Randal Rauser is an ID proponent

After some engagements with him last month, I've had a mostly favorable impression of Randal Rauser. I say "mostly" only because I found him frustratingly evasive in some of our exchanges. But his penchant for dubious philosophizing aside (see Sean Carroll's lecture in the previous post), he's clearly a well-read and generally smart guy. I suppose I'd pegged him for more of the Francis Collins type of theologian, rather than the science-denying creationist type. But as much as I want to be charitable here (since he's a theologian by trade rather than a scientist), the entirety of Intelligent Design is just too idiotic for someone as otherwise intelligent as Randal to give it any serious consideration. Color me disappointed.

In a recent post in which he engages the might Chris Hallquist, Randal defines ID as follows:
"ID is the view that appeal to intelligent or agent causal explanations is a legitimate part of natural science."
That's not accurate, actually. Because of course intelligent causes are a part of science, such that we observe the behavior of other animals (including humans). But what Randal really means is supernatural agency or causes being legitimate explanations for phenomena in evolutionary science.

Unfortunately, that's not testable. If something supernatural were testable, it would no longer be supernatural at all – it'd just be part of the growing realm of the natural sciences. There would be empirical evidence for supernatural agency, and that would make the "supernatural" as "natural" as any other field of study. Because it's not actually testable, ID functions primarily as an argument from ignorance – its proponents sit around trying to poke holes in evolutionary theory, and if the holes are large enough they stick God an "Intelligent Designer" in them. Accordingly, and because of the overtly religious motives of the Discovery Institute, it's creationism.

But Randal objects. I wrote a comment similar to the paragraph above, and he replied,
(1) ID isn't testable
(2) ID is an argument from ignorance
(3) ID is creationism.
Each of these is demonstrably false. The way you test for ID is by looking for evidence of contingency, complexity and specification (Dembsi's filter) or irreducible complexity (Behe's criterion) or the best explanation of a putative phenomenon based on known acting causes (Meyer's method). Dembski in particular lays out very clearly his method. And ironically, many folks claim that Behe's claim about the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum has been falsified. If a claim can be falsified then it is testable.
Second, you claim it is an argument from ignorance. No, read Stephen Meyer's discussion of that topic in "Signature in the Cell." The fact is that inferring to an intelligent cause based on known acting causes is new information, not ignorance, and it can specify new avenues of research.
Finally, to say that ID is creationism is to evacuate the word "creationism" of meaning. Proponents of ID includes atheists, agnostics, Moonies (Jonathan Wells), Christians, and other theists. In the twentieth century the word creationism has been used to specify a position that includes the attributions I outlined in this article.

A dubious proposition

Before I respond in full, I want to take a moment to briefly explain why I think Intelligent Design can't even get off the ground philosophically, much less as an empirical science.

In his book The Language of God, Francis Collins – after devoting a substantial portion of the book toward debunking ID – postulates that God intervened in the universe to create life, but that once the wheel of evolution was in motion, God's intervention was no longer required. That argument struck me as arbitrary and bizarre. God could choose any particular point to "set things in motion"; why evolution? Why not set the universe up from the start so that, in rare circumstances, life would evolve purely by natural causes?

ID suffers from a similar problem. Small changes to species are generally accepted by ID advocates as a perfectly normal part of natural evolution; but at a certain point, God has to intervene. In other words, a certain degree of natural complexity or change is fine, but a seemingly arbitrarily greater degree of change is not. It's tantamount to arguing that God designed the universe, but didn't design it quite well enough. God still has to tinker with it here and there. Maybe God thought that if he never tinkered at all, it'd be too easy for people to be atheists.

So, we can parse these positions out something like this:
  1. God set the universe in motion at creation; no divine intervention is ever required
  2. God has to intervene in the universe to create life, but it can evolve on its own thereafter
  3. God has to periodically intervene in the evolutionary process to continue the proliferation of life
From a theological or philosophical perspective, I can't see any reason why any of these would be preferable over the others. The first seems the most parsimonious, simply because we don't have to try and figure out those exact moments when God waves his divine wand of creation. But I also don't see any reason why it'd have to be that way, and I definitely can't see any reason at all why the third position (which is that held by ID advocates) should be assumed.

So we haven't even gotten into the specific arguments for ID, and I don't see any reason to entertain it as a hypothesis, much less a theory bolstered by empirical evidence.




Randal's reply

There's been so much fuss over the minutiae of ID that I can't possibly cover it all in a short post like this, but I'll still at least give an overview of the main issues. Let's take Randal's points one at a time:
The way you test for ID is by looking for evidence of contingency, complexity and specification (Dembsi's filter) or irreducible complexity (Behe's criterion) or the best explanation of a putative phenomenon based on known acting causes (Meyer's method).
Those aren't actually tests, because they're not falsifiable predictions. That's what good theories do – make predictions that may or may not be true. Instead, these are all arbitrary criteria. How does one determine what constitutes "evidence for contingency", or what degree of "specified complexity" would necessitate a designer? (Meyer's method is a whole other can of worms... more on that shortly.) Worse, all of these conclusions are drawn post hoc. They conjure up this arbitrary criteria, and make inferences rather than falsifiable predictions. 

Now, ID proponents would probably try to argue that their criteria isn't arbitrary. The long-debunked concept of irreducible complexity was said to have played on the improbability of complete systems forming in unison, but it was ignorant of the fact that systems evolve concurrently from simpler analogs which may have completely different functions. The bacterial flagellum is the most famous example and, for ID "theory", the most embarrassing. There are also misguided plays on probabilities, in which it's suggested that x is simply too improbable to have happened without an agent. But why x? It comes right back that problem of arbitrary criteria. ID advocates can't even get the biology or the math right, and then they assume (based on their error) that God intervened at point x. Then they call it an "inference" and drown it in misleadingly scientific-sounding language.
And ironically, many folks claim that Behe's claim about the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum has been falsified. If a claim can be falsified then it is testable.
The last sentence is correct! But I would disagree with anyone who claims that IC has been falsified; rather, it's been shown that the conceptual assumptions underlying it were based on an ignorance of evolution. IC can't be falsified because it's not even conceptually sound.

But for the sake of discussion, it's at least in principle possible for ID to be testable. Remember the earlier problem of determining where, exactly, God intervenes in the universe? Well, all an ID theorist would have to do is predict where on the phylogenetic tree certain large, inexplicable jumps in complexity would be found in the genome. Suddenly it would take on a massive new amount of information that would defy all known genetic mechanisms. As the theory developed they could perhaps even predict what types of new information would be found.

Of course, that will never happen, because ID is not science. It will never make falsifiable predictions because it can't.


Randal continues:
The fact is that inferring to an intelligent cause based on known acting causes is new information, not ignorance, and it can specify new avenues of research
David Hume once said that the only rational basis for believing in a miracle is that all possible natural explanations are even more implausible. So, let's say we find new information in the genome. Well, we know quite well how new information in the genome can be produced entirely free of divine intervention. Since that's not a hurdle for evolution, perhaps that ID advocate means to say that a certain amount and/or a certain kind of information cannot be produced by evolution. But there's that problem of arbitrary criteria again – how do we determine what the exact amount of information is that requires intervention?

This could, like the previous conundrums, be solved with falsifiable predictions about when and where new information arises. But ID advocates don't make falsifiable predictions; they just look at information we already have, and try to poke a God-shaped hole in it.


Finally, Randal really dislikes ID being called what it is: creationism.
Finally, to say that ID is creationism is to evacuate the word "creationism" of meaning.
Pfft. Hardly. Creationism works by attempting to poke holes in the natural sciences instead of developing a competing, falsifiable theory. That's exactly what ID does.

Besides, denying that ID is creationism ignores a couple of really important points. The first is that of the 50 or so Disco-tute fellows, only nine of them have any training in biology. Most ID advocates are theologians and/or evangelical Christians. Sure, there are some exceptions, but so what? For an organization that is supposed to spearhead a huge upheaval in the biological sciences, the Discovery Institute has a conspicuous lack of biological scientists. Secondly, Randal's denial ignores the infamous Wedge Document, which laid out the evangelical aims of the Discovery Institute in sordid detail. That's not a creationist manifesto, I don't know what is.



I don't claim to understand why people of various theological positions land where they do. I don't know why Randal Rauser has more in common with Michael Behe than other Christians like Kenneth Miller or Francis Collins on this issue. I accept evolution because it is the unifying theory of all modern biology, is bolstered by over 150 years of empirical evidence, makes falsifiable predictions that have been verified time and time again, and produces real-world results that affect our lives. I accept it because it's what the overwhelming majority of the scientific community accepts. I suppose that's not good enough for Randal and his theology, but that would just make me wonder why his theology dictates that God didn't do a more thorough job designing the universe in the first place.
 

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