Here is an old Powerblogs post from some years ago. Still seems right to me. A student in the area wants to discuss Dawkins and his New Atheist gang with me. So I'm digging up and reviewing all my old Dawkins materials. The New Atheism is already old hat. A movement for cyberpunks and know-nothings. The old atheism of J. L. Mackie et al. is respectable and I respect it.
Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have a piece in The Guardian entitled One Side Can Be Wrong. I will quote a bit of it and try to determine what exactly the argument is, and whether it is cogent and tells against Intelligent Design. The link in the text is my interpolation.
Similarly, the claim that something - say the bacterial flagellum - is too complex to have evolved by natural selection is alleged, by a lamentably common but false syllogism, to support the "rival" intelligent design theory by default. This kind of default reasoning leaves completely open the possibility that, if the bacterial flagellum is too complex to have evolved, it might also be too complex to have been created. And indeed, a moment's thought shows that any God capable of creating a bacterial flagellum (to say nothing of a universe) would have to be a far more complex, and therefore statistically improbable, entity than the bacterial flagellum (or universe) itself - even more in need of an explanation than the object he is alleged to have created.
Observe first of all that there is a difference between what Dawkins and Coyne impute to the proponent of ID, namely, "the bacterial flagellum is too complex to have evolved" and what they should have imputed to him, namely, "the bacterial flagellum is too complex to have evolved by natural selection." The proponent of ID, as I understand the position, need not deny evolution construed as the fact of common descent with later forms of life arising from earlier ones by numerous successive and slight modifications. What the proponent of ID questions is the mechanism of this descent, namely, natural selection. The question is whether there are forms of organizational complexity that cannot be accounted for by natural selection.
Once this is appreciated, it is easy to see that if something is too complex to have evolved in one way, by natural selection, it does not follow that it is too complex to have evolved in another way, i.e., by being created by an intelligent designer.
Dawkins and Coyne, however, think that ID is involved in an error of reasoning. What the proponents of ID are doing is giving a circular explanation. To be explained is a complex entity, the bacterial flagellum say. But the entity invoked in the explanation is itself a complex entity. So complexity is being explained in terms of complexity -- which is circular. Thus they write,
If complex organisms demand an explanation, so does a complex designer. [. . .] the "default" logic of the creationists remains thoroughly rotten.
But this shows a complete misunderstanding of what the proponent of ID is doing. It would be circular to try to explain complexity in terms of complexity. But it is not circular to explain one form of complexity in terms of another. The complexity that needs to be explained is the complexity that seems to have been designed. To invoke a crude analogy, it is not the complexity of a pile of rocks that needs personal explanation, but the complexity of a cairn, a pile of rocks whose assembly shows that they mark the trail. Now I cannot account for a pile of rock's being a cairn by invoking natural processes; I need to invoke an intelligent designer, a person such as a trail-blazer or trail-maintainer. Of course, this person is even more complex than his product. But there is no circularity since material complexity is not being explained by material complexity but by the thoughts, intentions and actions of a person. Material complexity is being explained by personal complexity. Hence there is no circularity in the explanation.
It is also worth pointing out that if A explains B, the explanation can be good even if A remains unexplained. Why so many wildfires this year? Because of a profusion of brush which in turn was caused by unusual spring rainfall. If this is a good explanation, its goodness does not require an explanation of why there was an unusual amount of rainfall.
So as far as I can see the proponent of ID is not committing any logical error. Dawkins is simply mistaken to accuse the IDist of "thoroughly rotten" logic. Of course, the IDist is violating a rule of natural science, namely the rule that everything be accounted for naturalistically, i.e., in terms of the space-time system and the laws that govern it. Thus living processes must be explained using the same laws as govern nonliving processes. One is no longer playing the scientific game if one invokes irreducible mentality or irreducible vitality.
But to violate the rule I just mentioned is not to violate any logical rule.
And it's no solution to raise the theologian's plea that God (or the Intelligent Designer) is simply immune to the normal demands of scientific explanation. To do so would be to shoot yourself in the foot. You cannot have it both ways. Either ID belongs in the science classroom, in which case it must submit to the discipline required of a scientific hypothesis. Or it does not, in which case get it out of the science classroom and send it back into the church, where it belongs.
If natural science must play by the rule mentioned above to be natural science, then ID is not natural science. To invoke an irreducibly intelligent designer (whether or not identical to God as traditionally conceived) is to invoke something that is not a mere part of the space-time system. But it is equally true that naturalistic evolutionary biology is not strictly science either since it rests on philosophical assumptions that cannot be justified scientifically. Naturalism, the thesis that nothing (or perhaps nothing concrete) exists apart from the space-time system is a philosophical thesis. Cognate doctrines such as physicalism and scientism are also philosophical, not scientific doctrines strictly speaking. So I conclude as follows:
If ID should be removed from the science classroom and relocated in church, then Dawkins' evolutionary biology should also be removed from the science classroom and relocated in the philosophy lecture hall. For neither is science strictly speaking. But before Dawkins is allowed in the philosophy lecture hall he must take some logic courses. (You will have noticed above how refers to a syllogism as false -- that is logically inept.)