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Intelligent Design: An Identity Problem

Posted by Rick · February 25th, 2005 · 6 Comments

Not long ago, I wrote an article called “The Paradox of Intelligent Design” which resulted in a few interesting comments. Mostly, those comments demonstrate the very illogic of believing in the Paradox that I was trying to point out.

This article is not another attempt to explain to those embracing the logical form of the Intelligent Design argument why that argument is illogical in form. I want to go a step further. Let’s ignore the illogic of the argument usually presented. In this article, I’m going to talk about what it would mean to accept Intelligent Design as true. (Really. I’m serious.)

For one thing, the existence of a Designer is not incompatible with even a purely darwinian theory of evolution. The teleological argument for the existence of a Designer is just about “how the Universe came to be.” Darwinian theories of evolution — so-called because although they don’t look exactly like what Darwin said, Darwin provides the starting point for “darwinian” views — talk about “how the Universe came to be the way it is.” There’s a difference.

On the one hand, you’re talking about how something began to exist. On the other, you’re talking about how it came to exist in a particular way. First is a question of existence. Second is a question of how something looks, operates, behaves, fits into the rest of existence — hopefully you get the point.

Hence, the teleological argument — and that’s what “Intelligent Design” boils down to — and the theory of evolution explain two different things.

A Question of Honesty

First, let’s cut through some crap. When 99.999999999999% of Americans argue for the idea of Intelligent Design, they’re arguing for the existence of the Christian G-d. Under normal circumstances, this would not be a problem. After all, why can’t Christians provide teleological reasons for believing in their G-d? There’s nothing wrong with that. (There are ways to construct logically-sound, well-formed teleological arguments; it’s just not usually done.) The irony is that the supporters of the One True G-d, who stands in diametric opposition to All That Is Evil are making this argument for dishonest reasons.

The dishonest reason Christians push Intelligent Design, of course, is that the U.S. Constitution makes it impossible to teach, in public schools, that our Universe was created by the Christian G-d. Furthermore, many (but not all) Christians believe the biblical story of Creation and a darwinian theory of evolution are incompatible. The problem is more profound among so-called fundamentalist Christians, because they believe that every word of the Bible — at least the words they decide should be treated this way — has to be taken literally.

Christians push Intelligent Design because it’s the only way to get around these co-existent problems. Since they can’t legally teach their Christian beliefs in public schools and since darwinian theories, in their opinions, are anti-biblical, Intelligent Design provides a way to get the government to teach something that is at least compatible with their religious beliefs. They simultaneously get to question otherwise incontestible views they feel are in opposition to their religion. And properly implemented, it lays the groundwork for introducing children from non-Christian families to Christianity.

That’s dishonest.

So let’s try a little honesty. Let’s seriously consider Intelligent Design and what it might mean if we were not simply interested in pushing a Christian Agenda.

The Identity Problem

As noted, Christians like Intelligent Design because they believe it dovetails nicely with their theological beliefs. But one wonders how much it would upset Christians if the rest of us recognized how nicely Intelligent Design can be abbreviated “I.D.” Is that coincidence, or is Someone working behind the curtain? Either way, when you get serious about Intelligent Design, what we have is an identification problem.

Most people — and perhaps Christians especially — understand a version of the teleological argument for Intelligent Design that is too simplistic. (Maybe for that reason, we should require teaching Intelligent Design in our schools, just not in our science classrooms!) To them, the world is so amazingly well-fitted together that it must have a Designer. And, of course, what better candidate for Designer than the Christian G-d?

Yet a serious look at the Universe reveals that there’s a lot of Chaos. Furthermore, an intellectually-honest approach to Intelligent Design leaves open a couple of its own interesting questions: Who is the Designer? And is there just One?

As nearly as we can tell, early humans — closer in time to the events, by the way — believed that these two questions went together. Of course the world was designed! Not only was it designed, but the various designers kept things in relatively good working order. The god of agriculture watched carefully over agricultural design issues; the god of the sea took care of the ocean; the god of the sky took care of the sky; the god (or, more typically, goddess, because unlike Christianity the “heathen” could have female gods) of love took care of relationships (at least the loving ones); and the god of mysteries presumably took care of how all this stuff remained confusing, but believable.

Then — so the bible-based views of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam tell us — along came Abraham, who said, “There’s just One G-d” and he began the lines that destroyed most people’s belief that multiple gods designed and care for the Universe.

Polytheism, Monotheism & The Problem of Evil (and Disorder)

Christians will spit fire from their eyes, ears and noses over this, but the polytheistic beliefs of early humans, including the Greeks and Romans in particular, make more sense than do the monotheistic views of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

For one thing, the problem of Evil is more easily explained.

In Christianity, evil presents a bit of a paradox. If G-d is perfect, and perfectly good, how do bad things happen? How does evil exist? Christians explain this by the confusing doctrine of Free Will. Somehow, this perfect G-d decided that “he” — the Christian G-d is addressed as “he” by virtually all but the most rebellious of Christians — wanted to create beings who could choose to believe in “him” or not.

Why this was important is anyone’s guess. The most usual reason given is that G-d is the universe’s most enormous egotistical entity. He created humans with Free Will to show what a terrific guy he is. Or perhaps it was “to prove his glory,” whatever that means. For some reason, angels with Free Will (like, apparently, Lucifer, his followers, and the angels who showed Free Will by not rebelling), wouldn’t suffice.

The Glory of G-d

The G-d of Judaism and Christianity is very much consumed with the need to show his glory and be honored. See Exodus 14:4, 14:17, 14:18, 29:43, Proverbs 25:2, Isaiah 42:8, 43:7, 48:11, 66:18-19, Ezekiel 28:22, 39:21, and so on.

These are just a few of the nearly one hundred or so verses of the Jewish and Christian scriptures where G-d supposedly talks about his glory; in most of the references, one could argue that people are simply saying that G-d is glorious. And this, by the way, doesn’t even count the words of Jesus on the subject.

So here you’ll find things like “I will gain glory for myself” and “I will not give my glory to another” — whoa! no ego there! — and, of course, the ubiquitous promises of permitting the lowly ones (that’s us) to see his wonderful glory if we behave and grovel adequately enough.

That “first creation” of angels didn’t go so well, anyway. The ongoing “cause” of evil in the Universe is that one of the angels somehow chose to disobey G-d. If you know the Christian story, you’ll recognize some inconsistency here, already alluded to above. Another inconsistency is that G-d is supposed to be the cause of all things.

At any rate, one reason given for why G-d created humans is to show his glory in creating those who could choose to worship him or not. Those who would not were to be sentenced to death; only it’s not really death, it’s the perfectly-good G-d’s version: eternal burning in a lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15.) But because he’s such a terrific guy, he sent his only begotten son — who, by the way, just happens to be him, too (don’t ask) — to die in the place of those who rejected him, including those who rejected him before he was born. And if they just believed in him, that would fix everything. (John 3:16.) And, of course, he wouldn’t really die. (Which makes one wonder about the whole death sentence thing.)

Another way of looking at it is that there wasn’t really a death sentence, it’s just that Jesus took on everyone’s sin, even those who hadn’t committed any yet, went into hell and then escaped. (2 Corinthians 5:15.) This is true even though anyone else who committed sin and went to hell wouldn’t be able to escape — because not escaping is part of the “sentence.”

Anyway…that’s one possibility for the identity of the Designer.

Another is the old idea: Numerous gods, like those of the Greeks, Romans and other “heathen.” And these gods participated in the design and functioning of the Universe. But they don’t always see eye-to-eye. So one of those gods might like people and bring good things to them. Another might not. Like the Christian G-d, these gods get upset when you diss them. But dissing one god generally makes another god happy. The result is that there’s good stuff in the world and there’s bad stuff. There’s living and there’s dying. There’s one or more gods out to get you and another one or more who think “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The problem of evil isn’t as complicated as it is in the Christian version, because some gods are just that way. And all of them are subject to getting pissed off and taking it out on people, animals, plants, river streams, oceans, mountains and other parts of the universe.

Frankly, if you have to accept some kind of theistic belief, polytheism hangs together better than monotheism.

But you won’t see proponents of Intelligent Design suggesting that we teach that there might be more than one Designer. That wouldn’t comport well with the hidden agenda of the Christians pushing the idea.

Incidentally, because I tried — really, I tried — to keep this article as short as possible, I don’t even discuss the possibility of an impersonal theistic or even non-theistic Designer or Designers. But one could very well posit some kind of non-personal, non-humanoid, even perhaps some non-cognizant “force” or “forces” as being responsible for the “design” of the Universe. (Perhaps one such candidate is a biochemical theory for the origin of the universe, and then an argument that biochemical “laws” are responsible for the subsequent appearance of design.) There’s evidence that some of America’s Founders held such impersonal theistic beliefs.

No Inconsistency in Teaching Evolution

I said before that the theory of evolution and the teaching of Intelligent Design are about two different things. And there’s no reason — except Christian fundamentalism — for thinking that they are incompatible. It’s possible for there to be a Creation Theory for earthly life, a Theory of Evolution for earthly life and for both to co-exist.

This is because Intelligent Design is just a “theory” — not of the same type as the “theory” of evolution, but a “theory” nonetheless — that the world is a product of a Designer (or multiple Designers). The idea that there is a Designer doesn’t require us to say “and ‘his’ design didn’t include evolution.”

At the same time, evolution doesn’t explain how existence happened. It doesn’t even talk about how life evolved out of whatever existed before there was life. For that, you need an ancillary theory. That theory might be a biochemical theory; or, it could be some variation of Intelligent Design, including unabashed Christian monotheism.

Proponents of Intelligent Design don’t advocate teaching these things, however, because — as noted near the beginning of this article — the motivation behind their advocacy is essentially dishonest.

Categories: Philosophy


6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chepooka // Feb 25, 2005 at 9:54 am

    It’s funny — your google ads included some links to Intelligent Design websites — where I found this: “The Christian Guardians Fellowship is a worldwide organization of Christians who have joined together to protect Christianity against all who assault it, especially atheists who believe in Darwinism.”

    Seems pretty straightforward to me. How come their political arguments never sounds quite so honest? I have no problem with the belief that there was one designer and that’s the one true God. But, what I do have a problem with, as you suggest, is the bullshit they use to get their way politically. It is, as you assert, incredibly dishonest. Just cut the crap people.

    And, note to Christians: thou shalt not lie.

    I believe in evolution, but you don’t see me trying to disprove the Christian theories of creation. Why can’t these people have their beliefs and respect others’? Because, you know, this notion of respecting the beliefs of others IS in that constitution thing.

    They consider any belief outside THEIR belief system an “assault”? Hmmm, sounds like a threat to me. These people truly scare me.

    Now, I understand that for Christians, their religious beliefs trump the constitution — but that doesn’t mean they get to change the constitution. Or disobey the LAWS of this country just because they confict with Christian laws. If they don’t like this country the way it is (as THEY are so fond of saying), LEAVE IT.

  • 2 Rick Horowitz // Feb 25, 2005 at 10:13 am

    Heh…good point about the advertising. I don’t usually get to see the ads because, as I understand it, if I click-through to them, Google would think I’m trying to cheat. (I sure wish more people would click them, though. So far, in about three months of having them up, I’ve earned $12. As you know, they won’t even send a check until you earn $100, so I’m expecting my first check sometime in 2006.)

    I wouldn’t suggest that Christians have to leave the country if they don’t like the laws. But the Constitution is an anti-majoritarian document. That’s what a lot of people just don’t get. They don’t worry about us losing constitutional rights because it doesn’t seem to impact them…and they imagine it never will.

    The thing is that the purpose of the Constitution was to make our nation strong through the protection of the rights of all citizens against the potential tyrannical rule of the majority. In other words, the Constitution only matters when someone’s freedom is under attack. After all, you don’t have to defend yourself against people who are friendly to you and already willing to let you live your life as you choose!

    Our Founders fought and died for these principles of freedom. Through the years, numerous American citizens have supposedly died defending it. (This was before the time of purely corporate wars such as we currently wage.)

    Without the Constitution, the majority might still be able to pretty much live how they want. Maybe. But one thing is for sure: that which made us strong — disagreement, diversity, the right to explore even unpopular ideas to see what might come of them — is increasingly at risk.

  • 3 LS Butts // Feb 26, 2005 at 11:08 am

    There is a excellent book that I would recommend regarding this subject “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris.

  • 4 Rob // Feb 26, 2005 at 2:04 pm

    I’ve just started to read your post, but if I don’t ask this now I’ll forget. Why did you spell God “G-d”? I’ve run across this before, from someone I had reason to believe was an Orthodox Jew. Just curious.

  • 5 Rob // Feb 26, 2005 at 2:41 pm

    1. Excellent post. It’s a subject that kind of demands a lot of space for exploration, but you managed to make your point then pull out.

    2. At the same time, evolution doesn’t explain how existence happened. It doesn’t even talk about how life evolved out of whatever existed before there was life.

    I’m not sure what you’re talking about. Maybe you meant that the theory of natural selection (let’s assume R.A. Fisher’s neo-Darwinism) can’t itself contain the argument for its own creation (the setting of initial conditions). But a lot of work has been done in this area for decades, and it’s gone pretty far. All you need is a self-replicating molecule, the precursor to RNA. Scientists have demonstrated in the lab that there’s a form of RNA that will replicate without an enzyme. Presumably, a much simpler molecule came together in such a way that it naturally cloned itself. There are various intriguing theories as to how this may have happened. But once you have a self-replicating molecule, natural selection starts working. You have life. Albeit a form that we’d hardly recognize. But life.

  • 6 Rick Horowitz // Feb 26, 2005 at 3:04 pm

    Evolution — particularly darwinian evolution — doesn’t explain how things come to exist ex nihilo. At best, it takes something capable of heritable mutation and explains how the mutations can, within the context of their environment, be advantageous and thus persist into subsequent generations. Because of the advantage, those subsequent generations may not only persist, but outperform (so to speak) “related” things without those (now called “beneficial”) mutations.

    But darwinian evolution does not explain how non-living things (e.g., inert chemicals) combine to produce life. There may be a theory one calls “evolutionary” that explains this, but it wouldn’t necessarily be darwinian.

    At least, that’s how I understand it. And that’s the answer to the semi-express question: “What are you talking about when you say what you said?”

    Thank you for asking and giving me a chance to clarify (or at least to have another shot at clarifying!) my statement.

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