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Equivocation on the word natural by atheists and philosophical naturalists

Has anyone else noticed this?

As a case in point- in part because atheists have accused me of ‘inventing’ atheistic positions- consider this entry on my blog and the comments that follow.  But to be clear, I run across this phenomena all the time as I read and debate theism or ‘intelligent design.’

Let me illustrate what I mean by the real world quest for the origins for life.  Scientists are working like mad to recreate life from scratch.  It is requiring all their technology, all of their accumulated knowledge, and all of their expertise.  There have been some ‘successes’ which are extremely rudimentary and light years from really duplicating life as we observe it in the real world out of non-life.  But let’s say that they do finally succeed!  After fifty years of intense research and development, they produce something that is worthy of the declaration “We have created life!”

It is hailed as a breakthrough of the scientific method and evolutionists and philosophical naturalists everywhere applaud! For, it has now been demonstrated that life could arise from purely naturalistic processes after all!  But there is a hitch.

The Christians, religionists, Intelligent Design theorists, etc, will point out that in fact they proved the opposite:  that purely naturalistic processes cannot produce life, but rather it required all of the efforts of the smartest human agents in the world over a period of decades.

The secular humanist does not see it that way.  For, by a quick twist in the mind, the skeptic is able to argue that in fact it was the result of ‘purely naturalistic processes’ because, of course, humans are a part of nature.

Now, this sort of intellectual gymnastics only occurs in the context of religious matters or anything that might possibly justify the inference that there is a God.  For we quickly see simply by going to our cupboards that the word ‘natural’ appears often on our food goods. You’ll see a statement like “All Natural!” or “No artificial ingredients!”

Our smartest people in the world are not so stupid as to believe that by ‘artificial’ it is meant that the item is made up of non-natural or otherwise supernatural ingredients.  They very quickly, without thinking, understand that what is meant is that by ‘natural’ they mean largely unmolested by human manipulation and by ‘artificial’ it is meant that the ingredient was produced by humans that generally would not have occurred ‘in nature’ if humans hadn’t contrived to make it.

We see the same sort of easy switch between meanings of words when we contemplate such things as ‘artificial intelligence.’  I haven’t met a skeptic yet who thought that AI meant a supernatural being.  Yet, when one switches to the question of whether or not DNA exhibits prima facie marks of design, the skeptic is quick to ignore the common distinction between natural/artificial, which of course presumes agency, and skips right to another sense of the word ‘natural’ and insist that even if DNA did show marks of design, it could not be considered since science can only entertain naturalistic explanations.  It is useless at that point to point to design that other humans make in order to make comparisons and analogies because the skeptic has changed what he means by the word ‘natural.’  It is equivocation.

But perhaps the ID community is to blame for not making the distinction clear?  I don’t think so.  In the post I linked to above I ended up illustrating this in the comment section using a lengthy quote by Dembski.  Here is just a portion of the quote… you can read the whole quote at the blog entry or pick up Mere Creation where I found it:

Theology and philosophy are legitimate ways for understanding God’s interaction with the world. Nonetheless neither theology nor philosophy can answer the evidential question whether God’s interaction with the world is empirically detectable.


To answer this question we must look to science.
The science we look to however needs to be unencumbered by naturalistic philosophy. If we prescribe in advance that science must be limited to undirected natural causes, then science will necessarily be incapable of investigating God’s interaction with the world. But if we permit science to investigate intelligent causes (as many special sciences already do, eg, forensic science and artificial intelligence) then God’s interaction with the world, insofar as it manifes the characteristic features of intelligent causation, becomes a legitimate domain for scientific investigation.

There is an important contrast to keep in mind here. Science, we are told, studies natural causes whereas to introduce God is to invoke supernatural causes. This is the wrong contrast. The proper contrast is between undirected natural causes on the one hand and intelligent causes on the other. Intelligent causes can do things that undirected natural causes can not.

As you can see from this quote, Intelligent Design theorists do carefully distinguish what they are talking about.  Scientists producing life in a test tube would not be the result of undirected natural causes.   Now, the thing is, I think 99% of the world understands exactly what the intelligent design community means when it draws this contrast.  I think in any other matter, such as ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘no artificial colorings’ or ‘all natural beef patty’ even the best and brightest among us understand this contrast.  What is it that happens in their heads when we turn our attention to the prospect that life is designed?

Well, obviously what happens is that it is nearly universally inferred that if it were designed, the best inference would be that the designer- an agent, to be sure- does not belong to the natural order.   Or, if not the best inference, a reasonable inference.  These possibilities are intolerable to them and skeptics in particular want nothing less than to provide believers any avenue for saying that there is evidence for their views.  So long as a belief in God is merely a matter of ‘faith’ (as skeptics understand the term) it can be rejected as unsupported by evidence and they are still justified in being atheists.  But whether or not life shows marks of agency is of course an entirely different matter as to the best inference as to the nature of the responsible agent.

The result of this curious intellectual voodoo is that the matter is thrust into absurdity:  either life is the result of an immensely powerful and knowledgeable intelligent agent, so impressive that we doubt he could even be anything but the maker of the universe, or… all the way to the other end of the spectrum… a concoction of millions of years of blind, undirected natural processes that so worked as to give the appearance of the former.

And this is why Intelligent Design continues to be persuasive in the general public.  The general public grasps the distinction the ID community is pointing to and their intelligence is insulted by the proposal that the only reason why that which appears to them to point dramatically to the existence of a Divine Designer really isn’t because…. it points dramatically to the existence of a Divine Designer.

Wow, those undirected natural processes are good!

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