Saturday, June 17, 2006

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Blogger manning120 said...

Here is an article recently published in the Spring 2006 issue of Synapse, the philosophical journal of American Mensa. I’ve added a postscript.


© 2006 by Charles Manning

The dictionary describes fundamentalism as “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.” The principles generally concern right and wrong in the areas of human behavior. Reason can be viewed as the systematic and careful application of common sense. Fundamentalists reason as well as non-fundamentalists, but when reason and beliefs conflict, fundamentalists resolve the conflict in favor of sustaining their fundamentalist principles. Non-fundamentalists, among whom I perhaps optimistically include philosophers, resolve such conflicts by abandoning or modifying beliefs that conflict with reason.

We’re in a “culture war” in which fundamentalists are attempting to impose their “basic principles” on everyone. In one of the most important battles of the culture war, fundamentalists have targeted Darwinian evolution, employing a powerful new weapon, the theory of intelligent design (“ID”). In this essay, I suggest a specific counter-attack philosophers are especially qualified to mount.

The architects of ID associated with the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington say that certain “irreducibly complex” biological structures and processes (“IC,” the existence of which I will presuppose although critics of ID often deny it exists) – such as bacterial flagella and blood clotting mechanisms – couldn’t have evolved. Therefore, the theory goes, IC must have been designed and created during biological history by an intelligent designer or designers (“D”). ID theorists say that ID is scientific, but that determining the identity and nature of D must be left to philosophy or religion.

The logic of ID appears compelling. The probability is nil that even simple human artifacts could evolve “by accident,” as the theory of evolution claims biological structures did. Therefore, since IC is much more complex than human artifacts, it seems even less likely that IC could have evolved.

ID presupposes the possibility of supernatural intervention, an idea illuminated by Baruch Spinosa (1632-1677), in “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus,” Ch. 5. He said the masses believe God most clearly displays His power by extraordinary events. While God is inactive, nature “works in her accustomed order,” but God can act to bring about extraordinary events by suspending natural law. Belief in the possibility of supernatural (divine) intervention underlies belief in miracles and the power of prayer. It’s a sine qua non of most religions. ID substitutes D for God in Spinosa’s formulation.

Some philosophers take it as their duty to critically examine presuppositions. So, let’s examine the presupposition, from a philosophical perspective, as it applies to ID. I start with several questions about the nature of D and how D would act.

1. Would D have to be supernatural? I say supernatural intervention requires a supernatural intervener. William Dembski of the Discovery Institute once remarked that ID doesn’t require belief in God or any supernatural being, and suggested that some may believe the designer was a “space alien.” Daniel C. Dennett, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University and ID critic, agrees that we don’t need a supernatural being to do what ID says D did. We could suppose genetic engineers from another galaxy traveled to our planet and designed humans out of primates. Dennett and Dembski both sidestep the crucial question of how such non-supernatural aliens, who surely would incorporate IC, might come into existence. Either they arose through evolution, or some supernatural process designed them. ID rejects the former; we’re left with the latter.

2. What is D’s nature? ID theorists don’t hesitate to suggest that D must be much more intelligent than humans, since IC is much more complex than anything humans could produce. Taking a cue from Aristotle’s “Uncaused (or First) Cause” theory, I think we can further understand the nature of D by considering chains of natural causation that theoretically could be traced back to a beginning. A supernatural being would be one that doesn’t fit within any such causal chain. It might be at the end or the beginning, but not in between. D, as described by ID, fits that description. D would be the first cause of IC “designed” after the Big Bang. It also seems necessary that D not possess matter or energy, since those attributes would place D in a natural chain of causation. In other words, D, if supernatural, wouldn’t do the work of “designing” by exerting force upon matter through mass or energy, the way non-supernatural designers would.

3. What evidence would be left of D’s creation of IC? There should be “footprints” such as fossil records, or other types of records: missing links or added links in causal chains. Either way, the records would show the IC in question as either the first link, or a link in a chain that has an identifiable first link, other than the Big Bang. ID claims D acted during the history of evolution. If D performed all designing at the moment of the Big Bang, we would be arguing only about the nature of D, not the fact of evolution.

David Hume (1711-1776) persuasively argued against the possibility of miracles:

“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience [that] can possibly be imagined. . . . [N]o testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish. . . .”

Hume’s idea logically implies that supernatural intervention such as that presupposed by ID is illusory. A corollary is that supernatural beings like D couldn’t exist. Spinosa saw it this way too.

ID theorists say that under the laws of probability, IC couldn’t have evolved, according to the best Darwinian understanding. But the argument that the laws of probability rule out evolution of IC doesn’t withstand careful scrutiny. Those same laws rule out “mindless” evolution of human artifacts such as lined paper, or even structures designed by sub-human creatures, like bee nests or butterfly cocoons. Even the simplest living cells are much more complex than any of those. ID’s probability argument proves too much – that all life, not just IC (as ID theorists claim), couldn’t have evolved.

Employing Hume’s argument, we can’t accept ID’s account of supernatural intervention unless denial of supernatural intervention would be more “miraculous” than affirmance of supernatural intervention. I think any rational person, bearing in mind the foregoing observations about the nature of D, how D would act, the “footprints” of D’s intervention, and the flaw in the probabilistic argument, would find it less plausible that supernatural intervention caused IC than that IC resulted from natural processes that may or may not be fully understood. The only thing that might reverse this conclusion would be experimental proof that ID “footprints” really do exist. That seems very unlikely. We’re more warranted in believing that such things as fossil “gaps” will be, or have been, explained scientifically than that they will be proven conclusively to have been caused by D’s intervention.

The supernatural intervention presupposition is the Achilles’ heel of ID. But scientists critical of ID ignore it. Instead, they rely on scientific explanations of how “mindless” natural selection caused such things as bacterial flagella and blood clotting processes. These explanations require considerable scientific expertise to understand, and lack the persuasive force, at least among non-scientists, of ID’s claim that IC must have been designed.

Also, the critics weaken their scientific arguments by relying too much on the supposed deception practiced by ID theorists. The critics complain that ID theorists know ID is unscientific, notwithstanding that its probabilistic analysis is an application of the science of probability. For example, Dennett describes ID as “one of the most ingenious hoaxes in the history of science.” They also insist that ID is disguised religion. Biologist Daniel Hartl calls ID a “sly dissimulation” and “transparent attempt” to evade Supreme Court rulings against teaching creationism in public schools. See similar comments in “Irreducible Complexity Demystified,” by Pete Dunkelberg (April 26, 2003), at

Leading ID theorists, such as Michael Behe and Dembski, expressly disavow that ID is disguised religion. They say the theory “flows naturally from the data itself –– not from sacred books or sectarian beliefs.” The critics cite no direct evidence that people like Behe and Dembski don’t believe what they say. Perhaps the critics confuse the ID theorists with religious zealots who reject, for example, science’s estimates of the age of the earth, but still use ID, which accepts those estimates, to impugn the theory of evolution.

That being said, the Discovery Institute admits religious objectives. The famous “Wedge Document” (1999) states the Institute’s “governing goals”:

“* To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies, and
“* To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

The Institute officially states, I believe correctly, that many founders of modern science, such as Boyle, Keplar, and Newton, thought that some aspects of science support theistic belief, or that science and theism are compatible. The Institute also says not all proponents of ID are religious, and that they don’t attack science itself, but only the idea that science supports the “unscientific philosophy of materialism.”

Ironically, despite its religion-friendly but non-fundamentalist aspects, ID has drawn substantial opposition from non-fundamentalist believers. Because they accept the possibility of supernatural intervention, they, like the scientists, avoid a direct attack upon what I’ve described as ID’s Achilles’ heel. Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, echoing John Paul II, wrote early this year in the Catholic Church’s organ, “L’Osservatore Romano,” that “scientists could not rule out a divine ‘superior design’ to creation and the history of mankind,” but that “God’s project of creation can be carried out through secondary causes in the natural course of events, without having to think of miraculous interventions . . .” (Compare this to the view of most scientists that the matter and energy created in the Big Bang, at the moment of creation, already contained the potential to evolve into what we have today.)

In February 2006, as many as 441 church congregations in 48 states and the District of Columbia participated in “Evolution Sunday,” an outgrowth of the Clergy Letter Project. Reportedly, more than 10,000 ministers signed the Clergy Letter, which says rejection of evolution amounts to embracing “scientific ignorance.”

But the February 13, 2006 New York Times report on “Evolution Sunday” notes that the non-fundamentalist denominations supporting the Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday have shrunk sharply over the last 30 years, while the number of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians has greatly increased. Their use of ID in the fight against “atheistic materialism” was boosted by prominent politicians, like President Bush and Senator John McCain, going on record in favor of teaching ID as a scientific theory competing with the theory of evolution.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, at its February 2006 gathering, called ID a major threat to science education. But the threat is much bigger than that. Dominionists, also known as Christian Reconstructionists, use ID as a part of their strategy to transform the U.S. into a “Christian” theocracy, in keeping with Romans 13. Dominionists here mirror Islamic fundamentalists abroad who want to universalize Islamic law, called Sharia, which features, among other things, the death penalty for adultery, apostasy, and homosexuality. It’s perhaps less well understood that Dominionists would impose similar laws in the U.S. See

Many of our nation’s founders, such as Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and James Monroe, were Deists, believing that God created the universe, but rejecting, inter alia, divine intervention, the virgin birth, the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, and the infallibility of the Bible. Their influence brought into being a Constitution that not only doesn’t require religious beliefs or practices, but forbids a religious test for office. In 1868, the 14th Amendment imposed those guarantees on the states.

Most current U.S. political and religious leaders would have omitted these devices. President Bush’s recent Supreme Court appointments have set the stage for rendering them meaningless, if not repealing them. His initiatives like federal funding for “faith-based” charities and a ban on funding for stem cell research show a willingness to tear down the wall of church-state separation. His adoption of the “unitary executive” theory suggests he thinks his election endowed him with divine power to override the other branches of government by, for example, eavesdropping without warrants, stripping suspected terrorists of human rights, and censoring, or ignoring the counsel of, government scientists.

The administration did almost nothing to prevent the transformation of Iraq from its secular status under Saddam Hussein to an Islamic state, or to prevent the election of a Hamas majority to the assembly of the Palestinian Authority, displacing more secular Fatah members. Bush spoke about the election results as though he believed God ordained them.

Bush’s opponents bear considerable responsibility in all this. They lack the wit and will to reverse the trend toward fundamentalism, as shown by their recent failure to stop the appointment of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, where he joins dominionist Antonin Scalia. Members of the Judiciary Committee think it’s improper to ask Bush’s nominees about their fundamentalist beliefs. Democrats now flaunt religiosity to counteract the impression that they’re too secular. “God bless America” is a required ending to every political speech, regardless of party.

The liberal news media also bear responsibility for the slide toward fundamentalism. None of the major news organizations have focused on, or understood the scope of, the dominionist agenda. I can’t think of a single instance of a reporter questioning a political leader about his or her fundamentalist beliefs in a national forum. The closest thing to it was Bush’s pre-election identification of Christ as his favorite philosopher and personal savior in response to a reporter’s question. There was no follow-up questioning.

When federal judges in the Ninth Circuit determined that public school children shouldn’t be forced to intone each day that the United States is “under God,” presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich declared, “any judge who would drive recognition of God from the public arena so profoundly misunderstands the nature of America that they should not be allowed to stay on the bench.” This extreme view, although well publicized, failed to evoke outrage in the press, or even among our government’s leaders.

The fundamentalist “pro-life” movement continues to make progress. South Dakota just outlawed all medical abortions. If the fundamentalists’ strategy works, the tragic consequences of bearing unwanted children will be completely disregarded in favor of doctrinal belief that the zygote, from the moment of fertilization, is entitled to all the protections of viable children. If that were so, the government would have to require sexually active women to submit their vaginal discharges to government authorities to allow detection of fertilized eggs, since those would be deceased “persons” entitled to autopsies, death certificates, and funerals, and anyone responsible, by act or omission, for their deaths would be subject to prosecution. Stem cell research could be totally shut down, with potentially tragic consequences for people suffering from conditions like spinal cord injuries, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s Disease.

The Terri Schiavo affair shows the president and a large fraction of the congress subscribe to the fundamentalist belief that a brain dead individual remains morally equal to a person with a living brain.

Vague allegations that same-sex marriage will somehow harm opposite-sex marriage, and that allowing homosexuals to serve in the military will damage the morale of “straight” soldiers, are smokescreens to obscure the real basis for opposition: religious belief that homosexuality is sinful (see, e.g., Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26-27).

Recent U.S. foreign policy shows fundamentalist influences. Consider, in relation to Iraq, the use of weapons of mass destruction as a pretext, references to the “evil” Saddam Hussein, the refusal of the Bush administration to admit any mistakes or fire errant officials, and the administration’s claim that we have a duty to vindicate liberty (an endowment from the Christian God) world-wide. These suggest that leaders in the Bush administration believe invading Iraq was a religious imperative. Palestinian officials say Bush told them in June 2003 that he responded to God’s commands (not rational strategic analysis) to fight terrorists in Afghanistan, depose Hussein, establish a Palestinian state, insure Israel’s security, and work for Middle East peace.

The Bible says there will be a second coming of Christ following Armageddon, the unification of Israel, and the ascendency of the Anti-Christ. Millions of Americans, including the president, believe this (I keep hoping someone will ask him about it). I wonder if the president has discussed with fundamentalist believers like Tom DeLay how the U.S. should respond to Armageddon, identify the Anti-Christ, and submit the United States to Christ’s rule upon the second coming. Or how the power of the state should be used to help bring about God’s will with regard to non-believers, who are slated to be killed or “left behind.”

ID has quickly become a powerful weapon in the fundamentalists’ arsenal. Philosophers should discuss the supernatural intervention presupposition as a way of counteracting the use of ID by fundamentalists in the culture war. We owe this not only to ourselves, but to humanity.

(Thanks to Jamie Schroeder for valuable insights in preparation of this essay, but Jamie shouldn’t be assumed to agree with anything in it. Internet exchanges I’ve had about ID can be found by searching for “manning 120” on the Internet generally and in the New York Times “human origins” forum. By the way, I haven’t employed footnotes or used many citations because numerous Internet sites discuss almost every important concept in this article. But I haven’t found Spinosa’s comment on supernatural intervention quoted, or referred to, by anyone else.) [END]

BIO: Charles Manning, 63, is a married South Texas attorney and former Philosophy SIG coordinator.


Further thoughts on ID’s analogical argument for the existence of a designer: ID claims that IC must have been designed, after the Big Bang, by a highly intelligent being (often described as God) because the universe hasn’t existed long enough for natural laws and chance occurrences to produce IC. I believe this argument is seriously flawed. Consider the following:

1. If a wrapper for, say, M&M’s were discovered on a planet in a distant galaxy, we would immediately know that it was designed by an intelligent being, as opposed to coming into existence by the same “mindless” processes that produced non-living structures like stars, planets, oceans, etc. The probability that those processes could have produced the candy wrapper is so small as to rule out anything but intelligent design.

2. The simplest life is far more complicated than a candy wrapper, and hence far less likely to have occurred through the aforesaid “mindless” processes. Can we then conclude that even the simplest life could never have arisen without intelligent design?

3. Doesn’t the argument that IC is to complex too have arisen by “mindless” evolution therefore suffer from the defect of proving that all life, not just IC, could never have evolved?

Josh Bryan, a contributor to Open Source, argued that I may have misunderstood the nature of complexity. I agree that defining complexity is important. Knowing that one thing is more complex than another gives insight into the nature of complexity. One gauge of complexity is the difficulty humans have duplicating objects using raw materials. Science could duplicate candy wrapper out of its raw materials, but science hasn’t been able to create even the simplest life form despite hundreds of years of trying. Therefore, the latter must be more complex.

Additionally, it’s perhaps unfair to suggest that one must reject the power of prayer have proper insight into the fallacies of ID. Some believers, such as Professor Facchini (mentioned in the article), seem comfortable with the idea that God hasn’t intervened in evolutionary history, but might intervene in human affairs. Therefore, one might plausibly argue that challenging ID’s supernatural intervention presupposition isn’t the same as challenging the underlying possibilities presupposed in prayer. However, my personal view is that supernatural intervention doesn’t occur.

3:58 PM  
Blogger manning120 said...

In the article “Intelligent Design, Supernatural Intervention, and Fundamentalism,” I observed that the “liberal media” fails to question President Bush about the role his religious beliefs play in his foreign policy. On March 20, 2006, according to Sidney Blumental in “The Guardian,” who referred to a CNN report, the president made an appearance in Cleveland, Ohio, where a citizen (not a reporter) asked such a question. The woman said that “American Theocracy” by Kevin Phillips “makes the point that members of your administration have reached out to prophetic Christians who see the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism as signs of the Apocalypse. Do you believe this? And if not, why not?”

At least one television humorist joked about how long Bush pondered the question, which a non-fundamentalist would have answered “no” without hesitation. Bush eventually said, “The answer is I haven’t really thought of it that way. Here’s how I think of it. First, I’ve heard of that, by the way. . . .” Blumenthal reports that the official White House website transcript changed this to, “First I’ve heard of that, by the way.” I saw the clip on television and distinctly heard it the way Blumenthal (and evidently CNN) heard it.

The “liberal media” considered the question something of a prank or joke. It was anything but. Note that the president didn’t deny believing the war on Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the Apocalypse. Subsequently, in discussing the matter, Press Secretary Tony Snow didn’t deny that the president believes those things. It would be surprising if President Bush didn’t believe them, if he’s really a “born again Christian.” One would hope for assurance that such beliefs are privately held and don’t influence national policy. But such assurance hasn’t been forthcoming.

5:44 PM  

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