A Response to Stephen Barr
|February 15, 2010||Posted by Barry Arrington under Intelligent Design|
My grandfather was a prolific arrowhead collector. He spent countless hours walking back and forth over the plains, hills and creek bottoms of Texas looking for “points,” as he called them, and by the time he passed away his collection ran into the hundreds. When I was a young boy in the 60’s papa sometimes let me come along with him to look for points, but I did not have the patience required for this game. Instead of emulating my grandfather’s painstaking and systematic search techniques, I mainly wondered around with my head in the clouds. From time to time I would snatch up a random rock and run to show it to papa, yelling, “What about this one?” My efforts invariably yielded the same response. Papa would glance at the rock and hand it back to me while shaking his head and muttering “shah, shah, shah” under his breath.
What was the difference between my random rocks and the points my grandfather was looking for? The rocks he rejected and the rocks he collected were all rocks, so what made the “points” special? Just this. In my grandfather’s judgment each rock he added to his collection was different from the thousands upon thousands of rocks he rejected because it bore complex marks that conformed to a specified pattern. In short, like every other archeologist who has ever separated artifacts from natural objects, he made a design inference.
Design inferences like the ones my grandfather made are everyday occurrences. They are not the least bit controversial. Does anyone dispute that intelligent agents leave behind objectively recognizable indicia of design? Of course not. Indeed, these indicia of design are the very marrow of certain scientific endeavors (e.g., forensics, archeology, and cryptology). It would be absurd to suggest that my grandfather had stupidly succumbed to the “Indian of the gaps” fallacy, or that his conclusions were based on an irrational or sub-rational “intuition.” Far from being controversial, his design inferences were obviously correct. Moreover, his conclusions are in principle falsifiable and inter-subjectively testable.
Once one concedes that at least in some instances intelligent agents leave behind objectively discernable indicia of design, the intellectual jig is up – you have left the door wide open for the theory of intelligent design. The fundamental premise underlying the intelligent design movement’s program is utterly uncontroversial. We know beyond the slightest peradventure that intelligent agents leave behind objectively discernable indicia of design. It is the secondary premise of ID that causes consternation – that certain biological structures, both at the micro and macro level, exhibit indicia of design, and therefore the most reasonable explanation for the existence of those structures is that they were in fact designed for a purpose.
One can argue that as an empirical matter ID has failed to demonstrate that living things bear indicia of design. Many scientists would disagree, but competing interpretations of the data are what good science is all about. May the best interpretation prevail. But some scientists go further than advancing competing interpretations of the data and argue that the search for indicia of design in living things is in principle illicit.
This argument makes no sense. “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose,” wrote arch-atheist Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker. So why should a theist like Dr. Stephen Barr object so vehemently when ID theorists advocate for the proposition that the design even an atheist sees is not simply apparent but reflects a fundamental reality? Does Barr know for a certain fact that no intelligence has ever acted on any living thing to bring about a result? I am sure he will admit he does not. If the design hypothesis has not been falsified, then it must be considered an open question. It follows that far from being illicit, an investigation into whether the appearance of design in living things is an illusion or based on actual design should not even be controversial.
I must confess that I am truly bewildered by Dr. Barr’s antagonism toward the intelligent design movement, as evidenced in his recent polemic attacking ID. Dr. Barr is obviously a person of high intelligence, integrity and goodwill. Yet he seems determined to mark a place for himself as perhaps the preeminent Christian opponent of ID and defender of the neo-Darwinian status quo. So why is an orthodox Christian like Stephen Barr so keen to discredit ID, the primary challenge to the neo-Darwinian hegemony over our institutions?
Certainly the answer does not lie in the oft-repeated canard that ID is nothing but Biblical creationism in a cheap tuxedo. My grandfather knew absolutely nothing about the Indians that carved his points; yet that did not preclude him from making a design inference. Similarly, ID acknowledges that the empirical evidence tells us nothing about the identity of the designer, who may be natural or supernatural. Why is this simple concept so hard for some people to get their heads around? Life is a matter of chemistry and physics – super-sophisticated chemistry and physics beyond our present technology to be sure – but there is nothing in principle that will prevent human technology from eventually creating artificial life in the laboratory. The artificial life humans eventually produce will be “designed life.” So why is it so hard to accept that ID does not rest on the premise that “God did it”? Even Dawkins admits that a non-supernatural ID hypothesis is valid in principle: In the documentary “Expelled” Dawkins told interviewer Ben Stein:
It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved, probably by some kind of Darwinian means, probably to a very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. Now, um, now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it’s possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of biochemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer.
Perhaps Barr believes the ID hypothesis has been sufficiently investigated and found to be empirically unsustainable. No, that is not either. Barr acknowledges this when he writes that none of his attacks on ID mean “that the conclusions the ID movement draws about how life came to be and how it evolves are intrinsically unreasonable or necessarily wrong.”
If ID is not theoretically beyond the purview of scientific investigation, as even Dawkins admits, and it is not empirically unreasonable as Barr admits, why then does Barr oppose it so vehemently?
Part of the answer lies in Barr’s failure to understand the true metaphysical cost of Darwinism. In his 2006 article in First Things entitled The Miracle of Evolution Barr defended neo-Darwinism on the ground that God might have used Darwinian processes as a secondary cause to create the complexity and diversity of life. Barr advised Christians to make their peace with Darwin, and near the end of the article he wrote this: “And what happens to morality and natural-law ethics if neo-Darwinism is right? Nothing . . .”
Barr apparently believes he can have his Darwinism for free, that there is no metaphysical price to be paid for the triumph of blind watchmaker evolution. The naiveté of this statement beggars belief.
Let us be clear about what we are talking about here. We are not talking about “theistic evolution” where God comes down and helps the evolutionary process over the bumps. We are talking about a “mud to me” process in which nothing but blind unguided forces of nature act on matter and bring about the diversity and complexity of life with no intervention from any intelligent agent, including God. This hypothesis has profound metaphysical implications. Stephen Jay Gould wrote: “Before Darwin we thought that a benevolent God had created us.” Now, “No intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature . . . No vital forces propel evolutionary change. And whatever we think of God, his existence is not manifest in the products of nature.”
That last sentence is where the metaphysical rubber meets the road. Barr writes: “We need not pit evolution against design, if we recognize that evolution is part of God’s design.” This is nonsense. Barr does not seem to understand that the whole purpose of evolutionary theory is to demonstrate that nature can do the job of designing without God, and if God played any role (e.g., by setting initial conditions so that evolution would unfold the way it has), his hand is completely undetectable.
In his review of Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder, Barr wrote:
Those who believe in God, including the very substantial proportion of scientists who do, are every bit as able to thrill to scientific discovery as Dawkins is. They embrace scientific understanding and rejoice in it, as he does. But they have as well the joy of their faith, which tells them that the beauty of Nature points to something higher, to a Wisdom greater than their own. For Dawkins it points to nothing. He is welcome to that conclusion, but there is not the slightest reason why any scientist or scientifically minded person should share it.
Surely Barr’s conclusion is false. Again, the whole point of the neo-Darwinian project is to demonstrate that nature can go it alone, and that if there is a designer he is not, in Gould’s words, manifest in the products of nature. Therefore, if neo-Darwinism is true, Barr is wrong and Dawkins is correct – the beauty of nature points to absolutely nothing beyond itself.
Darwin’s great achievement was in providing a plausible materialist mechanism (i.e., natural selection) to explain the staggering diversity and complexity of living things without resort to any sort of guiding intelligence. This made it far easier for those already so inclined to deny the existence of God and adopt a materialist philosophy. That is why Dawkins wrote, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Materialist philosophy goes back to the Greeks, but its long march through our institutions with calamitous consequences alluded to above began with Darwin. I do not agree with Daniel Dennett about much, but surely he is right when he calls Darwinism the “universal acid.” That acid has eaten through to the core of our culture, and from an orthodox Christian’s perspective it has had baleful ethical consequences of cataclysmic proportions. The 100 million dead at the hands of the communists lie in silent testament to the pernicious effects of materialist social systems. The 50 million and counting abortions performed in this country since 1973 are an indirect consequence of the materialist takeover of American law beginning with the influence of committed materialist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (see my Darwin’s Path of the Law on how these dots are connected). Examples could be multiplied ad nauseam.
It is a mystery, therefore, why Barr believes in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that he can have his neo-Darwinism without paying a staggering metaphysical price for it. The fact that neo-Darwinism paves the way for the acceptance of materialist philosophy does not mean that neo-Darwinism is necessarily false. But it certainly means that a theist should not blithely roll over and accept it while there is any viable alternative in the offing.
In addition to his failure to appreciate the metaphysical costs of neo-Darwinism, Barr seems to crave the good graces of the scientific establishment. He 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.
Implicit in this statement is that there is “science” and there is “ID” and they are at war with one another. But why should this be so? We would not say to an archeologist, “for your design inference regarding this arrowhead to succeed, science must fail!” The day-to-day nuts and bolts of the ID theorist’s work in terms of interpreting data are no different in principle from the archeologist’s work. They are both attempting to determine whether a design inference is appropriate based upon what we know about the “markers” of design.
ID’s metaphysical implications make many scientists uncomfortable, which motivates them to erect a sign over the gate to the science club that says, “No ID Allowed.” Barr desperately wants to be a member in good standing of the club, and if accepting neo-Darwinism is the price of admission, he is willing to pay, metaphysical calamity be damned.
That may be OK for Barr, but what about the rest of us? Should we meekly submit to the bully boys and girls in the science club and give up on a promising research project because it gives materialists the metaphysical willies? Whatever happened to freedom of inquiry and “follow the evidence wherever it leads”? The scientific establishment pays lip service to “self-correction” and “eternally contingent conclusions,” but the plain truth of the matter is that scientists may be the most brassbound, obdurate and reactionary people on the planet, clinging to their pet theories and received orthodoxy with an intransigent stubbornness that would make a medieval churchman blush.
Science should be about searching for the truth. We do not know for an absolute certainty whether certain aspects of living things were designed. If design did in fact occur, any research program that rules design out of court from the very beginning is bound to take us away from the truth instead of towards it. Therefore, as long as the design question remains open, ID researchers should pursue their work, preferably with the support of the scientific establishment, and if that support is not forthcoming, then in the teeth of their scorn.