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Sunday, 18 November 2007

An Evangelical Approach to Intelligent Design: Some Initial Thoughts

I have not discussed Intelligent Design (ID) on this blog outside of a few passing comments. Given that this is a blog about evangelicals and evolution, I’m sure some of you found this to be a puzzling omission, somewhat like discussing evangelicals and American politics without once mentioning Republicans. But evangelicals who do not support ID need to tread very, very carefully when stepping into the ID minefield, since voicing opposition to ID can result in being labeled a compromiser, a materialist, or even a Darwinbot.

I suspect that public awareness of ID will increase significantly in the next few months. The ID movie Expelled will be released in February 2008, and media coverage of the movement, as well as public debate on the merits of ID, may exceed the coverage and debate that surrounded the 2005 Dover trial. Last week PBS aired Judgment Day, its documentary of the trial, and the public discussion has started to heat up.

So the time is probably right for me to provide some initial thoughts on ID. I will simply make some brief statements describing my views. Comprehensive arguments supporting these statements will need to wait for future posts.

A) Statements about the ID

(Note: See my What does Evolution Mean? post for an explanation of the various definitions of evolution that I use below (eg. E3, and E4)).

1. Design and Evolution are not necessarily incompatible

Acceptance of “design” does not necessitate a rejection of evolution, nor vice-versa. Many thoughtful people accept both design and evolution. There are those who agree with the E4 definition of evolution (that evolutionary mechanisms offer a complete physical explanation for the development of life), but still see strong evidence for design in the universe. Other’s, (eg. Michael Behe and Stephen Jones), support the E3 definition for evolution (ie. common descent), but also strongly support ID. (See here http://telicthoughts.com/see-what-they-see/ for one vocal ID proponent’s comments on the compatibility of design and evolution).

2. ID movement: Opposing evolution seems to be the primary objective

Notwithstanding #1 above, it seems to me that the primary objective of most ID arguments, articles, websites, and organizations is to disseminate anti-evolution propaganda. ID is primarily a weapon used to demonstrate that biological evolution is false; positive conclusions seem secondary.

I reject this version of ID. I not only accept the evidence for evolution (both E3 and E4), but also disagree with the ID statement that design provides a better explanation for the development of life on earth. First, design and evolution are not competing origin alternatives. Second, evolution provides an excellent physical explanation for the development of life on earth.

3. Anti-ID movement: Promoting a Purposeless Universe

On the other hand, it seems that the primary objective of most ID opponents is the promotion of a purposeless universe. Anti-design arguments are used as weapons against theism in general, and Christianity in particular. There certainly are vocal ID opponents that are also Christians (eg. Ken Miller) but these voices are often drowned out by the “no design – no purpose” mantra.

I reject this type of opposition to ID. The declaration that design and purpose are logically impossible given the randomness inherent in evolution is a metaphysical statement, not a scientific statement. I also claim that this metaphysical statement is completely wrong.

4. Intelligent Design is not identical to Creationism

Intelligent Design is not identical to Creationism (at least the Creationism of the “Young Earth (YEC)” and “Flood Geology” varieties). The two are often conflated leading ID to be referred to derogatorily as Intelligent Design Creationism. I do not believe this is fair since most ID proponents do not come from a YEC heritage, do not agree with YEC ideas, and do not participate in dishonest science like the RATE project.

It is true that ID has welcomed YEC support, has turned a blind eye to gross flaws in YEC science, and has even allowed “creationism” to evolve into “intelligent design” through the transitional “cdesign proponentsists” form (see this post for an explanation). So non-specialist observers can be forgiven for equating the two. But I maintain they are not the same. I think this note from Michael Roberts to the ASA mailing list says it best.

“ID may not be an evolved version of YEC, but many of its genes have been spliced in from YEC.”
5. Attempts to Detect Design will Fail

I provisionally claim that attempts to scientifically detect “design” within the universe will be a failure. Notice what I am not denying that ID can ever make scientific claims. I am simply stating that I suspect their attempts to demonstrate design scientifically will not be successful.

B) An Evangelical Approach to ID

1. Christians should Emphasize Purpose rather the Design

Design is a tricky word, and depending on the definition, I could agree that God designed the universe. However, I think that God’s design, his plans, his processes, and his purposes, are far beyond anything we can imagine let alone expect. They do not fit our concept of design, a concept coloured by modern engineering. But God is not an engineer, and design may be an unhelpful term in defining the relationship between Creator and creation. I much prefer the word purpose. The God revealed most fully in Jesus Christ, has a purpose for the universe and for humanity. Proclaiming this purpose is our mandate.

Also note, it is clear that God has a purpose for the universe, but I do not believe this is equivalent to saying that there is purpose (or design) inherent in the universe.

2. ID: Theologically Dangerous?

My primary discomfort with the ID movement, however, is theological. It seems to elevate natural theology above God’s revelation in the incarnation and his written word. Why are we still searching for evidence of a designer? Do we not trust God or the witnesses to the resurrection? Why, like Thomas needed to see the scars in Jesus’ hands, must we see proof of God’s fingerprints in creation?

I am not saying that we should ignore God’s revelation in creation. It is part of the coherent package of knowledge that supports our Christian faith. However, it is not the foundation of our faith or knowledge. Any attempt to make natural theology the foundation of our faith is dangerous.

C) So where do I stand?

It is clear that I do not identify with the ID movement. On the other hand, I share a faith in Jesus Christ with many, many ID proponents. I also disagree with the majority of ID opponents that claim meaning is simply what we make of it, and that there is no overall purpose for creation. In a debate so thoroughly polarized, where does my view fit? Maybe like Owen Gingerich, I should describe my position as intelligent design (small I, small d) rather than identifying with the ID movement itself. However, I’m uncomfortable with even this. In fact, I’d prefer to wear the label Creationist (albeit an Evolutionary Creationist) rather than Intelligent Design Proponent. At least with creation, I am identifying with a concept that is thoroughly biblical.


Cliff Martin said...

I also appreciate Owen Gingerich’s “small case intelligent design”.

I find this interesting: Michael Denton’s 1985 book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, spawned the ID movement. Philip Johnson and Michael Behe, inspired by Denton, followed with their books, and ID was born. Denton basically saw no viable mechanism for Darwin’s natural selection. Of course, the whole science of DNA expanded dramatically in the following decade, and supplied us with the mechanism Denton (and Darwin himself) had found lacking. The result of this is that Denton has abandoned the ID movement (asking to have his name removed from the Discover Institute roster) and returned to evolution.

VanceH- said...

Great post! You ask "Why are we still searching for evidence of a designer?" I think one of the key drivers is the complexity that we see in biological systems. If you look at something like photosynthesis it is a stretch to imagine it happening randomly. It is much easier for a Christian to attribute that to God. As you point out however, the ultimate theological implications of this approach is grim.

Martin LaBar said...

For what it's worth, I recommend my own post, "Young-earth creationism vs. Intelligent Design," which includes quotations from leading lights in both movements, indicating that they aren't the same, although, as you say, they are often confused, and there's reason to be confused.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Steve's final comments about ID being not only scientifically bankrupt, but theologically bankrupt as well. A Wise Man once said, "A wicked generation seeks a sign" (Matt 16:4; Luke 11:29) and I believe this is exactly what Intelligent Design is in the business of doing. It seeks to validate our faith in God by scouring the animal kingdom for biological miracles. Jesus' response to this kind of sign-seeking can be found later in the same verses I cited.

Anonymous said...

The bible says, God spoke the universe into existence. To say God would have to think about it, the way a human would and design it, piece by piece, belittles who God is. Perhaps to God, speaking the universe into existence is no more a task than us ordering a coffee. We don’t need much design, we only need to know what we want. If you word search the bible, you will find that “design” or equivalent type words it is a concept related to man, and not to God.

I don’t think most thoughtful people believe in ID and evolution. ID is creationism pure and simple. Or worse, ID is the God of the gaps. Each time we discover more things about our world, the God of the gaps gets smaller and smaller and smaller. It was not long ago we thought lightning was God striking down the unrighteous, but then Benjamin Franklin comes along and says, no, it’s just static electric discharge. The movement of the planets was a mystery, and only God could control it, but then we’ve learned that gravity can explain those lights in the sky.

On the other hand, it seems that the primary objective of most ID opponents is the promotion of a purposeless universe. No, that’s just wrong. I’m opposed to ID, because it’s a lie. It’s a lie in the name of Jesus to get creationism taught in schools. I’m opposed to ID, because it belittles whom God is. I’m opposed to ID because, If God wished us to see He wouldn’t have hidden it on the inside of a bacterium figellum. He would have written it on each tree and each rock.

We don’t need ID to explain a rock? No we have rules of science that does that just fine. We don’t need ID to explain a raindrop? No, we have rules of science.

OK, so, lets see, God’s not needed to make a raindrop, or a rock. Gosh, God keeps getting smaller and smaller and smaller.

Steve Martin said...

Cliff. Very good points. It will be interesting to see how much of the ID leadership will stay in the game given the scrutiny that is being focused on their “research”. I see that Dembski & Well’s new book “The Design of Life“ has just been released. See: http://www.uncommondescent.com/the-design-of-life/publisher-braces-for-controversy-as-definitive-book-on-intelligent-design-hits-market/

Vance. Thanks for your comments. I do certainly understand how many Christian's can buy into Paley's "watchmaker" argument. On randomness vs. divine action, I do not think they are necessarily contradictory … that is a topic for a future post as well .. no way I can do it justice in a single comment (and I need to think this through anyways :-) ).

Martin. Thanks for the link.

Jordan. That indeed is the most pertinent point! Some day I want to do a little study on comparing 1st century pharisaic thought and 20th & 21st century evangelical thought. I am convinced that in many ways they are very similar … I’m betting it would be Evangelicals, not atheists that would be on the receiving end of Jesus' criticisms if he were here today.

Elbogz. Note that I'm saying this objective is true for MOST ID opponents, not all of them. However, you may still be right and I may be wrong on the primary objectives of most ID opponents. I’m just going by my own exposure to the debate. From my experience, my statement is indeed very true – the most vocal opponents do indeed see their opposition to ID as part of a battle against religion. Ken Miller is an exception, Francis Collins is an exception, large parts of the ASA are exceptions, but I think these voices are very much in the minority.

AIGBusted said...

Hey bro! I saw your blog on Atheist Blog roll. You should check me out sometime, I debunk Answers in Genesis.



Tom said...

Funny thing, Ryan posted these exact same words on my blog where I am on the atheist blogroll. Ryan, you have an interesting blog, but "bro", if you want to present yourself personably, know enough about this blog to know that it isn't on the atheist blogroll and quit copying and pasting invitations!

Steve, great post.

Elbogz is right. When YEC or ID propose to provide evidence for God, when (and a big IF) a person accepts evolution, then God gets explained away little by little. That was precisely my experience.

At the same time, I don't believe there is anything wrong with perpetually seeking evidence of God in nature, even if it is to validate the creation story. I think your point is that people simply accept the cross -- that Jesus died and rose again -- why can't they just accept that God created the world "somehow" and just forget about it?

Well first off, there is a lot of scientific support and a large movement in opposition to ID/YEC. There are no such proofs to invalidate the resurrection. The second point is that evolution has this way of illuminating all that we share with every other creature. It therefore blurs the distinction of humans with the rest of the animals. What does redemption mean for a hairless monkey? Thirdly, (and this is the biggie) evolution requires randomness (or apparent randomness). How can God be in control and use randomness? How does that not lead to meaninglessness? (As a few of us have been discussing on my blog, these are not easily (nor even possibly?) answered, but I am trying to convince myself and others that meaning can only be attained when randomness is part of the process).

You and IDers have the cross and gospel in common. Perhaps if you are small i small d, you can find enough of the lingo to talk with them.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for the comments.

Re: Aigbusted comment on my blog So that’s what happened – he found me through you. I was a little puzzled how I got on any “atheist blogroll”.

Re: Commonality between myself and Evangelical ID’ers. Yes we do have a lot in common. However, I strongly believe ID can lead one to a false understanding of God, very similar to 1st century Judaism. The way many of the Hebrews interpreted the scriptures led them to expect a triumphant Messiah who would vanquish their enemies militarily. Since Jesus more or less ignored politics, focused on an internal change of heart rather than an external change of government, and then was tortured and killed, the Hebrews wrote him off. It was “offensive” to them (in the apostle Paul’s words) that their Messiah would be crucified. Many Evangelicals also seem to want to focus on “the God of Glory” rather than “The God of the Cross”. “Let’s worship this brilliant, intelligent designer who made this awesome creation and we’ll use logic & science to prove it to those atheists / materialists”. Worshiping an awesome creator is fine, but focusing on this at the expense of the "God of the Cross" and using "The God of Glory" as a lens to view reality is wrong (for a lot of reasons). As you and other atheists have pointed out, you can have that sense of “awe” and “religion” without attributing it to the Christian God (or any God for that matter). The “God of the Cross” is the lens we Christians should be using – that is the heart of our good news.

Re: the challenge of human shared ancestry with all other life. I agree that this is a huge stumbling block for many. eg. how do we account for the “Fall”? When did human’s become ensouled? These are tough questions I’m still working through. Not sure TE / EC have great answers for this yet. But, I don’t think this is the biggest distinction between ID & EC proponents. It’s a view of divine action … which is essentially your point below …

Re: randomness excluding God’s divine action. This is a huge topic and I haven’t touched on it much yet. But it really distinguishes TE / EC from both atheists / deists on the one hand & ID’ers / YEC’ers on the other. Essentially I as an EC do not see any conflict between God creating & natural processes (eg. evolution). Allan Harvey’s 4th “Natural Theology” lecture I referred to in http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2007/10/what-does-evolution-mean-framework-for.html has a brief introduction to this. Have to leave it at that for now. I’ll try to post something brief on your blog.

Michael said...


I find your post on Intelligent Design to be one of the most honest and fair descriptions on the blogosphere. But I think your linking of ID to natural theology is unfair. There’s a difference in a program that seeks to generate scientific insights via signs of intelligence versus a program that uses science to springboard into metaphysical or theological claims.

Though you maintain that Intelligent Design and Creationism are two different beasts, you confused the two when you claimed ID to be theologically dangerous. As I said above, ID has different goals than does natural theology, and it doesn’t “elevate natural theology.” It certainly doesn’t elevate it above “God’s revelation in the incarnation and his written word.” ID says nothing of God, much less of an incarnation or written word.

Intelligent Design is not a search for “proof of God’s fingerprints in creation.” The search is for signs of intelligence. The sign is not the thing signified. Thus ID is unlike Thomas’s search for a person identified by certain signs.

Steve Martin said...

Michael: Welcome. I had to re-read my whole post since I wrote it almost 2 years ago and what I think and say now might be very different. However, after reviewing it, I’m not sure I’d re-articulate my thoughts much differently (with the exception of the major correction stated below).

I think your concerns in my post really address the paragraph under “2. ID: Theologically Dangerous?”. Now there was a question mark at the end of the subtitle for a reason, BUT what I should have said was “IDM: Theologically Dangerous”? In the paragraph itself I think I clearly stated that it was the movement itself with which I have concerns, but unfortunately the title didn’t reflect that. And as to the IDM, I think the comments I made are still pertinent. Check out my post The Sad State of Evangelical Apologetics for a related discussion.