Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Response to Seven Commentaries, Part 2

I am continuing my response to seven commentators--Blackstone, Hall, Holloway, Lawler, Sandefur, Sherlock, and West.

Sherlock and West come to the defense of "intelligent design theory" as a scientific alternative to Darwinian biology.

Their remarks confirm my claim that the case for intelligent design relies almost entirely on negative rhetoric. The proponents of intelligent design win the debate only if they can put the burden of proof on Darwinian science--a burden of proof that they themselves cannot satisfy in proving intelligent design as a positive alternative. They ask for clear, step-by-step explanations for evolutionary history confirmed by empirical observation. Because evolutionary science is a historical science relying on indirect evidence of the past, this is often hard to achieve. That's why Darwin emphasized the "difficulties" for his theory. But the proponents cannot provide any positive alternative explanation of their own. To do that, they would have to explain exactly when, where, and how the intelligent designer intervened to create the "irreducibly complex" mechanisms of life. Advocates for intelligent design cannot do this, and they carefully avoid even trying to do it.

Even if there is an intelligent designer, it is hard to understand why He is unable or unwilling to work through a natural evolutionary process. In fact, many religious believers see no conflict between theistic belief and evolutionary science. After all, isn't there more grandeur in having the intelligent power to design laws of nature so that they carry out the designer's plan through natural evolution than in having to repeatedly intervene in the history of nature to fill some gap in nature?

In fact, the leading biologist promoting intelligent design--Michael Behe--actually suggests that theistic evolution could make a lot of sense. In The Edge of Evolution, Behe writes: "The purposeful design of life to any degree is easily compatible with the idea that, after its initiation, the universe unfolded exclusively by the intended playing out of natural laws. The purposeful design of life is also fully compatible with the idea of universal common descent, one important facet of Darwin's theory" (232). He also writes: "although some religious thinkers envision active, continuing intervention in nature, intelligent design is quite compatible with the view that the universe operates by unbroken natural law, with the design of life perhaps packed into its initial set-up" (166).

Whether one becomes a theistic evolutionist or not depends on how one resolves the problem of ultimate explanation. If one looks to nature as the unexplained and uncaused cause of everything, then one could be an evolutionary naturalist without being a theist. But if one looks to nature's God as the unexplained and uncaused cause behind nature, then one might be a theistic evolutionist. Darwinian conservatism is open to both.

Sandefur endorses my position by saying, "this is nothing more than good old-fashioned teleological natural law theory, updated with the discoveries of modern science." Against this idea, Sherlock insists that "we cannot have natural law without divine or eternal law." Similarly, West and Holloway say that a natural moral law based on natural science is impossible, because there can be no natural moral standard without some religious or eternal standard of right.

I agree that religious belief can be important in reinforcing a natural morality. But still a natural morality must stand on its own natural ground even without religious belief. After all, as Thomas Aquinas and other proponents of traditional natural law have indicated, the very distinction between natural law and divine law turns on the distinction between natural experience and divine revelation.

Moreover, Holloway, Sherlock, and West are all remarkably vague about how exactly religion resolves moral issues clearly and precisely. For such a religious morality to work, it would have to have moral authority, moral clarity, and moral reliability. But on each of these points, religious morality often falls short.

To have moral authority, we would have to agree on which religious tradition has preeminent authority. Atheists will reject any religious authority. But even religious believers will disagree about which religious source is authoritative. Are Holloway, Sherlock, and West open to just any religious tradition as morally authoritative? Or would they insist on just biblical religions? If it's the biblical religions, how would they resolve differences between Judaism, Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism?

To have moral clarity, the statements of religious morality would have to be clear enough to resolve disagreements. Consider, for example, the case of slavery. Throughout the history of slavery, biblical religious believers have noticed that the Bible endorses slavery and never recommends its abolition. But some believers have tried to interpret the Bible as condemning slavery. This split arose in the United States and made the Civil War a theological crisis. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln dramatically depicted this split over the Bible: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."

To have moral reliability, we would have to recognize the moral teachings of religion as reliable. But when religious texts like the Bible teach slavery, polygamy, infanticide, and genocidal warfare, we are forced to question whether these teachings are reliable or not.

We might try to resolve these difficulties by saying--as Holloway, Sherlock, and West sometimes do--that the entire moral teaching of the Bible is reducible to the principle of the equal moral dignity of all human beings as created in God's image and the practical principle of the Golden Rule. Surely, we can all agree to this? In fact, Darwin recognizes the Golden Rule as the "cornerstone of morality" by which we can judge moral progress.

But then it's not clear that this really is the Bible's teaching, or whether it's the teaching that we have read into the Bible based on our modern understanding of humanitarian universalism.

And even if we take this disinterested humanitarianism as the foundation of religious morality, we are still left with insuperable problems that require practical wisdom and natural human experience to resolve. For example, Sherlock identifies himself as "a strict pacifist on religious grounds." But then he adds: "I admit that war has always been and will always be part of human existence." And he endorses the "just war" tradition. But didn't the idea of "just war" arise in Christian tradition as a way of correcting the pacifism of Jesus? An absolute pacifism of "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies" does not work in natural human experience, because human beings are naturally divided by group against group conflict in which war is unavoidable. This creates tragic moral conflicts that cannot be overcome by absolute principles of universal humanitarianism. We need prudence or practical judgment working on our natural experience in the world.

Consider the following comments from West: "I actually agree with him that showing a biological basis for certain moral desires could conceivably reinforce traditional morality--but only if we have reason to assume that these biological desires are somehow normative. If one believes that natural desires have been implanted in human beings by intelligent design, or that they represent permanent truths inherent in the nature of the universe, it would be rational to accept those desires as a grounding for a universal code of morality."

So does this mean that we are morally obligated to follow all of our natural desires if we believe they are the product of intelligent design or an unchanging nature? How exactly would that work? If we believe the biblical God to be the intelligent designer, does that mean that whatever that God commands must be obeyed, even if it seems immoral? How can we judge that the intelligent designer or unchanging nature is good if we do not already have some independent standard of goodness derived from our natural moral sense? Is it possible that the intelligent designer used the evolutionary process to create the human species and its moral sense? Is it possible that "unchanging nature" produced human beings and human morality through an evolutionary process? If so, would that make our biological desires as shaped by evolution normative for us?

I have much more that I need to say in response to the seven commentators. But I will save that for my text to be published in the new edition of Darwinian Conservatism.

For some of my previous posts responding to Holloway, go here, here, here, and here.

For Lawler, go here, here, here, and here.

For Sandefur, go here and here.

For West, go , here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The new edition of Darwinian Conservatism will also reprint Michael Shermer's Scientific American article "Darwin on the Right" and Patricia Cohen's New York Times article on the AEI debate on the book. My blog posts on these articles can be found here and here.


RBH said...

You're too hard on Intelligent Design. I've laid out ID theory several times over the years. It runs like this:

Sometime or other, some intelligent agent (or agents) designed something or other, and then somehow or other manufactured that thing in matter and energy, all the while leaving no independent evidence of the design process, the manufacturing process, or the presence, or even the existence, of the intelligent agent(s).

See? Simple. Now clearly there's a little fussy work left to do to replace those placeholder variables with actual empirical and conceptual content, but that's a mere technicality: the explanatory power of the theory is very clear.

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, you're right. Your formulation really does capture the rhetorical strategy of the intelligent design proponents.

Anonymous said...

I picked up a copy of Darwinian Natural Right over the weekend. When will this reprint of Darwinian Conservatism be published?

Larry Arnhart said...

Probably, by sometime early in 2009.

Kent Guida said...

Great stuff, as always. It will be a pleasure to see these crucial questions discussed in the open where everyone can see everyone's cards.
Have you seen any comments from Hayekians regarding your analysis of Hayek's strengths and weaknesses? I have tried without success to get a response from some of them. What is your sense of their 'position'?

Larry Arnhart said...


Yes, it will be good for readers to see all of the commentators' statements so that they can judge for themselves whether I have responded properly.

From my experience, the Hayekians are open to Darwinian reasoning, just as Hayek was. But there's a lot of confusion over what to make of Hayek's account of cultural evolution. As I indicate in the book, I think Hayek was mistaken in elevating culture to the exclusion of nature and reason.

Kent Guida said...

And you do a brilliant job of laying out that confusion about cultural evolution and its relation to nature and reason.

In some ways I found that discussion to the highlight of the book.

Trouble is, Hayek enthusiasts don't seem to have taken any notice or made any response. What's up with that?