What's Wrong and What's Right With Intelligent Design 


I had a very powerful "aha moment" one night last week, in which I believe I felt--I actually felt--the revulsion many ID opponents have toward the theory. I was reading Thomas Woodward's Darwin Strikes Back. He's certainly not to blame for any bad feelings I felt; I think it was instead a kind of gifting moment, through which I was able to take on the other side's perspective and gain new insight. 

I was reading this passage on the Cambrian Explosion, which was a period during which (according to the fossil record) many thousands of new species suddenly appeared in a short period of geological time, about 530 million years ago. Woodward writes,

"The name 'explosion' is used widely in the literature of professional paleontology in describing this dramatic fossil debut.... where we find not just gaps between slightly different forms but fossil chasms between different phyla that abruptly appear in the rocks.... The Cambrian gaps are persisting [in spite of new fossil finds]; with a defiance and stubbornness that is now legendary. What's worse, those chasms are not just enduring; they are steadily increasing in number through discoveries of new bizarre creatures... in recent decades."

ID theorists point to the Cambrian explosion as evidence that gradualistic evolution does not explain the fossil record. Now, this was not new information to me, but it somehow struck me this time just how this must appear to some people. Here we have something like 200,000 species among the fossils, most of which arrived suddenly 530 million years ago and are now gone. ID (usually) says that each one of them, or at least each group or "kind," required a special intervention to appear as a new species. What kind of an intelligence would do that? Why would this intelligence build up to these new species with a series of simpler forms, most of which are also gone now? Why would this intelligence create a dinosaur world that's now been wiped away? I believe I have a sense now (though I still don't agree, as I'll explain later) of what some people say when they consider this intelligence as some kind of fictional bumbler mucking about in the world, creating in fits and starts, not getting it right for the longest time. It's so much more pleasing--especially to our Western consciousness--to think of things coming and going through time in a natural way.

What kind of intelligence would do that? Intelligent Design theorists say they are making an inference to the best explanation: that we can draw a valid analogy from our everyday experience, which shows us that information and design always originate from intelligence, to some kind of intelligence behind the natural order. But why stop there? I wonder if it's really possible to do as ID theorists do, which is to start from the natural evidence, and reason from there to bare intelligence. I don't think it's entirely wrong--in fact, it's correct in a very powerful way. I'll come back to that in a moment. For now, though, I'm suggesting that we shouldn't stop there. Why just just reason to intelligence? Ought we not at least also reason to mystery? For if there is something analogous to human intelligence there, there is also something about it that is very hard to understand. It's a theory of Mysterious Intelligence.

Then, as we continue to puzzle over why this intelligence would develop all those thousands of creatures, there seems to be another important analogy we could safely draw. When we see new people building things being built for no apparent purpose, it's usually the result of some creative impulse. Art doesn't have to have a purpose, other than to delight the beholder. In the case of natural history, if the creative impulse is part of the explanation, it seems playful and wasteful at the same time, or profligate. This mysterious, creative intelligence has resources to spare, and no compunction about using them! It seems to be leading us to a richer theory than simple ID; it's a theory of Mysterious, Profligately Creative Intelligence.

But not just that. This intelligence seems likely not to be part of the natural world, yet it intervenes here. The world of the Cambrian explosion was stepped into frequently from outside. It's haunted by this other-worldly intelligence. Otherwise, how would these 200,000 or so new species have arisen? So we seem to be moving toward a theory of Mysterious, Profligately Creative, Highly Involved Outsider Intelligence.

Finally, we might as well recognize that just about every ID theorist speaks of purpose, and great power is assumed; so we're talking about a Purposeful, Powerful, Mysterious, Profligately Creative, Highly Involved Outsider Intelligence

This is anathema to modern man. A Purposeful, Powerful, Mysterious, Profligately Creative, Highly Involved Intelligent Outsider does not belong in our mindset. No wonder ID draws so much fire! We're all naturalists to some extent. Even we who believe in God are so highly influenced by the scientific mindset, it's hard to shake free of it for even a moment! African or Pacific Island tribes they may see spirits in every tree and rock--we see atoms and molecules and energy, and we know how they interact. We know what's really going on, and it's not spooks!

This is the problem with Intelligent Design. The opponents of ID keep pushing ID proponents to name the intelligence we're talking about. We're shy to do that from the scientific perspective, but this Mysterious Creative Outsider haunts every mention of ID. If you've been watching carefully, of course, you've noticed that if there's an objection to this kind of Intelligence, it's mostly emotional or aesthetic: we dare not countenance such a possibility because it just doesn't fit the way we have thought the world is and we don't like it. There are rational arguments along those lines too, but they're nothing new, nothing that ID hasn't already dealt with from the philosophical side of its efforts. But this exposes more clearly what ID is about. It's not about bare intelligence: it's about Purposeful, Powerful, Mysterious, Profligately Creative, Highly Involved Outsider Intelligence. From my perspective as a Christian, it's about God.

At this point I must change the subject slightly for a moment, for an aside that makes things better in some ways and worse in others. Phillip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies and History at Penn State. He says that the most under-reported, possibly the most significant social movement in the entire world in the 20th Century was the global rise of Christianity, especially south of the Equator, in Asia, and in Muslim countries. J.P. Moreland quotes credible research showing that in the last 30 years of the century, serious Christians increased by a factor of 10; and the number of Muslims coming to faith in Christ in the last few decades is greater than in all previous history combined. Much of this explosion is fueled by miracles: dreams, vision, healings and the like. These things are credibly reported in sources like the Washington Post and the Orange County Register.

It seems that the world is not so immune to intervention by an intelligent outsider as we have thought. Maybe we Westerners are wrong about some things. (And maybe, as Moreland says at the end of that talk, it's happening more in our part of the world than we've recognized.)

But the scientist says, "If God is doing this all the time, how can there be any such thing as science? If God is always intervening--interfering--how can we count on any regularity anywhere? Yet, clearly we can! So this does not add up." That question is actually not so hard. Part of God's intention in doing these things is to communicate himself to people. If he were always interfering, such that there was no such thing as a reliable natural order, there could be no communication in it. It's a signal-to-noise ratio thing. God's communication has to be different from the regularities of the world if it's to be actual communication; thus there must be regularities. Those regularities define the way we usually experience the world, and God's interventions to change that order are rare exceptions.

Aspects of God's character enter in here that I don't know how to derive as an inference from nature. Biblical believers know him as good, trustworthy, and faithful. To the extent that ID is intimating a Powerful Outsider whose goodness and faithfulness unknown, I can see how that would be just opening a conceptual door to chaos.

That, as I said, was somewhat of an aside, for I started out talking about ID from an empirical perspective, and then I looked at divine intervention from a theological perspective. The two views unite in this: the whole idea is an affront to the mindset of a universally predictable, controllable, regular, universal, natural reality. It's a terrible assault on philosophical naturalism (PN, the idea that there is no reality except matter and energy and law and chance). That's the emotional impact. The emotional effect of this does not mean it's not true.

Lurking behind ID is PPMPCHIOID: Purposeful, Powerful, Mysterious, Profligately Creative, Highly Involved Outsider Intelligent Design. Opponents accuse ID of being disingenuous when it says it makes no claims, other than intelligence, regarding the identity of the designer it seeks. But don't we all have PPMPCHIOID--or God--in mind? Isn't ID being dishonest when it denies this?

I don't think so. In fact, this apparent weakness of ID is also its strength. It offers so little about the Designer it seeks; but it does not try to offer more than its tools allow. To look for Design, signifying purposeful intelligence, is something we can do from within the empirical sciences. To look for the rest of it is beyond the reach of science.

You see, we have conceptual tools for identifying purposeful design in nature. Yes, I know this is the very point that's most in controversy. There seems to be at least one such tool that is to be universally accepted, though: Michael Behe's irreducible complexity (IC). Many scientists have taken Behe to task over this, but in very specific ways. They have said that his examples of IC are not really irreducible, or they have doubted that instances of IC in nature can really be proven. They have not (to my knowledge) ever credibly denied that IC--if reliably identified--signals the action of intelligence. So we have at least that one conceptual tool, going back all the way to Darwin himself. I believe William Dembski's complex specified information (CSI) is also a strong indicator of intelligence.

We don't have empirically-based tools in biology* for identifying and discriminating other features of the designer, like Profligate Creativity, or even being Outside the natural order. At least, we can't identify those things directly. If intelligence is identified, the philosophers can go to work and discuss whether what I have written here is true, that other characteristics inexorably accompany a finding of intelligence. So when an empirical research program says it's only trying to identify intelligence, it is being both careful and honest. (It is not thereby trying to sneak God into the public schools.) It is trying to do just what it can conceivably do through its tools.

What's both wrong and right about ID, then, is its bare minimalist claim of looking for purposeful intelligence in a designer of life. It is right in looking only for what it has the conceptual tools to potentially find. That there may be a PPMPCHIOID--an active creator God--lurking there raises all kinds of emotional reactions, which I think I understand better now. It's hard to like ID if you don't like the idea of a God being involved in the natural order.

And it's really hard to like ID if you see it as a way to sneak God back into American public education. That's the other rampant conspiracy theory surrounding ID. Plain statements of facts from ID leaders don't seem to have lessened fears of this. To repeat those plain statements: as a scientific research program, ID is a minimalist theory, seeking only to identify instances of purposeful design in nature. Its educational agenda is even more minimalist: ID leaders aren't trying to get ID taught in the public schools. (It's been said a thousand times.) We're only asking for a more complete accounting of evolution to be presented, including empirical challenges facing it. That's all. How evil is that?

Well, for those who are guided by an emotional response guiding them. It's also convenient: opponents routinely distort ID into something other than what it is; saying it's a religious and political campaign. It's a rhetorical hurdle that ID has to repeatedly clear on its path to doing actual science. But rather than focusing there, I want to give proper credence to the emotional and aesthetic challenge ID presents to people of a naturalistic mindset. As I said, I've had a taste of that feeling, and it's powerful. It doesn't determine the truth of ID, but we have to recognize it as a significant and real part of this controversy's landscape, and treat it with respect.

*William Lane Craig and others argue to other personal characteristics of the Creator in their versions of the cosmological argument for God. I think they are right to do so. That situation is entirely different, however, from the biological one, and the same arguments do not necessarily transfer over into biology. 

Posted: Mon - April 9, 2007 at 02:32 PM           |


© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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