Saturday, September 02, 2006

Keith Ward on Intelligent Design

Probably the single greatest impediment (and an intentional impediment, at that) to ending the current "conflict" between science and religion has been the use of the seemingly innocuous term "intelligent design" to describe Creationism's new disguise among many Christian evangelicals. The term is, in fact, deeply misleading. The science that proponents of Intelligent Design (or ID) advance is a non-starter. Evolutionary biology seeks explanations based on material (and, I guess, efficient) causes, whereas ID, as "practiced" by the Discovery Institute, advances the very difficult to prove hypothesis that specific features of living organisms (such as centrioles, flagellae, and blood clotting) could not have evolved without the influence of an interfering "final" cause.

Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to do an experiment that verifies that those features could not have evolved without divine interference. Setting up such an experiment would, in fact, require the investigator to prove a negative (like Rumsfeld's famous quote, "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"). Ultimately, biologists reject ID not because they deny the existence of God or of his role in the Universe, but because a science based on ID would be impossible to execute.

So, it's nice to see a compatible viewpoint offered from a religious perspective. As Keith Ward says in the latest issue of The Tablet:
God creates adult human beings as organisms that have developed from a single cell over a period of time. It is not in principle different to say that God created human beings on earth as a species that developed from single cell organisms by a process of development over four thousand million years. The evolution of human life, and its intelligent design by God, are not in conflict.
I wish that could be the last word. Whether you find yourself on the "religious" or "scientific" end of this debate, the article is definitely worth the read (you may have to go through a simple registration process to read it).

UPDATE 6:40 PM, 9/2/2006: At the risk of scuttling my earlier tone of reconciliation, it should be pointed out that Ward, in the quote above, is wrong on one point: the development of a human being and the evolution of the human species are, in fact, different "in principle". Development is a high-fidelity process driven by a "program" comprised of the micro-supercomputer we call the "implanted zygote". But, as the late Stephen J. Gould put it in his fantastic book "Wonderful Life", if we were to replay the "tape" of evolution, it is unlikely that we would always get the same result, i.e., evolution is not high-fidelity. That's not to say that the Universe is not fundamentally deterministic, but that the processes that led earth-bound species to evolve this way or that are not inherently predictable in the same way that gene expression is in a developing embryo.

That said, I want to emphasize that Ward's overall point still stands. We all accept that the biological development of human beings is what brings us into existence on a regular basis. Doctors rely on the materialistic basis of that development for all kinds of medical procedures. Such an assertion about development does not preclude the role of a Creator. Therefore, why should a materialistic theory of evolution be any more threatening?

No comments: