Design All The Way Down?

I have sometime found myself in a debate with someone whose views I do not actually find objectionable, because they used the term “Intelligent Design” but meant something very different by it.

The view that the cosmos is “intelligently designed,” that the universe is “fine tuned” for the sort of life that we are to come into existence and thrive within it, is very different (in my opinion) from the view that posits Intelligent Design specifically in the realm of biology.

What makes the difference, for me, is that ID in biology is about denying the scientific evidence regarding the natural processes involved in the history and development of life on this planet; positing a fine-tuned universe and a deity responsible for the fine-tuning is, on the other hand, saying something that is not incompatible with the scientific evidence. It is not at all the only possible viewpoint, but it is not excluded by the scientific evidence.

The irony is that the proponents of ID in biology are doing something that is not merely anti-scientific, but something that is unnecessary, and more than that, objectionable from the perspective of most theistic thinking. Positing a Designer who makes a universe that then produces life is more impressive than a designer who makes a universe which then requires further intervention in order to get living things to exist. And the fact that (whether honestly or not) ID proponents often say that the Designer could be aliens shows why ID should be viewed as objectionable from the perspective of Christian theology. If the hand of God is indistinguishable from the work of aliens, isn’t something wrong with your theology and not just your science?

  • Cliff Martin

    Great observation, James! Years ago I read Owen Gingerich’s little book, *God’s Universe* in which he carefully distinguishes between (I)ntelligent (D)esign and (i)ntelligent (d)esign, and he finds lots of reasons to embrace the small case version! So do I! And while I have always maintained that the designer of natural processes capable of such amazing feats as complex life is more glorious than a micro-managing tinkerer, I had never made the connection you have … that the frequent denials of ID proponents (when they deny that they bare specifically positing a Creator-God) does de-elevate our Creator to something on a par with high-functioning aliens. Thank you!

  • Scott_F

    Darn! I thought this was going to be a who designed the designer’s designer’s designer post

    • Cliff Martin

      I see why you thought this, Scott …
      I just now re-read, and “got”, James’s title for the post, “Design all the way down” Hmm … turtles, anyone?

  • John Pieret

    Positing a Designer who makes a universe that then produces life is more impressive than a designer who makes a universe which then requires further intervention in order to get living things to exist.

    Imagine a pool player standing over a table filled with [choose any large number you feel comfortable with] balls. Who is the more impressive player … the one who can sink the balls all with a single stroke or the one who has to take millions of tries just to sink one … and then another … and then another …

    And the fact that (whether honestly or not) ID proponents often say that the Designer could be aliens shows why ID should be viewed as objectionable from the perspective of Christian theology.

    And it’s not honest, as Meyer’s “Darwin’s Doubt” shows. Meyer apparently states (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, this is taken from a review) that his intent in writing the book is to give people back a sense of meaning and purpose. How would learning of an alien or time-traveling designer give people meaning and purpose? The only reason to pretend that the “Designer” isn’t necessarily God is a cynical and dishonest attempt to circumvent the Constitution of the United States.

    I’d kind of think that any proposition fundamentally based on lies would also be objectionable from the perspective of Christian theology.

  • PorlockJunior

    This is all too common a pattern among the most visible and audible spokespeople for religion: treating the Deity who, by their beliefs, is the creator of all that is, so he fits in their tiny minds. (Not that the mind of a McGrath or a Porlock (g) is less tiny in relation to the Infinite, which they also believe the Deity to be.)

    My favorite for a long time has been their estimate of God as a chess player.

    Often we find that The Purpose of [Something, usually sex] is [Something else that supports their idea of the rules against birth control or whatever]. What kind of chess player voluntarily makes a move in some important part of the board for just one reason? One kind: a neophyte who has learned how the pieces move and has barely grasped that a move can be made for a purpose. A skilled player likely sees multiple advantages in a move, not all of which can be countered by the opponent’s response. But God, it seems, is not that smart.

    (OK, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition (who also thought in that way, come to think of it): there is another kind, the player who thereby sets up a forced checkmate, or something on that order.)

    • cardinal arcseconds

      Our main weapon is surprise!

  • David_Evans

    “Positing a Designer who makes a universe that then produces life”

    If some versions of quantum mechanics are correct it may be impossible to predict the development of a universe with that much accuracy. The Designer might have to intervene at intervals to keep it on track.

    I see that there is a reluctance to consider aliens. Would you feel the same if they were acting as the Designer’s agents?. Or if they were called angels?

  • Robert

    Surely aliens would be part of creation, and thus not the ultimate designer! ID in the sense you’re using it here sounds like the strong anthropic principle.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Design in the sense of something on the cosmic scale is indeed related to the strong anthropic principle. And ID which posits tinkering on the level of making organisms in an already-existing universe seems to me a far cry from what Christians have tended to mean by calling God Creator.

  • Ignorantia Nescia

    And the fact that (whether honestly or not) ID proponents often say that
    the Designer could be aliens shows why ID should be viewed as
    objectionable from the perspective of Christian theology.

    I knew it!! Designers all the way down!

  • Wayne Hollyoak

    It’s really pathetic to see so many claiming believers set science as their standard for truth. As a believer who has spent time as a biology grad student of a major university, all I can say is, science is NOT what you think. It’s just a bunch of mortal humans trying to figure out stuff that’s way beyond human comprehension.
    Charlie Darwin’s “Origin”, was actually written as a justification for racism as he states in his (removed in later editions at Huxley’s advice) subtitle. Tommy Hoaxley and his X-Club cronies saw it as a justification for making science a paid profession. Gregor Mendel blew common decent out of the water and reversion to wilds is the overiding principle of genetics. You can monkey with the fruit fly genetics all you want, but within a few generations they will bounce back to the species standard form once released back into the wild.
    Reversion to wilds has been demonstrated a million times by sciences dudes and breeders alike for hundreds if not thousands of years. No natural change has ever been documented that could possibly justify a new genus of living things. To ever claim the natural formation of novel orders, families, etc. is wild speculation based on faith. You can call it science if you want, who cares….what science says???
    Wayne Hollyoak
    http://www.scifaith.com/blog

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      For someone who claims to have been a biology grad student (perhaps you flunked out?) you repeat a lot of misinformation. It is particularly offensive when the old racism canard is brought up, given that science-denial is predominantly found in the same denominations and regions which fought to keep their slaves. Jesus’ teaching has something to say about this, you may recall.

      Science is a bunch of mortal human beings working together using the best methods we have to figure things out. It isn’t perfect. But it is the reason why we, unlike the author of Genesis 1, know that there isn’t a dome over the earth holding up “waters above” and, unlike Paul the apostle, know that the brain rather than the heart is the seat of human cognition. And so science has served us well. People like you who argue that it is necessary to choose between science and Christianity, however, do an incredible amount of harm to the faith, both by ruining its reputation to those outside, and by setting up Christians to lose their faith if they ever discover that people like you have lied to them about science.

    • Guest

      Gee, it’s almost as if wild populations had selective pressure operating on them to be a certain way, or something.

      • arcseconds

        hmm… seem to have inadevertently removed my authorship of the above comment…

    • David_Evans

      “who cares….what science says???”

      Someone who calls his blog “scifaith”? Or is that just to mislead us?

      The “races” in the subtitle of the “Origin” refers to varieties of non-human animals. As a little research would have shown you.

      Darwin learned taxidermy from a black freed slave. He was furious at the maltreatment of black slaves he saw on his travels. We all have some racist feelings, but he was one of the least racist men of his time.


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