Ecker's Little Acre

Reflections on Life and Other Stuff

by Ronald L. Ecker

Intelligent Design


Is Mother Nature Built?

A term that has been in fashion among creationists in recent years is "intelligent design" (ID). This is not a concept they've invented, of course. It's an old philosophical notion they have had to retreat to, though they would have us think it's actually a forward charge. This forward retreat is the result of the courts having ruled that creationism as traditionally espoused (that is, the biblical book of Genesis barely disguised) is a religious belief, and thus something that is not to be taught as science in public schools. A late 2005 court decision in Pennsylvania, Kitzmiller v. Dover, found that ID itself has a religious purpose and is thus unconstitutional. But the ruling, though a precedent, technically applies only to the case of the Dover school district. ID proponents elsewhere will still be claiming to present design or order in nature as representative of intelligent causation, independent of any biblical references or talk of God the Creator. They want to introduce ID into public school science classes through what they call the "teaching the controversy" approach. Tell science students that evolution is a "controversial" theory (meaning controversial to creationists), which leaves open the possibility of alternative theories. Such as? Intelligent design!

This "new creationism" has been undeterred by the fact that the so-called argument from design, an argument for the existence of God that has been around for centuries, was supposedly refuted by the British philosopher David Hume over two hundred years ago. Hume argued that it is a weak analogy to compare things we know to have been designed by man, like a watch or a house, with the universe, since man has never built a universe, nor even watched one being built. (To quote the biblical God, "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" [Job 38:4].) But design nevertheless remains an intuitively powerful argument to the man in the street, who senses design, for example, in an organ like the eye, or simply in a tree that stands by the street, particularly if the man runs into the tree and, say, blackens his eye or, worse yet, fractures his skull. That tree seems definitely a structure, even if man didn't build it.

Intelligent design might strike one, then, as a solid argument for creation. The devil, though, is in the details. If the eye, for example, is so marvelously designed (instead of having evolved by natural selection from a simpler organ, and that from a simpler organ still, till back to light-sensitive cells), why are the retina's photoreceptor cells in vertebrate eyes wired in backwards? If legs were designed, why do amphibians have such clumsy ones, as though they were actually adaptations, evolved from something else (namely fins)? To say that some organ was designed, incidentally, is to say nothing of scientific value. ("The eye was designed." Okay, now test that "hypothesis." Support it, falsify it. Do science.)

It should also be noted that the theory of evolution is not a theory about how life began. It is a theory about how life has changed over time. One is free to believe that the first living organism was intelligently designed. I'm a Christian myself and believe in creation. The point is, such belief is not science, and should not be taught as if it were. Science confines itself to natural phenomena, and though origins research is ongoing, science may never be able to tell us how life first arose. There is, to begin with, a distance between the researcher and the event under study of about four billion years.

It is significant that the leading light of the ID movement is not a scientist but a law professor, one Phillip Johnson, who writes books with titles like Darwin on Trial and Defeating Darwinism. Nothing personal against Johnson (I've never met him), but when I want a lawyer I'll hire one. The most notable ID promoters with scientific credentials are Michael Behe, a Catholic biochemist, and William Dembski, a Protestant mathematician, who find "irreducible complexity" (Behe's term) in biological systems. The zoologist Richard Dawkins thinks Behe (and I suppose Dembski too) should stop "being lazy" and try to find out how such complexity evolved.

An obvious assumption of the ID movement, as of the old argument from design itself, is that natural order, or irreducible complexity, or whatever you want to call it, is good, that ultimately God--oops, I mean some higher intelligence--saw fit to put it there. But I wonder what judgments we can really make about order in nature. What if such order (assuming it was actually designed, as opposed to, well, just being there) is actually bad?

Take the above-mentioned tree. It is ordered botanical matter. But is that good, bad, or just an indifferent fact? A tree is lovelier than a billboard, as some poet noted, but so what? Creation in Genesis is portrayed as God bringing order out of chaos. Was that a good thing? Does not the very word "order," whether used as a noun or a verb, have bad connotations? Everyone resents being ordered to do something. (Though it can be used as a despicable excuse: "I was only following orders.") One of the worst things you can tell a child is to get his or her room in order. The child prefers chaos. Or try telling your spouse to get the damn house in order. Or how about having to get up in the morning with the depressing thought that you have to get your affairs in order, whatever they may be?

Politically, total anarchy is the height of individual freedom, whereas political order tends to spawn tyranny faster than you can say "Niccolo Machiavelli."

The bad thing about trying to acquire something that you want, like a book or a CD or a plate of food, is having to order it--then hoping it gets delivered, by the U.S. mail, UPS, or a waiter, in orderly fashion. And you might not even get what you ordered.

But surely I jest, right? Surely I can't be against order (or, in principle, the giving or taking of orders). Well, no, I'm not. I go to my doctor every year to make sure things are in order. If something is out of order, the doctor kindly orders a prescription. But order unquestionably has its dark side. ID folks like to talk about the anthropic principle, according to which all conditions in the universe just happen to be right for us to be able to exist. Some intelligence, they conclude, must have planned it that way. Never mind that those same conditions are also just right for orderly systems like hurricanes and tornadoes. We can be existentially enjoying nice disorderly weather, a chaos of sunshine and rain, when suddenly here comes a funnel-shaped cloud. And hurricane season (from June through November) blows in right on schedule each year.

This is all part of a plan? What if order in nature is just something called physical laws? You may ask then, "Who put the laws there?" Well, one can say "God, or an intelligent designer, designed them" (for better or worse). That raises the question, of course, of who designed the designer. The old "infinite regression" dilemma. Why, in the final analysis, is there something instead of nothing?

To an extent I am playing devil's advocate, since I have said that I am a Christian who believes in both creation and evolution. But my belief in creation doesn't mean that I understand why the order in nature should be both good and bad, or to put it more familiarly, why God allows evil to exist.

Through it all, though, one thing remains truly remarkable. Whether one is religious or not, whether the laws of nature were somehow designed or are simply there, it is by those laws that life not only evolved, but produced a species with the marvelous capacity to ponder such questions.

"Teaching the controversy?" There isn't any, in biological science, with regard to evolution happening. Teaching the wonder of the natural world? That's what science class should be all about.

Chinese Bible illustration

Copyright 1999, 2006 by Ronald L. Ecker

For other articles, see Ecker's Little Archive.

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