This is not the post I originally expected to make. But in light of the comments both here and on other blogs, I will start with a New Year’s resolution: Keep Intelligent Design Intelligent.
‘Intelligent design’ is presumably something more than a long-winded way of saying ‘design’. The phrase implies that the design displays signs of intelligence, which in turn means that the nature of the intelligence can be inferred, however fallibly, from the nature of the design. For example, William Paley’s accounts of the design features of life draw conclusions about the divine modus operandi. (I invoke Paley not because I like his version of ID – I don’t — but because both sides of the debate recognize him as an ID theorist.) Contrast this with a ‘design science’ that insists that nothing about the artisan follows from the artefact. We know the artefact is designed simply because it functions in certain capacities in certain environments – and ‘design science’ is about identifying such things and making inferences about their functions, nothing more.
Well, if ID is really just ‘design science’ that happens to keep bad (aka ‘creationist’) company, then I think a lot of people – including most of the main players — on both sides of the ID debate have been wasting their time. ‘Design science’ is pretty uncontroversial, and card-carrying evolutionists do it all the time under various guises, most fashionably these days as ‘evo-devo’. The controversy starts only once people talk about origins, whether design arose intelligently or unintelligently. And the controversy becomes heated when one side claims that the other cannot possibly explain some designed thing in its own terms. However, claims about impossibility can rarely be resolved empirically. At best you end up with a stalemate, i.e. outright scepticism. And maybe some people who call themselves ID supporters would find that a desirable outcome. It certainly would make life more peaceful as each side could simply continue doing science, believing what they wish about the ultimate question of origins.
But I happen to think that there is something more worth arguing about here, and a better way to think about the stakes is to ask, Suppose the matter of evidence remains unresolved or equally balanced: What difference does it make whether I endorse ID or Darwinism? Does it lead me to do science differently – in terms of the research questions chosen, the range of interpretations given to research results, as well as science’s broader cultural significance? The answer to these questions seems to me to be clearly yes – and this is what the battle is about. Only some leftover logical positivism and a repressive US legal environment could be discouraging ID supporters from thinking about science in a way that acknowledges the philosophical and theological issues implied here. ID’s Darwinist opponents certainly do not feel the need for any such reticence – hence, their talismanic appeal to ‘methodological naturalism’, a lifestyle choice masquerading as a competency test.
Showing that someone has made an error of fact, reasoning or prediction isn’t going to resolve the differences between ID supporters and opponents. Neither will some faith-based empiricism, whereby one supposes that ‘ultimately’ — whenever that is — ‘the evidence’ – whatever that is — will reveal which side is correct. Both opponents and supporters of ID are guilty of this example of what Jean-Paul Sartre called ‘bad faith’, whereby one leaves to ‘nature’ what one might otherwise take responsibility for. In other words, faith-based empiricists are scientific cowards.
Once we set aside matters of American legal repression, Darwinism currently surpasses ID not in the firmness of its evidence base but in its creative theoretical exploitation of that base. The project of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis forged over the past half-century has been about showing how evidence drawn from realms that historically have been irrelevant if not antagonistic to each other – e.g. fossils, ecological observations, laboratory experiments – somehow add up to an argument on behalf of the chosen theory. ID should learn something from this. Contemporary ID is (at best) a collection of concepts in search of a synthetic theory capable of interrelating the evidence already on the table, which almost everyone agrees exhibit evidence of design. So let’s see some synthetic theories of ID – however fallible they turn out to be!
More will follow soon. It will stress the theological side that seems to have exercised people so much in response to my last post. But let me conclude with a meta-observation. I have followed what people on the internet have said about my interest in ID since my participation in the Dover trial. If there are any professional historians reading this blog, let me tell you that the capacity of people – even highly credentialed ones – to misconstrue motives defies description, even in one’s own lifetime, where a few clicks of the mouse would enable would-be critics to get a clearer fix of where the criticised party is coming from. However, it may be that people who comment on blogs are unusually stupid, sloppy or bigoted, while everyone else (the majority) silently draws more informed and nuanced conclusions. I hope this is the case as we embark on a new year.