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Getting Acquainted With the ID Vocabulary

Before we proceed with our analysis of Dembski’s case regarding the bacterial flagellum, however, we need to invest a substantial effort to become familiar with the fundamental goals and vocabulary of the ID movement. Knowing the broad goals of the movement will help us to understand some elements of its rhetorical strategy. Knowing the vocabulary of the movement is essential because of the strategic manner in which familiar words are often assigned specialized or unusual meanings in ID literature.

The many faces of naturalism

In large part, the ID movement is a reaction to its leaders’ perception that the worldview of naturalism has effectively dominated the worlds of higher education and professional science, and that it is now providing the religious framework for the pre-college public educational system as well. The ID movement is committed to the defeat of naturalism. But naturalism comes in many different versions that must, I believe, be carefully distinguished from one another. I find the following distinctions to be essential.

  1. I use the term maximal naturalism (or ontological naturalism) to denote the comprehensive worldview built on the premise that Nature is all there is - there is no other form of being, no God or gods - and that there is no ultimate purpose in its existence, character, or historical development.I am indebted to David Ray Griffin for the terminology of maximal naturalism and minimal naturalism and the way in which this distinction proves helpful in discussions of this sort. See his book, Religion...This point of view could also be identified by such labels as materialism (the material/physical world is all there is) or atheism (there is no transcendent God as envisioned by any of the theistic religions).

  2. I use the term minimal naturalism (it could also be called metaphysical naturalism, but that name has additional connotations) to denote the family of worldviews that reject the idea of supernatural action by any deity. All actions (processes and events) in the universe are presumed to fall entirely in the category of natural actions - actions performed by members of the natural world in ways that are wholly consistent with their own character and capabilities. Although the existence of God, or gods, or purpose is neither affirmed nor denied by minimal naturalism, the idea that any divine being would act supernaturally - that is, coercively overpowering or superceding the natural actions of members of the universe, thereby interrupting the flow of natural phenomena - is rejected. (Intelligent Design advocate Phillip Johnson frequently uses the term scientific naturalism, which appears to be minimal naturalism, as here defined, substantially modified by adding the assertions that natural actions are purposeless and that science provides the only reliable pathway to knowledge. Given these additions, Johnson’s label, scientific naturalism, comes very close to what we are calling maximal naturalism.)

  3. The term methodological naturalism is often employed to denote the idea that the natural sciences have the competence to investigate natural actions alone and must remain agnostic with regard to any form of divine action.

  4. Naturalistic theism builds its worldview on the premise that there is a God who acts purposefully and effectively in the world, but this divine action is always persuasive and never coercive. In contrast to the several forms of supernaturalistic theism, naturalistic theism rejects coercive supernatural intervention as something that would violate the essential natures of God, the world, and the God-world relationship.

The ID movement, we noted, is committed to the defeat of “naturalism.” But toward which form of naturalism does it aim its rhetorical guns? There may be some variation in the ID literature, but the consensus seems to be that it doesn’t really matter very much. In the judgment of most ID proponents, the distinctions outlined above are effectively meaningless because all of these versions of naturalism agree on the key proposition to which the ID movement takes exception - that there is no way to detect divine action empirically. The distinctions noted above are judged by ID spokespersons to be hollow rhetorical distinctions without an empirically discernable difference.

Among the chief claims of the ID movement is that design is empirically detectable. In Dembski’s words, “Design is detectable; we do in fact detect it; we have reliable methods for detecting it.... As I have argued throughout this book, design is common, rational, and objectifiable.”NFL, p. 367.That being the claim, then each and every one of the forms of naturalism listed above - because they uniformly reject the empirical detectability of divine action - is the target for defeat. To the ID movement, to be a God who is not empirically detectable is to a dispensable God. Any God whose actions are not empirically detectable would be of no value in defeating naturalism. Naturalism would always be able to say, in effect, “A God who can never do anything that makes a difference, and of whom we can have no reliable knowledge, is of no importance to us.”Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), p. 115.The God envisioned by the chief proponents of ID, on the other hand, is a God who makes an empirically detectable difference.

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