{I’ve added two updates to the end of this post.}

William Hasker has a new paper out in Philosophy Compass on intelligent design. He’s mostly critical, but I think that some of his criticisms are unfair.

He claims that most intelligent design proponents believe in Special Creation — that the Designer has created many forms of life from time to time, and that these forms of live undergo only micro-evolution. He doesn’t say what his evidence is for attributing this view to most intelligent design proponents; he just writes:

Pretty clearly, the majority view among prominent ID supporters is progressive creationism. Michael Behe, the most highly regarded scientist associated with the movement, is an intelligent design evolutionist, but on this point he is somewhat isolated; it is my understanding that he is the only one of the Senior Fellows of the Discovery Institute who affirms universal common ancestry.

I don’t have definitive evidence the other way, but I was surprised to hear him say that Behe’s the only one who doesn’t endorse Special Creation. (If anyone does have definitive evidence one way or the other, please email me.)

Anyway, if someone like Hasker is going to criticize intelligent design, I think that, to be charitable, one should focus on the most plausible formulation of intelligent design, and that’s Behe’s position. (Behe, as I understand it, says that he has no problem with common descent, but he doesn’t say that he definitely believes in common descent; I take it his position is that he just doesn’t know.)

So what does Hasker have to say about Behe’s position? Hasker writes:

Accepting [Behe’s position]   … would require a major change of viewpoint on the part of most ID supporters; in particular, it would require them to swallow what many find to be the indigestible fact of human evolution. There is also a particular problem [Behe’s position]. He proposes that the origin of life and many other crucial developments in the history of life are the result, not of intervention by a designer, but of ‘fine tuning’ that carefully adjusted the initial conditions of the universe with a view to producing just those results. He writes,

“Those who worry about ‘interference’ should relax. 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 the natural laws.” (Behe, Edge of Evolution 232)

One difficulty with this proposal is that it seems very doubtful that information present in the initial configuration of the universe would be conserved sufficiently to guarantee the occurrence of highly specific events billions of years later. (This difficulty is especially acute if, as is generally believed, the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is a real feature of nature.)

Hasker then moves on to a different criticism of Behe.

But the above quoted criticism strikes me as quite unfair — or at least, it needs a lot more defense. Let’s assume with Hasker that the universe hasn’t been in existence forever, and hence there is an initial configuration. If the laws of nature are deterministic, and there’s no outside intervention, then there’s a unique future the the universe compatible with the laws of nature and the initial conditions. If the laws are deterministic, then there’s just no basis for saying that it’s doubtful that the information present in the initial configuration would be conserved.

But what if the laws of nature are indeterministic? Note that that doesn’t have to be the case, even given quantum mechanics — there are deterministic versions of quantum mechanics, such as Bohm’s theory. But what if the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is a real feature of nature?

Well, it would be surprising if quantum mechanics turned out to be true, given that it conflicts with general relativity, and that physicists are working on coming up with theories (such as string theory) that will supplant both quantum mechanics and general relativity. Given that we don’t have such fully-worked-out theories yet, we’d be hard-pressed to say how exactly indeterminism would work in such a theory. So let’s just assume, contrary to fact, that the theory of quantum mechanics is true. Could God set up the initial conditions of the universe such that God can guarantee that some outcome in the future will obtain (without intervention)?

I think this is an interesting question, and I haven’t seen it addressed in the philosophy of quantum mechanics literature. My tentative answer is “yes, God could do that — at least, God could make it arbitrarily highly probable that a future outcome will obtain, as long as the desired future outcome is an outcome that he wants to take place in some arbitrary region of spacetime in the universe, not the universe as a whole”. If God desires a particular future for the universe as a whole, he might not get that, given quantum indeterminism and God’s choice not to intervene — the chancy events could go a different way than how God wants them to. But if God just wants something to happen in an arbitrary region of the universe — for example, if he just desires for there to be a planet with intelligent life, without caring much where in spacetime that planet occurs — then God can achieve that, even given quantum indeterminism. The way God can achieve that is by having a large number of trials (perhaps an infinite number). As long as the probability for God’s desired result is non-zero, then with a large enough number of trials the result is likely to happen.

Because Hasker seemingly ignores this sort of response to his argument, I maintain that Hasker’s criticism is unfair — or at least, it needs a lot more defense.

An aside: Al Plantinga has a paper coming out on the possibility of God intervening in the universe without violating the indeterministic laws of quantum mechanics. I looked for the paper to link to, but I don’t think it’s available yet. Anyways, I get quoted in that paper, as do other philosophers of physics — it turns out that there’s a debate amongst philosophers of physics on some of these technical issues. This provides a bit more evidence that Hasker is moving way too quickly here.

See more for an update:

UPDATE #1: Nick Matzke says that Hasker is right about Behe being the only one who doesn’t endorse Special Creation (and he gave me permission to quote him here):

Anyone paying close attention to the actual major players and literature of the movement, and not just arbitrarily focusing on Behe and innocently swallowing the ID movement’s tireless propaganda about how they ain’t creationists no-way no-sir because-we-say-so, rapidly reaches the conclusion that they don’t buy common ancestry in any significant sense, except Behe sort of.  The other “exceptions” typically aren’t actually ID advocates, just random contrarians to the dominant paradigm like Berlinski.

Here’s a short summary we did in 2007:

The denial of common ancestry is unsurprising in creation science, but it is a common misconception that ID advocates accept common ancestry and “macroevolution.” In fact, the vast majority of ID proponents deny the common ancestry of humans and apes. Behe is the only significant exception, although he is much-touted by those who wish to portray ID as a moderate position. Even Behe’s support is lukewarm; in 2005, he wrote that “my Intelligent Design colleagues who disagree with me on common descent have greater familiarity with the relevant science than I do” (66). Dembski’s position is typical, accepting “some change in the course of natural history,” but believing “that this change has occurred within strict limits and that human beings were specially created” (67). This is the standard position of an ID advocate. In May 2005, ID supporters on the Kansas Board of Education held hearings to support ID-friendly science standards. Mainstream scientists boycotted the hearings, but a series of pro-ID witnesses, mostly teachers and academics (but few professional biologists) testified in support of the standards. During cross-examination, only 2 of 19 witnesses accepted the common ancestry of humans and apes. One was an independent scholar who clarified that although he supported the Kansas standards, he was not an ID advocate; and the other was Behe. The rejection of evolution by the vast majority of ID witnesses at the Kansas hearings parallels the rejection of evolution by ID proponents in general.

Those witnesses in Kansas included big players like Jonathan Wells, Charles Thaxton, Stephen Meyer (director of the CSC, VP of the DI), etc.

Paul Nelson, John Mark Reynolds, and several other ID leaders are straight-up YECs.

Casey Luskin, the main spokesperson for the DI, has numerous web essays criticizing the idea of common ancestry of humans & apes.

Then there is the godfather of the movement, Phillip Johnson, who has explicitly denied common ancestry, and suggested that the age of the earth should come up for debate again once the young-earth & old-earth creationists successfully team up (this was the whole point of the ID movement in the first place) to establish miraculous intervention in biology.

Then there are the two textbooks the ID movement has produced.  Of Pandas and People explicitly denies common ancestry.  The 2007 “Explore Evolution” devotes half its length to questioning common ancestry.

I’m not denying that lots of ID proponents reject common ancestry — especially when one looks further back in the history, pointing to people like Thaxton and Johnson. So there are some people who have especially bad pro-ID positions, and give especially bad arguments for them. (There are some atheists who have silly atheist positions, and give bad arguments for them too.)

But my main position is that critics should focus on the strongest pro-ID positions. Sure, it’s worthwhile rejecting the others too, but the intellectual focus should be on the strongest positions. Matzke responds to this view of mine:

But what if being charitable is just being inaccurate about the actual positions of most ID advocates?  And what if, furthermore, the ID movement has had a long-term strategy of hiding their less-defensible claims (e.g. the age of the earth is up for debate, common ancestry is wrong) behind Behe and biochemistry, and then rolling out the less-defensible stuff once they convince a body like the Texas State Board of Education that they are Serious Scientists (TM).

But my point is that it doesn’t matter what most ID advocates endorse — when it comes to intellectual debate, a critic should make an independent judgement regarding what the most plausible pro-ID arguments are, and focus on them. (When it comes to for example what should get taught in Texas schools, that raises a whole host of different issues, some of which I discuss in my forthcoming book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design.)

And finally, Matzke pointed out — and I agree — that Behe wouldn’t endorse my reply to Hasker, to the extent that my reply involves making appeal to a spatially infinite universe. Behe has an interesting discussion of these infinite universe/multiverse issues in the end of his book The Edge of Evolution, and I take issue with Behe’s discussion in my forthcoming book.

Anyway, I want to thank Matzke for pushing me on these issues.

UPDATE #2: Bilbo points out to me that Behe’s support for common descent is even stronger than I portrayed it. Behe writes, on p. 72 of The Edge of Evolution:

It’s hard to imagine how there could be stronger evidence for common ancestry of chimps and humans. That strong evidence from the pseudogene points well beyond the ancestry of humans.  Despite some remaining puzzles, there’s no reason to doubt that Darwin had this point right, that all creatures on earth are biological relatives.

Also, Biblo points out that Behe thinks that endorsing intelligent design will actually help support common descent.