Wednesday, February 02, 2011

John Haught; Intelligent Design and Idolatry
From here;

Q. You've used another analogy in discussions with me that might be illuminating. This is the boiling water analogy. Could you give us that?

A. Yes. I think most of the issues in science and religion discussions, most of the confusion that occurs happens because we fail to distinguish different levels of explanation. And so what I advocate is layered or - layered explanation or explanatory pluralism, according to which almost every phenomenon in our experience can be explained at a plurality of levels. And a simple example would be a teapot.
Suppose a teapot is boiling on your stove and someone comes into the room and says, "explain to me why that's boiling". Well, one explanation would be it's boiling because the water molecules are moving around excitedly and the liquid state is being transformed into gas. But at the same time you could just as easily have answered that question by saying, it's boiling because my wife turned the gas on. Or you could also answer that same question by saying it's boiling because I want tea.
All three answers are right, but they don't conflict with each other because they're working at different levels. Science works at one level of investigation, religion at another. And it would be a mistake to say that the teapot is boiling because I turned the gas on rather than because the molecules are moving around. It would be a mistake to say the teapot is boiling because of molecular movement rather than because I want tea. No, you can have a plurality of levels of explanation. But the problems occur when one assumes that there's only one level.
And if I could apply this analogy to the present case, it seems to me that the intelligent design proponents are assuming that there's only one authoritative level of inquiry, namely the scientific, which is, of course, a very authoritative way of looking at things. And they're trying to ram their ultimate kind of explanation, intelligent design, into that level of explanation, which is culturally very authoritative today, namely the scientific. And for that reason, science, scientists justifiably object because implicitly they're accepting what I'm calling this explanatory pluralism or layered explanation where you don't bring in "I want tea" while you're studying the molecular movement in the kettle. So it's a logical confusion that we have going here.

Q. I think you may have already explained this, but just to be sure we see how it connects, one hears it said that it's important to, quote, teach the controversy, unquote. Do you agree with that?

A. Well, there really is no controversy between evolutionary biology and intelligent design because intelligent design simply is not a scientific idea. To come back to my analogy, it simply doesn't fall on the same level of inquiry. But if there is a controversy at all, it's a
controversy between two groups of people, scientists who rightly demand that intelligent design be excluded from scientific inquiry and intelligent design proponents who want it to be part of scientific inquiry.

Q. You have called intelligent design appalling theology. Can you explain that?

A. Well, I think most people will instinctively identify the intelligent designer with the God of theism, but all the great theologians -- there are theologians that I consider great, people like Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Langdon Gilkey, Carl Rahner -- would see what's going on in the intelligent design proposal, from a theological point of view, is the attempt to bring the ultimate and the infinite down in a belittling way into the continuum of natural causes as one finite cause among others. And anytime, from a theological point of view, you try to have the infinite become squeezed into the category of the finite, that's known as idolatry. So it's religiously, as well as theologically, offensive to what I consider the best theologians, for example, of the 20th Century.

"Layered explanation" reminds me very much of Robert Aumann's use of "Orthogonal" in explaining the relationship of religious observance to rationality (elsewhere). I would use words like "emergence" or "nesting" as well, where in one set of relationships an object or personal role, act or belief is situated and understood "thus", and in yet another has an entire other significance or consequence. Certain religious beliefs have had profound scientific consequences, of course, but not be of consequence in other arrangements.


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