Reality Conditions

Monday, April 24, 2006

William Dembski's Theodicy

Followers of the controversy around Intelligent Design will recognize the name of Willam Dembski as one of the leading proponents of this "theory". His fallacious arguments challenging evolution, as well as his distortion of evidence and his deafness to criticsm, have been thoroughly documented in many places (just go to The Panda's Thumb or to Dispatches From the Culture Wars and search the sites for his name). Today I want to address a different aspect of his views. Yesterday I was having a look at the Philosophy Papers Blog and found that there was a new paper by him, entitled:

Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science

Reading it has made me realize, more than any of the criticisms of him I had read before, how distant is Dembski's worldview from that of the average scientist. Of course Dembski is not a natural scientist by training (as his comrade Behe is) but a mathematician and philosopher. Nevertheless, I would have expected that his general vision of the world would be relatively close to the scientific one, only differing in the question whether examination of life can warrant an inference to a Designer. After all, he accepts the old age of the Earth and even, in some of his moods, common descent. I was wrong. Dembski's worldview is much more closer to that of a medieval theologist.

This article discusses that old chestnut, the problem of evil. My own opinion on the problem of evil is simple: For someone with no previous commitment to religion that examines impartially the evidence for and against it, it is pretty damming evidence against the existence of God. For someone who is already firmly religious, it is not a contradiction to his religion; the claim can always be made that there is a secret and unknowable divine purpose for all the evil and suffering in the world. I think that there is no more the theist can say. Any concrete, explicit rationalization offered for evil will be more or less easily refuted as implausible, and usually, as callous also. But let's not digress and see what rationalization for the evil of the world Dembski offers us.

Dembski's theodicy attributes evil to the Fall. And he is not using the Fall in a metaphorical sense. For Dembski, there was a literal original sin of mankind, in a literally existing uncorrupted enviroment, which is the explanation for all the evils in the world. That's what I meant with a worldview far away from that of a normal scientist! How can Dembski square this with his acceptance of the old age of the Earth and the reality of pain and death in the natural world before the appereance of humans? The story that emerges from his paper, as I understand it, is like follows:

God's original plan for creation is the one documented in Genesis 1, the creation of a perfect uncorrupted world. However God, in his omniscience, knows from before the creation of the world that Adam and Eve would, out of their own choice and with free will, disobey him and sin. So he creates instead a world with natural evil (diseases, death, natural catastrophes, etc):

God disorders the world not only as a matter of justice (to bring justice against human sin as required by God's holiness) but even more significantly as a matter of redemption (to bring humanity to its senses by making us realize the gravity of sin).

When the process of evolution reaches human-like creatures in this already corrupted world, God creates for them an artificial enviroment of apparent perfection (the Garden) and there gives them the magic spark (the Intelligent Designer at work!) that turns them into full human beings, made in God's image and capable of free decisions -and sinning. The Garden looks perfect and uncorrupted for the newly created humans, even though this is a sort of God-induced illusion. Of course, they sin, and after that they "come to their senses" realizing that they are in a corrupted world, and attribute this to their sinning. In a chronological sense they are wrong because the world already contained evil, but trascendentally they are right because the explanation for the evil is their choice of sin. (Dembski compares the situation to Newcomb's paradox).

I am very ignorant of the current state of theology, but it seems to me that this story is a regressive attempt of getting as much as possible in the Bible to be literally true, making the smallest possible concessions to science, even if this requires some weird logical tightrope balancing. I think that a lot of mainstream theology (Catholic, for example) sees the Genesis account as a man-made document, perhaps inspired by God and containing a spiritual message, but with no literal claim to veracity not even in the sense Dembski gives it. And how many theologists believe nowadays that there was an actual, pin-pointable moment of the Fall with cosmic significance? I don't know; perhaps Brandon can enlighten me here. But I hope they are few.

Dembski shows at many other points of the article his preference for a traditional religious stance over a scientific one. For example, he defends the idea that human actions, such as the original sin, can have cosmic consequences because we are "the crown of creation", "alone among physically embodied creatures made in the image of God", and makes the remark that the failure of SETI to detect any other intelligence supports this claim. Again, I believe that mainstream modern theology has no objection in principle to the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligent life, although I am ready to be corrected. (Oddly enough, the footnote for the SETI remark credits as source a public lecture by Michael Chrichton, which is only tangentially about aliens and centered on global warming bashing. Didn't Dembski have any more reputable source for the rather uncontroversial claim that we haven't detected aliens yet?)

In summary, my present impression of Dembski is that he is at heart and by essence a fundamentalist, who differs from young earth creationists in having reluctantly accepted the evidence for the old age of the Earth, but clings to every other element of the fundamentalistic world picture and sees then world much as he possibly can through Biblical lenses instead of through scientific ones.


  • Actually 'Intelligent Design' is just a Trojan Horse. In reality, ID-creationists believe the earth is 6000 years old.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:53 PM, April 26, 2006  

  • I agree that ID is, in large part, a Trojan Horse for putting back religion in public schools, and I also agree that most people that support ID at a popular level are plain old Young Earth Creationists that just see in ID a better oportunity to disguise and "sell" their beliefs. But I see no reason to doubt that the many of the intellectual leaders of the ID movement are not young-earthers. In particular, Dembski is quite candid in his admission that he is not.

    By Anonymous Alejandro, at 11:24 PM, April 26, 2006  

  • "Dembski is quite candid in his admission that he is not (a young earther)."

    Do you have any concrete links (web-links will suffice) that support this? I'm not saying you are wrong, but my understanding is that he waffles on both the question of common descent and the age of the earth, and won't commit to any position. Making him more weasel-like than any animal. Except for weasels of course.

    By Anonymous dogscratcher, at 9:08 PM, May 31, 2006  

  • Rereading the article I found the rejection of YEC less straightforward that I had thought at first, but I think that he does commit to an old earth (in a way he has not to common descent). See pages 18 and 19 of this article. He does seem to regard a young earth as a "live option" for believers in a way no true scientist would do, but as for himself he seems to accept the old age of the Earth as scientifically sound. It may be that he does not make a more definite pronouncement to not alienate the YEC base of supporters of ID (so he is not as "candid" as I said) but as for his personal opinions, I don't think he would have written this complicated solution to the problem of the evil and the Fall if he didn't accept an old earth and had thus an easier literal interpretation of Genesis available.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 2:59 PM, June 01, 2006  

  • I like your argument: "I don't think he would have written this complicated solution to the problem of the evil and the Fall if he didn't accept an old earth," but good luck getting him to clearly state his position on anything substantive.

    Cheers, DS

    By Anonymous dogscratcher, at 9:07 PM, June 01, 2006  

  • There is a solution to the problem of theodicy other than nihilism. And it is not the unsatisfying intellectual mess offered up by religious people.

    By Blogger M.C., at 5:10 PM, June 04, 2006  

  • Sorry, MC, but I find your statement rather... cryptic. Could you explain?

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 7:15 PM, June 06, 2006  

  • Really effective material, thanks so much for the post.
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    By Anonymous Jordan, at 7:51 PM, January 24, 2012  

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