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Book Review: Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Monthly Review Press (November 1, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1583671730
ISBN-13: 978-1583671733

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Scientific writers usually critique intelligent design (ID) creationism using scientific facts. And why not? After all, as the saying goes, ’we have the genes and we have the fossils.’ And creationist arguments often do rely on flagrant distortion of the facts.

This doesn’t get to the real emotion and ideas motivating supporters of creationism. So we sometimes need to deal with personal beliefs and feelings. The question of randomness behind evolutionary mutations. The violence and waste implied by ’survival of the fittest.’ And the unwarranted application of ’social Darwinism’ to society.

But this book takes the struggle to the most fundamental level. That of the philosophical approaches underlying science, on the one hand, and teleological explanations preferred by religion on the other. This struggle has been going on for millennia, and will no doubt continue for a long time yet.

It’s an important struggle because of the current attacks on science.  But the struggle is wider than that — it is central to the ’culture wars’ of today. Read the Wedge Strategy and you can see that ID is also attacking society, religion and freedom.

Scientists have usually not bothered to engage with ID philosophically. So it is refreshing to read a book which takes these design arguments head on.

Getting the definitions right

I am pleased the book stars by clarifying the meaning of terms. For too long, antiscience ideologues have got away with their naïve mechanical definitions of ’materialism’ and ’naturalism. With the ’crude proposition that all natural processes are attributable directly to matter.’ The authors use the term materialism ’in its classic sense, in which it is indistinguishable from naturalism. In this view, the defining trait of materialism from antiquity to the present has not been the forced adherence to a limited, metaphysical notion of ’matter’ as the all-encompassing reality . . . , but rather its opposition to all teleological explanations, i.e., final causes (whether God or Logos).

’In its most general sense, then, materialism claims that the origins and development of whatever exists is dependent on natural processes and ‘matter’, that is, a level of physical reality that is independent of and prior to thought. Materialism understood in this way can also be identified with the realist ontology characteristic of scientific realism.’

Long history of naturalism

The struggle against teleological explanations pre-dates Christianity. It goes back to ancient Greek science, the world outlook promoted by Epicurus. So it’s not surprising that modern-day ID theologians often attack the materialism of Epicurus. More commonly they attack the ’unholy trinity’ of Marx, Freud and Darwin. They rightfully recognise that these thinkers advanced naturalist, non-teleological approaches in human understanding. Marx in the study of society and economics, Freud in understanding the mind and Darwin in understanding life, the evolution of biological systems. All these thinkers helped to promote naturalist, scientific approaches at the expense of design. They helped remove teleological explanations. So they have been prime targets of the ID and other Christian apologists.

This assertion of naturalism was important to the return to science represented by the modern scientific revolution. ’It was this revival of materialism, rather than the emergence of experimental methods and mathematical advances, that led to the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and ultimately the enlightenment.’

This revival exposed the sterility of the idea of nature rooted in final causes. Francis Bacon criticised this approach as ’barren, and like a virgin consecrated to god produces nothing.’

Antiscience nature of idealism

Most observers recognize the antiscience nature of ID. These authors describe it as ’a counter-revolution against science.’

’Intelligent design’s objective has never been to provide new scientific explanations but putting limits on science. Rather it seeks to make arguments to establish the limits of science.’ The open attacks of modern ID show that ’the armistice between science and religion has been broken.’ Consequently many modern scientists see no room to compromise with religion. Allan Sokal wrote (in Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture): ’The modern scientific world-view, if one is to be honest about it, leads naturally to atheism — or at the very least to an innocuous deism or pan-spiritualism that is incompatible with the tenets of all the traditional religions — but few scientists dare say so publicly.’

The book discusses attempts by some scientist to make room for both religion and science, describing the attempt as disingenuous. Because it is, in effect, a denial ’(less they appear irreligious) [of] the ontological bases of materialism/naturalism within science.’ Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria provides an example.

So, in practice there is still some degree of accommodation between science and religion. Believing scientists can compartmentalize their different teleological and naturalist thinking. But this is not a concession to ID. ’If the issue of science versus religion allows for some degree of compromise at least at a practical level, the conflict between science and today’s intelligent design creationism is absolute, precisely because the latter seeks to account for nature supernaturally.’

Debunking theological myths

This book does a little creationist debunking. That’s good because often ID proponents get away with some of their claims just through the sheer force of repetition. A few which appealed to me:

Newton: Some religious apologists love to quote a long list of believing scientists to justify a role for religion in science. Isaac Newton is usually at the head of this list. But this is opportunist. As the authors point out ’Newton tended to shy away in his physics from the kind of teleological arguments propounded with metaphysical surety by Leibniz. . . .Newton’s approach was to explain the physical world as much as possible in materialist-scientific terms. In the case of unknowns, however, Newton allowed God to stand in for an explanation, barring the discovery of material cause. His theological conceptions, insofar as they entered into his physics, were thus determined by his science rather than the other way around. Even then Newton hesitated to bring God into the picture.’ ’He avoided whenever possible —where scientific postulates were concerned — any explanation of natural processes as emanating from design.’

’To the extent that Newton’s physics relied on God, it was the ‘God of the gaps.’’

Newton resorted to design only as a last resort but what he actually achieved ’was a vast expansion of science at the expense of design.’

Malthusianism: The authors point out that Marx was critical of Darwin’s use of Malthus in developing his theory of natural selection. He felt this gave credence to the Malthusian doctrine within the social realm ’which had espoused Christian morality, natural theology, and bourgeois justification of the division of class and property.’ Marx considered Malthus guilty of ’clerical fanaticism.’

Today, we would accuse Malthus of ’social Darwinism.’

Dedication of Das Kapital: Contrary to creationist claims Marx did not request permission to dedicate his Das Kapital to Darwin. In fact the request was from the radical science activist Aveling, partner of Marx’s daughter Eleanor, for his book ’The Student’s Darwin.’

Opium of the People: Marx’s comment on religion as the ’opium of the people’ is often misquoted and the meaning distorted by religious apologists. In fact Marx was expressing a ’real sympathy for religion ‘as the expression of real suffering’ and as a necessary solace for the oppressed. The later do not have the same access to other means of consolation, such as opium, available to the wealthy.’

Wider targets of the design argument

The authors are clear that this debate is not limited to the science or ’science vs religion’ arenas. The challenge of naturalism and non-teleological explanations to the established social and political order was inevitable — and so was the backlash. ’Western science itself is a product in large part of a 2500-year critique of intelligent design that was tied to larger social struggles occurring over the same vast period.’ And: ’It is this conception of human freedom, based on material conditions and a relationship with the earth, proceeding without the aid of the gods, that constitutes the main threat to intelligent design creationism, a threat embodied in modern times by the work of Darwin, Marx, and Freud, in particular.’

I wish this short book had been expanded to include more examples of scientists and philosophers who directly and consciously challenged the design argument. Especially modern examples of those investigating science, economics, society and ethics. However, Epicurus, Marx, Freud and Darwin are the thinkers most often attacked by modern ID ideologues and religious apologists. And there is not doubt the relative briefness of this book (200 pages plus notes), and its readable style, does make it accessible.

Everyone interested in the activity of the modern ID movement, and the wider antiscience attacks of Christian apologetics, will find the book valuable.

Its message is summed up in its final sentence: ’Reason, science, and human freedom only truly commence, as Epicurus recognised in antiquity, once the gods have at last been banished from the earth.’

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