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Jason Rosenhouse on Stephen Barr’s “First Things” Publication on ID

I’d like to critique Jason Rosenhouse’s critique of Stephen Barr’s critique of ID. I know, round and round we go, where we stop, no one knows. Rosenhouse appreciates the first paragraph of Barr’s analysis, but is disappointed with the rest. I am disappointed with it all. But Rosenhouse does make a few good points in taking stock of the ID movement’s influence with the public:

I hope he is right about no one being moved toward religious belief by ID writing, but I do not think he is. The ID folks are tapping into deep intuitions people have that complex, functioning structures do not arise from natural, non-intelligent causes. Many are already uncomfortable with the naturalism of modern science and see evolution as dehumanizing and implausible. They like the idea that modern science can provide some rational support for theism. My experiences at ID gatherings suggest to me that an awful lot of people are being led just where they want to go. Certainly the public opinion polls show a great deal of sympathy for ID, to the point of wanting it taught next to evolution in science classes.

So far, ‘sort of’ good. However, Rosenhouse falls of the wagon shortly after:

The biggest problems with ID lie not in abstract philosophical considerations or in drawing clear lines between science and theology. ID fails so completely because its arguments are simply wrong. They are not even interesting. They are simply retreads of old arguments that are easily refuted by anyone with basic scientific education.

This is followed by a short discussion of the political forces inherent in the ID/Evolution tension. The assertion that ID’s arguments are wrong just lounges there with no support. Last I checked, a discussion of politics is not support to an argument in science. I would say that Rosenhouse’s argument, aside from not being interesting, is not even wrong, for it is not even an argument. The biggest problem with Rosenhouse lies not in abstract philosophical considerations, nor in drawing clear lines between science and theology, for he has no abstract philosophical considerations nor lines between science and theology. Rosenhouse fails so completely because he doesn’t even provide an argument. This is not even interesting. This is simply retreading of old assertions that are easily refuted by anyone with a basic understanding of reading.

The real problem Rosenhouse has against Barr, in which he does make an argument, is that Barr is missing the point in contrasting a general appreciation of nature evidencing design (which Barr considers legitimate) and the more nuanced complex-specific and irreducibly complex appreciation of design in nature (which Barr considers illegitimate). Rosenhouse is right, there is no dilemma between the two. But that fact, of course, does not mean that they are the same thing.

Barr writes (as quoted by Rosenhouse):

Note that “atoms of the world” are not irreducibly complex, nor is “every part of the world.” Irreducible complexity has never been the central principle of traditional natural theology.

Rosenhouse responds:

How is that an argument against irreducible complexity? As Michael Behe first introduced it, irreducible complexity was applied specifically to the fine structure of biochemical systems like flagellae and blood-clotting cascades. Previous generations of Christians would not have been able to make such arguments since the relevant science was not yet known. Why should natural theology not expand to encompass the latest scientific developments? Is the whole enterprise nothing more than expressions of awe at the beauty of nature?

I agree that the two arguments, appreciations of nature’s design by early Christians and ID, need not conflict. I disagree that they are the same enterprise. This sentiment Rosenhouse gets wrong. ID is a multi-faith, and a multi-nonfaith enterprise, just ask Antony Flew, Bradley Monton, Gerald Schroeder and David Berlinski if they are nothing more than advanced first century Christian theologians making natural theological arguments.

But again, Rosenhouse’s argument against ID is nonexistent:

Once again Barr completely misses the point. The problem with Behe’s argument about irreducible complexity is that it is wrong. Simple as that. The problem does not lie in some perceived change in focus relative to early Christian writers.

That’s not a truncated quote, that’s literally the whole paragraph.

Barr writes:

Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous “explanatory filter” of William A. Dembski, one finds “design” by eliminating “law” and “chance” as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature.

Rosenhouse responds:

That religion in its most common forms has frequently served as a substitute for a scientific understanding of nature is hardly a caricature created by atheists. It is the obvious conclusion of how so many religious people and religious institutions have behaved over the centuries. Barr may be unhappy about the fact, but the creationists and ID folks do represent a huge segment of American religious thought. I hardly think atheists can be faulted for pointing it out and objecting.

And the argument supporting Rosenhouse’s assertion that religious people deserve the caricature of anti-science is supported by what?  Does he think it’s supported by the fact that a large population of America is creation or ID oriented? How do sheer numbers of a  population of America have any bearing on an argument of behavior? Is the argument “religious people substitute religion for science by being the majority”? How does that even make sense? I can only assume that Rosenhouse takes it for granted that being religious or advocating ID necessarily means being anti-science. I reckon he considers creation or ID and science  to be mutually exclusive. I might be wrong, but Rosenhouse’s argument, without this hidden assumption, makes no sense. Again, I’d like to see a real argument against ID, so I can have something to respond to.

Rosenhouse does, however, make an argument against Barr’s previous quote:

Far be it from me to defend William Dembski, but this paragraph is not a correct presentation of his argument. He is very clear in his writing that he sees evidence for God in all aspects of nature, and he certainly would not object to using the general orderliness of nature as evidence for God. His argument about the explanatory filter, as he presents it, is not about finding evidence for God at all (though in his view when his methods are applied to certain phenomena in nature they point very strongly in that direction). It is about locating phenomena that can only be explained by recourse to an intelligent agent. He is not handing those things science can explain to the atheists. He sees God in them just as surely as in everything else. Instead he would say simply that such things do not compel you to infer design.

Every time I think I can start to agree with Rosenhouse, I just read a bit further, and my hopes are dashed:

There is almost no end to the number of things that are wrong with Dembski’s argument, starting with the fact that he has never managed to formulate it in a consistent, coherent way. The fact remains, though, that Barr has been unfair to him in this paragraph.

Again, no argument against ID. I already knew that Barr was wrong.

Rosenhouse ends with this:

There is a bit more to Barr’s essay. It is disappointing that such a promising beginning should give way to such a poorly-argued mess. Still, it is certainly very helpful to have a high-profile religious publication like First Things publish such an essay.

Interesting. While disparaging ID as creationism and religion, he is encouraged by religion helping in publishing such an argument against itself; essentially as religion arguing against religion. His entire thesis is that ID is creationism, religion repackaged, so he uses religion, when it suits him, as making a valid argument, but only insofar as it argues against the validity of religion. If religion is valid then it is valid, if it is invalid it cannot be a valid argument. He would have to assume it as valid in order to assume it as invalid. But if it is invalid, it is invalid in an argument. His entire purpose is to argue against religion as a whole. He cannot have it both ways.

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21 Responses to Jason Rosenhouse on Stephen Barr’s “First Things” Publication on ID

  1. From Rosenhouse: “The ID folks are tapping into deep intuitions people have that complex, functioning structures do not arise from natural, non-intelligent causes.”

    Hmmmm. There is usually little worthwhile comparison between the life experience of people who have founded or run a business – or worked in one at a high level of responsibility – and that of the tenured tax burden profs who comprise the bulk of Darwin’s shock troops today.

    I am not saying that the profs do not have the right to their opinion, only that it needs to be evaluated in the light of the fact that they need not consider the practical issues that others wrestle with every day.

    They are somewhat like the monks just before the Reformation, but without the celibacy requirement.

    So we hear about the “Big Bazooms” theory of evolution and the “Ooga! Ooga! Big Spender” theory of evolution, and every other kind of hopelessly stupid and vulgar theory one could possibly imagine.

    And we serfs are informed that this is science.

    Well, we know it isn’t.

    Reports say that the US government has ended the manned space flight program. Cut back on the space shuttle too?

    So those of us who followed the space race with eager interest fifty years ago must now content ourselves with “Big Bazooms”, “Ooga! Ooga!”, oh, and also global warming warnings while our feet freeze hard in bus shelters?

    I have certain “deep intuitions,” now that Rosenhouse mentions it, and they would not be flattering to his cause.

  2. Hmmmm. There is usually little worthwhile comparison between the life experience of people who have founded or run a business – or worked in one at a high level of responsibility – and that of the tenured tax burden profs who comprise the bulk of Darwin’s shock troops today.

    I am not saying that the profs do not have the right to their opinion, only that it needs to be evaluated in the light of the fact that they need not consider the practical issues that others wrestle with every day.

    This assessment is very puzzling and can only come from a person who has no understanding of what it is like to be (for example) a biology professor in an academic institution.

    Labs function like small businesses. Each professor generally employs and is responsible for 5-25 people. Labs have to be managed in terms of employees, cash flow, productivity, … to compare such an existence to monks flies in the face of reality.

  3. At2 0hrn 015,

    If that were true we would get much better responses from our labs, more swiftly.

    How come it took a Canadian lab in Winnipeg to ID H1N1 = swine flu), when it originated in Mexico months earlier?

    At some point, some of us wonder, where is the payload from science here?

    Obviously, there was a HUGE payload from H1N1 ID.

    My concern is, in general, in countries who do not enjoy our high living standards, what is the payload?.

  4. Rosenhouse makes no bones about his anti-religion bias. I’m waiting for these folks to stop committing the falacy of thinking that disparaging religion has *any* bearing on the validity of ID. What I see is a deep-seated but not all that well thought out problem with religion. And the sentiment that Christians (especially those pesky American Christians) are somehow extreme enemies of “science” is really getting boring. It says *nothing* about ID. I guess they can’t take ID seriously long enough to even pretend to refute it in a meaningful and objective way. Instead we get “just so” stories and conflationary tactics that no thoughtful, objective person could ever mistake for a real refutation.

  5. If that were true we would get much better responses from our labs, more swiftly.

    It is not a question of ‘if it were true’. You made a claim about the lack of responsibility and compared scientists specifically to people who found and run businesses.

    Scientists who run their own labs are employers and managers. They produce products in a highly competitive environment.

    How come it took a Canadian lab in Winnipeg to ID H1N1 = swine flu), when it originated in Mexico months earlier?

    So that Canadian lab in Winnipeg was not run by scientists who are like monks, but rather by scientists who are more like those responsible business owners?

    At some point, some of us wonder, where is the payload from science here?

    Again, wasn’t it ‘science’ that ID’ed H1N1?

  6. Denyse, it takes months because that’s how long it takes. It took years to ID the HIV virus as the cause of AIDS.

  7. Mrs O’Leary,

    If that were true we would get much better responses from our labs, more swiftly.

    How come it took a Canadian lab in Winnipeg to ID H1N1 = swine flu), when it originated in Mexico months earlier?

    Based on my reading of this CDC report, the time lapse between the beginning of the Mexican outbreak in early March-April and the identification of H1N1 on April 22-24 was almost entirely due to the process of epidemiologic reporting, not a failure or sloth in any lab process in Mexico or Cananda.

    During April 18–19, a survey conducted in 23 hospitals in Mexico City indicated increased pneumonia-related hospital admissions since April 10, particularly among young adults. On April 21, respiratory specimens collected as a result of these enhanced surveillance activities were sent to the National Microbiology Laboratory of the Public Health Agency of Canada and to the Influenza Division at CDC. During April 22–24, both laboratories identified novel influenza A (H1N1) virus in specimens from Mexican patients.

    As a Canadian, I think you can be proud of the quick response of the PHA labs.

  8. tragic mishap at 6: The H1N1 mess was tragically delayed by the bad habit in Mexico of allowing self-prescription via the pharmacy.

    Pharmacists, in my experience, are fully trained professionals worthy of respect.

    In Canada, they are permitted to give out small doses of analgesics, etc., on the understanding that the recipient will present himself/herself at a medical clinic or Emerg shortly.

    So, if there is something that the medical officer of health’s office needs to know, well, it can usually be conveyed via a lab swiftly.

    I do not know how long it should take to ID a virus, but I think a best practices health system balances the patient’s need for comfort with the health authorities’ need to know what is happening.

  9. IID fails so completely because its arguments are simply wrong. They are not even interesting. They are simply retreads of old arguments that are easily refuted by anyone with basic scientific education.

    I didn ‘t bother to go the article but does this great thinker ever get around to refuting this “easily refuted” idea?

  10. Hmm, for what it’s worth (which is maybe not much) I once lived in Mexico and came to appreciate pharmacies where no prescription was needed. They always had the big book right there on the counter and the pharmacist would help you look up the side effects of whatever drug.

    I don’t know of any statistics—whether more harm results from their system or from ours—but I prefer theirs rather than ours where the doctor looks it up (or doesn’t even bother) and decides for me.

  11. Number 2,

    Labs function like small businesses. Each professor generally employs and is responsible for 5-25 people. Labs have to be managed in terms of employees, cash flow, productivity, … to compare such an existence to monks flies in the face of reality.

    One imagines monks have to do all that too. There may be honest labs on the government dole, but that doesn’t negate the negative aspect of being beholden to the government instead of the people. Remember—all taxes are taken at the point of a gun. Just refuse to pay and see how long it takes to get the point.

  12. God does not wear a religion hat one day and a science hat the other. It’s all one thing to Him, and so it should be to us. Science is the television set, religion is the program. The question shouldn’t be “is there a god?” Rather, which God is the right one?

  13. tribune7:

    “I didn ‘t bother to go the article but does this great thinker ever get around to refuting this “easily refuted” idea?”

    Well, it seems that the idea was so easily refuted such a long time ago, that people no longer need to or can know just what the refutation was, because, you know, refuted.

    Collin:

    The question shouldn’t be “is there a god?” Rather, which God is the right one?

    Indeed. One lame tactic the militant atheists often use is to try to imply that because one must put some work in identifying the true God, therefore there really can’t be a true God. Were they taught that sort of logic in Science School? Such a lazy attitude would be reprehensible applied to science, but applied to theology, I guess it’s a-ok. In a sense they are displaying the very attitude they always declaim in their fantasies about what IDists hold. In effect they are saying, “Gosh it’s all just so darned theologically/metaphysically complicated, therefore nogoddidit!”

  14. 6
    tragic mishap
    02/11/2010
    2:03 pm
    It took years to ID the HIV virus as the cause of AIDS.

    But isn’t this only a theory?

  15. One imagines monks have to do all that too. There may be honest labs on the government dole, but that doesn’t negate the negative aspect of being beholden to the government instead of the people. Remember—all taxes are taken at the point of a gun. Just refuse to pay and see how long it takes to get the point.

    So the labs are suspect because they are not beholden to the people? And how would any lab be beholden to the people? Oh, I know, if the people all chipped in and paid for the research. ;)

    And you did miss the point: While a scientist might be beholden to the government or the people, the person running the lab is also beholden to his employees. Just like a small business owner.

    One imagines monks have to do all that too.

    So then you agree as well, that Denyse O’Leary’s argument about scientist being like monks and not like business owners is completely nonsense. It appears then, that according to you, business owners, scientists and monks all have high levels of responsibility.

  16. tragic mishap at 6: The H1N1 mess was tragically delayed by the bad habit in Mexico of allowing self-prescription via the pharmacy.

    At some point, some of us wonder, where is the payload from science here, indeed?

  17. I don’t get it. Can someone explain to me how its possible to hold that both the entire universe and specific objects within it are intelligently designed? It seems to me that these two positions are mutually exclusive.
    The argument that some specific things are evidence of intelligent design rests entirely on their dissimilarity to objects that are easily explainable via ‘undirected’ natural causes. Behe’s irreducible complexity, and Demski’s explanatory filter both aim to identify things that aren’t explainable by ‘undirected’ natural law, and hence design should be inferred. But if everything is the result of design, then that entire argument falls apart.

    I’m confused. Can someone please explain this?

  18. 18

    lastyearon, let me see if I understand your logic.

    P1: The universe as a whole and specific objects in the universe cannot both be designed.

    P2: Certain things in the universe are obviously designed (this sentence for example).

    C: Therefore, the entire universe as a whole could not have been designed.

    Before I comment on your logic, I want to make sure I understand your argument. Do I have it right?

  19. lastyearon:

    Can someone explain to me how its possible to hold that both the entire universe and specific objects within it are intelligently designed?

    A deity could design a universe within which life could arise as a result of the structure and rules that were defined for that universe. An intelligent being that came into existance because of those rules and structures might choose to examine and explain the universe in terms of the rules that govern its existance – this is theistic evolution and methodological naturalism.

    Alternatively a deity could create a universe with structure and rules that govern its behaviour, then intervene to create specific things within the universe that would not have occurred normally (i.e. if then hadn’t intervened) Here you have a universe that was created, but which contains some entities that were not the product of the universe – they did not occur ‘naturally’ – natural being defined as the product of the universe operating according to its rules.

    You can have a third scenario where the universe was carefully designed, and within which life could arise as a product of the universes design, but the deity also intervenes to make changes from time to time.

    A little caveat: By ‘design a universe’ I mean set up the rules that govern its behaviour (the laws of physics) create matter and set the whole thing in motion.

  20. BillB

    A deity could design a universe within which life could arise as a result of the structure and rules that were defined for that universe. An intelligent being that came into existance because of those rules and structures might choose to examine and explain the universe in terms of the rules that govern its existance – this is theistic evolution and methodological naturalism.

    Alternatively a deity could create a universe with structure and rules that govern its behaviour, then intervene to create specific things within the universe that would not have occurred normally (i.e. if then hadn’t intervened) Here you have a universe that was created, but which contains some entities that were not the product of the universe – they did not occur ‘naturally’ – natural being defined as the product of the universe operating according to its rules.

    Based on the above, it sounds as if you agree that scenario 1 and scenario 2 cannot both be true. That is, either the Universe is Fine-Tuned for life, or it isn’t. Either nature is capable of producing life or specific divine interventions were necessary.

    Am I understanding your position correctly?

  21. Barry Arrington,

    I’m simply not understanding how it is possible to
    detect that certain things were the result of design if everything is the result of design. If you hold that the laws of nature were Fine-Tuned for life, then that position seems incompatible with the notion that it is possible to detect that certain things were the product of Intelligent Design. IDers say they can detect design by distinguishing designed objects from products of natural ‘undirected’ causes. But if natural causes were designed for life, then doesn’t that invalidate that claim?

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