Giving the Critics a Fair Hearing

It goes without saying that ID isn’t the most popular idea in the world. Since its development and increased prominence in western culture, it has been widely derided and criticised. It has many, many critics.

Among those critics are people from a wide range of disciplines including biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and journalism. ID also has the misfortune of being disliked not only by atheists and naturalists (as one might expect), but also many theistic evolutionists, and even more surprisingly, many young-earth Creationists. There are of course many within those particular groups who take the design view, or are at least sympathetic towards it, but by and large it has critics from pretty much every discipline and metaphysical position out there.

In my own research, I have examined the work of most of the main opponents of design, that is, critics who have publically tried to refute it in books, papers, articles, and debates. My tentative assessment in light of the many criticisms, is that though there are a few minor points that critics get right on rare occasions, the main pillars of ID still stand unrefuted. It’s also clear that most people just don’t even understand what ID is. They fail to make basic yet important distinctions and cannot even represent ID in a manner that truly reflects the theory. Most detractors dismiss it out of hand and don’t engage responsibly with advocates of design. Having said all that, I don’t want to give ID advocates a free pass either. I’m not always happy with the way some ID supporters engage with the opposing side. Some on the pro-ID side can overstate their case and dismiss the modern theory of evolution without fully understanding it. I will be the first to admit that I don’t fully understand all aspects of evolutionary biology, though I have a fairly decent grasp of it. I’m still learning. I think the key is humility and understanding. The fault can often be on both sides of the debate.

As I’ve said, the majority of the critics do bad job of trying to refute design theory. Are there any serious critics? Yes. But I can count the number of serious, responsible critics (those who offer very strong objections to ID), on one hand.

Though I am an ID proponent, on this blog I aim to take a balanced and honest look at this issue. The last thing this debate needs is a one-sided polemic. The arguments on both sides need to be considered fairly. One way to help aid this spirit of self criticism is to really listen to what the critics say. To make the views of the critics easily accessible, I had the idea of feature a ‘Critic’s Corner’ series on this blog. Each post will focus on a specific critic of ID, and tell you a little about them. More importantly, it will document their published work, providing links to their work relating to this topic. In addition to this I will also document some of the responses from ID theorists to the critics. This, I hope, will make it easier to follow the threads of the debate. Some may object that this will give too much space to those hostile to design. But we must first listen to, and understand them (and in some cases learn from them), before we can refute them. This can only help to improve ID and move knowledge forward.

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Why the Question of Biological Origins Really Matters

In the foreword to the intelligent design text, The Design of Life, biochemist William S. Harris notes:

The scientific community continues to wrestle with the deep and fundamental questions: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How did a coded language (i.e., DNA) come to form the basis of life? How could multicellular life have originated from unicellular life? What is the origin of complex molecular machines that are inside every cell and that are necessary for life?(1)

Who cares?

Sometimes we can be too busy arguing with those who hold the opposing view, that we forget why we’re so intellectually and emotionally invested in this area of inquiry. On the other hand, it is lamentably the case that many people don’t even stop to seriously consider these questions. Here I want to pause, take a step back, and consider whether this issue really matters at all. I have always thought it does matter, and I think you should too. Here’s why:

1) It’s a question of historical significance.

As rational creatures, we humans have wondered about our origins for millennia. Even now, we still wonder. Critics of of the modern intelligent design movement would have you believe that this is just a recent controversy initiated in the US by anti-scientific Christian fundamentalists in order to surreptitiously inject creationism into schools. This narrative, however, is completely off the mark and also neglects the crucial point that this is a historically ancient dispute.

Anthony Long points out that ‘much that divides the two sides in modern America was already a major source of debate in classical antiquity, pitting theist Platonists and Stoics against evolutionist Epicureans.'(2) He further argues that ‘The Epicureans are antiquity’s principal evolutionists and opponents of intelligent design.'(3) As for those who argued for design around this period, in his historical survey of the history of arguments over design, Stephen Meyer writes:

Design arguments based on observations of the natural world were made by Greek and Roman philosophers such as Plato and Cicero and by Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides and by Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas.(4)

Moving further on, it continued to be an issue for the founders of modern science such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. Philosophers and theologians also eagerly entered the fray. For Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Thomas Reid, and William Paley, it was an issue that that dominated much of their work.

And here we are, still asking similar questions. Given its turbulent past, and relevance today, this debate isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. In fact, discussion around this issue has never been more vibrant and widespread, and its bound to continue on this trajectory. When we enter into this discussion, we aren’t merely arguing over a petty and parochial concern. We are engaging in a historically important and increasingly relevant dialogue, one that has occupied the minds of some of the greatest intellects.

2) Science is interesting.

When asked what his approach was, the former editor of New scientist magazine, Alun Anderson asserted, ‘What’s happening in science is the most interesting thing in the world, and if you don’t agree with me just f*** off.'(5) This comment was subsequently made well known by Richard Dawkins.(6) Of course, I wouldn’t put it in such strong terms, but essentially I think everyone should have a healthy appreciation for science, regardless of ones worldview. I realise that in one sense this is a highly subjective claim, since people aren’t always interested in the same thing, but I think there is more to this point than merely being interested.

If you’re religious, you should be in awe of God’s creative genius and want to understand it in some measure. I use the word should very deliberately because theologically, I think humans have a moral and intellectual obligation to at least reflect deeply upon these matters. If you’re not religious, you may think that perhaps its not as much as an objective intellectual obligation, but rather more an expression of human rationality and curiosity. Either way, whatever worldview we happen to hold, science infiltrates into most areas of our lives. As Jennifer Wiseman explains

Agriculture, entertainment, energy production, communications, and health care are just a few of the ways science and technology shape life for people around the globe, and affect all other life on the planet as well.(7)

In terms of the study of the natural world, science is the most effective set of tools we have. And it’s a truly wonderful human activity.

3) Biology is about life.

The origins debate ‘remains a point of concern and controversy, because it deals with the greatest of all mysteries, our own origins, and our place in human nature.'(8) The good news is that all we have to do to begin a journey of self-understanding (and an understanding of our fellow animals), is to start by looking under our very own noses. The answer is right here in front of us.

David Berlinski highlights the importance of this point well when he notes that ‘There is a wide appreciation of the fact that if biologists are wrong about Darwin, they are wrong about life…’.(9) Biology reveals to us a world of stupefyingly complex living systems. Let us not forget that we are among these perplexing living systems. The debate over intelligent design is vitally important because it is a quest to understand the secret of life.

4) It has many intra and extra-scientific implications.

At the end of the day, does it really matter either way? Well, yes it does. The reason why it matters is that the answers to these questions have far reaching implications. If the truth behind nature is that design is real, it has many implications for science education (it would affect what we teach in the classroom). And some would argue that it would drastically change the way we do science, and how we define science itself.

Even if this is the case, surely there are more pressing issues we should be talking about like climate change and social equality? Indeed we should be talking about these issues, however that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about matters concerning origins either. We can and should think deeply about both because:

our concern about humanity’s social ills and our planet’s environmental catastrophes—and our motivation to act—are deeply connected to what we think about human origins.(10)

Our origins outlook also colours our views on religion and ethics, and it no doubt affects several other areas.

On a more fundamental level, one’s views on this subject can affect one’s worldview and vice versa. Stephen Meyer notes that:

Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for  poses a serious challenge to the materialistic worldview that has long dominated Western science and much of Western culture.(11)

If you believe life is a product of design, you will see humans and animals in a much different light. Likewise, if you think that life is purely the result of chance and necessity, that will make you see things differently too. Our beliefs about the nature of nature have huge consequences.

5) Science is an inclusive and interdisciplinary inquiry

Science today is a more interdisciplinary endeavour than it ever has been. The bountiful fruits that it has given us has made us realise that nature is far richer and multifaceted that we could have thought. Now we need all the conceptual and practical tools we can muster. Today there is a dazzling multitude of fields and sub-fields within science with many areas overlapping and cross-fertilising. Modern biology in particular takes an integrative approach towards the study of the natural world due to its increasing interdisciplinary nature and this makes for a stunningly powerful research process.

The debate about the nature of biological life is fascinating partly because it touches on so many areas including molecular biology, genetics, zoology, paleontology, information theory, engineering, computer science, sociology, philosophy, ethics, education, politics, religion, history…The list goes on. This is a very inclusive problem, and so people from a multitude of disciplines can weigh in.

Conclusion

For me, the origins dispute has great significance and importance. I hope the reasons I outlined above might encourage you to reconsider this topic and find out more for yourself. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this is merely a sectarian theological argument over creationism. To be perfectly honest, I often find ‘creation/evolution’ disputes to be quite banal, repetitive, and irritating. Worst of all, too often such discussions rapidly descend into heated idiological slanging matches. As a result, casual observers withdraw and decide to wash their hands of the issue. Understandably, onlookers might conclude that it’s not a dispute worth getting involved in, given it’s often unproductive and unfriendly nature. Speaking as a Christian, many people in my generation see it as a stale and embarrassing sideshow that is primarily the interest of close minded fundamentalists, eagerly wishing to defend their particular interpretation of the creation accounts in Genesis.

But in my view, there is another way of looking at these perennial questions. Debates about creationism and evolution often get hopelessly muddled with the issue of intelligent design. This confusion has been encouraged by people on both sides of the debate unfortunately, due to a failure to make basic distinctions and less than savoury motives. Arguments about creationism are primarily theological disputes. And though I wouldn’t say this of all creationists (young and old-earth), many seem to use science merely as a tool to achieve a theological end. However, as I have tried to argue, there’s is much more to this topic than the often stale and unedifying “creation vs evolution” arguments. This is a rich and multifaceted  dialogue, with many important implications. It’s also just tremendously fascinating.

References

  1. William A. Dembski & Jonathan Wells, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, 2008), p.xiii.
  2. Anthony A. Long, Evolution vs Intelligent Design in Classical Antiquity (2005), Available at: http://muller.lbl.gov/pages/Long.pdf
  3. Ibid.
  4. Stephen C. Meyer, A Scientific History and Philosophical Defense of the Theory of Intelligent Design, Religion, Staat, Gesellschaft 7, no. 2 (2006): 12-14, Available at: http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?command=download&id=324
  5. Simon Kirk. Interview with Alun Anderson. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20080226010755/http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/alumni/notable_alumni/interviews/Anderson_interview.html
  6. agillesp123 (2006) Dawkins vs. Tyson. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_2xGIwQfi
  7. Jennifer Wiseman, Why Should Christians Care About Science?, available at: https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/2013/09/24/why-should-christians-care-about-science/
  8. Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God (Cliff Street Books, 1999), p. xi.
  9. David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, (United States: Basic Books, 2009), p.186.
  10. Fazale Rana, Why Argue About Evolution? (2015), Available at: http://www.reasons.org/articles/why-argue-about-evolution
  11. Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).