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Unintelligent Intelligent Design

President Bush’s remark the other day that the theory of ‘intelligent design’ should be taught alongside the theory of evolution brought howls of derision from his detractors in Europe and the United States. It was, they said, one more piece of evidence that America is populated by fundamentalist zombies who are potentially as dangerous as bin Laden’s boys. Intelligent design, it goes without saying, is a boneheaded piece of pseudo-science, almost as simplistic as the naive materialism that Darwinists teach. But neither side of the argument cares about logic, much less truth. The important thing is to declare which side you are on: religious fanaticism or cosmopolitan anti-religious fanaticism. ~Thomas Fleming, The Spectator (registration required)

As near as I have been able to discern, the idea of intelligent design is a half-hearted attempt to oppose materialist evolutionists' claim that life develops randomly. The notion, which I imagine is less scientific and more popular, that life evolves by a sort of 'trial and error' also offends ID folks, as this does not seem to account for the complexity of biological structures. The eye is a favourite example of a structure too complex to have developed by random mutation. It is this randomness, and the lack of purpose implied in that, that seems to motivate people to espouse ID and claim that it is science. I can understand the impatience biologists might be having with this claim, which does not purport to say anything new about evolution except that it is not random (ultimately as speculative as saying that it is random until demonstrated) and must be able to take account of the complex structures in nature. ID does not help the theory of evolution take account of this complexity--it just says that there is complexity and biologists ought to acknowledge that (incidentally, I think they already have). What ID will never be, in spite of what I imagine some religious people hope that it will be, is some way to discredit biological evolution as a concept, since ID is little else than the acceptance of the theory of evolution with some philosophical icing on top.

These debates are not fundamentally about biological or physical theories, which is what they would have to be for them to be scientific debates--they are about the philosophical significance materialists and anti-materialists attach to empirical observations. Many people are offended by evolutionists because they insist that the theory of evolution somehow demonstrates that man is simply material, mutable and therefore possesses both no inherent nature and no particular purpose; some other evolutionists would tell us that it shows we are not created beings. But the theory does not even purport to claim this, because these are claims that are no more scientifically verifiable than ID claims about the Designer; obviously, natural sciences cannot answer metaphysical questions. Theories of evolution need not trump any claims about human dignity or the createdness of man and the universe, because they can no more demonstrate for or against these things than ID supporters can actually 'prove' God's existence (scientific proof of such a thing not necessarily being desirable in the first place), unless we make the mistake of allowing philosophical materialist claims about biological development to define our understanding of evolution. Were we all better educated, we would see the problem with calling this science immediately and ID would cease to exist as a "movement" and return to what it is: a commonplace in patristic thought that is fundamentally a philosophical claim that the universe is well-ordered (an idea reflected in our word cosmos).

The Fathers' writings are littered with arguments about the order and unity of the natural world as a mark of its creation by the One God and, thus, a sort of 'proof' that God exists and is one (some later theologians attempted to likewise perceive Trinitarian 'traces' in the natural and human worlds, which was perhaps a bit too ingenious by half), and it is obvious that they believe that the world has been crafted by a Mind with a specific purpose (i.e., to bring all things into communion with God). But there is a difference between endorsing what the Fathers wrote when they were making observations about human physiology and relating them to the doctrine of the soul and saying that what the Fathers wrote is an example of hard science. We would not soon expect to see anyone insisting that biology classes teach St. Gregory of Nyssa's ideas on the relationship between the body's organs and the soul, because the appropriate place for that would be in a theology class (perhaps what ID activists might do is seek to have schools provide some proper education in theology and philosophy, which is what they are really arguing about, rather than insist on pushing this idea on science classes).

Another side of ID is its cosmological claim of the intelligent design of the universe. That is to say, they might be perfectly willing to accept the 'Big Bang', but simply posit that an Agent caused it, which is again a basic logical claim about causality (all effects must have some first Cause to avoid infinite regression) and not a scientific observation, and that the Agent also directed how the 'Bang' turned out because, if the Agent had not, things would be different than they are in a most unfortunate way for us (e.g., we would not be here, because the Earth might have 'randomly' formed too close to or too far from the Sun, making the planet uninhabitable). The anthropic principle has a certain ring to it, until one realises that it is simply a bit of a rhetorical game: Earth is habitable, if might not be if things were different, ergo because things are not different and we are able to live here, it must be because Someone wanted us to be here. That is again a theological conclusion, not a scientific hypothesis.

Perhaps if physicists engaged in less rhetoric about understanding life, the universe and everything fewer people would be confused into thinking that physics, or any other kind of science, can provide the answers to the serious things of life. Science measures, describes and records the workings of nature--it does not tell us anything about the meaning of those workings. ID is the misguided effort of trying to find meaning in natural processes, which makes it a sort of recycled Pythagorean sect.

The only thing that can be proved about the claim is whether or not there is a tendency towards order and patterns in nature, and this is nothing other than what scientists have been studying for centuries. If biologists tend to see less order, and physicists more, this may account for the anecdotal account I have heard that states that there are proportionally more physicists who believe in the existence of God than biologists, but the reality that scientists can reliably understand and predict patterns in nature already concedes as much to the ID position as hard science will or should ever concede.

It is interesting to note that the position of Earth in the solar system is such that its location any closer to or farther from the Sun would make human life either exceedingly difficult or essentially impossible, and we may believe that God has arranged is thus in His Providence, but what we cannot reasonably say is that "the anthropic principle" helps us better understand the formation of the solar system and the planets as a matter of scientific inquiry. That is what it would have to be able to do for ID to be anything other than a philosophical claim. ID is the recycling of ancient patristic wisdom (in the sense that God has arranged all things to suit us, the summit of His creation) by people who are perhaps too embarrassed to advocate specifically theological positions in public. They know that theological claims are not likely to gain them much attention, and so if these claims are dressed up as scientific theory they will possess a credibility in our secular culture that theology simply does not have. It our society's loss if it is indifferent to our theological inheritance, but we cannot make good that deficit by foisting watered-down, concealed patristics on unwitting biology students.

Daniel Larison | August 27, 2005


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