Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Repost: An Atheist in support of ID

This was the first post that I made on www.overwhelmingevidence.com, and so I thought it would be fitting to repost it here so a wider audience could read and consider it.


In the scientific debate over the origins and patterns of life over the years, it is often claimed that evolution is propped up by atheists, and ID is propped up by theists alone. There are theists in support of evolution, but what about atheists who support ID? I'm one.
I wanted to get this right out there, seeing how this is a new community and I plan to contribute as much as I can to shape the discussion. Over the next month, I hope to elaborate more on my positions (and lack of positions) on Evo/ID issues, but the first one I wanted to bring up for everyone's mutual digestion is the pidgeon-holing of the debate into religious terms.
First, I would like to object to the statements made by non-believers that ID amounts to nothing more than a religious argument dressed up in scientific language. Information theory, biochemistry, and engineering - these are hardly religious concepts. Fields such as Archaeology can conclude that design has taken place, in the case of human artifacts, but the keep-away-from-biology wagon-circle that they put up to design detection methods reveals that they are afraid of theism leaking into biology. Why?
ID proponents are currently mostly religious, and currently mostly Christians. This is to be expected because of the origins of the theory. If ID was formulated in Saudi Arabia, we would be debating the islamic origins of ID, and if it was invented in Atheist/Communist China, the debate would be of a whole different flavor.
What could be some of the causes of this? For one thing, religious beliefs are strongly correlated with interest in ID. Many religious groups, people, and churches promote ID within their organizations and communities. Many people conflate the designer(s) with their notion of a god, and give their support to it for the wrong reasons. In this, a lot of ID supporters are guilty.
Its the same thing as when atheists believe in evolution because they believe it eliminates the need for a god.
The issue should be the evidence for or against particular theories, and not the theological (or political) implications of those theories. It is difficult to keep the debate on scientific terms, and both sides can be blamed for that.
What are we to do as ID supporters? For one thing, I think we should stop painting ID with supernatural colors. This wins supporters in some groups, but creates enemies in others. Just as evolution has no bearing on whether or not there is a god, neither should ID. Many pseudo-ID groups (such as Reasons to Believe) have latched onto the Designer notion and proclaimed that it is the Christian God, and this harms the movement's scientific mission.
Religious and non-religious scientists alike should find this notion attractive. For instance, just as there are immensely complicated, fine-tuned, and beneficial systems in cells that may have been designed, there may also be simple systems, sub-optimal, and even malicious systems in cells that may have been designed. For theists that believe in a benevolent, omnipotent and omniscient God, such systems may be ignored because they do not fit into their theological presuppositions.
Sub-optimal, simple, or malicious design may be wrongly attributed to evolution or the break-down of a more perfectly designed system, or even ignored. I have heard Michael Behe describe his personal view of the Type-III Secretory System in that it was designed - a structure that helps bacterial pathogens kill eukaryotic cells in diseases such as the bubonic plague. Many theists are loathe to consider the TTSS as being designed because it seems to be a malicious design. If a scientist created such a thing and unleashed in upon the world, we would declare them a terrorist. So many people conclude that it must have been a flagellum that broke down to the structure that we see today to avoid the theological issues that come with their assumption that the designer(s) must be benevolent.
Perfect design is also assumed, and this leads to strong arguments against design, and weaker-than-possible arguments for design. Anti-IDists bring up cases up sub-optimal design as an argument against ID, and the usual response from ID supporters is to try to explain how it must be optimal somehow, and this can lead to laughable rationalizations. But couldn't there be cases of structures in biological organisms that meet the characteristics of being designed, but are sub-optimal or inefficient? Only when you assume that the designer(s) has/have/had perfect knowledge and ability will the design be assumed to be perfect in all aspects. (For instance, if the flagellum did break down to produce the TTSS, and if the designer was believed to be an all-knowing deity, wouldn't it have still foreseen that and you would be compelled to conclude that the flagellum should have been designed in another way as to prevent that breakdown? Again, assumptions are in play.)
If we can conclude that the entity or entities (theological presuppositions also lead people to describe the Designer in s singular and also capitalized) that did the designing was/were intelligent, then we can learn about other aspects of it or them. (notice how many describe it as a "he" as well) For example, how intelligent? How knowledgeable were they of natural law, how much could they predict about the future? What can we surmise that they did not understand when structures within biological organisms were being designed? If you cringe about the prospect that the designer(s) could have had less than perfect knowledge about the universe, then you are assuming that this is a deity, which is your own theological assumption that you bring to the table.
I've given a few examples here, and I hope to elaborate on this some more over time. I've pointed to a few aspects of the language that we use to describe ID and how this gives fuel to the Trojan Horse of Creationism fire that gets tossed onto ID. I think that if you tie your notion of a creator-god to the design we find in biological systems, then there are difficult questions that will do more harm to (and might be considered blasphemous to) your religious beliefs than any notion of biological evolution ever could. So there is good reason to separate ID from your religious beliefs as well.
You many not agree with me, in which case we could continue the dialogue over the coming weeks, months, years, and however long it takes for ID to become accepted and not discriminated against for imagined theological reasons. You might want to attack me for not being religious, but remember, theists and atheists alike believe in evolution, despite the lack of evidence, because they agree on scientific grounds. I'm an atheist, so you would think that I should believe in evolution by default. But there is much that we do not understand in this universe, and evolution does not help us understand the most complicated aspects of biology, and it is a poor substitute for a real scientific theory. That's something that I think we can all agree on, and to stave off any anti-atheist attacks I may get, I would like to say that if this is to become the important scientific movement of this century, it has to be about the science, and nothing but the science. Let's leave our theological assumptions at the door.
Thanks for reading.

11 comments:

dobson said...

You have an Interesting perspective, specifically the notion that ID can be justified on purely materialistic grounds.

ID, as currently formulated by religionists is not scientifically testable - how can you test for gods? This clearly suits a theological agenda, because religion thrives on mystery.

May I suggest that if you want to put ID onto a credible platform that science can deal with all you need to do is propose it as a testable scientific proposition. A good way to start would be to start speculating about the identity or nature of this "designer".

You will note that most ID literature (certainly all of the literature I have read) contains plenty of criticism of evolution but no evidence for an alternative. It's often presumed that if Evolution is wrong then ID must be right. This is a blatantly false dichotomy.

So far, ID proponents have failed to prove their case. When they have attempted to they have been tied-down by their own religious beliefs; For example Behe's testimony at dover demonstrated that in his mind at least ID and Christianity are inextricably linked.

If secular ID is going to lead anywhere you need to do what the religious people could never do - that is to put ID on a firm scientific basis by answering the who, how, why type questions that the theological IDers deliberately ignore.

For example, you might want to propose what mechanism this designer used to influence the world, and then devise a number of experiments which would determine if this is the case.

Jettisoning the theological nonsense that underpins most ID statements is a very good start, but it's only a start. You have a long way to go before ID is a theory that mainstream science can take seriously.

Spiritual-AgnosticRICK said...

For years I was a darwinian evolutionist, I had read all the standard books on evolution, but I had always questioned the absolute necessity of the matter first dogma and I began to see it for what it was, dogma. The darwinist/materialists were rejecting any alternative view not on the basis of evidence or weighing alternative explanations but as a fundamental postulate of their philosophy regardless of evidence. At present I consider myself to be an agnostic open to the design or mind first view of nature.

Richard Davis in Decatur, AL

Richard Davis said...

For years I was a darwinian evolutionist, I had read all the standard books on evolution, but I had always questioned the absolute necessity of the matter first dogma and I began to see it for what it was, dogma. The darwinist/materialists were rejecting any alternative view not on the basis of evidence or weighing alternative explanations but as a fundamental postulate of their philosophy regardless of evidence. At present I consider myself to be an agnostic open to the design or mind first view of nature.

dobson said...

Richard, I'm really happy for you. Unfortuantely that kind of personal witnessing to the power of ID will not help mainstream science understand you.

May I suggest that instead of just trying to attack the "dogma" of mainstream scientific theories, how about you attempt to prove your own?

You should have an advantage over the silly religious people who try to prove ID. Since you are an agnostic IDist, you ought to be able to propose a wholly natural mechanism for ID and then devise an experiment to show that this is true.

EJ Klone said...

So you're talking about cosmic design? One of the things I find interesting about fellow design enthusiasts is that they don't want to separate issues of cosmic and biological design.

William Brookfield said...

Hi Dobson,

Thank you for visiting. I do wish you would not use the word "silly" with regard to any person or group of persons here.

"...advantage over the silly religious people" Not good.

"...advantage over the religious people" Much better.

From my perspective ID is natural and materialism is sub-natural. Nothing is "supernatural."

William Brookfield said...

Hi EJ,

One of the things I find interesting about fellow design enthusiasts is that they don't want to separate issues of cosmic and biological design.


Even though I support the hypothesis (not dogma!) that a cosmic mind or "God" ultimately did everything, I consider the answer "God did it" extremely imprecise and unscientific in the case of biological design. If you asked "Who built the Eiffel tower?" the answer "God did it" would be true, but only in a hideously general, imprecise, unscientific sense. At this time I believe that the French built the Eiffel tower and that bacteria and other species possess an advanced non-local intelligence or "species brain" that does the designing. I think that we have underestimated the non-local intelligence of bioligical aggregates. At this time I personally support a combination of EAM (endogenous adaptive mutagenesis) and Sheldrake's morphogenetic resonance.

dobson said...

From my perspective ID is natural and materialism is sub-natural. Nothing is "supernatural."

William, I know that religious people often dislike the idea of materialism because it is fundamentally at odds with their dualist world-view. Since you do not seem to believe that the supernatural exists in any way other than our imagination, what is your objection to it?

I'm not sure what you mean by 'sub-natural'. What changes would you make to the philosophical framework of naturalism or materialism (I use the words interchangeably) in order to accommodate that which you perceive to be reality?

I should note that "materialist" is usually a pejorative used by religious super-naturalists. It's intended to criticize those who deny the existence or scientific relevance of supernatural phenomena, which from a religious phenomena is absurd.

dobson said...

At this time I believe that the French built the Eiffel tower and that bacteria and other species possess an advanced non-local intelligence or "species brain" that does the designing. I think that we have underestimated the non-local intelligence of bioligical aggregates.

Can you say a little bit more about this non-local intelligence? This is a big idea and not the sort of statement that should be idly made.

I assume that you believe that this intelligence is wholly natural. You believe that it is some kind of consequence of the normal behavior of atoms and energy, and ultimately something we can understand given enough insight and research? Is that right?

I understand that you believe that there is strong evidence for an ID based approach, but do you see that unless you present some kind of hypothetical mechanism for this design and some kind of experimental validation of that hypothesis then your ideas will not be taken any more seriously than the ID proposals made by religious people.

William Brookfield said...

Hi Dobson,

"What changes would you make to the philosophical framework of naturalism or materialism (I use the words interchangeably) in order to accommodate that which you perceive to be reality?"

I do not use the words interchangeably. "Naturalism" as I see it, is a philosophy of science -- a commitment to the open minded exploration of the natural world. "Material-ism" OTOH is a hypothesis that has unfortunately become a dogma for many. "The-ism" is also a hypothesis that has unfortunately become a dogma for many.

dobson said...

William, you did not answer my question, let me re-phrase:

So what aspect of materialism would you change to make it accommodate that which is valid in naturalism. I personally do not see a difference between a naturalistic and a materialistic approach, but you do. What is the difference?

For example, is there some well-confirmed natural phenomena that cannot be understood within the framework of materialism?

If you feel that there is some aspect of naturalism that is not fully accommodated by the philosophy of materialism, could you expand on this?

For example, you might object that a materialist approach is not a great framework for understanding poetry. Do you feel that this is a strength or a weakness of materialism.