Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Intelligent Design and Rhetoric

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.


  1. Anonymous6:30 AM

    Excellent post and very helpful. I've long been wishing that every writer was required to define what they're really talking about in this issue. There's too much throw-away sloganeering by far. I do think the new kids on the block, the ID people, tend to be far more careful with their terms than the rest. They have to be, to build any credibility at all.

    I need to check one point with you, though. I don't think the Anthropic Principle approach you referred to here works as an atheistic explanation of design. Let's grant for argument's sake that the AP view of virtually infinite universes is correct. In that case, we're among the lucky winners, we're in one of those universes where life has a chance, and the cosmological/physical anthropic coincidences (the phenomena usually addressed by the Many Universes hypothesis) are explained, no problem.

    ID still poses difficult questions within that framework. It says that given the constraints of our universe, within the natural laws and processes we ended up with here, it is impossible to explain how certain biological phenomena could have evolved through chance variation and natural selection.

    If Dembski, Behe, et al. are correct, the laws of chemistry, physics, genetics and probability in our universe simply do not provide a possible pathway toward the information-rich complexity we observe in life--not without intelligent intervention.

    Now, if the Many Universes hypothesis allowed us to borrow different physical laws from a nearby universe from time to time, that might help solve it, but those borrowed laws would have to be able at least to mimic what we call intelligence. That's either really multiplying entities (Occam would have a fit), or else it ends up indistinguishable from the intelligence that ID is asking us to accept in the first place.

  2. I'm just going to roll the word "shibboleth" around in my mouth for a while.

    I shall then spend the rest of the day looking for a way to work it into casual conversation.

    Seriously, how interested in real dialogue do you think the involved parties actually are?

  3. Very solid post. It is very easy for people to end up talking past each other on controversial topics.

    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.

    Well, hubris is part of the human condition, it's not really something special to this particular debate. Although debates like this do sometimes tend to bring out the worst in people.

    I myself have read and even participated in debates about ID theory that do not suffer from terminal hubris, so don't give up hope!

  4. Given some of these comments, I think I need to emend my statement that previously read "All the rhetoric I have seen on the issue thus far is destructive" to something more like "Most of the rhetoric I have seen lately is destructive."

    I first heard of ID a few years ago, once in the context of a Christian grappling with how evolution might be God's tool of creation, and once in the context of a scientist trying to explain how his study of biology had strengthened his faith. My recollection (admittedly hazy now) is that neither article was hostile.

    Lately, though, the rhetoric seems marked by hostility. Mac asks "how interested in real dialogue do you think the involved parties actually are?" I can't see into people's hearts, only their rhetoric, and different people likely have different motives.

    Take, for example, a reporter asking the President whether he thought ID should be taught in schools. Now, presidents have the ethos to answer questions about politics and such, and this particular President has the ethos to answer questions about the oil industry and professional baseball, but asking about specifics of curricula on local schools is a bit like asking whether we should be be teaching New Criticism or Reader-Response. Such a question is not designed to create dialogue, nor to clarify any issues; rather, it is designed to force the President to take a side, to mark a cultural position.

    The problem is that in the current heat, I think real dialogue is impossible, which is why I'm decrying the debate at the moment rather than joining it. Maybe after the rhetoric cools more level heads will come outside and play.

  5. Tom,

    I don't understand what you mean by your objection "I don't think the Anthropic Principle approach you referred to here works as an atheistic explanation of design." Do you mean that you don't think it *works* or that it is not particularly *atheistic*? If you mean that it does not work, by "work" in this context I meant "functions as," not as "is correct." I also have problems with the Anthropic Principle (for reasons too detailed to be an aside here), and I'm not an atheist, so in that sense I agree with you. What I meant in the post is that atheists who are trying to grapple with the same issues of the apparent design of the universe assign the design role to an observer rather than a creator.

    If you meant it is not particularly atheistic -- well, I can see ways that the Anthropic Principle could be used in harmony with certain theistic religions, but I mostly hear the Anthropic Principle used as an atheist rebuttal to deism.

  6. Astute observation and commentary. I have felt the same frustration about the non-debate. I have posts of a similar vein here and here.

  7. Anonymous3:35 PM

    An excellent post (although I can't see Punctuated Equilibrium as more than a refined definition of the conditions under which Natural Selection has to operate).

    I have a little problem with "I believe all of the major world religions today have at least a creation myth." "Creation" in "creation myth" and "major world religion" both raise problems of definition.

    Some examples:

    Hinduism, in its vast variety and long history, has accumulated a multitude of creation accounts. These could, in theory, could be arranged in some sort of order to correspond to the eternal cycle of destructions and re-creations of the cosmos. There have been attempts to figure out just which Manu (First Man and Primeval Lawgiver) is the one being mentioned in a given text, for example. (Fourteen have been identified, each with his own manvantara [great age], half of them belonging to the future!) But an absolute beginning is harder to find.

    Wendy Doniger, Stella Kramrisch, and C. Mackenzie Brown (among others) have analyzed a number of creation accounts, with particular reference to those giving preferential roles to, variously, Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi (the Goddess) over Brahma, the nominal creator. Another aspect is covered in Barbara A. Holdrege's "Veda and Torah: Transcending the Textuality of Scripture," which gets into the Indian problem of a Revelation which precedes its Revealers, as against the Jewish problem of a Revelation which precedes the Creation it describes. (And see below.)

    The various Buddhisms inherited some of these concepts from India (including versions of Manu), took some creation concepts from other cultures, and, at least officially, should subordinate the whole idea of a "beginning" to the endless nature of Samsara. If reports are accurate, actual attitudes vary considerably, certainly on the popular level. (Jan Nattier's "Once Upon a Future Time: Studies in A Buddhist Prophecy of Decline" has some interesting reflections on how different cultures have adapted early Buddhist ideas of time, although the book's emphasis is closer to eschatology; endzeit rather than urzeit.)

    Taoist religious texts (as distinguished from Chinese popular religion) seem to treat differentiation away from Primordial Unity as the preferred motif, leaving any time-of-origin or critical event a matter for debate (or contemplation) rather than dogma.

    Although Creation would seem a safe category in Judaism, some rather minor schools (identified by Gershom Scholem and his successors in their historical studies of Kabbalah) have been quite happy with cyclical universes, in which "Creation Out of Nothing" is an incident, not a beginning. (Of course, as mystics, those who held this view may also have tended to treat "Nothing" as a mysterious attribute of God, rather than non-existence, anyway.)

  8. Ian,

    What I meant by "at least a creation myth" is "at least ONE creation myth" -- since I knew, for example, that Hinduism has multiples, and Buddhism varies depending on how strongly it cleaves to Hinduism, for example.

    Besides that clarification, though, thanks for the survey of creation myths, which futher underscores my point that there is nothing necessarily Christian about creation. So, as I said, "when someone says 'creation' like I’m supposed to know what it means, I sure don’t."

  9. Anonymous4:13 PM

    I seem to have read "at least *a* creation myth" as "a creation *myth"" -- if not also a dogma -- instead of "at least one."

    Probably too much time pondering how different translations of "bereshit" (Gensis 1:1) do or do not support a doctrine of creation "ex nihilo."

  10. Probably too much time pondering how different translations of "bereshit" (Gensis 1:1) do or do not support a doctrine of creation "ex nihilo."

    Hmmm... I woulda thought "tohu-v-bohu" a little further along shut down that reading. It's generally held that ex nihilo isn't textually supported until the Macabbees...

  11. Anonymous9:44 AM

    I agree, but many translations seem designed to make the text fit the established theology -- probably because in many cases the issue wasn't raised.

    I recall one instance in which the author of a book on ancient concepts of time, having been told the King James Version was misleading, carefully consulted the Septuagint, and concluded he had been right all along....