Intelligent design, creationism, and fundamentalism: a reply to Randal Rauser

Randal Rauser has posted my contribution to his “Why they don’t believe” series, along with his response. Here’s my response to his response:

I need to start with his last comment, about Intelligent Design:

Once again we find Chris issuing a sweeping dismissal, this time in the statement that there “wasn’t anything to Intelligent Design”. From Francis Crick proposing a panspermia thesis to explain the origin of DNA to atheist Thomas Nagel pointing out the strength of Meyer’s argument from biological information to atheist philosopher of science Bradley Monton defending the ID program, it is clear that Chris’ assessment of ID is simply not correct. Whether or not consensus is achieved on the propriety of explaining any specific natural structure or process in accord with intelligence is a separate matter from whether it is in principle possible to do so. And on the latter issue the ID folk have raised an important debate in the philosophy of science regarding the place of intelligent cause in scientific explanation.

First of all, I need to explain that when I say “Intelligent Design,” I mean the ideas of the people who actually call themselves Intelligent Design proponents, not what those people would like the term to mean. Viewed that way, I can go even further that what I said in the short piece posted at Randall’s site, and say that “Intelligent Design” is largely just rebranded creationism. Certainly this is true of people like William Dembski and Phillip Johnson–Michael Behe is much further from traditional creationism, though his arguments have still rightly been rejected by virtually every scientist who’s looked at them.

This means that Francis Crick simply isn’t relevant to what I was talking about (I’d also note that Crick later said he’d been overly pessimistic about the possibility of abiogenesis on Earth). Similarly, as I understand it Monton relies on an idiosyncratic definition of “Intelligent Design,” lumping in any version whatsoever of the philosophical argument from design and even Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument. I haven’t asked him, but if I’d bet good money that if I did, Bostrom would reject the notion that he is an “Intelligent Design” proponent as ridiculous.

That leaves Thomas Nagel, and in this case I have to say that there are plenty of philosophers who think Nagel’s endorsement of Meyer is a case of a good philosopher embarrassing himself by going outside his fiend of expertise. Now, just because some philosophers think that doesn’t mean they’re right–but if Randal is going to claim that citing one philosopher is enough to prove there’s “something to” ID, he must likewise concede that there is “something to” Brian Leiter’s view of Nagel.

I am sorry if that quickie “proves too much” argument leaves Randal dissatisfied, but here is not the place to go into depth on what’s wrong with Intelligent Design. That’s already been done at great length by people who are experts in the relevant science. Here, my point is simply that Randal cannot simply rule out the possibility of a particular position being intellectually bankrupt at the get-go.

Now back to the beginning of Randals’ comments:

The term “fundamentalist” is used in different ways. It is true that anybody raised in a family which would self-identify as “liberal Christian” (or progressive Christian) is likely not fundamentalist in the socio-historical sense that traces back to a conservative reform movement of Protestant Christianity which began a century ago. But that is really of secondary interest. You see, the term “fundamentalist” is also used to flag an orientation that includes intellectual insularity, defensiveness and the brusque dismissal of opposing views. This is the most worrisome expression of the term. Common hallmarks of fundamentalism in this sense include (but are not limited to) the tendency to impute to those with whom one disagrees intellectual and/or moral failings.

Stop right there. There’s nothing wrong with imputing “intellectual and/or moral failings” to people who are actually guilty of them. Surely Randal would have no problem imputing such failings to Holocaust deniers. Or would he have a problem saying that young earth creationists are generally either ignorant or dishonest?

For example, John Loftus prides himself on saying the arguments I offer in favor of theism are completely “worthless”. For an argument to be completely worthless presumably means that it is logically invalid or its premises are demonstrably false. But the arguments I invoke for theism are surely not worthless in that sense. Consequently, when John Loftus left the Christian fundamentalism of his earlier years, he rejected the Christian trappings of belief but retained his fundamentalist disposition.

Actually, there are other ways for an argument to be worthless–if, for example, there is simply no reason to think a key premise is true. (Constructing such an argument for atheism using a material conditional is left as an exercise to the reader.)

When I read Chris’s statement that the arguments for God’s existence which Tom Morris (a top-flight philosopher) summarized are “obviously very bad”, or when Chris writes without qualification of the “ignorance and dishonesty of Christian apologetics”, I worry that I am seeing the fundamentalist marginalization of the other through the sweeping imputation of ignorance and moral corruption to his intellectual foes. (To compare, it would be indefensible for me to write of “the ignorance and dishonesty of atheological apologetics”. Certainly some atheological apologetics, like some Christian apologetics, may arise out of ignorance and/or dishonesty. But broad-brushing all the products of atheology would be completely indefensible. Mutatis mutandis for Christian theology and apologetics.) In conclusion, Chris certainly leaves this reader with the impression that Christian apologists, philosophers and Christians generally are either completely ignorant or morally corrupt, or both.

First of all, inflating my statement to apply to all Christians is absurd… and comes across as pretty damn desperate. And makes me wonder whether Randal would’ve given a damn if I’d qualified it further.

But let me qualify it further anyway. I do not claim that all Christian apologists are either ignorant or dishonest without exception… but I do think it’s generally true of the stuff that currently dominates Christian apologetics.

Josh McDowell, for example, is known to be an ignoramus by anyone who isn’t, yet his books were still being pushed by Campus Crusade back when I was in college a few years ago. And I’ve documented William Lane Craig’s dishonesty at length. But more telling than either of those examples is the fact that anti-evolutionism, of some form or other, is absolutely standard for Christian apologists today, up to and including Alvin Plantinga.

I think I can predict Randal’s response to this post: reiterate the appeal to authority, throw in an appeal to the authority of Alvin Plantinga for good measure. To which I could respond by reiterating the appeal to the evidence, and the demonstrable flaws in the arguments of Plantinga et al… though if Randal really wants to go that way, I think I have a much stronger appeal to authority than he does, in the form of the near-unanimous consensus of the scientific community on evolution and ID.

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