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Michael Shermer Misrepresents Intelligent Design in Canadian Newspaper

In the July 9 edition of The Ottawa Citizen, Michael Shermer published an attack on aspects of Intelligent Design. The article, with comments from readers, can be found at:


Shermer’s attack was brought on by a comment of Rabbi Reuven Bulka, published in the Citizen on July 7. Bulka had written:

“By the way, for the record, I have no problem with evolutionary ingredients in creation. This can co-exist quite comfortably with intelligent design, or God’s design, which is stretched out on an evolutionary canvass.” http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/opinion/story.html?id=efe4cbf9-dd5d-4e33-b1ed-0c0334095047&p=2

Shermer appears to scoff at Rabbi Bulka’s position. He opens his article with these words: Can you believe in God and evolution? Yes, if you keep the two separated in logic-tight compartments.” From there he goes on to elaborate his notion of the distinction between religion and science, and to employ that distinction to argue (a) that God’s intentions (supposing God exists) are indetectable by scientific means, and (b) that intelligent design purports to detect the scientifically indetectable, and therefore is not science.

For Shermer, religion deals with the supernatural, and science with the natural. To say of anything that “God designed it” is to invoke the supernatural, whereas science must always refer only to the natural. So if God did something, science wants to know how God did it, and that means enumerating the chain of physical causes by which God achieved his desired result. Any attempt to explain something without reference to such a chain of physical causes is, for Shermer, not science. Since Shermer believes that intelligent design theory refers causation directly to God, without specifying the natural causes through which God works, he concludes that ID is not science.

There are other things in Shermer’s article which could be discussed, such as his equation of “reality” with nature, and “unreality” with the supernatural. In such remarks, Shermer reveals his own religious biases. But these biases, while perhaps indicative of his underlying motivations, are not directly relevant to his argument, and so, in order to stay focused, we will concentrate on the notion of “science” which underlies his critique of ID.

Shermer does not appear to understand the difference between two different kinds of explanation: explanation in terms of efficient causes and explanation in terms of final causes. An efficient-cause explanation focuses exclusively upon reconstructing the series of prior energy/matter interactions which have led inevitably up to the thing that one is trying to explain. Borrowing an example (from a letter-writer to The Ottawa Citizen who was critical of Shermer), if I try to account for a shot which sinks the pink ball in a game of snooker, and leaves the cue ball perfectly positioned to sink the black ball on the next shot, I can do so in purely causal terms: force applied, spin applied, initial direction of shot, loss of velocity after collision, angle of reflection off the cushion, friction from the felt, etc. “Science,” in Mr. Shermer’s narrow conception of the term, offers only this sort of explanation.

Not all explanations, however, are couched in terms of efficient causes. I can also “explain” the result of the snooker shot in question in terms of the intentionality of the shooter: his goals or aims in light of the rules of the game, including the order in which the colored balls are to be shot once the red balls are gone, and his desire to leave himself in a good position for the black ball after the sinking of the pink ball. This sort of explanation, which is explanation in terms of “final cause,” provides information which the simple efficient-cause analysis cannot provide. It answers the question “why” the balls end up where they do on a different level from the “physics” sort of answer given by the efficient-cause explanation.

Note that these two explanations, both of which answer the question “Why do the balls end up where they do?” are not incompatible. In fact, the efficient-cause explanation is in an important sense subordinate to the explanation in terms of the shooter’s designs: it is only because the shooter planned his shot in a certain way, that the chain of efficient causes took place. Had the shooter intended something different, the balls would have ended up in a different place. The “physics” explanation for the snooker shot is, therefore, in an important sense, not a full or satisfactory explanation for what occurred.

Intelligent design, as Mr. Shermer and almost all critics of ID fail to perceive (or pretend to fail to perceive), is not an explanation in terms of efficient causes. It is an explanation in terms of final causes. It argues that, whatever the chain of physical causes which led to the first formation of, say, the cardio-vascular system or the DNA-protein machinery, those causes were somehow orchestrated towards an end, and that this orchestration can be demonstrated by a mathematically precise science of design detection. ID does not attempt to reconstruct the series of efficient causes by which the emergence of biological structures was first orchestrated; however, if it is true that design is inherent in certain biological features, and that design cannot be explained without intelligence, then “intelligent design” is a legitimate cause of the biological system, just as it is the cause of the snooker shot which sinks the pink ball and leaves a person perfectly positioned for the black ball.

Further, since intelligent design is not wedded to any particular causal story, it can be understood in such a way as to leave the chain of efficient causes untouched; it doesn’t require any miraculous breaking of Mr. Shermer’s precious natural laws, any more than the snooker shot does. As snooker shots can re-arrange the balls, making use of fixed laws of physics, so biological systems can be arranged, through the fixed laws of chemical bonding and the motions of matter established at the beginning of the universe.

Thus, the rabbi’s original contention, to which Mr. Shermer objected, is correct: without keeping one’s mind in “logic-tight compartments,” one can believe simultaneously both in “evolution,” as a process of natural development, and in design by a brilliant mind of some kind, which in religious thought is usually termed “God.” Evolution and design, on such a view, are not contradictory but complementary and mutually reinforcing modes of explanation. Evolutionary explanation, couched in terms of mechanistic physics and chemistry, can suggest to us how the atoms in living things came to be arranged in the way that they are, but cannot explain to us the happy circumstance that atoms have just exactly the right set of properties to produce carbon-based life on earth. The design hypothesis accounts for why the atoms have just exactly those properties. Just as a full set of snooker balls thrown randomly on a pool table don’t sink themselves in the right order, so a set of chemical elements that was not carefully designed would not have produced life on earth or a genetic code capable of modification to form new species.

Thus, Mr. Shermer is wrong to suggest that “science” and “religion” necessarily either contradict one another, or must be kept in separate compartments. Science, in setting forth the efficient causes by which evolution proceeds, is only fully intelligible in light of an overarching design, which religion interprets as proceeding from the mind of God, and religion, which with the aid of mathematical analysis perceives the overarching design, can give no account of how the design was executed without science. The two work together hand in glove, efficient causes realizing the goal established by the final causes discerned by the religious thinker (or for that matter, by any truly rational philosopher or scientist).

To the view that I have sketched above (that a guiding mind or intellect works through natural laws to produce the designed phenomena of life), there is a putatively scientific alternative: the Neo-Darwinian theory. Neo-Darwinism asserts that the apparent designs in living things are produced, ultimately, by chance (for even chance filtered by natural selection boils down to chance). In other words, at the heart of the apparent rationality of the universe is a fundamental irrationality. Unreason produces reason; chaos produces order. By a strange cosmic irony, blind efficient causes (which cannot see or feel or plan or think), have produced living things (which have such abilities). Mr. Shermer does not appear to blink an eye as he endorses these improbable claims as the irrefutable results of “science.” It would appear that, when Mr. Shermer reads Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas or William Paley or Michael Behe, he reads with ruthless skepticism, but when he reads Carl Sagan or Michael Ruse or Will Provine or Richard Dawkins, he swallows pretty well any unsubstantiated efficient-cause speculation with complete credulity.




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10 Responses to Michael Shermer Misrepresents Intelligent Design in Canadian Newspaper

  1. Thomas -

    Excellent post! But you left out one important ingredient which I think is vitally important – that is, the openness of efficient causes. The evolutionists typically view efficient causes as not only being the only thing relevant in science, but they view them as being causally closed. A key point of Intelligent Design is that mind can and does play a role in affecting the real world.

    It is because of that fact that we can say that Intelligent Design is detectable – there are causal patterns that only arise when the openness of physics is manipulated by a mind.

  2. For Shermer, religion deals with the supernatural, and science with the natural.

    I can go along with that.

    To say of anything that “God designed it” is to invoke the supernatural, whereas science must always refer only to the natural.

    Again fine, if you can follow the rule. The problems start, however, because those who invoke this standard, rarely do. Think Freudian psychology. It claimed definitive answers– in the name of science — it flat out did not even come close to having.

    And how many people do we know who insist that science, as defined above, has all he answers? Those who do so are not just demeaning science but committing idolatry.

    So if God did something, science wants to know how God did it, and that means enumerating the chain of physical causes by which God achieved his desired result. Any attempt to explain something without reference to such a chain of physical causes is, for Shermer, not science.

    Exactly!!!! So where are those transitional fossils leading from bacteria to bird?

    Since Shermer believes that intelligent design theory refers causation directly to God, without specifying the natural causes through which God works, he concludes that ID is not science.

    Freud would likely say that Shermer’s self-delusion has to do with threatening memories which he is unconsciously repressing. Would therapy help?

    For the record, ID does not refer to God in the least. It simply applies a consistent and testable methodology to observable events.

  3. Are computers and space shuttles “supernatural” in Shermer’s definition? There’s not a proverbial snowball’s chance in hell that these things could materialize without a mind. Yet no laws of physics were violated in their construction so they can’t be supernatural.

    Use of the term supernatural in regard to causation in Intelligent Design is a red herring. ID is not about supernatural design detection. It’s about artificial design detection. Computers and space shuttles are artificial but not supernatural. An intelligent designer *could* be supernatural but there’s nothing about organic life on this planet that demands a supernatural agent anymore than a computer or space shuttle demands a supernatural agent. All it demands is a mind.

  4. As far as I am concerned ID is natural and materialism is sub-natural. Materialism is blind to a fundamental and crucial aspect of reality.

  5. Thomas, congratulations for another excellent post. As you make clear, it is folly to ignore philosophy or the philosophy of science when analyzing these matters. Obviously, Shermer is hopelessly confused. Theology, philosophy, and science all study the same truth from different perspectives. There is not one truth for each.

    —–Shermer: “Religion deals with the supernatural, and science with the natural.”

    Darwinists love to use the phrase, “deal with,” because it doesn’t really mean anything. Insofar as science can detect the “effects” of Divine innovation, it can, at least on that level, “deal with” the supernatural. In other words, it can detect the handiwork of a Divine innovator, but it cannot identify the innovator as Divine. Further, it cannot explain the mechanism of design, since intelligent innovation is, by definition, non-mechanistic. Shermer’s ignorance is really quite remarkable, and he ought to be embarrassed by it. This causes me to wonder if Darwinists can, in fact, be embarrassed.

  6. I posted a response to Shermer here.

  7. 7
    Thomas Cudworth

    johnnyb (#1):

    I think that there are at least two ways of imagining how the design got into nature: (1) The requirements for forming all future designs automatically was “front-loaded” into creation at the time of the Big Bang (or whatever else you conceive the beginning to have been); (2) some mind interacted causally in the evolutionary process at certain crucial times, e.g., at the formation of life, during the Cambrian explosion, etc. I think you have something like the latter in mind in your comment, whereas in my post I was focusing upon the first possibility. But either possibility would make design detection possible.

    Michael Shermer would no doubt pooh-pooh the second possibility, i.e., your possibility, as “creationism,” and as violating the rules of science by breaking the causal nexus (which for him always requires material antecedents). I don’t reject your possibility, but you are right that I left it out of my account. I did this to show Shermer and his admirers that even if we insist on strictly material antecedents, we can still regard design as the ultimate cause of the living forms that we see, and as detectable. And if design is detectable, then it falls under the category of “science,” where science is defined to include all genuine causes, including final causes. The exclusion of final causation from science, which began about the time of Bacon, is ultimately arbitrary. It served a useful purpose in its day, by forcing scientists to be much more thorough in their analysis of efficient causes, and that has proved enormously fruitful. But efficient-cause science is now mature enough and stable enough that it has nothing to fear from the re-integration of final-cause thinking into science. Final-cause thinking need not corrupt or substitute for hard-minded efficient-cause thinking. It simply adds another layer of explanation, without which efficient-cause explanation is in a sense incomplete.

  8. 8
    Thomas Cudworth

    johnnyb (#6):

    I enjoyed your article. Can you edit it slightly, by adding a hyperlink to the discussion here at UD, so that your readers can follow up and find further objections to Shermer?

  9. johnnyb:

    I, too, found your article interesting and edifying. We do need to remind our adversaries that their objections are irrational and that history has already proven them wrong. Methodological naturalism is the new kid on the block and this kid has turned out to be a juvenile delinquent.

  10. Thomas -

    Link added.

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