A ‘Christian Perspective’ on the Demise of Intelligent Design

Paul Wallace, a physicist and Christian, has added to the pile of obituaries of the Intelligent Design movement.

Jason Rosenhouse wrote one back in November:

In the mid-nineties it was possible to wonder seriously if ID was a serious intellectual movement, or just another fad that would die out on its own. That verdict is now in. ID is dead. As a doornail. Even as YEC [Young Earth Creationism] shows renewed life with the success of the Creation Museum and the fracas over their planned Noah’s Ark theme park, the ID corpse isn’t even twitching anymore.

Wallace agrees:

Rosenhouse is right. ID has no future. His arguments — that over the last few years ID proponents have given us nothing new, that it is mired in the past, that it has merely been recycling its arguments — are all convincing.

But there are other perspectives from which the folly of ID is evident. One of them takes us back to a Christian astronomer who worked at the dawn of the scientific revolution.

 

 

Wallace shames ID activists from a new angle by pointing back 400 years to the astronomer Johannes Kepler, a devout Christian. In 1604, Kepler was baffled by a newly discovered star. Unable to explain it with current knowledge he was tempted to write it off as the work of God, outside of any natural explanation. But he rejected the impulse, writing that “before we come to [special] creation, which puts an end to all discussion, I think we should try everything else.”

For Wallace, the “try everything else” mentality does not diminish the role of God, but shows a heightened respect, coming “from [Kepler's] conviction that God’s creation is not founded in obscurity, darkness, and confusion.” He contrasts this view with that of Michael Behe, who argued in 1996 “that the fundamental mechanisms of life cannot be ascribed to natural selection, and therefore were designed.”

 

 

It’s nice to see a Christian arguing that curiosity and inquiry are allies of religion, rather than enemies. But I don’t hold out high hopes for this becoming a majority view.

Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote a brilliant essay in 2005 called “The Perimeter of Ignorance,” arguing that those who took the Behe route include some of the greatest of minds (working with much less knowledge). Tyson points to a passage from Isaac Newton‘s Principia.

The six primary Planets are revolv’d about the Sun, in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane. . . . But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions. . . . This most beautiful System of the Sun,

Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.

It was a long time before Newton’s divine explanation of planetary motion was properly debunked.

A century later, the French astronomer and mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace confronted Newton’s dilemma of unstable orbits head-on. Rather than view the mysterious stability of the solar system as the unknowable work of God, Laplace declared it a scientific challenge. In his multipart masterpiece,Mécanique Céleste, the first volume of which appeared in 1798, Laplace demonstrates that the solar system is stable over periods of time longer than Newton could predict. To do so, Laplace pioneered a new kind of mathematics called perturbation theory, which enabled him to examine the cumulative effects of many small forces.

Tyson demonstrates, through plentiful examples, that scientists of past centuries invoked God almost exclusively when confronted with their own ignorance. Those who crossed the “frontiers of ignorance,” did so by rejecting God as the final explanation for a particular mystery.

Wallace puts forth an axiom that he feels describes Kepler’s view: “The universe has been designed; therefore it must be comprehensible.” If more devout scientists had taken this view in centuries past, it is likely that knowledge would have developed at a faster pace.

But I can understand why many of Wallace’s co-religionists take the lazy way out. The attempt to comprehend the universe will inevitably call into question the assumption of design. If the value placed on believing that “the universe has been designed” is high (and I wish it weren’t), than it is necessary to be cautious with secular explanations of Creation. A religious person with a cherished personal idea of who the designer is will invariably find their ideas challenged by the hard work of comprehending what we already know of about the universe.

Only those with a flexible or vague view of God have the luxury of inquiring freely and holding onto their understanding of the divine. “God is responsible for everything,” such a person might say. “Now tell me what everything consists of.” But take a specific definition of God (say, a prayer-answering God who sent his only son to die for our sins so we can join him in Heaven when our earthly lives come to an end) and hold it against the onslaught of knowledge available now available, and you might come back with much less than you started with.

So while the contemporary ID movement is much diminished, the assumptions and patterns of thinking that caused it are likely to be around for some time to come.

About Bentley Owen

Bentley Owen reads books and lives in Tulsa, OK. He's on twitter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jennifer-Therrien/738753435 Jennifer Therrien

    “The universe has been designed; therefore it must be comprehensible.”

    Now that, is a beautiful argument against I.D.A watch is designed, meaning we can take it apart, piece by  piece and see what purpose each and every piece serves. Take the human body apart piece by piece and you notice that there are some….inexplicable things and some pieces are installed rather oddly (I’m looking at you, eyeballs).

    • Edmond

      Male nipples.  Nuff said.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    So far, every argument for ID tha I have heard has basically been an argument from ignorance: We don’t understand how these complex biological processes and structures happened, therefore it must have been designed by a super intelligent and all powerful being.” (The God of the gaps.)

    Argument from ignorance is the oldest, I think, of all the arguments, and it is in a perpetual retreat in the face of science.  It was once used to explain the sun rising, flowers opening, rain falling, and lightning flashing. As these were explained without the use of deities, smaller and smaller gaps in our knowledge became the refuge of the supernatural.

    But always being in retreat does not mean it is in defeat.

    I think the reason for this argument’s persistence is two-fold: Firstly, there will always be ignorance, always be new questions raised by the answers we find. The gaps in our knowledge have shrunk to the cellular level, but there’s still plenty of shrinkage to go, to the molecular, atomic, subatomic, and…

    Secondly, people can have a very strong emotional desire to preserve their reassuring fantasy of a loving and wise father figure pulling the strings behind the scenes, and they will cling to him no matter how microscopically reduced he has become from the driver of the sun chariot or the thrower of lightning bolts. 

    As long as somebody really, really wants Daddy to be there, “we don’t yet know” will be seen as an invitation to invoke him.  This is about growing up emotionally rather than intellectually as a culture, as a civilization, and as a species. It will be a long childhood.

    • Rich Wilson

      That’s what gets me.  ID doesn’t actually propose anything.  At least the Genesis stories make a positive claim.  ID doesn’t even try to explain anything.  It’s not even a hypothesis.  It’s a series of (faulty) arguments against evolution.  They can only propose teaching it along with evolution, not in place of, because without evolution to throw sticks at, ID would be nothing.  The defense in Dover even admitted that.

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        I’ve seen two kinds of ID proponents, those who propose a fairly accurate version of standard evolutionary theory, and those who don’t. Both pretend to be “scientific” variations on evolutionary theory, and both use arguments from ignorance to tack God onto the thing, insisting that there must be a puppeteer behind the scenery. 

        ID also is similar to Biblical creationism in that as you say, most of their arguments are against the theory they oppose, rather than supporting their own theory. It’s kind of like a political candidate who never talks about what he can do well, but only talks about what his opponent does badly.

        Even if ID proponents have a good grasp of empirically-based evolutionary theory, the science stops when they make the leap worthy of an Olympic athlete to “therefore it must have been designed and guided by an overseeing supreme mind.” Suddenly there is no more empirical evidence, only argument from ignorance and a convenient deus ex machina.

        • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

          In my experience ID proponents start with a critique of evolution.  Then when pressed, retreat to abiogenesis.  If pressed there, they retreat to question how matter came into existence at all. 

          If they feel they have a foothold there (identifying a gap in knowledge) then they reconstruct an ontology saying that therefore God must have created matter… then God created life… then God saw to it that life changed over time…  culminating with God’s favorite species (humans)… then God sent His one and only son to provide salvation for the human race… if only we can accept Jesus and believe… 

          All derived from a gap in knowledge in how matter came into existence. 

          Yep, that is ID in a nut-shell.

          Personally I prefer the honesty of saying “I don’t have all the answers but I like reading about theories in cosmology”.

  • Silo Mowbray

    I find it convenient that “I.D.” could also stand for “intellectual dishonesty.”

  • Jeffy Joe

    I found it really funny that Wallace heaps praise on Kepler for refusing to use God as an explanation for a new star, but when it comes to an even better mystery – why the universe follows discoverable laws – Wallace jumps immediately to “goddidit,” following Kepler before him. Isn’t that destroying further inquiry into the matter? What’s the difference between saying God made the star and God made the laws of nature? Waiting for a real explanation (if it ever comes) seems like the thing to do in both cases to me.

    • http://www.facebook.com/keithacollyer Keith Collyer

      The practical difference is highly significant because in the first case “goddidit” is the whole answer and enquiry does indeed stop, in the second “goddidit” is the starting point – it states who made the rules but not what those rules are (which are then a fit subject for investigation) and what there effects are (the effects are observed, and are an opportunity to figure out what the rules might be).

      • Jeffy Joe

        Nope. Not really. Why do we need to start with “there’s a magical being that knows everything and can do anything”? How does that help? We observe that the universe is lawful, and we use science to explore it. You don’t have to believe in a creator. You just need to look around. Wallace acts like he somehow knows for sure that a universe that *wasn’t* created by a magical being would have to be random and incomprehensible. How does he know that? How COULD he know that? And by the way, who says that the creator would make a lawful universe? Such an entity could make whatever kind of universe it wanted! I still say the concept is as useless here as it is everywhere else (i.e., completely).

  • Anonymous

    “Paul Wallace, a Christian physicist,..”

    My mind always auto-corrects to “Paul Wallace, a physicist who is a Christian” or “a physicist who practices Christianity” etc. “Christian physicist” sounds like there is a branch of physics that are wholly Christian or only studied by Christians or something.

    • Anonymous

      That’s a good point. I changed it to “physicist and Christian.”

  • Pseudonym

    It is probably the majority view. Certainly, evolution is the majority view amongst Christians worldwide, or at least it should be (since it’s officially sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church, which is the most Christians). The US, where there are powerful political interests in denying scientific expertise in all its forms, is something of an outlier in this regard.

  • Geegeer

    What everyone needs to do is drop the moniker ‘intelligent design’ since it is anything but intelligent. Call it ‘buffoonery theory’ or something more appropriate.


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