Mike D (aka The A-Unicornist) wrote an article yesterday titled “Randal Rauser is an ID proponent“. Near the beginning of the article Mike D quotes me as stating:
“ID is the view that appeal to intelligent or agent causal explanations is a legitimate part of natural science.”
He then replies:
That’s not accurate, actually. Because of course intelligent causes are a part of science, such that we observe the behavior of other animals (including humans). But what Randal really means is supernatural agency or causes being legitimate explanations for phenomena in evolutionary science.
Kudos for trying to tell me what I really think, but my original formulation is correct while your commentary is not. Science does not provide a basis for inference to supernatural agency. And I don’t know an ID theorist who says it does. What they do propose is that agent causation is in principle a legitimate inference to explain structures and processes in nature.
I affirm that basic principle while rejecting attempts to get ID taught in schools in a circumvention of the separation of church and state. I affirm it whilst distancing myself from the Discovery Institute as a right-wing think tank. I affirm it whilst also affirming the common descent of all life forms through mechanisms described in contemporary Neo-Darwinian theory.
Sadly, these days any attempt to have reasonable discussions of the philosophical issues raised by ID is like trying to have a reasoned discussion of the merits of nuclear power at a Greeenpeace convention.
Mike D replied:
So unless you think this agent is an alien that can somehow manipulate physical objects from afar without leaving so much as a trace of evidence of its existence, you’re talking about a supernatural agent.
Do you seriously expect me to believe that the supernatural doesn’t even enter in to the ID paradigm? It’s central, Randal! Why do you think that so much of ID literature consists of attacks on “materialism”?
Here we find what is for many the objection to ID. It is the objection that really the only viable agent cause to explain natural facts would be God. Thus, ID theorists are not only trying to get God in science, but they’re guilty of bad faith in their attempt to conceal their true intentions. (I’m not saying Mike forwarded the bad faith charge, but one often hears it.)
Let me respond to Mike’s comments on two fronts.
First, I’ll address the range of intelligence options. Mike’s response reveals a deep irony insofar as it is more often the critics of ID rather than the proponents of ID, who are anxious to draw divine causation into the discussion of scientific theorization. (Mike reminds me here of the Parents Music Resource Council, a conservative action group in the 1980s that scoured heavy metal music for references to Satan. As a result, some critics began to suspect that the PMRC seemed to be even more preoccupied with Satan than the heavy metal bands they were investigating.)
But let’s consider Mike’s charge nonetheless. Mike claims that any possible appeal to ETI would commit one to affirming that “an alien that can somehow manipulate physical objects from afar without leaving so much as a trace of evidence of its existence”. But how does he know this? Indeed, quite the opposite would be true, for if ID detects evidence of ETI activity then it did leave a trace of evidence of its existence!
I am also disappointed that Mike does not even consider the possibility that conscious agency might be a supervenient property in the universe. Many atheistic materialists believe that consciousness (and self-consciousness) supervenes on brains. Might it supervene on other structures in the natural universe? And might that supervenient consciousness provide an agent causal explanation of still other structures, events and processes in the universe much like our consciousness serves as an explanation? I don’t see how an open-minded person can foreclose this possibility a priori. After all (if I may borrow a line from Hamlet), “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
But what if we find a structure or process which appears to be best explained by an agent cause, but we have no viable human or non-human (ETI, supervenient conscious) causes? What then?
My response is simple. If there are structures or processes that are best explained by an agent cause and there are no viable human or non-human agent causes, then wouldn’t you want to know? By comparison, imagine if Grandma starts getting sick shortly after her grandson becomes her caregiver. Grandma’s neighbor suggests that grandma get her food tested to find out if it is somehow being spoiled. But Grandma refuses to get the food tested based on the possibility that her grandson might be poisoning her. To my mind, this would be a bizarre reason not to get the food tested. After all, if Grandma’s grandson is poisoning her, surely she should want to know. And if the best cause to explain an effect is a divine one, surely we should want to know that as well.
Anyway, Mike need not worry, because ID theorists are quite serious that while inferences to intelligence can be warranted within scientific explanation, inferences to divine intelligence cannot. And it will always be possible to propose still as yet undiscovered ETI or supervenient conscious agent causes.
This brings me to the second point that ID theorists really believe that insofar as agent causes of natural phenomena are discovered, that agent cause is God. This is true of most ID theorists, but it strikes me as simply irrelevant. Let’s say that Dr. Brown is a bioethicist who believes that elective abortion is wrong based on his belief that human beings are made in the image of God. However, Dr. Brown recognizes that this theological belief is not legitimate to introduce to bioethical discourse and so he limits his writing on the topic to arguments based on the Hippocratic Oath, the concept of the fetus as a patient, and facts about the mental development of fetuses. Would it be appropriate to respond to Dr. Brown’s arguments by saying “Yeah, but he really believes human beings are created in the image of God.” No, it wouldn’t. So long as Dr. Brown keeps his theological beliefs separate from his bioethical arguments, his bioethical arguments should be evaluated on their own merits.
By the same token, the theological beliefs ID theorists hold about the nature of agent causal explanations of natural phenomena are irrelevant so long as they don’t bring those theological beliefs into their ID reasoning to an agent cause. Consequently, arguments for agent causes of natural phenomena should be evaluated on their own merits.