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We Are Living in a Material World...

By Robert McHenry - June 1, 2005 12:00 AM

In Intelligent Design, Revisited, Mustafa Akyol wrote kindly of my earlier article, Intelligent Decline, and I thank him for his courtesy. In turn let me say that I found his response to be well written, amiable, and -- like most ID argument -- disingenuous.

Intelligent Design "theory" -- and I insist upon the shudder quotes -- is not a theory at all, but a declaration of faith poorly disguised behind a mask of scientific-sounding justification. It has been hoisted into public consciousness and political debate on the shakiest of legs.

The first leg is the notion of "irreducible complexity," as defined by Michael J. Behe. And then successively redefined, as evolutionary biologists have pointed out the flaws in his argument and offered illustrations of how what Behe claims is impossible has in fact been observed and elucidated by evolutionary science. The claim that some degree or kind of complexity cannot be explained in naturalistic terms is pure assertion, an attempt to place an Off Limits sign in the path of scientific investigation. Behe, in tactical retreat, lately and revealingly wrote that "Design should not be overlooked simply because it's so obvious." "Obvious" is obviously not an invitation to investigate further, nor is it a particularly useful criterion for someone, a scientist, say, who chooses to carry on anyway. After all these centuries it is still "obvious" that the Sun and stars circle about a flat Earth.

The second leg is the mathematically based argument of William Dembski, whose application of the work of others in search algorithms to evolution has been thoroughly undercut. In effect, Dembski argues that random genetic variation could not, of itself, generate the increasing "specified complexity" of life forms that is seen in the fossil record. "Specified complexity" is a red herring that begs the question of design. But the main problem with Dembski's critique is that it quietly omits any account of the other half of the Darwinian engine, selection.

In sum, the literature of ID has been critically reviewed by competent authorities, as all claims to scientific validity must be, and found meritless. That ought to be the end of the matter, as it is for the occasional perpetual motion machine, but most unfortunately it is not.

Two legs so rickety as these, stiffened and saved from instant collapse only by the duct tape of polemic, simply cannot support the weight of a movement like ID. The all too visible wire that allows it to stand, if not to fly like Mary Martin, is, of course, theism, boldly asserted or watered down as deemed politic for various audiences. Mr. Akyol follows the standard ID tactic of backing away from strong claims when he pretends that "We just don't mix science and religion." They do, until challenged, as by the argument from imperfection. Mr. Akyol's and Mr. Dembski's Designer becomes, on this point, a rather pathetic sort of creator, unable to keep his universe quite on track. I take this as an endorsement of my suggested alternative of Not-Quite-Bright Design.

There is another weak creature lurking in Mr. Akyol's essay, a man of straw. It is built around the word that rings like a tocsin repeatedly through the piece: materialism. It is clear that he means the reader to understand this as a bad thing. The frisson of horror that this word is intended to evoke is then amplified by connotations of such words as "Epicurus" and "hedonism." Atheism, and Greek philosophy to boot; egad! (One thinks of Hermione Gingold in "The Music Man," drawling out the dreaded name "Balzac!")

Science is said to be committed to materialism as a "secular faith." Is this true? There is perhaps a confusion here with a particular and infamous form of materialism, dialectical materialism, also known as Marxism. It is certainly true that this ideology has inspired something akin to religious faith in many misguided souls, though the object of that faith is not the "materialism" part but rather the magical laws of history that drive the "dialectical" part toward a specified design. (There you see, Mr. Akyol, how this particular rhetorical trick cuts either way.)

In the ID scheme of things, materialism is said to be a philosophical commitment in the same way that theism is, and it is presumed to prejudice our thinking equally. This is wrong in two ways. First, epistemologically, materialism is a default position for any rational being who has not been favored with a direct revelation of the divine. Theism, or supernaturalism of any kind, is learned and is accepted in a willed step away from materialism. Second, and more important, a commitment to finding naturalistic or, if you must, materialistic, explanations for phenomena is the very essence of the intellectual project that is science. This is not the same as saying that science denies the existence of God, or gods, or supernatural forces of some sort. It is to say that they are not what science is about. Without the discipline of excluding supernatural explanation, which once admitted can be invoked at any time by anyone on any pretext, there could be no true science, and we might well still be contentedly believing that lightning bolts are thrown by Zeus. It is certainly easier to do that than to find out what really happens in a thunderstorm, and in a political regime that mandates theistic sentiments, it is also safer, as Socrates would attest.

"Follow the evidence," advises Mr. Akyol. Fair enough. ID is supported, as against Darwinian evolution, by no positive evidence. None. It ekes out its existence in the gaps, in what we do not -- yet -- know about the origin and evolution of the universe. This, as the rest of us must see, is a progressively cramped space. ID is not merely bad science; it is anti-science, and not just that but anti-clear thinking. Any neutral observer of ID must see that ID begins with its desired conclusion and then selects evidence (which implies, a fortiori, that it excludes other evidence) and constructs arguments to support it. The "theory" of ID is, in fact, a rather charming example of my "theory" of NQBD.

What is not charming is its forcing its way into the political sphere, where bad ideas often make the best clubs with which to beat one's opponents about the head and shoulders. This is happening now, in Kansas and several other states, and it's a scandal.

ERRATUM: A reader of my original piece has pointed out that William Paley did consider the case in which the watch is badly made. I own the error but note that it does not at all affect my argument.

POSTSCRIPT: Interestingly, no one, neither critic nor defender of ID, has offered any explanation or justification of Jerry Springer.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).



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