Unintelligent design

Many of my readers will be vaguely aware of a pseudo-scientific anti-evolutionary movement originating in America and going under the name of Intelligent Design. Naturally it infuriates serious scientists, as all such movements do. What is less well known is that it infuriates most serious Christians even more, since it is based on ideas about God that are incompatible with any kind of worship worth the name.

Old-style creationism may have been wrong, but at least it wasn't intrinsically silly. Given a belief in a God who is omnipotent and omniscient, it is logically possible that He could have created each species separately if He had wanted to do such a thing. But Intelligent Design really is silly. It postulates that most things just evolved by themselves, but that some things (the vertebrate eye, the bacterial flagellum) could not have done so, as they are simply too complex. They must have been separately "designed". This supposedly proves the existence of God.

What kind of a God is this? You would surely think that if an omniscient deity designs a process intended to evolve certain outcomes, it would actually evolve them. Instead the God presupposed by Intelligent Design botches His design and then tries to put things right by inserting separately the things that His evolutionary program has failed to produce. Such a God hardly deserves our respect, let alone our worship. In fact He looks rather like an incompetent computer programmer who hand-edits the output of a program to conceal the fact that it contains bugs which he does not know how to fix.

So why on earth has the Discovery Institute in America put forward this lame excuse for a theory? Well, I suspect it's due to desperation as much as anything. As long as evolutionary theory depended mainly on fossil evidence, creationists could (and did) dismiss it on the grounds that fossils show only the sequence in which various lifeforms appeared on earth and not the existence of any relationships between them. Such relationships had to be inferred, and it was always possible to argue that the inferences were invalid.

The flood of genetic evidence that has become available in recent years has changed all that. Now that so many genomes have been sequenced, it has become possible to create a completely consistent family tree of species just from the different degrees of variation between their genes. If this is not due to evolution, then we must surely be dealing with systematic deception by a very cunning and essentially malevolent deity. Faced with the unenviable choice between a lying God and a bungling one, many fundamentalists seem to have decided that they prefer the bungler.

Intelligent design is actually one of a family of dubious explanations traditionally summed up by the phrase "the God of the gaps". Science, of course, is full of gaps. There is so much that we don't know yet. The job of scientists is to fill these gaps with new knowledge and explanations. That's what makes science such fun, and it's basically what we pay these people for. Periodically gloomy prophecies are made that, within a certain finite time period, we will have answered all the questions and the scientific enterprise will grind to a halt, but that never happens. While filling in the gaps, scientists always discover facts that can't be made to fit in with the current theories. Eventually a whole new paradigm is required to accommodate them, with a new set of gaps to fill in.

Some Christians however see the gaps in our knowledge as a kind of blot on science. "Aha!" they say. "That proves that the scientists have got it wrong! See, there's a gap here." Then they shoehorn God into the gap, invoking direct divine action, often of a miraculous sort, to explain what science hasn't explained yet. It's as if they think God is some sort of all-purpose putty!

There are plenty of scientific arguments against the God of the gaps. There are also two excellent religious ones. One is the purely practical argument that it doesn't actually work as a Christian apologetical method, because the gaps always get filled eventually and God gets squeezed out. But the other is much more serious. You simply cannot treat God like this and at the same time truly worship Him as Creator and Saviour. Ultimately God-of-the-gaps theories like Intelligent Design are much more harmful to true religion than they could ever be to science.

Rather than inhabiting the gaps in science, God provides the framework for the whole scientific enterprise. He is the reason why the universe exists, why it is this universe governed by these laws and not a completely different system that would not have been consistent with our own existence, and why, in spite of its terrifying vastness, it can nevertheless be intelligible to feeble creatures like us. That is why so many of the great scientists of the past were devout Christians. And it is probably why, out of all the world, Christian Europe alone developed science in the form that we know it.

Carved on the doors of the old Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, you will find these words: Magna opera Domini exquisite in omnes voluptates eius. This quotation from the Vulgate, St Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible, is rendered in the Authorised Version as "The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein." The inscription is said to have been been commissioned by the first Cavendish professor, James Clerk Maxwell, to express the divine mandate to take pleasure in God's creation and to study it scientifically.

The great scientists of the past were men who truly believed in intelligent design and their desire to understand that design informed all they did. By contrast, the so called Intelligent Design being peddled today by American pseudo-evolutionists works neither as science nor as religion. And the only gap it fills is the one between their ears.
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