Sunday, August 17, 2008

Where is the intelligent criticism of Intelligent Design?

In case you missed it, Intelligent Design was big in the news back in 2003 and 2004. I don't recall hearing too much about it in the media since then. It was being both hailed and criticized (depending upon your perspective) as some great new meshing of science and religion. The reality, however, is that it has actually been around as a theory since at least the late 1970s.

Stephen Meyer tells us it was developed

by a group of scientists — Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, Roger Olson, and
Dean Kenyon — who were trying to account for an enduring mystery of modern
biology: the origin of the digital information encoded along the spine of the
DNA molecule.

He goes on to say:
Even as early the 1960s and 70s, physicists had begun to reconsider the design
hypothesis. Many were impressed by the discovery that the laws and constants of
physics are improbably "finely-tuned" to make life possible. As British
astrophysicist Fred Hoyle put it, the fine-tuning of numerous physical
parameters in the universe suggested that "a superintellect had monkeyed with
physics" for our benefit.

Those quotes are taken from a Dec. 2005 article in the National Post (Canada), called "What is Intelligent Design?" You can read the whole thing here.

So, what is Intelligent Design? In a nutshell, it is the idea that what science has uncovered about nature, on both large and small scales, in fields as diverse as biology and cosmology, suggests that things are the way they are not because of random chance, but because some operating intelligence purposefully designed them to be that way.

If you want to read more about it, the above linked article is a good place to start, as is this April 2003 article from Crisis by Benjamin Wiker entitled, "Does Science Point to God?"

But for those of you who might not have time to read the above, Intelligent Design is the scientific equivalent of walking onto a Chrysler auto lot, looking at all the vehicles, and concluding that one or more engineers designed them all -- as opposed to them all arising spontaneously out of their base elements from being randomly thrown together by the wind.

The Intelligent Design proponent would look at those crystal skulls from the latest Indiana Jones movie and assume someone purposefully made them that way -- be it an ancient civilization, a hoaxer, or space aliens. An Intelligent Design opponent would be just as willing to believe that those crystals were carved into perfect replicas of human skulls by erosion.

You get the basic idea. There is a certain quality to a purposefully designed object or system that suggests a rational mind was behind it. And that's all Intelligent Design is saying, really. Look at the evidence objectively and it would appear that an intelligence is behind the universe. It makes no greater theological claims than that -- in fact, it is not operating from a theological perspective, but a scientific one.

I was reminded of the whole controversy surrounding Intelligent Design recently when I was reading a book of essays by Neil DeGrasse Tyson entitled, Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries. I have enjoyed watching the History Channel series, The Universe, and Tyson is an astrophysicist featured regularly on that program.

I enjoy him because he has a way of talking about astronomy and cosmology in a way that is very accessible to the layman. You see, I've always loved astronomy -- as a kid I wanted to be an astronomer, but it just didn't happen. So I enjoy listening to him and I thought I might find his books enjoyable to read. And they are. I have enjoyed reading what Tyson has to say about the cosmos, and all the strange, weird and wonderful things in it.

But there is a section towards the end of the book where Tyson groups three essays under the heading "Science and God," and there we find out that Tyson knows far more about the former than the latter. And in an essay entitled "The Perimiter of Ignorance," we find out just what this astrophysicist's opinion of Intelligent Design is. I'll let Tyson speak for himself.

The present-day version of God of the gaps [a phrase used when people invoke God
to explain things they do not understand] goes by a fresh name: "intelligent
design." The term suggests that some entity, endowed with a mental
capacity far greater than the human mind can muster, created or enabled all the
things in the physical world that we cannot explain through scientific methods.

Tyson is of course, wrong. The Intelligent Design theory doesn't just claim that some higher mind created all the things we cannot explain. In fact, it starts by looking at things we do understand, and recognizing that an operating intelligence seems to be at work here. It proposes a God of all creation, not just a God of the gaps.

Nevertheless, Tyson goes on to recount a litany of why Intelligent Design does not make sense. He points out, for instance, all the ways that he would have made human beings better, if he were designing them. He wouldn't have us eat, drink, and breathe through the same hole in our heads, thus preventing choking. He wouldn't design us to be vulnerable to drowning when 3/4 of the earth is covered in water. He wouldn't give us pinkie toe nails. And oh yeah, human beings of his design wouldn't get high blood pressure, cancer, or diabetes.

In the end, he declares that to embrace Intelligent Design is to embrace ignorance.

I don't know what this is. I don't know how it works It's too
complicated for me to figure out. It's too complicated for any human being
to figure out. So it must be the product of a higher intelligence.

Tyson here only demonstrates his own lack of understanding of just what Intelligent Design is. It is not a "God of the gaps." Proponents of ID are not suggesting God is the answer to anything science cannot explain.

And guess what? That's not how science operates in a Christian framework, anyway. The God of the gaps is a very dangerous proposition, because those gaps keep getting narrower and narrower. What science cannot explain today is simply tomorrow's discovery. And if your God only exists in the realms that remain a mystery, your God is continually shrinking.

The Christian God is the God of all creation. He is the one who causes all to be, who gives everything -- including you and me -- existence. It doesn't matter if we can look at it under a microscope, or through a telescope, analyze it, record it, predict it. It doesn't matter whether we know how it happens, or if it is a mystery. God is the first agent of it all. Discovering a new type of quark or some new twist to a law of physics doesn't impact that at all -- except to maybe illustrate to us how grand God is.

The Christian scientist wants to learn about creation because he sees it all as a reflection of God. Someone once said that God has two holy books -- the Bible and the Universe. If we understand God to be the author of all that is, then of course we want to study it. We want to learn about it, to understand it, because to do so tells us something about the one who created it. And that is a very good pursuit, indeed.

I'm not sure what motivates the atheistic scientist to study creation, but I can guess what motivates him to attack anything that would challenge his secular atheism -- even something as benign as Intelligent Design theory. And it's not pretty.

So, despite Tyson's best effort, what he gives us is not really a criticism of Intelligent Design, but rather criticism of the straw man that he presents to us as Intelligent Design. What I want to know is, where is the honest, intelligent criticism of this idea? I'm still waiting...

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