Friday, November 22, 2013

Western Dualism in the North American Intelligent Design Community. Part 1

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At the recent Vulnerable Mission conference at Norwich Central Baptist Church (See here for details) I presented a paper which compared and contrasted Western dualism with rural African monism. This paper will in due course be made available.  In the meantime, as an example of Western dualism, I present below the first part of a case study. This case study is based on a post by North American IDist Vincent J Torley which appeared on the “Intelligent Design” (sic) blog Uncommon Descent.

In his post Torley defends his version of Intelligent Design against criticism by Orthodox theologian David Hart. In a previous post by Torley we discover that Hart has thrown out two blanket criticisms of Intelligent Design. These are:
a) ID depends on “gaps” in the natural order  
b) ID also posits a part time God who tinkers on and off with creation.
I can’t answer for Hart, who in any case appears to exclusively (and wrongly) identify the kind of views that Torley typically represents as Intelligent Design - in fact so does Torley himself. This is Torley’s first big mistake: As I once pointed out Christian physicist John Polkinghorne would, if pushed, also claim to be an intelligent design creationist and yet like myself he is loath to align his views with the category of ID that many North American evangelicals promote. However, Hart nevertheless raises criticisms that are similar to my own and this consequently draws Torley out, exposing his dualist philosophy, a philosophy which embeds the false folk dichotomy that can be expressed as:  Either God did it or  Natural forces did it!

Below I’ve taken several quotes from Torley’s long post and point out where I feel his categories are going awry.

Let’s begin with a definition. In its broadest sense, the theory of intelligent design (ID) holds that certain empirically observable features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and that this intelligent cause can be shown to be the best explanation by applying the scientific method in order to rule out rival explanations, such as chance and/or necessity. (I assume that Dr. Hart is thoroughly familiar with Professor Dembski’s explanatory filter, so I won’t elaborate further.)

My Comment: Straightaway Torley is contrasting ID over and against “Law and Disorder” (Law and Disorder – what Torley inappropriately refers to as “chance and necessity”) by declaring them as rival explanations. (See my highlight in the quote from Torley). Dembki’s explanatory filter is partly if not fully to blame here because it polarizes apart Intelligence and Law & Disorder into two rival categories of explanation. Instead L&D should be included in the set of observable features (sic)  that are used to decide whether a meta-intelligence is to be invoked to make sense of those features. Dembki’s filter does work with human and alien intelligence but even here it is arguable that at the most fundamental level it breaks down: If one is an atheist and believes L&D are the primary reality then one is likely to believe that intelligence is only a secondary cause which in turn is itself a product of L&D. So, in short, Torley is already paving the way for a “God did it vs natural forces did it” shoot-out. His polarised categories invite the contrary belief that L&D are primary and not secondary.  Torley should be framing the question not as a choice between God and natural processes but rather as a question of whether the cosmos has features, features which are inclusive of L&D, which connote to us an all-embracing primary creative intelligence.

One obvious objection is that such a Deity might be nothing more than a mere Demiurge, who imposes forms on the cosmos but does not conserve it in existence. But if one could show that the features of the cosmos which indicate a Designer are not merely incidental but essential or defining properties of the cosmos, then it would follow that the cosmos could not exist without those features – in which case, the Designer Who is responsible for those features is also responsible for keeping the cosmos in being……
……So it should certainly be possible for us to determine which properties are its defining properties, and scientifically investigate whether these properties show signs of having been designed. An affirmative answer would mean that the Designer doesn’t merely tinker with the cosmos, but rather, gives it its very identity, and makes it what it is. (Let me add in passing that like many Scholastic philosophers, I consider the notion of a “pure passive potency” underlying all forms to be utterly unintelligible: like Suarez, I hold that even prime matter has a form of some sort.) Hence I see no reason in principle why cosmological Intelligent Design could not take us to a Deity Who maintains the world in being, as opposed to a mere Demiurge who does nothing more than impose his designs on a pre-existing cosmos. Of course, the argument for such a Deity would need to be fleshed out in a mathematically and scientifically rigorous fashion, which is something that has yet to be done.

My Comment: The ID community that Torley represents has only got itself to blame for this concept of the demiurge rearing its ugly head. If you are going to use an explanatory filter which explicitly sets up L&D and God intelligence as two rival explanations then it is a very natural inference that God is a being who works within the natural order as would a demiurge, rather than transcends it If, as Torley puts it, an intelligent cause is a rival explanation to natural forces then this is not at all conducive to the view that this intelligence is active in maintaining (presumably creating) those forces! Torley’s insistence on setting up God as a rival explanation to "natural explanations" leads to a deep intuitive paradox in his theology. As Hart's reaction shows, interpreting the North American ID God as akin to a demiurge is a very easy step to take.

But Dr. Carroll might reply that if naturalism explains the world more parsimoniously than what he calls “the God hypothesis,” then we may provisionally conclude, as a working hypothesis, that naturalism is true. Carroll also contends – and here, I think, he is on shaky ground – that simpler explanations are inherently more likely to be true, other things being equal. On this logic, then, even if we cannot know that naturalism is true, we might reasonably judge it to be likely, or probable.

My comment: Here we see Torley interpreting atheist physicist Sean Carroll to be a user of the same categories as himself, that is the naturalism vs. God hypothesis dichotomy. I can’t speak for Carroll of course, but it is conceivable that one may accept in its entirety the kind of “naturalistic” account of the cosmos offered by Carroll and yet at the same time be an intelligent design creationist. How is this? This is because theism, in its most general form, effectively adds on another layer of metaphysical structure in order to purportedly explain these nomological facts (to use the very words of Sean Carroll as quoted by Torley). That is, theism doesn't necessarily compete with naturalistic histories and processes but rather takes the natural order and embeds it in a higher level theological narrative. Of course, it goes without saying that for Sean Carroll this is, “an unnecessary complication” (quoting Carroll) and so he leaves it rather than takes it. I am not here to discuss Carroll’s views but instead wish to point out the difference between theism as an all-embracing meta-narrative that takes explanation to a whole new level and Torley’s take on theism whereby he habitually perceives “naturalism” as a rival of explanation to his homunculus intelligent design paradigm.  Where Torley has gone wrong is that instead of proposing God intelligence as a competing narrative to natural forces he should be proposing it as a meta narrative which embeds the scientific account of “natural forces”.

Further on in his post Torley quotes Thomas Aquinas:

[D]ivine power can sometimes produce an effect, without prejudice to its providence, apart from the order implanted in natural things by God. In fact, He does this at times to manifest His power. For it can be manifested in no better way, that the whole of nature is subject to the divine will, than by the fact that sometimes He does something outside the order of nature. Indeed, this makes it evident that the order of things has proceeded from Him, not by natural necessity, but by free will.

My Comment: Here Aquinas is of course talking about the miraculous as a discontinuity in the flow of “normalcy”. Now, I’m not going to argue against miracles, but interestingly Torley sees this quote through his polarizing lens:

Here, Aquinas says that God’s power and voluntary agency “can be manifested in no better way … than by the fact that He sometimes does something outside the order of nature.” I conclude that he would have had no qualms whatsoever about appealing to effects that require a supernatural Cause, in order to convince skeptics of God’s existence. The question which then arises is: are there any scientifically observable occurrences within the natural world, which point to its having a supernatural Cause?

My Comment: So Torley is looking for the discontinuities of the miraculous as pointers to the supernatural; fair enough, as we can’t rule out occasional miracles, but what if Torley fails to find them? Would that mean everything is “natural” and therefore there is no supernatural God? These thoughts flow very naturally from Torley’s dualistic thinking which has the effect of setting the supernatural in conflict with the natural.
Torley quotes Hart:

…[T]hose who argue for the existence of God principally from some feature or other of apparent cosmic design… have not advanced beyond the demiurgic picture of God. By giving the name ‘God’ to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could some day genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek…

My Comment: This argument by Hart follows if the role of God is one of being an explanatory stopgap; that is, as an explanation to fill the gaps not currently covered by Law and Disorder explanations. This God-of-the-gaps God is indeed in danger of being explained away. The fact that the North American ID community have staked so much on the idea that Law and Disorder are in principle insufficient to generate life means that their role for God faces this threat. But having said that Hart doesn’t tell us that if science should ever be in the position of providing a complete L&D description of nature, then the properties and qualities of the cosmos would include some very extraordinary laws; those laws are extraordinary by virtue of the computational complexity needed to locate a suite of laws capable of generating life in what is in fact a short algorithmic time. The upshot is that this still flags an intelligent design alert, albeit at the meta level rather than the competing alternative explanation level proposed by Torley.

At some stage, we reach an ultimate mathematical framework which explains how the multiverse works. If even this framework exhibits features which indicate design, then the design must be an essential feature of the cosmos, rather than a merely incidental one.

My Comment: I’m inclined to agree with Torley here: My main difference with Torley and his de-facto ID community is that they are staking too much on a belief that an L&D physical regime is in principle incapable of generating life, a belief which has the knock-on-effect of setting God against his own physical regime.
But having said I agree with Torley that attempts to press the L&D paradigm further by trying to explain our own L&D physical regime in terms of a higher level L&D regime (such as a multiverse) simply leads to a turtles all the way down regress.. There is no way in which the universe can be explained with trivial truisms even if one resorts to multiverse theory. Whichever way one tries to skin it, peculiar and contingent conditions have to be assumed as a starting point in one’s theory. So, in as much as we are faced with the inescapable truism that our theories of the cosmos will always start with non-trivial conditions this will invite a design meta-narrative, and in this respect I would certainly agree with Torley. (Ref: See here and here).

Torley quotes Hart as follows:

For Thomas Aquinas, for instance, God creates the order of nature by infusing the things of the universe with the wonderful power of moving themselves toward determinate ends; he uses the analogy of a shipwright able to endow timbers with the power into develop in to a ship without external intervention.

My Comment: To me this is at odds with what Hart has already said; namely that one can’t appeal to this or that particular cosmic feature or property as suggesting a need for a design meta narrative. In fact here Hart seems to be appealing to the observed fruitfulness of the physical regime to generate life as evidence of God’s work, which to me looks like a design feature prompting a design meta narrative! This paradox may have arisen because Hart, like other Westerners such as Torley, have two distinct categories when they should have one; that is Hart, like Torley sees the power of God in contradistinction to the innate power of nature.
However, Hart tries to square the circle by suggesting that this innate natural power has been outsourced to nature by God himself. This, I suppose, is better than Torley who, like the rest of his ID community sees the power nature as a rival explanation to God. But somehow Hart’s view still feels a little wrong. If nature is sufficiently endowed to generate life it would be a product of the patterns imposed by the cosmic L&D regime that run it. That L&D regime doesn’t look to me like some innate animistic power because this regime is a statement of pattern rather than innate power and has more the character of a transcendent object controlling nature. To me this is suggestive of God’s ever present immanent power rather an innate “natural” power. Perhaps I’m making too fine a distinction, here! But be that as it may, it remains clear to me that Torley and his Christian subculture are promoting a problematic paradigm, as we shall continue to see.

…to be continued

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