Saturday, March 31, 2007


Competition at the Bottom

Is Jay Richards trying to take William Dembski's place as the most mealy-mouthed proponent of the Intelligent Design Movement?

In an interview in the Christian Post, that had all the hard-hitting bite that you might expect from a Sal Cordova grilling of the reigning champ, Richards shows real promise as a challenger for the ... uh ... top spot.

The interview focuses on the criticism leveled by the science faculty of Southern Methodist University at the upcoming use of campus facilities for a Discovery Institute publicity tour and blatherfest called "Darwin vs. Design." Jason Rosenhouse, brave of heart and strong of stomach, attended the inaugural performance of the roadshow in Knoxville, Kentucky and has reported at length.

Richards is a theologian associated with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty* (the interviewer for the Christian Post inexplicably left out the "Study of Religion and Liberty" part), a fellow of the Discovery Institute and co-author of The Privileged Planet with astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez. Richards and his arguments figure prominently in Part 2 of Jason's account of the DI dog and pony show.

Richards begins the interview with a blatant attempt at "framing," by using terms that will be considered pejorative within his target audience, without even acknowledging the arguments and terms his opponents use for the concepts he is criticizing:

The problem is what developed in the 19th Century; the widespread idea called scientific materialism became, essentially, the intellectual orthodoxy. It basically says that, to explain anything scientifically, it has to be explained in purely materialistic terms.
In fact, scientists and philosophers of science speak of "methodological naturalism" as the basis for scientific inquiry. Science, as it has been conceived for at least the last 150 years and as it has actually been practiced for a lot longer than that, is an attempt to discover "natural" (as opposed to "supernatural") explanations for the phenomena around us. This "naturalism," however is only "methodological." That is, it is merely a stance taken solely for the purposes of the limited-in-scope study called "science." It is not an assertion of the nature of any ultimate reality, such as is implied by the use of the term "materialism," long associated with a philosophy that nothing exists but matter. Of course, some scientists are materialists or, perhaps more historically correct in this context, atheists, but many are not, with Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins and Owen Gingrich as prominent counter-examples. Science itself, as far as the arguments between and among atheists and theists are concerned, is secular, standing apart from those arguments no matter how much the various sides try to drag it to their defense.

As philosopher of science, Robert T. Pennock, has said: "Science is godless in the same way that plumbing is godless." Or as John Stuart Mill said for an earlier generation:
To say that secular means irreligious implies that all the arts and sciences are irreligious, and is very like saying that all professions except that of the law are illegal.
Richards continues:

It seems perplexing to people that the faculty at Southern Methodist University would object to arguments from science that would confirm some belief they have as Christians. But the truth of the matter is that scientific materialism is so pervasive that it is almost as common in Christian universities as it is at state universities.
The truth of the matter, as can be seen from the above discussion, is that it only seems perplexing when people are being deliberately misleading about the nature of science or have fallen for such guff.

What Richards is really suggesting is that Christians who are also scientists, and who have honorably pursued science by its internal logic and rules, should now, for political reasons in avoiding the Establishmant Clause of the Constitution, agree to dress up beliefs they have as Christians as if they are science and peddle them at public expense to those who Richards and his ilk think are too stupid to grasp the concept of a naturalistic science as easily as they manage to grasp naturalistic plumbing.

Then Richards goes into a vague tap dance about ID being based on "public evidence," rather than "parochial interpretations" of Genesis. To the extent that any head or tails can be made from this, he seems to be saying that, as long as you strip out any specific references from any particular scripture, an argument is "scientific." Of course, that's nonsense that, if nothing else, fails to deal with materialists and other non-religious scientists who don't accept arguments to a natural "Designer," because of the utter lack of evidence for one who could, as John Wilkins put it, "visualise all possible combinations of chemistry over billions of years," and who won't accept the ("nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean?") unnatural Designer.

The very point of limiting science to natural explanations is to allow scientists of all philosophies and theologies to have a common, if limited, language with which to interact and a common, if limited, method with which to jointly investigate the natural world. If they want to discuss their philosophies and theologies outside their scientific pursuits, they are free to do so and to appeal to the results of science as arguments in favor of their positions. But it is wrong for either side to pretend such discussions are scientific arguments. ID may be "public" in scope, it's just not "scientific."
Richards can thus agree that ID is "consistent with a variety of different natural histories," including evolution. In addition, Jason Rosenhouse reported that, during a question and answer session at the end of the Knoxville Chautauqua meeting that included Richards, when the question was asked where ID stood on the old-Earth/young-Earth controversy within creationism, the response the panel gave was that it is an "age-neutral argument," with people on both sides within the ID camp. It seems that ID is compatible with everything ... except a universe in which people are incapable of pointing to something and saying "that looks designed to me!" But something so pliable as to be compatible with everything, explains nothing.

So Richards can agree that organisms "share common ancestry with one another." What he objects to is that such ancestry is due to a "purely impersonal process like natural selection." But, hold on! What could be more impersonal than an unknown Designer who you cannot even try to find anything out about?

Huh? ... oh, I get it! Neeeever mind!

* The Center for Media and Democracy calls the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty "a libertarian think tank, part of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation network, which promotes laissez-faire economics and public policy within a Christian framework."
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