Bad Science and Weak Theology?
Narrator—Elements of design are all around us: …our homes, our cars, our art. If you have paid any attention to the science and faith conversation taking place in our churches in the last twenty or so years, you have probably heard about a movement called Intelligent Design, or ID for short. Intelligent Design is the proposition that certain features of creation are best explained by an intelligent cause, and not by an undirected process. It is an idea that has become very popular among Christian lay people. Here is what the main proponents of ID say about their work.
William Dembski—“There are features of biological systems that cannot be understood and explained apart from intelligence or purpose.”
Stephen Meyer—“What critics of intelligent design typically do…in other words they don’t have a better explanation to offer, and say is, ‘Well the design hypothesis for the origin of information, is simply not a scientific hypothesis.’”
Lee Strobel—“The negative evidence against Darwinists and Darwinian evolution, convinced me that purely naturalistic processes cannot reasonably account for the creation and the development and the diversity of life.”
Narrator—All of us who love God and believe in His mastery over the universe, experience those moments when we are in awe of His creation. We believe God creates and that He is intelligent, so in that sense all Christians could be said to agree with the idea of an intelligent designer. But is ID a legitimate scientific alternative to evolutionary biology? We asked a diverse group of leading scientists their perspectives on the work of the ID community.
Ian Hutchinson—“What we tend to mean when we are talking about Intelligent Design movement, capital I, capital D, is a view that says not only did God design and create the universe, but we can scientifically detect the fact that the world is designed—And that is the crucial move. I mean I personally don’t find the arguments that have been put forward to support that position, particularly intellectually convincing. They, in my view, just simply have not come up with compelling evidence.”
Darrel Falk—“And so along come these people, who for wonderful reasons, you know, reasons that I hold as well, and that is the existence of a God who works in creation, and they are just interpreting through that lens: ‘I am going to be able to detect God’s work in here. Using scientific tools, I am going to be able to detect God’s work!’
It is just pretty (hesitates)… sloppy… What happens is that all that they’re finding—for the most part—they’re just finding gaps in the scientific process. Then when those gaps get filled in, everybody is embarrassed because they have invested so much money, they have invested so much personal ideology, reputation, even (hesitates)… ego. And along comes somebody who says, ‘Well, we filled that gap in.’ …It is pretty hard to say, ‘I guess I was wrong.’”
Sean Carroll—“Intelligent Design when it has been examined by the scientific community, when Intelligent Design has put forward scientific arguments... in the realm of this peer review… this intense critical process I am telling you about---then their arguments have been found to be completely empty. Intelligent Design hasn’t been able to get out of the batter’s box because its first swings have been completely empty, they are complete whiffs. So for…you know…PR reasons, or… political reasons, or whatever it might be, they keep talking….But they have no traction in this scientific game.”
David Ussery—“The Intelligent Design movement is still doing it—they deny it—but essentially if you look, their arguments are… ‘We can’t explain this, therefore, God did it!’ Many people think if we can explain it with the laws of chemistry and physics, God is not involved. And we only need to invoke God when we cannot explain things. …. Just because we can explain it, doesn’t mean God is not there.”
So while there are serious problems with Intelligent Design as science, many Christian scholars are just as concerned with the theological implications raised by these ideas.
Thomas Jay Oord—“For me, I take God’s love as the central signpost, central attribute of who God is, and I worry that a God who has the capacity to force agents and organisms to do certain things, then is acting in unloving ways, if love doesn’t force, if love is persuasive, if love calls, if love works in cooperation, then in any instance in which God would be forcing, even non-humans, I worry that is not a very loving thing to do. And so there are theological reasons why I am a little bit suspicious of particular claims by the Intelligent Design community.”
Denis Alexander—“And I think it is a misunderstanding of the understanding of what creation actually means in the Bible, on one side, that creation in a traditional Christian understanding means simply a God who is creator and who brings into being everything else that exists. So everything that exists, whatever it might be, is existing by the will and through the purpose and plan of God.
So we as scientists, what we can do, is to actually describe what God has brought into being. That is very much the old Augustinian view of creation-theology that he mapped out in his great commentary on Genesis, which was published the early part of this century. This goes way back; it is not some new understanding of creation, this is traditional theology. So I think we need to restore a traditional creation-theology to this discussion. Once you accept a traditional Christian understanding of creation, then all we discover as scientists…all we describe is part of that whole narrative of God’s created order. Augustine said that nature is what God does, and so if we are investigating nature, we can only investigate what God does.”
Narrator—Intelligent Design has been embraced by many in the church because they have been led to believe that serious science leaves no room for God, and so serious Christians must turn their backs on the discoveries of modern science. ….But that’s simply not the case.
The God of the Bible upholds His natural laws and His Spirit pervades the entire universe in ways that are beyond our comprehension. There is room for science and faith in the lives of committed believers as we fearlessly pursue truth together.
Epilogue (by Darrel Falk)
As indicated in this film clip, many scientists feel that the ID movement is an attempt to locate gaps in our scientific knowledge and then to presume those gaps can only be filled by intervention of an external intelligence. It is important to note that ID leaders do not view their work this way. For example, William Dembski recently wrote:
But in fact, ID is not an interventionist theory. ID is, in the first instance, concerned with the detectability of design. But detecting the activity of a designing intelligence says nothing, without further investigation and evidence, about how the designing intelligence acted, whether by discrete interventions or by continuous infusions of information or by front-loading of all the necessary information….In detecting design we can say where design is.
Our task is to help the Church understand that we are unaware of any single instance where the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement have scientifically demonstrated supernatural activity. Nor are we aware of a single instance of where they have done “further investigation and [provided] evidence about how the designing intelligence acted, whether by discrete interventions or by continuous infusion of information, or by front-loading of all the necessary information.” It still seems to us that what they do is to go into that realm just beyond the horizon of what we know about God’s natural world and assert that they have demonstrated that God’s supernatural activity is required there.
Have I been too frank by calling this sort of science “sloppy?” Should I try to find a gentler word when speaking about the quality of the work of my Christian brothers? Should not Christians always be known for their spirit of grace? True, we Christians must always be known by our love. Without that we are just a resounding gong and a clanging cymbal. Still, what about these words from Paul:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)
I have been a professor for many years and perhaps the hardest thing I ever have done is to sit down with a student as I review a term paper that I know is not up to the standards of what I am convinced that person is capable of producing. If their work is sloppy, and I know they can do better, then the loving thing to do is to tell them as kindly and gently as I can.
As Christians, we can do better science than this. Let’s stop claiming we have detected design, when all that we’ve really done is to point out interesting research questions that exist at the horizon where our knowledge is incomplete.
God spoke life into existence. It is all his. “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” How can one detect design when it has all been designed? What is our negative control? What I do know is that as I look out on creation I see the majesty of God, and as I explore the inner working of a cell, I am in awe as I observe a marvelous symphony. It is all God’s.
In the wisdom that comes from God, let’s join together—all of us—in celebration and worship, as we sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in our hearts and with the assurance that this is our Father’s World.
Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.
Darrel Falk is former president of The BioLogos Foundation. He transitioned into Christian higher education 25 years ago and has given numerous talks about the relationship between science and faith at many universities and seminaries. He is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.