Denis Alexander on ID
|May 19, 2005||Posted by William Dembski under Intelligent Design, Religion, Science|
Denis Alexander is a molecular biologist with very solid credentials who is based at Cambridge University. He is also a theistic evolutionist who has written several books on the relation between science and Christian faith. His most recent is Rebuilding the Matrix (with Zondervan). Even though he is a critic of ID, he helped one of my ID colleagues who got shafted by another Cambridge lab. I therefore feel a sense of gratitude to him.
That said, Alexander’s criticisms of ID are off the mark. What follows is a very brief review by him of my book The Design Revolution. The first thing that should strike the reader of it is that it is so general it might have been written for any pro-ID text. Indeed, except for the last sentence of the first paragraph, it could have been written without even looking at my book. Here is the review. I’ll follow it with a few comments.
Christians in every generation have the unnerving habit of majoring on red herrings in their apologetics. After reading this book, I cannot help thinking that the arguments of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement represent precisely such a distraction from biblical Christian faith. In this book, the author, an advocate of the ID movement, presents a series of 44 chapters defending ID against its detractors.
The aspirations of the ID movement are worthy enough. Their aim is to challenge naturalistic philosophy. Unfortunately, in the process they propose a “two-tier universe” in which current science, as we know it, provides “naturalistic” explanations, whereas the “intelligent designer” is required for the occasional injection of design into the creative process by unknown mechanisms that lie beyond science. But such a scenario is profoundly alien from the world of Christian theism in which God is intimately involved in the origins and sustaining of every aspect of the created order. As Augustine made the point succinctly back in the 5th century: “Nature is what God does.” Despite Dembski’s protests to the contrary, ID really does sound very like the old “god-of-the-gaps” argument.
However, if you want a more balanced multi-author view on ID, including its theological weaknesses, I would go for Darwinism Defeated? The Johnson-Lamoureux Debate on Biological Origins (Vancouver, Regent College Publishing, 1999).
Reviewed by Denis Alexander, Head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signalling and Development at the Babraham Institute and Fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. He is also Editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief.
Appeared in Christianity & Renewal, October 2004, p. 70
Here are a few comments:
**It is noteworthy that the first thing Alexander does is connect ID to Christian apologetics. I myself have remarked that ID can serve as apologetic tool in the sense of clearing away a false philosophy (i.e., materialism/naturalism) that impedes people in coming to faith in God. But that is a by-product of ID. ID is in the first place a scientific program that inquires into the evidence for design in nature and whether that design is detectable. Alexander doesn’t so much as consider this question in his review. Yet, it is the central question addressed in my book The Design Revolution.
**Alexander refers to ID as a “red herring” and as a “distraction.” Yet he admits that it is a good thing to challenge “naturalistic philosophy” and that this is a noble aspiration of ID. So, presumably the problem is not with the end to which ID is being put as an apologetic tool but with the means by which it is accomplishing that end. Why, then, is it a red herring or distraction? Presumably because ID purports to mount a scientific challenge to evolutionary theory when that theory is sound and the proper target should be the false philosophy that too often is associated with that theory. But is this false philosophy an optional accessory to the theory, foisted on it by atheistic biologists like Richard Dawkins, or is it mandatory? Alexander thinks it is optional and therefore that we should just make our peace with evolutionary theory and leave well enough alone. But what if conventional evolutionary theory is unsound and what if there is good empirical evidence of design in nature and in biology in particular? Alexander doesn’t want to go there.
**The reason Alexander doesn’t want to go there, at least as far as one can tell from his review, is that ID, in his view, commits one to a “two-tier universe” (which he regards as theologically unacceptable): there are natural causes that seem to do just fine most of the time, and then occasionally a designer intervenes to do something that nature left to her own devices could not. This seems to make nature largely autonomous, except for occasional interruptions. Granted, this is an unsatisfactory way of understanding divine action. Yet, as I point out in The Design Revolution, ID is not an interventionist theory. It is not about how, when, and where a designer intervened. It is about finding evidence of design regardless of how it got there. Within ID, God can act as much through ordinary events as through extraordinary events, through events that appear to us undesigned as through events that appear to us designed.
**Alexander writes “despite Dembski’s protests to the contrary….” But I’m not merely protesting; I’m presenting arguments. Granted, in a review of this length, Alexander was not in a position to take on these arguments and provide counterarguments. But even some indication of a line of counterargument would have been helpful. Instead, Alexander merely repeats a phrase that has now achieved the status of a mantra: god-of-the-gaps. Alan Olding (scroll down) saw this mantra as such an impediment to real thought about these issues that, especially in regard to the work of Michael Behe and Michael Denton, he called the god-of-the-gaps objection “nothing more than a question-begging insult meant to stop the flow of argument.” (“Maker of Heaven and Microbiology,” Quadrant 44 (2000):62-68.)
Bottom line: Denis Alexander would have done better to address the actual scientific issues raised by ID than to focus on why it might be theologically objectionable — especially since the theological objections he raises are easily addressed. And this raises the question whether the theistic evolutionists in the UK for which Alexander is a figure-head object to ID not because its actual arguments are mistaken but because they simply don’t want to reopen the question of evolution and the controversy that will entail.