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24 January, 2013

Guest Post, Metalogic42.

This is a guest post by user Metalogic42 who can be found on twitter or at the 'Pit. An interesting piece that points out the conflict that occurs when one claims that Intelligent Design is a valid, non-theistic argument while trying to support cosmological arguments. 

Epistemic Tension Between Theistic-Neutral Intelligent Design and Cosmological Arguments

Some proponents of Intelligent Design claim that it is not inherently theistic. Here I argue that Intelligent Design probably reduces to theism given defenses of cosmological arguments, and that any attempts to avoid a reduction to theism do not work unless cosmological arguments are forfeited; and thus either (1) I.D. is not on identical methodological footing with naturalistic evolution, or (2) the case for theism is weaker than the theist supposes. I further argue that a proponent of both nontheistic Intelligent Design and most cosmological arguments must drop one of these things to avoid epistemic tension. I do not argue here that either Intelligent Design or naturalistic evolution is likely true or false, that one methodology should be preferred to the other, or that we should be neutral with respect to methodology*.

Consider the following implicit thesis of Intelligent Design:

ID1: The cause of the first life (self-replicating organism) on Earth is best explained by Intelligent Design.

If true, this conception of I.D. implies that the first life was caused by some sort of intelligence not originating on Earth. This is not necessarily theistic when considered in a vacuum, but if I.D. best explains life on Earth, the question is raised: what best explains any possible life existing in other places in the universe? Perhaps it’s some form of intelligence (aliens, A.I.) that arose naturally elsewhere in the universe. But then we must ask: what best explains that?

The reasoning behind I.D. is that life is best explained by intelligence because of information content in the genome, specified complexity, or something similar. This hypothetical otherworldly life would almost certainly also exhibit these traits. So I.D., if it explains life on Earth, must explain that as well.

This move can be made for every natural form of life in the universe: earth life to alien life 1, alien life 1 to alien life 2, etc. But once these jumps are exhausted, and all natural life is accounted for via a natural intelligent agent(s), the only place left to go is to the non-natural.

This again does not necessarily imply theism; there are several possible moves here. One is an appeal to abstract objects as a cause of an intelligent agent. But this has implications for defenses of the cosmological argument. William Lane Craig, in responding to some objections to his Kalam cosmological argument, argues that abstract objects are distinguished from concrete objects by their inability to stand in causal relations[1]. If this response to objections is dropped, then it is a trivial matter to object to the KCA by positing an abstract object as the cause of the universe. If it is not dropped, then an appeal to an abstract object as the cause of the first life in the universe cannot be made.

Another possible move to “save” I.D. from theism is to posit a contingent supernatural intelligence (i.e. an angel, a ghost, etc.) But this has implications for liebnizian and thomistic cosmological arguments, which require causal principles that state every contingent thing or instance of coming into existence must have a cause.[2] If this principle is accepted, these arguments conclude that there must be a god. To drop this for the sake of non-theistic I.D. means that such arguments don’t go through.

A further concern for positing either abstract objects or a contingent supernatural intelligence is that they are ad hoc – they are being posited solely to “save” nontheistic I.D., and have no other basis. This has implications for Robin Collins’ fine tuning argument. His argument relies on a restricted version of the Likelihood Principle (“an observation e counts as evidence in favor of hypothesis h1 over h2 if the observation is more probable under h1 than h2″), which adds that LP can only be applied to cases where a hypothesis is not ad hoc.[3]

In conclusion, theistic-neutral Intelligent Design has no viable options for explaining the first life in the universe which do not also undercut various cosmological or fine tuning arguments for God; thus there is epistemic tension between positing both a theistic-neutral Intelligent Design and such arguments. There is also tension between theistic-neutral Intelligent Design and theism due to the case for theism being greatly weakened by positing theistic-neutral I.D.

*These debates are, I believe, separate issues.

[1] William Lane Craig, “The Kalam Cosmological Argument”. The Blackwell Companion to 

Natural Theology. pg. 193
[2] Alexander Pruss, “The Liebnizian Cosmological Argument”. The Blackwell Companion to 

Natural Theology. pg. 25
[3]Robin Collins, “The Teleological Argument”. The Blackwell Companion to Natural 

Theology. pp. 205-206


  1. I think a proponent of ID would argue that it is dealing with explaining approximate phenomena, but would perhaps agree that philosophically, one can make the case that it must ultimately be explained by theism. However, since ID is dealing simply with approximate causes for the biological reality that we are currently aware of, there is no need to explain some other potential “alien” life form because that datum is not available to us. And while you are correct in pointing out that it must be explained by theism, this is simply irrelevant to the methodology of I.D. because it operates from scientific data. The philosophical consequences of that data is a different discipline altogether. In fact, if this applies to I.D. then it must equally apply to evolutionary naturalism because recognizing the efficient causes of biological phenomena only approximately explains the data, one must go back and ask what caused that until you reach theism. This is only proper, however, since metaphysics is prior to science and thus any scientific explanation is only relevant for explaining the approximate individual phenomena, it is incapable of dealing with metaphysical issues.

  2. Gil,

    I don't think the "approximate phenomena" objection works, at least not in this case, as I'm relating ID and cosmological arguments - not ID and evolution. So we would want to look at the ultimate explanation provided by ID.

    Consider the alien 1 -> alien 2 chain, and for the sake of argument, let's say there are 10 life forms in the universe. So, eventually we would get to alien 9 -> alien 10. But what explains alien 10? If ID proponents say that ID is, as far as we know, only applicable on Earth...well, it's not science. If E=MC^2 here, E+MC^2 everywhere; and if we need ID to explain specified complexity here, we need it to explain specified complexity throughout the universe.

    Furthermore, ID needs to work across the board if it wants to contend with evolution, because evolution works across the board. Unlike ID though, it's doesn't run into the problem of moving from the natural to the non-natural, as there's no cosmological arguments that fail. Naturalism is happy to throw out God as an explanation and simply posit, let's say, a timeless causation ring of universes that cause each other in cycles.

    Finally, while metaphysics is prior to science in some ways, science is prior to metaphysics in others. We can say "here's our metaphysics, what scientific conclusions can we get from the data given that?" - but we can also say "here is the data, what metaphysics are possible given that?" Basically, everything should inform everything else.

    1. Here's the problem as WLC puts it: "First, in order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn't have an explanation of the explanation. This is an elementary point concerning inference to the best explanation as practiced in the philosophy of science. If archaeologists digging in the earth were to discover things looking like arrowheads and hatchet heads and pottery shards, they would be justified in inferring that these artifacts are not the chance result of sedimentation and metamorphosis, but products of some unknown group of people, even though they had no explanation of who these people were or where they came from".

      It is the domain of metaphysics to ask what explains any intelligent kind, but it is the domain of science to ask what causes this specific intelligent kind. Analogously, it is the domain of metaphysics to ask what is the ultimate cause of any contingent cause but it is the domain of science to ask what is the approximate cause of this particular cause. I think that any particular cause will metaphysically entail the need for an ultimate cause, but that does not mean that this is scientifically entailed by the theory or explanation itself. To suggest otherwise is to conflate between the methodology of these two disciplines.

      I think your argument from the impossibility of an infinite series of alien causes is precisely identical to the impossibility of an infinite series of contingent causes. Yet you explain the latter away by positing a timeless causation of universes that cause each other in cycles. ID could do the same by positing a timeless causation of intelligences that cause each other in cycles. If your view is possible, then certainly this is as well. Otherwise, all of science (not just ID) would be subject to your objection because it would *ultimately* entail theism, or so I would argue.

    2. The WLC quote was made (if I recall correctly) about the "who designed the designer?" response to the cosmological argument, and that's not what I'm doing here. I'm just taking ID as an explanation of one instance of a phenomena, and applying it to all instances of phenomena. If ID is to be taken as a scientific theory in any sense, it has to be ubiquitous, inductive, and predictive - especially if it wants to compete with evolution.

      If we were to discover a planet with many alien life forms similar to Earth life in that it self-replicated and was subject to selection pressures, and after study, find that there's no evidence of common ancestry, evolution would be falsified. Not just on that planet, but everywhere. Likewise with ID - if we found that this alien life had no instances of specified complexity, ID would be falsified everywhere. That's just how theories work.

      As for the infinite series, yeah, maybe a timeless causation of intelligences is possible (the universe ring was just an example). But then what becomes of cosmological arguments? That's my point - either theistically neutral ID or cosmological arguments, not both.

    3. In context, it was in defense of the teleological argument but I think it applies here as well. Let's suppose that specified complexity only obtains for life on earth, but it is discovered that this is not the case on other planets. Why does ID need to be ubiquitous in order to be seen as a valid explanation for life on earth? That seems to be a dubious requirement. Furthermore, I do not think that ID and evolution must be treated as exclusive to each other. It is possible that ID is sufficient to explain the abiogenesis of life, but in other cases, evolution must explain how that primitive life form evolved into the myriad of life forms that we see today.

      I think you're confusing ID for the proposition that "all life forms must be intelligently designed" instead of a methodology for detecting design scientifically, wherever it exists. The former is more metaphysical, but it certainly has scientific implications as well. As for your as explanation is concerned, however, I do not think it succeeds against the LCA. Whether it is timeless or not, this ring is itself "contingent" and therefore in need of an explanation. But let's leave that discussion for another time because I'd know you'd disagree.