Friday, July 04, 2008
Duty and Country
Hey, kids! What better way could the Discovery Institute have to celebrate the Fourth than to discover that Thomas Jefferson was an IDer?
John West is over at the DI's Ministry of Misinformation claiming that "Jefferson not only believed in intelligent design, he insisted it was based on the plain evidence of nature, not religion." And all West had to do was to mangle the meaning of "religion" or "Intelligent Design" or both to do it. It's a given that he misrepresents the meaning of "science."
As for the first part, West quotes Jefferson, from an 1823 letter to John Adams, as follows:
The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the structure of our earth itself, with its distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles, insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organised as man or mammoth, the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms.From that, West concludes:
Jefferson believed that empirical data from nature itself proved intelligent design by showing the natural world's intricate organization from the level of plants and insects all the way up to the revolution of the planets.Which is true enough. Jefferson did believe that the facts of the world led to the conclusion that there is a "Creator and benevolent governor of the world." The question is whether Jefferson believed, as West's version of ID claims, that it is a scientific conclusion or whether it is, instead, a religious conclusion.
West's claim as to the latter point is based on the following from the same letter:
I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. (West's emphasis)West alleges that Jefferson's reference to his conclusion being "without appeal to revelation," means that he "clearly was arguing that the idea had a basis other than religion." The sticking point should be immediately obvious to anyone who is not him or herself a fundamentalist Christian, who place so much emphasis on scripture. "Revelation" and "religion" are not coterminous; not every concept or proposition that is religious is derived from revelation. Indeed, it is easy enough to see from the letter itself that Jefferson considered his conclusion as to a creator to be a theological, or, at least, philosophical, proposition. Jefferson is discussing the fact that he will never be a Calvinist (and calls Calvin an atheist because he worshipped, in Jefferson's opinion, "a false god ... a daemon of malignant spirit") and then goes on to say:
Indeed I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to Atheism by their general dogma that, without a revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of a god.Jefferson's context thus becomes clear: Christian theology should include arguments citing to the complexity and order of the world, as William Paley had in his book, Natural Theology. Jefferson's argument for a creator is put forward as a counterweight against those philosophers, such as Ocellus, Timaeus, Spinosa, Diderot and D'Holbach, who argue that:
... it is more simple to believe at once in the eternal pre-existence of the world, as it is now going on, and may for ever go on by the principle of reproduction which we see and witness, than to believe in the eternal pre-existence of an ulterior cause, or Creator of the world, a being whom we see not, and know not, of whose form substance and mode or place of existence, or of action no sense informs us, no power of the mind enables us to delineate or comprehend.Contrary to West's assertion, then, Jefferson was clearly offering his proposition as a theological/philosophical response to arguments against the existence of a god and not as a scientific observation, as today's IDeologists claim it is. There is no reason to believe that Jefferson would support teaching his argument in a public school science class, as opposed to teaching it in a class on philosophy or religion. The latter course is permissible, within limits, under the current state of Establishment clause jurisprudence but IDers have always rejected it.
Furthermore, it is ludicrous to conclude that the author of the Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom, who stated that it was intended to include "within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination," could have had such a narrow view of "religion" as to hold that it stops with revelation, especially when Jefferson is arguing in the same letter that it is erroneous for Christian theology to hold that position. At a minimum, it is a serious misreading of the man and his life's work.
The most telling point is that West is neither stupid nor unlearned. To distort the words and thoughts of one of our greatest Founders is an interesting way to demonstrate one's patriotism on the Fourth of July.
"It is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition."
Here, it seems to me, Jefferson is offering far less than what West wants. Jefferson is not saying that the existence of design, and of a designer is a justified inference, but rather something that the mind necessarily, inevitably feels as a result of how it responds to what is perceived.
In his famous attack on "intelligent design" (in an earlier incarnation), Hume puts the point in terms that are congenial to Jefferson's: it is one thing for one to feel that there is a design at work in nature, and quite another to hold that design is a justified inference, let alone one which warrants the further inference that there must be a designer.
We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the Universe in it's course and order...
So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent...
The references to "evident proofs" and "evidences" can clearly be read as implying that the existence of a designer can be inferred from observations of the natural world.
Of course, the fact that Jefferson may well have been one of the greatest of the Founders did not make him immune from fallacies of reasoning such as the argument from incredulity or argumentum ad populum
...that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro' all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe. Surely this unanimous sentiment renders this more probable than that of the few in the other hypothesis.
What the Founders created was a great achievement and the US Constitution stands as a monument to that greatness. But their private writings are not gospel. What Jefferson may or may not have believed has no bearing on whether there is any scientific basis for Intelligent Design and bickering over the precise meaning of his words sounds too much like Biblical exegesis for comfort.
... he held beliefs similar to those of Paley and, by extension, those of ID proponents.
I don't think there was ever any question of that. The question is does "science" equal inferences made from "observations of the natural world." That's how the IDers want "science" to be defined, so they can include their theology in science classes. Carl and Eamon point to the right issue: it's one thing to make an inference, it's another to be able to test the inference by human means. It's the latter that distinguishes science from theology or philosophy.
It's not that the IDers don't understand that. Cornelius Hunter is also over at the DI's blog humping his book, which basically claims that limiting science to things humans can test "suffers" from the fact that the "naturalistic approach might occasionally be inadequate" to explain some aspect of the world. That is, indeed, true. The problem is that Hunter's metric for determining when that is the case amounts to his personal "perception" of "obvious problems with the theory" of the sort: "Boy, that's complex and I can't see how it evolved."
Science makes the tradeoff of limiting itself to testable inferences in return for (more) certain knowledge. If God performs a miracle that is indistinguishable from some natural event, science will not know it happened. As to the problem, also raised by Hunter, that assuming (under methodological naturalism) that unanswered questions will have presently unknown naturalistic solutions, means that we could be proceeding under an incorrect theory, the only (and, as far as we can tell, pretty good) solution is that a broad community of scientists continually look at the theory. If the problems are of a type or number that, in the judgment of that community, are so great as to render the theory unworkable, it will be discarded. Despite the IDers' fondest hopes, evolution is nowhere near that point.
There are difficult issues in the philosophy of science. The IDers' "solution" to them is to do away with science and turn it into a post-modernist exercise (a point made well by Ken Miller in his latest book) where everybody has their own personal "science," depending on their individual a priori beliefs and all of them are equally valid.
As to bickering over Jefferson's private writings, let's not forget that the phrase "the wall of separation" between church and state comes from just such a private letter. The issue isn't so much Jefferson's personal beliefs or his logical abilities as it is his understanding, as one of the Founders, of the meaning and intent of the Constitution. The IDers are attempting to make a case that the Constitution does not prohibit injecting ID into public school science classes and some exegesis of his words is warranted in that situation.
You make a good point -- that the IDists want to conflate "science" with "inferences based on premises drawn from observations about the natural world." In that way they overlook the distinction between explanations and arguments -- and it might fairly be said that the heart of the Scientific Revolution in its long arc from Bacon through Newton to Darwin and way, way beyond consists, at an abstract level, of showing us how to make that distinction.
My point was slightly different, which is that Jefferson does not seem to even be making an argument at all -- but rather reporting on a causal series, where observations of the beauty and order of the natural world cause the belief in a designer. Cause, that is, rather than justify -- perhaps in the same way that the causal impingements of photons on our retinas cause, rather than justify, our beliefs in physical objects!
Which is rather like the Duke of Argyll's argument that the fact that scientists tend to use teleological language is a reaction to the action of mind in nature being evident a priori. However, Jefferson seems to be making the argument specifically in response to the atheists' invocation of Occam's Razor as making unnecessary any "being whom we see not, and know not, of whose form substance and mode or place of existence, or of action no sense informs us, no power of the mind enables us to delineate or comprehend." Instead, he claims that the vast majority of people do perceive God in some fashion.
Be that as it may, Jefferson does go on to make the more traditional argument in the form of supposed "evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the Universe in it's course and order" to prevent it from running down -- a Second Law of Thermodynamics argument before there was thermodynamics.