Is "Intelligent Design" a Good Apologetic Tool?

June 01, 2006

Is "Intelligent Design" a Good Apologetic Tool?

Christians in different parts of the world are getting excited about "intelligent design" (ID), the movement initiated by Philip Johnson ("Darwin on Trial") and best known for the work of Michael Behe ("Darwin's Black Box") and William Dembski ("The Design Revolution"); it points to aspects of biological systems that because of their “irreducible complexity” or “specified complexity” are difficult to explain; it seems to many an ideal tool to use as a "wedge" to split the log of our materialist, secularist culture, and to open modern and post-modern minds to the possibility of a God who interacts with the world, and who might be knowable. The times seem propitious - after all, has not as well-known an atheist as the philosopher Professor Antony Flew indicated that he is now convinced, as a consequence of the "fine tuning" discovered in the basic physical laws and constants of the universe, that it is probable that God exists?

The purpose of this article is to sound a cautionary note, and to suggest that ID may prove a broken reed, a false hope, an unreliable weapon in the Christian's apologetic armoury. Let me begin by stating that as an orthodox Christian, I believe not only in creation, but in intelligent creation by a wise designer. It is a part of the foundation of Biblical understanding of the world that it is made by the wisdom and the word of God; in fact one can and should go further, and restate the conviction that this understanding of the origin and constitution of the natural world undergirded the scientific revolution as a whole, and inspired many of its pioneers; as the inscription at the entrance of the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge still reads, "The works of the Lord are great, sought out by those who take pleasure in them".

Why then do I have misgivings about ID? I confess that I feel churlish in criticising those with whose aims and ideals I have so much sympathy. Some of my doubts are technical - that the identification of structures which could not have evolved is not well grounded, that ID does not propose any mechanisms that can be scientifically tested, that it has not led to any realistic programme of research. I do not want to expand on this here - but refer for example to “Debating Design” (ed. Dembski and Ruse, CUP, 2004), and to the recent “Dover trial” (do a Google search!) in Pennsylvania, where a school board was being sued over its introduction of ID material. The scientific world, including many active research scientists who are Christians, is seriously unimpressed with ID, and sees it a religiously motivated and ill informed invasion of its territory. If the target group of your apologetic arguments is secular materialist scientists, ID is unlikely to be a good starting point.

However, rather than discuss these technicalities, I want to explore more basic issues. They may be illustrated with reference to the vexed question of the origin of life itself; even the simplest of currently living organisms seems much too complex to have arisen “naturally” or “by chance”; none of the current proposals carries conviction (the difficulties are clearly expounded by Paul Davies in his book “The Origin of Life” - and not from an ID perspective!) Here are two possible Christian responses. First, “this is impossible to explain - it must be a miracle, there must be a God” (or if you want to be less committed, “an intelligent designer”!) Or second, “this seems impossible to explain; but since I believe in God, who had life in mind from the beginning, I think it worth going on looking for an explanation. There must be something very subtle and deep here!”

ID focusses on what is not yet explained; it looks at the gaps; and it finds God there. It therefore finds itself taking a negative attitude to explanation - because that threatens its thesis. A proper Christian attitude believes in design, and sees it as a reason to look for an explanation; “explaining” is not the same as “explaining away”! I vividly recall David Attenborough enthusing over the remarkable eye of a fish, and wondering how on earth it could have evolved. “Some people” he said “will say that God did it; others will look for a more detailed explanation!” A Christian is free to do both! In fact, believing that “God did it” is the best justification for looking for a more detailed explanation! Moreover the things that we DO understand are an evidence of design; think of molecules like DNA and the way they encode information so cleverly!

As a consequence of its focus, ID involves a deficient philosophy of nature; it identifies certain features as evidence of intelligent manipulation, as not explicable “naturally” and therefore as “designed”; other features of nature whose origin and function are explicable “naturally” are therefore not regarded as “designed”. But this is a “wedge” of an entirely different kind than the “wedge of truth” that ID proponents talk about. From an orthodox Christian point of view, the whole world in all its workings comes from God; in Him “all things hold together”. We do not think of God interacting with and manipulating an independently existing “nature”; in fact the concept of “nature” is hardly Biblical! “The laws of nature” are for a Christian a summary of “the way God usually acts”. The ID approach to nature is not a good starting point for a Christian apologist.

Thirdly, ID does not help at all in dealing with the really difficult apologetic issues, surrounding evil, pain and suffering. As has been pointed out by others, a God who is mainly seen as responsible for the bacterial flagellum, which makes some infective organisms even more dangerous, is not very attractive, even though he may be intelligent! There are undeniably major issues of this kind raised by the story of the development of life, which need to be faced; but ID does not help in facing them.

Fourthly, ID has deliberately set out to be vague and noncommittal in many areas; it makes no claims about the age of the earth (most but not all of its adherents fully accept the apparent multibillion year ages of the universe, the earth, and life on earth); it makes no claim to identify the intelligent designer which it detects with God, let alone the Christian God; extraterrestrial aliens could be responsible. This vagueness may be an advantage in trying to introduce ID into a school system which bans the promotion of a particular religion (the Dover trial judge did not think so!); it is hardly a benefit for the Christian apologist. (There is an apparent inconsistency between these claims of non-religious commitment, and the publication of ID books by Christian publishers and their promotion in churches and by Christian movements.)

There is more than enough room for scepticism about the adequacy of current explanations for the origin and development of life; there is every reason to expect new discoveries, new mechanisms, new marvels. (Think for example of Lynn Margulis’s suggestion, initially revolutionary, that certain intracellular structures such as mitochondria, the tiny power houses within cells, are evidence of an ancient invasion by one kind of bacterium of another, or of Jim Lovelock’s ideas about the way living things have shaped and preserved the whole environment of the earth, the “Gaia” hypothesis.) There are also good grounds for being critical of those who use evolutionary biology as a basis for atheistic propaganda. But ID is leading us down the wrong road, and fighting the wrong battles. If Christian apologetics is identified with the ID position, then it will be seen at the present time as negative and “anti-science”; and in the future such an identification will seem increasingly embarrassing as new discoveries inevitably fill in the “gaps” in present knowledge.

There are already good “design” arguments based on the “fine tuning” of the physical laws and conditions in the universe and the solar system; it is unwise to use them to “prove” God’s existence; but they clearly disclose a universe consistent with Christian presuppositions. There is every reason to believe that discoveries in molecular biology and biochemistry will display the same kind of “fine tuning” in the sphere of the life sciences; it is encouraging that there are Christian scientists involved at the cutting edge of research of this kind; I hope that their attitudes and convictions will not be drowned out by the more  conspicuous noises being heard from the ID camp. I hope that the advances in understanding and explanation which they and their colleagues make will be used in a much more positive way than in ID literature and films, to demonstrate the wisdom of God in creation. One proper aim of the Christian apologist should be to remove the barriers which seem to make it impossible for non-believers to come into living and personal contact with the personal God of the Bible, the giver of the illuminating Spirit of  truth, the Father of our Lord Jesus, who waits for the invitation to come in and eat, and who still works miracles in the lives of those who respond. If ID has removed such barriers for some people, I am glad; I just fear that it may create more barriers than it removes.

Paul Wraight has retired from teaching physics and electronics at the University of Aberdeen, and is writing on design.

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