It has often been observed that research students gaining a PhD are weaker in philosophy than is implied by their doctorate. Many of the arguments of the New Atheists are proclaimed as though they are unanswerable, but many of us find them to be singularly lacking in substance. In a journal which aims to "expose some of the bad philosophy which often passes as accepted wisdom", philosopher Douglas Groothuis addresses common arguments frequently heard in discussions about Intelligent Design. The editorial policy of the journal is to demonstrate "the relevance of philosophy to everyday life and [to forge] a direct link between contemporary philosophy and the widest possible readership". In keeping with this, Groothius creates a dialogue overheard at a book discussion group. There are three parties: an atheist, a theist and an agnostic. Noted below are three of the topics probed.
"Turtles all the way down" is a specific case of an infinite regress argument - although the illustration is somewhat simplified! (Source here)
Argument 1: Who designed the Designer? The logic goes like this:
"Any supposed designer would be a case of specified complex itself (or herself or himself). Therefore, that designer's existence would need to be explained by a previous designer. And that designer, being complex, would have to be explained by another designer, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. There is a vicious and infinite regress in which nothing at all gets explained." (p.72)
The response is to point out that this is a straw man type of argument, shifting attention from the detection of design to the identity of the Designer. The logic used to detect design is not the logic that can be used to gain understanding of the Designer.
"ID is not operating from the premise that everything that is complex requires an explanation outside itself. Rather, it attempts to explain certain finite and material states of affairs through the design inference. It does not operate on some general philosophical principle that anything at all that is complex requires an explanation outside itself." (p.73)
Argument 2: ID is a science stopper. Those who use this type of argument represent ID scientists as saying "God did it" and no further investigation is needed.
The response is very simple. First, it should be noted that historically, design inferences have not closed up science. Indeed, ID scientists pioneered the time known as the Scientific Revolution. Second, design inferences are claimed to provide -
" - the best scientific explanation for certain empirical facts. It does not rely on any uniquely religious presuppositions nor does it appeal to any sacred texts as premises or conclusions. However, it does challenge any definition of science that limits scientific explanations to only material, or unintelligent, causes."(p.75)
Argument 3: Science is only concerned with natural causes. For atheist scientists, this is absolutely fundamental. With confidence, they assert: "Natural causes explain natural events in biology, chemistry, physics, and so on. Without this idea, science is dead in the water" (p.75). This argument has been remarkably successful and has persuaded many theists that an atheistic definition of science is the only rational option.
The response is to deny the validity of this definition of science. First, it is not true to history:
"The leaders of the Scientific Revolution didn't believe this either, but that didn't exactly retard their discoveries. Should not science better be understood as the giving of good and sufficient rational explanations for empirical objects and events?" (p.76)
Secondly, it is necessary to point out that any definition of science that excludes intelligent causation is inherently blinkered:
"if there is a designer out there, our science would never be allowed to detect it! It puts an epistemological veto on the whole thing. How is that rational or scientific?" (p.76)
This is a crucial argument. Atheists start with the principle that all causation is natural, so all material things must be explained in terms of natural law and chance processes. They want science defined in a way that is consistent with atheism - but this is profoundly an anti-science approach. They have no route for testing out their ideas, because they are defining reality to exclude the operation of an Intelligent Designer. With this "epistemological veto" in place, they declare themselves victors over the forces of superstition and darkness! Not only is this a delusion, it is philosophically naive.
Groothuis has contributed a readable and accessible dialogue that explores these issues (and others) clearly and positively. There is no justification for the New Atheists to continue to present banalities as profound insights. There is an important debate to be had, but until we can get past obsolete and empty arguments, it is difficult to make progress.
Who Designed The Designer?: A Dialogue on Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion
Think (2009), 8: 71-81 | doi:10.1017/S1477175608000407
Abstract: In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues that any designer capable of creating the universe and the things we find in it would have to be at least as complex as his creation. If complexity requires a designer, then the designer will require a designer, and so on to infinity. Rather than actually providing an explanation for complexity we see around us, those who invoke a cosmic designer merely postpone the problem. Here, Douglas Groothuis challenges Dawkins's argument.
Groothuis, D., Who Designed the Designer: A Response to Richard Dawkins, The Constructive Curmudgeon (blog), March 28, 2009
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