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Every Friday, “Science and the Sacred” features an essayfrom a guest voice in the science and religion dialogue. This week’sguest entry was written by Gordon J. Glover. Glover holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Ocean Engineering and is the author ofBeyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and Creation(Watertree Press, 2007). A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area where he works and runs the popular blog, “Beyond the Firmament”
On the surface, Intelligent Design seems to be a perfectly reasonable approach to studying complexity. In our everyday experience, there is certainly nothing controversial about attributing the purposeful arrangement of components to an intelligent agent. When observing a monument of neatly stacked stones on a remote beach, who among us would not immediately conclude that an intelligent being had purposefully arranged it? And what rational person, upon seeing an ancient megalith like Stonehenge, would erroneously conclude that the structure spontaneously organized itself slowly over time?
So what’s the big deal with drawing these same inferences when studying biological complexity? How much greater are the inner workings of a single cell than the static stones of all the ancient monuments? And there are so many perplexing details that still lack sufficient material explanation. Why not just assume that an intelligent being works outside of space and time to purposefully arrange the complex structures we find in nature? And don’t forget about the added benefit of apologetics. Not only does intelligent design theory bring closure to our scientific mysteries, but it also promotes theism in the public square without the “baggage” of organized religion. What can possibly be wrong with that?
Rather than debate the merits of this approach, let us speculate on what intelligent design theory might look like if hijacked by a different philosophical agenda and applied to a different field of science. Come to think of it, no speculation is necessary. Allow me to introduce you to the “controversial” but fascinating field of pseudo-archaeology.
Consider once again our use of Stonehenge as an example of intelligent design. But rather than satisfy ourselves with the notion that ancient Europeans constructed this amazing megalith by themselves, let’s fixate instead on the difficult questions that mainstream archaeology has failed to answer. Where did these stones come from? How were they carved without modern tools? How did primitive man haul them thousands of miles across rugged terrain and raise them up dozens of feet without cranes or hydraulics lifts? Not only does Stonehenge show evidence of intelligent design (as all man-made structures do), but it seems to demonstrate the use of technology far too advanced for the primitive culture associated with it.
Professional archaeologists are aware of these problems. In fact, all megaliths of the ancient world are plagued by perplexing anomalies – or knowledge “gaps” if you will. It’s a fascinating topic. But mainstream archaeology is content to treat these knowledge gaps in our understanding of the past as simply that, and NOT as proof that primitive man had some outside help. Besides, who or what else could possibly have intervened during the building of these ancient structures?
Oh, ye narrow-minded expert! Hath not thou considered the alien? Why bias your investigation of archaeological complexity towards earth-bound engineers?
Enter the alien enthusiasts. Not the dispassionate ones who merely concede the possibility of life outside of our solar system (a viewpoint that many scientists would share), but the hardcore fanatics. You know who I’m talking about. The ones who spend their summer vacations dressed up as aliens in Roswell, New Mexico. The true believer wants the world to acknowledge not just the probability of extra-terrestrial life, but that intelligent beings from outer space have physically visited earth and made contact with mankind. So they search out the mysteries of the ancient world looking for opportunities to preach their UFO gospel. There might not be any credible evidence of UFO visitations to planet Earth, but if there are questions that mainstream archaeology can’t sufficiently answer, you can guarantee that alien believers will plug E.T. into these gaps. Does this strategy sound familiar?
Most professional archaeologists understand that no matter how tempting (or fascinating) it might be to speculate about ancient astronauts visiting primitive man, Ancient Astronaut Theory is simply not responsible science. This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s fundamentally wrong. Heck, I found myself wanting to believe after seeing it featured on the History Channel this summer. But the fact that this is not responsible science does disqualify the theory from being presented in the science classroom alongside standard archaeology – at least until a better argument can be made. In other words, as cool as alien intervention sounds on the surface, there is no “controversy” to teach. And fortunately for our public schools, alien enthusiasts do not yet have a powerful lobby trying to manufacture one. Yes, there are many unanswered questions. But not being able to explain exactly how primitive man built these great megaliths is NOT evidence that aliens intervened in human history. All it means is that our understanding of these ancient civilizations is still immature, and we have a lot more to learn.
I know this rigid skepticism produces no exiting conclusions, but that’s just all there is to it. We don’t have to grant UFOlogists the “academic freedom” to discuss the “strengths and weaknesses” of mainstream archaeology in the classroom. Nor do we allow pro-alien teachers to preach their UFO gospel to our children under the guise of science.
Many Evangelicals will quickly respond to this argument with, “Yes, of course aliens are not real, but God is real and he created all things.” Indeed He did. So the analogy is not perfect. While the jury is still out for me personally on extra terrestrials, I whole-heartedly agree that God exists, that He created the universe from nothing, and that He sustains its existence moment by moment. What I disagree with, however, is that plugging the Creator into our biological knowledge gaps constitutes responsible science. And if we open the classroom door to intelligent design, what’s to stop alien intervention from walking through it?