Over at Biologos, an evangelical theologian named Robin Parry has written a hit piece titled, God is More Than an Intelligent Designer. Now, I have no problem with someone criticizing Intelligent Design. But I do have a problem when someone criticizes it without getting out of his armchair and taking a look at the evidence for and against it. My own position is that Intelligent Design theory should be evaluated on strictly scientific grounds. Parry, unfortunately, criticizes it for all the wrong reasons, which can be summed up in a single, dismissive phrase: “Your God is too small.”
Is Parry right? Let’s have a look at his arguments.
God of the gaps?
The problem with Intelligent Design (ID) is its tendency to look for God (or simply a “designer”) in the gaps of scientific explanations. So-called irreducible complexity, for instance, is seen as evidence of this “designer” because science cannot (in principle, we are told) explain it in terms of natural processes. But if future science did actually explain any alleged instances of irreducible complexity, then such instances would cease to be evidence of the “designer”. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
Well, of course. That’s the whole idea. Science stands or falls on the evidence. ID claims to be a scientific theory, so it has to be falsifiable.
Parry appears to be making an incorrect assumption, however: he seems to think that Intelligent Design requires the “designer” to intervene in, or tinker with, the physical world, overlooking the possibility that God might have “front-loaded” the cosmos, setting up its initial conditions so that life (including complex organisms) would emerge naturally. (Front-loading the laws of Nature wouldn’t work.) Parry should be aware that several leading figures in the Intelligent Design camp – including Professor Michael Behe – have argued that no tinkering by the designer is necessary. Indeed, in his book, The Edge of Evolution (pp. 229-232), Behe describes in some detail how the design of life could have been accomplished without any interference. [To be sure, philosopher and ID advocate Stephen Meyer disagrees: he argues that if chemistry can’t explain the origin of DNA, neither could the initial conditions of the universe; but this is a fallacious argument, because it compares apples and oranges: the laws of chemistry aren’t specific enough to account for DNA, but that doesn’t mean the initial conditions of the cosmos couldn’t possess the requisite specificity.] What this means is that in order to falsify the claim that irreducible complexity points to a designer, it isn’t enough to show that irreducibly complex structures could have arisen naturally. One also needs to make a plausible scientific case that no “bias” in the fundamental parameters or initial conditions of our cosmos would have been required, in order to generate these structures. (If biological complexity could only be explained by appealing to cosmic fine-tuning, that would be merely pushing the question of design one step further back.)
I might add that ID theorists have never claimed that phenomena which cannot be explained in terms of unguided natural processes are (a) evidence for the existence of God (as opposed to an unknown Designer), let alone (b) the only possible evidence for God. So the “God of the gaps” accusation is simply a baseless canard.
The designer: just another being?
The problem here is that the “designer” — which almost every ID advocate thinks is the biblical God — is pictured as one being among others (albeit a more intelligent and powerful one) acting as a cause in the world in the same manner as other causes act in the world.
Most ID advocates do indeed identify the “designer” with the biblical God, for philosophical and theological reasons – but not for scientific reasons. And no, the “designer” is not pictured as “acting as a cause in the world in the same manner as other causes act in the world,” for the simple reason that Intelligent Design theory is silent regarding the designer’s modus operandi. No-one knows how the designer acts. Nor does any ID advocate claim that the designer is but one being among others. Indeed, it is difficult to see how an ID proponent who upholds the fine-tuning argument for cosmological design (as many writers over at Biologos also do) could regard the designer of the cosmos as “one being among others.” At the very least, such a designer would have to be something lying beyond the cosmos – in other words, transcendent. The “one being among others” objection looks plausible only if we confine our attention to biological design.
God doesn’t act like that
The reason that this is a problem, at least for Christians, is that classical theology does not picture God in this manner — as one cause or being among and alongside others. Rather, divine Being is of a fundamentally different kind from creaturely being, and divine causation acts at a different level altogether. God is the one who imparts be-ing to the whole of created reality and who enables all of the powers of causation within creation. So God was the explanation for the whole, but was not to be found in the gaps.
There is nothing to prevent God from being both the One who imparts being to created reality and Someone Who intervenes in history. Indeed, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all insist that He is precisely that, for they ascribe various miracles to the Creator. Christians, for instance, believe in the virginal conception of Jesus. I fail to see how a theologian could gladly accept the virginal conception but balk at the idea of God bringing about a few divinely guided mutations in the lineage leading to human beings.
God and science don’t mix
The explanations of the empirical sciences function at the level of secondary causation within the created order, and pay no attention to metaphysical questions of primary causation. As such, God does not feature in scientific explanations. This is unproblematic so long as scientists don’t imagine that reality can be encompassed within the realm of what science can explain — that road ends up collapsing in on itself. Treating some things in the world (but not others) as the result of God rather than of inner-creational causes is to mix up these different levels of explanation. Setting divine and creational causes up in opposition as some kind of zero sum game is unhelpful.
To deal with the last point first: it is a myth to claim that Intelligent Design sets divine and creational causes up in opposition to one another. Rather, what it does is set guided and unguided causal processes in opposition to one another. Now, it is certainly possible for a theologian like Parry to maintain that all law-governed natural processes – including the processes leading to the formation of carbon (which is required by all living things) in the early history of the cosmos – are ultimately guided by the Creator. He is entirely correct, of course; but that kind of statement would cut no ice with a scientist. However, if one could show that the formation of carbon was itself a highly fine-tuned process, then he might conclude, as the late Sir Fred Hoyle did: “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.” Hoyle was hostile to religion, but he was courageous enough to follow the evidence where it led.
Parry asserts that God does not feature in scientific explanations. That would have been news to Sir Isaac Newton, whose Intelligent Design arguments I’ve documented in detail here. And in case someone wishes to object that Newton lived 300 years ago, when the rules of science were different, then how about the late nineteenth-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), who put forward a scientific argument for the existence of a Creator and who insisted that science didn’t rule out talk of a Creator; it merely ruled out discussion of his modus operandi? Heck, there have been at least 31 great scientists who made scientific arguments for the supernatural.
But if nineteenth-century scientists don’t impress you, then how about some prominent twenty-first century scientists who reject methodological naturalism? Here’s atheist cosmologist Sean Carroll:
Let’s imagine that there really were some sort of miraculous component to existence, some influence that directly affected the world we observe without being subject to rigid laws of behavior. How would science deal with that?
The right way to answer this question is to ask how actual scientists would deal with that, rather than decide ahead of time what is and is not “science” and then apply this definition to some new phenomenon…
There is a perfectly good question of whether science could ever conclude that the best explanation was one that involved fundamentally lawless behavior. The data in favor of such a conclusion would have to be extremely compelling, for the reasons previously stated, but I don’t see why it couldn’t happen. Science is very pragmatic, as the origin of quantum mechanics vividly demonstrates. Over the course of a couple decades, physicists (as a community) were willing to give up on extremely cherished ideas of the clockwork predictability inherent in the Newtonian universe, and agree on the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics. That’s what fit the data. Similarly, if the best explanation scientists could come up with for some set of observations necessarily involved a lawless supernatural component, that’s what they would do.
And here’s New Atheist and evolutionary biologist Professor Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True:
I’ve previously described the kind of evidence that I’d provisionally accept for a divine being, including messages written in our DNA or in a pattern of stars, the reappearance of Jesus on earth in a way that is well documented and convincing to scientists, along with the ability of this returned Jesus to do things like heal amputees. Alternatively, maybe only the prayers of Catholics get answered, and the prayers of Muslims, Jews, and other Christians, don’t.
And here’s P. Z. Myers, a biologist and critic of Intelligent Design, who regards the very concept of God as nonsensical, but who thinks that scientists could still discover and investigate causes that fall outside the natural order:
My position is that we cannot find evidence for a god, that the God Hypothesis is invalid and unacceptable, because “god” is an incoherent concept that has not been defined…
By the way, I do agree with Coyne on one thing: I also reject Shermer’s a priori commitment to methodological naturalism. If a source outside the bounds of what modern science considers the limits of natural phenomena is having an observable effect, we should take its existence into account.
Parry’s insistence that science has no place for God-talk strikes me as a trifle dogmatic, to say the least, when leading contemporary scientists who are also vocal atheists disagree.
Who designed the designer?
Let us continue with Parry’s piece:
Furthermore, the most that ID could ever demonstrate is that certain things in the world (but not the the world as a whole) were designed by a very intelligent (though not omni-intelligent) and powerful (though not all-powerful) being (or groups of beings). But such a being is more like an archangel than God. And of such a being we may still ask, “Who designed it?” for it would certainly not be the kind of thing that could explain its own existence. This intelligent designer would be as infinitely removed from God as a flea.
I’m sure Parry has heard of the fine-tuning argument. For advocates of Intelligent Design, this argument constitutes evidence for the design of the cosmos, while arguments relating to biological complexity point to life’s having been designed. So I don’t know why Parry thinks Intelligent Design can only show that “certain things in the world (but not the the world as a whole) were designed.” (And in case Parry wishes to object that our universe might turn out to be just a small part of some larger multiverse which was not designed, I should inform him that fine-tuning advocates have anticipated that objection: Robin Collins argues that a multiverse that could generate a universe like ours would itself have to be designed. Physicist Paul Davies also has a killer argument against the multiverse as an explanation for everything.)
I have a question for Parry. Assuming that the fine-tuning argument does point to the universe’s having been designed, would he agree that the designer of the universe would have to be omni-intelligent and all-powerful? If not, why not? (I’m asking because theologians and philosophers don’t agree on the definitions of these terms, and I’d like to know what Parry’s definitions are.)
What of Parry’s final point, that one could always ask who designed the designer, since “it would certainly not be the kind of thing that could explain its own existence”? For my part, I wonder what basis Parry has for his assurance that the designer of the cosmos “would certainly not be the kind of thing that could explain its own existence.” Why not? At the very least, one could argue that a transcendent designer of the cosmos might be self-explanatory. I’m not sure how Parry thinks an archangel could design a cosmos.
But as I have mentioned before, Intelligent Design theory doesn’t deal with the identity of the Designer. It is perfectly consistent to hold that scientific arguments can never establish that the designer is a self-explanatory Being, but that philosophical arguments can be marshaled to show that the designer of the cosmos is either a self-explanatory Being or a being kept in existence by a self-explanatory Being.
I am not for one moment suggesting that those who believe in God should not look at complex systems within creation and marvel at how they manifest God’s goodness and power — after all, such complex systems live and move and have their being in God, manifesting the Divine Logos — but that is a very different issue from seeking to find them as evidence of direct divine intervention. There be dragons!
I’ve dealt with the claim that Intelligent Design requires divine intervention above. Lastly, the problem with Parry’s “There be dragons!” dig at the ID movement (a reference to the medieval practice of putting illustrations of dragons, sea monsters and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps) is that most of the arguments for Intelligent Design were unknown to people in the Middle Ages, who believed in the spontaneous generation of life, and even fairly complex animals such as rats, mice and crocodiles from non-living matter. It was not until the invention of the microscope that we see Intelligent Design-style arguments appearing in the writings of scientists such as Robert Boyle. As for the universe, people in the Middle Ages were quite familiar with the Aristotelian view that it had always existed. No-one knew about the Big Bang or the fine-tuning argument. In other words, the “dragons” in the Intelligent Design account of the world are not old ones, but very new ones. The dragons may of course be slain, as new explanations for life and the cosmos are put forward – but my plea is this: let science, and not theology, do the slaying.