April 5, 2004
Piling On Intelligent Design
Everywhere I click
in the last few weeks, folk are talking about Intelligent Design theories and
working themselves into a mighty froth over the theories and the tactics of
those who advance them.
Rather than joining
the pile-on right awaythough as youll see, Ill get around
to it eventuallyI thought it might be worth taking a deep breath beforehand,
partially because it doesnt seem to me absolutely intrinsically impossible
that one could find evidence of intelligent design in the universe. I suppose
thats what I now class myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist. I
see no reason at all to think that such a designer exists, but Im an open-minded
So perhaps the
first reaction one should have to intelligent design theories is to specify
in advance what real, meaningful evidence could reasonably occasion a scientifically-sound
hypothesis in favor of an intelligent designer. There are lots of personalized
ways ID could be confirmed. Dying and finding oneself in an afterlife where
a Supreme Being personally affirmed that he was in fact the designer of the
universe would be one such source of evidence. A bit hard to repeat the experiment,
though. Revelatory personal contact with God would be confirmation for a single
person (though there would always be the possibility that you were suffering
from mental illness) but that also cant be shared or repeated.
repeated evidence could there be? What would ID predict? God or his agents could
appear physically in the world and cause events to happen for which there could
be no other explanation save divine power, where we widely agreed that we had
witnessed such events, or had repeatable confirmation via video or other recording
devices that such events had happened. God could put a genetic watermark into
the DNA of all living things that spelled out Organism by God in
English. Equally unmistakeable signsand were not talking a Rorsach-blot
picture of a weeping Jesus on a tree stump herewould be enough. We could
probably list them predictively with some reasonable precision.
What would not
suffice, as many have noted, is a demonstration that our current theories cannot
explain some aspect of observable reality. That proves nothing about an intelligent
designer. And as many have also noted, even if one conceded most of the ID arguments
of this kind, they would tell you nothing about the identity of the intelligent
designerit could just as easily be Yog-Sothoth or a mad scientist from
Dimension X as it could be God.
The thing that
is puzzling in a way is why most Christians would bother with intelligent design.
Modern Christianity, even high rationalist Catholicism, acknowledges the special
role of faith. Who is intelligent design intended for? A Christian who needs
such an exotic, Rube-Goldberg crutch to achieve faith is very possibly a person
whose belief in God is already on the verge of collapsing, unless theyre
a strict blind watchmaker deist. And yet, if this was the point
of ID, I personally would have no real problem with it. Carl Sagan, Richard
Dawkins and various atheists who have made a point out of confronting and pursuing
religious people have typically misunderstood three things: first, the social,
cultural and psychological generativity and productivity of religious beliefs;
second, the conditional rationality of many of them (e.g., they're reasonable
readings or interpretations of certain events or phenomena but only in the absence
of additional information); third, the degree to which it is completely rational
(indeed, scientific) to be skeptical about the authority of science and scientists,
especially when that authority is marshalled behind the making of public policy.
If any individual
needs ID to bolster his personal faith, thats fine with me. If believers
want to share ID among themselves, then that too is fine, but considered purely
as a matter of intellectual and social history, that says something interesting
and perhaps even comforting about the ascension of scientific reason as the
dominant spirit of our age, that Christian faithful would feel the need to translate
their faith into the terms and norms of pseudo-science in order to legitimate
it among themselves.
This is not what
the struggle over intelligent design is about, however. Its proponents do not
use it as a private foundation for their faith, or a shared liturgy. They want
it to stand equally with evolution within the architecture of public reason.
This is where the opponents of ID draw the line, and rightfully so, because
what it reveals is that ID is a highly intentional mindfuck of the first order.
Its not intended for the faithful, and its not based on credible
evidence. Its intended for those who do not believe in God. It is a tool
of subversion intended to produce conversion. It is a Trojan Horse attempt to
speak in the language of the non-Christian Other while actively trying to obfuscate
and sabotage that language. It is dishonest. This is why Brian
Leiter and many others are perfectly right to react with such intensity
to ID, because it is often a quite conscious attempt to pollute and despoil
the utility and value of scientific thought and illicitly limit its domains
within the social and intellectual life of the nation.
Christians have as much right as anyone to persuasively address their fellow citizens on behalf of their own cultural and social projects. However, participating in public reason in a democratic society obligates us all to honesty, to placing all our cards on the table. I will gladly hear a Christian try to persuade me to their faith, even if they talk in terms of arguments for intelligent design, as long as it is a two-way conversation, transparent to the public sphere. Trying to convert me by monkey-wrenching the general productivity of my everyday working epistemologies is a different matter, however. I react to that about as well I would react to someone slashing the tires on my car.