On the Unintelligent Idea of Intelligent Design
Intelligent design is pseudoscience—it aims to debunk the theory of evolution and larger ideas about planetary science and cosmology, and proponents of ID come up with some pretty interesting analyses in order to do this, not all of which are worthless in and of themselves (concepts like front-loading of evolution, irreducible complexity, and so on), but with a stark problem hanging over each and every thesis: intelligent design is not empirically testable, and is scientifically…hogwash. It can yield virtually nothing productive. Like the overgrown, toothy bully in the back of the classroom, it exists only to be noticed, to interrupt, and to drive its own self-serving “wedges” into the heart of matters it is incapable of understanding on its own merits, but sure would love to fine-tune to its own tired rhythm.
To my knowledge, not one proponent of ID has yet published in a peer-reviewed science journal [addition: William Dembski claims to have published under peer review, with just one teensy problem: the science of his work was not at issue in the review, only the “philosophy” of ID] and this isn’t because the mean old evolutionists are running an exclusive clique; it’s because the ideas behind ID simply have no scientific merit. The big bang theory is incomplete, as is the theory of evolution. They have healthy competitors in the marketplace of ideas, and ID is not one of them. These ideas continue to progress, however, because experimentation and observation continue to mold them into something more than they were before. It’s not inconceivable that both are sorely lacking in certain respects. But that’s no cue to invoke a deus ex machina—it’s simply a catalyst for further serious research. Teleological mumbo-jumbo has no place in a forward-moving world largely built upon the scientific method. ID often uses the scientific method to formulate and develop its hypotheses, which is ironic, since the central idea behind ID is that the scientific method is inadequate to begin with. Unfortunately, one cannot achieve any sort of productive understanding of nature without it.
The dumb central fallacy of Intelligent Design
The main blunder made by Intelligent Design proponents is the assumption they make before the pen ever hits the paper: that there is a boolean sort of choice between a chaotic Universe in which everything happens by chance, or a neat and cloudless one which is a product of the design of creative intelligence. This is one of the smallest, most deceptive, and most perspective-limiting ideas in human history, and also happens to be one of the more pervasive ones from ancient Greece forward.
ID is usually purposefully vague about who the ‘designer’ could be. It’s been proposed that it might be some sort of superadvanced alien race, or a kind of holistic intergalactic hive-mind, or, quite frankly, Jesus Christ. Not all ID worshippers are aligned with monotheism, but, boy, most of them sure are. Phillip E. Johnson, a born-again Christian attorney whose 1991 book Darwin on Trial seems to have gotten the whole thing started, is a prime example. Not only Johnson but practically all of the leading voices in the Intelligent Design “movement” can be linked to the Discovery Insitute, a “conservative” Christian think tank based upon perversions of the ideas of C.S. Lewis (who, incidentally, is one of my favorite authors of both fiction and nonfiction in any of the several languages in which I read—I will devote a post to him in the future). Initially, the Discovery Institute was funded almost entirely through handouts from Howard Ahmanson, Jr., the inheritor of a large banking fortune and an active “philanthropist” whose aim is to empower all of those miscreants who espouse his own brand of Stone Age thought. It didn’t take long for other wealthy individuals and groups to hop on the bandwagon. “We’ve got trouble right here in River City,” the call beckoned. They answered. The call of dominionism is, apparently, a loud one.
As I discussed in the series on climate change and in the piece on big media, money=bandwidth in the Information Age. Folks, that’s the only reason Intelligent Design is being talked about at all.
So what about this notion of intelligence, chance, or nothing? I have to be careful that I don’t get you lodged in the middle of a quagmire of ontology and semantics, but it is really a question fundamentally linked to shades of meaning, so that’s gonna be difficult to avoid. Got any Advil? Or at least some coffee?
A clear nighttime sky is a Rorschach test. Look at those stars—they have to mean something, don’t they? The proponents of Intelligent Design would have us believe, ultimately, that the stars are “preaching” at us; not preaching in a religious sense, necessarily, but broadcasting some sort of greater meaning than just orderly natural laws and spectral analyses. The modus operandi of ID is that of assuming unknowables. Both the vastness of what is out there and the boggling intricacy of what one finds under the microscope are, scientific discovery by scientific discovery, piecing together the hugest jigsaw puzzle of all, and Intelligent Design enthusiasts are absolutely sure they know what the big picture is going to be in the end: that of a human face. Intelligent Design is the last gasp of the age-old way of thinking that put Socrates, Galileo, Darwin, and many others on the witness stand—the notion that the Universe exists for the good of humanity and for no other reason.
Take the idea of creation. I don’t mean creation just in the cosmic sense, but creation of anything at all. Can I really create anything? I write music, a lot of it. When I’m hunched over the microphone or over the manuscript paper playing or scribbling away, am I really creating anything? I might be assembling works of art (well, that’s how I like to look at them, anyway) that didn’t exist before, but did I really create them, or am I just putting together old motifs and structures in new and hopefully interesting ways? If my music didn’t contain elements that were recognizable, it wouldn’t be listenable—it would sound interesting, maybe, but not coherent. That’s where culture comes from. Creativity isn’t something from nothing, it’s the molding of existing ideas and motifs into new shapes and modes of being. Or take a potter working at her wheel. When she gets through there’s going to be a vase or a bottle that wasn’t there before, but isn’t it made out of materials that existed all along? So what does it mean to create something? In the most concrete sense, we can’t create anything. We can only reorganize. That’s what we do, and I think it’s great, not depressing.
It’s an unknowable, folks. Whether you’re talking about writing a song or the chemical synthesis of elements heavier than helium, humankind is a long, long way from understanding where the original “something” came from. We’re not even close enough to say whether or not it’s possible, and we may never be, masters of the Universe though we might eventually become. You can think about the paradox of the chicken and the egg all day long, and it’s sometimes fun to do so, but it’s not productive and it’s probably not going to be for ages into the future. It leads the mind in circles. Creationism in all forms is nothing more than an attempt to break that circle by assuming the identity of something that can’t be known.
Now, theist and creationist reactionaries will tell you that the circularity of the notions of existence and creation is “proof” of the existence of God to begin with. Since scientists haven’t yet defined these unknowables in the whole great-big near-infinite few hundred years they’ve been approaching it empirically, therefore, God must exist and God must be essentially human (read: Intelligent) in character.
Well, okay; what is intelligence? Humans are intelligent in relation to sheep, because we can read and build things out of blocks and sheep can’t. Sheep could be said to be intelligent in relation to paramecia, because sheep can express themselves by bleating, they can choose whether to eat this patch of grass or that one, they can lie down and take a nap if they want, and paramecia just sort of swim along and engulf organic material and that’s about all to be said of them in this context. Intelligence is not some sort of finite, formal characteristic that a being “got” or “don’t got.” Much like everything else, viewed realistically, it’s a relativistic concept.
Our intelligence is clearly unable to probe the nature of existence at its deeper levels. There are paradoxes and problems even within the solid understanding of the Universe that we’ve managed to accumulate thusfar. But, without assuming the identity—and almost always an anthropomorphic identity—of what appears to be an ultimate unknowable from our limited perspective, no proponent of Intelligent Design can tell you how the insufficiency of our intelligence in this regard yields the necessity of an “intelligent designer” of the Universe. It simply cannot be done, and trying to do it has yet to produce any ideas or materials of significance, and quite certainly never will. This is the central fallacy, the nonadhesive unglue, that holds the notion of Intelligent Design together. Between the ignorant assumption that the Universe is built upon factors of chance and the equally ignorant assumption that its organization and the organization of Life must be products of something we would understand as “intelligence,” there are, in fact, unlimited shades of possibility. It is not one or the other.
Why Intelligent Design is up to no good
You don’t need me to interpret the scientific method for you, but, purely for purposes of discussion, let’s make sure we’re on the same page: you see something and you want to know how it works. You examine it, and you make an educated guess. You then set out to prove that you’re right, and to do this, you have to conduct experiments which are repeatable and verifiable. If things don’t turn out the way you thought, then you try again or move on to something else. But if you can prove that you are right about your hypothesis, then you have a new piece of knowledge that can be used to figure out other puzzles in the future. It’s entirely possible, and even probable, that a future discovery will prove that there are flaws in your reasoning, at which point the scaffolding of understanding must be torn down to the point of contention and reconstructed so as to be valid. It’s one step forward, and two steps back.
That’s how the scientific method works. From long before it was named and codified, it’s how every significant achievement, from the first human use of fire to the atom bomb to the microprocessor, was put together. Some of the achievements have been used for good, and some, such as nuclear weaponry, have been used for ill. But the “goodness” or “badness” of an achievement cannot be attributed to the methods used to attain it—atom bombs, NASA has proven, can be used to very efficiently propel spaceships just as easily as to massacre. It is the values of society which determine whether science is used for good or ill, not the nature of scientific discovery itself, which is inert in every attribute except for its constant progressiveness. Creationists are fond of saying that science cannot be trusted in moral matters—well, science doesn’t concern itself with moral matters. It simply pieces together reality one bit of information at a time, with the idea being to gather as much from the journey as possible, regardless of whether or not the destination is reachable. Some of its discoveries are very powerful. Power is not to be trusted in moral matters. Science is irrelevant to moral matters until subjective power grabs the wheel.
The idea of Intelligent Design, then, properly speaking, really isn’t a dangerous idea. Like all other ideas, it’s inert. But the reason the idea is “up to no good” is because the people behind it—meaning its advocates, not necessarily people who believe in it because they just don’t know better, or refuse to—are up to no good. What are their aims? Why are they all fundamentalist theists, and why don’t any real scientists with credentials take up their cause?
Galileo Galilei was not placed on trial by the Vatican simply because his work supported Copernicus’ theory that the Earth is not stationary and revolves around the relatively stationary Sun. Galileo himself did not believe that this idea contradicted scripture; he took Augustine at his word that the scripture should not be taken too literally, particularly in matters of natural explanations as opposed to moral constructions. Galileo was brought to Rome and tried for heresy because he made the Pope look like a fool.
But, as Carl Sagan points out in the opening chapters of his incredibly awesome book Pale Blue Dot, the notion of taking some parts of scripture literally while glossing over the implications of others presents an interesting problem: where is God speaking in metaphors, and where is He not? More importantly, how does this affect the authority of the Church and of the established centers of power which rely on its moral authority? The government of the United States, for example, claims to uphold the separation of religious dogma from State dogma—yet our system of justice and the very organization of the government, which is hierarchical, are clearly based on theistic, and, specifically, Christian precedents. This is not intrinsically a bad thing, but, when the empirically provable findings of science begin to question the basis for moral and legal authority, those at the top of the hierarchy—in terms of wealth, or of power—begin to squirm like so many paramecia. In God they Trust. In the light of scientific reasoning, they evaporate.
Before Cardinal Barberini was elected as Pope Urban VIII, he had been a supporter of Galileo and had frowned upon the efforts of the more “conservative” Cardinals to discredit and dishonor the scientist. When this more progressive cleric was elected to the papacy, Galileo began work on a book about his heliocentric findings, feeling perhaps that he would now be safer in publishing. This book, Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems), was published with the permission of the Inquisition and of the papal throne in 1632. Yet, one year later, the Vatican charged Galileo with heresy. His supporter had turned against him from his newfound station of power. Why?
Before Galileo had been allowed to publish, Urban VIII had personally warned him not to advocate heliocentrism. This is why the book was written in the form of a discussion of the two chief world systems, and not ‘A Discussion of the World System Based on Conclusive Scientific Evidence.’ The Pope had basically said, “Okay, you can publish this, as long as you argue with yourself so that it appears you don’t know what you’re talking about.” This, understandably, pissed off Galileo real, real bad. He knew he was right about the revolution of the Earth around the Sun, and he knew that his discoveries were important and of consequence for mankind. The Vatican was trying to suppress the importance of the consequences, because of the point raised by Sagan I mentioned above—it is all well and good for Augustine to understand that the scripture cannot be taken literally in some matters, but when you plant that seed of doubt into the popular consciousness, the plant that blossoms forth will tend to erode the soil of the Church’s authority, and this cannot be tolerated by centers of power which rely on that authority, in large measure, to retain wealth and control.
So Galileo came up with a solution. In his book, he cast the advocate of the old fixed-Earth Aristotelian hypothesis as, frankly, a damned fool. He gave him the name Simplicius, and he put the Pope’s words in the mouth of this neanderthal. The literary proponent of Galileo’s findings proceeds to tear apart the misgivings of Simplicius page after page. Scholars debate on whether or not Galileo was acting out of malice in doing this—but if not an act of malice, it was clearly an act of mortal frustration. Needless to say, the Pope changed his tune on Galileo once the book was published and the public began to discuss it.
Galileo was brought to Rome and tried for heresy in 1633, but not before he was given a thorough tour of the inquisitional dungeons therein. To avoid conviction, excommunication, certain torture, and possibly death, he was forced to completely recant his heliocentrism. His Dialogues as well as all past and future publications were banned by the Church and Galileo was imprisoned, the sentence being later commuted to house arrest. It was not until the reign of Pope John Paul II that the Catholic Church officially pardoned Galileo and admitted that its actions might have been “in error.”
Intelligent Design is an insidious and despicable idea because its proponents—and again, I mean serious proponents and not just the clueless denizens who sheepishly trail them without realizing the motives behind the idea they are espousing—are acting out of the same motives as had Pope Urban VIII almost four hundred years prior. They represent superwealthy businessmen and primarily Republican congressmen like Rick Santorum who have very real fiscal and social interests in maintaining as long as possible an oil-based economy even as the Earth is set to bake. To accomplish this they use circular reasoning and empty diatribe which confuse the less literate and inspires shameful attitudes of cynical passivity in the purposefully State-undereducated workforce upon whose labors their air-conditioned mansions are built.
Intelligent Design is more than a debate over the validity of evolution—that ID’s conception, funding, and dissemination are inextricably linked with centers of political and economic power indicates clearly that there is a greater and more sinister agenda at work. I don’t know how to say it more clearly.
Thousands of years in the future, perhaps scientists will arrive at the conclusion that the ID advocates were right all along. Perhaps a God wearing a business suit and toting an attaché case will descend from the heavens and shake hands with the President and deliver a heartwrenching address full of moral dicta to the UN General Assembly. Until that day, Intelligent Design exists only to obfuscate, to distract, to pacify, and to delude. Flush it down the toilet and watch as Newton’s laws carry it through the sewers that are its rightful home.
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