In my previous post I linked to a recent essay by William Dembski, one of the leading figures in the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. In the essay, he argues that Darwinism is significantly analogous to alchemy such that, like alchemy, its scientific merits should be suspect.
In should mention that Dembski doesn't use the term 'Darwinism' in this essay, but it is his preferred label for the view he wants to criticize. He defines 'Darwinism' elsewhere as follows:
Darwinism is really two claims. The less crucial claim is that all organisms trace their lineage back to a universal common ancestor. . . . This claim is referred to as “common descent” or “universal common ancestry.” Although evolutionary biology is committed to common descent, that is not its central claim.The central claim of evolutionary biology, rather, is that an unintelligent physical process can account for the emergence of all biological complexity and diversity. Filling in the details of that process remains a matter for debate among evolutionary biologists. Yet it is an in-house debate, and one essentially about details. (Link)
Dembski's comparision between Darwinism and alchemy runs something like this:
- Alchemy: Despite a paucity of positive evidence for the claim that lead can be transmuted into gold, and despite the lack of any "causal specificity" on how this transmutation could be effected, the alchemists were convinced by a prior commitment to neoplatonic metaphysics that transmutation had to be possible.
- Darwinism: Despite a paucity of positive evidence for the claim that life can arise from nonliving matter by purely physical processes, and despite the lack of any causal specificity on how this transformation can occur, Darwinists are convinced by a prior commitment to a materialistic metaphysic that such a transition must be possible.
Setting the merits of Dembski's comparison aside for the moment, a commenter on my previous post, William, suggests that the same charge that Dembski levels against Darwinism can, with equal if not more justification, be leveled against ID:
Demski [sic] risks being speared by his own argument. His objection to absence of "causal specificity" in evolution is extremely well-addressed in the literature of the science. His alternative hypothesis, "intelligent design" is justly criticised for failing to propose any kind of mechanism for the design it purports to detect. It has no more causal specificity than alchemy, in fact, somewhat less.
Now, I'm not entirely sure what William means by saying that the lack of causal specificity in evolution is "extremely well-addressed" in the literature. I make no pretentions to being well-versed in the origin-of-life literature, though I have read enough to know that the problem is widely regarded as being very far from a solution. But let's set that aside. What I want to focus on is William's claim that ID is "justly criticized for failing to propose any kind of mechanism for the design it purports to detect." I think this charge reflects a common and important misconception about ID, which I'd like to explain.At bottom, the debate between Darwinism and ID is a methodological debate over whether mind (design) can ever be a basic (non-derivative) and scientific explanation of worldly phenomena.
According to Darwinism there must
be a purely materialistic causal pathway from molecules to man. One possible ground for this confidence is a prior commitment to metaphysical materialism. Dembski seems to suggest that this is the only possible ground, but perhaps Jeffersonian deism could generate the same result. In any case, exclusive reliance on material causes as explanations of worldly phenomena requires a worldview that grounds and justifies that reliance, and materialism fits the bill nicely.
According to materialism, before the first mind all there was was matter, space-time, and laws of physics governing how matter gets rearranged over time. Eventually, some lump of matter got organized in just the right sort of way and, voila, life emerged. Gradually these living lumps of matter got organized in more and more complex ways until, viola, a mind emerged. Thus, on the materialist view, mind is nothing but an emergent product of matter. Since mind is wholly explained by the arrangements of matter that sustain it, mind cannot be a basic
explanation of anything.
Of course, this is not to imply that minds and designers can never be derivative
explanations - most materialists would, for example, explain Shakespeare's plays as products of the Bard's mind. But they would then go on to insist that if we could trace the causal chain back through Shakespeare's ancestry we would eventually arrive at a point at which no minds existed. Moreover, Shakespeare's mind, insofar as it exists and is capable of doing anything at all, derives all of its causal powers from the material substratum upon which it supervenes.
The foregoing explains why Darwinists have no problems with the scientific credentials of SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) even though the SETI researchers are looking for signals that exhibit design and thus point to the existence of ETI's. The reason Darwinists have no problem with SETI is because the researchers are committed to the idea that whatever minds they might detect would themselves have to be reductively explained both diachronically, as evolutionary products from nonliving matter, and synchronically, as supervenient effects of purely material causes. So Intelligent Design (ID) proponents who point to SETI as an example of the scientific legitimacy of design-type explanations are to some extent missing the point. Darwinists are happy to admit design-type explanations into science, provided that the posited designers can then be given a reductive, materialistic explanation
Now what about ID? I think the best way to understand ID is, primarily, as a methodological position
in the philosophy of science; secondarily, as a research program
; and tertiarilly as a set of theories about X, Y, and Z. As a methodological position, ID is defined by its rejection of the Darwinian methodological constraint that mind cannot
be a basic explanation. As a denial of this, ID should not be taken to imply a commitment to the positive thesis that mind
is in fact
a basic explanation of some worldly phenomena. Rather, it is a commitment to the thesis that mind could be
a basic explanation and that there would be nothing scientifically
untoward should that turn out to be the case. As a research program, ID is defined by the claims that design is reliably detectable and that, with respect to the origins and development of life on earth, it is highly probable that design, even basic design, has played a significant role. To date, this research program has encompassed a wide array of specific design theories, for example, that theory that the bacterial flagellum is 'irreducibly complex' and thus an instance of (possibly basic) design. Critics who charge ID for its lack of specifics are very often guilty of conflating ID-as-methodology and ID-as-research-program with ID-as-theory-of-X. On the other hand, I think ID proponents could be more clear in keeping these levels distinct.
With that background in place, I think we can begin see the problem with William's charge that ID is "justly criticized for failing to propose any kind of mechanism
for the design it purports to detect" (emphasis added). In the first place, the criticism expects from ID the kind of specificity appropriate to a theory-of-X, overlooking the more fundamental methodological and programmatic aspects of ID. In the second place, the criticism expects ID to become something it is not. As I've pointed out, ID is committed to a wider philosophy of science that allows (though doesn't require) design explanations to be basic explanations. But if design is a basic explanation for some worldly phenomenon, then there cannot be a "mechanism for the design". To ask for a mechanism at that point is to ask the ID theorist to give a reductive explanation of design or mind in terms of something else. This is tantamount to asking the ID theorist to give up the committment to the possibility of basic
design explanations, and therefore tantamount to asking him to give up ID. Obviously, that is not something any self-respecting ID theorist ought to concede.
I conclude, then, that ID, properly understood, does not slip into alchemy. Whether Dembski's is right that Darwinism does so, is something I'll leave for the reader to decide.