Note: The purpose of this essay is to offer a critique of intelligent design on theological, rather than scientific, grounds. It is not intended to provoke arguments over the validity of Christianity or theism in general because that is not the concern of this blog. Hence, we would ask that any comments be restricted to the subject of the theological validity of ID and its relation to science education rather than the rational validity of Christianity. Such discussions are fascinating, but are best left for other fora.
In a recent contribution I suggested the possibility of a designer who made such a perfect design that intervention would never be necessary. This is not something that could be demonstrated, nor is it something that I assert as a fact, but it is a design possibility. The point here is that a deist or theist can quite easily both believe that the universe is designed, and yet not believe that the “design” is going to be detectible. Since the whole is designed, there is no necessity that some portions of it look more designed than others.
The question is whether this hypothetical theist can allow any kind of intervention in the universe, without also assuming that such intervention can be detected and measured? I am frequently asked how I can oppose intelligent design, and yet see any kind of interaction of God with the universe.
There are many possible forms of intervention that could not be measured or detected. I’ll get to the issue of miracles soon, but first, if God intervenes in such a way as to duplicate a natural process, there would be no evidence that would necessarily point to divine intervention. Prophetic inspiration is one example of such intervention from religious literature that would not necessarily provide any way of measurement. If I think a creative thought, or if I am divinely inspired with a creative thought, all that occurs is that I have such a creative thought. I would like to think that the presence of a creative thought in my brain is not impossible, and that its presence would not be seen as evidence that there must be a creator who inputs thoughts, any more than my brain as a whole would be evidence for such a creator.
I go into some detail on this type of intervention in my essay The Hand of God: Miracles, in which I suggest first that if all the miracle claims of all the worlds religion were to be accepted, there would nonetheless be a remarkably small impact on the whole of human history. Further, the majority of those miracles would simply be miracles of communication, providing information to certain people. In this sense, the fact that certain people believe that there has been a miracle has almost as great an impact on history as does the miracle in itself.
Let’s look at the resurrection of Jesus as a good example miracle. I do not intend to attempt to prove the resurrection, nor do I intend to ridicule anyone’s view of it. I’m simply using it as an example of a miracle claim so as to ask what one must believe about the universe in order to believe in some form of resurrection.
1) There are those Christian who believe that the resurrection was a totally psychological event, i.e. that Jesus lived on in the hearts of his followers, and because he had much more impact than the average person that he lived on much more powerfully in their hearts. In this sense, there isn’t any real claim of divine intervention, except for a special spiritual presence in the person of Jesus, which would be quite similar to the issue of prophetic inspiration I noted above: How can one tell the difference between a very special person, and a very special person because God made him special? If one believes under these circumstances that God had something to do with the process that belief is completely outside the realm of physical verification. It is certainly not necessary to have such a hypothesis to explain the observable facts. In this scenario, stories of sightings of the risen Jesus grew up over time to explain people’s conviction that Jesus was present.
2) There are those who believe that, using the words of Paul, Jesus was raised with a “spiritual body.” Now nobody knows precisely what a spiritual body may be, but this view tends to take the stories of physical sightings seriously. Unfortunately, there were no video cameras, so we can’t be sure, though it’s possible one could suggest photographic evidence could be obtained. Nonetheless, according to the stories, Jesus appeared to people, he was not generally seen, and he was not always recognized. If this claim is true, it is quite possible we would have physical evidence. I will tie this point to intelligent design once I’ve looked at the third scenario.
3) There are those, possibly the majority, who believe that the physical corpse of Jesus returned to life. Ah! Finally! Some solid ground. Here we would certainly have evidence. If the scientific facilities had been available, one could have proven to a reasonable degree of certainty that the corpse was a corpse, that it came back to life, and that the living person shared identical DNA. The miracle has a measurable impact on the physical world.
But having said all that, I would suggest that the miracle is nothing like intelligent design. Let me express intelligent design as I hear it theologically. God creates the universe, and creates a number of processes that we generally express as laws to make it function. It is possible for some things to occur according to these processes. (Indeed, many intelligent design advocates say they can accept common descent.) At some point, however, there are elements of life that are too complex for these processes to manage, and thus we have evidence of an added “divine factor” in the process at that point.
To be fair, I must point out that the claim is not precisely that God intervenes at those points, but rather that evidence that certain complexe elements of the process would be impossible without intelligent guidance points to an intelligent guide of the entire process. But in reality that distinction points right back to my starting point. Intelligent design is no more than the old “watchmaker” in new clothes.
So how does intelligent design differ, as a claimed intervention, from the resurrection? First, intelligent design claims regular tinkering, detectable in the nature of the things done. Second, intelligent design claims tinkering that is essential to the functioning of the overall process (in this case biological evolution). Third, intelligent design claims that by putting a label on something unknown (Behe’s “black box”), that we have somehow scientifically identified that unknown element as a divine intervention.
In the case of the claim of a physical resurrection, even if it happened, it was either singular or rare. The resulting body would be indistinguishable from any other living body, and it had negligible impact on the physical universe. The fact that the first two theories I mentioned exist, and have considerable support amongst Christians, indicates that the physical fact of resurrection itself may have less impact than the simple belief that the resurrection took place.
Intelligent design suggest a constant, measurable intervention in part of the process. Most miracle claims suggest a singular intervention. One could not produce a “theory of miracles” because they are not supposed to happen with regularity. Miracles are not going to have much impact on science simply because even the claims of miracles are rather rare. We tend to notice miracle claims because they are the exception. Ordinary historical events don’t get noticed. Nobody puts a story on the news when they notice a water stain that looks like a water stain. But if it looks like the Virgin Mary, it will be all over. Claims that things are going normally just don’t make the news.
That may also explain some of the excitement for many about intelligent design. A claim that we have found yet another explanation for how certain physical structures or biological processes have been produced through variation and natural selection is pretty ordinary to most people. A claim that we’ve found God’s fingerprint on some process is much more exciting. Boring people like me ask whether it’s really a fingerprint, or just a reflection of our own wishful thinking.
I would like to put in my prediction on another point. One of the favorite theistic claims that I do not accept is the idea that life could not occur without intervention of God. I expect this barrier to be broken as well. I believe that scientists will be able to be confident within a few years as to the basic processes by which life is formed. Those who are waiting for a barrier here, who believe that there will be proof that God is needed at the point of formation of life (in a way other than he is needed for existence itself) will be disappointed as we learn the natural processes involved in the emergence of life.