The year 2005 has brought Intelligent Design (ID) into the centre court of public debate. Leading science journals like Nature and Science have devoted much space to ID, and one issue of Nature featured ID on the cover. The subject has been widely discussed in the US and the UK and the dominant view is that ID is bad news for science. However, even the opinion-formers had to sit up and think in August when they heard President Bush saying that “both sides ought to be properly taught.” Last year, British Christians were able to listen to Professor Philip Johnson, one of the architects of the ID movement, as he toured our country. Two of his many books already have British (Christian) publishers. A book by another leader, William Dembski, has recently been published in the UK by IVP. What are we to make of the ID initiative?
This essay is written with the conviction that ID is to be welcomed. It is far from being an intrusion into our Christian heritage. ID leaders are expressing clearly and incisively an understanding of the created order that is essentially biblical. Our forefathers held similar views, but their thoughts lacked maturity and were expressed in a less rigorous way. In essence, ID is the view that intelligent design is manifested in the created order. Design is not an aesthetic response to creation or a subjective feeling. Design is really there. Concluding that life is designed is not a matter of faith, but a matter of physical evidence. Design is an objective characteristic of the natural world and so the recognition of design rightly belongs to science.
For years, Christians have been defensive about design. We have allowed values drawn from the Enlightenment to govern our thinking. Those values involve “secularisation”: the view that science is done without any metaphysical overtones. The leaders of science have often been openly secular, claiming that science has removed the need for belief in God. What they have actually done, however, is to redefine science so that God is irrelevant. These are people who insist that all reality must conform to the laws of physics and chemistry, and that every explanation must involve either “law” or “chance” or both.
A recent example of secular thinking comes from James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA and a Nobel prize-winner. "One of the greatest gifts science has brought to the world is continuing elimination of the supernatural, and it was a lesson that my father passed on to me, that knowledge liberates mankind from superstition." (Why Darwin's still a scientific hotshot, Los Angeles Times , September 18, 2005)
ID is a bold attempt to reclaim science from the secularists. “Science” has no business insisting that nature must conform to certain philosophical prescriptions. When we look at causation, there are three types we can distinguish: “law”, “chance” and “intelligent agency”. Science cannot exclude intelligent agency as a matter of principle! Its agenda is to examine the evidence without prejudice and to build a clearer understanding of the natural world.
ID theorists point out that science has never thrived when it prescribes the answers to our questions. The Christian pioneers of science abandoned Aristotelianism, which did attempt to reason its way to answers. To say that ID is bad news for science is absurd! The reality is that ID is liberating science from the straightjacket of secularism.
The very least we can say from a Christian perspective is that God has the right to create as he pleases, without being constrained by anything we might think about what he can do and what he cannot do. Furthermore, Christians have always recognised that God is the Author of physics and chemistry. The reason we refer to the “laws of nature” is that the early scientists drew an analogy between God's laws in the moral realm and God's laws in the natural realm.
Christian design theorists do not argue that explanations based on “law” or “chance” mean somehow that God is not in control or that these events have not been purposed by God. On the contrary, everything in creation comes under his sovereign control. “Law” and “chance” are aspects of providence: God's government of creation. His power is seen everywhere. Through Christ, the world is upheld and sustained. We marvel at the power of God in miracles, but his power is no less in the ordering of “normal” processes we see every day. In affirming intelligent agency, Christians affirm that God is not bound by the “laws” of providence, but is free to act in whatever way he chooses. It certainly makes a difference to our praying when we believe this!
Whilst “law” and “chance” can be secularised and made palatable to unbelieving man, “intelligent agency” cannot. Secularists have reinvented God's providence in terms of impersonal, undirected mechanical processes, and this is where they draw a demarcation line as to what counts as reality. Intelligent Agency appears to them as an intrusion, threatening their world, and they fight it tooth and nail. Thus, ID is described as anti-science, absurd, appalling, and there are many other unsavoury epithets.
Yet intelligent design is recognised to be part of science when humans are the agents. Stone artefacts can be examined from the perspective of being fashioned by chance (abrasion in a gravel bank) or law (fracturing along certain weak planes within the material) or intelligent agency (impacted by a skilled human to make a tool). Archaeologists are perfectly familiar with the methodology and work with it routinely. Similar comments can be made about the activities of forensic scientists. Secularists cannot deny the scientific route to making design inferences, but they resist implacably the thought that the natural world cannot be explained without an Intelligent Agent. Their opposition to ID has spiritual roots and has nothing to do with protecting science.
Christian reactions to ID are also mixed. Whereas some recognise that ID has injected a breath of fresh air into “design in nature” questions, others exhibit varying degrees of dismay. How is this to be explained? Many of the concerns relate to a fear of “God-of-the-gaps” thinking, which thrives on ignorance and says “God did it!” This is an understandable fear, because we can find examples of this in history. However, it is not an argument that is effective against ID advocates, who routinely point out that design inferences are based on knowledge, not on ignorance. All the central ID arguments (such as irreducible complexity and specified complexity) draw on what we do know as a result of years of painstaking, thorough research.
Ever since my own student days, in the 1960s, I have been exposed to Christian teachers who say that the Bible addresses why questions whereas science addresses how questions. The Bible and science are said to be complementary ways of approaching the same subject. Of course, there is some truth in this, but it is not true that the Bible never addresses how questions! Adam was made from the dust of the ground. Eve was made from a part of Adam's side. Death became the experience of humans because Adam sinned. The Bible brings us history, and biblical history addresses both how and why questions.
If the analysis presented above is correct, the real reason for sustained opposition to ID from Christians is secularisation. Each of us faces the danger of imbibing the spirit of our age and failing to be renewed in our minds. We need to think in a Christian way and to guard against the cultural atheism that is so pervasive in our society. Complementarity thinking brings with it the danger of failing to see the secularisation trend in science. This is a great weakness. Complementarity also makes it impossible to think clearly about the ID issue. This is because ‘intelligent design' has to be an objective characteristic of an artefact (within the scope of science) and not a complementary characteristic perceived only by faith.
Clearly, this is not a difference of view among Christians that can be shelved. The stakes are high. It affects the way we perceive our national culture. Each of us needs to develop a Christian mind on these matters, so that we can bring God's Word meaningfully to those around us. The starting point is surely a prayerful searching of the Scriptures. Romans 1:18-21 and Psalm 19 are good places to begin.
David J. Tyler. (December 2005)
This article appeared as the Editorial for Origins 42 (December 2005) which is a special issue on the theme of intelligent design. Two articles from this issue are available in pdf format:
- Intelligent Design: Is it Science? by David J Tyler
- 'God of the Gaps': A Valid Objection? by Stephen Lloyd
For other BCS on-line resources on design in the natural world, please see: Design in God's Creation