INTELLIGENT DESIGN

Bryan at Arguing with signposts links a Stephen Den Beste piece about the lack of evidence for a Judeo-Christian type God. Bryan reflects on this and writes,

As I reflected on the essay this morning, I kept wondering to myself: Here’s a guy who has created this masterful piece combining logic and prose, providing “one for the ages,” as it were. And yet, as he’s doing so, he’s denying that the universe could be the product of intelligent design – that “God” could create this universe. To be fair to Den Beste, he maintains a complex, reasoned evolutionary belief system. It makes the best sense to him.

And that’s precisely what boggles my mind. Setting aside for the moment any discussion of the God of the Judeo-Christian religion, scientists and computer programmers, very intelligent people all, engage in “intelligent design” every time they combine mixtures in attempts to combat HIV (or sickle cell anemia, to use SDB’s own example). They engage in “intelligent design” whenever they create network solutions or smaller, faster computer chips. They use the stable laws of the universe and physics, exploiting them to human advantage. And yet, they deny that these laws, this universe, could be the design of a higher intelligence. Why?

Just to recap: A computer that learns to play chess is the product of human intelligence and design. The human who designed the computer that learned to play chess and the laws that govern the operation of that computer are the product of mechanistic randomness. That I don’t get.

An interesting question. My belief is that religion has always served at least one of two purposes: to explain the unexplainable and to serve as a foundation for a code of human behavior. The great religions, starting with Judaism, have done both. Over time, however, scientific discovery has competed with religion for the first function and various non-supernatural philosophies have competed in the second venue.

Obviously, it’s impossible to prove that there is no creator. As time goes on, however, the lack of concrete evidence that there is a creator seems rather damning. Christianity has been around a couple milennia now and yet no Second Coming or other widespread revelation. Why?

Also, I’d contend that the fact that all the other planets we know about seem to have no purpose whatever is evidence against divine creation. Why would a God capable of creating Earth with all its magnificence also create Jupiter? Random chance seems a much more logical explanation to me than divine creation.

I agree with Den Beste’s conclusions on this:

In induction what one person finds overwhelmingly convincing, another may find weakly interesting if at all, and this doesn’t necessarily mean one is right and the other is wrong. Sometimes they are, but sometimes it just means they’re evaluating the importance of the issues involved in different ways.

I know or have known Christians that I thought were deluded fools. I have received more than my share of incoherent arguments from them which they thought were overwhelming and I thought were clear demonstrations of their lack of education and inability to reason effectively.

But I have also known, and now know, Christians who are intelligent, intellectually disciplined, well read and knowledgeable who are completely convinced of their faith, just as I am totally convinced about mine. I think they are wrong, and they think I am wrong, but it isn’t possible for either of us to prove it to the other. These are not people who believe in a 7-day creation 6000 years ago; these people believe in an ancient earth and think that humans are the end result of evolution, but think that there’s more to the universe than I do. The claims that they make are subject to inductive evaluation but not to deductive examination or empirical test, which means that we can personally arrive at conclusions about them but cannot objectively prove those conclusions to each other when we end up disagreeing about it.

I think that a Christian who believes in a 7-day creation etc. is an idiot, but I do not think Donald Sensing is an idiot, and I consider his religion to be equal to my own, even though it totally contradicts mine. That doesn’t mean I have any doubt about mine; I’m convinced he’s wrong.

Not all religious positions are equally worthy of respect and many are only worthy of utter contempt. But I do not grant that the atheistic point of view is in any way above all of the best of the alternatives, such as the one Donald believes. Donald and I disagree, but I think that his inductive process was of equal quality to my own, and until such time as further evidence becomes available which might directly affect those calculations, we’ll continue to disagree while maintaining mutual respect.

Seems reasonable to me.

FILED UNDER: Best of OTB, Religion
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bryan says:

    Thanks for linking to my post. I have a couple of points:

    1. the lack of concrete evidence that there *is* a creator – this seems to wander back into the area SDB was attempting to escape. And, I would ask: what evidence would suffice?

    2. Jupiter: I would question why “planets with no purpose” would mitigate against design. Just because I say there appears to be a “design” doesn’t mean that everything must therefore have a “purpose” that is readily apparent to me. After all, the Mona Lisa doesn’t have a “purpose” in the greater scheme of things, any more than does Jupiter. And yet, random chaos cannot explain its beauty.

    I was trying to avoid the whole question of “usefulness” by focusing on the rules by which things operate and are designed.

    While Jupiter doesn’t seem to have a “purpose” to us, it does operate under well-defined laws of physics (laws that I’m sure SDB would elucidate for us). I guess my question is, how can we say that those laws are the result of “random chaos”?

    It’s a worthwhile discussion, and that’s the reason I raised the issue regarding SDB’s post.

  2. James Joyner says:

    1. One would think that a being capable of intelligently designing a universe could make himself manifest and, I dunno, appear on Fox News for an interview and perform a few miracles or something. How hard could it be? Heck, just a reprise of the time-honored stunts like walking on water and turning said water into wine would be good starters.

    2. The Mona Lisa presumably had/s a purpose–making the artist money, just for starters.

    I guess I just assume that the laws of physics exist because they’re the laws of physics. No reason that one needs intelligent design to create gravity; there’s just gravity. And other things, including life forms, operate within that framework. This doesn’t require any leap of faith.

  3. Nick says:

    In regards to concrete evidence, I would be willing to accept ANY at all. The sad fact is that there just is not any. Obviously, as a living and breathing member of society, I interact daily with people I really like who are, nonetheless, religious. This might seem harsh, but my thought is always “This person isn’t mentally retarded, yet they still believe in god. How can this be”.

    Den Beste:”Not all religious positions are equally worthy of respect and many are only worthy of utter contempt”.

    My question is, ‘Why’? Given that it’s acceptable to believe in and base one’s entire life on something that has literally not one shred of proof to its name, how do we rate religions relative to one another? Why is Donald Sensing’s religion superior to my beliefs in a race of Flying Toasters in the Melba Nebula?

  4. James Joyner says:

    Nick: Why is Donald Sensing’s religion superior to my beliefs in a race of Flying Toasters in the Melba Nebula?

    SDB’s point is that there are some highly intelligent people who have examined the evidence–including the gaping holes in our knowledge–and reached different conclusions. To literally believe the Earth was created in seven days requires the rejection of mounds and mounds of credible evidence with no rational basis. But it’s not implausible that there is an Intelligent Creator responsible for evolution, etc. There are brilliant physicists and biologists, almost infinitely more knowledgeable than I am about their fields, who nonetheless believe in a God. I see no reason to conclude that, Nobel Prize or no, they are therefore idiots.

  5. Bryan says:

    I’m going to disregard the obvious troll. Before I respond to James’ points, I want to be clear that I’m not arguing the Judeo-Christian God. I specifically tried to keep that concept out of my original post anticipating just these types of side issues. That being said, here are my responses to James’ points.

    1.It doesn’t satisfy the atheist, or the skeptic, but it’s a bit presumptuous to assume that a higher intelligence “owes” you an explanation, or further proof than the fact that you have a brain, an appreciation for things beautiful, and the capacity to love and be loved. (remember I’m leaving off the Judeo-Christian concept for the purposes of this discussion).

    2. And Jupiter has no “purpose” discernible to you. Perhaps there is a purpose for Jupiter that we do not understand, or there was a purpose for Jupiter at some point in the past. Regardless, my point stands: Design is not the same thing as purpose.

    As for the laws of physics, isn’t that a tautology? They are because they are? Funny, that’s the name of the Judeo-Christian God: “I am that I am.” Maybe you’re more of a theist than you believe. 😉

  6. James Joyner says:

    Bryan,

    I guess I find 1 and 2 to be cop-outs in several ways. First, you say you’re not talking about the J-C god, but it sure sounds like him. If he created us in his image as rational beings, then it isn’t unreasonable to ask him to reveal himself every few centuries. And, if he’s above that, then screw him.

    Ditto the “we can’t understand his mysterious ways” argument. Well, okay. But until we do, it doesn’t become evidence for the grand scheme of the universe.

    I don’t see saying the laws of physics simply are as tautological, just existential. Science and mathematics start with observable premises, from which proofs for non-observable phenomenon are derived. The existence of humanity on Earth but nowhere else strikes me as something that requires explanation; the existence of universal constants like gravity do not. And it’s a far more elegant explanation than saying that gravity exists because God wants there to be gravity, and God just is. The second alternative adds no clarity and requires additional logical leaps.

  7. Bryan says:

    I think we’re going to have to disagree on this. I don’t see “intelligent design” as equivalent to “the Judeo-Christian God.” Let me use your own quote: “There are brilliant physicists and biologists, almost infinitely more knowledgeable than I am about their fields, who nonetheless believe in a God.”

    FWIW, I do believe in the Judeo-Christian God, but I see proof of his existence in Steven Den Beste, so I’m probably something of a crackpot, anyway. Of course, you read my site, so you already know that. 😉

    And I don’t see the two as cop-outs, either. *I* didn’t mention “His image.” I posited that I don’t understand how we can practice “intelligent design” and yet deny that it’s possible at a universal level. Now, who’s drawing conclusions? Second, why is it “reasonable” to *expect* a higher intelligent being to reveal himself to us at all?

    Again, Jupiter was brought up by you. I maintain that design does not necessarily equal purpose. But as long as we want to talk “purpose,” let me ask you this: will you agree that sometimes people create things purely for aesthetic reasons, i.e., solely because those things bring them pleasure? Would you accept that Jupiter could have such a “purpose”?

    Finally, if we wish to deal with origins, then we have to come back to the issue of where these physical rules came from. Are the rules themselves eternal? Did they predate the existence of matter?

  8. James Joyner says:

    I just say it sounds like the J-C God because you posit an arrogant creator who exists and yet won’t deign to reveal himself.

    If you are arguing that there is intelligent creation, then it strikes me as reasonable that there is a purpose behind the creation. To which you respond “And Jupiter has no ‘purpose’ discernible to you. Perhaps there is a purpose for Jupiter that we do not understand, or there was a purpose for Jupiter at some point in the past.” All of which is plausible, but it strikes me as a cop out, since it takes away the ability to falsify.

    You also say, “Design is not the same thing as purpose.” That’s fair enough. But what is design then?

    I don’t have the knowledge of physics required to answer whether the laws of physics predate the existence of matter. For one thing, I doubt that a universe existed that predates matter–where would matter come from? But, off the top of my head, I would say they are eternal. It’s simply the way atoms interact.

  9. Bryan says:

    Sorry. I don’t think of the J-C God as “an arrogant creator who exists and yet won’t deign to reveal himself.” There’s another discussion entirely.

    But from a strictly “intelligent design” standpoint, such a creator could exist. Remember, I’m not arguing the J-C God. I’m positing an intelligent design behind the universe. I’m aware that SDB isn’t impressed with the engineering ability of such a creative being, but that’s beyond my point.

    As to the “discernibility” of purpose, I grant you that it’s “plausible” and not “provable.” The reason I bring it up, however, is that I have to think back through history to all the times and ways mankind has been incorrect in assuming the purpose for various things. We are human. We don’t fully understand everything. I think even SDB would agree with that. I’m comfortable with that conclusion. I don’t think that’s a cop-out.

    My statement that “design is not the same thing as purpose” has to do with ends and means. A purpose is an end. Design is a means to an end. Sometimes that end is a definite purpose. Sometimes, design is done for design’s sake (art for art’s sake, right). But surely the purpose for something doesn’t have to be immediately apparent in every case.

    And I would like to state again that I am fully willing to concede to SDB and OTB the right and intellectual ability to come to different conclusions than my own. I thought SDB’s piece was masterfully done. I don’t always understand those conclusions. That was my point.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Bryan,

    SDB and I agree on that conclusion–indeed, I quoted that portion of his post.

    It sounds like your intelligent designer is, well, not particularly intelligent. Maybe this is just the beta test universe?

  11. Nick says:

    James,

    “SDB’s point is that there are some highly intelligent people who have examined the evidence–including the gaping holes in our knowledge–and reached different conclusions.”

    I realize this. But my point is that, nonetheless, the “different conclusions” they have reached bear no empirical or even circumstantial evidence. Thus, while they rightly rule out 7 Day Creationism, they continue to believe in something that no-doubt they would laugh at were it presented as evidence against a defendant in a murder trial. Given that the Melba Nebula lies 15 million light years from here, we will never be able go there and examine it for Flying Toasters. Does that mean I get an intellectual free pass for believing in them?

    Bryan,

    I don’t appreciate the “troll” label. I am only laying out my intellectual beliefs as I hold them. I went to great pains to point out that I still really love many people who are religionists. Your “ignoring” of my arguments is pretty unpalatable to me, as I feel that I made some tenable points.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Given that the Melba Nebula lies 15 million light years from here, we will never be able go there and examine it for Flying Toasters. Does that mean I get an intellectual free pass for believing in them?

    I know that on Star Trek, even the pre-series Enterprise, they go at least that far all the time. So, therefore, it’s a scientifical fact that we’ll visit your nebula by the end of the decade. The question is, and it’s way beyond my comprehension of physics and astronomy, would the atmospheric conditions on said nebula support toasters and/or flight. Also, presumably, one would have to also believe they have bread, or otherwise why would they need toasters? Toasters, except for the four-slicers, are very poor aerodynamically and would be a poor choice for spacecraft were there no bread.

  13. bryan says:

    I don’t appreciate the “troll” label. I am only laying out my intellectual beliefs as I hold them. I went to great pains to point out that I still really love many people who are religionists. Your “ignoring” of my arguments is pretty unpalatable to me, as I feel that I made some tenable points.

    Trolling 101: A lesson

    1. demean
    This might seem harsh, but my thought is always “This person isn’t mentally retarded, yet they still believe in god. How can this be”.

    2. reduce to the absurd
    Given that it’s acceptable to believe in and base one’s entire life on something that has literally not one shred of proof to its name, how do we rate religions relative to one another? Why is Donald Sensing’s religion superior to my beliefs in a race of Flying Toasters in the Melba Nebula?

    3. Expect a response

  14. bryan says:

    James,

    Or maybe he’s so intelligent you just don’t get it. 😉

    BTW, it’s interesting to note how this theistic argument has floated around the blogosphere from Clubbeaux to SDB to TRA to AWS to OTB and on and on.

    SOT: Now that we are entering an age of “post-modernism,” it’s got to be infuriating for scientifically minded atheists, since post-modernism is not at all rationalistic. It would seem that postmodernism would “favor” theism, since at least the Christian concept of God relies on “faith” rather than “proof.”

    Cheers.

  15. Nick says:

    Bryan,

    1. I didn’t demean anyone- and certainly not by name. I merely mentioned what my thoughts stray to whenever I converse with my religionist friends. When I speak with them, I keep them to myself. In fact, it’s the opposite of demeaning them. It’s extending them a cordiality of silence on the subject when I’m dying to talk about it.

    2.What you call a “reduction to the absurd” is the exact point. IT IS ABSURD! Belief in sky-gods to me is literally no different than belief in the Melba Nebula. What can I say? That’s what I actually believe. You seem to be unable to extend to me the same civility of belief that you give to religionists. Why would that be?

    James,

    These are invisible flying toasters, and thus render aerodynamics moot…

  16. James Joyner says:

    These are invisible flying toasters, and thus render aerodynamics moot…

    Kinda like Wonder Woman’s plane? I get it now.

  17. Bryan says:

    Nick,

    Perhaps I am taken aback by your sarcasm. But to address your point, the belief in the Judeo-Christian God is *not* equally as absurd as your belief in the overly-visible omelet pans of WTF Melba Nebula. And you stomping your feet and saying “is too” doesn’t make it any more so.

    And if you can’t see the difference between the two, it does no good to discuss the matter because:

    a) you already have your mind made up, and no amount of “proof” that I could muster would meet your standards, and;

    b) the fact that you hold religionists in such contempt (at least in your heart, if not in their presence) means that I would only be subjecting myself to more mockery of this type. If I want that, I’ll post comments to TRA. I have enough to concern myself with without such masochism.

    Finally, Nick, if you *really* believe in the invisible flying waffle irons from the Nebulus Albuterol, more power to you. Keep it up. Try to win some converts. Your first statement was correct: ” …It’s acceptable to believe in and base one’s entire life on something that has literally not one shred of proof to its name.” That’s the essence of free will, Nick, and freedom of religion.

  18. April says:

    Somewhere G-d and her Council of Invisible Flying Toasters is laughing…really hard…

  19. Nick says:

    Bryan,

    “The belief in the Judeo-Christian God is *not* equally as absurd as your belief in the overly-visible omelet pans of WTF Melba Nebula.”

    I attended Catholic school for 7 years and also had a Jewish stepmother whom I accompanied to temple on perhaps 200 or 300 occasions. Not one time in all of my extended exposure to 2 major, formal religions, was the experience devoid of internal contradictions. Not one time was I ever presented with any proof of any of the contentions of the devout (although I asked until I was blue in the face). Not one time was it ever explained to me beyond “it just is” when I asked how the violent death of a stranger of yore somehow benefitted me personally.

    I would like to know, how exactly, the J-CG is less ridiculous than the flying toasters. The christian god I was taught about brought about immaculate conceptions, water walkings, and talking bushes. How, oh, how is that any less ridiculous than flying toasters? Children without sex? 150 pound objects not sinking in water? Literal contradictions of the observable laws of nature and physics…yet somehow, I’m a jerk for merely pointing that out.

    Bryan, you seem to be very sensitive. At no time were you personally attacked.

    ” …It’s acceptable to believe in and base one’s entire life on something that has literally not one shred of proof to its name.” That’s the essence of free will, Nick, and freedom of religion.”

    Of course it is! What kind of point is this? I never advocated any government induced silencing of religion. I never denied free will.

  20. bryan says:

    Not one time was I ever presented with any proof of any of the contentions of the devout (although I asked until I was blue in the face). Not one time was it ever explained to me beyond “it just is” when I asked how the violent death of a stranger of yore somehow benefitted me personally.

    Well, I certainly feel pity for you. I find that very difficult to believe, but I just have to take your word for it. Of course, with the various scandals that have arisen from the Catholic church, not much would surprise me there.

    But I would also point out the problem with your statement: so what? Just because *you* were not given such answers does not mean that such answers have not been proposed. Ever heard of Alvin Plantinga? Here’s an article on faith and reason.

    So no one ever explained the concept of sin, eh? or the concept of atonement? Wow. I am shocked. If that’s all you were exposed to, I can’t say I blame you for your views. There are any number of systematic theology texts dating from the early history of the church that would attempt to explain such concepts. I’m sure you could find them. Do an Amazon search.

    Of course, you again want “proof” of things that are mentioned in the Bible. At this late stage, I would again guess that there is no proof that would satisfy your demands. We don’t have photographic evidence. And if we did, what’s to keep you from claiming that the evidence was faked? All we have are testimonies from people who wrote about what they saw.

    Which is not what makes Christianity livable today. My faith is not based wholly on the testimonies in the Bible, but on my personal experiences. I may be wrong, but I don’t think so. One day, we’ll both find out.

    Now, as to *how* God is different from flying toasters is easy enough to explain if you will show me more information about your flying toasters, preferably information collected over a significant period of time from numerous individuals. After all, I’m not believing in God based on one individual’s word for it. Whose word do you have about the toasters? There’s just *one* difference.

    I am not necessarily *sensitive,* but I do have a very low tolerance for the sneering pseudo-intellectualism that permeates atheistic militancy.

    And finally, my point regarding your peculiar religion was that it is fine for you to practice such a religion, but it is not necessary that it be held in the same respect as Judaism or Christianity. But you’re welcome to work your way up the religious ecoysystem.