Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Dembski on the Founders & Design:

Ed Brayton sent me this post of William Dembski's for my thoughts. In it Dembski criticizes Judge Jones's invoking the Founders as Enlightenment rationalists in this modern battle that pits science v. religion.

This quotation by Judge Jones, given at Dickinson College's (his alma mater) commencement address, is what Dembski disagrees with.

"The founders believed that true religion was not something handed down by a church or contained in a Bible, but was to be found through free, rational inquiry...."

"They possessed a great confidence in an individual's ability to understand the world and its most fundamental laws through the exercise of his or her reason...."

"This core set of beliefs led the founders, who constantly engaged and questioned things, to secure their idea of religious freedom by barring any alliance between church and state."

To which Dembski responds:

"Who among our nation's founding fathers believed that the essence of religion is an Enlightenment rationalism that eschews design? None of them. Even Jefferson would be on the ID side in the current debate (inalienable rights conferred on us by a creator is not the language of the French philosophes)."

Let me make a few points. First Dembski doesn't contradict a thing that the judge said. Everything Jones said is spot on accurate. And the judge did not (correct me if I am wrong) say that "our nation's founding fathers believed that the essence of religion is an Enlightenment rationalism that eschews design." But rather, the judge pointed out that our nation's Founding Fathers were Enlightenment rationalists who believed that the Truth, even religious Truth, was to be found primarily "through free, rational inquiry."

Yet, our rationalist Founders were theistic rationalists who, as we all know, lived before Darwin. We could argue that as men of science and reason, had they been alive today, they would have been Darwinists. This is what Alan Dershowitz argues in his book on the Declaration of Independence:

[Jefferson] thought that the biblical story of creation was an ignorant human contrivance, and although he lived before Darwin, he corresponded extensively with scientists about fossils, extinction, and other issues of paleontology. His beliefs were based on the findings of science, not the revelations in the Bible. He surely would have favored the teaching of scientific evolution, not biblical creationism. But what about "scientific" creationism that purports to rely not on biblical accounts but rather on the findings of science? Here we can be less certain. In one respect, Jefferson can be characterized as a nonbiblical scientific creationist. He believed that the God of Nature created human beings (as well as the rules of human and physical nature). This belief was based on his understanding of science. The difference between Jefferson and most contemporary religious creationists is that Jefferson was willing to be proved wrong by science, whereas most of today's creationists generally use -- misuse -- science to confirm what they already "know" to be true, because the Bible says so. If Jefferson was convinced, as the deeply religious Professor Stephen Carter is, that creationism is "bad science," he would reject it, as Carter does. But in Jefferson's day, proof of God's creation "by design" seemed like good science, and Jefferson accepted it. I doubt that he would accept it today.

America Declares Independence, pp. 79-80.

Because our Founders lived before Darwin, ultimately, whatever contemporary position they would have held is speculation and their legacy thus can be taken only so far in this battle. I'm not sure if Dembski's point was that the Founders were "Christians" who put their Biblically based religious beliefs before what Man can know from Reason and Science, or if they simply believed in creation by design. If it's the former, I can easily offer scads quotations refuting Dembski. But one from John Adams will do. From his 1813 letter to Jefferson:

We can never be so certain of any prophecy, or the fulfillment of any prophecy, or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle, as we are from the revelation of nature, that is, nature's God, that two and two are equal to four. Miracles or prophecies might frighten us out of our wits, might scare us to death, might induce us to lie, to say that we believe that two and two make five, but we should not believe it; we should know the contrary.

Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and admitted to behold the divine glory, and there been told that one was three and three one, we might not have had the courage to deny it, but we could not have believed it. The thunders and the lightnings and the earthquakes and the transcendent splendors and glories might have overwhelmed us with terror and amazement, but we could not have believed the doctrine.

The specific context of the letter is Adams is denying the Trinity to Jefferson (they were discussing the repeal of a British law that made it a crime to publicly deny the Trinity). The general reasoning behind the denial is that, according to Adams, human rationality, not Biblical Revelation, is the ultimate standard for learning and evaluating Truth. Adams's sentiment was certainly dominant among our key Whig Founding Fathers.

Where Dembski is totally wrong is where he tries to draw some wedge between Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence and the French philosophes. The Declaration of Independence, Virginia Declaration of Rights, Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom and other American Revolutionary era "Natural Rights" documents were translated into French and helped spark their revolution. Indeed, Jefferson was in France laying the groundwork for the French Revolution by helping to write their Declaration of the Rights of Man.

And indeed, the two documents (and hence the two revolutions) make parallel (but not identical) ideological assertions and both appeal to a generic, undefined, rights granting God. So if the American Declaration of Independence, and hence our Revolution was "Biblical," then so too was the French.

But again, all of this occurred before Darwin; and the French philosophes, like the American Founders, believed in a "Creator" who created us by design. See Joe Carter's post Voltaire's Bastards: Why "Neo-Creationists" are the Heirs of the Enlightenment which takes note of this. (And the obvious retort to Carter's thesis is that noting Founding era thinkers did not endorse Darwin is like noting they did not endorse Einstein.)

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