News and Commentary
Origins & Design 19:2
Issue 37

Blaming the Handyman

Lydia McGrew

Claims for the miraculous or for Intelligent Design in the origins of life often elicit a horrified response from naturalistic scholars. If, say the historians, we allow the possibility that a miracle has occurred, it will be the death of historical inquiry; there will be then no principled reason to rule out the idea that the Miracle Worker makes stones or words in documents jump around to create misleading archeological effects. Naturalistic scientists have a parallel concern, insisting that Intelligent Design theory courts chaos and nullifies rational investigation. If, they assert, we admit the possibility that (say) God designed life on earth, we will have to admit on equal terms the possibility that He has been monkeying with our lab equipment.

The flaw in this Humean argument can be illustrated by the true Tale of the Dishonest Handyman. I have some friends who own a gun, which they used to keep in a gun case in their apartment. One day, the husband of the couple went to look at the gun and found it gone. He questioned his wife, who said that she hadn’t touched it. They turned the apartment upside-down, searching for it, to no avail. They racked their memories, but they were confident that they had not taken the gun out of the apartment on any occasion.

Then the wife remembered the handyman. He had come to do some work and had been left alone in the apartment not long ago; certainly it was possible that he had taken the gun. On the other hand, they hesitated to suspect him. The handyman was a relative of their landlady, who had always seemed an honest person. They had never heard any complaint about the handyman from anyone else, nor had they ever missed anything before when he had been in the apartment to do work. And nothing else was missing -- not their computer, VCR, or other valuable portable goods.

But the stubborn fact remained: the gun was gone. It was possible that one of them was lying to the other. It was possible that one of them had taken the gun away and suffered selective amnesia. It was possible that, despite their thorough search, the gun was still somewhere in the apartment. But the third of these was the only really plausible option, and as the search went on over a period of days, the relative merits of the theft hypothesis grew. The husband delicately broached the subject to the handyman, who, after some attempts at evasion, returned the gun.

Now, did my friends forever after this incident blame the handyman every time they had mislaid their car keys? Did they suspect the handyman any time they had thought there was one more piece of cake left and found none? Did they think that the handyman came into the apartment and maliciously hid things to make their lives difficult? After all, he continued to be employed by the apartment building and to have access to the apartment through his relative, the landlady. But of course, it would not be rational to apply the “handyman hypothesis” to every missing object. Indeed, they only applied it in the case of the missing gun because no other hypothesis would cover the facts.

Intelligent Design theorists, and those who believe in some historical miracles, are in a similar position to my friends. Just because we believe that a powerful intelligent being has intervened in the physical system on this planet at some time, it does not follow that we think he does it all the time. Nor are we forced to bring in supernatural explanations for what otherwise seem to be natural events. When simpler hypotheses will do, we use them. Why jump to embrace stronger ones unnecessarily? The rational Christian, for example, will greet the claims of psychic healers with skepticism, not with gullibility. He will attempt to apply natural laws or hypotheses involving only the sorts of causes he encounters frequently (e.g. human beings) even to apparent anomalies . . . up to a point. Like any hypothesis of intervention by another being in a generally stable system, the hypothesis of super-powerful or supernatural intervention in our normally stable world becomes reasonable when attempts to explain the evidence without such a hypothesis become ludicrous.

This seems like common sense, but it often escapes naturalists. Apparently, they see the supernatural or super- powerful hypothesis as being so radically different from the sorts of hypotheses we make every day that its admission is bound to have cataclysmic (and baneful) effects. It is important to emphasize that the hypothesis of design or even of the miraculous is a case in point of bringing in additional entities (including personal entities) when those already known to be present in the system cannot account for events within the system. The investigator who is not bound by methodological naturalism must be careful, but for this very reason, he need not be closed-minded.

Copyright © 1999 Lydia McGrew. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 6.1.99