“Intelligent Design”

25 02 2008


A Failure of the Christian Imagination

With the advent of Catholic radio here in the Bay Area, I have become a Catholic radio junkie. Not that I listen to it all the time. But when confronted while driving with the options of listening to the classical music station (overly commercialized for the most part), public radio (one of the things white people like), the Mexican station (I don’t like my people that much), and the hip-hop station (no comment), I would much rather be edified than entertained. And Catholic radio is edifying, even if it is not my particular onda, as they say in Spanish. It is nice to hear people talk about the Faith in such an enthusiastic manner, and I have to say it helps us to remember God in our lives so full of noise and distraction.

Nevertheless, there is still a particular accent that the genre creates, an ethos that the medium necessarily demands that can make the tone of what is said a little bizarre at times. One of the things is the choice of music: “dead air” is replaced with excerpts of what sounds like Protestant worship music (or at least poor imitations of Protestant worship music). With the vast musical opus that the Church has produced in the last 2000 years, from Gregorian chant to St. Hildegard, de Machaut, Palestrina, Charpentier, Mozart, Faure, and Messiaen, they have to fill Catholic ears with Evangelical muzak. I suppose this is one of my beefs with apologetics-driven, American conservative Catholicism: it packages Catholicism into a highly marketable, very senisble, very bland, and let’s face it, very American product. In what is easy for Americans to grasp (practical questions and trivia), it brings them up, and in the education in the Catholic ethos (i.e. all the cool stuff), it leaves them right where they are: in the atmosphere of the suburban strip-mall.

It also seems, however, that a certain sector of Catholics has deemed it necessary to become infected with one of the intellectual vices of the religious conservative milieu of this country. I speak of course of the so-called “intelligent design” theory en vogue amongst a section of Christian thinkers. While I thought that we Catholics were sophisticated enough to see past such a philsophical cop-out, I was amazed to find that an entire segment of a Catholic radio show was devoted to the perceived ways in which modern science is sabotaging the teaching of intelligent design in schools. The way this issue was talked about on Catholic radio was so black and white that it seemed that the only alternative that the speakers were giving was the choice between intelligent design and atheistic Darwinism. I thought that they politicized the issue and presented it in a very simplistic, almost Manichean manner.

I don’t mind us Catholics having the reputation of being superstitious, backwards, and a little colorful (talking to dead people and howling at the moon, as one reader eloquently put it). I do mind us having the reputation of being provincial and reactionary, for being reactionary is not about being realistic or intelligent but rather about holding the world back with a feable stick. Intelligent design is not science, nor is it even good philosophy (a spaced-out, hung-over 18 year old college freshman in his first year philosophy class could see that).  Even the strongest argument its proponents have of the flagellum of micro-organisms can easily be explained scientifically. (Eggheads can go here to read all about it.)

The real intellectual crime of the intelligent design proponents, however, has nothing to do with empirical science but rather a failure of the imagination. They seem to have the perception that the only idea of order that is relevant in the cosmos is our own. They are caught in a tautology between order and being: since the sky is blue and pretty, it is ordered in some way, and order means a designer. However, the sky could be pink and made of cotton candy, or red and made out of sulphuric acid, and one could argue the exact same thing. Things are ordered precisely because they are, and because they are we see them as ordered. Does disorder and mutation then argue against design? Do armless children and hurricanes argue for chaos?

In my book, the only thing worse than an argument against the truth is a bad argument for the truth. God is. He made the universe, and He made man according to His image and likeness. Like St. Paul says, we can see order and beauty in Creation, but that does not necessarily mean that we see it scientifically or even metaphysically. We may see it with a faculty we do not understand, since the things of God are infinitely higher than our created intellect. Science by definition is a changing thing and is always in the process of passing away. That is called discovery, and that is the means of advancement. The Word of God does not change. It abides forever. It should not be afraid of lower forms of knowledge, but rather welcome them into itself. Where those lower forms of knowledge seek to usurp the roles of higher forms of knowledge, we must learn to defend the place of the divinely revealed Faith. But we should not be afraid of them. As Blaise Pascal once eloquently put it:

One little thought could not be made to arise from all bodies taken together, for this is impossible and they are of different orders. One single movement of true charity could not be derived from all bodies and all spirits; for that is impossible. It is of another order, and is supernatural.

Hadot further comments on this in his book on Marcus Aurelius:

In Pascal, this idea is intended to allow us to understand that Jesus Christ has neither the splendor of physical grandeur, nor that of intellectual genius. There is nothing more simple than He, and yet more hidden. His grandeur is of another order.

Indeed, intellectually, our treasure as Christians is of another order.



7 responses

3 03 2008

I see two problems that often get overlooked in the whole ID vs. science debates.

The first problem is easier to correct: overstatement. Watching a television show on PBS recently about this issue, I was verbally correcting the statements of judges and laypeople, although I’ve also seen some scientists do it when speaking to the popular press or for a general audience. A scientist cannot say, “humans and apes share a common ancestor.” Why? There is no proof. And homology in genetics and function are not proof. If you read a peer-reviewed science journal, there area all sorts of words and phrases used to avoid making statements like that: “it is likely that,” “perhaps,” “has been theorized to, “may be involved with,” “has been proposed to be a model of,” etc. In the many scientific symposia I’ve been to, a speaker will be harassed endlessly for making generalized statements. And yet it seems to be acceptable when non-scientists make those statements, or scientists are speaking to the general public. The correct statement would be: “there is some evidence for the theory that humans and apes may share a common ancestor,” and I don’t think it would rile as many people up if stated that way. I suspect that scientists use those overgeneralizations with a general audience because they assume the audience is not clever enough/not aware enough to follow along with scientific-speak, but in the process, they are distorting their own definition of what science is and what science can do.

The second problem is that definition: what is science? Our current definition of science is quite narrow compared to all that ‘science’ was thought to encompass from the ancient world through the Renaissance. Our current definition of science involves examining mechanisms in a closed system. By way of crude analogy (that A.V. came up with), if a man brings a modern scientist a car and tells him that something is wrong with the brakes, the modern scientist will test out the brakes, examine the car, examine the brake pads, check the brake fluid, etc. If this man is coming in every week telling the modern scientist that something is wrong with the brakes, the scientist will continue doing the same tests to try to fix the brakes. The modern scientist will not begin to wonder if perhaps the man is a reckless driver with anger management issues who repeatedly hits the accelerator and then slams on his brakes during the drive home. The modern scientist makes the assumption that the answers are “in here” – under the hood of the car – and not “out there”–something is wrong with the driver. (Actually, most scientists would eventually begin to wonder if user error was the problem, which is where the analogy falls apart, but I think you can get the picture.) There is no room to teach ID or creationism in a science classroom – they are not science, as it is currently defined. Now if we were to expand the definition of science (and the tools science uses), it might be possible to teach these things as competing “theories.” (Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, after all, were both astronomers and Neoplatonists, without conflict, where the one informed the other.) But that would involve a larger debate about science, education, and our general philosophical approaches.

26 02 2008


Because not everyone wants to spend eternity in close proximity to God. However, this will be unavoidable, so for those who don’t, the experience is known as “hell”. However, for those who have gotten close to God in this life, the same experience is called “heaven”.

26 02 2008
T-shirts - London

Should God really exist, why is there a hell?

26 02 2008

One may add that ID reduces God to our self-image.

25 02 2008
The Scylding

Arturo – I really like the central premise of your post. Is it not ironical that given the (supposed) victory over Marxism and its progeny, the world has become more materialist than ever before, and by materialist, I mean philospohical materialism – as wikipedia puts it ” According to materialism, matter is the total explanation for space, nature, man, psychic consciousness, human intelligence, society, history and every other aspect of existence.”
No space there for beauty…

25 02 2008
D. Ian Dalrymple

Have you seen any of the promos for the new Ben Stein movie about Intelligent Design, Arturo? What do you make of it? It’s being promoted, or underwritten or something, by the folks at the Discovery Institute, which is the brain trust behind ID at present. As it happens, I know a few people who work for the Discovery Institute, old college friends. At least one of them is definitely not a Christian and has no religious agenda to promote, and yet he’s very vocal in favor of giving ID a proper airing. He sees ID as something that came out of the scientific community but which has been hijacked by creationists. I’m not sure what to make of that.

And – that link to ‘Thing White People Like” – shit! I’m such a whitey it’s not even funny.

25 02 2008

Given that the Roman Church, by way of John Paul II, of blessed memory, has endorsed evolution as means by which God created life on this planet, I find it interesting that these Catholics, who, I am sure, would vehemently proclaim their “loyalty to the magisterium,” are moving in this direction. It is unfortunate.

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