Mary Midgley is a respected (retired) philosopher who has made some significant contributions to thinking about science. We owe a debt of gratitude to her for explaining that, for some people, evolutionary thinking has become a religious movement. This is the take-home message of her books: Evolution as Religion and Science as Salvation. Earlier this year, she spoke at Durham University on Intelligent Design Theory, and the substance of her talk has now appeared in the current issue of Philosophy Now. She says of ID that "considered as science it is apparently vacuous" - which is not a good start. However, some of the issues in her essay are useful to discuss further.
There are significant problems with the way Midgley perceives ID. Here are some examples: ID "claims to provide a scientific rationale for Creationism"; ID's "central point is that living things are so 'irreducibly complex' that they cannot have evolved gradually by natural selection"; ID "tries to reactivate the old idea of a stark epistemological cold war, a contest for dominance between science and religion." If it is not obvious why these statements are caricatures, please read on. It is worth prefacing my comments with the note that these misrepresentations are all found in the literature of those who oppose ID as anti-science.
First, ID does not claim to provide a scientific rationale for Creationism. It does claim that science needs ID methodologies in order to avoid pre-empting the outcomes of research questions. Science incorporating ID concepts is science as it should be! If researchers do not have the tools for recognising design, how could anyone know if this world and living things were designed or not? What we have today are large numbers of atheists who are using science to justify their atheism and claiming that design inferences are out-of-bounds. However, science should be interested in truth, and if the possibility is granted that intelligent agency could be involved in origins, then we have to consider ways of researching that question within science. This is not about proving creationism but about being open to evidence, wherever it leads.
Second, what is ID's central point? Fundamentally, it concerns the legitimacy of making design inferences within science. This is the thrust of Bill Dembski's research, and Phillip Johnson has championed this message in his numerous books. Irreducible complexity has emerged as a critical issue because of Michael Behe's opening of Darwin's Black Box. But IC is a special case of Complex Specified Information, which is what Dembski works with. Furthermore, Behe's new book has little about IC, not because the argument is lacking in any way, but because Behe sets out to show that the empirical data (about mutations and natural selection) reveals that Darwinian mechanisms are totally incapable of building CSI.
Thirdly, what about this "old idea" of an "epistemological cold war, a contest for dominance between science and religion"? It is fair to say that there are serious issues for epistemology - but we are not dealing with an old idea. The contest is about the nature of science itself. It is about metaphysics: naturalistic science and theistic science. It is about philosophy: methodological materialism and methodological realism. The issues are highlighted in two sentences from Midgley's essay:
"Sensible students have therefore increasingly agreed with the great evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky that science and religion cannot clash because their functions are different. Science, said Dobzhansky, deals in facts, while religion deals in meaning."
The first sentence reveals that Midgley has adopted the NOMA principle championed by Stephen Jay Gould. The basic idea is that science and religion occupy different domains and cannot clash - by definition. But this understanding of the issues is contrived and it only works if religion is excluded from having anything to do with history (including origins) and knowledge (objective truth). There are obvious clashes here with Christianity, which is rooted in history and which is concerned with universal truths. The second sentence promotes the fact/value distinction, associated with the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. This again is a pre-emptive epistemological strike, because there are many aspects of Christianity that are of a factual nature but are rejected as facts by atheists and sceptics. For more on this, go here.
At the end of her essay, Midgley writes: "Unless something like this can be done, it seems to me that ID is going to give us a great deal of trouble." She asks for people to seek out better ways of interacting on these issues. As a first step, I would advise that we recognise that there is a real struggle concerning the the nature of science. It is not the tired old battle of 'science versus religion'. The new concern is whether science is open to truth, wherever it leads or whether science should insist that every effect must have a natural cause. The contrast today is between the integration of all knowledge and the perpetual compartmentalisation of cognitive activity. ID is not the troubler of science! That dubious honour belongs to the advocates of philosophical materialism who have usurped science as a tool to further their own agendas.
A Plague On Both Their Houses
Philosophy Now, Nov/Dec 2007, No.64.
Abstract: Mary Midgley thinks creationists and evolutionists need to overcome the bewitchment of their own thinking and learn how to talk to each other.
Gene, M., Midgley Misfires, (Dec 1 2007)
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