Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Michael Shermer, "Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against ID" (Lecture) Corrected

Michael Shermer, author and editor of Skeptic Magazine, spoke at the Tivoli of the Auraria campus in downtown Denver on February 17, 2010, on the topic, “Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.” The event was sponsored by the Metro State Atheists.

Shermer has written a book of the same title (2006) that I reviewed in The Denver Post in 2006 along with Jonathan Wells’s, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Shermer covered many topics at a rapid pace. I took nine pages of notes, but cannot respond to all of his ideas nor can I develop all of my criticisms fully. I offer the following as food for thought, and provide some suggestions for further reading.

Shermer quickly deployed his wit, making clever comments about the room, which was once part of a brewery. This set a tone of humor and often mockery of views he rejected. He relied heavily on numerous slides, often of cartoons ridiculing critics of Darwinism. The first few minutes of the talk were spent promoting his magazine and laying out its mission to debunk bad thinking across the board.Shermer then spoke for twenty minutes of his trip to the Galapagos Islands where Darwin made significant discoveries concerning animal life. Shermer explained the development of Darwin’s theory of natural selection before presenting the controversies concerning it. While the talk was supposed to be about Darwinism versus Intelligent Design (ID), Shermer spent much time citing and criticizing creationists, particular The Creation Museum. This sparked hearty laughter from many, but was, in fact, off topic, since Intelligent Design theorists make no statements about a young earth or a local flood, both of which are defining positions for creationists. (See, for example, Henry Morris, Scientific Creationism.)

Furthermore, creationists in the US are all conservative Protestants while ID proponents are Catholic (Michael Behe), Protestant (Stephen Meyer, William Dembski), Orthodox (John Marks Reynolds), and agnostic (David Berlinkski).While Shermer later granted that ID thinkers were more sophisticated than creationists, he often conflated the two since “both believe in a Creator.” But not all ID thinkers do believe in Creator, some simply think Darwinism is effete and that design is a plausible alternative. Shermer’s rhetorical strategy of conflating ID thinkers with creationists allowed much of the ridicule he heaped on creationists (concerning the implausibility of a global flood) to spill over to ID thinkers. This is the fallacy of guilt by association.

Shermer emphasized that creationists and ID thinkers believe that Darwinism leads to atheism which leads to relativism and social decay. He said, “It’s all about worldview.” His argument seems to be that since there is no good science involved, the challenge to Darwinism can be reduced to a political agenda. But Shermer did nothing to refute the idea that atheism can lead to relativism and social decay—besides scoffing at the idea. Shermer attempts to ground morality in instinct (see his book The Science of Good and Evil), but he said little to defend that highly questionable approach. (To counter this, see C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.) Shermer also ignored the fact that social Darwinism (with its eugenics, racism, and more) is, in fact, rooted in biological Darwinism, as John West argues convincingly in Darwin Day in America.

More importantly, the social motivations of critics of Darwinism and defenders of design are utterly irrelevant with respect to the science they are assessing. What counts are their arguments. To attack motives in order to discredit arguments is to commit the fallacy of poisoning the well. Bradley Monton, an atheist who is sympathetic to ID, makes just this case in Seeking God in Science.Many of Shermer’s arguments would apply to creationists, but not to most ID thinkers. For example, he challenged the young earth theory as unsubstantiated and made arguments for common descent. Yet ID does not rely on either a young earth or on rejecting common descent. Behe, for denies a young earth and affirms common decent. (For the record, I deny both the young earth and common descent.) The crucial question for the ID movement is whether or not science can explain all of nature on the basis of unintelligent, material causes. ID argues that certain aspects of life are better explained by intelligent causes, however those causes worked over time.Shermer’s basic argument against ID was what he called “the argument from personal incredulity.”

1. X looks designed.
2. I cannot figure out how X could come about through natural causes.
3. Therefore, X was supernaturally designed.

This, of course, is the old “god of the gaps” argument as design. Shermer cited Newton’s claim that “the problem of the plane” can only be explained by God’s intervention in the system of nature. But later an explanation was found that did not require God’s intervention in the system. For Shermer, this is enough to refute all design arguments.Shermer made many criticisms of creationism and ID (usually not differentiating them), but this argument was the backbone of his critique. It amounts to an endorsement of methodological naturalism: we can only appeal to material explanations in science that preclude any originating design. But Shermer’s argument is faulty for several reasons.

First, simply because Newton invoked divine causation in the wrong place, it cannot be concluded that all such appeals to design are wrong in principle. Newton was in error, but is should not be viewed as a categorical error. It is, rather, a mistake concerning design attribution. (Moreover, ID proponents can still invoke design at the cosmic level of fine-tuning.) There is no need to eliminate every design argument based on one or several mistakes any more than a naturalist will eliminate every naturalist explanation based on errors in naturalistic interpretations. Phrenology was proved wrong about personality assessment as was phlogiston about the nature of combustion. But that doesn’t stop naturalists from seeking naturalistic explanations for human personality or the nature of fire. Nor should mistakes in design attribution require the total elimination of the design inference. Naturalistic explanations may or may not work; they should be judged on a case by case basis, as should design explanations.

Second, Shermer commits the straw man fallacy in his second premise. ID theorists are not claiming that since they personally cannot come up with a naturalistic explanation, there is none. That is far too idiosyncratic to be good science. Rather, ID thinkers claim that the probabilistic resources of naturalism (chance and/or natural law) cannot account for the phenomenon in question. In this, they can appeal to non-ID thinkers who grant the same thing. For example Dr. Hubert Yockey, who pioneered the discipline of bioinformatics (the study of information theory as it relates to the nature of life), stated that it is statistically impossible for life to evolve from non-life by way of any naturalistic theory. Faced with this impasse, he simply makes life an axiom, thus grandly begging the question and refusing to consider a designing intelligence as a possible explanation. Similarly, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, postulated in a scientific journal that life could not evolve on earth unaided by intelligence. He therefore postulates the theory of “directed panspermia”—earth was seeded with life by some unknown extraterrestrial civilization. These kinds of examples reveal that naturalists such as Yockey and Crick (others could be mentioned) have discerned the difficulty in explaining the origin of life on earth by naturalistic and unintelligent causes.

Third, Shermer also rejected ID arguments saying that we simply cannot assess the probabilities of nature concerning life and its development. But if Shermer is right, and we cannot know what the probabilities are, the proper approach would not be to default to only naturalistic explanations, but to become complete skeptics, as was David Hume who said, “Anything can cause anything.” But Shermer insists on only naturalistic explanations and really gives a positive assessment of the probabilities, not a skeptical one.Shermer’s argument against the design inference is this: The Argument from the Presumption of Naturalism:

1. All scientific arguments must be based on naturalism.
2. ID appeals to causes not allowed by naturalism.
3. Therefore, ID is not scientific.

Of course, as argued above, (1) is highly questionable and is, in fact, question-begging.

Shermer many times said that science (read: naturalism) is given enough time, it will explain what now seems difficult to explain (such as the Big Bang without God) or fine-tuning (without God). I have heard this so often, that I must dub it: The Post-dated check fallacy:

1. We cannot explain X naturalistically.
2. But give us more time and we will explain X naturalistically.
3. Therefore, we do not accept your ID explanation of X.

But design is a can-do principle of explanation. We recognize the effects of design all the time in various disciplines, as Bill Dembski argues in The Design Inference. Waiting for a post-dated check simply begs the question and engages in special pleading: When we naturalists cannot explain something it is simply because we do not know enough yet. But you ID people are always wrong to invoke design at a fundamental level for scientific explanation.

Shermer got another big laugh by invoking this line: “Evolution is smarter than you are.” That is, there must be some naturalistic explanation. But naturalism allows no intelligence at the primordial level; it only allows for evolved intelligence. By definition, naturalistic evolution cannot be “smart” or “dumb.” Natural law and/or chance must explain everything without any intelligent cause or agency. Supposedly, vast amounts of time come to the rescue, according to Shermer. This harkens back to the statement by the John Weld, the biologist, who said that miracles are possible given enough time. But the probability resources of a universe finite in time and space run out, as both Dembski (The Design Inference) and Meyer (The Signature in the Cell) have argued, and which naturalists admit as well (see above).Instead of saying “Evolution [meaning naturalistic change without intelligence] is smarter than you are, we should better say, “The designer is smarter than any collection of brute, material, unintelligent causes.” To invoke the efficacy of unintelligent evolution to solve every problem and explain every entity is special pleading on a cosmic scale.

Shermer mentioned that some ID folks say that the designer of life on earth might be a space alien. To this, Shermer said, “Well, that designer would have to be designed, and so on, ad infinitum.” After the talk I told Shermer that a space alien is not the most likely answer to design on earth. God is. So, this “who designed the designer” argument could not apply to God since God, unlike what is explained by design on earth, is not a finite, contingent, material state of affairs. Therefore, God’s existence would not require a designer. Shermer admitted this (unlike Richard Dawkins, who thinks this is the killer argument against ID). However, Shermer accepts no evidence for design for the reasons given above.

Much more could be said about Shermer’s rapid-fire hour and a half of lecture and question/answer time, but I cannot resist one more comment. He quickly noted that we cannot expect most religious people to give up their beliefs, but they should not have any influence in presidential elections. (Several cartoons and comments bashed President Bush.) This comment, offered offhandedly, is quite a bomb. Apparently, Shermer does not believe in the First Amendment, since it gives all citizens (religious or otherwise) the freedom of religion and speech. Nor does it require a secular civil government, but forbids the establishment of religion by the state. This means that there shall be no state church. But perhaps Shermer thinks religious people have the right to participate in civil government, but no right to bring their deepest beliefs with them as they participate. But this is both unrealistic and ill-fitting the American experiment, as Richard John Neuhaus argued in The Naked Public Square. There is no constitutional or historical reason to support the claims that secularism should be the established political philosophy of America. Recently, Michael Sandel has also argued against this secularist concept of liberalism in his book Justice.

Dr. Shermer is a quick-witted, fast-talking, and knowledgeable presenter. Nevertheless, I had heard all of his attacks on ID before and found none of them persuasive.


Anonymous said...

We should remember that (Conservative American) Protestant rejection of Natural Revelation (what science discovers about Creation) & Natural Law is a modern phenomena, mostly because of Karl Barth's reaction to Hitler: For Barth, the deity of God and the reality of human sin mean that theology must start, proceed, and end with the self-revelation of God. Using natural theology, philosophy, or any of the sciences can lead only to anthropocentricism and idolatry.

From Protestants and Natural Law, J. Daryl Charles,
FirstThings (December 2006):

...Few have argued more vehemently for a rejection of natural-law thinking than Karl Barth, whose examination of intellectual trends in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in his book Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, led him to conclude that modern society had embraced an “idealized” and “humanized” understanding of “nature.” This romantic construal of nature, coupled with an increasing secularization of culture, as Barth saw it, blended easily into the core assumptions of Enlightenment thinking and a new humanism. What the spirit of the age demanded of Christianity was a “reasonable” religion, over against the dogma of a revealed, miraculous Christianity.

This emptying of the theistic core created, in Barth’s view, an entirely different religion that had departed from the Christianity revealed through Christ and Scripture. The preoccupation with “nature” and “reason” prepared the way for a secularized humanism that empties Christian faith of its substance, undermines the absolute lordship of Christ, and facilitates the emergence of a “natural theology” that supplants Christocentric faith...

...Because much of the bias against natural-law thinking is rooted in theological conviction, religiously grounded objections to natural law must be taken seriously. But the belief, however widespread, that natural-law thinking is insufficiently Christocentric and therefore detracts from divine grace is misguided. Nothing of the sort was believed by the early Church Fathers, the medieval fathers, or the Protestant Reformers. Indeed, Scripture presumes natural law as a realm of “common grace” that is accessible to all people by virtue of creation-hence, in St. Paul’s terms, all are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).

IlĂ­on said...

"... To invoke the efficacy of unintelligent evolution to solve every problem and explain every entity is special pleading on a cosmic scale."

Ah! But who can say where the UIND (pronounced "wind") -- un-intelligent non-design -- will blow?

Wintery Knight said...

Gah! You changed the URL and I had linked to you!

Brandon B. said...

Hi Dr. Groothuis,

Great analysis of Shermer's talk. On the philosophy of secularism, Dr. Hunter Baker of Houston Baptist University has recently written a fine book on this topic entitled "The End of Secularism". He analyzed the abject failure of secularism as a principle of social and political organization.

Here's a link:


Brandon B.