Thursday, April 07, 2005

Am I wrong to call it Intelligent Design Creationism?

Bronx Zoo gorilla
I say no, Bill Dembski says yes:
Despite intelligent design’s clear linkage, both methodologically and in content, with existing sciences that sift the effects of intelligence from undirected natural forces, critics of intelligent design often label it a form of creationism. Not only is this label misleading, but in academic and scientific circles it has become a maneuver to censor ideas before they can be fairly discussed.

To see that the creationist label is misleading, consider that one can advocate intelligent design without advocating creationism. Creationism typically denotes a literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis as well as an attempt to harmonize science with this interpretation. It can also denote the view common to theists that a personal transcendent God created the world (a view taught by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). In either case, however, creationism presupposes that the world came into being through a creative power separate from the world.

Intelligent design, by contrast, places no such requirement on any designing intelligence responsible for cosmological fine-tuning or biological complexity. It simply argues that certain finite material objects exhibit patterns that convincingly point to an intelligent cause. But the nature of that cause--whether it is one or many, whether it is a part of or separate from the world, and even whether it is good or evil--simply do not fall within intelligent design’s purview.

Dembski claims (wrongly) that "creationism … denotes a literal interpretation of … Genesis. … Creationism presupposes that the world came into being through a creative power separate from the world."

I noted the ties between Sermonti and Michael Cremo, Hindu creationist. Hindu creationism holds that the world has always existed, but that life is periodically recreated (or that humans have existed for billions of years). Where does that fit with Dembski's definition? It doesn't. The world always existed, as did humans.

Compare that with TalkOrigins's collection of types of creationism. Note that they include ID, Theistic Evolution, and what they term Methodological Materialistic Evolution, (with Philosophical Materialistic Evolution as the opposite extreme to young earth creationism). Materialistic evolution holds that natural processes are sufficient to explain what we see around us, but that supernatural forces may have guided events or laid the groundwork that allowed life to develop and evolve into humans.

Note that the only difference between a purely naturalistic perspective and a theistic model is whether a supernatural force weighted the dice. That form of creationism has no scientific dispute, it's only dispute is theological. TalkOrigins presents this debate as a continuum, with perspectives differing on how important and direct supernatural forces have been in the history of the universe. We might rename Young Earth Creationism as supernatural exclusivity, and Philosophical Materialism as natural exclusivity. Theistic evolution, IDC, OEC and the other belief differ only in the emphasis they place on natural forces versus supernatural forces.

The weakest way to define creationism would hold that the universe was created by some force. Then anything short of solipsism is "creationist." When Dembski argues that modern physicists are all creationists, that's what he's arguing (and don't just believe me, a real physicist thinks so too).

The strongest would be to narrow it down to a particular story of supernatural creation, and call every other creationist idea something else. That's dumb. We can agree that there are strong and weak forms of creationism. Strong creationism holds that God said "Let there be light." and there was; in other words, a supernatural force directly intervened in a personal and direct, even miraculous, way. The weak form holds that a supernatural force nudged natural forces, or tweaked initial conditions, but left no fingerprints. A non-creationist would hold that the natural world is a product of natural forces. In other words, a creationist is someone who holds that supernatural forces have directed the creation and development of the universe, including life on Earth.

Set aside the Wedge Document, in which people, including Dembski, specifically state that the aim of Intelligent Design is "To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God." Let's treat ID on it's alleged merits and alleged non-creationism.

If you posit that an "intelligent cause" must have been behind patterns of "finite material objects" you have to offer a little more process. Has this "design" gone on throughout time, or only at a single discrete moment? If it's through time, it requires a being which has existed for 4.8 billion years, and could manipulate DNA throughout that time. If it's at a single moment, then it's a nearly omnipotent being or force which could operate across the universe, or at least the entire earth.

That sounds supernatural. It's a supernatural being or a supernatural force, or both. It fits easily into the general web of creationist beliefs. No one can propose a natural force, being, or process which could do that with intelligence. There are various mechanisms which scientists believe could bring together parts of a simple replicator (see The Major Transitions in Evolution by John Maynard Smith, Eörs Száthmary for an accessible discussion). There's no reason to think that standard evolutionary mechanisms can't lead to species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom or super-kingdom divergence. So we have a legitimate explanation versus hand-waving. That's creation, but there's nothing supernatural, nor intelligent implied. It's directed, but just in a broad, emergent sense.

We can be pretty confident that any intelligence involved in designing the earth would be supernatural. We can be pretty confident that any intelligence which designed all 10-30 million species of life was supernatural. The only intelligence we know is instantiated in a brain or in computer models of the brain's function. Since we're interested in the origins of life, we're talking about what came first. This forces us back on St. Aquinas's First Cause argument, that everything has a cause, and avoiding infinite regress requires an "Uncaused Cause," which Aquinas calls God. Since it exists without natural causes (natural causes didn't exist before it), this First Cause is supernatural by definition.

And we're back to creationism.

To summarize, creationism can be defined as the belief that a supernatural force or being created, or directed the development of, the universe. If this force or being were caused naturally, it wouldn't be supernatural. That's why the artificial selection which produced Darwin's beloved pigeons, or Westminster's beloved show-dogs, isn't an instance of creationism, nor is it interesting to Intelligent Design Creationists. A natural creation is scientifically interesting, but it doesn't serve their agenda. That agenda is creationist, and aims not at science, but at certain philosophical perspectives (materialism, philosophical naturalism.

Since I've Laid My Burden Down” by Mississippi John Hurt from the album Complete Studio Recordings (2000, 2:45).