‘Tis But A Scratch

I just looked once again at Sean Carroll’s short piece from Science Magazine, “God as Genetic Engineer“, which is a review of Michael Behe’s latest book. I had forgotten that he used this analogy. It must have embedded itself in my subconscious, because it came to mind (but without the proper attribution to its immediate source) when I wrote my own comparison of young-earth creationism to Wile E. Coyote, “Creationism’s Cartoon Physics.” The next step, I suppose, will be to create a video game in which the Black Knight and Wile E. Coyote face off against one another.
Several recent interactions with representatives of positions that bear the label “Intelligent Design” have made me more aware of the importance of terminology. Terms like “creationism” can be confusing. If it means someone who believes that the universe is ultimately dependent on God for its existence, then not only the vast majority of Christians but possibly even Buddhists could be included. So also could process theologians who do not think that the creation was brought into existence out of nothing and who, like theistic evolutionists and a wide range of other viewpoints, also embrace the scientific account of the development of life on this planet.
“Intelligent Design” is perhaps an even more confusing label, since it is used by people and movements with a range of different viewpoints. On the one end, there are young earth creationists trying to get around the reputation of and legal decisions about their teachings by adopting a new, and they hope more respectable, terminology. On the other end of the spectrum are those who would say that evolution was “front-loaded” and given direction, but in the laws of physics rather than in multiple interventions into the history of life on Earth. Many even among those who might disagree with the latter viewpoint would not object to it in the way they object to viewpoint elsewhere along the spectrum.
Lots of people assume I’m not a Christian because I am persuaded by the evidence of evolution, and so I want to not make assumptions when I interact with others who bear a particular label. How can we clarify the range of viewpoints without resorting to an even more confusing display of headings and acronyms to make the various important distinctions?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05904417073935434187 Smokey

    We shouldn’t clarify the range of viewpoints. If people want to claim ID or creationism as science, viewpoints aren’t really relevant. Scientific method:1) look at world2) formulate hypothesis3) test predictions of hypothesis (publish in the scientific primary, not secondary, literature)4) add data to #1 and repeat, discarding or modifying hypothesis as necessaryDragging ID apologists back to this will be more fruitful than trying to describe their beliefs, which are largely irrational when it comes to biology and science.ID/creationist method:1) look at world2) formulate hypothesis3) pathologically avoid testing predictions of hypothesis 4) at best, publish in the scientific secondary, then misrepresent publication as primary literature)5) when others publish new data, pretend that ID/creationist notions had predicted the data all along6) when challenged, quote-mine the secondary and tertiary literature instead of citing data from the primary literature

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for the comment. I had someone suggest that I was using “too broad a brush”. It is absolutely clear to me that many who are using the “Intelligent Design” rubric are simply promoting barely-updated forms of earlier creationism. But I’m trying to figure out whether there isn’t some genuine confusion about the meaning of the terminology, even among those who use it. I tried asking a question about it on Yahoo! Answers.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05904417073935434187 Smokey

    “I had someone suggest that I was using “too broad a brush”.”I suspect that suggestion came from someone who frantically spray-paints everything in sight when anyone points out that he employs the latter instead of the former of the methods I outlined above…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04581876323110725024 Robert Cornwall

    James,Welcome to the company of those who affirm evolution and even are pastors of churches. It’s too bad that the word creation has gotten so closely linked to young earthers. Although I’m not an inerrantist, even that paragon of orthodoxy, B.B. Warfield was open to the idea. The modern young earth perspective, interestingly enough has its roots in the 7th Day Adventist tradition. I’m assuming you have regular conversations with your colleague Michael Zimmerman about such things!

  • Carlos

    One would hope that a training in philosophy would allow for at least some distinction-mongering. So I’ll see what I can monger.Thinking as I type (usually not a good idea), I can see at least two distinctions that should be made. One distinction is between metaphysical systems, another distinction is about the relation between metaphysics and science. One might, for one thing, distinguish between a transcendent metaphysics and an immanent metaphysics. In the former, there are two kinds of reality, one “higher” and the other “lower.” The “lower” kind of reality is associated with ordinary human affairs and concerns. In the latter, there is only one kind of reality which is ontologically (if not epistemologically) continuous with the world of ordinary human affairs and concerns. Then there’s the question of the relation between science and metaphysics — does empirical inquiry bear at all on metaphysical truths? Or are they (somehow) isolated from one another? In many contemporary contexts, the ugly term “scientism” is bandied about as a label for ‘metaphysicalizing’ science — that is, for taking scientific inquiry as the only paradigm for inquiry into any kind of reality at all. Whereas philosophers who are critical of or resistant to scientism, while in many instances not explicitly theists, still want to preserve room for a plurality of discourses about reality — scientific, ethical, aesthetic, religious, etc. For my money, I think the most basic distinction is between pluralists and monists. Pluralists are willing to accept a plurality of discourses (techniques, methods, etc.) for conceptualizing, interpreting, and generally understanding human experience. Monists insist that there is only one correct discourse — for some monists, that discourse is science; for others, that discourse is religion. (I’m terribly unhappy about using ‘discourse’ here — it’s too linguistic an image, and I want to evoke a loose network of explicit discourses, techniques, methods, habits, tacit assumptions, etc.) Design theory is beloved of monists because it is a scientific discourse that vindicates certain ethical and metaphysical positions which are traditionally associated with monotheistic religions. In other words, it is a way of having one’s cake and eating it, too.On the other hand, if one is willing to accept a certain degree of pluralism in one’s construals of the world, then one can have a religious discourse (whether Biblically based or not, whatever that means) and one can have a scientific discourse. I do think, based on listening in on a lot of ID conversations, that the rage and contempt against Darwinism is motivated by the assumption that Darwinism is incompatible with objective moral standards — which are, of course, those of the most conservative elements of society today. Again and again I see Darwinism equated with hedonism or nihilism. It’s astonishing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    OK, I am just trying to be fair to distinctions that some people who proudly wear the ID label are seeking to make. I think it will be enough if I make a self-conscious effort to say ‘most proponents’ instead of simply ‘proponents’. I am certainly not suggesting that I have mischaracterized the movement as a whole and should therefore retract things that I have said. But as someone who thinks it is important not to simply say “Christians” when one means “conservative Christians in the United States” (to give but one example), I am trying to make sure that I aim my criticisms accurately at their appropriate focus.


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