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Professor Pynes Rails Against the “Straw-Man Fallacy” while Attacking a Straw-Man Version of Intelligent Design

Casey Luskin


Christopher Pynes, Associate Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Western Illinois University, recently published an article in the journal Zygon arguing that ad hominem attacks are “justified” against proponents of intelligent design (ID).In his article, Professor Pynes claims to be sensitive to avoiding logical fallacies, but as we discussed previously, his argument suggests that ID critics should use irrelevant inquiries into motives when assessing ID. This commits the genetic fallacy by attacking the origin of an argument rather than the argument itself.

Yet there’s another logical fallacy in this article that purports to be against logical fallacies. Pynes writes:

Charity is a principle that all logic students should be taught so they don’t present their interlocutor’s arguments in a way that is weaker than it actually is — that is, committing the straw-man fallacy.

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

What Dr. Pynes goes on to do, however, is attack nothing other than a straw-man version of intelligent design. He writes:

What ID theorists need to do is find independent arguments for their ID positions, but they cannot. Just like methodological naturalism is a tenet of science, supernaturalism is a necessary component of ID: there must be a designer

This is not at all how ID proponents have formulated their theory. Not only have we cited immense amounts of independent evidence for design in nature, but we do not claim that ID theory holds the designer must be supernatural. First, the arguments for ID.

As explained here and here, just a few of many lines of independent evidence used to support ID include:

  • Studies of physics and cosmology continue to uncover deeper and deeper levels of fine-tuning. Many examples could be given, but this one is striking: the initial entropy of the universe must have been fine-tuned to within 1 part in 10(10^123) to render the universe life-friendly. That blows other fine-tuning constants away. New cosmological theories like string theory or multiverse theories just push back questions about fine-tuning, and would, if true, simply exacerbate the need for fine-tuning. This points to high levels of complex and specified information (CSI) in the cosmic architecture of the universe–information which in our experieince only comes from intelligence.
  • Mutational sensitivity tests increasingly show that DNA sequences are highly fine-tuned to generate functional proteins and perform other biological functions. Again, this is high CSI–which in our experience only comes from intelligence.
  • Studies of epigenetics and systems biology are revealing more and more how integrated organisms are, from biochemistry to macrobiology, and showing incredible fine-tuned basic cellular functions. The integrated nature of organismal body plans shows CSI throughout biological systems–in our experience, only intelligence can generate tightly intregrated multi-component blueprints.
  • Genetic knockout experiments are showing irreducible complexity, such as in the flagellum, or multi-mutation features where many simultaneous mutations would be necessary to gain an advantage. This is more fine-tuning–and in our experience, irreducibly complex machines arise only from intelligence.
  • The fossil record shows that species often appear abruptly without similar precursors, which represents mass-explosions of high CSI–something which requires an intelligne tcause.
  • There have been numerous discoveries of functionality for “junk DNA.” Examples include recently discovered functionality in some pseudogenes, microRNAs, introns, LINE and ALU elements. Intelligent design predicted this data.

Each of these discoveries fulfill specific testable predictions of the theory of intelligent design.

And what about Professor Pynes’s claim that “supernaturalism is a necessary component of ID”? Stephen Meyer explains that the notion that there is a designer does NOT imply that “supernaturalism is a necessary component of ID”:

The theory of intelligent design does not claim to detect a supernatural intelligence possessing unlimited powers. Though the designing agent responsible for life may well have been an omnipotent deity, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine that. Because the inference to design depends upon our uniform experience of cause and effect in this world, the theory cannot determine whether or not the designing intelligence putatively responsible for life has powers beyond those on display in our experience. Nor can the theory of intelligent design determine whether the intelligent agent responsible for information life acted from the natural or the “supernatural” realm. Instead, the theory of intelligent design merely claims to detect the action of some intelligent cause (with power, at least, equivalent to those we know from experience) and affirms this because we know from experience that only conscious, intelligent agents produce large amounts of specified information. The theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine the identity or any other attributes of that intelligence, even if philosophical deliberation or additional evidence from other disciplines may provide reasons to consider, for example, a specifically theistic design hypothesis.

(Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell, pp. 428-429)

Likewise Michael Behe writes:

[ID] is not an argument for the existence of a benevolent God, as Paley’s was. I hasten to add that I myself do believe in a benevolent God, and I recognize that philosophy and theology may be able to extend the argument. But a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far. Thus while I argue for design, the question of the identity of the designer is left open. Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel–fallen or not; Plato’s demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being. Of course, some of these possibilities may seem more plausible than others based on information from fields other than science. Nonetheless, as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase hypothesis non fingo.

(Michael Behe, “The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis,” Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), p. 165.)

There are many more quotations like these from leading ID proponents that I could cite (for further such examples, see here or here. Even the very early ID book Of Pandas and People states:

The idea that life had an intelligent source is hardly unique to Christian fundamentalism. Advocates of design have included not only Christians and other religious theists, but pantheists, Greek and Enlightenment philosophers and now include many modern scientists who describe themselves as religiously agnostic. Moreover, the concept of design implies absolutely nothing about beliefs normally associated with Christian fundamentalism, such as a young earth, a global flood, or even the existence of the Christian God. All it implies is that life had an intelligent source.

(Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon, Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins, pg. 161 (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, 1993).)

So intelligent design, as formulated by its proponents, appeals to an “intelligent source,” but, as Meyer puts it, “does not claim to detect a supernatural intelligence.” Sure, it’s a possibility that the intelligent source is a supernatural being — many people (including me) believe the designer is God. But these are personal religious views and not conclusions of ID. As a theory, ID limits its claims to what can be learned by using the methods of science. It does not make claims about the “supernatural,” which would go beyond what the biological data can tell us.

Professor Pynes may pay lip service to avoiding logical fallacies, but that doesn’t change the fact that he seems to be committing them quite frequently when attacking ID.

Photo credit: Andrew Tatlow/Wikimedia.


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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