—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Et Cetera
16 September 2005

Intelligent Design: God of the gaps

The aim of science is not to open a door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.
- Bertolt Brecht, Life of Galileo, scene 9

I should begin this brief exercise in dogma-bashing by pointing out that I genuinely believe in a God. In fact, I find it impossible not to. I'm not a religious person: I rarely attend mass and if I were asked to list three tenets of Catholicism right now, I probably couldn't do it. One night when I discovered that a good friend of mine was an atheist, I expressed some disappointment (she didn't seem like the type). 'I'd be a much more cynical person' I explained, 'if I didn't believe in a God.' She burst out laughing. 'An even more cynical person?' She had half a point. I certainly can be less than sanguine at times, but only in the mode of a disappointed optimist. On the big questions, however, I'm never cynical, and I don't think in my most wilfully bleak moment could I stop believing in a God or at least some sort of eschatology.

Apparently the German philosopher Martin Buber once said that there are no atheists, because the atheist has to struggle with God every day. I've certainly encountered one or two people who bring this observation to mind: theirs is not so much a case of not believing in a God as refusing to, and there's a certain suspicious meretriciousness in the way they wear their atheism on their sleeve. You can always spot a rationalized atheist by how deeply they believe in their atheism.[1]

I also recall a college lecturer recounting a tale about Carl Jung, whom somebody managed to arrange a television interview with towards the end of his life. He was asked did he believe in God. Recall that Jung was a true polymath and one of the most inquiring minds of the century. His answer? 'I don't believe: I know.'


* * *

Well, Carl Jung certainly would not be impressed by the mass insult to intelligence that is being dished out in American high schools today. I'm genuinely sorry that the recently deceased paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is not around to energetically refute the dogma of so-called 'intelligent design' (although I disagree with the substance of his attack on Murray and Herrnstein's The Bell Curve): reading him now would be both entertaining and enlightening.

Intelligent Design (ID) is effectively a competitor theory to evolution. It goes something like this. There are features of the natural world which supposedly cannot be explained by random processes such as natural selection: organs such as the eye, or processes such as blood clotting are too complex (or 'irreducibly complex') to have evolved through chance: instead, the best explanation for these phenomena is that they show the hand of a designer. This form of reasoning was anticipated by William Paley in the eighteenth century, who argued that if one finds a stone on the ground, one will not, upon examination, believe it to be a work of artifice which suggests the existence of a designer. On the other hand, if one finds a watch, and observes how it carries out an orderly function with unnatural regularity, and that all its complex moving parts are arranged in a precise manner geared towards its functioning, then one would have to assume that the object is the work of a designer, not of natural forces. So it is with many living things.

Of course, Paley's watchmaker analogy predated the theory of evolution and therefore could not take into account that evolution is a numbers game - very large numbers at that, for it is a process of massive pruning, but it is discriminate pruning. A hackneyed example comes to mind: thousands of monkeys randomly tapping typewriter keys for long enough will eventually, and entirely accidentally, produce a coherent work of literature. Examined on its own, this work will be indistinguishable from a well-planned, well-thought-out manuscript ... which presents itself as the work of an intelligent agent.

At any rate, ID is now being taught in science classes, where, as Richard Dawkins recently pointed out, it belongs as much as the stork theory does in a sex education class.[2] The notion that 'intelligent design' should be taught to impressionable young minds was given endorsement by none other than George W. Bush, who recently stated that 'Both sides ought to be properly taught so people can understand what the debate is about ... I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.'[3] In fact, the purpose of education can be found in the meaning of the word itself - e duce, the Latin for 'to lead out' (of the cavern of ignorance, one supposes). Needless to say, if 'intelligent design' ever takes off in the classroom, it will surely lead young minds back into Stygian intellectual darkness and pseudoscience.

A theory such as ID posits what is pejoratively known in philosophy as a 'God of the gaps': in short, it slots the concept of a God into any feature of existence which science or reasoning cannot explain (for the moment). Not only does this constitute enfeebled reasoning, but it is degrading to God himself, for it essentially distributes him across a number of precarious locations, right in the firing line of rational inquiry, primed to be easily refuted. Belief in God is essentially an article of faith: there is no 'leap of faith' or even 'test of faith' involved in trying to prove him rationally or empirically. George Gallup was merely kidding when he once said that he could prove God statistically: with the proponents of ID, I'm not so sure. The whole point, as encapsulated in the quote from Brecht, is that God is essentially an unknown and perhaps ultimately unknowable entity: but the function of science is to at least let us find out what we can know.

The precepts of ID also have applications in cosmology. The universe must have a designer, its proponents argue, because it is so finely balanced to support life. I believe the first person to formulate this teleological argument for the existence of God (also known as the argument from design) was St. Thomas Aquinas. One of his 'five ways' of knowing of the existence of a God was to observe the orderly nature of the universe, upon which can be premised the existence of an Orderer. But the notion of a well-designed universe, even if empirically verifiable, is merely a form of question-begging which sidesteps a simple observation known as the anthropic principle: specifically, that if the universe did not support life, we would hardly be here to debate the matter. As one scientist (whose name escapes me) put it: looking at the exquisite life-supporting properties of our universe is like finding proof of God in the winning lottery ticket which only you possess. You forget about all the other countless universes there may be out there which don't support life. In short, it's cosmic solipsism. Or, as MIT lecturer Alan Guth quipped: 'the universe is the ultimate free lunch.'

We have prima facie reason to treat with suspicion a school of supposedly scientific thought which (i) can produce no evidence from experiments or empirical studies;[4] and (ii) which is conspicuously coy about publishing its articles in peer-reviewed science journals, often supplying the extraordinary explanation that scientists are systematically biased against an appeal to supernatural explanations. In this latter respect, ID utilises the same ideological escape-hatch as that of another intellectual menace, Deconstruction, whose proponents called it a 'project', not a theory of literature, and regularly wailed that its critics were 'not open enough' to Deconstructionist ideas. That the proponents of ID could openly admit that it is not scientifically verifiable, then insinuate their untestable hypothesis into a science curriculum, and then complain of being treated unfairly by scientists 'biased' in favour of a strictly scientific mode of inquiry is quite remarkable.

The feeblest of all the ID entreaties is the movement to 'teach the controversy', a straw-grasping suggestion if ever there was one. The only thing keeping ID a 'controversy' is its studiously imposed protection from the ravages of scientific analysis. Once subjected to rational or empirical scrutiny, the theory quickly weakens. Thus the movement should be termed 'save the controversy' - for ID is a campaign geared to place doubt in young minds for no good reason. And what sort of scientific dictum is 'teach the controversy'? Throw two theories at a roomful of teenagers and let them decide? Human knowledge is not advanced by this form of 'pupil sovereignty'. Surely the purpose of the world's finest inquiring minds is to 'resolve the controversy'. This may be difficult to do in matters of art, literature or even history, but the one sphere in which it has a fighting chance is that of the hard sciences. As Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have pointed out: 'Either ID belongs in the science classroom, in which case it must submit to the discipline required of a scientific hypothesis. Or it does not, in which case get it out of the science classroom and send it back into the church, where it belongs.'[5]

With that in mind, the danger in allowing any assault on a well-established theory (such as evolution) to be promoted to the status of being 'debated', is that a phoney hypothesis can immediately gain currency at no cost to itself. Intellectually, it's a zero-sum game. When it is broadly promulgated that some well-established phenomenon is now being 'debated', those who dispute the phenomenon with nothing to go on have at least succeeded in placing a question mark over their opponent's theory. Turkey's denial of the Armenian genocide is an excellent example - even one dissenting voice (particularly on a matter of some gravity) suddenly makes everyone bashful about discussing facts in factual terms. In the interests of politeness and free speech, a layer of certainty is shed straight away.


* * *

Intelligent Design is plainly a retrograde step in education. By bringing the issue of God too close to science, it simply embarrasses itself and degrades the concept of a God. I recall that my Metaphysics lecturer in college was a learned monk who had the deepest respect for Aquinas and reviled Bertrand Russell (author of Why I am not a Christian, for one thing) because the latter belittled the reputation of the former. But in one respect Russell had a point. Observing that Aquinas was essentially the intellectual shock-trooper of Catholic dogma, and had been appointed to literally rationalize the existence of God, Russell made the following observation: '[Aquinas] is not engaged in an inqury, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. ... If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation.'[6] Aquinas, therefore, was also a gap-filler - at least by this assessment. Centuries later, ID represents one half of this same strategy, and it's not the better half.

Bear in mind that people who believe in God are also people who are capable of evaluating a hypothesis rationally. Their forensic skills do not flick into 'off' mode whenever the question of a deity is raised. Then recall Voltaire's overquoted remark that if God did not exist, it would have been necessary for us to invent him. Invent? Maybe. But make up piecemeal on the spot? No. Leave bits of him lying around in lacunae where the next piece of hard evidence will chip away at his edifice? No. To promulgate a thesis such as 'intelligent design' - particularly in a scientific context - is to insult the intelligence of believers and nonbelievers alike.

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Notes:

1 A recent article in The Spectator was illustrative. Surveying the dogmatic atheism of certain literary figures, Theo Hobson quoted Justin Cartwright's remark that 'It's time that we acknowledged honestly what most people believe, that religion is at bottom nonsense.' (Note the prescriptive thrust of this opinion.) Christoper Hitchens (yes, him again) is another well-known figure who pursues atheism with religious zeal. Hobson notes that Hitchens 'recently said that he wakes up every day angry that religion still exists' and regards himself as not an 'atheist' but an 'antitheist'. Thus Hitchens' view of religion is strictly - and paradoxically - normative: he would prefer that the world thought a certain way (just like any priest). (Theo Hobson, 'Writing God off', Spectator, 10 September, 2005)
2 Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, 'One side can be wrong', The Guardian Weekly, 9-15 September, 2005
3 Quoted in Claudia Wallis, 'The Evolution Wars', Time, August 15 2005.
4 Micahel Behe, author of Of Pandas and People, has admitted that 'You can't prove intelligent design by an experiment.' (Ibid.)
5 Dawkins and Coyne, Ibid.
6 Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1945, p. 463