The discussion thread for my article “Intelligent Design Explanations are not Science Stoppers” includes a spirited exchange with RonH. One point of disagreement that quickly emerged in our interaction concerned the relevance of the background beliefs and intentions of intelligent design advocates in assessing the arguments for intelligent design.
RonH was keen to link intelligent design to the politics of the Discovery Institute and subversive intentions to introduce God into the laboratory (and classroom). I countered that RonH needed to distinguish the arguments of his ID interlocutors from their background beliefs and motivations and to focus simply on the arguments.
Unmoved by my reasoned entreaty, RonH retorted:
“C’mon, Randal. I can distinguish between individuals, institutions, and ideas. But ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re invented by people and promoted by people and institutions.”
Indeed, RonH is correct to note that ideas don’t exist in a vaccum. Nonetheless, that is a non sequitur because one should still be able to assess the argument on its own terms.
I will grant RonH one modest point: the background beliefs and motivations (and supporting institutions) for a truth claim can justify a prima facie skepticism of the claim. However, that skepticism is only prima facie. Ultimately the truth claim should be considered on the merits of the arguments/evidence provided for it.
Imagine, for example, that you learn of a public lecture being given by a professor who challenges the link between climate change and fossil fuels. You are intrigued and plan to attend. But then you learn that the lecture is being funded by BP and Exxon. That discovery might reasonably sustain a new prima facie skepticism about the lecturer.
But even if you now have a justified skepticism, that doesn’t change the fact that ultimately the professor’s arguments must be considered on their own merits. The fact that BP and Exxon and the professor all have motivated interests doesn’t automatically undercut the quality of the man’s analysis.
In fact, it is worth keeping in mind that virtually everyone has background beliefs, motivations and interests. And we are all in perennial danger of special pleading by which we yield undue permission to our background beliefs, motivations and interests while raising the skeptical bar for others.
Thus, the real danger of RonH’s perspective is that it will inure a person from considering arguments and evidence presented from motivations and background beliefs different from one’s own. The only solution is to recognize that the arguments for the truth claim must ultimately be considered on their own merits.
In conclusion, I’ll note one additional point: not all supporters of ID have a connection with the Discovery Institute. (And I count myself in that number.) In fact, as I pointed out to RonH, not all are even theists. Bradley Monton, for example, is an atheist philosopher of religion and defender of intelligent design.
Now imagine that I give RonH a journal article defending ID and I implore RonH to consider the argument on its own merits. In reply he retorts, “Downplaying theistic intervention is just a political tactic.”
In light of the analysis in this article I have two responses. First, is the article still a “political tactic” if it was written by atheist philosopher of religion Bradley Monton? Or is it only a political tactic if it was written by a theistic ID theorist like Stephen Meyer?
And, to return to my original point, what does it matter what the “political tactic” may be? The argument should be considered on its own merits.