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A Not So Intelligent Design

January 27, 2011

Intelligent Design has failed to get much press lately as far as I have seen – but the pressure to have it edged into school curricula (particularly in Texas, where it can begin a domino effect due to the size of that state’s textbook market) has not ceased.

As I see it, Intelligent Design can be appraised in one of two ways: it is either an earnest attempt to present an alternative scientific theory to evolution that happens to involve something akin to the Christian God, or it is a cynical attempt to keep teaching of the scientific theory of evolution out of the classroom by any means necessary, as a precursor to backsliding all the way to New Earth Creationism (in order to maintain a literal reading of the bible).

If it is earnest – and I find it hard to have so little faith in humanity as to suspect every proponent of Intelligent Design of being a cynical, two-faced liar – I believe there are some significant problems with the basis of the theory as both a scientific position and as a credible theological position. The specific biological points have been rendered time and again, and far better than I would do justice to them (the NCSE have a quick primer, and there are many others available) – however, there are matters of physical science that impact as well.

Firstly, Intelligent Design proponents are carefully agnostic in their proclamations about the exact nature of the intelligent designer who is responsible for some of the irreducible complexity of life. This either means that there is some other intelligent life form who acts as the designer, or that it is some God-like entity. In the case of the intelligent life-form, it is conceivable that they might physically be able to travel to our planet and carry out their design work – but what we then find lacking is an explanation of how those life forms came to exist (as presumably they would also possess some level of irreducible complexity also). What is an additional problem for these life forms, however, is the difficulties of interplanetary or interstellar travel (as one assumes they are either no longer here, or came here from somewhere else).

In the case of a God-like entity, the physics becomes more puzzling. How exactly do we explain the intercession of a being who is not part of the universe in terms of physics? I am sure someone wishing to claim for the intercession of God would claim that it was simply a miracle, and hence not explicable by physical laws – so, in essence, what the Intelligent Design proponent is asking for is that not only should the teaching of Biology as it is understood and agreed upon by working scientists be altered, but also the teaching of Physics. Physical laws are no longer immutable and universally applicable. They are instead changeable on the whim of a creator, regardless of evidential basis to the contrary. To undermine our most successful scientific theories for the sake of finding a mechanism to support a theory in Biology seems somewhat absurd. If an evolutionary biologist demanded that the laws of physics be suspended in order to account for their theory, the scientific community would rightly condemn their work.

For the earnest proponent, however, I feel that the theological point is most telling. Assuming that we are talking of a designer who is in fact God, we are asked to imagine an all powerful, all knowing being who creates an immensely complex physical universe. Not only is this universe immensely complex, its complexity derives from what appears to be a set of physical laws, constants and fundamental particles (if Grand Unified Theories of Physics pan out, then this universe is ultimately the expression of an even more limited set of interacting fundamental entities). To think that the God who created this mind numbing complexity from a highly limited set of raw ingredients would need to come back 11 billion years later (as the first bacteria began to emerge on Earth) and tweak the system to add a flagellum for motion, is to limit the power and foresight of a glorious omnipotent God. It simply makes no sense to think that God could create the universe through simple interacting parts, and fail to set up the universe in such a way as to ensure the evolution of all organisms from the simple rules he set in place.

So, we either have God as the creator of the ultimate Rube Goldberg machine – with the universe unfolding from his initial conditions, including all of physics and the evolution of all living things – or he is an ineffective tinker, setting off the universe and having to continually return to it to set it right, and to fix his broken design.

Finally, if it is a cynical ploy to ultimately put New Earth Creationism into the science classroom, then take up the virtue of honesty, and say it straight out, rather than hiding behind a lie.

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