The Intelligent Design Bridge: A Fault Analysis

The Intelligent Design Bridge: A Fault Analysis

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“It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane…”

          — Richard Dawkins


“We’re leaving the fortress and heading behind the lines to blow up the other side’s headquarters, its ammunition store.”

          — Philip E. Johnson

 In the science-religion discourse of recent years, there has been no shortage of hot words and hard feelings.  The brawl has once again spilled out into the arena of American public policy, with alarming consequences for those concerned with the integrity of education and research.

Each side, to be sure, feels threatened by the other.  The science community fears that religious activists will use the political system to further distort science education and limit scientific research.  To date, the religious right has forced a watering down of the educational definition of evolution, prodded several states to pass “disclaimer” laws for use on biology textbooks, and won religiously inspired limits on genetic research.

Many in religious communities fear that science will undermine not only their faith but also the social and moral order of society.  The more extreme among them associate evolutionary theory with ‘ungodly’ developments ranging from gay liberation to genocide.

Writing in the Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, “creation scientist” Jerry Bergman claims, “Of the many factors that produced the Nazi holocaust and World War II, one of the most important wasDarwin’s notion that evolutionary progress occurs mainly as a result of the elimination of the weak in the struggle for survival.”

Where some see scientific advances in biotechnology, others see violations of the sanctity of human life. Advanced Cell Technology’s feeble achievement of creating a six-cell protoembryo launched a tidal wave of protest from the President on down.

“Human reproduction is now in the hands of men, when it rightfully belongs in the hands of God,” Raymond Flynn, president of the National Catholic Allianceand a former USambassador to the Vatican, roared.

Naturally, many with enthusiasms for both science and religion – the vast majority of the American public – want to patch up the quarrel.  One way of doing this is to react like an angry parent and send them both to their rooms.  This, in effect, is what paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould has done in declaring that science and religion occupy “non-overlapping magesteria” (NOMA for short).

Another approach is to try to build bridges between the two.  Dr. Louis Martin, whose writings in these same pages prompted this article, is one of many attempting that feat of intellectual engineering.

In this essay, I will try to show why neither attempts to construct separate domains for science and religion nor efforts to build bridges between them are likely to hold up.  Lest that sound too disheartening, let me assure the reader that I will conclude with a hopeful alternative.

Gould’s conception of NOMA has been roundly criticized by many, including Martin himself.  The chief flaw is that, however much Gould might otherwise wish, science and most religions make inconsistent claims about the material universe, or, in Martin’s handsome phrase, about “clouds and clods.”  A further problem is Gould’s arbitrary assignment of all value questions to religion.  This not only brushes aside secular ethics, it ignores the influence of scientific discovery on values.  How exactly does Scripture address the question of whether or not to screen a young woman for breast cancer genes?  How does the invention of anti-psychotic drugs affect the personal responsibility of the mentally ill?  I think we may safely say no mo’ to NOMA.

Another “separate domains” approach, espoused by the Pope and microbiologist Kenneth Miller, among others, is to accept science as an accurate description of everything that happens except the miraculous interventions of God.  Miller believes these include the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, ensoulment, and assorted wonders in the daily lives of contemporary believers.

“Miracles, by definition, do not have to make scientific sense,” Miller writes in his book, Finding Darwin’s God.

The trouble here is that we have no basis to distinguish a miracle.  How does Miller know whether the result of any of his experiments is natural or miraculous?  It’s no good saying that we recognize the natural when we see it.  Was quantum mechanics a miracle?  If we already knew for certain what to expect, there would be no need to do experiments.  Science, in short, cannot function properly in a world where God may at any moment tamper with the results.

So how can we reconcile science with religion?  For many people, the answer seems to be “intelligent design” theory.  Martin falls into this category.

“The clearest bridge between religion and science is the intelligent order we find in the external world,” he writes.  Consciously or not, Martin echoes Intelligent Design guru William Dembski, whose recent book is titled, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology.

Martin appears to refer only to the discovery that life hangs by a skein of slender threads.  But he then makes the leap to the strong version of what’s known as the anthropic principle.

“We get to the edges of empiricism” he declares, “and there is still more beyond.  That beyond is God.”

In saying this, he is not alone.  Without question, the Intelligent Design movement is loud, proud, and drawing crowds.  It even has a few credentialed scientists at its core.  The trouble is, proponents don’t seem to realize they are hastily and shoddily building a bridge to nowhere.  The sojourner must in the end make a leap of faith or turn back.

I will briefly summarize the leading ID claims and responses of critics before demonstrating this point.

* Dembski — The Design Inference.  Anything that cannot be attributed to regularity (a consequence of natural laws), or to chance (a reasonably probable event), must be the result of design.  The only kind of design we know is intelligent design.  Life is neither a regularity of nature nor a reasonably probable event, therefore it must have been intelligently designed.  There are several technical objections to Dembski’s work, but the chief one is that he denies the possibility that regularity and chance can work in concert to produce novelty.  Just such a combination of random genetic variation and natural selection may be observed as bacteria develop seemingly ingenious mechanisms of resistance to antibiotics.

* Michael Behe — Irreducible Complexity.  Complex molecular structures at the cellular level cannot function if any component is removed.  This claim, if validated, would purportedly show that intelligent design, not evolution, must have shaped life into its many forms.  Critics, including Miller, cited above, have shown that Behe is wrong, empirically in his examples and theoretically in his objection.  Evolution doesn’t set out to build a mousetrap, as Behe metaphorically claims.  It builds one thing, converts it to another function, adds on multiple uses, and eventually, if catching mice promotes survival, makes a cat.

* Brandon Carter — Strong Anthropic Principle, or SAP.  The constants of the universe are fine-tuned to support life, therefore they must have been designed to give rise to life.  Numerous other cosmologists, including Frank Tipler, Martin Rees, and Paul Davies, have adopted variants of this position.  Critics say only the weak version is justifiable: we find the universe fine-tuned to life because if it were not we wouldn’t be here to observe it.

Martin wisely associates himself with SAP; it’s the only ID claim that has not been invalidated.  So, does the bridge hold up after all?  Alas, no.

Recall that this is supposed to be a bridge from science to religion.  Which religion, exactly? Or any religion?  The choice is not merely among the many thousands of gods proposed by man, or even some god as yet unacknowledged, but encompasses natural possibilities as well.  If we take the ID hypothesis seriously, we must apply rational principles of deduction to the imputed designer’s work with an open mind.  Chief among these principles is parsimony.  Rational parsimony compels us to adopt the simplest explanation that best explains our observations.  Thus, when it comes to explaining lightning, we accept electrostatic discharge theory over the more colorful story of Zeus hurling bolts.

As it happens, nearly all the ID proponents are Christians.  Sadly for them, the bridge docks much closer to Mt. Olympus than to the Pearly Gates.  Along with order in the universe, we also find a great deal of Greco-Roman chaos, conflict and whimsy.  It is simply absurd to think of an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God creating life on Earth and then periodically hurling comets at his favorite creation.  Zeus, on the other hand …

But before reconsecrating the Pantheon, we must first try to falsify this hypothesis: our universe was purpose-built by an intelligent, technologically superior civilization.  After all, if we humans are the only known intelligent designers, the simplest explanation for Life, the Universe and Everything must be something like us, only more so.

Now, what would falsify this?  Well, perfection is an attribute of God, not of us.  We would not expect even a “new improved” version of civilization to be flawless.  So, if we find the universe to be perfect, we should perhaps discard the “intelligent civilization,” or IC, conjecture.  But wait!  It turns out the universe is far from perfect.

Start with scale: if meant for life, the Universe is too big.  Ridiculously big.  There are, besides the Earth, eight other useless planets in our solar system, dozens of moons, and millions of comets.  This alone looks like extravagance.  But our sun is one of at least 100 billion spare stars in the galaxy.  From the purpose-built perspective, this seems bizarre.  Then we find that there are at least 100 billion more galaxies in the universe.  And to crown the absurdity, we find that all those billions and billions of stars are just a small portion of the matter in the universe.  The bulk of it is dark stuff we can’t even see.

Let us shrug off the cosmos and look at life.  Is it perfect?  It is very, very good, to be sure, but examined in detail it has many flaws and useless redundancies.  The human back, with its vestigial tailbone and its tendency to ache, is one of countless examples.  It also has inexplicable evils, from the Ebola virus to earthquakes.  No good deity can be saddled with all this, unless we resort to the old “God moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform” dodge.  But by then, we’re off the rational playing field entirely.  No, if we must choose rationally among ID hypotheses about the universe, we are forced to conclude it’s the work of a committee.

Religion has many meanings, and far be it from me to deny anyone the right to worship a remote and alien civilization.  But I think it’s fair to say that none of the current proponents of ID would be satisfied with this conclusion.  And, since an alternative conjecture –the many universes hypothesis — explains the same set of observations even more economically, I agree.  IC, like ID, is unsatisfactory.  The bridge is not only badly built, it’s so icy that a wandering pilgrim may slip off the end into the foggy void.

Can there be no reconciliation between science and religious faith?  I think there can, but it will be an unequal compromise.

I have so far ignored deism, pantheism and the like.  In these, God becomes either a remote Creator outside spacetime, or an abstract omnipresence.  Such Enlightenment embers do not present obvious inconsistencies with science.  But they share one problem with NOMA: very few people accept an impersonal theology.  So let us press on.

If science finds no evidence of God in our present universe, if rational deduction leaves no room for God in our origins, and if we find an impersonal God outside spacetime unpalatable, where can we possibly place the deity?  The answer must be: in the future.

Science has no power to rule out a divine appearance a day, a decade or a billion years from now.  This could come about through the proverbial parting of the clouds, or, as I think more likely, through the evolution of intelligent life into something worthy of the name God — a single, vast, natural entity capable of altering the fate of the universe in favor of life.  Such a being – potentially, our descendent – has been contemplated by, among others, physicists Freeman Dyson and Frank Tipler.  This does not, of course, compel anyone to believe in the ascension of a future god.  But it does allow us to gaze ahead at a meaningful, concrete, and science-compatible vision of God.  The candle of rational hope glows on.