National Review has long been the voice of the religious right, so it should be no surprise that it has recently been plugging the pseudo-scientific theory known as "Intelligent Design."
Intelligent Design is the latest in a long series of attempts to suppress the teaching of evolution in public schools. Previous attempts failed because they were too obviously intended to substitute unthinking Biblical mysticism in place of science. Rather than give up on such attempts, religious fundamentalists have merely attempted to make them less obvious. That's the purpose of Intelligent Design: it is Biblical mysticism dressed up in a new disguise that its supporters hope will make it look more like science.
As with previous versions (does anyone remember "creation science"?), it isn't a very convincing disguise.
I don't consider Intelligent Design to be worth much discussion on its own merits—its evasions are too crudely obvious, as will become clear in a moment—but it does provide a useful look at the methods and goals of the religious right. It also provides a warning about many seemingly reasonable, seemingly secular conservatives who harbor a dangerous sympathy for this kind of "moderate" mysticism.
A good insight into Intelligent Design can be gained by reading an awful piece on National Review's website by Tom Bethell, who describes himself as a science reporter and has even written a "Politically Incorrect Guide to Science." He demonstrates in this article that he has no knowledge of science whatsoever. I don't mean that he is ignorant of specific scientific facts and theories. I mean that he is willfully ignorant of the most fundamental methods of science.
The article is a response to a few conservatives who have, quite properly, dismissed Intelligent Design as intellectual charlatanism. Bethell seeks to defend the "facts and arguments put forward by the proponents of intelligent design" against the "snobbish disdain" of these conservative intellectuals.
But we don't actually hear any facts and arguments for Intelligent Design. All we hear are attacks against evolution. All of those attacks employ the same method. For those of our readers who are experts in evolution, try your best to choke back your indignation at Bethell's crude misrepresentations of the science, and try to notice just the overall pattern of his argument. Here are a few representative samples:
"If we discount trivial examples like bacterial resistance or 'change over time' or small changes in beak size among the finches of the Galapagos Islands, we don't know very much about evolution at all. We don't see it happening around us, or in the rocks."
"The fossil record is sparse. Bats, for example—the only mammals capable of powered flight—appear suddenly in the fossil record, with their sonar systems already fully developed. 'There are no half bats,' as a world expert on bats once said. The experts have no idea what animal gave rise to the first bat."
"The creatures that evolution purports to explain are fantastically complex. The cell, thought at the time of Darwin to be a 'simple little lump of protoplasm,' is as complicated as a high-tech factory. In the human body, there are 300 trillion cells, and each 'knows' what part it must play in the growing organism. To this day, embryologists have no idea how this happens—even though they have been trying to figure it out for 150 years."
All of these are variations of a logical fallacy known as the argument from ignorance. The argument from ignorance consists of playing a game of "stump the host," fishing around randomly for examples that are not yet explained, for processes that cannot yet be understood, for hypothetical counterarguments that cannot be refuted—for areas of (temporary) ignorance. Then when you find such an example, you claim you are entitled to throw out all of the evidence that supports a theory—no matter how much of it there is. The essence of the argument from ignorance is to use the facts we do not know to invalid the facts that we do know. It exploits ignorance to wipe out knowledge.
Thus, we can explain the variation of unique species on the Galapagos Islands, but that's "trivial," because we cannot perceptually observe evolution—which takes place on a geological time scale—"happening around us." Or: we may have extensive fossil evidence of intermediate stages in the development of many species, such as birds—but since we don't know the intermediate stage for one species, bats, the whole theory is invalid. And so on.
The defenders of evolution have mountains of evidence: the entire geological record, centuries of biological observation and classification, the entire science of genetics and the chemistry of DNA, all of which is fully integrated with the theory of evolution through natural selection—but all that the advocates of Intelligent Design have to do is to poke around and find a few facts that scientists don't know, and the whole science of evolution is supposed to come crumbling to the ground.
All of this is pretty standard sophistry. What is interesting about this argument, however, is the nature of the alternative theory it is intended to promote. If the alleged downfall of Darwinism is its ignorance about certain facts, does the theory of Intelligence Design replace this ignorance with knowledge?
Here is what the advocates of Intelligent Design have to say about the origin of life on earth. The extraordinary complexity of life, they say, implies that it must have been created by an intelligent designer. How do we know this? We cannot conceive of any other process that could have produced this complexity, they reply. Who is this alleged designer? We don't know. How did he gain the awesome knowledge required to design every living creature on earth? We don't know. By what means or mechanism did he create them? We don't know. And of course, to be this intelligent and powerful, the designer must be an even more complex being—so where did he come from and who designed him? Again, the answer is: we don't know.
Actually, I'm being generous here, because the advocates of Intelligent Design never get this far. They stop at the question of who is the intelligent designer, a question which they refuse to answer. The website of the Discovery Institute, which has been the main promoter of Intelligent Design, flatly states: "the scientific theory of intelligent design is agnostic regarding the source of design." In other words: life on earth was designed by someone—and we have no idea who.
This is what is interesting about the theory of Intelligent Design. Its argument against evolution is a pure argument from ignorance—but the case for its own theory consists of nothing but further appeals to ignorance. A few gaps of ignorance are used to discredit the theory of evolution—but the alternative theory that is supposed to replace evolution is a black hole of ignorance: when it comes to naming the scientific properties of the intelligent designer, describing his origins, the nature of his intelligence, the source of his knowledge, and the mechanisms by which he works, the only answer is, "we don't know."
How can ignorance be regarded as disproving an existing theory—by the same people who propose an alternative theory whose very core consists of ignorance?
This is not a mere contradiction. It is the expression of a deeper premise that is the real goal, both of the attacks on evolution and of the attempts to erect Intelligent Design in its place. The only theory that is acceptable to the advocates of Intelligent Design is one that enshrines the inability of the human mind to understand the universe. Darwin's theory is wrong, in this view, not because it cannot find the missing link between bats and their ancestors—but because it has the hubris to suggest that the human mind can provide a rational explanation of the origin of life. And that is why the advocates of Intelligent Design have no problem placing a confession of ignorance at the center of their own theory. Their theory ensures that the origin of life will be approached in the only way they find acceptable: as an impenetrable mystery.
This is the real religious agenda behind Intelligent Design. The goal of the theory is not to explain any scientific fact, but rather to humble the "arrogance" of science and make sure that reason yields when it approaches those areas that have traditionally been claimed as the dominion of faith.
In his preface to the Critique of Pure Reason—the work that heralded a philosophical counter-attack against the magnificent scientific achievements of the Enlightenment—Immanuel Kant admitted his goal: "I therefore found it necessary to deny reason in order to make room for faith." Intelligent Design is the merely the latest manifestation of Kant's legacy.
Robert Tracinski is the editor of TIADaily.com and The Intellectual Activist.
Source: TIA Daily — December 12, 2005
[This article is available for reprinting free of charge. Robert Tracinski is available for radio and television appearances on the subject. For the permission to reprint or to schedule an appearance, write to editor@TIADaily.com.]
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