Given the sudden explosion of attention on Intelligent Design (even before Bush’s response to a question on the issue), and given the number of times it has come up in conversation of late, I thought I’d better mention the issue.
First of all, let me say that if there is a debate about Intelligent Design, I haven’t seen it. A lot of heat and noise and people shouting doth not a debate make. In fact, I would argue that a debate on Intelligent Design is nearly impossible in the current atmosphere, because no one knows what the three primary terms, “evolution,” “creation,” and “intelligent design” means when other people use them. The terms have become shibboleths, used as passwords by particular subcultures. If one uses the correct password, he is allowed to enter the city gates. If another uses the wrong word, he is stoned by an angry mob.
“Evolution” seems to have shed all of its original meaning. Proponents of evolution use the term as if it explains all that is true about life, the universe, and everything, when it actually tells us little beyond the inter-relatedness of all life. One does not even have to believe in natural selection as the primary cause of evolution to believe in evolution [I have a friend who is an evolutionary biologist who argues that there are other more convincing ways to explain such phenomena as punctuated equilibrium than natural selection. According to him, the ID debate has caused many scientists to foolishly dig in their heels around the issue of natural selection at a time when evidence against it is mounting, in the long run doing more damage to the idea of evolution than if they admitted Darwin’s version needs some work. I don’t pretend to have the expertise to critique his view … I simply present it as an example.]. Even more foolish are claims that evolution proves that nothing exists beyond the material universe.
Let us assume for the sake of argument that nothing does exist beyond the material universe. As evolutionary law draws all of its principles from the material world, it is incapable of proving (or commenting on) anything beyond that material world. It is rather like arguing that since all the thermometer measures is temperature, humidity does not exist – or, on the other side, must exist.
“Creation” also acts as a shibboleth. Proponents and opponents of creation use the term as if we all know what it means, and some of the shiftier ones rely on that slipperiness. The term means everything from a six-day beginning of everything 8,000 years ago, to several periods or ages of creation an indeterminate time ago, to a general principle that the material world has a non-material cause. Just as material humanists use the term “creation” as the justification to stone someone at the gates, Christians use the term as a password into the golden city … ignoring the fact that the concept of creation is not necessarily a Christian idea. That the universe is a created object is an idea that stretches back at least as far as Zoroastrianism, and probably farther. Unless my understanding is flawed, I believe all of the major world religions today have at least a creation myth. So, when someone says “creation” like I’m supposed to know what it means, I sure don’t.
“Intelligent Design” is the newcomer here. I have heard it mean everything from a refutation of evolution to an accommodation of evolution. Only very recently has the culture emphatically decided that ID is a weapon against material humanism, rather than conciliatory gesture. But even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that the material universe shows all the signs of design – that’s still a far cry from saying much of anything regarding evolution, or even about faith. In the case of the theistic religions, the obvious intelligence behind the design is God or the gods. ID is just as compatible with deism, and seems to me to be entirely in line with, for example, Jefferson’s brand of deism and the clockwork universe.
But the idea that the universe shows signs of intelligent design is even compatible with atheist views. Though we don’t use the term “Intelligent Design” to describe it, the atheist version of ID is called the Anthrophic Principle, which runs something like this: The universe seems designed for us because if it were not, we would not be here to observe it. There are millions of potential universes in which humanity did NOT evolve, but we do not consider them because we do not live in that reality to consider them. In this case, the intelligence is perceiving a random design, not designing out of randomness – in other words, the intelligent designer in the Anthropic Principle is Man himself, as observer.
Perhaps all this is moot, because as far as I can tell, no one cares. All the rhetoric I have seen on the issue thus far is destructive. Both sides suffer from terminal hubris. “Evolution”-partisans have dug in their heels so that they now insist that the material world is all that there is, and that anyone who denies this is a fool. “Creation”-partisans have dug in their heels so that they now insist that extra-Biblical traditions (you can see my Restoration Movement bias here) trump both our observations of the material world and the Scriptures themselves, and anyone who denies this is damned. Neither, so far as I can tell, is actually talking about either evolution or creation, and both are using Intelligent Design as the no-man’s-land upon which to do battle.
In the end, there is no debate about biology or faith – just some angry mobs demanding people choose sides, and ignoring epistemology.