Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Intelligent Design -- the Movement: A Failure?

With Evolution Weekend just days away (and thus my need to contemplate a sermon), my antennae are attuned to conversations about science and faith.  This morning, I noticed that Scot McKnight had started a conversation (one that seems to be rather heated) about the apparent demise of Intelligent Design as a movement.  Scot gives a quote from Dr. Stephen Barr, a Physicist at the University of Delaware, who has written a piece for First Things.  Now, First Things is a relatively conservative journal (I subscribed for a number of years -- in its early days).  
The Essay is entitled:  "The End of Intelligent Design?"  Barr starts out with this statement:

It is time to take stock: What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.

Very few religious skeptics have been made more open to religious belief because of ID arguments. These arguments not only have failed to persuade, they have done positive harm by convincing many people that the concept of an intelligent designer is bound up with a rejection of mainstream science.

In the essay, Barr notes that while ID proponents have tried to make arguments for design respectable to science, in the end science must fail for design to succeed.  That is, ID theorists, such as William Dembski, point to such things as "irreducible complexity" for evidence of God's handiwork.  That is, where science has no answer, then put God in those blanks. 

Barr suggests that not only is this bad science, it's bad natural theology.  And in making his point, he points us back to earlier ideas of design, such as those found in Scripture or in Calvin, which found signs of God's work in areas that science has good explanations.  That is, God is not present only where law and chance are rule out, but everywhere.

He writes:  

The emphasis in early Christian writings was not on complexity, irreducible or otherwise, but on the beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made. As science advances, it brings this beautiful order ever more clearly into view. Every photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope, every picture from the ocean’s depths, every discovery in subatomic physics, shows it forth. As Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “God [has] manifested himself in the formation of every part of the world, and daily presents himself to public view, in such manner, that they cannot open their eyes without being constrained to behold him.” And, “[W]ithersoever you turn your eyes, there is not an atom of the world in which you cannot behold some brilliant sparks at least of his glory. . . . You cannot at one view take a survey of this most ample and beautiful machine [the universe] in all its vast extent, without being completely overwhelmed with its infinite splendor” [emphasis mine]. Note that “atoms of the world” are not irreducibly complex, nor is “every part of the world.” Irreducible complexity has never been the central principle of traditional natural theology.

Rather than go to the ID folk, Barr suggests we turn to people like John Polkinghorne, Kenneth Miller, and Owen Gingerich -- people who are believers and scientists, and people who understand there are better ways of pursuing the conversation.  While I believe that Barr's analysis is spot on, I'd be interested in the thoughts of others. 


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I've long thought that ID was bad science and bad theology and harmful as a movement. After the PA court case (in which a Bush-appointed, conservative, GOP federal judge, concluded that ID was simply a repackaging of Creationism, not science, and unconstitutional to teach in public school science classes) and the NOVA special on it, I thought the movement seemed to unravel.

In addition to Polkinghorne, et. al., I'd recommend the way forward be found with folks like Nancey Murphy (whom ID guru Philip Johnson tried to get fired from Fuller Seminary) who has an earned Ph.D. in philosophy of science from CalBerkeley, and a Th.D. in philosophy of religion from GTU (Berkeley).

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to the "missing link".. oops, found it wasn't what they thought. UN Global warming studies.. based off a student paper. James Cameron found Jesus bones.. well maybe not.

Point being, science seems to have a rather pointed agenda that often can confuse the results. Data is like statistics and can be spun.

ID could fall in this category, but so can evolution. Remember, at evolution's heart is a world built on injustice and death. (survival of the fittest) It seems rather contrary to God's design.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


Didn't know that Johnson was trying to meddle at Fuller. Well, I don't think he'd get far there. But, Johnson is a good example of the problem with ID -- as it's really his baby.

Chuck, this whole issue of the "missing link" is really a fallacy passed on by creationists -- scientists don't talk about a missing link.

And, survival of the fittest does describe the way the universe sort of works, at one level, and if we believe that God orders everything, then we have major problems with theodicy.

Anonymous said...

Fossil Ida: Extraordinary find is "missing link"

Ida not missing link..


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Fossils are sign posts -- unfortunately the press likes to go with the missing link headlines. Scientific discoveries are always open for debate. We like things simpler! Science isn't quite so simple.

Nonetheless -- the evidence of common descent and great age is agreed to even by most ID folks. The question is -- does God step in here and there to adjust the process? Or is God present in other ways? Or is God not present? I take the middle road!