Is Intelligent Design A Circular Argument? A Response to Matt Dillahunty

On Sunday night, I called into the Atheist Experience, an atheist TV show based out of Austin, Texas.  It is a weekly call in program, airing every Sunday at 4:30 till 5:30pm Central and can be viewed on ustream. The recording of my discussion with Matt Dillahunty from Sunday night (I am the first and longest caller) can still be found online (mp3; video).

It is unfortunate that the vast majority of callers into the program are not well informed about their own faith, let alone how to defend it rationally. Informed and intelligent Christians rarely call into the program. I am not quite sure why this is, but I would speculate that most educated Christians feel that the Atheist Experience does not offer a fair contest. As I learned on Sunday, it is not easy to have a fair debate when your opponent has control of the mikes, when there is no impartial moderator, and when your opponent is repeatedly interrupting you mid flow, bringing up multiple objections and then perhaps giving you about 3 to 5 seconds at a time to make your case. I understand that they cannot have someone rambling on and on endlessly, but the limitation ought to be reasonable. At the end of our conversation, Matt accused me of employing circular reasoning. When I started to explain why I was not guilty of circular reasoning, he cut me off saying “We’re done.” For sure, I understand that they cannot have one caller take up the whole program. But this was a key point in the conversation. To make a point like that and not allow me to respond suggests to me that Dillahunty is more interested in making himself look good in the eyes of his fans rather than in the objective pursuit of truth.

The first portion of the discussion concerned the nature of faith. I objected to the way that atheists typically use the word faith, which is in stark odds with the way in which the word has been used both Biblically and historically. The word “faith” is really a synonym for “trust”, and indeed the Greek word in the New Testament that is translated “faith”, pistis, has connotations of “trust”. It does not have connotations of unjustified belief. Indeed, as I pointed out on air, verses like Proverbs 14:15 encourage believers to have an intellectually responsible and rational faith: “The simple believe anything,but the prudent give thought to their steps.” For further defense of this position, see my article here. Matt’s response was that there are multiple usages of the word “faith”, and many people do use it in the sense of unjustified belief, even though (as I would argue) this might be an erroneous usage. This response is fair enough, but I would encourage atheists to be clear about this distinction when discussing the matter. Frequently, alas, this is not the case.

We then moved on to discuss some of the evidence for God’s existence. Matt asserted that science cannot provide support for the supernatural. My response was to say that science can provide support for a theologically-neutral premise which forms part of a philosophical syllogism that in turn provides support for the supernatural. Thus, in that way, science can provide evidence for the supernatural. Certain observations about the world are better expected given theism than given atheism. Such observations include the discovery that the Universe has a finite space-time boundary, the finely-tuned character of the cosmos and the role of information in biological systems. Such phenomena thus constitute evidence for God’s existence. We then moved on to discuss specific arguments for God’s existence — the fine-tuning argument and the intelligent design argument. I am not going to address every point here in this blog post, but I do want to comment on a few things that came up in the discussion that I did not have a chance to elaborate on fully.

The first point I want to address is Matt’s frequentist approach to probability. Whereas (as I pointed out) physicists are in wide agreement that the parameters of physics could have had a wide range of values, Matt argued that this cannot be demonstrated because we only have one Universe to observe. Such an argument, of course, presupposes a frequentist view of probability. Although useful in some contexts, in other contexts it has its limitations. For example, if we are considering the cause of the worldwide extinction of the dinosaurs, approximately 65 million years ago, we are dealing with a one time event. For many events in history, we have a sample size of exactly one and a frequentist approach is not a particularly valuable tool for studying such singularities. The way fine-tuning proponents forward their argument makes use of epistemic probability, which is what we use when making determinations about whether something counts as evidence. The idea is that, given physicists are right (about the number of ways the Universe could have been, and the overwhelmingly high ratio of universes which wouldn’t permit life to those that would), the epistemic probability of a life-permitting universe is very very low.

Matt also pointed out the hostility of most of our Universe to life and suggested that our Universe is really anything but finely tuned for bio-habitability. This is, however, to commit an understated evidence fallacy since the fact that our Universe is even here at all is due to very exquisite fine-tuning. By far the most impressive example of fine-tuning was revealed by Roger Penrose, of Oxford University, who has calculated that the probability of the initial low entropy conditions of our Universe being obtained by chance alone is of the order of one part in ten raised to the tenth power raised to the 123rd power. The denominator after the one possesses more zeroes than there are elementary particles in the observable Universe.

A further point I want to comment on is Matt’s claim that there is no original research being done by the intelligent design community. For the website of a laboratory where such research is being conducted, I would refer Matt and other readers to the Biologic Institute webpage, in particular their list of selected research publications. For a more comprehensive list, there is one posted on the website of the Discovery Institute, which can be located here.

It was also claimed that intelligent design is not science because it is unfalsifiable. Leaving aside the limitations of falsifiability as a demarcation criterion for distinguishing science from non-science, I would argue that the theory that there is detectable design in biology can be falsified in two ways. One way would be to show that life does not contain the levels of specified complexity that is non-amenable to a neo-Darwinian stepwise pathway — for example, in the case of protein structures you could show that the prevalence of stable folds in combinatorial space is relatively high. The second would be to show that intelligent agency is not the only cause that can produce specified complexity. If you could show either of those, it would demolish the design inference. Matt claimed that specified complexity was a meaningless concept. But this runs Matt’s own position into serious problems as I show in my article here.

Finally, I want to remark on Matt’s final claim that he made before cutting me off — that is, that the concept of specified complexity is circular and smuggles in the designer with the word “specified”. His final question to me was “Is it possible for something to have specified complexity without an intelligent agent doing the specification?” I answered in the negative. Unfortunately, I think I probably misinterpreted this question. If Matt was asking at this point if it is possible in principle, then the answer would be “yes” because you could have such specified complexity produced by, say, a quantum fluctuation. But would one be reasonable in positing that an observed instance of specified complexity could come about apart from intelligent design? To that, I would indeed answer in the negative.

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17 replies
  1. Steven Carr says:

    ‘Such observations include the discovery that the Universe has a finite space-time boundary, the finely-tuned character of the cosmos and the role of information in biological systems. Such phenomena thus constitute evidence for God’s existence.’

    So , historically, Christians just didn’t have evidence for their god’s existence, until 20th century science came along?

    But now, scientists have discovered that God has created many mechanisms which would destroy the universe if something changed. This means there must be a god because who else could create a mechanism which would destroy all life in the universe if the force of gravity changed?

    • Orienteer says:

      Feel free to search for a “natural” cause for the universe. However, since nature is part of the universe, how could nature then create the universe?

      • DefrreshS10 says:

        Why do you think the universe was “created” and how can you demonstrate that it cannot come about naturally.

  2. Art Battson says:

    “It was also claimed that intelligent design is not science because it is unfalsifiable.”

    There are really only two options: intelligent design and unintelligent design. If the former is rejected as science it follows that the latter must also be rejected. Unless there is a scientific test to discriminate between the two, it follows that neither belong to the realm of science. Thus the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution (a story of biological unintelligent design) is non-scientific. Rather, it is a form of a naturalistic “god-of-the gaps” argument where chance is secretly worshipped and can be invoked to explain anything and everything.

    • toby says:

      “There are really only two options: intelligent design and unintelligent design. If the former is rejected as science it follows that the latter must also be rejected.”

      So chemistry is not alchemy so neither are science?

      “Thus the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution (a story of biological unintelligent design) is non-scientific.”

      To say that something is intelligently designed you have to demonstrate how the supernatural interacts with the natural to cause the effect of design. Hard to do because anything that happens inside this natural universe is by definition natural.

      You’re assuming purpose from outside the universe in some supernatural realm. If your side wants ID to be science they have to explain whether the designer is natural or supernatural and if the designer is supernatural how that designer interacts with the the natural universe, when this designer has interacted with the natural universe, and where this designer is acting from, and what this designer does to cause design.

      Secretly worshiping chance. Can’t help but throw in a cliche jab that scientists or atheists have religious faith huh?

  3. Art Battson says:

    Come to think of it, neo-Darwinism itself is a form of circular reasoning. It begins by limiting explanations to purely naturalistic mechanisms and ruling out any intelligent agency, invokes purely random variations to account for the arrival of the fittest, and then concludes that evolution was the result of purely random and unplanned natural processes.

    While the natural sciences are indeed limited to the study of natural phenomena, we should keep in mind that nature could not have had a natural cause. Either God has always existed or the universe has always existed … and it’s not the universe.

    And who said that major evolutionary change was purely natural anyway? We might prefer that it is, but if there isn’t a scientific test to discriminate between intelligent and unintelligent causes of the evolutionary change we’re back to reasoning in circles.

    • Stephen B says:

      Art, you don’t understand evolution. For a start, it’s not a random process.

      “Either God has always existed or the universe has always existed … and it’s not the universe.”

      False dichotomy.

      “Come to think of it, neo-Darwinism itself is a form of circular reasoning. It begins by limiting explanations to purely naturalistic mechanisms ”

      You could level this charge at the whole of science. If so, feel free to stop taking medicines, using computers, flying in planes etc.

  4. Dave K says:

    First of all, I just wanted to applaud Jonathan for an excellent call into that show. I think you conducted yourself very well, spoke “intelligently” (from what I detected) and respectfully. I almost had to laugh as the gal went out of her way at the beginning of Matt’s show to say, “Atheists should not call Theists stupid, or make the Atheist cause look bad, etc.” and then, Matt went on to get so fired up during your discussion that he did repeatedly interrupt, took fairly rude and condescending tones with you, and just had to blurt, “You’re WRONG!” and cut off the call….wow. That has been a typical situation when I have listened to Atheist Experience in the past, let’s just say I am unimpressed and underwhelmed by Matt. Chris Hitchens is quite classy (and way more witty) compared to him. A couple things that strike me in regard to the Intelligent Design (ID) discussion: when talking about the origins of this universe (the one we observe, not a “possible multiverse”), it seems that the most logical options for a first cause have generally been that the singularity for the Big Bang was somehow eternal, or there was a cause outside of space and time (God being one possibility), and that cause could have created the singularity or done things to create even as The Bible says. I rarely hear any scientists even remotely claim that the singularity was eternal, but many Atheists seem to have no problem with that. In that case, why couldn’t an intelligent power source just as easily be on the table as eternal? I understand that people may not like or want that to be a possibility, but that seems it could be just as likely or more so, than the matter and energy of the singularity being eternal and having zero intelligence or direction to create order. Obviously, our experience is that explosions or chaos NEVER create order, whereas, intelligence does create order and complexity (as Jonathan pointed out) So, why would it be illogical to say, “Chaos and explosion creating order, or even direction that leads to order, are not strong possibilities or logical hypotheses from our repeated experience” That should could for something. Where are there any examples of “nothing arranging itself into something” or even particles organizing themselves meaningfully….if we leave them long enough? I do not hear of examples like that. That talking point is just parroted or taken as a given or accepted fact by scientists and evolutionists. Okay. I’d love to hear these trends and examples of that process. Final point: when atheists say things like “ID is such a science stopper” or people would not even do experiments anymore, because God is just the answer to everything…..I just find that absurd, and frankly dubious. So, if God is a possible first cause for this universe, that would somehow lead to Christian scientists just saying they have no interest in finding out further specifics of the universe by doing very interesting experiments? And, the specific information those scientists do discover are not additional explanations? I know a fair amount of very intelligent Christian scientists who love to do scientific experiments daily and never cop out and just say “God is the answer, not these equations and this data” That science stopper narrative is a caricature and stereotype that has become very lame and used up its mileage. Good work Jonathan on your knowledge, character and example on this radio show. Bravo!

    • moose says:

      dave-i listen to the atheist experience a lot, you are complaining about matt being rude or talking over people–that may be true to a certain extent–but it goes both ways. i have heard many, many christian callers who are very rude and want to try to talk over the hosts of the show, and in some cases they have to make their pathetic threats of “hell”.

      • Dave K says:

        @ Moose….I am actually not “complaining” about Matt, I mostly expected that kind of behavior, tone and conduct from him. My hat is off to him for being quite intelligent, and he has actually researched some issues of faith (rather than attacking so many strawmen), which is more than what many atheists bother to do. I was merely pointing out that the gal at the beginning of their show was quite careful to lecture some atheist listeners/bloggers to not call theists “stupid” or simply insult them, resort to name calling (not the most impressive strategy to do that….) I applaud her for doing that! It is high time for civil discussion and addressing arguments, rather than simply attacking people or going for witty insults. It just seems that Matt prides himself on a fairly insulting, condescending and rude tone, and he has no problem with that….Fine. I am simply not impressed. I could get that on any major media or blog. I am impressed when people treat each other with some level of respect….even, when there is disagreement, or the issue is not solved. When Matt resorts to statements like, “You are WRONG!” and “This call is over (because Jonathan is just such an idiot) and ID is just so stupid for even posing a powerful/intelligent cause”, that does not strike me as civil or winsome. It smacks of Dawkins….who is insulting handicapped/challenged people lately, and even advocating killing them. I am not hip to that – at all. I enjoy Unbelievable Radio show and the way Justin Brierley conducts himself, treats guests with respect, does not talk to them in a condescending way or repeatedly interrupt them. A few atheists have whined about his show, but many folks on both side have been impressed by his balance.

  5. Rob says:

    I will have a go an answering your questions Steven.

    First, much evidence has indeed accumulated in very recent years from the fields of physics, chemistry and biology. That in itself is remarkable, especially in light of the fact that we are continually fed the conflict hypothesis by secular scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson in which science and religion are always necessarily at odds.

    But that aside, so what if evidence is now available that was not available in the past? In fact, how could it be otherwise unless all evidence was presented on a common plate at the exact same time in the past?

    There was plenty of evidence available in the past — people observed biological systems and saw design. They saw the cosmos as evidence of powerful a creator. Solomon understood the power of the reality that in the absence of God all life is ultimately meaningless, yet we naturally know and crave for meaning as if it is out there to grasp. King David wrote that he was fearfully and wonderfully made (not a blob of jello). The Kalam and variants are very old (Islamic origins). Ontological……

    What about Ebola? Perhaps it is a once-good virus that went bad (results from the fall and God’s curse from Gen 3…..?). Jonathan would be better able to answer that than myself.

  6. Jon says:

    Jonathan, props for calling an atheist show. You got 32 minutes of on-air discussion so I’m not sure if you really missed a key point in the conversation. To put that in perspective try to call evangelical show, and say you are an atheist and have some questions, you will not get through. If you get through to a Christian apologists shows they might put you to the queue and will not be polite to you. Atheist Experience priorities theists callers over atheists and let you on air with any topic.

    You keep claiming that
    “Certain observations about the world are better expected given theism than given atheism. Such observations include the discovery that the Universe has a finite space-time boundary, the finely-tuned character of the cosmos and the role of information in biological systems.”
    Can you please explain how this is the case; what is the probability of existence of creator type god(s) and the probability of them creating this kind of universe. Surely god(s) don’t need to limit universes to sets of laws or other limits..

    Can you please point to the best research being done by the intelligent design community from Biologic Institute / Discovery Institute web site, which would point to the Intelligent Designer?

    • Rob says:

      Jon, I have no idea which shows you are referring to, but that is certainly not my observation.

      In fact, shows like or will often bring atheist callers to the front of the queue or give them extra time because these Christian apologists want to understand the positions atheists hold, using their own words.

      Furthermore, if you listen to the start of Matt’s program referenced above, you will see that Matt and his co-host go out of their way to offer a soft rebuke to atheists who call Christians stupid or dumb. They are rebuking atheists that I come across all over the web….. on Richard Dawkins’ website, Facebook pages, and so on….. and so many of them are just jerks with massive personal issues and grotesque personal issues. Even in the last week I have had one young guy tell me that he will *&^% my mother.

  7. Marc says:

    It was painful listening to Jonathan on AE last week. For me the evidence would be for God to create a human being in front of me like the Christian Bible claims for our origin. It still makes no sense to me that the Christian god interacted with humans in the bible but can’t/won’t as we have become more advanced. Jonathan if anything was droning on about a deistic position but he is a Christian, right? Why not defend the from a biblical stand point?

  8. Rob says:

    Jon wrote: “Can you please point to the best research being done by the intelligent design community from Biologic Institute / Discovery Institute web site, which would point to the Intelligent Designer?”

    Jon, this is not a simple question to answer. AFAIK Ann Gauger, Rick Sternberg, and Doug Axe are doing hands-on biological research (knock out experiments). Jonathan Wells is no doubt researching and writing another science book. Bill Dembski has just released another book focussing on information theory and its applicability to Intelligent Design. Steve Meyer’s latest has been a best seller and is still running hot on Amazon. Mike Behe’s last book is a gem, arguing for an edge to evolution. But there are many other names, people doing research in labs around the world, but who have to keep their heads down under the radar for fear of losing their positions. You may have to take that claim on faith, but it is a fact.

    Anti-Intelligent Design people complain endlessly about the non-existence of ID research, but of course research is expensive, and many including myself would do it if we could get tax payer funding, But that is not going to happen under the existing Darwin-is-God paradigm.


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