Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Vanity of vanities!

Ecclesiastes said "All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun." Arguing about intelligent design often feels like "striving after wind." The problem is that "what is crooked cannot be made straight, what is lacking cannot be numbered."

And so I didn't plan to strive after the latest wind issuing forth from the Telic Thoughts gang, their reply to our ongoing discussion of creationist confusions over the ontogeny of Intelligent Design. Luckily, I didn't have to write my response because Mike, er Mark Nutter handled it ably for me:
Krauze says Josh is wrong about whether he (Krauze) endorsed the idea of ID beginning in the 80s, but I can’t help noticing that Josh didn’t say Krauze endorsed the idea, but only that he mentioned it. And he did mention it, so Krauze’s objection seems, on the face of it, to be invalid.
Indeed. The rest of Krauze's reply is equally tendentious. I used words which aren't identical to those that ID creationists use, so therefore Intelligent Design isn't actually creationism. Or something. Who knows? Who cares? "All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full."

I admit, there's something odd about Krauze's dismissing my use of the phrase "the DI's brain trust" to describe Michael Behe, Bill Dembski, Paul Nelson, Stephen Meyer, Phil Johnson, and the other DI fellows who testified in Dover, at the Kansas hearings and in the literature that the DI publishes and cites. I also liked how that entire body of work was dismissed as "courtroom drama." But it's all striving after wind, there's nothing really thoughtful to respond to there. I offered a set of evidence, Krauze waves it away. "What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?"

Krauze's error was partly built on some truly awful reading comprehension. I wrote that:

To say “Darwin’s writings might be damning to those ID supporters who reject the common descent of all life from ‘one or a few forms,’” implies that a non-trivial number of the field’s professionals fall into some different category. This does not seem to be true.
Which is to say – most ID advocates reject common descent, and in Dover, Kansas, and elsewhere, have used claims about "design" to argue against common descent, or to simply demand agnosticism with respect to common descent.

The point I was making is that ID is itself an attack on the principle of descent with modification – the term Darwin used to describe the vision of life's development which he sired. This is why I argued that Krauze seems to be using "intelligent design" to refer to something very different from the rest of the movement. He doesn't really deny that or clarify what he meant. He says his focus is on the origin of life, but there's no literature on the ID origins of life. The literature is focused on evolution – that is the diversity of life – and peripherally on the origins of the universe, or whatever it is that Privileged Planet claims caused the alleged privilege.

Indeed, on the origins of life are the place where ID and creationism are least distinguishable. If ID is only an explanation of life's origins, we're talking about the intelligent designer creating.

And so we get to the interesting question that Matt … er … Mark Nutter asked: what originated in the '80s?

The standard argument, ably documented in Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design by Barbara Forrest with extensive quotations and identical claims by scientific creationists and early ID advocates, is that scientific creationism's failure in court lead people to find a new formulation of standard creationist tropes without the explicitly religious language, the specific references to Genesis per se, in hopes that simply erasing the claims derived from a specific religious origin would be sufficient to get creationism into science classes, and perhaps getting evolution out.

Mike Gene, Krauze's co-blogger, has invested a lot of time arguing that ID isn't creationism, and has based this claim on a narrow construal of "creationism" as "young earth creationism." By excluding the various forms of old earth creationism, Native American creationism, HIndu creationism, scientific creationism and other ideologies which need not be specifically Biblical, but which are obviously creationist. And Krauze's use of the term seems to match beautifully with that general philosophy.

Nutter suggests that what originated in the '80s had two distinct innovations:

First, the modern ID movement claims that “intelligent design” is no mere philosophical or devotional apologetic, but can be objectively and empirically determined by application of the scientific method. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the modern ID movement claims that we can detect design in creation without necessarily having a divine Creator.
As the Preacher said: "there is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to happen among those who come after."

The scientific creationism advanced by Henry Morris also claimed to be rooted in objective empirical evidence. Furthermore, it remains unclear how ID would operate without a divine Creator (or Designer). And that last point leads us back to Krauze's concern with the origin of life. He seems to think that that event represents a moment of "design," just as Behe would claim that the origin of the flagellum represents "design" and Meyer would handwave about the Cambrian explosion being a result of "design." Various IDolators make an issue of "intelligent agents." In private, they'll say that they think the Designer is the divine Creator of the Bible.

This particular argument is not terribly new. It can readily be traced to Aquinas' cosmological argument. He argued that everything needs a cause, and we'll call the First Cause God. Aquinas, like Aristotle and Plato before him, distinguished before a Prime Mover/demiurge who created in esse or in fieri, that is creation that happens in a moment or creation which must be sustained. ID focuses on the latter, a single moment of creation. And even the Genesis creation is not a creation de novo, it's a creation out of chaos.

This argument is not even novel in the modern era. Setting aside Paley, whose argument wasn't distinguishable from the claims of IDC, we find this comment from a 1940 article in Scientific Monthly by Jesuit astronomer J. S. O'Connor (quoted here): "the existence of an intelligent being as the First Cause of the universe can be established by rational scientific inference."

This sort of argument to first cause is subjected to several traditional critiques. The most salient theological objection is that the first cause being invoked need not be anything like what we traditionally think of as God. It need not be the personal, benevolent deity of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. This critique applies to Aquinas, to Paley, and to Dembski. Dembski is more willing to publicly praise that ambiguity, but its recognition is not novel.

What makes ID special is not the argument it presents, its theology, it's claims to scientific support, the evidence it claims to present, nor the goals of its originators. What makes it special is the careful, legalistic approach it takes to the particular arrangement of arguments. The claims about the scientific evidence are no more valid now than they were when Henry Morris and other creationists advanced them, nor when William Paley, Thomas Aquinas, or Aristotle framed out the argument. This is why I originally said that it would be better if ID had originated in the '80s as a novel idea. As it stands, the argument has been evaluated and rejected as a scientific claim, and doesn't enjoy a lot of support among theologians, either. "Sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil."

This was the problem we started off discussing. Krauze and Mike Gene both insist that ID isn't creationism. Krauze (and probably Mike) argues that it falls in line with a broad teleological argument that goes back to whatever, which may be true. But so do the various sorts of creationism that have popped up in response to legal rulings over the years. There is nothing distinct from the basic creationist line of argument that existed prior to the 1980s. Something happened in that time period, and the question is what. If it had been a moment like that in which Einstein established relativity and the basis of quantum theory, that would be better for ID.

But it didn't. It represents a small shift in rhetoric from the arguments made by teleological creationists in the 1970s and '80s, and no philosophical shift from creationist ideas expressed continuously since before Darwin. Krauze seems to claim that it simply shares a common ancestor with creationism, but it shares derived traits that creationism has but which Aristotle lacked. ID is descended directly from creationism. "There is nothing new under the sun."