TCS Daily

Intelligent Decline, Revisited

By Mustafa Akyol - May 26, 2005 12:00 AM

"All truth passes through three stages," Arthur Schopenhauer declared. "First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

As a proponent of the Intelligent Design (ID) theory, nowadays I am witnessing the first two stages simultaneously. And most recently I owe this to, among many others, Mr. Robert McHenry, who waged a powerful attack on ID and ID theorists in his recent TCS piece, Intelligent Decline.

Although the attack was adroit -- and enjoyable to read -- its arguments are not convincing. The scientists and thinkers who defend ID have fielded and effectively countered similar critiques many times over the past years. But since their responses have not infrequently fallen on deaf ears, let me re-explain them briefly.

Before commencing, however, perhaps I should say that I acknowledge and respect the intention of Mr. McHenry. His concern seems to be with keeping science separate from religion, and that is fully justified -- mixing the two has resulted in pretty unpleasant episodes in history. Yet we, the "IDers" as they call us, are not trying to merge faith into science. What we are trying to do is actually rescue science from a monopoly of a secular faith called materialism, whose application to biology is called Darwinism.

In a nutshell, Intelligent Design is the theory that argues life on Earth is the product of natural laws, chance and intelligence. Darwinism, on the other hand, accepts only the first two causes, because, according to materialist philosophy, intelligence does not exist unless it evolves over time from mindless matter.

The materialist creation story, i.e., Darwinism, could have been true, and if that were the case, we all would have to come to terms with it. Yet whether that story is true or not is a legitimate question to ask. To find a scientific answer, we have to examine the scientific evidence. And when we do so, we find serious flaws in Darwinism, and, moreover, we detect intelligence in the origin of life on Earth.

Many critics of ID wrongly assume that we infer that intelligence from the Bible or the Koran, but in fact we infer it solely from nature. As Mount Rushmore compels an observer to conclude that an intelligent cause was at work there, the "specified complexity" of life points to an intelligent designer.

The identity or purpose of that designer can't be inferred from the evidence. That's why ID theory is silent on this subject, although we ID proponents might have personal opinions based on our philosophical or religious convictions. And that's why Mr. McHenry misses the point when he argues that we "have trained [ourselves] not to be too specific about the Designer" and we "carefully avoid" speaking about God for political purposes. The fact is that we just don't mix science and religion.

Yet Mr. McHenry is not receptive to inferring design from nature at all, and his objection stems from an argument from neophilia. "Philosophically this is old ground," he says and adds a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the work of the 19th century natural theologian William Paley.

Yes, Paley was also arguing for design, but what of it? Non-design is "old ground," too. It dates back to Ancient Greece. As theologian Benjamin Wiker unveils in his book, Moral Darwinism, the first theory of an un-designed and evolving world was developed by Epicurus, the founder hedonism. And his point of reference was not scientific evidence; he simply wanted to get rid of the idea of the divine, which he found disturbing. Epicurus' ideas about nature were later developed by Lucretius and much later by the modern forerunners of Darwin.

Another argument by Mr. McHenry against ID is that it is not "testable." Well, neither is Darwinism. Both theories talk about phenomena many millions, or even billions, of years old and never yet to have been observed occurring. That's why they constitute a specific area of science called "origin science." Also included in this realm is the Big Bang theory, which explains the origin of the universe. We definitely can't observe, test and repeat the Big Bang. We just infer it from the evidence. The same holds for ID, too.

Mr. McHenry also criticizes the reasoning we use to infer design in nature. He finds it intangible and asks, "Has the ID party discovered a scale by which this question [of complexity] can be answered?" The answer is "yes," of course! This is exactly what philosopher and mathematician William A. Dembski addresses in his theoretical work The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities. It is a challenging but must read for all critics and would-be critics of ID.

Yet instead of addressing such cutting edge ID literature, Mr. McHenry refers to an "old ground" idea: the argument from imperfection. Why do we have unpleasant phenomena on Earth, he asks, such as tsunami, death, disease, killer asteroids, etc. Well, to argue that life is designed does not mean that the world is perfect. The Designer might have wished to create imperfections. As Dembski notes, "Intelligent Design is not Optimal Design." Moreover, the handiwork of the Designer might have been devolved due to the effects of natural laws and chance. (Oh yes, they cause devolution, not much of an evolution. See thermodynamics.)

Thus, the designer-should-have-done-better argument does not refute ID. But it does something else: It shows that it is the critics of ID, not its proponents, who bring philosophy and theology into a scientific controversy. The nature, ability and intention of the Designer are issues relating to philosophy and theology -- not science -- and just look who is bringing them to the science table.

Another problem in Mr. McHenry's piece is that he attaches to us some arguments that we don't make. We don't say, for example, "We don't know this yet; therefore, it is unknowable." As biochemist Mike Behe, the leading theorist of ID, repeatedly emphasizes, ID is not based on what we do not know. Rather, it is based on what we have learned in the recent decades.

Actually it is members of the Darwinian camp who employ arguments from ignorance: "We don't know how this evolved, but it must have been somehow" is the kind of answer they give to many complex questions such as the origin of life, biochemical systems, genetic code or the animal phyla. What we find curious is why they ardently presume that every unsolved puzzle will definitely be solved through a materialistic explanation. The only reason is "an a priori commitment to materialism," as the arch-Darwinist Richard Lewontin famously acknowledged a few years ago.

Once we replace the commitment to materialism with the commitment to objectivity, ID will be a very plausible explanation for biological origins.

Plausible for whom? one might ask. For the already converted? The Hallelujah choir and the mosque crowd? I don't think so. And one notable figure who would agree is the ex-arch-atheist Anthony Flew. After several decades of fierce resistance against Design, the famous British philosopher recently came to the third stage that Schopenhauer describes: He considered Design as self-evident.

Perhaps, just perhaps, one day Mr. McHenry can come to the same conclusion, too. The only thing needed is to follow the evidence where it leads. That is what we "IDers" do.

And this path, indeed, does not "decline" us and soak us into mud to turn into "mud man," as Mr. McHenry depicts us. But it does bring down upon us a lot of such ad hominem attacks. This is bearable because we know that Civilization -- including the Western one -- advances through people who stand for truth in the wake of fierce intimidation and opposition.

That very ferocity, in fact, displays nothing but the dogmatism of ID-haters. I hope Mr. McHenry will reconsider and decline to decline to such a poverty-stricken level of the intellect.

Mustafa Akyol is a Muslim writer from Turkey. He has spoken about Intelligent Design in several universities in the UK and US and has recently testified to the Kansas State Education board.


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