Intelligent Design Falls Short of Perfection
The psychedelic guru and philosopher Terrence McKenna once remarked that the scientists of today are insisting that if we grant them one small miracle, they can explain all the rest. He was referring, of course, to the current Big Bang Theory of creation. He was implicitly asking how it was possible to move from nothing to something, a question first asked by Aristotle some 2500 years ago.
I don’t believe he was suggesting that an incredible Creator Guy was hiding behind the veil of human ignorance. However, he did arouse the perennial question that has hounded philosophers and theologians since the beginning of their time: How did we get here? Was the cosmos created, and so someday will end, like the birth, growth and decay of us mortals? Or is it like the Buddhist cosmology, with no true beginning or end, but instead the eternal recurrence of Samsara, re-birth after re-birth?
The Orthodox Christian view of a Father Creator certainly fits in with what we already know about ourselves. In fact, the philosopher Thomas Reed demonstrated how our notion of the creative act arises from the human will. We can be, and very often are, the agents (creators) of change. For example, as in infant we discover we can cause the world to go dark by simply closing our eyes. What a revelation! So, if it’s a white-haired, long-bearded, magnificently wizened old man you see peeking from behind the curtain, then at least this view is in keeping with the fundamentals of human psychology.
The creator theory has probably been with us since Eve first gave birth. More sophisticated versions of this theory began with St. Aquinas and St. Augustine, finally finding forceful expression in the writings of William Paley (1743-1805), the Anglican clergyman and teacher at Cambridge University. Again, the well-spring of his theory is mother nature herself. She proved so wondrous and fundamentally inexplicable that two possible reasons for this popped immediately to mind: Either it has all arisen through chance, or it was designed.
One of Paley’s favorite examples for the case of intelligent design was that of the human eye. Putting aside the eye’s elegant complexity, he noted that for protection it was lodged in the recessed, dense, bony matter of the head. There are also these wonderfully placed flaps that further protect its delicate membrane. Internal glands constantly moisten the eyes. Once we peer behind the lens we cannot help but be struck at the ingenuity of it all. Are we to then assume this was all chance, the eventual effect of some lightning striking swamp ooze eons ago? No, Paley insisted, this is a ridiculous assumption. It is much more reasonable to infer that all of existence, the human eye included, was designed.
Paley is best known for his “watchmaker’s analogy” which he proffered as a further proof of God’s existence. Imagine, he said, that a man is walking alone on a beach. As he is walking something shiny, half-hidden in the sand, catches his eye. He reaches down and picks up a gold, encased pocket watch. Now further imagine that the man has never in his life seen anything like this watch. He’s been a recluse most of his life, and the industrial mania of his society has passed him by unnoticed. So, he examines the watch and finally discovers how to remove the covers from the internal mechanism. And once inside, what a wonder he beholds: springs, wheels, levers of such complexity, beauty, and interconnection that there is but one way to explain how such an object ever came to be: It was designed by some supreme intelligence.
There are a number of other classical arguments that promote this same view. One is referred to as the First Cause Argument, which we have already indirectly addressed when we paused and considered if something could in fact arise from nothing. The logical answer is “No.” All things that exist, from people, to turtles, to i-pods, have a cause. Hence, the world itself must have a cause. And so we must therefore conclude that God is that First Cause (or so goes the argument).
There are two other well-known arguments, one called the Teleological Argument and the other the Ontological Argument. I won’t spend the time required to explain these accounts fully, but I will mention that the Teleological argument has to do with purpose or destination, as opposed to cause or origins. In other words, rather than look to where we came from, perhaps it would be more prudent to discover where all of this is headed. If we can realize the purpose of existence, (i.e. God’s end-game), then we might be able to plan our lives accordingly.
The Ontological Argument is sometimes referred to as the Necessary Being Argument, and to me it’s the weakest of the classical views. Essentially, this argument proposes that since we are able to have the idea of a perfect Being (God), the only way that idea could be fully perfect is if this perfect Being actually existed. If he did not exist the idea of Him could not be perfect. Therefore, he is also a Necessary Being, the rest of existence simply referred to as contingent being. In response I could say that I can imagine a perfect homeland, but that doesn’t mean it must therefore exist.
Today the proponents of Intelligent Design are once again exhorting the wonders and complexity of nature, and how this can’t possibly be the result of chance, but must be the result of design. And the contemporary response to this argument has been Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Now, Darwin’s theory does not really account for the actual beginning of things, nor did it attempt to do so. Darwin was a Christian, and he too was struck by the marvelous subtlety, complexity and inter-dependence of mother nature and her creatures. But he also knew that the earth was not created in seven days some six-thousand or so years ago. The earth had been around much longer than anyone had ever imagined. Much longer. So much so that it was indeed very difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the actual duration. The way in which nature evolved through this enormous span of time became obvious to him. “The old argument of design in nature,” he said, “which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.”
Notwithstanding Darwin’s Theory, there are two major obstacles before the proponents of Intelligent Design, and to my mind they are insurmountable. The first is that Intelligent Design is not a theory, at least not in the sense accepted by modern science. For a theory to be scientific it must be testable through empirical means. If this cannot be done now (as is the case with some of Einstein’s theories), then at least it should be possible to do so in the future.
In addition, for a theory to be scientific it must be capable of being proven false. In other words, rather than spend lifetimes repeating experiment after experiment attempting to prove Darwin’s theory correct, simply find an instance when it is not correct, and we can quickly dispense with it. If we apply this same approach to the Intelligent Design Theory we see that it would be impossible to falsify this view. It would be like saying: “Prove that God does not exist”. You can’t do it. As it turns out, the Intelligent Design Theory is not a scientific proposal at all. It is a belief system, immune to scientific strategies.
The other obstacle for the argument of intelligence behind the apparent design is the Theodicy Issue. This is an ancient Greek notion that refers to God and his justice…or lack thereof. The philosopher David Hume argued against intelligent design by asking why, if it was designed intelligently, was the human body so frail and prone to disease? The Theodicy Issue raises similar questions. In effect, it asks: Why do we suffer? And if God did create us, can this suffering ever be justified?
For example, let’s say that you are a good, decent, hard-working citizen who is a tenant in some apartment complex. You pay the rent on time, your nice to your neighbors, and you do your best to maintain your quarters. Still, bad things begin to happen. First, the heat goes out in the middle of winter. Now your freezing and your children are getting sick. Then the roof starts leaking and your possessions get ruined. Then the floor gives way, and you’re injured in a fall. You complain to the landlord and he does nothing. You know he’s got the funds available for the repairs. He built the place, and you saw him just yesterday out on the river in his new speedboat. So what’s the deal? Why does he make you suffer, especially since it is all so unnecessary?
Once again defenders of the faith have risen to the occasion and offered a variety of explanations. They vary from : 1) You deserve to suffer (see Karma); 2) You really don’t know what suffering is (only Jesus and Job know this), and besides, once you get to heaven you’ll forget all about it (see Christianity); and 3) You will benefit from your suffering because life is actually a test, and you’ll learn whether you like it or not. (Or, suffering is really just a big joke; see Kurt Vonnegut).
I would argue that the Intelligent Design Theory fails in numerous ways. First of all, to insist that all things must have a cause, and, therefore, human existence must have God as its cause, has the pretense of being logical, but in fact is not. If everything that exists must have a cause, and God exists, then it necessarily follows that God has a cause as well. Oops! Can’t really go there.
Secondly, the other arguments, such as the Ontological Argument or Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy, are either fallacious or, at best, weak. It is a given that no argument through analogy is ever conclusive.
Thirdly, the theory of evolution simply beats the pants off the Intelligent Design Theory, if for no other reason than it is a viable, scientific theory as opposed to a belief system.
And finally, the issue of human suffering—or the suffering of all sentient beings for that matter—is not sufficiently addressed in the Intelligent Design Belief System (I.D.B.S.). If God is so intelligent, wise, and benevolent, then why would he choose to create a world so filled with conflict, plagues, torture, perennial warfare and the death of innocents, to name but a few of the ongoing maladies? (You can’t get off by saying the Devil made him do it). It seems to me that if we’re going with the creator model, then it makes more sense to talk about a committee of dimwits at the drawing table rather than an omniscient God.
No, I’ll put my money on Darwin’s Theory instead, at least if I’m looking for a plausible explanation of how things came to be the way they are. If I’m looking for the original source of all existence, then I’ll definitely keep an eye out for that one small miracle that Terrence talked about a few months before he died. I feel like I owe it to him.