INTELLIGENT DESIGN: A COMMENTARY
Revised September 22, 2005.
This article is presented in conjunction with two others:
(1) The Fine-Tuned
a presentation of the Intelligent Design argument at its best, a
sympathetic treatment, noting especially the cosmological variables,
aside from the contemporary argument about evolution.
(2) A Biblical God:
Questioning the Leaps of Faith
. This explores in greater detail the
tendency to extend the Intelligent Design argument to support
In the news lately (see
references at the end of this paper) is a controversy that needs some
consideration from a variety of perspectives: Should the theory of
"intelligent design" (abbreviated as ID) be taught as an alternative to
classical Darwinian theory of evolution? ID suggests that the mysteries
surrounding life and existence are so complex that there must be a
transcendental force subtly guiding the process. It's not as flagrant
as mere creationism, and allows that for the most part, evolution
happened as generally described in science textbooks. However, there
may well have been some Divine influence.
Some proponents of ID are clearly Christians with a bias towards
supporting a Biblical view of God, and are using ID as a kind of
scientific support for that view. A goodly number are more generally,
shall we say, "spiritual," perhaps "deistic," that is, conceiving of a
more general idea of a Divine presence, but not necessarily aligned
with any mainstream religious doctrine or tradition. (It should be
noted that many people, including a number of America's "Founding
Fathers," are and were religious only in this more general sense,
participating in the 18th century Enlightenment tradition of
questioning the authority and totalitarian claims of mainstream church
authorities, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.)
Some of these articles and others bring the controversy to the fore,
debating the pros and cons of the "science" involved. My own thinking
is that we need to recognize a number of the factors involved that go
beyond the question of the validity of the ID argument.
I will here note that I am somewhat mixed, sympathetic with a number of
the ideas in the ID position, but wary indeed of many of the ways
people are using this argument, and it is this wariness that deserves
special attention. My own spirituality is somewhat deist, as noted
above, supported by a mixture of ideas from Whitehead's "process
philosophy," Jung's depth psychology, the writings of Hindu Yoga and
Buddhist scholars and sages, and a variety of other sources. Yet, while
being respectful of practitioners of Biblically-based religions, I am
suspect of recent trends in bringing religion into the public arena,
crossing the church-state barrier. Equally, I suspect trends that
generate the illusion that Biblically-based religion is rational, based
on actual objective fact–and therefore applicable to believers and
non-believers alike. The political implications of this edging into the
intellectual sphere are enormous.
Types of Theory
In high school geometry, I learned a useful construct: Knowledge
proceeds from hunch to hypothesis with the addition of a little bit of
evidence. A hypothesis may advance to the status of theory with the
accumulation of a fair amount of evidence, and with enough testing, a
theory may then perhaps advance to the status of postulate. Even more
accepted is an "axiom," but in the flow of the history of knowledge,
these are the ones that shift when the "paradigm" shifts.
At present, our being on the earth is understood from the accumulation
of evidence to be the result of a myriad of processes, with the most
prominent one in the realm of biology being that of Darwin's theory of
evolution. There's lots of evidence for it! Yet there are admittedly
many gaps in our knowledge, many mysteries. (A mystery, according to
the philosopher of comparative religion, Huston Smith, is one of those
things in which every answered question spawns yet further questions.)
Intelligent Design is more of an alternative hypothesis in the face of
the many unanswered questions: Might what seem like highly improbable
convergences have been the result not of random trials but at least in
part subtly guided by some transcendental influence? (Corollary 1:
Might that influence be what mystics have intuited, the Great Divine
Unity of the Cosmos? Corollary 2: Might that Divinity be the very same
as the God described by the Bible?) There are some in the ID field who
buy the first hypothesis and corollary, but not the second.
ID refers also to a wider range of questions than those addressed in
the recent articles–i.e., the vulnerability of Darwinian evolution to
critique. It also considers the seemingly fine tuning of basic physical
constants and forces in the cosmos.
At any rate, the first clarification is that ID should not be thought
of as a competing theory. Rather, it may be offered, at best, as an
open-ended question, alongside the teaching of what we know and to what
degree we know it so far. In fact, however, those who advocate the
teaching of ID are using this wedge of doubts to suggest the idea that
since the intellectual foundation of secularism is weakened, it is
okay, it is plausible or acceptably rational to believe in the
mysteries and doctrines associated with the Biblically-based religions.
This is muddy thinking. A heightened level of critical thinking of the
realm of relatively more rigorous intellectual discourse in no way
dilutes the responsibility to evaluate modes of discourse that operate
at a distinctly inferior level of evidence-based thought. (Now,
religious belief in certain contexts may be valued as distinctly
superior, and that's okay, because those contexts work with different
criteria, such as heartfelt intuition, personal meaningfulness, or
social acceptability. Certain ideas, such as "I love my wife" may well
be highly valued and in some deeper sense, true; yet such ideas are not
relevant to nor operative in the realm of rational discourse, nor need
Let me say that again more simply: Being smart in one part of an
argument doesn't excuse a slipping into dumb or specious (cleverly
misleading) arguments in a later part. The ID argument is plausible,
even if slightly flawed. The connection of the idea of a Divine
Intelligent Designer with the qualities of a Biblical God, one who
revealed Himself to the Jews but not the Chinese, etc., is a very
non-rational argument. These arguments are more clearly presented in a
How comes it that faith-based discourse is impinging on rational
discourse, and pretending to be of equivalent value? The answer is
politics. Were there no political implications of this dynamic, it
would be of interest only to intellectuals, operating at the level of
discussions between certain liberal theologians and existential
philosophers. But in fact, the controversy is a symbolic battleground
for a major political trend: May mainstream religion impose its values,
disguised as rational fact, on the general population–including many
who do not hold to the doctrines of the dominant religion?
Which Type of Discussion is Taboo?
We know that we shouldn't teach religion in the schools, although that
itself is controversial. Is it possible to teach about other religions,
and can such teaching be done respectfully? Inevitably, certain
sub-topics will arise and draw questions as to whether in our culture
we can be respectful of certain doctrines or ideas. Science so far has
for the most part been relatively free of these ethical concerns, but
now the boundaries are getting muddy.
Here's a radical proposal: Without asserting the truth of ideas that
might challenge the doctrines of religion, can such ideas be presented
to schoolchildren? If so, at what age? If not, why not? How much
doubt can be introduced? When is this kind of discussion part of the
stated goal of promoting critical thinking in young people? If it is to
remain taboo, can we at least admit that this is a forbidden topic?
"There shall be no teaching or allowing of discussion about whether or
not the basic assumptions of the religions by which we live are in fact
true or even plausible."
My own sense is that such statements are in fact taboo, that there's a
general consensus even among the great majority of atheists and
agnostics, secularists and believers of alternative religions, that the
dominant religions not be challenged in any fundamental fashion. It
would seem intolerant and rude, and, since this general theme is partly
or largely collectively unconscious, it is laced with a sense that the
dominant religion would turn hostile and engage in the active
persecution, torture and killing that has been its major mode of
maintaining superiority over the last 1800 years.
Yet it seems to be fair game to attack science as the representative of
secularism, or relative non-orthodox belief. There are of course many
religious scientists, though I would suspect that most are less
doctrinaire in their beliefs than some of their more zealous
The Semantics of Belief and Faith
Politically, the live issue is the status of religion in the
socio-political arena. It is presently widely respected, with terms
such as "faith-based" suggesting a general attitude that is moral and
uplifting. The semantics here need to be noted:
Faith is a general attitude of optimism, a sense of
trust in the cosmos, a willingness to plunge forth with courage. It can
be very subtle, and–this is essential–faith can be exercised with no
recourse to any doctrinal assumptions.
A contrasting term that is unfortunately all too
associated with faith is belief, and more particularly, doctrinal
General belief is an affirmation
of a thought, and can reflect something as general as, "I believe in
you," "I love my wife," "My grandkids are the cutest in the world," and
"I believe in music." In this sense, it is clearly an expression of
more personal relationship, just a little stronger than mere
preference. Yet no absolute or objective fact is being asserted.
Doctrinal belief is the willed
assertion of an idea that may well go against any rational thought,
logic, or basis in fact. Beliefs such as the idea that Jesus could be
born of a virgin, rose from the dead, and operates within a system of
Divine Threat of Eternal Damnation and Salvation by "Faith,"–these are
doctrinal beliefs that have no reference to anything in the realm of
objective fact or rational thought.
So "faith-based" has become a rhetorical device to lure people who like
the general values of love, faith, responsibility, and other noble
ideas to align with this actually quite sectarian movement. Faith-based
is primarily Christian and supports a political alignment with a number
of specific social controversies. Today these deal primarily with the
status of abortion and homosexuality, though in a larger sense, they
draw people to a general socio-economic party system whose policies far
transcend these "hot-button" themes and serve the interests of the
Spirituality and Religion
Another differentiation that needs to be made is between spirituality
and religion. The former is the activity of developing one's
connectedness or relationship with the Greater Wholeness of Being, also
known as God, Allah, Goddess, Great Spirit, etc. Now that we've gotten
past the blind provincialism and arrogance of colonialism, it is
possible to consider that there have been many great sages who have
been spiritual in paths other than Christianity or its related
Biblically-based religions (i.e., Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, various
Indigenous People's religions, etc.)
Religion is the social organization of the spiritual impulse. It
involves education, gatherings for rituals, and numerous other
functions. However, religion is subject to all the dynamics that
operate in all other social organizations–business, education,
university academies, clubs, unions, professional societies, government
at all levels, and so forth. Very often organizations evolve to serve
the interests of the administrators, and lose their connection with
their mission. (This is why businesses have made a big deal out of
creating mission statements–to re-align their intentions and priorities
with their higher ideals.) Certainly this has been flagrantly
apparent in the excesses of popes and televangelists, the coercive
persecutions of heretics and minorities, and other shameful behaviors
practiced under the guise of "morality."
While people may be sympathetic with spirituality, many are less so
about organized religion, especially the more entrenched mainstream
Another difference here that many people don't know about is "deism,"
which involves a general belief in or sympathy with the idea of a
spiritual foundation or overall force operating in the cosmos. Such an
attitude is common in many settings and has been a viable mode of
spirituality for many Americans, especially during the time of the
Founding Fathers in the 18th Century. It was part of the Enlightenment.
It's important to note that many scientists, also, are
deistically-inclined, while not affirming any particular theology, and
more, rejecting the assertions of the more zealous representatives of
mainstream religion. I fear this lively alternative is unknown to the
great majority of American people, who seem to think either you're a
"believer" or you're not–as if those were the only two alternatives.
These points must be emphasized because media pieces speak of those who
confess to a sympathy with the ID concept as if they were supportive of
the more religious trends that carry this concept to unwarranted
conclusions–i.e., support for a more fundamentalist, Biblical-based
Contemporary arguments in the newsmagazines and newspapers speak
about ID mainly in relation to theories of evolution, but in fact that
is only a part of the whole: ID also speaks of the more compelling
large number of "coincidences" that account for the way stars and
galaxies form, the way stars burn long enough to support life, and so
Some alternative theories that pose as being more "scientific" are
in fact even more far-fetched than the idea that there is a Divine
Intelligence operating to align and fine-tune the cosmos, or exercise a
gentle guidance in evolution. The concept of multiple or near
infinitude of alternative universes is one such possibility. Maybe it's
true! But it is far-fetched, and weirder than a general God.
I confess that the peculiarities
of the kind of God described in the Bible may be even more difficult to
explain, but again, that concept is the product of historical forces,
mixed with a blindness to a more obvious but less sectarian divine
source. The Gnostics touched on this insight, but were politically
suppressed by the newly-dominant Church in the 4th and 5th centuries.
I will confess my own bias as being somewhat consistent with ID, but
not relying on it. My own theory, simply stated, affirms that mind is
as much of a dimension of reality as matter, time, space, and energy,
and a deep consideration of the nature of mind suggests a unifying
dimension or level that has not as yet been able to be detected in any
empirically replicable fashion. That there may be other mysterious
influences and dynamics as yet undiscovered is not too far-fetched,
considering the history of major breakthroughs and paradigm shifts just
in the last two centuries. So, drawing on some of the insights of South
Asian psycho-spirituality, Jungian depth psychology, and especially the
process philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne
and others, I have turned away from my previous state of agnosticism
and now affirm a type of spirituality–perhaps in a sense that is
similar to that affirmed by Einstein. Yet it is far from the doctrines
of mainline religion.
To say that Biblically-based religion is "consistent with"
Intelligent Design is to engage in a flagrant act of misdirection, to
pretend that there is a degree of rationality that is somewhat the same
as the rationality in ID. This is completely false:
Intelligent Design is a theory, and it has a
kind of argument that is somewhat rational. It may be wrong. It might
be right in ways that we have yet to appreciate.
Traditional religion involves a series
of assumptions, each of which are flagrantly irrational,
counter-rational in fact, and should not in any sense be granted the
same status of rational discourse as that which involves ID.
The first assumption is that if there is
a designer, there is no plausible alternative to that designer being
the God of the Bible. But of course, there are an infinite number of
ways of conceiving God (or Goddess, or Gods)–some less personal, some
quite impersonal–though that is difficult for ordinary people to
imagine. Throughout the following analysis, there needs to be a
consideration of alternative explanations, and this is generally not
When alternative explanations are considered,
they are often limited–still other alternatives are ignored–and not
infrequently presented as "straw men," extreme concepts that are easy
to critique. This is a shallow form of rhetoric and must be critiqued.
The other assumptions of
traditional religion are described and critiqued in a related web-page:
Politically, may we bring into the classroom not only a critique of
science and its perhaps excessive assertions, but also a critique of
religion and its excessive assertions? Can school analyze religion and
expose it as fundamentally non-rational?
Again, the focus is on politics. I have no objection to people
believing anything they like, especially if that belief is more in
terms of "this is my preferred imagery," "this is about my relationship
with Jesus," or "this idea works for me." Such statements make no
pretense to objective truth, and cannot easily be translated into
social policy. Policy, we must remember, is coercive, it asserts the
right of the collective, through laws and the police, to enforce norms.
Through social policy, homosexuals can be jailed, persecuted, and
denied a variety of civil rights. Through social policy, women can be
forced to bear children, even if these are the products of rape or
incest. It is not the wealthy who suffer from such policies.
Eisenhower spoke a warning about
the military-industrial complex–a warning that is as relevant today as
ever!–but now we have another complex–the self-righteous coalition of
the wealthy and the promoters of conservative religion. Using abortion
and homosexuality as flags of morality, they gather people together to
reinforce the mass injustices of an economic-war policy that makes the
rich richer, the poor–and now even the middle class–poorer. It is a
policy that is reinforced by a pervasive unconscious racism, a fear
that the stability of America is being undermined by the lax morality
and welfare entitlements of minorities and immigrants. All these fears
are turned via rhetoric into a reactionary pattern that is most clearly
expressed in the extremists on the right, the White Supremacists, the
terrorist bombers at the Olympics, and so forth.
Perhaps all this seems a bit far-fetched in itself, but there's a
Biblical phrase, "by their fruits shall ye know them." Who is
benefitted by the attack against the teaching of contemporary
scientific understanding in the schools? If they are to be believed,
what will be their next claim?
Such perspectives, then, must be brought to bear in the consideration
of the current controversy about Intelligent Design.
– Wallace, C. (August 15, 2005). The evolution wars. Time
Magazine, 166 (7), 26-35.
– USA Today, August 15, 2005, p.13A: How should schools
evolution? Also: USA Today, letters to editor: August 16, pg 12A.
– Orr, H. A. (May 30, 2005). Devolution: Why intelligent design
isn't. New Yorker.