Sunday, June 01, 2008


Stuck in the Door

Wes Elsberry at The Austringer points to an article by Francis Beckwith, Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies at Baylor University and one of the smartest and most rational of the Intelligent Design supporters or, perhaps more accurately in Beckwith's case, "fellow travelers." The article is a review of the revised edition of Ronald L. Numbers' The Creationists, particularly the added chapter on Intelligent Design. Wes discusses a particularly obscure part of the review that I think Wes correctly links to Beckwith's views about the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Wes gives the outlines of the arguments and anyone interested can go here for further information about them.

I want to take a more prosaic approach in this post. Beckwith states:

Numbers is careful to show that ID is not the same as Creationism, although the two points of view, Numbers notes, do share common allies, common foes, and an overlapping history.
Unfortunately, I have been remiss in obtaining the revised edition of The Creationists, so I can't say whether Beckwith is fairly characterizing Numbers. It doesn't much matter to my point, however.

Claiming a distinction between creationism and ID naturally raises the question, that Beckwith makes no attempt to answer, of what is meant by "creationism." Broadly speaking, a "creationist" could be said to include anyone who believes that god(s) are somehow responsible for the existence and nature of the world. Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the 20th century, is famous for the phrase "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." What is perhaps less well known is that, in the speech bearing that phrase as its title, he also said:

I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God's, or Nature's method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way.

Dobzhansky, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, did not believe that evolutionary doctrine clashed with his religious faith and, therefore, had no need for science education to make any special accommodation for his beliefs. From a constitutional standpoint (and to my mind, from the standpoint of science as well), that is the crucial focus. It is the attempt to inject religious beliefs into publicly-funded science education that characterizes the definition of "creationist" at issue here.

Contrast Dobzhansky's position with ID advocates. Beckwith correctly states that "for the ID advocate, the most important thing to do is to show the failure of philosophical materialism as a worldview." But science is not a "worldview" and as can be seen in the Wedge Document and elsewhere, ID advocates, just as the "creation scientists" before them, conflate the methodological naturalism of science with philosophical naturalism. From there, they demand that science accept non-naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena, despite the fact that such explanations cannot be scientifically tested.

Beckwith acknowledges this in a backhand way when he claims that Paul Nelson, a young-Earth creationist, whose beliefs are clearly banned from the public science classroom by Edwards v. Aguillard, "makes a distinction between what he believes theologically and which of those theological beliefs he can legitimately defend scientifically and/or philosophically by means of natural reason."

In other words, if you can't come up with scientifically testable support for your beliefs, change the meaning of "science" so that it will allow for your philosophical/theological arguments. Or, more succinctly, if you can't win under the rules as they stand, change the rules!

Even there, a forthright discussion of creationists' attempts to alter the nature of science could be the subject of legitimate discussion in a class on the philosophy of science, but neither the IDeologists nor creation scientists are interested in that. Instead, they connive to sneak the change in through an ever-proliferating set of back doors.

That's what unites them under the bad sense of "creationists."

Incidentally, don't miss Beckwith's account of how Dembski "snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory" during the furor over his appointment as director of the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor.

Dobzhansky is not a creationist in the sense that we speak of creationists today. He uses the word in a way which can only obscure the dilemma we have with creationists.

If you are going to call Dobzhansky a "creationist", then what word are you going to use for those who think of creation as something that is an alternative to spontaneous action of natural law?

One thing we do not want is for the creationists to simply cloud over the difference between denial of the efficacy of natural processes, and a metaphysical perspective on natural processes in all their efficacy.

Dobzhansky was a theist evolutionist; and this stands as a contrast to creationism. His word usage is as confusing as if in politics we tried to use the word "democrat" to refer to anyone that values democratic government.
One thing we do not want is for the creationists to simply cloud over the difference between denial of the efficacy of natural processes, and a metaphysical perspective on natural processes in all their efficacy.

They are going to do that anyway. Beckwith insisted on calling Behe a theistic evolutionist in his article ... a term that I am not sure clarifies much of anything anyway. Of course, the Discovery Institute claims that only YECs are actual creationists. And, of course, we can't just expunge Dobzhansky's usage.

I don't see any way to avoid having to explain ourselves ... and, given creationist perseverence, over and over again.
John, I applaud your insight here: Beckwith proceeds as if empirical testability and argumentative acumen were substitutable for one another. I'm a frequent lurker on Uncommon Descent (I'd post, but I was banned for uncivil behavior), and I've noticed the same thing over and over -- the rank-and-file of the ID movement give lots of arguments, and some of them are not bad, but they don't conduct actual experiments.

And yet, mulling it over, it seems to me that in failing to notice this distinction, the ID proponents are misunderstanding the heart of the Scientific Revolution in all its warts and glory: that anyone can make an argument, but until you can construct an experiment that shows where the differences are, you're not saying anything important.
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