The Language of God: Intelligent Design

The Language of God, Chapter 9

By B.J. Marshall

The subtitle to this chapter is “When Science Needs Divine Help,” which immediately sets up a couple of problems. First, is Collins asserting that Intelligent Design (ID) is science? Second, where does divine help fit in with the application of the scientific method? In response to the first, Collins concludes that ID is not science. He doesn’t really address the second problem. That second problem brings to mind a quote by J.B.S. Haldane:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

Focusing on that first problem, we want to see whether ID is a valid scientific endeavor. According to Collins, the ID movement rests upon three propositions:

  1. Evolution promotes an atheistic worldview and therefore must be resisted by believers in God (p.183)
  2. Evolution is fundamentally flawed, since it cannot account for the intricate complexity of nature (p.184)
  3. If evolution cannot explain irreducible complexity, then there must have been an intelligent designer involved somehow, who stepped in to provide the necssary components during the course of evolution (p.186)

Collins doesn’t really address the first claim at all. He states right up front that Phillip Johnson, the founder of the ID movement, was more interested in defending the faith than by a “scientific desire to understand life (he makes no claim to be a scientist)” (p.183). Referencing the “wedge document,” which “was originally intended as an internal memorandum but found its way onto the Internet” (p.183), Collins concludes that ID is not science. It fails to make predictions, is an unfalsifiable position (Collins says one couldn’t verify it “outside of the development of a time machine” (p.187), and makes no claims providing a mechanism by which the postulated supernatural interventions would give rise to complexity. (Here’s another example of where double-standards apparently elude Collins. His own position, that every naturalistic explanation just shows you how God works, seems to be an unfalsifiable position; even if we were to somehow explain the Moral Law, that would just show you how God works.)

The proposition Collins seems to be refuting here is “ID is science.” He doesn’t address the proposition as stated of whether evolution promotes an atheistic worldview. I found this very interesting, given that this would have been a perfect time for Collins to once again drive home his thesis of theistic evolution. He tore down Johnson’s claim without ever reminding readers of the alternate case that is the main thesis of this book. Fail.

Collins does a much better job addressing the second proposition. He addresses the problems of irreducible complexity with examples such as the evolution of eyes, the bacterial flagellum, and the human blood-clotting cascade. He also talks about the suboptimal design in eyes, which seems problematic. Ultimately, he concludes that claims to irreducible complexity are just arguments from ignorance.

Collins also fails to properly address the third claim (so he’s batting 0.33). All he says in response to this claim is that ID proponents haven’t specified who this designer might have been “but the Christian perspective of most [not all?!] the leaders of this movement implicitly suggests that this missing force would come from God himself” (p.186). I shouldn’t be surprised, but Collins did not address how this third proposition fits together into a framework that makes no sense given the first two. Proposition 1 states that evolution promotes an atheistic worldview, so ID would want to be done with the concept entirely, right? Then they backpedal a bit and say, “Well, maybe evolution works, but – look at Proposition 2 – it’s fundamentally flawed!” Then they backpedal even more and say “OK, evolution’s flawed but – look at Proposition 3 – our god, I mean, ahem, an intelligent designer could step in and fix that flawed, atheistic system.” But, then the system wouldn’t be atheistic anymore, since some god is mucking around with evolution.

So one can see how ID is getting really close to the edge of where Collins wants to take theistic evolution, but ID just can’t seem to cross that line. And the next chapter will bring us there. Collins concludes this chapter on Intelligent Design with an exhortation. He starts by citing William Dembski, who said in “The Design Revolution”:

If it could be shown that biological systems that are wonderfully complex, elegant, and integrated – such as the bacterial flagellum – could have been formed by a gradual Darwinian process (and thus that their specified complexity is an illusion), then Intelligent Design would be refuted on the general grounds that one does not invoke intelligent causes when undirected natural causes will do. In that case, Occam’s razor would finish off Intelligent Design quite nicely (p.194 of The Language of God).

Of course, one cannot expect Dembski to just let ID die, but that’s as separate an issue as the fact that Collins has pushed God so far back that Occam’s razor can’t even touch it. Collins instead focuses on the question of what happens to a believer’s faith when one can no longer give God a resting place in ID. Take away ID, and where does that leave God?

Enter what Collins calls BioLogos.

Other posts in this series:

Weekend Coffee: February 22
Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Shooting
Repost: The Age of Wonder
Neil deGrasse Tyson Shows Why Small-Minded Religious Fundamentalists Are Threatened by Wonders of Universe
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • feralboy12

    I keep thinking he’s going to score, then he fumbles at the three-yard line, or takes a knee or something. Frustrating.
    As for Dembski, he need not worry–his “specified complexity” is pretty much bullet-proof, what with having no definition or known method of calculation. Also, Occam’s Razor accomplishes little in the hands of people who think a supernatural being or a man being resurrected is a parsimonious explanation.

  • L.Long

    BS is BS no matter how hard they try to say it aint.
    But at the same time THEY must be challenged at all times so that they will have a harder time convincing others.

  • Monty

    but the Christian perspective of most [not all?!] the leaders of this movement

    Well, there is a small representation of other religions (Ben Stein immediately comes to mind). They’re a tiny minority, though.

  • oraxx

    Here’s a few questions for the I.D. crowd: Where does schizophrenia fit into the I.D. model? What about muscular dystrophy? Birth defects? Mental retardation? If we’re intelligently designed, why do we get sick at all? As tragic as these things are, they are at least understandable within evolution, in the I.D. model they are absurd. I suppose these things are just a part of God’s plan.

  • Andrew G.

    Not to mention the issue of obligate human parasites (such as David Attenborough’s favourite example, the nematode worm O. volvulus which causes river blindness) – were they intelligently designed too?

  • Brett K.

    As far as schizophrenia, muscular dystrophy, birth defects, etc. go, that’s tidily handled by the “all mutations are negative” belief. Parasites would be attributed to the fall (when sin entered the world).

    That’s how I’m sure some of my christian friends would answer, at least. Though, now that I think about it, I’m not sure how ID fits with the concept of original sin and the fall, if at all. (It wasn’t covered in the review of chapter six, and a quick googling of Collin’s treatment of original sin turned up nothing for me.) That should be a fun topic next time I’m in one of these discussions.

  • keddaw

    oraxx, Andrew G., stop being silly we all know that sin, suffering and evil was brought into the world by The Fall of Adam and Eve, who didn’t exist.

    How do Christians maintain the concept of The Fall, and hence Original Sin, while admitting that Adam and Eve are mere characters in a metaphorical story?

  • anti_supernaturalist

    ID is short for IDiot

    1. The falsity of “intelligent design” is established by the existence of those who can believe it.

    2. The non-existence of an “intelligent designer” is established by the evolution of a species which can believe in one.

    the anti_supernaturalist