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March 06, 2006

further thoughts on intelligent design

1. I think it is constitutional to teach intelligent design (ID) in a public school. Teaching ID is a very bad idea, in my opinion, but it shouldn't be blocked by a court. I say this partly as a matter of (amateur) constitutional interpretation. It seems overly broad and arbitrary to interpret the Establishment Clause to forbid the teaching of theories favorable to theism (while allowing those theories that undermine traditional faith). The First Amendment bans the "establishment" of religion, and teaching ID is not that.

When the public rules, not all their decisions will be wise ones. However, if you try to block the majority, they will get back at you--for example, by refusing to fund public schools at all. Besides, as I wrote here, I prize Benjamin Constant's "liberty of the ancients," the freedom to participate in a community’s self-governance. I would much rather lose a political struggle and live under laws framed by the opposite side than not to have that struggle at all. If a school teaches my kids ID, I suppose my children and I will lose a small measure of Constant's "freedom of the moderns" (freedom from state coercion). But when a court bans the teaching of ID, it ends public participation on that issue and so takes away our political freedom.

2. Notwithstanding this first point, I really think that ID is a bad strategy for religious people. In fact, I think it verges on blasphemy. A person of faith in the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem tradition believes in a Creator Who is infinitely powerful, omniscient, and good. Faith is not based on evidence; it may even be demonstrated by its conflict with evidence: credo quia absurdum. It can therefore coexist with any scientific theory.

Seeking empirical evidence of the Creator creates three spiritual hazards:

a) You are testing God by asking whether the available evidence supports God's existence; this seems contrary to the notion of faith.

b) At best, you will find empirical evidence of some intelligence in nature--some intentionality and mental ability greater than bare chance would provide. But that is not the equivalent of omniscience and omnipotence. An intelligent designer who outperforms chance by some modest degree cannot be the God of Nahum I, Who acts directly and without constraints for moral reasons:

4. He rebuketh the sea, and maketh it dry, and drieth up all the rivers: Bashan languisheth, and Carmel, and the flower of Lebanon languisheth.
5: The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein.
6: Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him.
7: The LORD is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble.

The intelligent designer of ID theory doesn't act like this. It must be another non-corporeal being, unmentioned in Scripture, or else a God of considerably less power than in Jewish, Christian, and Moslem orthodoxy.

c) Empirical investigation requires separating intelligence from goodness, since the two are not logically identical. The intelligent designer might turn out to be smart--but bad. To name just one of many troubling examples: eagles give birth to two chicks at once, and often the stronger chick pecks its sibling slowly to death. "Should one chick decide to kill its sibling, neither parent will make the slightest effort to stop the fratricide" (source).

It is not hard to see why an intelligent designer might choose this device to select healthy eagle chicks to reproduce. But why would a good and omnipotent designer opt for such cruelty? Why not simply make all the eagles healthy?

I am by no means denying that there is an omnipotent and perfectly good deity. However, I recommend against trying to derive evidence of this deity directly from the natural record. The more we think that an intelligent architect wants things to be just the way they are in nature, the less likely it seems that this designer is moral. Tennyson asks:

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life.

If God is good, Tennyson says, then one must find Him not directly in nature but "Behind the veil, behind the veil."

Posted by peterlevine at March 6, 2006 07:19 AM


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