Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Stephen M. Barr, "The End of Intelligent Design?"

Over at First Things, one of my favorite thinkers, Stephen M. Barr, has published an important essay on the future of the intelligent design movement, "The End of Intelligent Design?" This piece dovetails nicely with my soon-to-be-published article in the University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy, "How to Be an Anti-Intelligent Design Advocate," as well as my forthcoming series of blog posts that will appear on the BioLogos blog, Science & the Sacred. Here is a large excerpt from Professor Barr's essay:

It is time to take stock: What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.

Very few religious skeptics have been made more open to religious belief because of ID arguments. These arguments not only have failed to persuade, they have done positive harm by convincing many people that the concept of an intelligent designer is bound up with a rejection of mainstream science.

The ID claim is that certain biological phenomena lie outside the ordinary course of nature. Aside from the fact that such a claim is, in practice, impossible to substantiate, it has the effect of pitting natural theology against science by asserting an incompetence of science. To be sure, there are questions that natural science is not competent to address, and too many scientists have lost all sense of the limitations of their disciplines, not to mention their own limitations. But the ID arguments effectively declare natural science incompetent even in what most would regard as its own proper sphere. Nothing could be better calculated to provoke the antagonism of the scientific community. This throwing down of the gauntlet to science explains not a little of the fervor of the scientific backlash against ID....

The emphasis in early Christian writings was not on complexity, irreducible or otherwise, but on the beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made. As science advances, it brings this beautiful order ever more clearly into view. Every photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope, every picture from the ocean’s depths, every discovery in subatomic physics, shows it forth. As Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “God [has] manifested himself in the formation of every part of the world, and daily presents himself to public view, in such manner, that they cannot open their eyes without being constrained to behold him.” And, “[W]ithersoever you turn your eyes, there is not an atom of the world in which you cannot behold some brilliant sparks at least of his glory. . . . You cannot at one view take a survey of this most ample and beautiful machine [the universe] in all its vast extent, without being completely overwhelmed with its infinite splendor” [emphasis mine]. Note that “atoms of the world” are not irreducibly complex, nor is “every part of the world.” Irreducible complexity has never been the central principle of traditional natural theology.

But whereas the advance of science continually strengthens the broader and more traditional version of the design argument, the ID movement’s version is hostage to every advance in biological science. Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous “explanatory filter” of William A. Dembski, one finds “design” by eliminating “law” and “chance” as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature....

None of this is to say that the conclusions the ID movement draws about how life came to be and how it evolves are intrinsically unreasonable or necessarily wrong. Nor is it to deny that the ID movement has been treated atrociously and that it has been lied about by many scientists. The question I am raising is whether this quixotic attempt by a small and lightly armed band to overthrow “Darwinism” and bring about a new scientific revolution has accomplished anything good. It has had no effect on scientific thought. Its main consequence has been to strengthen the general perception that science and religion are at war....

I suspect that some religious people have embraced the ID movement’s arguments because they want “scientific” answers to the scientific atheists, and they know of no others. But there are plenty of ways to make a case for the reasonableness of religious belief that can be persuasive to many in the scientific world. Such a case has been made by a growing number of research scientists who are Christian believers, such as John Polkinghorne, Owen Gingerich, Francis Collins, Peter E. Hodgson, Michal Heller, Kenneth R. Miller, and Marco Bersanelli. I have addressed many audiences myself using arguments similar to theirs and have had scientists whom I know to be of firm atheist convictions tell me that they came away with more respect for the religious position. Religion has a significant number of friends (and potential friends) in the scientific world. The ID movement is not creating new ones.
You can read the rest here.


Adam Omelianchuk said...

Dr. Beckwith,

I read Stephan Barr's essay with great interest and I thought it was a bit weak. ID, as it seems to me, is an inquiry into whether "design" can be a subject of epirical inquiry. Is it something objective, or is it something that we (rightly or wrongly) impose on things with our minds?

Now I think Barr is right to say that the project hasn't contributed anything to our scientific knowledge, but he doesn't make a good case as to why it could never make one. If ID theorists succeed in arguing that "design" is something objective that can be discovered than it is at least possible for ID to make a contribution.

The questions raised by ID are metaphysically interesting and there is nothing in the philosophy of science that necessarily excludes them.

Neil Parille said...

Isn't it pretty well established that the Catholic church embraces theistic evolution and rejects intelligent design?

I've read numerous orthodox catholics who reject Mosaic authorship of Genesis and consider Genesis 1-11 non-historical. In fact, I've never read a conservative interpretation of Geneis by a Catholic.

-Neil Parille

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Isn't it pretty well established that the Catholic church embraces theistic evolution and rejects intelligent design?

Why don't you go to the Vatican website and find out? http://www.vatican.va

Neil Parille said...

Dr. Beckwith,

There was a conference recently to 'celebrate' the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species and not a single advocate of ID or YEC was invited.

Could you tell me if Catholics are obligated to believe in Mosaic authorship of Genesis, Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, Danielic authorship of Daniel.

Since the Benedict doesn't believe these things then I think it's not required, but please let me know.

Neil Parille said...

I meant to say a recent conference held by the Pontifical Science Academy.