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Anti-ID Philosopher: “Ad Hominem” Arguments “Justified” When Attacking Intelligent Design Proponents

Casey Luskin


In 2008, philosopher Jeffrey Koperski published a fine article in the religion and science journal Zygon in which he argued that ad hominem attacks are a “bad way” to critique proponents of intelligent design. Why? Largely, he wrote, because they entail a logical fallacy — the genetic fallacy. That is, they address the origin of an argument rather than the argument itself:

One’s motivations for presenting an argument have no bearing whatsoever on the validity of that argument. Evaluating a conclusion by questioning one’s motivation is an ad hominem attack. Arguments must be judged on their merits regardless of the source.

(Jeffrey Koperski, “Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Good Ones,” Zygon, Vol. 43 (2):433-449 (June 2008).)

Now, Christopher A. Pynes, an associate professor of philosophy at Western Illinois University, has written a reply to Koperski. According to Pynes, contrary to the normal rules of respectable scholarly discourse, it is permissible to engage in ad hominem attacks — provided that you are attacking proponents of intelligent design.

The reason for this exception to the standard rule against logical fallacies, Pynes argues, is on account of the motives of ID’s proponents. I always thought it was the evidence that determined the answers to scientific questions, not the motives of the scientists. Indeed, it would be the height of naïveté to assume that scientists are always (or indeed ever) completely devoid of personal motives. So why should motives be relevant to assessing ID? They shouldn’t be. (Although you might expect that if the evidence wasn’t on someone’s side, they might focus on motives of their opponents to distract from problems with their own side’s evidence.) But according to Pynes, motives are relevant because many ID proponents are Christians:

One thing we need to look at is motive. And there is an important motive many Christians, particularly fundamentalist Christians, have: they believe they need to spread the word of God. Evidence for this comes from the final verses of Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20 NRSV).

This biblical verse is known as the great commission, and if I might be allowed to equivocate on the word “commission,” one has to be worried about those working on this commission in the same way that we have to be worried about the salesperson working on commission. In this case, the Christian believes that it is a commandment from God that they do this work, which is more important than any other work that they might do on this earth. So if we are to take this kind of person seriously because he takes this religious charge seriously, then it is legitimate to be concerned in these cases. And a relevant objection to ID on the basis of commission would be a justified ad hominem attack and not the fallacious variety.

(Christopher A. Pynes, “Ad Hominem Arguments and Intelligent Design: Reply to Koperski,” Zygon, Vol. 47 (2): 289-297 (June, 2012).)

He then concludes:

The real question is one of relevance, and it is clear from many cases, especially when the person is trying to obey the great commission, that this kind of ad hominem evaluation of ID theorists is both relevant and good and not an instance of the attacking ad hominem fallacy.

How does this respond to the empirical observation that proteins are full of high levels of complex and specified information which, in our experience, only comes from intelligence? It doesn’t.

How does this respond to the research showing life is full of irreducibly complex molecular machines? It doesn’t.

How does this provide some kind of an evolutionary explanation for the abrupt appearance of tightly integrated multi-component body plans in the Cambrian explosion? It doesn’t.

How does this refute the observation that the cosmic architecture of the universe is finely-tuned to allow for the existence of advanced life? It doesn’t.

Pynes has committed a logical fallacy by attacking the perceived motives of proponents of an argument rather than the argument itself. Whether ID proponents are Christians is irrelevant to determining whether there is evidence for design in nature.

There are other problems with Pynes’s argument. For one, ID isn’t the “gospel,” so when Christians are talking about ID, it’s hard to see how they are fulfilling the “great commission.” Also, there are plenty of noteworthy ID proponents who aren’t Christians. It’s hard to see how non-Christians like David Berlinski, David Klinghoffer, Thomas Nagel, Bradley Monton, or James Barham (to name a few) are trying to fulfill the “great commission” when they defend arguments for design. But there’s another glaring flaw in Pynes’s argument.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it doesn’t entail a logical fallacy to attack ID by scrutinizing the religious motives and beliefs of ID proponents. In that case, Pynes still better watch out: if motives are “on the table,” he had better be prepared to deal with the fact that many leading evolutionists also have expressed their own stridently anti-religious motives.

Richard Dawkins is the most famous evolutionist in the world, and also the world’s most famous atheist. He argues that belief in God is a “delusion”1 and that “Darwin made it possible to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”2 Dawkins has stated that “faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”3

America’s great champion of evolution, the late Stephen Jay Gould, similarly announced that “[b]efore Darwin, we thought that a benevolent God had created us,”4 but because of Darwin’s ideas, “biology took away our status as paragons created in the image of God.”5 Gould repeatedly discussed the “radical philosophical content of Darwin’s message” and its denial of purpose in the universe:

First, Darwin argues that evolution has no purpose. . . . Second, Darwin maintained that evolution has no direction. . . . Third, Darwin applied a consistent philosophy of materialism to his interpretation of nature. Matter is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity.6

ID critics sometimes like to pretend that Gould and Dawkins are outliers in their views. If only that were so.

A 2007 editorial by the editors of the world’s top scientific journal, Nature, stated that “the idea that human minds are the product of evolution” is an “unassailable fact,” and thus concluded, “the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside.”7 A very popular college evolutionary biology textbook (which I used for one of my upper division evolutionary biology courses during my undergraduate studies) declares that “[b]y coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous.”8

Similarly, in the prestigious scientific journal, Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences, leading evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala celebrates “Darwin’s greatest accomplishment,” which was to show that the origin of life’s complexity “can be explained as the result of a natural process — natural selection — without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent.”9 Just to make sure that his readers don’t try to invoke some kind of “God-guided” evolution, Ayala writes that “[i]n evolution, there is no entity or person who is selecting adaptive combinations.”10

Cornell University evolutionary biologist William Provine has similarly stated that “belief in modern evolution makes atheists of people”11 and that “[o]ne can have a religious view that is compatible with evolution only if the religious view is indistinguishable from atheism.”12 Provine says that there are severe philosophical implications of Darwinian biology:

Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.13

Also noteworthy is the fact that key public defenders of Darwin have strong ties to secular humanist groups. For example, Eugenie Scott is a physical anthropologist who now serves as Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education and was called by the scientific journal Nature “perhaps the nation’s most high-profile Darwinist.”14 But Dr. Scott is also a public signer of the Third Humanist Manifesto, an aggressive statement of the humanist agenda to create a world “without supernaturalism” based upon the view that “[h]umans are … the result of unguided evolutionary change” and the universe is “self-existing.”15 Another leading pro-evolution activist, Barbara Forrest, believes that “philosophical naturalism” is “the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion.”16 Dr. Forrest sits on the Board of Directors of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association,17 and is an associate member of the American Humanist Association, which published the Humanist Manifesto III.

Even the widely touted theistic evolutionary biologist Kenneth Miller has claimed in five editions of his popular high school biology textbooks that the implication of evolution is that it works “without either plan or purpose” and is “random and undirected.”18 Two other versions of Miller’s high school biology textbooks contain a striking discussion of some of the potential philosophical implications of evolution:

Darwin knew that accepting his theory required believing in philosophical materialism, the conviction that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomena are its byproducts. Darwinian evolution was not only purposeless but also heartless . . . . Suddenly, humanity was reduced to just one more species in a world that cared nothing for us. The great human mind was no more than a mass of evolving neurons. Worst of all, there was no divine plan to guide us.19

(Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph S. Levine, Biology: Discovering Life, p. 161 (2d ed., D.C. Heath 1994); Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph S. Levine, Biology: Discovering Life, p. 158 (1st ed., D.C. Heath 1991).)

Harvard paleontologist and author Richard Lewontin explains how materialism is a key assumption propping up Darwinian thought:

[W]e have a prior commitment … to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to … produce material explanations … [T]hat materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.20

Finally, leading Darwinian philosopher of science Michael Ruse admits that “for many evolutionists, evolution has functioned … akin to being a secular religion” whose main doctrine is “a commitment to a kind of naturalism.”21

It’s difficult to seriously dispute the fact that neo-Darwinian evolution is surrounded by a cloud of leading proponents with anti-religious motives, beliefs, and affiliations, who have plainly declared that the theory can have anti-religious implications. If Professor Pynes is going to be fair, he’d better allow that it’s also “justified” to scrutinize the motives of evolutionists.

For my part, I have not listed these examples to argue that the anti-religious motives, beliefs, affiliations, and implications associated with neo-Darwinism make it wrong, or even unscientific. I accept that neo-Darwinian evolution is a scientific theory. My concern here is simply to demonstrate that scientific theories must be tested independently of the beliefs, motives, and affiliations of their proponents, or the larger philosophical implications that some draw from the theory. In science, motives don’t matter, only the evidence does. Thus, my arguments against Darwinian evolution are based upon scientific evidence, not the motives of its proponents.

If only ID-critics would aim to behave in the same way. Pro-ID scientists should be able to stake out scientific positions on ID without being judged on the basis of their private religious beliefs, motives, or affiliations. Furthermore, pro-ID scientists should not have their views about ID disqualified from being scientific if people interpret ID’s scientific claims to have larger philosophical and metaphysical implications. To argue that a viewpoint should be critiqued or rejected simply because of the private religious motives, beliefs, or affiliations of its proponents, is to commit the genetic fallacy.

What’s really going on here? Pynes is an ID-critic, and he’s well aware that many ID-critics find it convenient to attack ID by attacking motives rather than addressing ID’s actual arguments. He’s concerned that their fallacies have been exposed — so he’s desperate to maintain the pretense that it’s legitimate to attack ID by scrutinizing the motives of ID proponents. But his argument fails, because he perpetuates logical fallacies that don’t address the arguments of ID proponents.

In a future article, I’ll address another logical fallacy that Professor Pynes commits.

References Cited:
[1.] See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Bantam Press 2006).
[2.] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, p. 6 (W. W. Norton, 1986).
[3.] Richard Dawkins, “Is Science A Religion?,” 57 Humanist (Jan./Feb. 1997).
[4.] Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, p. 267 (W.W. Norton, 1977).
[5.] Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, p. 147 (W.W. Norton, 1977).
[6.] Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, pp. 12-13 (W.W. Norton & Co. 1977).
[7.] “Evolution and the brain,” Nature, Vol. 447:753 (June 14, 2007).
[8.] Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology, pg. 5 (3d ed., Sinaeur Associates, 1998).
[9.] Francisco J. Ayala, “Darwin’s greatest discovery: Design without designer,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Vol. 104:8567�8573 (May 15, 2007).
[10.] Ibid.
[11.] William B. Provine, “No Free Will,” in Catching Up with the Vision, pgs. S117, S123 (Margaret W. Rossiter ed., University of Chicago Press 1999).
[12.] Ibid.
[13.] William Provine, Abstract, “Evolution: Free will and punishment and meaning in life,” Second Annual Darwin Day Celebration University of Tennessee, Knoxville Feb. 12, 1998.
[14.] Geoff Brumfiel, “Who Has Designs on Your Students’ Minds?,” Nature, Vol.434:1062 (April 28, 2005).
[15.] Humanist Manifesto III
[16.] Barbara Forrest, “Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection,” Philo, Vol. 3(2):7-29 (Fall-Winter, 2000).
[17.] New Orleans Secular Humanist Association NOSHA Who’s Who — Officers and Board of Directors
[18.] Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph S. Levine, Biology (1st ed., Prentice Hall, 1991), p. 658; (2nd ed., Prentice Hall, 1993), p. 658; (3rd ed., Prentice Hall, 1995), p. 658; (4th ed., Prentice Hall, 1998), p. 658; (5th ed. Teachers Ed., Prentice Hall, 2000), p. 658.
[19.] Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph S. Levine, Biology: Discovering Life, p. 161 (2d ed., D.C. Heath 1994); Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph S. Levine, Biology: Discovering Life, p. 158 (1st ed., D.C. Heath 1991).
[20.] Richard Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” New York Review of Books, p. 28 (January 9, 1997).
[21.] Michael Ruse, “Nonliteralist Antievolution,” AAAS Symposium: “The New Antievolutionism,” February 13, 1993, Boston, MA (1993).

Image credit: Giulio del Torre/Wikicommons.


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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