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.
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.