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Austin Cline

Unintelligent Design

By May 5, 2013

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Religious believers like to claim that nature shows characteristics of having been "intelligently" designed and this then qualifies as evidence for the existence of a (divine) designer. What about all of the examples of "unintelligent" design around us, though? What about all of the obvious problems and errors?

The desperate efforts to avoid dealing with those aspects of the natural world help reveal that the project is more about theology than science. Only theology attempts to "understand" God by explaining away or ignoring contradictions and errors, for example by pretending that there must be some grand plan so what appears to be bad design must actually be very good.

Jim Holt wrote a couple of years ago in The New York Times about all the imperfections in nature, imperfections that shouldn't exist if nature were designed in detail by an even vaguely competent designer:

It is hard to avoid the inference that a designer responsible for such imperfections must have been lacking some divine trait -- benevolence or omnipotence or omniscience, or perhaps all three. But what if the designer did not style each species individually? What if he/she/it merely fashioned the primal cell and then let evolution produce the rest, kinks and all? That is what the biologist and intelligent-design proponent Michael J. Behe has suggested.

Behe says that the little protein machines in the cell are too sophisticated to have arisen by mutation -- an opinion that his scientific peers overwhelmingly do not share. Whether or not he is correct, his version of intelligent design implies a curious sort of designer, one who seeded the earth with elaborately contrived protein structures and then absconded, leaving the rest to blind chance.

One beauty of Darwinism is the intellectual freedom it allows. As the arch-evolutionist Richard Dawkins has observed, ''Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.'' But Darwinism permits you to be an intellectually fulfilled theist, too. That is why Pope John Paul II was comfortable declaring that evolution has been ''proven true'' and that ''truth cannot contradict truth.'' If God created the universe wholesale rather than retail -- endowing it from the start with an evolutionary algorithm that progressively teased complexity out of chaos -- then imperfections in nature would be a necessary part of a beautiful process.

Of course proponents of intelligent design are careful not to use the G-word, because, as they claim, theirs is not a religiously based theory. So biology students can be forgiven for wondering whether the mysterious designer they're told about might not be the biblical God after all, but rather some very advanced yet mischievous or blundering intelligence -- extraterrestrial scientists, say.

Holt is right that proponents of "Intelligent" Design avoid using "the G-word," but it's not out of scrupulous adherence to principles of science or skepticism. It's because they don't want to be too obvious about the fact that their program is religious in nature and designed to further religious goals. They realize that as long as they can maintain the illusion that they are doing secular philosophy and/or secular science, they have a better chance of making inroads in secular institutions, like schools.

They avoid using "the G-word" in order to plausibly deny the fact that they are seeking to encourage belief in "the G-word." They don't seriously think it even remotely possible that some blundering extraterrestrial scientist is responsible for the "design" of the universe. Of course, the makes the existence of imperfections all the more problematic for their ideology.

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