[cross-posted at Parableman] Elliot Sober has a new paper, “Intelligent Design Theory and the Supernatural: The ‘God or Extra-Terrestrials’ Reply”, in the latest issue of Faith and Philosophy (January 2007). I received my copy today, and I was amazed that this paper could get past the reviewers of a top philosophy of religion journal without serious modification, even from such an important philosopher of science as Sober.
Sober makes the following argument. Defenders of intelligent design often point out that ID arguments are not religion, and one support for this (a relatively less important one, in my view) is that the conclusion of ID arguments is silent on what the designer is like other than that the designer is intelligent and must have worked purposes into nature somehow. Sober’s paper is a response to that argument, and his response is extremely strange. He argues that supernatural assumptions are implicit in the ID argument, and thus the ID defender is committed to a conclusion that there is some supernatural being.
Suppose that’s all true. I’m not invested very seriously in whether that part of his argument is correct, since I happen to believe there is a supernatural being. I don’t even care whether ID defenders are committed to the existence of a supernatural being, since I know no one who accepts ID who doesn’t also accept a supernatural being. So I’ll assume for the sake of argument that Sober is correct, and ID arguments do involve a commitment to the existence of some supernatural being. My question is how this helps Sober. His point in the paper is to show that ID arguments involve a religious conclusion. The only way he should be able to conclude that is if he thinks being implicitly committed to the existence of a supernatural being is somehow itself religious. Yet it isn’t.
Lots of people think moral evaluation commits you to the existence of a supernatural being. They don’t necessarily think that calling an action wrong is a religious practice. So it doesn’t seem that being implicitly committed to the existence of a supernatural being is the same as practicing a religion. What’s worse is that plenty of people accept theistic arguments on philosophical grounds without being religious practitioners. I personally know several people myself who do exactly that. Their theism is merely a philosophical view. It is not religious in any sense. It doesn’t even affect their life. They are areligious. So how can implicitly being committed to the existence of a supernatural being amount to religion when even being explicitly committed to theism doesn’t count as religion?
Now perhaps there’s a deeper argument Sober could make, and we should interpret these strange claims in the light of that deeper argument. Maybe he thinks you could only accept the premises of the ID argument if you are already religious. If that’s what he has in mind, then maybe it would show that ID arguments are religious. But of course he’d be relying on a false premise. People can and do accept ID arguments without accepting any religion. There’s no necessary religious support for ID arguments. They are entirely theoretical (as opposed to practical) arguments for a philosophical conclusion, with no need for religious premises. The argument relies on one scientifically observed premise about a certain kind of complexity in nature, and it relies on a further philosophical inference to a best explanation. Neither the scientific premise nor the inference is religion. One is science, and the other is philosophy, and ID arguments are a common enough kind of philosophical inference in science. That doesn’t make them good arguments, but it does mean they are not religion.
This leaves me thinking that Sober is either fundamentally confused about what religion is or simply redefining it to suit his political purposes the same way he would insist that the ID movement redefines science to suit its political purposes. Neither should be true of a paper published in a top philosophy of religion journal.