Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Critiquing Intelligent Design

J. B. Stump, who works for the BioLogos Foundation and teaches philosophy at Bethel College in Indiana, wrote a review for Christian Century of a book by Benjamin Jantzen titled An Introduction to Design Arguments. Neither the reviewer nor Jantzen is terribly sympathetic to this family of arguments for the existence of God and so we read passages like this one critical of Michael Behe's notion of irreducible complexity:
Of course, there are many things we don’t yet understand about evolutionary history. So if Behe were to produce an example of an irreducibly complex structure for which scientists had no compelling evolutionary account, would that be enough to generate the conclusion that it must have been designed? No, says Jantzen; there is another problem with the argument. When Behe claims that irreducible complexity is best explained by a designer, Jantzen reminds us that best is a comparative term and can only mean “best among the known explanations.” If history is any guide here, we should expect that we don’t yet know all the possible explanations, so Behe’s claim is considerably weakened.
This is a very odd criticism. Practitioners in every field always embrace the best theory available at the time, if only tentatively. Rarely do we find scientists holding back from working with a hypothesis because, though it's the best extant, they hope there may be better ones down the road. It's the best theories that make it into the textbooks and that popularizers of science advance in their books and articles. It's true that theories are often held with a light hand, but it's simply weird to think that we should refrain from concluding, for the time being at least, that something is designed even though that's the best explanation for what we see, because there may be a better explanation in the future.

Stump also says this which seems quite wide of the mark:
The ID camp does a disservice to the predominantly conservative Christian community to which it appeals by conditioning that community to mistrust science. Its arguments depend on accepted, settled science getting things wrong. So now an alarming number of Christians also reject the conclusions of scientific experts on climate change and vaccines. Of course experts make mistakes. The trick is to realize that they can be trustworthy as well as fallible.
This is just false. I'd challenge Stump to explain how it is that Intelligent Design theorists condition people to mistrust science. ID is not anti-science. Many of the ID people are themselves scientists or philosophers of science. Behe is a biochemist. They embrace and practice science. What they oppose are the metaphysical assumptions that naturalistic scientists smuggle into their interpretations of the empirical data. The conflict is not between ID and science, it's between ID and naturalism. It's a metaphysical, or perhaps methodological disagreement, but both IDers and non-IDers use the same scientific data and neither holds science in any higher esteem than the other.

Stump exacerbates the error by claiming that because of ID people are skeptical of climate change and vaccines, but this is ridiculous. People are skeptical of the claims of some climatologists that the globe is warming at dangerous rates because they find that a) some of the people making these claims have a personal or political stake in the issue, b) some of them have fudged data and forfeited their credibility, and c) there are other climatologists who have come to different conclusions. None of this has anything to do with ID. Likewise with those who are leery of vaccinating children. They agree with Stump's last sentence above, that experts can be both trustworthy and fallible. They just don't want the experts making their mistakes on their children.

Stump does take Jantzen to task for a very serious omission. According to Stump, Jantzen completely elides mention of Stephen Meyer's books:
It is a curious omission that there is no treatment at all of intelligent design’s currently most prominent figure, Stephen Meyer. His books Signature in the Cell (2009) and Darwin’s Doubt (2013) have become the leading edge of the movement. I suspect that Meyer’s work came along too late in the development of Jantzen’s book, which is clearly the fruit of many years of engagement with the material. It is regrettable, though, that what aims to be a comprehensive treatment of design arguments does not include the most important contemporary exemplar.
Stump's attempt to provide Jantzen with an excuse here is hard to give any credence. Meyer's first book came out in 2009, the second in 2013. Jantzen's book was released in February of 2014. He certainly had time to treat the first one, even if he had no time to add an appendix to offer some thoughts on the second. The fact that he ignored Meyer's work is indeed very unfortunate.