TCS Daily

The Flawed Philosophy of Intelligent Design

By James T. Harrington - November 17, 2005 12:00 AM

The time has come to be blunt. The problem with Intelligent Design is not that it is false; not that the arguments in its favor reduce to smoke and mirrors; and not that it's defenders are disingenuous or even duplicitous. The problem with Intelligent Design is that it is dumb. I would contend that ID is dumb biology; even if it is on to something, what it is on to has no connection and does no meaningful work in biology (or physics). However, and more significantly, ID is dumb philosophy.  

First, and despite the claims of its defenders, ID is a position in natural theology. And, despite its name, natural theology is not a branch of theology or of science, but of philosophy.  

Natural theology lives on the boundary of natural philosophy (science) and metaphysics. The fundamental question of natural theology is: given what we know about the world from natural science, is the best available metaphysical picture of the universe one according to which the objects of natural science form a closed system or, alternatively, one according to which at least one entity fundamentally different from the objects of natural science is required to explain the structure of the natural world.[1]  

Once we recognize that ID is a metaphysical position, we can recognize that ID has two principle competitors: metaphysical naturalism and global non-naturalism. Both of these frameworks compete with ID as fundamental perspectives for understanding the world.  

First, let us consider metaphysical naturalism. Roughly, a metaphysical naturalist claims that the world per se is roughly the way that the world is portrayed in the natural sciences. The first, but not principle advantage, of naturalism is its profoundly elegant simplicity; at its heart rests the intuition that the world simply is the way that it seems to be. However, to really understand the power of this intuition pursued to a philosophical conclusion we must be willing to embrace its power to drive David Hume's war against superstition and moral privilege. The power of the tools that naturalism puts at our disposal for understanding who we are and why we are the way we are; for understanding the real place of human beings in the cosmos; and for elevating the dignity of the ordinary, both ordinary human beings and the ordinary world, cannot be overestimated. If you don't feel the pull of naturalism, then even if you ultimately find it inadequate, as I do, you just don't get it.  

On the other hand there are a wide variety of non-naturalist cosmologies. General characterizations of non-naturalism fall together much less straightforwardly than do such characterizations of naturalism. This is, at least in part, because of the much greater historical depth of non-naturalism. Although, today, naturalism does feel like the default metaphysical position for those who begin their metaphysics with natural science, that is a quite recent phenomenon. Unfortunately, not being naturalists is about the only thing that the various non-naturalists have in common.  

Fortunately, the virtues of non-naturalism can be usefully characterized as just the opposing virtues to those of naturalism. The best non-naturalist cosmologies derive from a very real sense on the part of their defenders of the messiness of the world; a sense that, contrary to naturalist expectations, things don't come together when we look deeper. That is, naturalism seems to require that there be a scientific picture of the world. Instead, claim their opponents, things just get weirder. Whether we are looking at quantum theory; at the strange fact that stars ever manage to light their fusion engines; at the weird and totally unexpected patterns that crop up in the fossil and evolutionary record; how can anyone who really digs down, even if they don't ultimately agree, fail to feel the pull of a metaphysical picture, which, at least, explains how all of this weirdness manages to fit together into a WORLD?  

And, what do the ID types want to set against these? Some kind of bastard child of naturalism and non-naturalism. According to ID, the world perked along perfectly fine for several billion years according to the rules of physics. Over most of space-time the naturalists have it basically right, things just sort of go the way they seem they should. Then, a couple of billion years ago, along came The Designer, not itself the product of those processes. It showed up and decided to take a bunch of these otherwise perfectly natural chemicals and put them together to make bacteria and then designed in a replication system. Then it left it alone for another several million years and decided, "Hey, I've got these bacteria around, let's collect them into these other things." And, so forth.  

But, this is just dumb! It takes the real virtues of both real alternatives and turns them on their heads. If naturalists value metaphysical simplicity, the simplicity of ID becomes simplemindedness. The ID theorist response to any puzzle is to demand a simple solution, even if the simple solution amounts to deus ex machina. This isn't just lazy philosophy; it's lazy fiction. On the other hand, if non-naturalists have a valuable sensitivity to the messiness of the real world, the ID theorists goal is to make that messiness go away. Pointing at every gap in our understanding and saying, "See there goes God, or whoever." isn't sensitivity to complexity; it's just stupidity.  

Consider one of the most fully developed alternative evolutionary cosmologies; that of Teilhard de Chardin.[2] De Chardin, one of the most celebrated paleo-anthropologists of his generation, noticed certain patterns in the evolutionary record available to him. In particular, he noticed what seemed to be patterns in the evolutionary record related to the evolution of central nervous system complexity, i.e. thought, that seemed to be surprising if the only constraints operating on biological evolution were basic physics, the physical boundary conditions and natural selection.  

Trying to summarize his conclusions from this is just about as possible -- that is, it's not possible to do fairly -- as would be attempting to summarize, for example Richard Dawkins' attempt at an evolutionary account of vision. However, what follows should at least give the reader a taste.  

Teilhard thought that he could "derive" the operative constraints on evolutionary systems necessary to generate the patterns he discerned. He argued that those constraints pointed to a global teleological structure for the entire universe. Roughly, these constraints are equivalent to postulating the evolution of conscious awareness, the noosphere, as a cosmological endpoint for all natural processes.  

This is probably wrong, but it is real philosophy; you could spend years struggling with everything you need to really get a handle on in order to see where Teilhard goes wrong.  

And this is the first thing to notice; unlike ID, Teilhard's cosmology is not a shortcut to anywhere. Teilhard's cosmology does not close off questions; it opens them up. And, if it is right, it really does help us make metaphysical sense of everything about the universe without having to abandon real science at any point in the process. That is, for Teilhard, as much as for any naturalist, we understand the universe by looking at the universe; not outside of it. In Teilhard's universe there are no dei ex machina; things happen in the universe because that's the way they happen in this universe. The difference is that this universe is not quite as straightforwardly self-subsistent as the naturalists would have it be.  

And instead of attempts to really work through these problems, we are offered ID.  

Consider the following example. Imagine yourself as a visiting alien; when surveying "Africa" you discover large termite mounds. Most of the crew gets right down to the business of studying termites and figuring out how they manage to produce their nests. But, a few make a different claim. Given that the termites are clearly not sentient, they decide that the termites could not possibly have built their nests in the absence of an independent sentient nest designer -- The Termite Farmer. Therefore, they take off and go looking for The Termite Farmer instead of studying what termites actually do.  

Among what I would call "real" termite biologists there can be both naturalist and non-naturalists. That is, some of them think that what you see is what you get; others think that there is something more subtle going on with the termites. However, unlike the design theorists, they both think that you learn about termites by studying termites. Not, by wandering around looking for hypothetical termite designers. However, it's actually worse than that. It's as if the believers in termite-mound designers didn't just go around being pains in the neck to real biologists by pointing out the places they don't quite understand yet; problems with which the real termite biologists are, of course, already perfectly familiar. Instead of either getting down to work or getting out of the way, they go around crowing that termite biologists get it all wrong because the termite-designers tried to make it look as if they, the designers, didn't exist. That is, ID theorists need to claim that, although life looks like a fundamentally natural process subject to natural explanation, that naturalness is an illusion. But, this isn't just bad science or bad philosophy; it's a conspiracy theory fit for The X-files, and thus, while it may not be religion, it certainly is just dumb!            

The author is Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at Loyola University, Chicago.  


[1] There is another branch of "natural" theology, one that operates from an a priori basis. This family of arguments attempts to prove that possession of certain concepts or the ability to make certain judgments implies the existence of a "divine" being. Anselm's argument, what Kant calls the Ontological Argument, is the quintessential example.  

2 Despite the claims of many naturalists, de Chardin does not make an argument from design in the sense at issue here. See Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea : Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).for an example of this mistake. See Stephen Toulmin, The Return to Cosmology for a (roughly) naturalist engagement with Teilhard which avoids this mistake.

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