Who’s Got the Magic? A Review of Robert Pennock’s “The Tower of Babel”

Who’s Got the Magic? A Review of Robert Pennock’s “The Tower of Babel”

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review of Robert Pennock’s book “The Tower of Babel.”

In criticizing Phillip Johnson’s “intelligent design creationism,” Robert Pennock raises a particularly worrisome legal consequence of Johnson’s view. According to Pennock, Johnson insists “that science admit the reality of supernatural influences in the daily workings of the world.” But what if the same reasoning that Johnson is trying to import into science were adopted in Johnson’s own area of specialization — the law (Johnson is a law professor at UC Berkeley)? Here’s the concern as Pennock lays it out in Tower of Babel (p. 295):

“For the law to take [Johnson’s view] seriously as well, it would have to be open to both suits and defenses based on a range of possible divine and occult interventions. Imagine the problems that would result if the courts had to accept legal theories of this sort. How would the court rule on whether to commit a purportedly insane person to a mental hospital for self-mutilation who claims that the Lord told her to pluck out her eye because it offended her? How would a judge deal with a defendant, Abe, accused of attempted murder of his son, Ike, who claims that he was only following God’s command that he kill Ike to prove his faith?”

Implicit in this passage and throughout Pennock’s book is a forced choice between mechanism and magic: Either the world works by mechanisms that obey inviolable natural laws and that admit no break in the chain of natural causation, or all hell breaks loose and the world admits supernatural interventions that make a hash of science and our understanding of the world generally (and legal studies in particular). Pennock is offering his readers mechanism. Johnson is offering them magic. Any reasonable person knows which option to choose.

But as with most forced choices, there’s a tertium quid that Pennock has conveniently ignored, and that when properly understood shows that the real magician here is in fact Pennock and not Johnson. The tertium quid here is intelligent design, which is entirely separable from creationism. No doubt, Pennock’s constant conjoining of the two serves a useful rhetorical purpose, rallying the troops, giving Darwinists a single common enemy, and keeping biology safe from teleology (indeed, it has become a point of grammatical correctness with Pennock never to use “intelligent design” without “creationism” — “intelligent design” properly being an adjective that only modifies “creationism”). But Pennock, as a trained philosopher, knows that design is an old notion that requires neither miracles nor a creator (F. H. Sandbach’s The Stoics, for instance, makes this abundantly clear). Intelligent design is detectable; we do in fact detect it; we have reliable methods for detecting it (cf. my The Design Inference); and its detection involves no recourse to the supernatural. Design is common, rational, and objectifiable.

How, then, is Pennock a magician? There are at least three forms of magic. One is the art of illusion, where appearance is carefully crafted to distort reality. As entertainment, this form of magic is entirely unobjectionable. Another form of magic is to invoke the supernatural to explain a physical event. To call this magic is certainly a recent invention, since it makes most theists into magicians (Was Thomas Aquinas a magician for accepting as a historical fact the resurrection of Jesus? Was Moses Maimonides a magician for thinking that his namesake had parted the Red Sea?). According to Pennock, intelligent design creationism is guilty of this form of magic. Deep down, though, Pennock must realize that intelligent design (leaving off the creationism) can avoid this charge.

Pennock is guilty of his own form of magic, however. The third form of magic, and the one Pennock and his fellow scientific naturalists are guilty of, is the view that something can be gotten for nothing. This third form of magic can be nuanced. The “nothing” here need not be an absolute nothing. And the transformation of nothing into something may involve minor expenditures of effort. For instance, the magician may need to utter “abracadabra” or “hocus-pocus.” The Darwinian just-so stories that attempt to account for complex, information rich biological structures are likewise incantations that give the illusion of solving a problem but in fact merely cloak ignorance.

The great appeal behind this third form of magic is the offer of a bargain — indeed an incredible bargain for which no amount of creative accounting can ever square the books. The idea of getting something for nothing has come to pervade science. In cosmology, Alan Guth, Lee Smolin, and Peter Atkins all claim that this marvelous universe could originate from quite unmarvelous beginnings (a teaspoon of ordinary dust for Guth, black-hole formation for Smolin, and set-theoretic operations on the empty set for Atkins). In biology, Jacques Monod, Richard Dawkins, and Stuart Kauffman claim that the panoply of life can be explained in terms of quite simple mechanisms (chance and necessity for Monod, cumulative selection for Dawkins, and autocatalysis for Kauffman).

We have become so accustomed to this something-for-nothing way of thinking that we no longer appreciate just how deeply magical it is. Consider, for instance, the following evolutionary account of neuroanatomy by Melvin Konner, an anthropologist and neurologist at Emory University: “Neuroanatomy in many species — but especially in a brain-ridden one like ours — is the product of sloppy, opportunistic half-billion year [evolution] that has pasted together, and only partly integrated, disparate organs that evolved in different animals, in different eras, and for very different purposes.” (_IEEE Spectrum_, March 2000.) And since human consciousness and intelligence are said to derive from human neuroanatomy, it follows that these are themselves the product of a sloppy evolutionary process.

But think what this means. How do we make sense of “sloppy,” “pasted together,” and “partly integrated,” except with reference to “careful,” “finely adapted,” and “well integrated.” To speak of hodge-podge structures presupposes that we have some concept of carefully designed structures. And of course we do. Humans have designed all sorts of engineering marvels, everything from Cray supercomputers to Gothic cathedrals. But that means, if we are to believe Melvin Konner, that a blind evolutionary process (i.e., Richard Dawkins’s blind watchmaker) cobbled together human neuroanatomy, which in turn gave rise to human consciousness, which in turn produces artifacts like supercomputers, which in turn are not cobbled together at all but instead carefully designed. Out pop purpose, intelligence, and design from a process that started with no purpose, intelligence, or design. This is magic.

Of course, to say this is magic is not to say it is false. It is after all a logical possibility that purpose, intelligence, and design emerge by purely mechanical means out of a physical universe initially devoid of these. Intelligence, for instance, may just be a survival tool given to us by an evolutionary process that places a premium on survival and that is itself not intelligently guided. The basic creative forces of nature might be devoid of intelligence. But if that is so, how can we know it? And if it is not so, how can we know that? It does no good simply to presuppose that purpose, intelligence, and design are emergent properties of a universe that otherwise is devoid of these.

The debate whether nature has been front-loaded with purpose, intelligence, and design is not new. Certainly the ancient Epicureans and Stoics engaged in this debate. The Stoics argued for a design-first universe: the universe starts with design and any subsequent design results from the outworkings of that initial design (they resisted subsequent novel infusions of design). The Epicureans, on the other hand, argued for a design-last universe: the universe starts with no design and any subsequent design results from the interplay of chance and necessity.

What is new, at least since the Enlightenment, is that it has become intellectually respectable to cast the design-first position as disreputable, superstitious, and irrational; and the design-last position as measured, parsimonious, and alone supremely rational. Indeed, the charge of magic is nowadays typically made against the design-first position, and not against the design-last position, as I have done here.

But why should the design-first position elicit the charge of magic? Historically in the West, design has principally been connected with Judeo-Christian theism. The God of Judaism and Christianity is said to introduce design into the world by intervening in its causal structure. But such interventions cannot be anything but miraculous. And miracles is the stuff of magic. So goes the argument. The argument is flawed because there is no necessary connection between God introducing design into the world and God intervening in the world in the sense of violating its causal structure. Theists like Richard Swinburne, for instance, argue that God front-loads design into the universe by designing the very laws of nature. Paul Davies takes a similar line. Restricting design to structuring the laws of nature precludes design from violating those laws and thus violating nature’s causal structure.

Design easily resists the charge of magic. Rather, it’s the a priori exclusion of design that has a much tougher time resisting it. Indeed, the design-last position is inherently magical. Consider the following remark by Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin in The New York Review of Books:

“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a 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 create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.”

If this isn’t magic, what is?

Even so, the scientific community continues to be skeptical of design. The worry is that design will give up on science. In place of a magic that derives something from nothing, design substitutes a designer who explains everything. Magic gets you something for nothing and thus offers a bargain. Design gets you something by presupposing something unimaginably bigger and thus asks you to sell your scientific soul. At least so the story goes. But design can be explanatory without giving away the store. Certainly this is the case for human artifacts, which are properly explained by reference to design. Nor does design explain everything: There’s no reason to invoke design to explain a random inkblot; but a Duerer woodcut is something else altogether. The point of the intelligent design program is to extend design from the realm of human artifacts to the natural sciences. The program may ultimately fail, but it is only now being tried and it is certainly worth a try.

Just as truth is not decided at the ballot box, so truth is not decided by the price one must pay for it. Bargains are all fine and well, and if you can get something for nothing, go for it. But there is an alternate tendency in science which says that you get what you pay for and that at the end of the day there has to be an accounting of the books. Some areas of science are open to bargain-hunting and some are not. Self-organizing complex systems, for instance, are a great place for scientific bargain-hunters to shop. Bernard cell convection, Belousov-Zhabotinsky reactions, and a host of other self-organizing systems offer complex organized structures apparently for free. But there are other areas of science that frown upon bargain-hunting. The conservation laws of physics, for instance, allow no bargains. The big question confronting design is whether it can be gotten on the cheap or must be paid for in kind. Design theorists argue that design admits no bargains.

Pennock and his fellow scientific naturalists are bargain hunters. They want to explain the appearance of design in nature without admitting actual design. That’s why Richard Dawkins begins The Blind Watchmaker with “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose,” whereupon he requires an additional three hundred pages to show why it is only an appearance of design. Pennock and his fellow naturalists have my very best wishes for success in their hunt for the ultimate bargain. They may even be right. But they are not guaranteed to be right. And they certainly haven’t demonstrated that they are right. They have yet to pull the rabbit out of the hat.

William Dembski
Baylor University