Lots and lots of good responses recently out there about the problem of “intelligent design” and its assault on science, reason and educational standards. I have three contributions to the ongoing discussion.
1) Increasingly advocates for intelligent design who aren’t just offering undisguised religious arguments are turning to “complexity” or “information science” to try and shore up their arguments. The most generous thing you could say about this strategy is that it may be offered honestly by people who’ve read a work or two of science fiction that touches on complexity and emergence and carelessly skimmed Steven Johnson’s Emergence. More often, I think it’s another kind of flim-flam intended to briefly nonpluss scientific opponents and razzle-dazzle members of the public who may not be biblical literalists but who think that there’s something about this invocation of “complexity” that sounds like common sense.
I kind of understand what’s going on here. When I first took an interest in complexity, emergence, autonomous agents and related topics, I have to confess I was privately thinking that somewhere in this subject matter was a thermodynamic miracle, a magic trick. I was more thinking that about human consciousness than I was the evolution of life (and I’m still inclined to think that mechanistic approaches to consciousness are flawed). It took me only a little while, however, to see that expectation was a perceptual flaw, related to the common tendency of observers to anthropomorphize when watching examples of agent-based emergent phenomena. Everyone who watches a program like NetLogo has a tendency to ascribe intention and will to the agents: “They’re trying to build a circle”. I think it has to do with a kind of cognitive algorithim we use to divide life from non-life when we observe the world. The same tendency makes us think when a system goes from simple beginnings to a systemically complex later state that there must be some hidden driver, plan, purpose or blueprint that is making that change happen. But completely contrary to what the intelligent design people suggest, there are a great many well-documented, empirically observable cases in the natural and human world in which complex results are obtained from simple initial conditions. Moreover, there’s no thermodynamic miracle: the people who think so are hopelessly parochial. They’re forgetting that the local phenomena they are observing do not exist in thermodynamic isolation from the larger universe. Once you situate life on Earth in the larger context of the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, the Local Group, the universe itself, as well as in the context not just of new species but the death or loss of old ones, there’s nothing inexplicable about it.
2) On the atheism point. Here I do think there’s a delicate tightrope that needs to be walked carefully. There’s nothing wrong with being both an evolutionary biologist and an atheist, and no reason to smother or or suppress either. However, I think it’s a tactical error at the least to insist that the former intellectually obligates the latter. That may be so in the particular intellect of a given person, but it’s not inevitable. I don’t think there’s any reason to regard someone who has a view of God as the uncaused cause as inevitably having a suspect understanding of evolutionary biology, or even a person who believes in a loving, intervening God as such. I think this much most scientists would agree on, either philosophically or at least as a matter of political realism. There’s a more delicate problem lying beyond that agreement, however. I’ve written about this a bit before in terms of the role of science and expertise in American public life, that at least some of the ground that intelligent design has gained in recent years rests on a deeper antipathy for the way that scientists and technocrats work within and alongside the state to intervene in everyday life.
There’s a kind of popular antipathy towards the interventions of science that is fed by the entrepreneurial activities of some experts who claim the authority of science (often at the protestation of scientists), often in the name of dubious or contestable “facts”. I continue, for example, to be frustrated by the weakness of many studies of the effects of modern media, that once you look closely at the design of such studies, or at the very small effect sizes, you ought take all but the very best with a gigantic grain of salt even if you’re predisposed to their conclusions. Yet there is a huge establishment of policymakers and experts who operate at the peri-professional boundaries of scientific practice who unselfconsciously will proclaim that such tenuous, debatable studies “scientifically” prove their case and justify the construction of huge policy interventions of various kinds.
Deeper still, I think that one of the things fueling the whole debate is the pop-culture representation of the scientist as supreme rationalist, the kind of second-cousin to Javert that Terry Gilliam was aiming his barbs at in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Think of all the entertainments and works of literature you’ve seen where “scientists” show up as white-coated, cold-hearted, amoral figures who cannot accept magic or mystery. Yes, there are important counter-examples of the scientist as hero, or even as the magician himself, the person who romantically brings mystery, beauty and change to our lives. That image works to the advantage of scientists in the debate over intelligent design, so I think it’s important not to feed the other stereotype too quickly or readily. Science should be the enemy of unreason, falsehood, ignorance, but I don’t think it has to be the enemy of awe, mystery or the sublime. Neither do any scientists I know, and that’s something worth reminding the wider public.
3) On mystery from another angle. I guess one thing I’m wondering lately is whether it’s ever worth arguing with a believer about the things he or she believes in terms of trying to point out something about the belief itself within its own terms and self-presentation. For example, is it ever worth arguing with an Islamic fundamentalist who supports suicide bombing that the religious traditions of Islam seem to clearly proscribe or forbid suicide? On the intelligent design question, is it ever worth observing, as Cosma Shalizi did, that many formulations of intelligent design are actually profoundly disrespectful of some of the most central ideas in the religious history of Christianity? For example, there’s really only a very limited number of escape hatches from the problem of evil in God’s universe, if you’re a Christian. One is that evil is God’s punishment for original sin, but the most rigorous formulations of that idea don’t have the widespread support in evangelical Christianity that they once did. More popular and commonly offered is that we cannot understand the mystery of God’s creation and the purpose of humankind within it, that evil may serve some function which we cannot hope to fully understand precisely because we are not God. That’s certainly the kind of view that many Christians offer as a everyday, commonsensical explanation of why bad things happen to good people. But look then at how intelligent design plows right through the mystery of God’s creation and purpose, how it banalizes God, harnesses Him. As Shalizi says, ID essentially says, “Look, God made the world just as we would have.” If God really means to reveal his design in the world, wouldn’t the contemplation of the world lead us deeper into mystery and the sublime?
A more potent example that’s often on my mind, and a reason why my own childhood encounter with religious education was short: is it ever worth arguing with biblical literalism in literalist terms? I found in my own experience when I pushed the nun who was teaching CCD about the contradictions in the Bible, I didn’t get very good answers. Most of them were just the old saw that the New Testament was a fulfillment of the Old rather than a contradiction or repudiation of it, which is just dodging the problem. Basically, a very serious literalist runs into deep, deep problems in the second half of the Old Testament, when about the only way to reconcile some of what God’s doing there with a modern worldview, even a markedly religious one, is to say that what we’re seeing are metaphors about God and man, not literal descriptions of what God did. It ought to be possible, if you’re moderately well educated about the actual contents of the Bible, to question a literalist argument in its own terms, including one about creation and evolution. But my own experience suggests that it’s not especially productive: you very rapidly hit a point in the discussion where the literalist cuts out, or reduces the dialogue to being purely about social enmity (e.g., that they don’t need to talk to you, because your aims are purely mischievious or destructive).
Still, I continue to wonder why this isn’t a more potent kind of fracture within the creationist or intelligent design coalition. Why don’t more devout Christians regard the attempt to rationalize faith as science as a dubious, even profane, exercise? Why do some Christians seem to need the crutch of justifying their faith through pseudo-science? Why isn’t Christianity itself, and its considerable intellectual and philosophical heritage, the best and most powerful answer to the intellectual sleaziness of most intelligent design advocacy?