What About Intelligent Design?

I began a series last week looking at issues in theology and the impact that the evidence for evolution has on our theology. This series is based on a book of essays, Theology After Darwin (available from amazon UK or, as pointed out by a commenter on the last post, a search of Abebooks.com on author = Berry and title = Theology After Darwin will yield a USA-based source for a new copy of the book at a reasonable price. (HT PB)) The second chapter, written by Denis Alexander, carries the provocative title After Darwin: Is Intelligent Design Intelligent? For those wrestling with the ideas, or who want to understand why scientists and scholars are often skeptical of the intelligent design movement, this is a good even-handed source. It is short, clear, and to the point.

Denis Alexander is a molecular biologist with a Ph.D. in Neurochemistry. He is the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. Since 1992 he has been Editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief and currently serves on the National Committee of Christians in Science and as a member of the International Society for Science and Religion. He has published many scientific articles in the primary literature, something over 50, and has a good overall citation rate (i.e. other professionals read and interact with his professional scientific work). He has also published a book, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?, that presents his belief in the coherence of evolutionary theory with a biblical doctrine of creation. I have not read his book yet – but intend to get a copy and put it on my (ever growing) list.

Key to Alexander’s view is a robust understanding of the work of God in creation. Calvin, he notes, had such a view.

God’s activity in nature, Calvin taught, was continuous and complete. There were no ‘gaps’ which could be attributed to forces or agents outside of God’s immediate control. Nature was not autonomous. The Word or command of God was the only edict required to bring direction or purpose into inanimate matter. (p. 23)

The discussions of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century departed from such a robust view, looking for evidence of God in design, in areas where natural mechanisms were demonstrably insufficient. In the face of naturalism and secular materialism concrete evidence for God appeared essential. As you read what follows consider the following questions.

What do you understand or mean by the term Intelligent Design?

Do you think Intelligent Design is a useful pursuit or field of inquiry?

Dr. Alexander covers a fair bit of ground in his survey of Intelligent Design. He looks at the roots of the modern movement in the writings of Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, and others. There is in this movement an express goal of overturning scientific materialism with its ‘damning cultural legacies’ and making a place for the supernatural, for God, at the table. According to Alexander:

Dembski has stated that ‘Intelligent Design is three things: a scientific research program that investigates the effects of intelligent causes; an intellectual movement that challenges Darwinianism and its naturalistic legacy; and a way of understanding divine action. Intelligent design therefore intersects science and theology’ (Dembski 1999a: 13 [Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology]). Understanding ID involves an appreciation of what these statements mean, and it is important that any critique is based upon the explicit claims made by ID proponents, and not on popular accounts, which are frequently unreliable. (p. 27)

I am in complete agreement with Dr. Alexander here. This is where we need to begin, with the explicit claims and strongest arguments of ID proponents. Along these lines Dr. Alexander interacts most completely with the ideas of Dr. Dembski and Dr. Behe who provide the intellectual and scientific base for ID. After describing the core ideas of ID, Dr. Alexander considers whether ID is science, but concludes that it is not a useful scientific endeavor. He suggests that is it has no useful explanatory power, it is not testable, and it is not falsifiable. As a Christian and a scientist he finds the lack of explanatory power particularly troubling:

As a Christian who believes in God as creator, I believe that everything that exists is the outworking of his creative purposes, and the scientific enterprise is only possible by a prior understanding of the creative order as intelligible. So picking out just particular bits of that created order as inferring intelligent design does not sound like an explanation for anything (p. 32).

As a molecular biologist he wonders how the proposal of irreducible complexity is even testable. One can posit irreducible complexity – but only demonstrate that a system is not irreducibly complex. Dr. Behe’s example of the bacterial flagellum is a good case in point. This is purported to be “irreducibly complex” yet after some 15 years of additional study we now know (the following paraphrased from p. 33) that a 10-protein sub-module acts independently to inject poison into other bacteria, another sub-module is a chemical pump to convert energy into work, homologues of most of the proteins (proteins encoded by very similar genes) carry out a range of different functions in other systems, and that evolution proceeds not merely by site mutation and selection, but by gene co-option and lateral gene transfer. This latter is an important point. The mathematical models used to demonstrate the “absurdity” of evolution as unimaginably improbable rely on inadequate description of the mechanism of evolution.

Over the last 15 years or so a large complex system, the bacterial flagellum, has been broken down into smaller systems, separable, although still moderately complex. Work is ongoing to understand the development of these smaller units. Understanding of some systems has progressed quite far, much work remains on others. How, Dr. Alexander asks, would ID have helped the scientific investigation? What progress could have been made?

Dr. Alexander also points out that scientific theories are useful for what they explain – as overarching syntheses of facts – not for what they do not explain.

If a theory leads to a fruitful research programme, as evolutionary theory obviously has, then anomalies will be kept on the back-burner, waiting to be sorted out and incorporated into the theory when their time comes. (p. 34)

and later:

Pointing out supposed difficulties in Darwinian explanations does not in itself count as an explanation for anything. (p. 34)

Much of the discussion of evolution within ID rests on an inadequate understanding of the progress of science and the progressive development and refinement of explanatory theories. Most theories, those with true explanatory power, are modified to incorporate new information and improve the quality of the explanation, but they are not regulated to the trash heap. Speculative ideas are, at times, so regulated – ideas like phlogiston and the aether. But Newtonian mechanics was not – relativity and quantum theory contain the insights from classical mechanics when objects of “ordinary” size move at “ordinary” speeds. The explanatory power of evolutionary theory is so great, that we can say with confidence that it will be refined, but it will not go away.

Is Intelligent Design a useful concept in other realms of thought? Even if Intelligent Design is not science (a conclusion on which we can still disagree and debate) it may yet be useful in theology or philosophy – to combat scientific materialism. Dr. Alexander finds ID lacking in the realm of natural theology because it tends to view the world and God’s creative power as a two-tier entity. This he thinks, and I agree, is unfortunate. After quoting from p. 63 and p. 141 of Dembski’s 2004 book The Design Revolution Alexander continues:

Dembski envisages a biological world largely explained by ‘naturalistic mechanisms’ and ‘natural forces’, and against this backcloth ‘designed systems’ may be detected. Indeed, without such a backcloth, the rest of his argument would make little sense, since if the identification of designed entites is to be possible, then a non-designed ‘naturalistic’ backcloth is essential to facilitate the detection of the ‘designed’ components.

So the ID literature gives the impression that there is something inherently ‘naturalistic’ about certain aspects of the created order and not about other aspects, and such thinking appears to stem from a very inadequate doctrine of creation. In biblical creation theology, the natural order is seen as a seamless web of God’s creative activity. All scientists can do is describe the consequences of God’s creative activity to the best of their ability. … Science is definitely not a naturalistic enterprise for the Christian who is a scientist, but rather a cause for worshipping the God who has brought all things into being, including all the biological complexity of the world. (p. 39)

In this essay, and ending on this final note, Dr. Alexander has put in concise clear form many of my misgivings about the intelligent design movement. As science it is inadequate, as a critique of “Darwinism” it focuses on the wrong fronts, and as a natural theology it diminishes rather than glorifies the creative work of God.

Now I am not ruling out the possibility that God could have acted in some more direct fashion, not explicable in the ordinary course of events, especially at key points – origin of the universe, origin of life, and in some way to create humanity in his image. I certainly think that God has acted explicitly in history at times and places in accord with his plan, most notably, but not solely, in the incarnation and resurrection. But I don’t think it is, at least at present in the absence of some new idea, insight, or direction, useful to make this a hypothesis in scientific investigation. We should relax and go where the evidence takes us. And wherever it takes us, God is still creator.

Do you agree or disagree? Why?

Is Intelligent Design a useful concept and scholarly pursuit?

By the way – I also have Intelligent Design Uncensored by William Dembski and Jonathan Witt courtesy of IVP Books, and will read and post on this in the coming months.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you have comments please visit What About Intelligent Design at Jesus Creed

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