establishment scientists, Christian and atheist alike. I admire their courage in the face of this abuse, but the fact remains I feel rather ambivalent about the ID movement that Meyer represents. They have a tendency to drift toward the political right, but that may be a consequence of them being rejected by the left-leaning academic establishment. The material in Meyer’s presentation is typical of North American ID in that it assumes, as a matter of course, a “natural processes vs. Intelligent agency” perspective.

I hope I’m not doing an injustice to Meyer’s material, but basically he presents the expected dichotomized paradigm, which in this case is expressed thus:  

The cell is a highly complex replicating molecular machine. We have the vaguest ideas how these replicators came about. Therefore it seems very unlikely that “natural” processes generated them, and our best explanation is that they are a product of intelligence.

Reading between the lines here then it is clear that this is essentially the “God of the gaps” argument in its classic form; a failure in “law and disorder” science to elucidate a problem is made good with a proposed “Intelligent intervention”. We know, of course, that by “intelligent” these IDists are actually thinking “God”.  And this is why I have an issue with North American ID. These IDists are pressing God into the role of a player who us on the stage of the cosmos rather than being an overall choreographer and enabler, both immanent and eminent in respect of the cosmos. In North American ID God has an auxiliary role in creation in that he complements the perceived inadequacies of “natural” Law and Disorder explanations.

Perhaps sensing that the Divine Creator must have a more fundamental role rather than just being a contriver of unlikely configurational boundary conditions, sometimes this brand of ID will suggest that in principle, both philosophically and physically, life could not be generated by a physical regime. The underlying motive here is to show that it is logically impossible for a physical regime to generate life and therefore it is logically necessary for God to contrive the required boundary conditions, “just like that”, as Tommy Cooper used to say. To this end, for example, evolution is sometimes wrongly caricatured by IDists as an attempt to get something for nothing; or in words of one IDist a way of “explaining how the world could have arisen on its own”.  However, evolution, as it is currently understood, is certainly not a logically self-sufficient process. Evolution, if it works, classifies as a highly contingent and “cleverly” selected algorithm for generating life and should not be caricatured using terms loaded with connotation like “materialistic” , “blind”, “random”, “undirected” or “a free lunch”.

As I have said many times before I'm uncomfortable with the North American IDist's "Naturalism vs. Intelligence" dichotomy on several counts; not least on the count that its apparently non-committal introduction of a third category of causation called “intelligence” (which in and of itself is not at all untoward) is, in my view, inappropriate when applied to a Christian God; we are not talking here of an alien applied chemist who created life by tampering with the basic molecular building blocks of our physical regime. As a Christian theist Meyer doesn't believe that the intelligence he is talking about works within the cosmic law and disorder regime as if he were a molecular engineer; rather, Meyer’s belief must be that God is a totalizing entity in Whom the cosmic stage and all that happens on it is immersed. Therefore when we look at “natural processes” there is a sense (although one mustn't take one’s metaphors too literally here) in which we are seeing the creative and sustaining power of God rather than something which can be contrasted over and against Intelligent agency. Given that a Christian God is sovereign manager, choreographer and enabler, then whenever we look at something generated by natural processes we are doing God an injustice if we say natural forces did it.

So-called “natural processes” aren't one half of a “Nature vs. Intelligence” dichotomy but are a manifestation of a Sovereign Management that is intimately bound up with the cosmic substrate.  Yes, it is a truism that there will always be a scientifically unpluggable gap in the sense of there being an irreducible Grand Logical Hiatus that embraces the cosmos everywhere and everywhen. But what Meyers presents us with is, in fact, the old style God of the Gaps scenario whereby the claim that God did it is only plausible up until such a time that someone actually succeeds in explaining OOL in terms of “law and disorder” processes. At which the point (should it ever arise), it will then look as though, according to Meyer’s philosophy, God didn't do it. This is a consequence of North American ID’s tendency to put Divine Intelligence on the same logical level as one might an alien molecular engineer. If you can disprove alien interference in natural history with a good theory of evolution and OOL then perhaps you can disprove God’s “intervention” in biology as well! North American ID shouldn't be so emphatic about Intelligent Design being science, because it is clear that when Intelligent Design becomes bound up with ultimate origins it is an interdisciplinary subject that straddles the boundary of both science and theology.

One often hears the call that ID isn't science. In my opinion it does include science but not hard science: As is always the case when intelligence/personality is involved there is fair measure of inscrutability introduced. I suppose it is conceivable that a sophisticated replicator could be taken as one of nature’s created givens and that a science of evolution of sorts could then proceed on this basis. But as regards OOL the fact is that positing an intelligence of unknown powers, motives and methods introduces a wild card that is clearly not conducive to very tractable science.

OK, so perhaps Meyer and his friends are right, and our selected physical regime is unable to generate even a single cell replicator. If that is true then the science of OOL is not destined to make much progress except perhaps to annotate a description of the workings of the cell with a series of “Wows!”.  ID science, I believe, can’t get a great deal further than that; making predictions based on the guessed motives and methods of a highly alien intelligence is a hazardous business to say the least. But the irony is that if Meyer believes in a Divine Super-Intelligence that is both immanent and eminent in relation to the cosmos this actually subverts the North American case that is inclined to rule out “natural processes” as the generator of life. For if we are talking about Divine intelligence, then presumably that intelligence is great enough to muster the computational resources needed to select a physical regime that can generate life. Tractable science would then be back on the agenda!

In part 2 I will look at some of the specifics of Meyer’s talk, in particular the North American ID community’s proprietary concepts of self-organization and information.

Some previous posts relevant to the above material:

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