Thursday, October 28, 2004

Intelligent Design and The Meaning of Creation and Evolution

Intelligent Design: The Meaning of Creation and Evolution

We care very much about what other people believe and what sort of communities they participate in. It matters to us somewhat whether other people believe in fairies or demons or astrology. It matters to us much more what communities they belong to and the threat posed by well-organized opposing groups. That's why most scientists and educators are only bemused and vaguely threatened by horoscopes, but deeply concerned about intelligent design.

Intelligent design is the intellectual leading edge of a broader grassroots movement opposed to modern secularism in education in science. The core argument is that what most of us think of as deity ("intelligent designer") has been arbitrarily and wrongly rejected by the traditions of science, and as a result we have been subjected to an empty materialistic science that doesn't really explain what it is widely assumed to explain: particularly the diversity of life on earth.

The issue is very heated and takes place primarily over the battleground of education. Politicians are proposing legislation which forces schools to teach that evolutionary biology is relatively discredited as science compared to other sciences, and that intelligent design is on equal scientific grounds.

It is true that many of the ID proponents avoid saying that they are talking about deity when they talk about "intelligence." They sometimes say that "intelligence" could be an advanced extraterrestrial or a process in nature of some kind. Let's be clear on one very important point. Any such intelligence that could do what the ID proponents hypothesize about (create life and worlds through an act of planning without any evident means) would be indistinguishable from what we commonly call a god (whether it is the God imagined by Jews, Christians, and Muslims or not). Just as any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, any sufficiently advanced alien creator would be indistinguishable from God. We are indeed talking about "Creator" as well as "designer" when we discuss intelligent design.

That's why the prolific ID author Phillip Johnson argues against naturalism in science, and why ID theorist William Dembski argues that his "design inference" is "a bridge between science and theology." It is also why the word Creator is capitalized in many of the intelligent design legislations that are being proposed. And of course this is one of the big reasons why many people feel so threatened about intelligent design.

We have a long tradition in U.S. politics of keeping anything that resembles anyone's religion out of public matters, in order to avoid having big religious groups dominate minority religious groups. We also have a long tradition in modern science of rejecting the idea that natural phenomena should be explained in terms of planning. This rejection of teleological thinking in science is the intellectual issue at the forefront of the ID movement. They want to reverse it, to discredit the idea that adaptation is a sufficient explanation for form and function, and have natural phenomena explained presumably in terms of processes of Creation or "design" that is explicitly planned in some sense.

It isn't clear that the two underlying stories at stake, evolution and creation, are neccessarily as incompatible as our "culture war" politics and some of our intellectual traditions have often made them. The evolutionary story is about the appearance of form and function through natural processes over time and the creation story is about the meaningful emergence of new things. Evolution can certainly produce creation, or even Creation, and many theologians argue that way. Creation could also produce evolution, as the deists and some others have sometimes argued. Creation and evolution have existed in parallel for centuries, with evolution being taught as science and creation taught as religion.

Intelligent design is notably different from these views. The people involved in ID do not want to reconcile the evolution and creation stories, they consider the evolution story something to debunk, primarily because of its rejection of the possibility of what they see as an obvious fact, the intelligent design of life's diversity.

ID is clearly not theistic evolutionism. ID is explicitly opposed to something that is central to the evolutionary story. It is most specifically opposed to materialism, the view that matter is fundamental and that life consists of properties of matter. The evolutionary story in science is naturalistic, or relies explicitly on natural processes. Since the scientific tradition considers spirit or "intelligence" in some sense a property of nature rather than an independent substance or process, it does not allow for a separate "intelligence" to have planned and carried out a plan of creation.

Of course, there are various clever ways to try to reconcile the existence of a deity with an unplanned but meaningful evolutionary process, especially if we downplay the planning aspect and focus on the emergence of novel form and function. ID is a strategy of conflict, however, not one of reconcilliation. It is part of the so-called "culture war." When William Dembski says that his concept of Design Inference "bridges science and theology" his idea is surely not to find a place for God to hide in quantum physics. His focus is to show that adaptation cannot explain the diversity of life, that we must accept in science the existence of the sort of designer that (presumably by coincidence) many people already accept in their personal beliefs.

Dembski is part of a far larger intellectual community that considers it undesireable to deliberately and systematically keep God and secular education apart. He is a leading intellectual edge of an anti-secularist movement to oppose the separation of church and state and the sanctioning of state religion.

It isn't just change in species over time, or common origins that ID proponents oppose, although they are often disposed against those things. What unites ID as an intellectual community and is implicit in their very concept of "intelligence" is the fundamental distinction we tend to make between spirit and matter. You simply cannot be an ID proponent and yet agree that spirit is just some higher level property of matter. Spirit, or "intelligence" must be prior to and separate from matter in order to believe that it can be causally responsible for planning and creating physical things.

That's why evolutionary biology is a theory of "design," yet not a theory of "intelligent design." Naturalistic evolutionary theory is an explanation of the origin of form and function, but it does not allow for any sort of planning to have taken place. Why? Because of the tradition of materialism. Intelligence, in a materialistic theory, must be a result of matter, but a cause of it. The hypothetical design process in naturalistic evolution would have to reside within nature itself as some sort of algorithm, such as the one described by Dan Dennett in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," or as a "telic process" of some sort, as in process theology.

So now it is more obvious what distinguishes intelligent design from Darwinian design, and why the issue matters to people. Darwinian design (apparently) starts with a lifeless universe of matter and tries to find some way of explaining how things that are important to us have arisen from that lifeless matter by means of algorithmic processes in nature. Intelligent design starts with spirit (the traditional theological term for "intelligence") and explains everything in terms of planned design. It's not hard to see why the ID story is compelling to those who are not heavily committed to the secular thinking traditions.

The challenge left to those of us who understand the great explanatory power and deep scientific and philosophical importance of the evolutionary story to offer an equally compelling vision. The very soul of the secular scientific tradition of the past several centuries is at stake if education is being altered at the grassroots level to discredit evolutionary biology, since it is the central explanatory schema in all of biological science. Our greatest obstacle is that the creation story is far more emotionally compelling than the evolution story during periods like this when there is great anxiety among us. Creation in religion offers a common vision of a knowing, caring God as opposed to the promise of an ever-changing world. Evolution in science offers real scientific insight into our natural origins, but always in the form of hypotheses. Fear leads us to choose certainties rather than hypotheses, to judge and act rather than to reflect and think.
What is at stake is the ability of our descendents to reflect and think and benefit from scientific insights into life.

It matters to us whether other people believe that we are not all the children of the same Creator. It should also matter to us whether we have the tools to understand the natural world. Intelligent design is a compelling story that offers us a non-secular alternative to science that is devoid of explanatory power. Knowing that there is an intelligent designer responsible for the world would not help us understand the natural world any better. Our commitment to evolutionary biology is as essential for our education as our commitment to physics, chemistry, mathematics, reading, and history.


For those in doubt that it is the redefinition of science, essentially a cultural attack on science, that is at stake, the following makes the point clear. The Michigan Bill would force educators to teach that basic facts of natural history accepted by most educated people for centures regardless of their religion are essentially "unproven," that the species do not change over time but appear out of nowhere as in the literal story of Creation in scripture. If there is any doubt of the relationship of "intelligent design" and anti-secularism, this should

While talking about "intelligent design" as a supposedly alternate scientific theory to the theories of natural selection and common origins, the various state legislations regarding the subject generally capitalize the word Creator, as in Michigan House Bill #4946 introduced by Republican Ken Bradstreet. Along with the matching Senate Bill 5005, it proposes to modify the school code (1976 PA 451), by adding section 10:

a) In the science standards, all references to "evolution" and "how species change through time" shall be modified to indicate that this is an unproven theory by adding the phrase "All students will explain the competing theories of evolution and natural selection based on random mutation and the theory that life is the result of the purposeful, intelligent design of a Creator."
(b) In the science standards for middle and high school, all references to "evolution" and "natural selection" shall be modified to indicate that these are unproven theories by adding the phrase "Describe how life may be the result of the purposeful, intelligent design of a Creator."
(c) In the science standards for middle and high school, all references to "evolution" and "natural selection" shall be modified to indicate that these are unproven theories by adding the phrase "Explain the competing theories of evolution and natural selection based on random mutation and the theory that life is the result of the purposeful, intelligent design of a Creator."

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