Elliot Sober: Confusing Religion and Philosophy
May 12, 2007 — 21:43

Author: Jeremy Pierce  Category: Existence of God  Comments: 21

[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.

Comments:
  • Jeremy,
    I’m not sure what point you think Sober was trying to make. Why would it be decisive for his argument that someone who accepts ID must also have some religious commitment in your sense of the term? What Sober is trying to show is that mini-ID entails (given some reasonable assumptions) ID. That’s a worry for those who would be willing to accept the conclusion of mini-ID (i.e., that there is some designer) but unwilling (or less willing) to accept that the designer is supernatural. The strategy of IDer’s in proposing mini-ID was to present a more appealing, less divisive, face to ID that could bring together those who share the minimal view that materialistic and non-intelligent explanations of speciation fail. Sober’s point, I take it, is that the inclusiveness strategy of IDer’s is itself bound to fail. That’s not a small point, I think, and he really needn’t use the ‘religion’ talk to do it.

    May 13, 2007 — 10:53
  • My point isn’t whether he has shown anything. I’m conceding, at least for the sake of argument, that he’s shown that ID arguments involve a commitment to a thesis that there’s a supernatural designer. I’m not saying that conclusion is unimportant. I’m saying that it doesn’t show what Sober thinks it shows, which is that ID is religion.
    Most of the paper leaves out talking about this as religion, but it’s very clear in the abstract that that’s the conclusion he’s arguing for, and it just seems like a complete non sequitur, one bad enough that I can’t imagine how the referees let it slip through (unless referees don’t see abstracts).

    May 13, 2007 — 20:39
  • I was amazed that this paper could get past the reviewers of a top philosophy of religion journal without serious modification. . .
    The aim of the paper is very evident, though he might have done well to use ‘religion’ more cautiously. What he had in mind was something closer to ‘supernatural commitment’. But it is perfectly understandable why he phrased it the way he did. The IDer’s have been trying to downplay the religious commitments of ID and Sober is trying play up such commitments. I guess we could argue about whether every commitment to a supernatural being is properly a religious commitment. But it is no source of utter amazement that someone might think so. He might have changed the abstract some, but I guess I wouldn’t consider changing the abstract a “serious modification”. In any case, all of that aside, I wasn’t at all confused about Sober’s aim.

    May 14, 2007 — 9:43
  • I would not have been making this complaint if he had just said that ID arguments require a commitment to a supernatural being. It was his willingness to call that religion that just calls to mind those who like to pretend ID is religion as a means of preventing its being raised in a classroom, an argument that is completely at odds with the entire history of teleological arguments, which have always been considered philosophy and not religion. It’s true that some of the ID movement want to call them simply science, but it seems pretty stupid to me to overreact and call them religion as a response. Sober’s willingness to cater to that kind of irrationality is what makes me think this shouldn’t have been published in a serious philosophy journal as is.

    May 14, 2007 — 18:17
  • john a

    Or possibly it was published in a highly respected journal to bring out these types of discussions. Should we assume that all papers published are not subject to critical analysis or are without difficulties and problems? Also, it should be noted that Sober recognizes the suggestions/comments made by the editor and reviewers of this journal so they must have brought some issues to him for consideration. Why not write a formal response to Sober and submit it?

    May 14, 2007 — 19:14
  • I neglected to mention that Sober intends something even more specific than I suggested. He thinks that ID entails a commitment to an intelligent, supernatural designer. The commitment to an intelligent, supernatural designer is reasonably considered a religious commitment. It’s a nice paper and interesting argument–obviously, nothing less is expected from Sober! If you haven’t already, I encourage you to take a look.

    May 14, 2007 — 21:08
  • The commitment to an intelligent, supernatural designer is reasonably considered a religious commitment.
    That’s exactly the claim I’m disputing. I don’t think someone is religious just by believing in an intelligent, supernatural designer. I know several people personally who believe in such a being but who are not religious. They do not think they ought to worship this being. They do not see this being as a source in any sense of revelation about what we ought to do. They do not see any need for their belief in this being to affect how they live their life (other than acknowledging that such a being does exist). I cannot see how it is reasonable to call such people religious.

    May 14, 2007 — 22:11
  • Here’s a thought. A commitment to a supernatural being is not a religious commitment. After all, as far as I know, a supernatural being as such need not be any smarter or more divine than a mushroom. If I believed in a supernatural being that had the kind of intelligence a mushroom has, I would not be making a religious commitment. (I would have to say something about the sense of “supernatural”. Maybe it means non-physical or maybe capable of acting contrary to natural law.)
    But just by ratcheting up the intelligence of the not very smart supernatural being some large but finite amount I am not producing something of religious significance.
    Nor, do I think, will adding that this being designed us necessarily get us something of religious significance.
    Or consider a different way of proceeding. It would not have positive religious significance to suppose a very smart alien to have designed us. Now make the alien supernatural, e.g., by replacing it with its ghost. Why would this shift to the supernatural immediately involve religious commitment?

    May 14, 2007 — 22:34
  • Christian Lee

    It’s so nice that we all have such and different and well-informed views…
    I’m more on Mike’s side, though. Suppose Joe believes in the God of Christianity, but does absolutely nothing that would indicate this. That is, attribute the belief and subtract any behavior that would indicate a commitment. Is Joe religious? It seems to me he is. But then commitment or certain types of behaviors isn’t necessary to be religious, and then I’m inclined to think belief in “an intelligent supernatural designer” is an equally good candidate as a sufficient condition for one to believer as is belief in a “3-O world creator”.
    Or rather, I’d be interested to hear the difference.

    May 15, 2007 — 1:55
  • David Slakter

    To make the point against Sober more clear, consider ghosts. Presumably, if ghosts existed they would be supernatural entities, but belief in them would not be a religious commitment.
    To make the point in favor of Sober, would it have made a difference if he had used the word ‘religious’ instead of ‘religion’? Perhaps the change of terms would impact what he means to say.
    The being discussed by Sober, it seems, is not merely a “supernatural being,” but a supernatural designer. I think Jeremy’s objection to calling this belief religious is that someone can believe in a supernatural designer and not properly be considered to be “religious.”
    ‘Religious’ is however a vague term. One might say that religiousity is about how one’s religious beliefs impact one’s behavior, but then of course we will just be getting into degrees of religiosity.
    It’s not radical or absurd to propose that belief in merely a supernatural designer is minimally religious. Unless you think that Deism simply is not a religion then this should be an acceptable premise.

    May 15, 2007 — 4:36
  • Even if we can stretch the word ‘religion’ in some contexts to mean something really thin like that, it seems illegitimate to me to do it in this context. The main context for this debate has been the U.S. political question of whether this philosophical argument can be taught in public school classes. The most recent judicial decision declared that it violates the first amendment if the argument is even taught (but not endorsed, apparently, because the judge seemed to rule out teaching it and then teaching criticisms of it). Given that, it seems that calling the argument religion amounts to treating the argument as setting up a state religion. The contextual implicature of Sober’s claim, then, is that the argument sets up a formal religion. Whether that’s the illocutionary force of his claim or not (probably not), it will certainly have that perlocutionary force in the debate in question, and it thus furthers drastic confusion in the political debate.

    May 15, 2007 — 6:59
  • David Slakter

    My understanding is that the legal matter has to do with teaching ID in science classes as a scientific theory. When it comes to the question of teaching it in philosophy or religion classes, where those are available or allowed, I think the matter is much less contentious.
    I also think the argument against the teaching of ID would be that it endorses or promotes a particular religion rather than that it sets up a state religion, but it’s possible that in legal terms both amount to the same thing.
    Returning to what I said in my previous post and what Alexander has said on the issue just prior, I don’t think an argument like Sober’s rests on the claim that there is a necessary relation between something being a supernatural creator and that same thing’s being an object of religious devotion. Hypothetically, it is possible that someone might believe that a supernatural being created her and not believe that fact to have any religious significance for her. The contentious matter here is whether there is in fact anyone who believes the former and does not believe the latter. Sober appears to be of the view that there is not.

    May 15, 2007 — 8:07
  • That’s exactly the claim I’m disputing. I don’t think someone is religious just by believing in an intelligent, supernatural designer.
    Let’s be clear. My claim was not this,
    1. X believes in an intelligent, supernatural designer only if X is religious.
    I never said anything about being religious. I said instead that it was reasonable to believe this,
    2. X believes in an intelligent, supernatural designer only if X has a religious belief.
    That X has a religious belief would not make X religious, in your sense of ‘religious’. So (2) should not be confused with (1).
    David, you say,
    To make the point against Sober more clear, consider ghosts. Presumably, if ghosts existed they would be supernatural entities, but belief in them would not be a religious commitment.
    Right. I agree. This is why I took the time to express the more specific belief above. Belief in ghosts is probably not a religious belief. But belief in an intelligent, supernatural designer of the world probably is.
    Now consider Sober’s goal. What is he trying to do? He takes the IDer’s claim (NB, the IDer’s claim) that ID does not have the supernatural implications attributed to it and shows that it is false. Why do you think the IDer’s have been so keen to deny that ID entails a commitment to an intelligent, supernatural designer? Obviously because they see it as either a religious commitment or a quasi-religious commitment that many (especially those doing good science) would be reluctant to accept. The argument of the IDer’s (not Sober, now) is that if you remove the commitment to an intelligent, supernatural designer, then you remove a major obstacle to teaching ID in schools. That is their reasoning, not Sober’s. Sober’s argument is purely critical: he shows that the argument severing ID from a commitment to an intelligent,supernatural designer fails.
    So if anyone is suggesting, or assuming, or hinting or insinuating that a commitment to an intelligent, supernatural designer is a religious commitment, it is the IDers. They are the one’s trying so hard to distance themselves from this commitment. That’s exactly what they’re so keen to separate ID from.
    All Sober did is embarrass the attempt to distance themselves. Don’t take it out on him.

    May 15, 2007 — 8:21
  • It seems very strange to me to count someone’s belief as religious if the person is not religious in any sense. It doesn’t seem to me to count as a religious belief unless the person believes it in a way that is somehow religious.
    they see it as either a religious commitment or a quasi-religious commitment that many (especially those doing good science) would be reluctant to accept.
    I disagree. I don’t think they do. I think they’re wise, however, to the anti-ID political movement that confuses those two things, and thus if they can head it off even before the point of confusion, then they will.
    But I think the point remains to be made that even if you can’t head it off there (which if Sober is right, then you can’t) it still doesn’t follow that ID is religion in any important sense, and it certainly doesn’t follow that teaching it is setting up a religion in the sense that the first amendment prohibits the government from doing.
    It’s the latter point that Sober wants to undermine, or he wouldn’t be using the word ‘religion’ at all. He’d be happy to keep it to a discussion of whether ID requires admitting to a supernatural designer. But it doesn’t seem to me that his argument has anything to do with whether this is the thing the first amendment means by ‘religion’. His paper isn’t about that at all.

    May 15, 2007 — 9:41
  • David, it would be one thing to argue on intellectual grounds that the ID arguments do not belong in science classes. I can think of two reasons someone might think this. One is that they aren’t science but are instead philosophy. I think we have to be careful with that, however, since we regularly teach philosophy in science classes. Anyone who teaches the many-universes model is teaching philosophy, and many arguments in science are inferences to the best explanation, which is no less philosophical than ID arguments are, which are also inferences to the best explanation. So if this argument will be our reason for excluding ID from science classes, we’ll need some very careful distinctions between different kinds of inferences to the best explanation and why ID is the kind that isn’t science, while other ones somehow count as science. I ultimately think that can’t be done, at least in any way that could form a real consensus. So I think excluding ID on the grounds of what field of study it is will not work out.
    The second way of excluding it would be not because it’s not science but because it’s not good science, i.e. because the argument is not a good argument. Since it’s not the consensus view in science, I think this is a pretty decent reason for not including it, but I think what would be a better policy would be to teach the argument and then to explain why many scientists are unconvinced. I think it would also be nice is if they explained that the similar fine-tuning argument in physics is basically the same argument but based on difference scientific premises, and the physics version is more accepted among physicists than the biological version is among biologists. I would have no problem with someone doing that if they could be fair with the argument and not treat it as if it’s silly. But I’m not sure we’re at that point yet, so ultimately I have little interest in promoting its being taught.
    But what I think is ridiculous is claiming that the argument is religious creationism and saying it can’t be taught in schools at all on the grounds that six-day creationism based on the book of Genesis has already been declared unteachable in science classes. The argument is not religious in that sense. I happen to think there’s nothing wrong with individuals in government expressing their own views, even if they are religious views, as long as they make it clear that they do so in their capacity as individual people and not as representing a government position, and I think that includes teachers in government institutions. So I wouldn’t have a problem with someone teaching six-day creationism in a public school with the proper disclaimers that this isn’t a government-endorsed view.
    But even without that, I don’t see how teaching ID (especially if you also teach the criticisms of it and point out that the consensus in science is against it) counts as endorsing even the conclusion of ID, never mind a particular religion. Since ID’s thesis is compatible with a number of religions anyway, I don’t know how you could argue that this counts as establishing a religion when many conflicting religions would all agree with that conclusion.
    Hypothetically, it is possible that someone might believe that a supernatural being created her and not believe that fact to have any religious significance for her. The contentious matter here is whether there is in fact anyone who believes the former and does not believe the latter. Sober appears to be of the view that there is not.
    I’m not talking hypothetically, though. I can name two students in my own Ph.D. program who occupy that exact position. They call themselves theists. They do not consider themselves religious in any sense. They do not think it’s worth bothering praying to God. They do not worship God. They do not think God’s creation of the world brings any moral requirements on their lives. This is not a hypothetical. Isn’t this Flew’s recent position, also? He accepts ID arguments in their fine-tuning versions, but he doesn’t think this designer is at all worth caring about.

    May 15, 2007 — 9:58
  • I disagree. I don’t think they do. I think they’re wise, however, to the anti-ID political movement that confuses those two things, and thus if they can head it off even before the point of confusion, then they will.
    Ok, let me see. So the IDer’s know that there is no religious commitment in their view. But they also know that other people falsely believe–because I guess they’re either evil or confused or both (I suppose Sober enters here)–that ID does have such a commitment. So the IDers deviously and shrewdly distance themselves from what they do not truly believe is a religious commitment in order to achieve their political goals. Is that it?
    I disagree. The IDer’s have too much integrity to distance themselves from what they truly believe in their hearts.

    May 15, 2007 — 10:26
  • It would not have positive religious significance to suppose a very smart alien to have designed us. Now make the alien supernatural, e.g., by replacing it with its ghost. Why would this shift to the supernatural immediately involve religious commitment?
    Alex, I don’t think anyone is disputing this. I’m certainly not. You seem to be suggesting that (1) entails (2).
    1. X has the religious belief that p.
    2. p has religious significance for X.
    But it doesn’t. This conflates psychological and logical commitment. We should be able to say that Smith, who believes himself to be an atheist, is actually committed–on logical grounds, not psychological grounds–to religious belief p. Smith simply hasn’t traced the logical consequences of his beliefs. Smith might discover that his other beliefs–for instance, his belief that the ontological argument is sound–commits him to the conclusion that God exists. That is a religious belief whose object might have no significance or importance for the believer. I see absolutely no reason why having a religious belief would entail having a certain profile of attitudes. Smith can recognize who God is, why God is worthy of worship, etc., but refuse to adopt to appropriate attitudes. He has a religious belief; he just doesn’t have a religious attitude.

    May 15, 2007 — 13:13
  • David Slakter

    Jeremy, my point was simply that you were misrepresenting the views of Sober and others on the legal issues, not to offer a full-fledged defense of their arguments against all comers.
    On the conceptual front, this seems to be mistaken:

    It seems very strange to me to count someone’s belief as religious if the person is not religious in any sense. It doesn’t seem to me to count as a religious belief unless the person believes it in a way that is somehow religious.

    I take it that to call a belief ‘religious’ means that it has to do with the facticity of some claims regarding religion. Just as in social practice, exactly where the boundary between what counts as religious and what does not is going to be difficult to demarcate clearly. I even take it that atheist belief, i.e. the belief that God does not exist, is a religious belief. Yet atheists are not (generally) religious.
    As for believing something “in a way that is somehow religious,” I’m not quite sure what that would be. The best I can guess is that it involves assuming the truth of some particular religion and using that to identify some beliefs as ‘religious’ due to their causal origins.
    As for the actuality of a person who believes that a supernatural being created her and that that being does not have religious significance for her, both what you and Mike have said have convinced me that, construed generally, what I said was mistaken.

    May 15, 2007 — 15:48
  • Mike, how does it take a violation of one’s integrity to follow the logic of an argument where it leads rather than where you’d like it to lead? Last I knew, I thought it was a credit to the IDers that they recognize that their arguments (even if they’re good arguments) don’t establish Christianity in particular or even all the elements of traditional theism. Isn’t that just intellectual honesty? How, then, has it become dishonesty?
    David, the quote that you put in blockquote form was not about Sober. That was what Mike was saying as a defense of Sober, and I think it’s an implausible view. Whether it’s fair to Sober, I have no idea.

    May 15, 2007 — 18:38
  • Mike, how does it take a violation of one’s integrity to follow the logic of an argument where it leads rather than where you’d like it to lead? Last I knew, I thought it was a credit to the IDers that they recognize that their arguments (even if they’re good arguments) don’t establish Christianity in particular or even all the elements of traditional theism
    Geeze, I never denied any of this. Where did I say that IDers believe that ID leads to the conclusion that Chistianity is true? Or that it leads to all of the elements of traditional theism? I don’t want to say either of these.
    The fact is that IDer’s have tried hard to advance mini-ID and distance themselves from ID. Now according to you, the IDer’s distance themselves from ID and embrace mini-ID not because they think there is something worth distancing themselves from in ID (afterall, according to you, ID is no more committed to religious belief than is mini-ID, and the IDers know this). IDer’s distance themselves from ID, and embrace mini-ID, in order to appease other non-IDer’s who believe that ID commits us to religious beliefs.
    What I concluded was that if IDer’s are prepared to distance themselves from something they believe is correct–namely, that ID is right and does not commit us religiously–to appease others for political purposes, then that shows a lack of integrity.
    Though I think this conclusion is true, to be frank the comment was made tongue in cheek.

    May 15, 2007 — 19:12
  • David Slakter

    Jeremy: What I was saying was about your claims as such. I don’t think my accuracy in this instance is dependent upon whom you were responding to when you said it.

    May 15, 2007 — 20:04