On vjtorley on ID, religion, metaphysics

by Neil Rickert

Vincent Torley, who posts under the handle “vjtorley” at Uncommon Descent, has a longish post on Intelligent Design and related topics:

I encourage you to read the full post by vjtorley.  Here, I want to give my reaction to only some of the issues that he raises.  I’ll note that his post grows out of an online discussion with theologian James McGrath, and is a followup to an earlier thread about that discussion.

Torley says, of McGrath:

As far as I can tell, Dr. McGrath doesn’t necessarily think God created the laws of Nature; nor does he believe in miracles. As might be expected, he doesn’t believe in the Divinity of Christ.

I don’t know whether that’s a correct assessment of McGrath’s view.  I take Torley to be considering this to be a problem with McGrath’s view.  By contrast, I see it as a positive.  One of the reasons that I left Christianity, was that I never could find convincing evidence in the gospels, that Jesus had claimed divinity.  Perhaps if I had come across someone like McGrath, I would not have withdrawn from the church.

Metaphysics

Torley says, of his metaphysical position:

Speaking of theological presuppositions brings me to my third point. Intelligent Design, as a scientific research program, has no theological presuppositions whatsoever, but it certainly has theological and metaphysical implications galore. Here are some metaphysical implications:

(i) information is a basic category, irreducible to matter and energy;

(ii) teleology cannot be eliminated from science: it is a fundamental feature of the universe;

(iii) biological life is a highly specific target, with a very low probability of eventuating as a result of a blind search;

(iv) therefore the only reasonable conclusion is that the source of the information that produced life is intelligent;

(v) the source of the information that produced life cannot be reduced to purely material or natural causes, as these, too, would have had to have been loaded with information;

(vi) hence mind cannot be reduced to the machinations of matter – for even if we were somehow able to show that the human mind arose from living matter (self-replicating DNA), the mind that generated the information contained in the matter that originally gave rise to life must itself be beyond matter.

This is a strange way of arguing.  Torley calls these implications.  In normal usage, an implication is something that can be derived by a logical argument.  Torley does present his “implications” in the form of a logical argument, where (i), (ii), (iii) and (v) are premises, and (iv) and (vi) are conclusions.

I do not know how to read that, other than to assume that (i), (ii), (iii) and (v) are indeed metaphysical presuppositions, Torley’s assertion to the contrary notwithstanding.  Personally, I believe (i), (ii), (iii) and (v) to be nonsense.  Although ID proponents talk a lot about information, they have never made an argument which would persuade me that those are not nonsensical.

Skipping forward, we get to

God’s limitations

Here, Torley starts with:

Sixth, in response to those readers of my previous post who claim that God could have made a universe capable of making itself, but that He simply chose not to, my answer is: “No, He couldn’t.” I would suggest that these readers go and re-read Dembski’s and Marks’ paper on Life’s Conservation Law. On page 23, Dembski and Marks describe the Law of Conservation of Information (LCI) as “a family of theorems sharing certain common features.” Note that word: theorems. LCI is a mathematical result that makes no assumptions whatsoever about the laws of Nature.

McGrath’s view, as I would describe it, is that the ID proponents have too small a God; that they need a grander conception of God.  In the above quote, Torley is attempting to make the case that God is indeed small, and logically must be small.

It’s a strange argument.  It depends on the “Law of Conservation of Information.”  That law comes from Chaitin’s theory of information, which I see as the wrong concept of information.  Chaitin’s theory is an abstract mathematical theory, where information is taken to be something like a platonist ideal.  To me, that seems a misfit to the way we ordinarily talk of information.  I see information as a pragmatic construct by humans, or other organisms, that enables them to manage their affairs.

But let’s go with Torley’s view of information, at least for the moment.

McGrath’s position is that a grand God could have created a world, such that the world would design biological creatures (as via evolution, for example).  Torley’s counter argument, is that this is ruled out by the law of conservation of information.  According to Torley, the world of biology requires a great deal of information, and the conservation of information rules that out.

It seems to me that Torley has contradicted his own position.  It is generally agreed that while God might be able to perform miracles that violate laws of physics, he is unable to violate laws of logic.  So if the conservation of information is a problem for evolution, it is just as much a problem for God as intelligent designer.

Summary

I see Torley as making dubious initial assumptions.  Yet, if we accept those assumptions, his argument amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of the whole ID project.

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7 Comments to “On vjtorley on ID, religion, metaphysics”

  1. But don’t you think it odd that, after reading much of McGrath and even asking point-blank questions, it is hard to tell what he believes. I think this is largely true of many progressive Christians, mainly because they want so badly to belong and stay under the label.

    I too love much of McGrath’s views about many things, and especial his endless battles against conservative Christianity. Maybe that hiddenness is the price needed.

    Sorry, I can’t get into the ID knot.

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    • I think I have a pretty good idea what McGrath believes. It’s not much different from what I believe. And I’m an atheist. His conception of God is rather similar to mine. The difference is that, for me, it is entirely a hypothetical exercise, whereas I presume that it is a tad more serious for McGrath.

      I follow two religious blogs — McGrath’s and Fred Clark’s “slacktivist”. And Fred Clark is more transparent. Fred is clearly into it for the social message (the story of the sheep and the goats).

      I’ve tried following other religious blogs, but they get very boring very quickly.

      Oops — I do follow one other. It’s from a YEC, whom I sort-of know via participation in a creationism/evolution forum. I follow it for the laughs.

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  2. As you suggest, there’s something wrong with the entire “argument”. First, Torley says that (i)-(vi) are implications if ID, i.e., stuff that follows from it. And maybe they are–I don’t know. But, of course, they can’t then be used as evidence FOR ID, as he seems to be doing when he concludes with his (vi). I’m not sure he actually knows what this sentence means:

    “Intelligent Design, as a scientific research program, has no theological presuppositions whatsoever, but it certainly has theological and metaphysical implications galore. Here are some metaphysical implications:”

    What I glean from his post is mostly that more people should take intro to logic.

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    • I’m not sure he actually knows what this sentence means

      It seems to be part of a ritualistic dance that’s important for his particular theology. Perhaps the meaning doesn’t matter, as long as you go through with the ritual.

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    • What I glean from his post is mostly that more people should take intro to logic.

      I did not comment on this part in my first reply. I wanted to do some checking (via google).

      As best I can tell, Torley has a Ph.D. in philosophy, from University of Melbourne (Australia). I somehow doubt that a intro to logic would have made any difference. He probably took that class.

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  3. That degree surprises me. Do you think the structure of his argument is supposed to be something along the “X implies Y1, Y2, Y3, Y4; Y1-Y4 are intuitively plausible (to him) and none of them has been disconfirmed; therefore, X is plausible.” line? Of course, any claim that there’s a proof there is just the fallacy of affirming the consequent, but maybe he’s putting those propositions out as a kind of challenge to those who think he’s wrong? “Refute any of these, then, if you can!”?

    I don’t know. I’m just trying to be charitable here. I really don’t think that paragraph makes much sense at all.

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    • That degree surprises me.

      I follow some of the ID arguments, particularly at their “Uncommon Descent” blog. And Torley is probably the best at arguing for ID. His arguments tend to be too wordy, but reasonably well researched. However, they all suffer the problem that they depend on his theological presuppositions.

      Do you think the structure of his argument is supposed to be something along the “X implies Y1, Y2, Y3, Y4; Y1-Y4 are intuitively plausible (to him) and none of them has been disconfirmed; therefore, X is plausible.” line?

      Yes, that’s the most likely explanation of what he intended. I expect that he honestly doesn’t recognize that he is relying on presuppositions.

      I do agree with you, that the paragraph doesn’t make much sense.

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