Daniel Dennett and the God of the Gaps

In an editorial from Sunday’s New York Times, Daniel Dennett takes aim at “Intelligent Design.” He does make a few cheap shots at the notion, such as this:

Since there is no content, there is no “controversy” to teach about in biology class. But here is a good topic for a high school course on current events and politics: Is intelligent design a hoax? And if so, how was it perpetrated?

But putting those aside, I think proponents of Intelligent Design should take seriously one of his main criticisms, namely that Intelligent Design has no positive explanatory power–it’s only nay saying.

Indeed, no intelligent design hypothesis has even been ventured as a rival explanation of any biological phenomenon. This might seem surprising to people who think that intelligent design competes directly with the hypothesis of non-intelligent design by natural selection. But saying, as intelligent design proponents do, “You haven’t explained everything yet,” is not a competing hypothesis. Evolutionary biology certainly hasn’t explained everything that perplexes biologists. But intelligent design hasn’t yet tried to explain anything.

At first it may seem absurd for him to claim that “intelligent design hasn’t yet tried to explain anything,” but it’s true–depending on how one defines her terms. For Dennett an acceptably “scientific” explanation must explain things solely in naturalistic terms. In other words, there cannot be any resort to mystery or what others have called the “God of the gaps.”

One invokes the “God of the gaps” if he pushes the causes for unexplained phenomena into the realm of the mysterious or supernatural. Critics of such a move have pointed out that causes of many seemingly inexplicable things have become clear with later science, so that what once seemed supernatural, after a while could be explained in materialistic terms. Also, scientific explanation is all about finding naturalistic explanations. To look for other explanations bucks the culture of scientific thinking from the last few centuries, these critics suggest.

And it’s there that I both agree with and part ways with Dennett. I agree that were we to stipulate 1) that all scientific explanations must be given in naturalistic terms and 2) that if no explanations are forthcoming we should assume they will eventually, then we would have to conclude that there is little room for a designer outside of nature. But I don’t know why we should make such stipulations. For one thing, what constitutes good science has been continually developing, and limiting its domain of acceptable explanations a priori seems terribly arbitrary. Dennett seemingly has great confidence in the permanence of contemporary scientific views:

First, imagine how easy it would be for a determined band of naysayers to shake the world’s confidence in quantum physics – how weird it is! – or Einsteinian relativity. In spite of a century of instruction and popularization by physicists, few people ever really get their heads around the concepts involved.

Dennett goes on to suggest that the only reason such nay sayers haven’t shaken our confidence in quantum physics is that there aren’t the other political and sociological interests in play in the Intelligent Design debate. But considering that many Newtonian notions, now rejected, had ascendancy much longer than those of Einstein, I would suggest that Dennett temper his confidence.

More importantly, I think that even while trying to find materialistic explanations, scientists can have reason to know that there are limits to those explanations. Curiously, even in this article Dennett gives us reason to think there might be. Here he explains why the eye was not designed:

Brilliant as the design of the eye is, it betrays its origin with a tell-tale flaw: the retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry the signals from the eye’s rods and cones (which sense light and color) lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in the retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.

Dennett’s argument assumes that science can evaluate claims of intelligence at work in nature. In the case of the eye, Dennett believes that the evidence points to the absence of intelligence. But if evidence can rule one way regarding the presence of intelligence, then it’s possible for it to go the other. In another situation, the same criteria Dennett here uses to rule out intelligence might at the least allow its possibility. I don’t think that’s just nay saying; as I understand some Intelligent Design proponents, the positive evidence is that naturalistic explanations at some points have discernible limits, limits evident in irreducible complexity, for example.

While scientists may disagree about how to properly apply criteria indicating intelligence, what they–and Dennett–can’t do is dismiss the enterprise out of hand. So rather than comparing Intelligent Design proponents to flat-earth believers, I suggest the scientific community should examine–and in that manner refute, if appropriate–the particular criteria and their applications that some believe indicate an intelligent Creator. If the naturalistic explanations’ hegemony is deserved, then its proponents have nothing to fear from such an examination.


  1. Even if one were to accept the argument that the universe was designed, what would that suggest? It suggests nothing. Was there one designer or more than one? Does the designer, or designers, still exist? And if the designer and/or designers still exist, then what kinds of characteristics or properties does/do he/she/it/they possess? Must a designer be divine? Supernatural? Immortal? Omniscient? Omnipotent? Omnipresent? Beneficent? This, of course, assumes that these terms can all be defined. Personally, I have no idea what any of the these terms mean. And how does one go about generating testable hypotheses with “intelligent design” arguments? “Intelligent design” is just thinly disguised theology, and not very good theology at that. It should be dismissed as such.

  2. Dennett’s argument assumes that science can evaluate claims of intelligence at work in nature. In the case of the eye, Dennett believes that the evidence points to the absence of intelligence.

    What you fail to point out in this “criticism” of ID by Dennett is that he is hardly espousing that there is no intelligence manifested in the design, nor does he seek to actually prove or disprove it scientifically. He merely underscores the non-empirial nature of ID by using conjecture (in the same fashion that the ID propnents do) to make a claim about the “lack of intelligence” inherent to structures the ID schoool routinely uses to claim was “irreducibly complex”, hence the result of ID, while both of are actually of equal baselessness and unproveable in nature.

    Note that Dennett actually did outline a rather well posed “experiment” that couls test the “alien DNA introduction” scenario bandied about by ID’s less biblically obsessed cohorts to propose an empirical approach specifcially designed to actually attempt to quantify one type of ID, soemthing he did rather revel in pointing out that is conspicuoussly absent from any ID or Discovery Institute “researchers” literature to date!

    When you use nonsense arguments to make your case, don’t use the occasional “nonsense right back at you” gambit as “proof” that the opposition doesn’t adhere to their own ruels, hence indicates a failing ont heir part to believe their own approach.

    That is the stuff of mere disingenuous policy-making, soemthing that the Discovery Institue has proven they are quite a bit more adept at than actual original research on their own behalf! ;D

  3. mch, I wonder if you’re being somewhat unfair. On the one hand, you demand that ID proponents explain what other characteristics an intelligence must possess (“Must a designer be divine? Supernatural? Immortal? Omniscient? Omnipotent? Omnipresent? Beneficent?”), but on the other hand, you accuse ID of “thinly disguised theology.”

    Why can’t the science of ID just leave it at intelligence and remain agnostic regarding other characteristics that the hypothesized intelligence might possess? Then it would still be offering an alternate explanation to naturalism while avoiding the dangers of doing theology.

  4. He merely underscores the non-empirial nature of ID by using conjecture (in the same fashion that the ID propnents do) to make a claim about the “lack of intelligence” inherent to structures the ID schoool routinely uses to claim was “irreducibly complex”, hence the result of ID, while both of are actually of equal baselessness and unproveable in nature.

    tV, you may have caught a subtlety in Dennett’s essay that I missed, but even after re-reading it, I still take him to be serious in making the lousy-camcorder argument against an intelligent eye designer.

    At any rate, I’m not sure the gulf is so great between the “empirical” arguments of those proposing naturalistic explanations and the “conjecture” of ID proponents. Everything we’re talking about happened eons ago, so there’s no way we can “test” hypotheses about the origin of parts of life in the manner that we can test Einsteinian physics: at least with the latter we can collide atoms and put clocks on fighter jets, but we can’t sit back and observe chance mutations over millions of years.

    Look at the proposed “experiment” of Dennett’s to which you allude (emphasis added):

    To formulate a competing hypothesis, you have to get down in the trenches and offer details that have testable implications. So far, intelligent design proponents have conveniently sidestepped that requirement, claiming that they have no specifics in mind about who or what the intelligent designer might be.

    To see this shortcoming in relief, consider an imaginary hypothesis of intelligent design that could explain the emergence of human beings on this planet:

    About six million years ago, intelligent genetic engineers from another galaxy visited Earth and decided that it would be a more interesting planet if there was a language-using, religion-forming species on it, so they sequestered some primates and genetically re-engineered them to give them the language instinct, and enlarged frontal lobes for planning and reflection. It worked.

    If some version of this hypothesis were true, it could explain how and why human beings differ from their nearest relatives, and it would disconfirm the competing evolutionary hypotheses that are being pursued.

    I realize Dennett’s example is tongue-in-cheek, but most, if not all, of the details of his hypothesis are “untestable.” In the best case scenario the meddling aliens would use genetic engineering techniques that we’d recognize as such, but we still wouldn’t know any more than that someone engineered: there’s no way to test hypotheses about other galaxies or the hopes of aliens for a religious species, etc. (Of course Dennett means to say the alien argument is both better-formed than that of ID proponents while also being absurd– “no other intelligent-design hypothesis has anything more going for it”–so we will reject both.)

    The problem here is that when Dennett and others use “testability” as a criterion, they’re just presenting a red herring. Purely naturalistic explanations for the origins of life are no more “testable” than ID explanations. What both sides offer are narratives about the data, and rather than evaluating the “testability” of those narratives we should be speaking of their “plausibility” or some similar criterion.

    So the question should be, “are ID interpretations of certain phenomena more or less credible than naturalistic interpretations?” There’s nothing unscientific about answering that question. In the case of irreducibly complex natural objects, ID theorists present reasons why they think chance operations over time are insufficient to explain those objects, and they offer an alternate explanation: it was engineered by an intelligence of some sort. I don’t see how that type of claim is nonsense or outside the bounds of good science. It may be wrong, but it should be allowed into the debate.

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