Paul Wallace: Intelligent Design Is Dead

Paul Wallace is a well-known science and religion teacher who has written extensively on issues of science and faith.  He currently teaches physics at Agnes Scott College in Decatur.  Today I would like to direct your attention to an article of his over at The Huffington Post in which he argues that Intelligent Design is dead.

Intelligent Design has been with us for centuries, ever since the days of Thomas Aquinas.  Basically it grows out of the argument that the universe is so complex that it could not have evolved on its own by random chance; its evolution has to have been guided intentionally by an intelligent being–namely, God.  As a present-day scientific movement, Intelligent Design gained traction in the 80s and early 90s as an alternative to young-earth creationism and a middle ground between evolution and the more radical forms of creationism.

Wallace makes his case not by laying out any scientific arguments against ID, but rather by taking us all the way down to basic principles.  He takes us back to Kepler, who in the middle of working out his theories on planetary motion that would turn the astronomy of his day on its head, discovered a star that had never before been seen in the night sky.  Based upon his knowledge of astronomy–and the general level of astronomical knowledge that was available at the time–he had no way of explaining how that star had suddenly appeared.  He was tempted to claim that this was an act of “special creation”–that God had created this star in a unique, immediate act of divine intervention.  But he did not.  In his own words:  “Before we come to [special] creation, which puts an end to all discussion, I think we should try everything else.”

Why did Kepler reject the possibility of special creation?  Not because he believed that God did not exist or that the universe was a closed system in which God could in no way intervene at any time, for any reason.  Rather, he believed that God created the universe as an ordered system that runs according to comprehensible principles, and that He created us with the capacity to discover those principles if we are willing to try.  He believed that there must be an explanation out there somewhere, even if he or the science of his day did not have it.

In other words, according to Wallace:  “The universe has been designed, therefore it must be comprehensible.”

Intelligent Design (the contemporary scientific movement, that is) turns this completely and totally on its head.  One of the key concepts of ID is that of “irreducible complexity”–that is, that certain biological structures (the human eye, the bacterial flagellum, for example) are so complex that they could not possibly have evolved, whether by chance or otherwise.  Ergo, they must have been specially designed.

Wallace takes us to the work of Michael Behe back in the mid-90s, when ID was in its heyday.  Confronted with the problem of the bacterial flagellum (a whip-like rotor that helps some single-cell organisms to move around), Behe claimed that this device could not possibly have evolved by any of the standard mechanisms of evolution.

The key point here is that when confronted with something that the science of his day could not explain, Behe claimed special creation.  This is the complete opposite of Kepler’s approach of trying to find the answer–or wait for the science of a later age to find the answer–before claiming special creation and ending the discussion.

In other words, according to Wallace:  “The universe is incomprehensible, therefore it must have been designed.”

Wallace goes on to note how contrary ID’s basic approach, as exemplified by the work of Behe, is to the spirit of Kepler–who, we must note, was just as open about his Christian commitment as any of the present-day proponents of ID.  He argues that ID’s approach of inserting God into places where science doesn’t have the answers and ending the discussion there is inappropriate for a person of faith.

Looking upon the new star in September 1604, could Kepler have envisioned stellar evolution, mass-transfer binary stars, and explosive carbon fusion? No, and so he remained silent. His humility, his belief in the richness of creation, and his expansive faith allowed him to admit ignorance while leaving the door of causal science wide open.

ID denies its proponents that freedom. Having opted to close the door on science, they steal from themselves the opportunity to see nature more deeply. In so doing they dig in their heels, refusing to be drawn, Kepler-style, closer to the creator God they all believe in. This is the great irony of ID.

It is inappropriate for us to accept any approach that seeks to stifle scientific curiosity and perseverance by accepting God as a convenient answer when the answer is not readily at hand.  The proponents of ID have accepted that path, but Kepler refused it.  The irony here is that both believed they were honoring God.

Learning more about the universe and how it works can only increase our reverence for its Creator.  This journey will be hard; at many times it will challenge our most deeply cherished presuppositions and “certainties”.  Ignorance is no crime here.  It is perfectly OK to say “I don’t know” and leave it at that, without going on to say “God must have done it.”  You may never find the answer, but to keep trying is a way of honoring God.

As Wallace reminds us:

Kepler reminds us that religious people do not need to shrink from science and its naturalistic methods, because they more than others have a rich tradition in which to locate these things, a context that allows them to take science seriously but not too seriously, and a strong bulwark against the lull of materialism.