Steve Fuller Responds to Norman Levitt's Review of Science V. Religion?

By Fuller, Steve | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Steve Fuller Responds to Norman Levitt's Review of Science V. Religion?


Fuller, Steve, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


I CONFESS THAT I AM NOT ENTIRELY convinced that Norman Levitt has read Science v. Religion? What passes as a review of the book consists of a smattering of his own preoccupations that make passing contact with things I say, sandwiched between boilerplate versions of his now trademark fulminations. At no point does he state, let alone answer, the fundamental thesis of the book, namely, the centrality of intelligent design in motivating the scientific enterprise, in terms of which Darwin's theory of evolution is a historical aberration. (That much should be apparent from the book's subtitle: Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution.) The book is not meant as a detailed defense of the versions of ID put forward by Dembski and Behe, but rather an attempt to show that there is much more to their ideas and instincts than the intellectually claustrophobic discussion to date would suggest.

Consider Levitt's treatment of what I say about complexity, which indeed figures in a title of a chapter in my book, though at most five pages are of direct relevance to his concerns. First, I claim that it is impossible to design a true random number generator because it is ultimately possible to infer the algorithm. Levitt responds that in practice it's easy to design algorithms that generate data so that people cannot determine if they are random. He then goes on to observe that the chance-based character of evolutionary processes can be mimicked on computers, with random elements simulated by introducing outcomes of unrelated processes.

I know all this, and nothing in my discussion denies or ignores it. At most, I may be guilty of imprecise expression, for which I duly apologize. Where Levitt and I genuinely disagree is on the implications for ID. As far as I can tell, all Levitt demonstrates is how well intelligent design (in this case, by humans) can generate processes that do not seem to be intelligently designed. His examples only cut against versions of ID that involve a completely preprogrammed conception of design with no prospect for fundamental change once the program is run. This may have been Paley's version of ID. I am not sure who upholds it now, though I certainly don't. That the universe is intelligently designed need not imply that God micromanages it from moment to moment.

The relevance of this point--the most substantial one in Levitt's entire review--to my overall thesis is that the very idea that we might successfully simulate significant aspects of how the universe works presupposes our ability to adopt the standpoint of someone who could have created the universe, the great cosmic programmer. This presupposition is far from self-evident. It historically depended on humans believing they were created in the image and likeness of God. Of course, this does not prove God's existence. But those who took the idea into science, including the original theorist of the computer, Charles Babbage, and his great Cambridge predecessor Isaac Newton, saw it very much as a vindication of ID. The challenge faced by those who would minimize the assumption of ID in nature is whether the scientific enterprise can be motivated solely by its sheer empirical success. Levitt says nothing about this.

However, Levitt claims to say something about Newton--what exactly is unclear. On two points we are in agreement: Newton was a Biblical literalist who thought he could get into God's mind, and his theism contributed to inserting God into physics where it was not necessary. But Levitt also appears to think the latter counts against the former. If this passes for an argument against methodological supernaturalism, then Darwin's botched understanding of heredity should count against methodological naturalism (which Levitt misnames "materialism"). In both cases, a metaphysical commitment that served a scientist well for much of his research came up short when overstretched. This is only to be expected, given what William Whewell originally called the "heuristic" function of metaphysics as providing broad but fallible access to a domain under scientific investigation. …

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