The Problem with Intelligent Design, by William GrassieMetanexus Bios. 2005.05.05. 1,586 words.William Grassie, founder an...
famous metaphors in the philosophy of science and haunts us to this day, as we see in thecurrent debates about "equal time...
spiritual quests. The public voices of "science" are more often than not promotingatheism, confusing the boundaries betwee...
Eucharistic Law - eat and be eaten. And yes, there is a profoundly sacrificial dimensionto life, so our gratitude is justi...
Copyright notice: Except when otherwise noted, articles may be forwarded, quoted, orrepublished in full with attribution t...
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The problem with intelligent design william grassie

  1. 1. The Problem with Intelligent Design, by William GrassieMetanexus Bios. 2005.05.05. 1,586 words.William Grassie, founder and director of Metanexus Institute, writes on "the problemwith Intelligent Design." Ranging from Richard Dawkins to Chairman Mao, Grassiepursues a hermeneutical strategy that deemphasizes the stalemated conflicts betweenatheism and theism, or between purposelessness and meaning. Employing instead apragmatic approach, he focuses on the issue of natural history: "It is vital that we separateknown natural history from the interpretation of that natural history. We can debate themeaning of the Cambrian Explosion, but we should not be denying that it happened... Weshould not conflate the what and when questions with the how and why questions."Not wanting to confuse science with scientism, Grassies pragmatism respects thefindings of natural science while leaving open the philosophical and theological questionsthat remain. In his words: "To focus on natural history, what happened when, is toseparate the more responsible Intelligent Designers from the Young Earth Creationistextremists. As long as we are not denying natural history, then we can entertain andexcite our students with lots of debates within biology about how and why."William "Billy" Grassie, Ph.D. is founder and executive director of the MetanexusInstitute on Religion and Science []. Metanexus currently runs some300 projects at universities in 36 countries. Grassie also serves as executive editor of theInstitutes online magazine and discussion forum with over 140,000 monthly page viewsand over 6000 regular subscribers in 57 different countries. He has taught in a variety ofpositions at Temple University, Swarthmore College, and the University of Pennsylvania.Grassie received his doctorate in religion from Temple University in 1994 and his BAfrom Middlebury College in 1979. Prior to graduate school, Grassie worked for ten yearsin religiously-based social service and advocacy organizations in Washington, D.C;Jerusalem, Israel; Berlin, Germany; and Philadelphia, PA. He is the recipient of a numberof academic awards and grants from the American Friends Service Committee, theRoothbert Fellowship, and the John Temp leton Foundation. He is a member of theReligious Society of Friends (Quakers).--Editor=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-The Problem with Intelligent Design By William GrassieThe English theologian William Paley wrote an influential book in 1802 entitled "NaturalTheology: Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from theAppearances 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 awatchmaker. In such a way, humans studying nature could also come to understand Godas its creator and designer. This metaphor of nature as watch is perhaps one of the most
  2. 2. famous metaphors in the philosophy of science and haunts us to this day, as we see in thecurrent debates about "equal time" for Intelligent Design Theory in the sciencecurriculum of public schools.Today, some read the evidence of nature and find no evidence for the existence of aDeity. Richard Dawkins, the contemporary biologist, notorious atheist, penned a bookwith the title "The Blind Watchmaker". He argues that "The universe we observe hasprecisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, noevil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference". In the context of the warfarebetween evolution and creationism in the United States, the problem is perhaps less withbelievers who read the Bible as a literal account of Creation and more with believers whoread Richard Dawkins as a literal account of evolution.Intelligent Design advocates argue that random genetic drift and natural selection alonecannot account for the "irreducible complexity" in certain natural phenomena. The classicexample of this is the human eye, to which Charles Darwin himself called attention. Howcould such a complex mechanism with so many independent parts have arisen by gradualincremental changes, when the mechanism would not function without all of the partsworking together? Intelligent Design advocates argue that some outside agency would beneeded 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 andsuffers from all of the earlier attempts to insert God as an explanatory fix in sciencesprogressive history of accounting for the unknown. Besides, God is either everywherepresent 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 Godwho would be more like a Chairman Mao or a Comrade Stalin. This God would havedesigned a universe with photographs of himself hung everywhere in nature. We wouldbe compelled to believe in the existence of this God, because everywhere we turned withour microscopes, telescopes, and other devices, there would be both the evidence for hisexistence and of course also the secret police to enforce our acknowledgment. Everythingin the universe would occur by divine order, micromanaged in five-year plans anddesigned in a command economy. We might wonder whether such a dictator God wouldbe worthy of our admiration and love, but there would be no doubt, no uncertainty. Ofcourse, 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, thenmaybe we should stop teaching evolution altogether. Mere survival and reproduction donot 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 iswhether a scientific understanding of biology allows room for religious and philosophicalcommitments to purpose in human life, purposes that somehow also must connect to theunfolding history of the universe. While scientists often wax poetic about nature, evokingwonder, awe, and indeed reverence, they mostly lack philosophical and theologicallanguage to contextualize such feelings and motivations as continuous with perennial
  3. 3. spiritual quests. The public voices of "science" are more often than not promotingatheism, confusing the boundaries between science and scientism.The history of the anti-evolution debates in the United States is less about biology andmore about morality. Going back to the 1925 Scopes Trial, the progressive politician,William Jennings Bryan, got involved largely because of his objections to SocialDarwinism and Eugenics, which at the time were widely used to justify any number ofsocial injustices. Thirty states had eugenics laws. Indeed, the "science" most used tojustify Nazism was first published in the peer-reviewed journals of the United States.Today, the anti-evolution arguments are quite similar -- evolution equals materialismequals atheism equals nihilism equals immorality. The last Supreme Court case toexamine this question, the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard ruled against Creation Sciencenot on the basis of the science, but that it was a sectarian religion and thus could not betaught in the public schools. The anti-evolution forces regrouped, reorganized, and unitedaround a "science-only" tactic - calling evolution "just a theory" and requesting equaltime for Intelligent Design Theory. The old Creation Science arguments have beenresurrected, but without mention of the Bible or officially naming the reputed designer.School boards, educators, scientists, clergy and concerned citizens could quickly resolvethe debate by first focusing on what happened when instead of getting dragged into thehow and why debate. It is vital that we separate known natural history from theinterpretation of that natural history. We can debate the meaning of the CambrianExplosion, but we should not be denying that it happened. Scientific evidence for a longand evolving natural history of life on this planet has grown dramatically and profoundlyin last two centuries.The term "evolution" appropriately applies also to this known natural history of theplanet. Since Darwins time, we know a lot more about this natural history, such that evenresponsible Intelligent Design advocates admit to a long Earth history. These IDadvocates rarely talk about natural history, however, because they do not want to alienatethe Young Earth Creationist who constitutes the base of their movement. We should notconflate the "what and when" questions with the "how and why" questions.There is nothing necessarily scientifically wrong with believing that God, by whatevername and by whatever means, is actively involved in the entire four billion year lifedrama 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, developmentalprocesses, 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 inthe 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 longas 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, wewould not know, but it certainly seems likely that God also made important use of somerandom processes and natural selection; t he latter we shall re-contextualize at the Great
  4. 4. Eucharistic Law - eat and be eaten. And yes, there is a profoundly sacrificial dimensionto 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 responsibleIntelligent Designers from the Young Earth Creationist extremists. As long as we are notdenying natural history, then we can entertain and excite our students with lots of debateswithin biology about how and why. Young people get very excited by examining themeaning and purpose of their lives, a personal discussion that needs to be contextualizedwithin an entire universe, which of course, is exactly what Richard Dawkins is also tryingto do. Atheism also has a place at the round table of plausible worldviews, but it cannotsimply claim to be "scientific".There are many purely scientific debates about whether random genetic drift and naturalselection 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 importantlyfor humans, Lamarckian patterns of cultural evolution, are just some of the hot debates incontemporary biology and anthropology that relativize Intelligent Design Theory as anarrowly partisan movement within science (and religion). It would be great if ourchildren 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 isnot 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, ismuch more problematic. Why should we limit Gods generativity to a term taken fromhuman architecture and engineering? There are much more interesting metaphors for God- artist, lover, friend, parent, teacher, motivator - all of which are also ultimatelyinadequate 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 inthe public schools. There are no Constitutional barriers to such curricula, as long as weare not sectarian. The solution to the evolution wars proposed above is itself recycledmedieval Muslim, Jewish, and Christian theology, but that is another story waiting to betaught and debated anew.-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-This discussion list, BIOS, is hosted by Metanexus Online . Theviews expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Metanexus or its sponsors.Metanexus welcomes submissions between 1000 to 3000 words of essays and bookreviews that seek to explore and interpret science and religion in original and insightfulways for a general educated audience. Previous columns give a good indication of thetopical range and tone for acceptable essays. Please send all inquiries and submissions Metanexus consists of a number of topically focused forums(Anthropos, Bios, Cogito, Cosmos, Salus, Sophia, and Techne) and periodic HTMLenriched composite digests from each of the lists.
  5. 5. Copyright notice: Except when otherwise noted, articles may be forwarded, quoted, orrepublished in full with attribution to the author of the column and "Metanexus: TheOnline Forum on Religion and Science". Republication for commercial purposes in printor electronic format requires the permission of the author. Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000,2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Metanexus Institute.To unsubscribe from this list: Send an email message toLISTSERV@LISTSERV.METANEXUS.NET. In the body of your email, write:UNSUB BIOS. This method requires verification by an email sent to your address.