Reply to John West on ID and Metaphysics

John West, associate director of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, has replied to my "fulminating" essay, posted to Dispatches, In the Agora and the Panda's Thumb, on ID and "divine design". You'll recall that Mr. West had claimed that he and his fellow ID advocates get "very upset" when people "confuse" intelligent design with divine design, as a Utah legislator has in a bill designed to give equal time, and I replied by offering numerous quotes from ID advocates themselves ostensibly "confusing" the two. Mr. West's reply to me, unfortunately, almost entirely misses the point of my response - by design, I suspect. He has essentially two arguments: A) that ID only has "metaphysical implications" rather than being inherently metaphysical, and B) so does evolution:

First of all, if he had read the article I referenced in my blog post about why ID is not creationism, he would have known that I never deny that ID can have metaphysical implications...I went on to explain that ID in this respect is no different than Darwinism.

But he fails to address here the real substance of my argument. I did not argue that ID merely has metaphysical implications; I argued that ID is inherently metaphysical and that many ID advocates had admitted as much. The only quotes in my initial post that dealt only with the implications of ID were the ones from Nancy Pearcey; the rest of them dealt with the nature of ID either as an explanation or as a political/legal movement. The rest of them all begin with statements like "Intelligent design is...", "Our strategy has been...", and "Our objective is...". These are statements about the nature of ID, not about the implications of ID.

More importantly, as I have argued elsewhere, the nature of ID by the Discovery Institute's own definition can only be metaphysical. Here is the definition of ID given by West's own group in their FAQ answering questions about ID:

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

Their own definition combines biological ID with cosmological ID, which means the designer is responsible not only for living things, but for creating the universe itself. The DI's writings on cosmological ID make clear that when they say "certain features of the universe", they mean the nature of the universe itself - the nature of nature. This pretty much closes the door on their mantra-like citation of aliens as possible "intelligent designers". If the argument is that the universe was designed with the ability to sustain life, invoking alien life as an explanation is clearly absurd - alien life would be an effect of that universal design, just as human life is, not a cause of it.

(Incidentally, let me add that I have no problem whatsoever with the claim that the universe is designed to support life. Indeed, this is something I agree with. I am a deist and I do believe that the universe was created with the attributes to allow life to begin, exist and evolve when the conditions are right. But not only does this have little to do with whether evolution is true or not, I would maintain that there is a tension between accepting cosmological ID and rejecting evolution. As my friend and colleague Howard Van Till likes to point out, the ID movement believes in a God who created the universe with the ability to sustain life, but did so poor a job of it that he had to continually intervene to make sure it happened.)

Anyway, getting back to the argument that ID is inherently metaphysical, let me provide more support for this position from ID advocates themselves. William Dembsk has agreed with my argument above that the combination of cosmological and biological ID means that the "designer" can only refer to God. In an August 1998 article published on ARN, The Act of Creation. He wrote:

The complexity-specification criterion demonstrates that design pervades cosmology and biology. Moreover, it is a transcendent design, not reducible to the physical world. Indeed, no intelligent agent who is strictly physical could have presided over the origin of the universe or the origin of life.

So here again, their own words demonstrate that ID does not merely have "metaphysical implications", but that ID is an explanation that requires a metaphysical designer - i.e. a God. To be fair, Dembski does say that angels could have had a hand in designing too:

And another thing I think we need to be aware of is that not every instance of design we see in nature needs to be directly attributed to God. Certainly as Christians we believe there is an angelic hierarchy - it's not just that there's this physical material world and there's God. There can be various hierarchies of intelligent beings operating, God can work through what can be called derived intelligences - processes which carry out the Divine will, but maybe not perfectly because of the fall.

But either way, ID is a metaphysical explanation by its nature, not merely by its implications. Does that mean that it's wrong? Of course not. But it means that it is outside the ability of science to deal with, and it means that West and his fellow ID advocates are putting on a Janus-like display of double talk, saying on the one hand that the designer could just as easily be aliens and that they don't deal in the supernatural, while simultaneously admitting that the designer could only be supernatural.

I would also note the interesting dichotomy between their position on evolution and their position on ID. It has been a staple argument of the ID crowd for over a decade now that evolution is an inherently atheistic/materialistic idea. Their rhetoric about destroying "atheism" and "materialism" has been quoted a thousand times over, so there is no need to rehash it here. And it is important to note that they do not merely claim that evolution has atheistic "implications". As Phillip Johnson says:

The objective [of the Wedge Strategy] is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to "'the truth" of the Bible and then "the question of sin" and finally "introduced to Jesus."

Thus we see that it is a vital part of their strategy to claim that evolution is not atheistic merely by implication, but by its inherent nature, and that their entire goal is to use ID as a wedge to introduce people to the bible and Jesus. Yet when you take those words seriously and conclude that ID is an inherently religious or metaphysical idea - as they themselves admit - they howl in outrage at the unfairness of it all. It's quite an interesting tension at play between their rhetoric about evolution and their rhetoric about ID. I maintain that this tension is simply a result of the fact that their real position and the marketing campaign with which they sell it are fundamentally at odds. As a political/legal strategy, they simply must pretend that ID is purely about science and an unnamed "designer". But as a fundraising campaign - and remember that they themselves refer to the Wedge document as a fundraising letter - they have to tell people that evolution really means atheism, ID really means Christianity, and that if you send them money, they'll stand up for God and destroy atheism.