Monday, August 11, 2008

Is Intelligent Design theologically shallow?

Occasionally, one hears Intelligent Design (ID) accused of being theologically shallow. Now, no doubt, many of the advocates of ID are theologically shallow, as are many of the opponents of ID. But the question is whether there is anything theologically shallow about holding ID to be true. As far as I can tell, ID is something like the following two-part thesis:

(a) Some of the biological features of organisms are designed by non-human intelligent agency; and (b) this fact can be known on the basis of biological study of these features (together with the application of mathematical, conceptual and/or other tools).
The reason for the "non-human" qualifier is that otherwise (a) would be uninterestingly satisfied by artificially selected features in domesticated animals.

What, then, is theologically shallow about ID? Part (a) has always been accepted by Jewish and Christian theists, and does not appear at all shallow—indeed, it is connected with a depth of reflection on providential divine involvement in the world, creation, the problem of evil, and so on. Unless the claim is the implausible one that Judaism and Christianity are at root theologically shallow, the theological problem would seem to have to be not with part (a), but with part (b).

Now, if one has a strongly anti-rational theological stance, one might think that any attempt to argue to a conclusion about divine activity on the basis of empirical data is reflective of a shallow rationalism. If so, then one will think that (b) is indicative of a theological shallowness. But I do not think (b) is indicative of a theological shallowness. In fact, it seems to me to be a deeper view to say with Aquinas that God is both an unfathomable mystery and yet his existence and the fact of his creating the world can be known on the basis of observed data. (I am not saying Aquinas advocated ID—he did not—but he did think that we could get to the existence of God, and to some facts about God's creative activity, on the basis of philosophical reflection on things we have observed.) Maybe there is something particularly shallow in holding that science should be a part of one of the routes to knowledge about God's creative activity, but I do not see it. Indeed, it seems to me to be a rather deep view to think that God is imaged in our world in all kinds of ways, and since science tells us about our world, it is relevant to knowing about God.

Perhaps, though, it is not the bare statement of ID that is theologically shallow, but what is shallow is something else. Two options come to mind. One is that the motivations of ID proponents are shallow. Perhaps, ID proponents think that the only way to justify belief in God is through scientific data. That is, indeed, a shallow view. Or maybe they think that only by positing scientifically discernible divine involvement can one save the doctrine that God designed human beings. That might be a shallow view, unless there are some deep arguments behind it. But it does not seem to me to be right to call a view shallow just because the proponents of it are motivated by another view which is shallow.

The second option is that what is shallow is not so much the two-part claim of ID, but the way that ID proponents flesh out the claim, e.g., by asserting that there is evidence of miraculous divine interventions. Again, even if this fleshing out were shallow, it would not follow that ID itself is a shallow doctrine, but that it is fleshed out in a shallow way.

But I want to consider the latter criticism a bit further. Why would it be shallow to say that God created some organisms through miraculous interventions? Now, if one thinks that all claims of miraculous interventions are theologically shallow, one will say this. But that is a sweeping generalization that seems hard to justify. There does not appear to be anything particularly shallow to the idea that God's ways of manifesting his love in creation are not bounded by the laws of nature. Now, it might be shallow to claim that God could not do such-and-such non-miraculously. But it does not seem shallow to claim that he could do such-and-such miraculously, nor that he did. Granted, this view may be unattractive to those like Leibniz who think a good designer always makes something that runs just fine without him. But is denying this standoffish view of divine activity shallow? If anything, positing a world where God sometimes works in and through natural causes, and sometimes beyond them, seems to lead to a richer view.

None of this is an argument for ID. In an earlier post, I have argued that at least the Dembskian variety of ID fails, and I do not know any variety of ID to succeed. But it is important not to criticize views on spurious grounds, such as the accusations of theological shallowness.

In any case, I am not even sure that p's being is "deep" is any evidence for p, or that p's being "shallow" is any evidence against p.


Brandon said...

I think most people would think your characterization of ID pretty clearly incomplete, and hold that there was at least an additional part, something like,

(c) recognition that these designed features are designed on the basis of biology is contrastive, in that you recognize that something is designed by recognizing that it could not have been produced by natural evolutionary mechanisms

and if that's combined with (a) and (b) you have what looks very much like a conflation of primary and secondary causation, and a restriction of the theological notion of design. This (c) is not, I think, the same as your second option; it's not miraculous intervention that's the problem, but the suggestion that showing that God designed something involves showing that He miraculously intervened. No doubt if He does miraculously intervene He has designed what He has made; but one can reasonably think that it would be silly to treat this as somehow especially informative about God's design in general.

bob said...

Some of the biological features of organisms are designed by non-human intelligent agency

Translation: Some of the biological features of organisms are MAGICALLY CREATED by A SUPERNATURAL SKY FAIRY.

My translation is more honest. Intelligent design is nothing more than an idiotic belief in magic. You can use fancy words like "intelligent agency" but it's still magic and it's still childish idiocy.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It may be that some ID folks think these features could not have been produced by evolutionary processes. But the semi-official line, i.e., the line of Behe and Dembski, is that it is astronomically unlikely that the features were produced by evolutionary processes. So (c) needs to be qualified.

However, even on your reading of ID, the defender of ID does not seem to be committed to the claim that if God designed something, then he miraculously intervened. For the typical IDer's line of reasoning is not, I think: (1) these features could not come about by natural means; therefore (2) these features were designed by God; therefore (3) these features are the product of a miracle. Rather, the order of reasoning is may be more like: (1) these features could not come about by natural means; therefore (2*) these features are the product of an agentive miracle; therefore (3*) these features are designed by a supernatural agent. (And a lot of IDers will dispute that supernaturality is inferred from the argument, since they claim that ID is compatible with an alien designer.)

All that said, I think that whatever the merits of the primary/secondary causation view may be in general, there are very serious problems with such a view in the specific case of evolution. See Section 7 of this paper.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Out of curiosity, what on your view is magic, and why is belief in it irrational?

Brandon said...

I'm not really sure that (c) needs qualification; whether one concludes that X could not have been produced by evolutionary mechanisms on the basis of demonstration or on the basis of an argument that it is astronomically improbable is, as far as I can see, irrelevant, because it's a matter of the form of the inference, not the form of the conclusion. (For comparison: I say, "John could not have jumped over that railing," to which someone replies, "You should qualify that because what you really mean is just that John's jumping over that railing is astronomically improbable," to which I would reply: "It is astronomically improbable; which is why a reasonable person will conclude he couldn't have done it.") Actually, Dembski makes the same point somewhere (in No Free Lunch, I think), because his argument depends on it: some improbabilities are sufficient for unequivocal rejection. Dembski cashes this out in his discussion of probabilistic resources and probability bounds.

On the other point, the problem is not that anyone is committed to if God designed something, then he miraculously intervened; it's commitment to the claim that we show that something is designed on the basis of showing that it could not have been produced by natural causes. And if we then take this notion of design as something that is supposed to relate to any theological matter, it can only do so in a shallow way.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not sure I agree here. Suppose that we observe the following sequence of events. George loses his leg in an industrial accident. George prays with great fervour that God might restore him his leg. As soon as he says "Amen", the leg reappears. It seems to be a perfectly reasonable thing to reason:

1. We do not know of any natural explanations (except ones of astronomically small probability) of legs popping back into place.
2. So we must seek after a supernatural explanation.
3. We can easily give a plausible agentive explanation: God miraculously intervened as a response to George's prayer.
4. Therefore, unless a better agentive explanation can be given, this one is true, and so the leg has been restored by design.

Is there something shallow in the inference? The inference seems a good one, notwithstanding Humean worries. Maybe the inference does not tell us a deep fact about God. But surely that's not an objection. The IDers aren't claiming to tell us something deep about God. If they are claiming to tell us anything about God (and they are quite cagy), it is merely that he exists, is intelligent and has designed the universe. Now these facts are, all theists agree, true. It could be that these facts are "shallow" in the sense that while these facts obtain, even deeper facts obtain. But shallow as these facts are, they are disputed by atheists, and establishing them seems to be of some importance.

So if the objection is that the conclusion is a shallow claim, this does not seem a particularly serious objection.

Or maybe the shallowness objection is this: There is a deeper way that God could have been involved in creation, namely by primary causation cooperating with created secondary causation. But consider then the following view, compatible with ID: sometimes God is involved in the developmental process through primary causation cooperating with created secondary causation, and sometimes he is involved through direct intervention. This view does not seem shallower than the view that God is only involved in the first way.

Brandon said...

Is there something shallow in the inference?

In the inference, no (Although I think 1 and 2 are both otiose); but if we're talking about why people think ID theologically shallow, we aren't talking about whether the inference works or not, but whether it yields any useful results for any theological purposes.

I think you misunderstand the point of saying that ID is theological shallow; it's based on a diagnosis of the psychological reasons why many people are attracted to it, and that diagnosis is that they think it has clear and definite bearing on theological matters. Assuming this is so, it makes perfect sense to claim in response that this is not, in fact, so. Not every criticism, or objection to a position, is an objection to an argument; some criticisms simply note that misleading apparent attractions are exactly that, misleading and merely apparent.

Consider an example. Suppose we are considering whether philosophy is useful for anything. And somebody says, "Of course it is; it's useful for making you able to argue to whatever position you please." It would not be unreasonable to reject this as shallow even on the supposition that it is true. Of course, one can also argue that, when all things are considered (e.g., that we are on the side of Socrates rather than the Sophists), it is not really useful for this at all; but the fact that it can be recognized as shallow is important even in the absence of such a consideration.

In the case of ID, many IDers seem to play up the theological significance of the position when it will persuade people and play it down when the actual logic of the argument is considered. Certainly the basic inference in ID doesn't really get us to God in any way, shape, or form (Dembski goes so far in one place as to attribute the relevant agentive intelligence to beavers, e.g., in the case of dams) unless you make dubious assumptions about what would be involved in proof of divine providence; so it's a pretty limited argument in that regard, and even IDers are sometimes perfectly willing to say this explicitly. So it's not unreasonable to point out these massive limitations to people who think it is of particular significance to theism as a sort of scientific insight into divine action.

Brandon said...

It just occurred to me that there might be a second factor in calling ID theologically shallow. The first is offensive: it is an attempt to nullify an apparent attraction of an argument by denying that there is any substance to it. But there may also be a defensive aspect: namely, people want to insist that ID does not have any deep ramifications for theology in order to block critics of ID from who think that criticisms of ID have deep ramifications for theology.

Jeremy Pierce said...

What I've heard about ID being shallow is that it's somehow supposed to require a God-of-the gaps view of God's work in nature, as if God is only responsible for the miracles that involve breaking the laws of nature. As you point out, ID doesn't require breaking the laws of nature at all, just that it's designed (i.e. the front-loading model of design is consistent with the mainstream ID arguments of people like Dembski and Behe). But the other thing is that believing God intervened in that way doesn't at all imply that God isn't responsible for working through other means, including through natural laws. I've seen Dembski himself make both of those points, and it makes the complaint sound as if it's coming out of complete ignorance of what ID is, but I see it made all the time.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I guess there are two versions of the God-of-the-gaps objection to a theistic argument. One is that such an argument isn't very good at producing a solid belief, because one's faith is dependent on the latest scientific findings, and one is in danger of losing faith every time a new issue of Nature comes out. The other is the one you mention, namely that the person offering such an argument implicitly thinks that the only role for God is filling the gaps.

I think both are crummy objections. The second is crummy for the reasons you give. One can think that event E7 provides particularly good evidence of the activity of George, while yet believing that E1,E2,E3,...,E1000 are all produced by George.

The first is not much of an objection. So, yes, we'd like to be more certain about the existence of God than about scientific claims. But if God exists, it's better to have the kind of certainty about his existence that we have about scientific claims, than no certainty at all. And so the theistic argument still has value.

Granted, a theistic argument that isn't a God-of-the-gaps argument is preferable from a theistic standpoint than a God-of-the-gaps argument. But isn't it typically better to have the good and the better rather than just the better?