Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Perils of intelligent design

Advocates of intelligent design, quite apart from their apparent misunderstanding of the very idea of the physical sciences, are guilty of a pragmatically dangerous theological move. I wouldn’t expect them to realize this, because for the most part, it seems that they are painfully unaware of any currents of intellectual history between the beginning of the second century AD and the rise of fundamentalism in this country in the twentieth.

However, at least as long ago as the waning days of the Renaissance (or the modern period for philosophers) believers and non-believers were extremely exercised about the problem of evil, namely how it could be that an all-good and all-powerful and all-knowing (and all-present) God could have made a world in which there was so much suffering. This, of course, was not a new problem or concern, and thinkers did have recourse to older theodicies relying on the fall of man and the entrance of sin into the world because of human (and angelic) sin.

What is interesting about what happened in this period are the moves that some thinkers were forced to make. For instance, in a move to be much ridiculed by Voltaire, Leibniz (he of the invention of the calculus and after whom those delightful cookies were named) was forced to say that this universe, with all of its suffering was the best of all possible universes. In other words, because of the need to include such things as human freedom, this world was the best that God could do. Of course, he meant by this that this was the best imaginable universe. Now this opens the floor to some interesting questions. For instance, is this universe a better one than a universe identical in all respects but in which one less person is infected with HIV? If so, why is this better? Why couldn’t have God, while maintaining human freedom, have made that universe that was just a little less bad?

This isn’t really where the problem with the intelligent design camp lives though. The real problem is the one pointed out by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, a book largely concerned with various arguments apart from revelation, for the existence of God. Through one of his characters, Hume notes that when we see a house, for instance, we know that it has had a builder. (In this he reflects the argument from design for God’s existence.) But if the doorways are out of square, if the roof leaks, if some of the doors don’t shut, if the foundations are weak, we don’t praise the builder or the architect. But this is exactly the situation with the world in which we find ourselves.

Humans have back problems because we have spines better fitted to quadrupedal than bipedal movement; viruses and bacteria continually find newer and better ways to infect and damage their intended victims including killing them; hurricanes destroy large swaths of land, killing humans and innocent animals; earthquakes and other natural disasters do the same; and on it goes. (Notice that evolutionary biology explains the first two of these and meteorology and geology/plate tectonics explain the latter, but intelligent design doesn’t explain any of it.)

In other words, if we are led by observation of nature to believe that their must be a creator and we hope to read off of nature facts about this creator, we are forced to see that the creator is either not very skilled or is less than ideally good. Either the God pointed to by nature couldn’t prevent natural evils or didn’t care to. Either He couldn’t keep the flu virus from mutating and becoming more dangerous, He didn’t care if it did, or He intended it to. The God design points to, then, is either unskilled or if skilled and intelligent, morally suspect.

Am I saying that there is no God? No. Am I saying that there might not be some responses to these roughly Humean worries? No, although most offered responses are unsatisfactory at the end of the day. What I am saying is that if advocates of intelligent design believe that they are doing religious faith a service by demanding that students be presented with questions about evolution, they are creating for themselves a group of theists who will not only believe in God for the wrong reasons, but who will have a faith easily defeated by the very same concerns, i.e., facts about nature, that gave them that faith.


Gilad said...

Hopefully the students with critical thinking skills will see through the loopholes that such a theory has, and agree that scientific theories must be sustained by being able to prove their existence and not by the inability to disprove it.
That said, and digressing a little, your description of the flu virus made me think of how homosexuality can be dealt within ID:
Maybe it is an alternative explanation to Darwinism which (I think) has never really been good at explaining homosexuality - According to evolutionary theory, the genes of individuals who don't reproduce should disappear from the gene pool, and yet gay people keep showing up through the centuries...
So perhaps some higher power designed them...intelligently (which puts a damper on the whole Dr. Laura-type argument of gays being "biological mistakes").
Also, assuming that that higher power is God, then the question is why he would create something (itelligently!) and then turn around and spend so much time condemning it? Maybe there's something more to it than meets the eye?
I also agree with your earlier post about where ID deserves to be taught, but hopefully the science teachers will find a way to convey the difficulty of that theory when subjected to the same rigorous scientific analysis as Darwinism. I believe ID does not specify who the intelligent creator is, and maybe that needs to be emphasized. Could be God. Could be aliens. Could be a tribe of Glamazon Princesses (my personal hope). Maybe Erich Von Daniken was right (life on Earth began with aliens), or maybe the classic film Alien vs. Predator has the right answers. It also discusses the origins of life on Earth and has special effects too!

Tyler said...

Because I have not seen the classic(?) film Alien vs. Predator, I cannot fully respond to your comment, Gilad. I suppose I should get down to doing some research on that.