The Problem with Intelligent Design

The evolution wars are about purpose in human life. But to focus on ID is to miss more interesting debates about Darwinism.

BY: William Grassie

 
Reprinted with permission of the Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science.



The English theologian William Paley wrote an influential book in 1802 entitled "Natural Theology: Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature". Paley employed the metaphor of a watch discovered on a beach. One would not know who made the watch, but one could infer that there was certainly a watchmaker. In such a way, humans studying nature could also come to understand God as its creator and designer. This metaphor of nature as watch is perhaps one of the most famous metaphors in the philosophy of science and haunts us to this day, as we see in the current debates about "equal time" for Intelligent Design Theory in the science curriculum of public schools.

Today, some read the evidence of nature and find no evidence for the existence of a Deity. Richard Dawkins, the contemporary biologist, notorious atheist, penned a book with the title "The Blind Watchmaker". He argues that "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference". In the context of the warfare between evolution and creationism in the United States, the problem is perhaps less with believers who read the Bible as a literal account of Creation and more with believers who read Richard Dawkins as a literal account of evolution.

Intelligent Design advocates argue that random genetic drift and natural selection alone cannot account for the "irreducible complexity" in certain natural phenomena. The classic example of this is the human eye, to which Charles Darwin himself called attention. How could such a complex mechanism with so many independent parts have arisen by gradual incremental changes, when the mechanism would not function without all of the parts working together? Intelligent Design advocates argue that some outside agency would be needed to "specify complexity", though they do not define who or what the "designing" agency is. This can be seen as a new version of the God-of-the-Gaps argument and suffers from all of the earlier attempts to insert God as an explanatory fix in science's progressive history of accounting for the unknown. Besides, God is either everywhere present in all processes of creation or God might as well be nowhere.

So if God is everywhere, then why is God so hard to perceive? One could imagine a God who would be more like a Chairman Mao or a Comrade Stalin. This God would have designed a universe with photographs of himself hung everywhere in nature. We would be compelled to believe in the existence of this God, because everywhere we turned with our microscopes, telescopes, and other devices, there would be both the evidence for his existence and of course also the secret police to enforce our acknowledgment. Everything in the universe would occur by divine order, micromanaged in five-year plans and designed in a command economy. We might wonder whether such a dictator God would be worthy of our admiration and love, but there would be no doubt, no uncertainty. Of course, science is yet to find an unequivocal "made by God" label attached to nature.

If the only other choice we have is the literal reading of Richard Dawkins, however, then maybe we should stop teaching evolution altogether. Mere survival and reproduction do not provide adequate purposes for human aspirations. Too much of this kind of "truth" may not be wholesome for our children or society. The core of the evolution wars is whether a scientific understanding of biology allows room for religious and philosophical commitments to purpose in human life, purposes that somehow also must connect to the unfolding history of the universe. While scientists often wax poetic about nature, evoking wonder, awe, and indeed reverence, they mostly lack philosophical and theological language to contextualize such feelings and motivations as continuous with perennial spiritual quests. The public voices of "science" are more often than not promoting atheism, confusing the boundaries between science and scientism.

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