Grand Themes Narrow Constituency


In the beginning, there was young-earth creationism. Even now, long after evolution has conquered the scientific world, "scientific" creationism remains popular, periodically surfacing to complicate the lives of science educators. This old-time creationism, however, has major shortcomings. Its religious motives are too obvious, its scientific credentials next to nonexistent. There is an aura of crankishness about claiming that special creation is not only scientific but also better than what ordinary science has to offer. In mainstream scientific circles, creationism produces exasperation and sometimes a kind of aesthetic fascination with the sheer extent of its badness. So scientists engage with creationists in a political struggle, not a serious intellectual dispute. Although they may miss opportunities to address some interesting questions (Edis 1998b), there is a limit to the excitement of continually revisiting matters resolved in the nineteenth century.

A new species of creationism, fighting evolution under the banner of intelligent design (ID), is attempting to change this picture. Many ID proponents not only sport Ph.D.s but have also done research in disciplines such as mathematics, philosophy, and even biology. They disavow overly sectarian claims, steering away from questions such as the literal truth of the Bible. And instead of trafficking in absurdities like flood geology, they emphasize grand intellectual themes: that complex order requires a designing intelligence, that mere chance and necessity fall short of accounting for our world (Moreland 1994, Dembski 1998a, Dembski 1999, Dembski and Kushiner 2001). They long to give real scientific teeth to intuitions about order and design shared by diverse philosophical and religious traditions.

At first, we might have expected ID to have a broad-based appeal. Scientists accustomed to evolution and wary of political battles over creation-ism might have been skeptical; but science is, after all, only one corner of intellectual life. Perhaps ID proponents could appeal to wider concerns and persuade scientists to reconsider intelligent design as an explanation for nature. At the least, it might spark an interesting debate about science and religion as ways of approaching our world and as influential institutions in society.

Curiously, though, very little of this debate has taken place. Academically, ID is invisible, except as a point of discussion in a few philosophy departments. Instead of treating it as a worthy if mistaken idea, scientists typically see it as the latest incarnation of bad, old-fashioned creationism. There has been little support for ID in nonscientific intellectual circles; even in academic theology, it has made inroads only among conservatives. ID promised to be broad-based but could not go beyond the old creationism's narrow constituency. It was supposed to be intellectually substantial, but scientists usually treat it as a nuisance. Most disappointingly, ID attracts attention only because it turns up in endless, repeated political battles over science education.

So what went wrong? Why has the intellectual response to ID ranged from tepid to hostile?

Design, East and West

Stepping outside the western debate over evolution may help us put ID into perspective. Islam has lately attracted much attention as a resurgent scripture-centered faith in a time of global religious revival. It appears to be an exception to the thesis that secularization is the inescapable destiny of modernizing societies, and it impresses scholars with the vitality of its religious politics. Less well known, however, is the fact that the Islamic world harbors what may be the strongest popular creationism in the world and that the homegrown intellectual culture in Muslim countries generally considers Darwinian evolution to be unacceptable.

In Turkey, which has felt modernizing pressures more than most Islamic countries, both a richly supported, politically well connected, popular creation-ism and a creationist influence in state-run education have appeared over the past few decades (Edis 1994, 1999; Sayin and Kence 1999). In Islamic bookstores from London to Istanbul, attractive books published under the name of Harun Yahya appear, promising everything from proof of the scientific collapse of evolution (Yahya 1997) to an exposition that Darwinism is funda mentally responsible for terrorist events such as that of 11 September 2001 (Yahya 2002).

Yahya's work is the Muslim equivalent of old-time creationism in the United States; indeed, it borrows freely from U.S. creationist literature, adapting it to a Muslim context by downplaying inessential aspects such as flood geology. In both its politics and its ability to reach beyond a conservative religious subculture, it is more successful than its U.S. counterpart.

Islamic creationism has much closer ties to intellectual high culture than in the United States. It would be nearly impossible for a creationist book to win endorsements from a prestigious U.S. divinity school, but Yahya's books print the praise of faculty members in leading Turkish departments of theology. One reason is that, in Muslim religious thought, the classical argument from design retains an importance it has long since lost in the west. Partly because of Quranic antecedents, Muslim apologetics at all levels of sophistication often rely on a sense that intelligent design is just plain obvious in the intricate complexities of nature (Edis 2003).

In other words, a kind of diffuse, taken-for-granted version of ID is part of a common Muslim intellectual background. The grand themes of ID are just as visible in the anti-evolutionary writings of Muslims who have more stature than Yahya. Osman Bakar (1987), vice-chancellor of the University of Malaya, criticizes evolutionary theory as a materialist philosophy that attempts to deny nature's manifest dependence on its creator and throws his support behind the endeavor to construct an alternative Islamic science, which would incorporate a traditional Muslim perspective into its basic assumptions about how nature should be studied (Bakar 1999). His desire is reminiscent of theistic science as expressed by some Christian philosophers with ID sympathies, which includes a built-in design perspective as an alternative to naturalistic science (Moreland 1994, Plantinga 1991). Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1989, 234-44), one of the best-known scholars of Islam in the field of religious studies, denounces Darwinian evolution as logically absurd and incompatible with the hierarchical view of reality that all genuine religious traditions demand, echoing the implicit ID theme that ours must be a top-down world in which lower levels of reality depend on higher, more spiritual levels.

The notion of intelligent design, as it appears in the Muslim world or in the western ID movement, is not just philosophical speculation about a divine activity that has receded to some sort of metaphysical ultimate. Neither is it a series of quibbles about the fossil record or biochemistry; indeed, ID's central concern is not really biology. The grand themes of ID center on the nature of intelligence and creativity.

In the top-down, hierarchical view of reality shared by ID proponents and most Muslim thinkers, intelligence must not be reducible to a natural phenomenon, explainable in conventional scientific terms. As John G. West, Jr., (2001) asserts:

Intelligent design . . . suggests that mind precedes matter and that intelligence is an irreducible property just like matter. This opens the door to an effective alternative to materialistic reductionism. If intelligence itself is an irreducible property, then it is improper to try to reduce mind to matter. Mind can only be explained in terms of itself—like matter is explained in terms of itself. In short, intelligent design opens the door to a theory of a nonmaterial soul that can be defended within the bounds of science. (66)

Accordingly, ID attempts to establish design as a "fundamental mode of scientific explanation on a par with chance and necessity"—as with Aristotle's final causes (Dembski 2001b, 174).

Intelligence, of course, is manifested in creativity. ID proponents believe that the intricate, complex structures that excite our sense of wonder must be the signatures of creative intelligence. The meaningful information in the world must derive from intelligent sources. The efforts of mathematician and philosopher William Dembski (1998b, 1999), the leading theorist of ID, have been geared toward capturing this intuition that information must be something special, beyond chance and necessity.

The western ID movement has few Muslim connections. Among Muslims involved with ID, the most notable is Muzaffar Iqbal, a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, a leading ID organization. Iqbal is also part of the Center for Islam and Science, a group of Muslim intellectuals promoting "Islamic science." But the connection is deeper than minimal organizational contact. The grand themes of ID resonate with a Muslim audience: they are found in much Muslim writing about evolution and how manawi (spiritual) reality creatively shapes the maddi (material). This is no surprise, because these themes are deeply rooted in any culture touched by near-eastern monotheism. They have not only popular appeal but the backing of sophisticated philosophical traditions developed over millennia.

Today, a full-blown defense of these themes must include a critique of modern biology. After all, while life, with its wondrous functional complexity, was once the poster child for the argument from design, it has now become the prime illustration of how to explain nature through chance and necessity. Evolution in the minimal sense of descent with modification could be accommodated if it could be seen as a progression toward higher orders of being; indeed, such was the initial response of even evangelical theologians to Darwin (Livingstone 1987). Interpreting evolution as an explicitly guided development would retain a sense of intelligent design; and this approach is still alive among more liberal thinkers, both Christian and Muslim. Darwinian biology, however, strains this view since it relies on nothing but blind mechanisms with no intrinsic directionality. The main sticking point is not descent with modification or progress but mechanism: chance and necessity suffice; hence, design as a fundamental principle disappears.

Defenders of intelligent design, then, understandably feel a need to pick a quarrel with Darwinian evolution. In the Muslim world, this task is more straightforward because a generic philosophical version of ID is part of the intellectual background. This is no longer the case in western intellectual life. The ID movement here is attempting to regain a foothold in the intellectual culture. To do so, proponents need to flesh out their intuitions about design and put them into play as scientific explanations. Thus, it is westerners, not Muslims, who invent notions of irreducible complexity in molecular biology (Behe 1996) and try to formulate mathematical tests to show that information is something special, beyond mere mechanisms, and a signature of design (Dembski 1998b).

ID among the Theologians

ID involves philosophy and theology, as well as attempts at science, and the grand themes it tries to defend might seem more at home in theology than in science. Indeed, the movement has attracted a number of philosophers and theologians with conservative religious commitments: Alvin Plantinga, Stephen C. Meyer, J. P. Moreland, William A. Dembski, William Lane Craig, Robert C. Koons, Jay Wesley Richards, John Mark Reynolds, Paul A. Nelson, Bruce L. Gordon, and no doubt many others (Moreland 1994, Dembski 1998a, Dembski and Kushiner 2001).

Academic theology in general, however, has a more liberal bent; it is not inclined to challenge mainstream science. Even so, we might expect some of ID's concerns and themes to surface in the west. After all, its central concerns do not involve minor sectarian points of doctrine but notions of divine design that should have a broad appeal.

Some echoes of ID's preoccupations can, in fact, be found in the writings of theological liberals who are friendly toward evolution. John F. Haught (2003), who vigorously defends the view that modern biology is fully compatible with Christianity and criticizes the ID movement for its theological lack of depth, nevertheless believes that creative novelty cannot be captured by mere mechanism, by chance and necessity. Like ID proponents, he takes information to be a key concept, describing God as "the ultimate source of the novel informational patterns available to evolution" (Haught 2000, 73). Another well-known example comes from the work of John Polkinghorne (1998) and Arthur Peacocke (1986), who speculate about how the indeter-minism in modern physics might allow us to speak of a top-down sort of causality, beyond chance and necessity, which is connected to "active information" and allows intelligent guidance of evolution.

Curiously, academic theologians are often more willing to defend ID-like ideas outside the context of biological evolution. For example, some religious thinkers are enamored of parapsychology, which gets scarcely more respect than ID does in scientific circles. Accepting the reality of psychic powers, they see evidence that mind is independent of matter, that "agent causation" is an irreducible category of explanation very similar to design as ID proponents conceive of it (Stoeber and Meynell 1996).

It is notable, though, that such echoes of ID are merely echoes; only someone looking for parallels would notice them. These ideas seem to come up independently of the ID movement, appearing without favorable citation of any ID figure. Moreover, the echoes remain wholly undeveloped and tentative. For example, Polkinghorne never advances his speculations about information and quantum randomness as a space for divine action. Doing so would mean making the strong claim that the randomness in modern physics is not truly random and that a pattern might be revealed, perhaps brought to light by a design argument. Rather, he leaves his ideas at the "could be that" stage, never directly engaging science.

This brings up an intriguing possibility: that ID can be a means of bridging the gulf separating conservative and liberal theologies. Conservatives suffer from a reputation for intellectual backwardness, liberals from the impression that they are too accommodating, too given to compatible-with-anything hand waving. ID might provide conservatives with sophistication and liberals with a more-solid formulation for their intuition. This does not even necessitate a complete denial of evolution. After all, the grand themes of ID do not require that descent with modification be false, just that mere mechanisms not be up to the task of assembling functional complexity. Technically, Dembski's theories of ID do not require divine intervention all the time. The information revealed in evolution could have been injected into the universe through its initial conditions and then left to unfold (Edis 2001). So there is at least the possibility of some common ground.

But of course, liberals and conservatives have not come closer. The ID

movement remains theologically conservative and harbors a deep distrust of descent with modification, not only of Darwinian mechanisms. Dembski (2002b, 212) has made a few half-hearted statements to the effect that even if modern biology remains intact, his work will show that an intelligent designer is the source of all genuine creativity. It is unlikely, however, that the ID movement will take this direction.

On their part, liberal religious thinkers about evolution usually do not treat ID as a religious option worth exploring. One exception is Warren A. Nord (1999), who has included ID among the intellectually substantive approaches he thinks biology education should acknowledge alongside a Darwinian view:

Yes, religious liberals have accepted evolution pretty much from the time Charles Darwin proposed it, but in contrast to Darwin many of them believe that evolution is purposeful and that nature has a spiritual dimension. . . . Biology texts and the national science standards both ignore not only fundamentalist creationism but also those more liberal religious ways of interpreting evolution found in process theology, creation spirituality, intelligent-design theory and much feminist and postmodern theology. (712)

Such acknowledgment of ID is notably rare. It has more to do with Nord's (1995) long-standing insistence that more religion should be incorporated into public teaching than with his acceptance of ID in academic theology.

No doubt, this lack of contact largely reflects a cultural split. Liberal religion not only adapts to the modern world but is, in many ways, a driving force behind modernity. It has embraced modern intellectual life and ended up much better represented in academia than among the churchgoing public. By and large, it has been friendly to science, preferring to assert compatibility between science and a religious vision mainly concerned with moral progress. One result has been a theological climate in which the idea of direct divine intervention in the world, in the way that ID proponents envision, seems extremely distasteful.

The debate over ID easily falls into well-established patterns. ID arose from a conservative background, and conservatives remain its constituency. Its perceived attack on science triggers the accustomed political alignments already in place during the battle over old-fashioned creationism, when liberal theologians were the most reliable allies of mainstream science. What is at stake in this battle is not so much scientific theory as the success of rival political theologies and competing moral visions.

But if science is almost incidental to the larger cultural struggle, it is still crucial to how ID is perceived. In our culture, science enjoys a good deal of authority in describing the world; therefore, ID must present a scientific appearance. Although liberal religious thought has been influenced by postmodern fashions in the humanities and social sciences, resulting in some disillusionment with science, liberals still usually seek compatibility with science rather than confrontation.

So what scientists think of ID is most important for its prospects, more important than its fortunes in the world of philosophy and theology. ID has appealed only to a narrow intellectual constituency mainly because it thus far seems to be a scientific failure.

ID and the Scientists

The reaction of the scientific community to ID has been decidedly negative. Like many advocates of ideas out of the mainstream, ID proponents are given to suspect that their rejection has more to do with prejudice than with a fair consideration of merit. This suspicion is especially strong since ID has religious overtones, no matter how neutrally they come packaged. After all, it has long been conventional wisdom that science and religion have separate spheres and that scientists do not look kindly upon religious encroachment on their territory.

This is not to say that scientists are biased against religion. In fact, although there is considerable skepticism among scientific elites (Larson and Witham 1998), workers in scientific fields are not hugely different from the general population in their religious beliefs (Stark and Finke 2000, 52-55). Nevertheless, there may be institutional barriers to the fair consideration of scientific claims with religious connotations.

Such suspicions within the ID movement are reinforced when the first defense of evolution they encounter is that their ideas are intrinsically unsci-entific—that science cannot even properly consider non-naturalistic claims such as ID, let alone accept them. Therefore, much of the philosophical effort behind ID has been devoted to defeating this presumption of methodological naturalism (Pennock 1996). Reading methodological naturalism as a strict requirement for doing science is, in fact, overly strong. The philosophy of science is littered with failed attempts to define an essence of science, separating legitimate hypotheses from those that fall beyond the pale. At any one time, a list of such requirements—naturalism, repeatability, and so on—might appear plausible. If so, it is because they are abstracted from successful practice, not because they are inevitable requirements of some disembodied Rea son. Such principles may even inspire a research program, but like behaviorism in psychology, which countenanced only the directly observable, they can fail.

Confining science to naturalistic hypotheses would also be historically strange. Biologists of Darwin's day, for example, compared evolution to special creation as rival explanations and argued that evolution was superior, not that creation should never have been brought up. Even today, explanations in terms of the intentions and designs of persons are legitimately part of historical or archaeological work. Today's state of knowledge might incline us to think such agent-causation is eventually reducible to chance and necessity, but we need not assume this is so in order to do science.

ID philosophers bring up many such objections, and they are largely correct. Methodological naturalism cannot be used as an ID-stopper. If it is to fail, ID should be allowed to fail as a scientific proposal. On the other hand, naturalism may still make sense as a methodology, justified not by philosophical fiat but by historical experience.

Consider an astrophysicist studying distant galaxies. She will, in constructing her theories, assume that physics is the same out there as it is here: that the same sort of particles interact in the same way we observe them to do close to home, that gravity does not suddenly act by an inverse-cube law outside our galaxy. This does not mean that the only legitimate astrophysical hypotheses follow this assumption. After all, in certain ways, such as the presence of life, our corner of the universe may well be unrepresentative. Not too many centuries ago, our physics was Aristotelian: the sublunar realm was supposed to behave in ways radically different from what took place in the spheres beyond the moon. Assuming the same physics throughout the universe, however, has been successful in recent history, and no current rivals promise better explanations. Assuming that physics is the same is our best bet, likely keeping us from wasting time on fruitless research. Similarly, preferring naturalistic theories makes the best sense in light of our successful experience with theories such as evolution (Richter 2002).

This does not mean that ID is disallowed. It means that ID is a very ambitious claim and that it must produce strong evidence before scientists go along with the proposed revolution. Success for ID should be difficult, but not out of reach.

Is the scientific community open to such evidence? The answer has to be a qualified yes. Scientists are often conservative, resistant to changing their theories; practical methodologies may well harden into blinders over time. But scientists also need new ideas to advance their work, and they do not pay much attention to the lists that philosophers make to define science. Even if methodological naturalism is the reigning conventional wisdom, it is not absolute dogma, and ID can still reach a scientific audience.

One important way for unorthodox ideas to gain a hearing is through scientific criticism. It does not greatly matter if the critics are initially hostile. To avoid embarrassment, if for no other reason, critics must at least understand the unfamiliar ideas and learn to work with them. Otherwise, an adequate job of criticism will not be possible. This learning process has historically been important in the acceptance of many revolutionary views, including Darwinian evolution itself (Thagard 1992). Critics can become converts.

Another way might be for a few scientists, perhaps those who are young and less committed to evolution than their elders, to take their chances with ID. If they can succeed with research driven by an ID perspective, consistently producing results that are surprising from an evolutionary standpoint, ID will suddenly be taken much more seriously.

But ID does not seem to be moving forward at all in the scientific world. It does not lack serious critics who are willing to engage with its claims in technical detail. Far from being converted, the critics consistently find ID's claims to be disappointing. Its most significant biological effort has been Michael Behe's argument for irreducible complexity, which turned out to be very poor work, not to mention current progress on the very problems Behe had said were not being addressed from a Darwinian viewpoint and could not be (Miller 1999, Shanks and Joplin 1999). William Dembski, ID's wunderkind in information theory, produced work that might eventually contribute to detecting an interesting type of complex order, but it has no bearing on the truth of Darwinian evolution (Edis 2001). Since then, Dembski has been busy misapplying certain mathematical ideas to prove that the Darwinian mechanism cannot be truly creative (Rosenhouse 2002).

The young Turks who might do novel research based on ID also have not materialized. This is not to say the biology departments of American universities are devoid of the occasional faculty member with ID sympathies. Not a few must have prior religious commitments that incline them toward ID. But productive, surprising research driven by ID is noticeably absent.

ID might one day make its big push. Perhaps it is too early, and ID's research ideas have not been fully developed yet. Perhaps. But so far ID has been singularly unproductive, and nothing about it inspires confidence that things will change. It is no wonder that ID gets no respect from the scientific community.

Politics, Again

With its ambitions to be the intellectually sophisticated opposition to Darwinian evolution, ID has failed to make headway among intellectual elites. But it has the solid support of a popular religious movement, the same constituency that supported old-fashioned creationism. Understandably, ID proponents have been trying to play to their strength. The movement today looks more like an interest group trying to find political muscle than a group of intellectuals defending a minority opinion. Like their creationist ancestors, they continually make demands on education policy. Similarly, their arguments against evolution do not build a coherent alternative view but collect alleged "failures of Darwinism."

Unfortunately for ID, there is no crisis in Darwinian evolution. Its vitality can be judged best by observing not only its nearly universal acceptance in biology but the way in which Darwinian thinking has come to influence other disciplines. From speculations in physical cosmology (Smolin 1997) to influential hypotheses in our contemporary sciences of the mind, variation-and-selection arguments have come to bear on many examples of complex order in our world. To some, this suggests a universal Darwinism that undermines all top-down, spiritual descriptions of our world (Dennett 1995, Edis 2002), while others argue that the Darwinian view of life is no threat to liberal religion (Ruse 2001, Rolston 1999).

ID, however, is not part of this debate. Darwinian ideas spilling out of biology can only confirm the suspicions of ID proponents that Darwinism is not just innocent science but a materialist philosophy out to erase all perceptions of direct divine action from our intellectual culture. So they have plenty of motivation to continue the good fight. In the immediate future, however, the fight will not primarily involve scientific debate or even a wider philosophical discussion but an ugly political struggle.

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