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Apr 18 2006

Dover’s dominos-1: Why Intelligent Design Creationism will lose

The Scottish poet Robert Burns in his poem To a Mouse cautioned those who place too much faith in detailed plans for the future. He said:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, 

Gang aft agley.

When historians of the future write about the demise of Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC), they will likely point to the Dover, PA court decision as when the carefully thought-out plans and strategy of the IDC movement ganged agley in a big way.

If you recall, US District Judge John E. Jones III ruled on December 20, 2005 (Kitzmiller v. Dover) that the then Dover school board had acted unconstitutionally in its attempts to undermine the credibility of evolutionary theory in its biology class and in its attempt to promote IDC as a viable alternative. (See here for a previous posting giving the background to this topic.)

That case raised many fascinating issues and the final ruling clarified and put in perspective many of the issues clouding the role of intelligent design, science, religion, schools, and the US constitution. This series of posts that begins today will analyze that decision and the ripples it has caused throughout the country. I had been meaning to analyze the decision and its broader implications in depth for some time but kept getting deferred by other issues.

I should emphasize that what I think will disappear is the pretense that IDC is a scientific theory, to be treated on a par with natural selection. The underlying idea behind IDC (that god intervenes somehow in the world) will remain because that is an important component of any god-based religious system and has been around for a long time.

From time immemorial, people have invoked god to explain the things that seemed inexplicable. The advancement of science has merely resulted in the items in the list of inexplicable things changing with time, while the fundamental idea behind it has not changed. One can understand the seemingly unshakeable appeal of this idea for most religious believers. What would be the point of believing in a god who either could not or did not intervene in the workings of the world? The fact that such interventions cannot be demonstrated conclusively will not dissuade devout religious believers from their beliefs.

The formulation of what is now called intelligent design goes at least as far back as Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Theologian John Haught’s testimony (Kitzmiller, p. 24) described Aquinas’ views thusly:

Wherever complex design exists, there must be a designer; nature is complex; therefore nature must have had an intelligent designer. Aquinas was explicit that this intelligent designer “everyone understands to be God.”

Christian theologian and apologist William Paley elaborated on this in 1802 in his book Natural Theology when he illustrated the inference of design by god by the example of finding a watch in a field:

[W]hen we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose…the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker.

Paley continues that since nature is far more complex than watches, “The marks of design are too strong to be got over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD.”

IDC theorist William Dembski’s 2003 formulation of intelligent design follows this trend, with the example of the watch being updated to Mount Rushmore.

[W]hat about [Mount Rushmore] would provide convincing circumstantial evidence that it was due to a designing intelligence and not merely to wind and erosion? Designed objects like Mount Rushmore exhibit characteristic features or patterns that point to an intelligence. Such features or patterns constitute signs of intelligence. (emphasis in original)

(I have already written about the fallacy that lies behind this argument and will not repeat it here.)

This whole line of reasoning was based on the premise that the existence of seemingly designed objects or smart animals and people necessarily required an even smarter designer. That kind of regressive argument inevitably led you to believe in something like a god.

Darwin’s theory was a direct challenge to this idea because it showed us how it could be possible that life can bootstrap itself from primitive forms to increasingly complex and sophisticated ones. It reveals how you can have the appearance of design without any need for an actual designer. Thus the most intuitive argument for the existence of a higher being has been removed.

People like Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and Richard Dawkins have relentlessly driven home the point that evolutionary theory has made belief in a god fundamentally unnecessary. As Dawkins says in his book The Blind Watchmaker (p. 6):

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

I have written before of the story of the scientist-mathematician Laplace and his book called the System of the World. Napoleon is said to have noted that god did not appear in it, to which Laplace is supposed to have replied that “I have no need for that hypothesis.” Given the state of science at that time, Laplace might have felt fully justified in saying so about the inanimate physical world but he would have been hard pressed to justify his claim for living things. Darwin was the one who later closed that gap.

Much of the religious opposition to Darwin’s theory has been based on the claim that it promotes atheism. This is not quite correct. There are, after all, many religious biologists. What Darwin’s theory does is remove whatever remaining necessity people might have felt for a god hypothesis, leaving it up to the individual to decide whether to believe in a god or not. Clearly, this removal of a major argument for the existence of god is likely to result in greater atheism, but the goal of those who teach evolutionary theory is not to promote atheism. It is to teach the best science.

Another reason that I think IDC ideas will fade away is that the five examples of ‘irreducible complexity’ that IDC advocates promote as giving proof of god’s existence (because it is asserted that they cannot be explained by evolutionary processes) will eventually get chipped away and be explained by evolutionary theory. These five items are identified by IDC biochemist Michael Behe in his book Darwin’s Black Box as the bacterial flagella and cilia, blood clotting mechanism, protein transport within a cell, evolution of the immune system, and metabolic pathways.

The process of explaining their creation using natural selection is already well underway with two of the five examples, blood clotting and the bacterial flagella.

The reason that I am confident that all these items will eventually be explained by science is based on the history of science. A similar process has happened with past seemingly inexplicable examples in nature (the stability of the solar system, the human eye, etc.) that have subsequently been explained away. To be sure, one can always come up with new unexplained phenomena since no scientific theory ever explains everything, but once you start shifting your target, your case for god becomes progressively less persuasive.

This is why most sophisticated theologians warn against believing in such a ‘god of the gaps.’ They argue that doing so results in the maneuvering space for god’s actions becoming steadily smaller. It also seems a bit strange that god would choose to act only in such esoteric situations.

Next in this series: The Dover school board inadvertently wrecks the IDC strategy.

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