The Problem with Intelligent Design
by William Grassie

Metanexus Bios, 2005.05.05, 1,586 words. 

William Grassie, founder and director of Metanexus Institute, writes on "the problem with Intelligent Design."  Ranging from Richard Dawkins to Chairman Mao, Grassie pursues a hermeneutical strategy that deemphasizes the stalemated conflicts between atheism and theism, or between purposelessness and meaning.  Employing instead a pragmatic approach, he focuses on the issue of natural history: "It is vital that we separate known natural history from the interpretation of that natural history.  We can debate the meaning of the Cambrian Explosion, but we should not be denying that it happened...  We should not conflate the 'what and when' questions with the 'how and why' questions."

Not wanting to confuse science with scientism, Grassie's pragmatism respects the findings of natural science while leaving open the philosophical and theological questions that remain.  In his words: "To focus on natural history, what happened when, is to separate the more responsible Intelligent Designers from the Young Earth Creationist extremists.  As long as we are not denying natural history, then we can entertain and excite our students with lots of debates within biology about 'how' and 'why'."

-- Editor

William "Billy" Grassie, Ph.D. is founder and executive director of the Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science [].  Metanexus currently runs some 300 projects at universities in 36 countries.  Grassie also serves as executive editor of the Institute's online magazine and discussion forum with over 140,000 monthly page views and over 6000 regular subscribers in 57 different countries.  He has taught in a variety of positions at Temple University, Swarthmore College, and the University of Pennsylvania.  Grassie received his doctorate in religion from Temple University in 1994 and his BA from Middlebury College in 1979.  Prior to graduate school, Grassie worked for ten years in religiously-based social service and advocacy organizations in Washington, D.C; Jerusalem, Israel; Berlin, Germany; and Philadelphia, PA.  He is the recipient of a number of academic awards and grants from the American Friends Service Committee, the Roothbert Fellowship, and the John Temp leton Foundation.  He is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). 

The Problem with Intelligent Design
, by William Grassie

The English theologian William Paley wrote an influential book in 1802 entitled "Natural Theology: Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature".  Paley employed the metaphor of a watch discovered on a beach.  One would not know who made the watch, but one could infer that there was certainly a watchmaker.  In such a way, humans studying nature could also come to understand God as its creator and designer.  This metaphor of nature as watch is perhaps one of the most famous metaphors in the philosophy of science and haunts us to this day, as we see in the current debates about "equal time" for Intelligent Design Theory in the science curriculum of public schools. 

Today, some read the evidence of nature and find no evidence for the existence of a Deity.  Richard Dawkins, the contemporary biologist, notorious atheist, penned a book with the title "The Blind Watchmaker".  He argues that "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."  In the context of the warfare between evolution and creationism in the United States, the problem is perhaps less with believers who read the Bible as a literal account of Creation and more with believers who read Richard Dawkins as a literal account of evolution. 

Intelligent Design advocates argue that random genetic drift and natural selection alone cannot account for the "irreducible complexity" in certain natural phenomena.  The classic example of this is the human eye, to which Charles Darwin himself called attention.  How could such a complex mechanism with so many independent parts have arisen by gradual incremental changes, when the mechanism would not function without all of the parts working together?  Intelligent Design advocates argue that some outside agency would be needed to "specify complexity", though they do not define who or what the "designing" agency is.  This can be seen as a new version of the God-of-the-Gaps argument and suffers from all of the earlier attempts to insert God as an explanatory fix in science's progressive history of accounting for the unknown.  Besides, God is either everywhere present in all processes of creation or God might as well be nowhere. 

So if God is everywhere, then why is God so hard to perceive?  One could imagine a God who would be more like a Chairman Mao or a Comrade Stalin.  This God would have designed a universe with photographs of himself hung everywhere in nature.  We would be compelled to believe in the existence of this God, because everywhere we turned with our microscopes, telescopes, and other devices, there would be both the evidence for his existence and of course also the secret police to enforce our acknowledgment.  Everything in the universe would occur by divine order, micromanaged in five-year plans and designed in a command economy.  We might wonder whether such a dictator God would be worthy of our admiration and love, but there would be no doubt, no uncertainty.  Of course, science is yet to find an unequivocal "made by God" label attached to nature. 

If the only other choice we have is the literal reading of Richard Dawkins, however, then maybe we should stop teaching evolution altogether.  Mere survival and reproduction do not provide adequate purposes for human aspirations.  Too much of this kind of "truth" may not be wholesome for our children or society.  The core of the evolution wars is whether a scientific understanding of biology allows room for religious and philosophical commitments to purpose in human life, purposes that somehow also must connect to the unfolding history of the universe.  While scientists often wax poetic about nature, evoking wonder, awe, and indeed reverence, they mostly lack philosophical and theological language to contextualize such feelings and motivations as continuous with perennial spiritual quests.  The public voices of "science" are more often than not promoting atheism, confusing the boundaries between science and scientism. 

The history of the anti-evolution debates in the United States is less about biology and more about morality.  Going back to the 1925 Scopes Trial, the progressive politician, William Jennings Bryan, got involved largely because of his objections to Social Darwinism and Eugenics, which at the time were widely used to justify any number of social injustices.  Thirty states had eugenics laws.  Indeed, the "science" most used to justify Nazism was first published in the peer-reviewed journals of the United States. 

Today, the anti-evolution arguments are quite similar — evolution equals materialism equals atheism equals nihilism equals immorality.  The last Supreme Court case to examine this question, the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard ruled against Creation Science not on the basis of the science, but that it was a sectarian religion and thus could not be taught in the public schools.  The anti-evolution forces regrouped, reorganized, and united around a "science-only" tactic — calling evolution "just a theory" and requesting equal time for Intelligent Design Theory.  The old Creation Science arguments have been resurrected, but without mention of the Bible or officially naming the reputed designer. 

School boards, educators, scientists, clergy and concerned citizens could quickly resolve the debate by first focusing on what happened when instead of getting dragged into the how and why debate.  It is vital that we separate known natural history from the interpretation of that natural history.  We can debate the meaning of the Cambrian Explosion, but we should not be denying that it happened.  Scientific evidence for a long and evolving natural history of life on this planet has grown dramatically and profoundly in last two centuries. 

The term "evolution" appropriately applies also to this known natural history of the planet.  Since Darwin's time, we know a lot more about this natural history, such that even responsible Intelligent Design advocates admit to a long Earth history.  These ID advocates rarely talk about natural history, however, because they do not want to alienate the Young Earth Creationist who constitutes the base of their movement.  We should not conflate the "what and when" questions with the "how and why" questions. 

There is nothing necessarily scientifically wrong with believing that God, by whatever name and by whatever means, is actively involved in the entire four billion year life drama and the even longer and much larger cosmic adventure.  Based on current science, we would have to say that God reuses DNA, hemoglobin, cell parts, developmental processes, skeletal structures, organ processes, and much more.  God creates by recycling.  And the building blocks are shared between humans and even very remote species, as in the human eye, which adapts plant technology to do its light detection work.  Scientifically, there would be no necessary problem believing in such a Creator, as long as we acknowledge that the process took a very long time relative to our human life span.  Species have come and gone and here we are.  How does God accomplish this?  Well, we would not know, but it certainly seems likely that God also made important use of some random processes and natural selection; t he latter we shall re-contextualize at the Great Eucharistic Law — eat and be eaten.  And yes, there is a profoundly sacrificial dimension to life, so our gratitude is justified, especially for the food we are about to receive. 

To focus on natural history, what happened when, is to separate the more responsible Intelligent Designers from the Young Earth Creationist extremists.  As long as we are not denying natural history, then we can entertain and excite our students with lots of debates within biology about how and why.  Young people get very excited by examining the meaning and purpose of their lives, a personal discussion that needs to be contextualized within an entire universe, which of course, is exactly what Richard Dawkins is also trying to do.  Atheism also has a place at the round table of plausible worldviews, but it cannot simply claim to be "scientific". 

There are many purely scientific debates about whether random genetic drift and natural selection are really adequate to account for the florescence of life forms found in nature.  Developmental systems theory, mathematical patterns, convergent evolution, symbiosis, multi-level selection theory, genetic bureaucracies, niche creation, and most importantly for humans, Lamarckian patterns of cultural evolution, are just some of the hot debates in contemporary biology and anthropology that relativize Intelligent Design Theory as a narrowly partisan movement within science (and religion).  It would be great if our children got excited about these debates within the sciences and mysteries of life. 

The problem, however, is not with the term "intelligent".  The "intelligence" of nature is not in the eye of the scientific beholder, it is in the phenomena themselves.  This "intelligibility" is the precondition for science.  The metaphor of "design", however, is much more problematic.  Why should we limit God's generativity to a term taken from human architecture and engineering?  There are much more interesting metaphors for God — artist, lover, friend, parent, teacher, motivator — all of which are also ultimately inadequate in describing that which transcends all and is also everywhere present. 

Part of the problem is that we do not teach our children about religion and philosophy in the public schools.  There are no Constitutional barriers to such curricula, as long as we are not sectarian.  The solution to the evolution wars proposed above is itself recycled medieval Muslim, Jewish, and Christian theology, but that is another story waiting to be taught and debated anew.

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Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science

In the website of Metanexus:
homepage and BIOS discussion and
this page (with same text, different format).

More information about William Grassie, the
founder and executive director of Metanexus.

In the ASA Science Education Website:
pages about The Big Tent of Intelligent Design by other authors