By Lloyd Steffen
The latest battle in America's culture war goes under the rubric of "intelligent design." The idea of "intelligent design" goes back in Western thought to ideas in Aristotle, but the argument about intelligent design was specifically articulated by Thomas Aquinas, the great Roman Catholic theologian. Thomas argued that the universe is orderly and complex and so much so that it could not have become operational the way it is without someone having designed it. A planet, for instance, lacks the intelligence to determine its fixed and orderly orbit. Yet that orbit is present and observable. For Thomas the "perfect" orbit could not have come about by chance, so he inferred that the positioning of the planets comes from an intelligent being, "and this we call God."
More recent philosophers of religion have used a garden analogy: If I stumbled into a garden where the trees were pruned, the grass manicured, and rocks of similar size encircle weedless flower beds, then I would logically infer that this garden was tended by a gardener. This constitutes a reasonable inference and can serve as a logical "proof" of the Gardener's -- God's -- existence. Sometimes one concludes, as I have, that some of these arguments are valid as arguments, but when the analogy is pushed to the level of metaphysics, they are not sound because there is so much more to take into account.
The current debate over intelligent design looks to many like it is a science debate, but it is a humanities debate over questions about logical inference, the nature of evidence, the evaluation of metaphysical claims, and the adequacy of the picture of "design" one actually sees.
Let me say just three things about the debate over "intelligent design." First, the "design" some perceive in nature is not some incontrovertible brute fact but a choice about what and how to interpret. Design is a construction, the result of a decision to see things one way rather than another. I abandoned "intelligent design" in graduate school when a friend of mine and I went looking through the medical textbook section of the bookstore, and my friend opened to pictures of horribly deformed individuals suffering various diseases. His comment: "So much for design." The issue is what to include in a picture of orderliness. Nature destroys life and is clearly the greatest producer of toxins for human beings: Could one not logically take a "glass half empty" view and decide to infer the presence of a jokester, or even a malevolent designer?
A second comment. I am fascinated that Protestants are so involved in the "intelligent design" debate, since intelligent design is a piece of natural theology. Natural theology says that God's handiwork is seen in nature and one can infer God's existence through the creation. Many Protestant theologians, including the most important of the 20th century, Karl Barth, rejected such a notion. Focusing faith on Scripture, Barth and others argued that God's revelation is the way God is known, not through the natural world, which in and of itself does not tell one anything specific about who the creator is. Only God's revelation can do that, most Protestants would want to say, and God's revelation is through the word of God (Christ), not Nature.
But I find the most disturbing aspect of intelligent design to be this: Intelligent design elevates an idea of science to a position where it claims to be the sole validator of knowledge and understanding. Proponents of intelligent design are appealing to science to validate faith, to render faith "certain." In other words, if an appeal to science establishes the warrants for religious faith, then science is granted the power to confirm that my religious faith has validity. That means science becomes the most important -- the only! -- way to know and understand. The fact is that there are different ways to know things and understand things. Science is just one, and poetry another. Situating science as the final arbiter of truth subordinates faith to science and this is, I believe, dangerous not only for faith but for science. It is what we mean by "scientism," the belief that science alone has power to establish truth.
Faith, being a confidence in things unseen, asks people to trust when there is ample evidence that could, logically, lead one not to. Faith requires courage. Intelligent design deprives science of its need for poetry, for whimsy, and even a sense of humor. And intelligent design deprives people of faith of the reminder that to be a person of faith requires courage in the face of uncertainty.
Lloyd Steffen is university chaplain and chair of the religion studies department. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Steffen is the author of five books, including
The Demonic Turn: The Power of Religion to Inspire or Restrain Violence.
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