Posted by: Dan | November 13, 2006

Cornell Faculty Viewpoint on Intelligent Design

Sorry, I’ve been away for a week or so, but am back in Ithaca. First on the agenda is to catch up on emails and comments; I noticed a faculty viewpoint in the Cornell Daily Sun on Illegal Border Crossings: Evolution and Intelligent Design (HT: Ivy Privy). Largely, it’s a reminder of last year’s speech by then-Interim Cornell President Hunter Rawlings, and at the same time, a criticism of atheists who cross the border in to the realm of religion. Dave has an interesting comment, that I encourage people to read, pointing out that the infractions of Sagan and Dawkins are on an entirely different type than from the creationists, evangelicals, and intelligent design advocates. What these atheists do is make scientifically-informed philosophical assessments, which is wholly different from the dogmatic assertions of evangelicals based solely on perceptions of purpose derived from “The Word of God.”

I certainly think that Richard Baer is welcome to his own philosophies, and am not trying to challenge his version of theistic evolution as it seems to be, but one must realize that the philosophies of science and theology are incompatible. The former, by definition, is based upon naturalistic reductionism, and the latter, upon spiritual and non-natural revelations thousands of years ago. All that can be done given this dichotomy, as Dr. Baer implicitly acknowledges, is accept that scientific and theologic thought are incompatible, and for the sake of harmony, each should respect the others boundries. And I don’t think that works too well.

Largely though, Dr. Baer’s comments are articulated well. And of course, it drew the attention of a creationist or two, who blankly asserted that “ID is NOT religious,” that “ID is far from falsified,” and “and is indeed a real scientific alternative to pure darwinism” (see Hanno’s comment). I find this viewpoint hilarious in it’s ignorance. ID, born out of the ashes of “creation science” and without a shred of scientific evidence, is “indeed a real scientific alternaitve to pure darwinism,” despite evolution being one of the most robustly proven theories of science. This is exactly the sort of ignorance that we should be trying to eradicate – Dr. Baer doesn’t dispute this – but that Dr. Baer compares claims made by Sagan and Dawkins as even remotely comparable violations of the principles of science and knowledge doesn’t make much sense. If indeed atheists have over-stepped their bounds at all, it is of a kind wholly different in scale and in type, than the ignorance displayed by creationism.

I added a comment of my own, which is still in moderation…
Update: My comment to Dr. Baer’s Daily Sun piece is below the fold. Feel free to let me know if you think I was too critical of his position, and why.

Dr. Baer,
It may be nice and cozy to exempt religion from deductive logic, naturalism, and the scientific method, but why does your “semi-permeable membrane” have any logical basis?

You criticize Sagan for making speculations, which were based on natural philosophy and the current state of human knowledge. Are his assertions inappropriate in any way, other than their opposition with religion? If you’d argue that he should have left it at “I don’t know” on the issue of the origin of the cosmos, you wouldn’t be so bad off, if only religion would be held to the same standard. But even then, Sagan appears to be making a simple observation about the apparently natural order of the Universe, absent of a God, which certainly fits with objective assessments of the cosmos.

Similarly, on what basis do religious scholars claim that “free will” is a divine gift, and what do you think of modern cognitive science? I would argue that a combination of nature and nurture robustly explains human psychology, and neuronal plasticity accounts for our ability to change from habits formed by nature and nurture. How we recognize when to break from habit is unclear, to be sure, but why do you suppose that this is instead a divinely given capability?

Scientism it may be (although I chose the word naturalism), but the situational logic that you espouse seems highly flawed, methinks.

Best Regards,
Dan Rhoads


  1. In one of his responses, Baer states that does not accept Gould’s notion of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA). It is hard for me to distinguish his “semi-permeable membrane” (SPM) from NOMA, unless he thinks the semi-permeability is unidirectional; i.e. theists are allowed to cheat sometimes, but naturalists are not. In other words, his membrane protects religion from rational inquiry, but provides no protection in the other direction. If that is the case, I reject his SPM as self-serving rather than principled. It is notable that Baer nowhere criticizes scientists who claim to have scientific evidence for God, such as Francis Collins and John Polkinghorne.

  2. I also wonder why Baer considers questions of morality and public policy (“Examples are multiculturalism; moral relativism; non-traditional views of marriage, divorce, family, male/female roles, sexual morality, homosexuality; etc.”) to fall within the borders of religion. What gives religion provenance to comment on such issues, except for fallacious arguments about the number of believers or established tradition?

  3. Ivy,

    In other words, his membrane protects religion from rational inquiry, but provides no protection in the other direction.

    Indeed, Baer talks about a “legitimate” border between science and religion, but offers no rationale why naturalism (which works very well for science and technology) should be applied in some situations but not in others (i.e. when it opposes theology). On what grounds does he make exceptions for natural philosophy?

    Indeed, as you suggest, Sagan, Dawkins, and others, make speculative statements based on deductive logic and natural philosophy – but Baer and other religious apologetics appear to want religion exempt from such logical examination. Why?

    Baer himself violates such deductive logic with his assessment of free will, in dismissing scientific evidence for cognitive science and pronouncing the notion of free will evidence for God. It sounds like argument by assertion to me.

    Granted, like Haldane in his day, I’m arguing from my own personal experiences – that the scientific method and deductive logic works, and I’ve never witnessed evidence for a deity. But I don’t think either of us understands why religion should escape such logical scrutiny.

  4. I see that Rob Crowther of the Discovery Institute chipped in on this one.

  5. Yeah, Crowther exhibits the usual lies:

    Intelligent design theory ignores “religious and aesthetic aspects of reality and studies the world as if nothing exists but physical phenomena.” Intelligent design is also adopted by its proponents “for the limited objectives of science, not as a total world view.”

    … it seems he’s forgotten the “Wedge document.” What a moron.


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