Saturday, February 25, 2006

Intelligent Design

Several months ago, Martin K. offered up a query. As Friends who believe Christ has come to teach us Himself, who believe in the direct intervention of the Spirit in everyday life, how should we approach the issue of Intelligent Design?

This question is of great personal import to me. I am an evolutionary biologist; I recently completed my Bachelor of Science at Marlboro College. My degree is in Biology with a focus on Biochemistry and Evolutionary Biology. Included in my Plan of Concentration (my undergraduate thesis) was a thirty page paper exploring the conflict between Creationism and Evolution (I posted the text of this paper on my other blog, if anyone wishes to read it). Immediately after completion of my Plan I needed to lay this issue down for a spell, but it's now been three weeks since completion and one week since a successful oral defense, and I'm eager to pick it up again- this time, not from my stance as an Evolutionary Biologist, but from my point of view as a Friend.

The phrase 'Intelligent Design' is often broadly used in religious circles to describe anyone who believes a deity had (or has) some role in the creation (and/or ongoing evolution) of life in the world. I rather suspect that the people who named their movement 'Intelligent Design' were trying to capitalize on this casual and inclusive usage, but I may be too hasty to judge.

At any rate, Intelligent Design in capital letters is more properly the name of the movement begun by Michael Behe. Behe argues, in essence, that there are some aspects of biochemical structure (the bacterial flagellum is one of his favorite examples) that are 'irreducably complex'; because their structure is so exquisitely interconnected, their evolution is impossible, and there must have been a designer. His specific arguments have been very thoroughly debunked by Kenneth Miller (as linked above; no need to go into detail here), but the basic structure of his argument is identical to the famous 18th century 'argument from design' promoted by William Paley; Paley analogized the complexity of life to walking across a moor and coming across a pocket watch. Just as the design of a watch implies a watchmaker, so does the design of life.

Both proponents of Intelligent Design and of more traditional seven-day creationism (and everyone on the middle) will very vehemently claim that their beliefs are nothing like each other. When I examine, however, this entire range of belief- from someone who believes the world was created in six days 6,000 years ago to someone who believes that the use of the word 'day' in Genesis could refer to millions of years but that God still created to someone adhering to Behe's Intelligent Design, I find common patterns of thought that lead me to lump all of these beliefs into one whole.

1.) A supernatural entity is necessary for their view of the creation of the earth and the development of life on earth to make coherent sense,
2.) Their beliefs are in direct contradiction to standard scientific thought regarding evolution.

As a scientist, I cannot embrace any view falling into this category (explaining exactly why this is so would involve a detail discussion of the philosophy of science which I am not going to post here; it can be found in my linked paper).

At the same time, another pattern of thought that links all forms of creationism, from ID to six-day literalism, is the fact that all of these beliefs spring from a form of 'natural theology.'

The idea that religion and science should be in conflict at all is, to me, a rather bizarre idea. To many medieval thinkers, including St. Augustine (read The Literal Meaning of Genesis- it's wonderful), the Bible was inerrant but the teachings of science were also true, even if the two seemed on the surface to conflict; conflicts of that nature were products of our imperfect human understanding.

It was Thomas Aquinas who popularized Natural Theology- the attempt to give reasons or proofs of faith through science. Aquinas was arguing mainly for the literal nature of the transubstantiation; he thought that it could be proven somehow that wine DID change to blood. He lost that argument, but his school of thought still thrives.

I reject natural theology outright.

To me, faith should never be proven or disproven; that's what makes it faith. I've said this before, but even if it was proven to me that a three-headed hydra from the planet Ultron wrote the Bible, that wouldn't change a whit the truth I see in it.

I don't believe in Intelligent Design and its ilk because I DO see the proof of evolution all around me; I've spent four years and earned a degree examining just that. And science should be proven; that's what makes it science.

I believe that God had a hand in the creation of the world as a matter of faith. I believe in God illogically, unscientifically, and with all of my heart. God is God, and God can meddle in the affairs of this material world in any way that God wishes to. My God-given reason tells me that evolution has occured, and because I believe that using that reason to its fullest extent glorifies God, I accept it.

I cannot be a good scientist and argue that God was necessary to evolution; that is not what my reason says. However, how weak would my faith be if I couldn't see the hand of God even in the middle of something so apparently atheistic as evolution? My faith calls me to love my enemies, to see That of God in those I would ordinarily despise. It calls me to have enough faith to see God in even the most desperate situations- mudslides in Indonesia, hurricanes in Louisiana, slaughter in the middle east. I certainly don't despise evolution, but if we as people of faith can have the faith to love our enemies, and trust God in the middle of disaster, certainly we can have the faith to see God working mysteriously and elegantly through the midst of evolution- and I do.


Alan Parker said...

Sarah - I really like your blogs' - they are part of our 'temple of doubt' but when I read that in your last ('Plain') blog you were rustling-up a blog on ID my heart sank - until I read it - you are right on the money. Excellent. You've said it all - but in an elegant way. I would have used three or four very un-Quakerly words!
I listened today to Jonathan Kaplan on this podcast -
really great to hear a scientist and doctor like this. I do recommend it - but you might have to be quick, I think they only leave these podcasts on for a day (28th Feb) I think you might be moved by what he says.
Looking forward to your next blog!!!

Christopher Parker said...

Someone once said to me, "I support the environment, it's the environmentalists I can't stand." I feel kind of like this about the intellegent design advocates. On the one hand, I do in fact believe that something is operating in nature larger than us and larger than what we currently know. That's intellengent design, I guess. But I have the feeling that the ID folks are holding tight to a particular understanding of the truth, rather than being willing to learn more about the world through what science might discover.

And then there is the conception of God as an intellegent designer. Is that so? Look around . . . sometimes the available evidence contradicts that, suggests instead a designer with a wicked impish sense of humor, with a fair amount a chaotic randomness.

QuakerK said...

Hi, Sarah. I just came across your blog through Martin Kelley's blog. This is a bit late (I've just discovered Quaker blogs but am now hooked), but I'm still interested in the whole ID thing. Did you happen to see the article in today's New York Times? ( The Archbishop of Canterbury rejected teaching ID because it brings Christianity down--it makes religion just another scientific theory. That could be interpreted to mean dissing science, but I don't think so. I remember, some years back, when I read Genesis chapter 1 again, for the first time in a while (I think it was when I was picking up my Bible reading again), and I was struck by the beauty and power of the passage as a mythic (not mythical) statement of God's creative power, and it occured to me then that to see that passage as some sort of scientific paper was not only missing the point, it was really cheapening it and lessening its power. ID and creationism assume God acted "back then"--but doesn't Quakerism reject the idea that God acted only "back then." I think Martin was right in his post that Quakerism implies an assumption that God is active in the world, but certainly ID is not the only way to achieve that. Muslims, I have read, developed the idea that the world is created anew at each moment in time; on that understanding, scientific laws are in a sense only the expression of God's consistency over time. He acts so that, say, the speed of light is always a constant. (How considerate! Imagine how difficult life would be if that weren't the case!) I'm not sure what you, as a scientist and someone with an understanding of the philosophy of science would think of that, but it was something (though not exactly) like the sort of vision I had reading that first chapter of Genesis many years ago. Religious texts should provoke awe, and though scientific discoveries may produce awe, too, that's not the basic point, it seems to me.

Thanks for the stimulation.

NYAfterthoughts said...

Okay, I'm way behind on this as well, but I wanted to weigh in as I read your back posts. My main question for ID people is this: If God is perfect, inerrant, and omniscient, why would he need to intervene? Wouldn't he have known at the moment of the big bang that someday there'd be American Idol, Hybrid cars, and endangered species?

Yvonne said...

My problem with "intelligent design" is that it posits a view of the Divine outside the Universe. If the Divine is co-extensive with the Universe, then the process of creation/evolution is hir thought-process. When you are looking at the unfolding of a flower, you are looking at a fleeting thought in the mind of God. I wrote a poem a while back that speaks to this.