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The False Dichotomy Between Intelligent Design and Natural Causes

Intelligent Design and the Origin of Information: A Response to Dennis Venema


In this article, Part 4, we:
• Explain why ID doesn’t say God can’t use natural causes
• Understand why theistic naturalism’s assumption that God must use natural causes hinders inquiry
• Investigate why Lenski’s E. coli bacteria that evolved the ability to uptake citrate under oxic conditions didn’t evolve anything new and likely experienced loss-of-molecular function
• Investigate why ID adopts the motto “let’s follow the evidence where it leads”

Other Installments:
Part 1: Intelligent Design and the Origin of Biological Information: A Response to Dennis Venema
Part 2: Why Did One Theistic Evolutionist Part Ways with BioLogos?
Part 3: What Is a Proper Test of Intelligent Design?
Part 4 (This Article): The False Dichotomy Between Intelligent Design and Natural Causes
Part 5: Richard Lenski’s Long-Term Evolution Experiments with E. coli and the Origin of New Biological Information
Part 6: Another Bogus Claim of “Novel Function Arising Through Mutation and Selection”
Part 7: Confusing Evidence for Common Ancestry with Evidence for Random Mutation and Natural Selection
Part 8: Critically Analyzing the Argument from Human/Chimpanzee Genetic Similarity

In a previous article in this series, we saw that a self-described theistic evolutionist had left the BioLogos camp because he was concerned about the way BioLogos writers treat Darwin-critics:

I have got used to the vituperative and often incoherent level of discussion about faith and evolution in the last year or so. Generally speaking, as one would now expect, Gnus attempting to savage anything they can identify as a theist are the greatest offenders. But on BioLogos, a frighteningly similar kind of abuse, if usually expressed with more gentility, is directed not back at non-theists, nor even YECs, but at ID sympathisers….I think I can draw two tentative conclusions about the reasons for this degree of passion, which is clearly far more than an opinion that ID arguments are wrong. In my opinion, although BioLogos is quite a diverse forum, its “ruling spirit” is fundamentally committed to (a) methodological naturalism and (b) theological naturalism.

How does the “theological naturalism” of BioLogos influence its perspective on intelligent design (ID)? Unfortunately, for one, it seems to lead some ID-critics to wrongly think that ID denies that God can use natural causes.

For example, in his series on “Evolution and the Origin of Biological Information,” Dennis Venema sets up a false dichotomy between intelligent design (ID) and natural causes, wrongly claiming ID that creates a “‘natural versus God’ dichotomy” or alternatively claiming that ID tries to “eliminate the possibility of divine action” when “we use science to understand natural cause and effect.” Venema also states:

[D]escribing how specified information can arise through natural means does not in any way imply God’s absence from the process. After all, natural processes are equally a manifestation of God’s activity as what one would call supernatural events. So-called “natural” laws are what Christians understand to be a description of the ongoing, regular and repeatable activity of God. As such, the dichotomy presented in ID writings of “naturalism” versus theism is a false one: is not God the Author of nature, after all?

While defending naturalism, Venema has badly misstated the claims of ID: there is no false dichotomy in intelligent design that says God is never allowed to use natural causes. The only party who’s setting up a false dichotomy here is Dennis Venema, in suggesting that if one accepts ID then God is no longer allowed to use “natural laws.”

Venema seeks to paint ID as bad theology which somehow denies that God is the author of all nature when God uses secondary material or “natural” causes. ID is a scientific theory and doesn’t make such theological claims. Thus, as a science, ID never claims that if we observe the “ongoing, regular and repeatable activity” of “natural laws” then somehow God is absent from the process.

ID proponents who believe in God never deny that God can use secondary material “natural” causes to achieve his will. In those instances, ID would simply say that material causes are the best explanation. ID does not “eliminate the possibility of divine action” when “we use science to understand natural cause and effect.” To wit: ID proponents have often inferred design from the fine-tuning of the laws that govern the universe and make it friendly for life. Indeed, this is an area where BioLogos supposedly agrees with intelligent design. In any event, Venema’s description of ID is backwards: in contexts of physics and cosmology, the actions of natural laws themselves can trigger a design inference.

Remember, ID is a cautious scientific theory and not a theological doctrine. When ID theorists look for scientifically detectable design at the biological level, they often treat natural causes as background. So the biological design that’s detected normally involves features that (1) go well beyond the capacities of natural causes, and (2) exhibit telltale signs of intelligent agency (such as being the product of foresight). On the other hand, when ID infers a natural cause, pro-ID theists would simply say God used a natural cause, and would not say that God is somehow “absent.”

All theists who support ID affirm that God is behind, in some sense, every event. “Natural cause” never means (for theists anyway) “not caused by God.” I’m not aware of any ID theorist who is also a theist who has ever claimed otherwise.

This leads us to the question, why does ID critique theistic naturalism, and how does ID contrast with theistic evolution?

Theistic naturalism isn’t merely the view that God at times (or even most of the time) works through natural causes. Rather, it is the view that assumes that God must only use natural causes and is never allowed to work in other ways that might break the “ongoing, regular and repeatable activity” of “natural laws.”

ID rejects such assumption-based views. ID is entirely compatible with the view that God at times (or even most of the time) works through natural causes. But ID isn’t precommitted to answers about how God must have acted, and leaves open the possibility that sometimes God doesn’t use “natural” causes. ID simply wants to follow the evidence where it leads.

Thus, theistic naturalism is the wholesale assumption that if God exists, He must always use secondary material causes, and is never allowed to act in nature in a scientifically detectable way. The reason ID proponents critique naturalism is because it tends to presuppose materialistic answers to all questions about how life arose and diversified.

There are thus two potential extreme positions in this debate: (A) Everything is detectably designed and God never uses natural causes, or (B) Nothing is detectably designed and God always uses natural causes.

Ironically, though ID critics (wrongly) accuse ID proponents of adopting extreme position (A), it is ID-critics themselves, including many theistic evolutionist proponents of theistic naturalism, who seem to adopt extreme position (B). This makes for bad science because it presupposes the scientific answers, and bad theology because it tries to dictate to God what He ought to do.

In contrast, ID rejects both extreme positions, and uses this motto: let’s not presuppose answers, but let’s follow the evidence where it leads.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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