My Journey to the Heart of ID, part 2

Protein_foldOriginally published 10/9/2013. Part 2 of 3.

In this installment of my series on intelligent design (ID) I want to delve into why there is so much confusion in discussions about ID. Sadly, as I introduced in the previous post, there is a tremendous amount of controversy surrounding ID. One of the meta-narratives used to inform several myths about ID is its relationship to religion in general and Christianity in particular. Critics, both atheists and Christian, make some fundamental errors in their thinking to support their ideas about ID and Christianity.

Ignoring distinctions between different fields of study.

There are three different fields of study or disciplines that are conflated in this discussion: theology, science and philosophy. In doing so, important distinctions about these different fields are lost. Obviously these three disciplines are vast covering a myriad of different topics. What I am driving at is a more common sense notion of the three disciplines.

Theology, especially within Christian circles, can have various meanings. What I think is relevant here is the study of God as revealed in religious texts, for example the Bible. Christianity has a long tradition of thinking that God has revealed himself in the natural world (the book of nature, or in centuries past natural theology) and in the Bible (the book of scripture). The book of nature provides arguments and evidence for the existence of God from creation. The book of scripture explicitly claims that God is the Creator and that we should expect to find evidence of His handiwork. Do pay attention to how modest these claims are. Science is a modern invention, and thus we do not find anything like the modern scientific enterprise in the Bible. Rather, there are simply two sources of revelation answering a question that mankind has contemplated since the ancient Greeks. Is a mind behind the cosmos?

Science has many different meanings to many different worldviews. In this context I am simply referring to the natural sciences (e.g. physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) that seek to explain and understand how the natural world works. However, many purveyors of materialism attempt to define science in a very narrow way. In short, the material world is all that is real and consequently the only real knowledge that is possible to acquire comes from science.[1] Among the many reasons why such a view should be treated with suspicion is the basis for this view of knowledge. It is not the result of anything anyone would call science. It is merely an a priori assumption about reality. It cannot be demonstrated by the scientist, it can only be debated and developed by the philosopher of science.

This leads me to the third discipline that is conflated in these discussions. I contend that philosophy is unique from the other disciplines in two important ways. First, philosophy is the backdrop or foundation to almost all forms of human knowledge. This might sound strange to those who have never studied philosophy. One might wonder, “I have knowledge, I know that I know things. How did I do that without philosophy?” I would simply point out that philosophy is something that everyone does, and every area of human knowledge and action is ultimately better understood when one understands some basic aspects of philosophy. Second, philosophy is the realm where the nature or boundaries of other disciplines are discussed. For example, the nature of science is the subject of the philosophy of science. In short, philosophy provides the tools that define the boundaries between and interactions among disparate disciplines.

Each of the three disciplines above has a unique set of data and questions on which they focus. Each has its own scope within which the data, questions, and answers of that discipline are understood. The theologian seeks to understand the nature of Bible: its languages, history, and original meaning are all subjects of study. The theologian further seeks to systematize what we learn from the Bible (a.k.a. systematic theology) to create guardrails to our speculations about God. The physicist seeks to understand the nature of physical reality via mathematics and experimental data. The evolutionary biologist seeks to describe the history and development of life via existing living organisms and fossils.

In light of such clear examples, it should seem absurd that on the basis of physics or biology anyone can decide that the deliverances of theology are at best meaningless or at worst false. By the same token, it is just as strange for a theologian to label entire branches of science false based on a particular interpretation of the Bible. In the first example, there is nothing within the domain of science that can demonstrate that the Christianity is false. That assertion is based on a philosophical presupposition that many hold, namely materialism. The second example, while consistent with certain interpretations of the Bible, diminishes God by ignoring the possibility that science can glorify God (see Psalm 19).

Implications do not make an idea true or false.

If one reads some of the more strident materials critical of intelligent design, a common theme (as I mentioned above) is the connection between ID and religion. Specifically, ID is labeled as repackaged creation science, or merely a God-of-the-gaps abdication of science. Why is this charge recycled over and over and over? One reason I would offer is that the critics of ID are disturbed by an implication of ID, namely it opens the door for a mind or intellect beyond the material universe, Richard Lewontin’s “Divine Foot.”

In a very similar way, Christian theists object to the atheists’ implications of evolutionary theory. Since On the Origin of Species was originally published it has been nearly universally celebrated and defended that Darwin’s original theory, and its modern variants, demonstrate that life itself and all its history happened without a creator.

In either case, implications are neither evidence nor an argument. They are simply external critiques to various worldviews. They create an awareness that a worldview might have problems, that it might even be false. The defender of a worldview (either atheism or theism) should take such warnings seriously and evaluate the merits of this external criticism. Further, one should investigate the evidence, arguments and philosophical assumptions of the source of the critique.

Finally, I believe the tension and conflict between evolutionary theory and Christianity, or between ID and materialist science, are not struggles between superstition and knowledge or any other rhetorical canard one might find. Rather, these are conflicts between worldviews. The knowledge derived from within various disciplines is not the source of conflict; rather it is the implications of these disciplines that are in conflict.[2] Implications are almost always derived from the philosophical assumptions brought to each discipline.

In my next post, I will discuss my specific experiences at the CSC Summer Seminars and why I think every intellectually curious person should apply to attend.

I would like to thank Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute and Melissa Cain Travis for their editorial input.

[1] Also known as scientism, the view that science is the only source of knowledge. All other fields of study especially theology and philosophy are merely subjective and culturally relative constructions.

[2] In other words, the evidence for design is empirical; one can see the evidence for design regardless of one’s worldview. Some attempt to explain away the evidence for design based on an a priori commitment to materialism. In other instances there are some atheists and agnostics who accept the evidence and support ID.


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