In Defense of Intelligent Design

In New Zealand Skeptic No. 64, Warwick Don critiqued Ian Wishart’s article Walking with Beasts, published in Investigate, June 2002. This is Wishart’s response.

Having just read Warwick Don’s critique of my article on Intelligent Design in your winter edition, I wonder if I might offer some observations.

Firstly, there is some fudging on the use of the word “Creationist” that needs clearing up if this issue is going to be intelligently debated by anyone. As I pointed out right at the start of my article in Investigate, the use of the word “Creationist” in that article primarily referred to people who believe there is evidence of intelligent design in the natural world. Belief that the Universe was created does not, of itself, require that one subscribes to the Biblical or any other version of creation. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking published a paper this year postulating the existence of a deistic creator, yet one would hardly call Hawking a “Creationist” in the way Warwick bandies the term around.

To discuss the scientific evidence for and against the existence of intelligent design in the universe is not, of itself, to become embroiled in a theological debate. It is more analogous to a naturalist finding indentations on a forest track and debating whether they are natural ground undulations or footprints. This is a perfectly legitimate scientific exercise.

Warwick talks of a need to avoid discussion of the bigger picture when he says, “…the undoubted problems associated with the origin of the universe or with the origin of the very first life forms on this planet are irrelevant as far as organic evolution is concerned.”

With respect, I submit Warwick’s approach is fundamentally flawed, and here’s why: The distinctions we humans draw between the different scientific disciplines are artificial. We have made the delineation that says biology is a complete science, physics is a separate science, chemistry is a separate science and so on. In the real world, all the sciences are ingredients of the others.

To approach the study of organic evolution as though the rest of it has no bearing is akin to a group of biologists locking themselves in a biosphere forever and never opening the door to the wider world, never daring to question how the organisms in the biosphere actually got there. Without knowing the “how” of it, the organisms could, for all they know, have spontaneously generated (chemical evolution), been introduced from outside (alien seeding) or been miraculously created on the sixth day! The point is, whatever the origin, biologists locked into this mindset will never find the answer because they refuse to look for it.

With respect, that’s taking good honest skepticism way beyond the rational and into the Three Wise Monkeys territory.

Warwick is concerned that opening the door to intelligent design in schools means opening the door to exam papers quoting Genesis and Job. Not so, and again this confusion arises from a failure to drill down to the absolute core of the argument. Sure, intelligent design science can be used to support Biblical creationism, but as Warwick correctly points out there is a “distinction between acceptance of evolution [intelligent design] and non-scientific implications derived from it.”

In his own critique, Warwick cites further examples that unwittingly display the current problems of evolutionary theory: after having a go at my skepticism on ancient whales, he firstly supports the ancient whale trail I was doubtful of then adds “Incidentally, based on new fossil evidence, the mantle of whale ancestor has shifted from the mesonychids (alluded to above) to a related group, the artiodactyls, and more specifically to the hippopotami.”

Which is it? Mesonychids or hippopotami? Trying to nail alleged fossil ancestors to support the theory of evolution is like trying to pin the tail on a donkey moving at very high speed. After 150 years we’re all still arguing about whether Archaeopteryx is the transitional fossil or not.

Objective skepticism recognises that the best way for the truth to emerge is through vigorous debate and presentation of evidence. Anything less is not skepticism but dogma, similar in form to the anti-science dogma of the Catholic church in the middle ages. As the old evolutionary saying goes: “Two dogmas don’t make a dog, Ma.”

Warwick appeals to Eugenie Scott’s “necessary methodological materialism” as sound philosophical basis for shutting out any evidence that might point to an Intelligent Designer. But who voted and made Eugenie Scott the world’s leading expert on the boundary between science and philosophy? In short, no one.

If an Intelligent Designer does, in fact, exist, but our system of science as proposed by Eugenie Scott is unable to accept this even if said Designer suddenly appeared in the clouds at 3pm one Tuesday and spoke to the entire world in a thundery voice, then our system of scientific inquiry is flawed. “You can’t put God in a test tube” says Scott, therefore you have to ignore it. How exactly can one justify ignoring such an event, where a supernatural entity interacts directly in our space time universe in a way that can be measured? And if one can’t defend the position of ignoring that particular event, on what philosophical or scientific basis do we ignore the evidence pointing towards a Designer at more subtle levels? Surely it becomes a matter of the degree of evidence required before we start dusting off the test tubes and setting a God-trap.

And if it is only a matter of degree, then on what basis can we then justify ignoring even the slightest evidence for the existence of a Designer, if over a period of time the accumulation of slight evidence could lead to irrevocable proof? That would be akin to paleontologists throwing away individual T-Rex bones as useless, and only keeping a complete skeleton if you’re lucky enough to find one.

The intelligent design movement is not asking scientists to become theists, it is merely asking science to follow the evidence wherever it leads, without introducing presumptive biases such as those advocated by Eugenie Scott and Warwick Don. Let scientists do the digging unfettered by religious or anti-religious bias, and let theologians argue over the implications in another arena. In other words, let the facts speak for themselves, whatever they may tell us.

[See Warwick Don’s response]