Saying Stupid Things about Intelligent Design

Politics and religion sometimes make people say stupid things. They even sometimes make otherwise quite intelligent people say stupid things. Perhaps it’s naive, but it does seem natural enough to expect that unusually intelligent people would have intelligent things to say about things in general, and that they wouldn’t suddenly start sounding like people of merely average or lower intelligence when the conversation turns to religion or politics. This expectation seems to be satisfied insofar as the people who most often have intelligent things to say about politics and religion are, well, otherwise pretty intelligent. But it continues to astound me how often really smart people seem to lose hold of their intellects when they think there might be something at stake. I suspect that anyone with a Facebook account has encountered this phenomenon. I have encountered it enough times today that I feel compelled to write about it.

Today’s most egregious offense appeared in a Facebook post complaining about the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in schools. In case you’ve been living under a rock, ‘intelligent design’ is the label for a loosely related set of theories that criticize Darwinian evolutionary theory and purport to offer an alternative scientific hypothesis about the origin and development of life: life is (surprise!) the product of intelligent design. This family of theories is widely dismissed by scientists and usually endorsed only by religious believers (and not even by many of the most educated and informed religious believers, at that). The controversy that has occasionally boiled up in the United States over whether it should or should not be taught in schools owes much of its heat to its apparent religious implications and motivations; critics charge not only that it is bad science, but that it is a not very covert attempt to inject religious dogma into science classrooms and public education more generally. I’d thought that the political debate about this issue had more or less died a while back, but apparently not, since I found myself this morning reading a rather strong condemnation of efforts to teach intelligent design.

As it happens, I entirely agree with the author of the condemnation that intelligent design should not be part of any school’s science curriculum. I’m not sure whether it’s all quite so intellectually bankrupt as its fiercest critics say, but it seems clear enough that it’s not science; if it belongs in a curriculum somewhere as anything aside from a historical or cultural curiosity, it’s in a philosophy class, not a biology class (unless it’s an unusually philosophical biology class). But the particular post I read today did not content itself with rehearsing the many reasons in support of this verdict. It went on to claim that the whole line of reasoning involved in intelligent design theory, the impulse to what its proponents call ‘the design inference,’ is intellectually lazy; inferring that something has been intelligently designed is just akin to giving up the search for a real explanation. This might have been forgivable, the thought seems to go, in an age before science, when otherwise great thinkers simply lacked the resources to envision any plausible alternatives, but we know better now, or ought to, and ‘the design inference’ should be recognized for the surrender of rationality that it is.

This line of argument gets whatever plausibility it has, I suspect, from a tacit restriction of the cases to which it’s supposed to apply. After all, most of us who have spent much time conversing with creationists have no trouble remembering people we’ve met who really couldn’t see how the eye, say, could have evolved entirely apart from the agency of some intelligent being, and, well, there’s a quite rich body of scientific theory about the evolution of the eye that succeeds at least in identifying a plausible explanatory account of how eyes evolved — and, as it turns out, evolved independently many times. So there really do seem to be cases in which ‘the design inference’ exhibits intellectual laziness. There are many others, however, in which it is not lazy at all, and is in fact reasonable and indispensable.

If that seems like a strong claim, it’s because you’re only thinking about biology. You should instead be thinking about archaeology. One of the things that archaeologists routinely do is identify certain material remains as artifacts. They dig some stuff up out of the ground and infer in some cases that the items in question were made by people who intentionally crafted them for some purpose or other. Sometimes archaeologists can’t agree about what that purpose was, but they nonetheless agree that they’re dealing with an artifact and not some chunk of materials that formed solely through some natural process unguided by any intentions or purposes. In other words, archaeologists routinely make the design inference. I’m not an archaeologist, so I don’t know, but I imagine it’s often a pretty easy inference. Its ease doesn’t make it lazy, though, and certainly doesn’t warrant the judgment that it is an alternative to ‘real’ explanation. No doubt there are deeper, fuller explanatory accounts to be given of the formation of human artifacts, of what’s going on when a human being intentionally creates an object for some purpose. But those accounts aren’t going to eliminate the difference between an artifact and, say, a natural rock formation. Unless archaeology is a pseudo-science, the design inference is not merely a lazy alternative to genuine explanation.

But perhaps I’m being uncharitable to the author of this complaint; maybe the complaint is supposed to apply only in the realm of biology. Here too, though, it seems pretty silly to regard inferences to design as mere laziness. Set aside the possibility that genetic engineering and other sorts of biotechnology render some biological phenomena the products of intelligent design. Even when we’re thinking only of phenomena that we can be reasonably confident aren’t the products of intelligent design, we shouldn’t forget that non-teleological evolutionary explanations are deeply counter-intuitive. There’s a reason why such explanations have come to be widely accepted only relatively recently in the history of science despite the fact that the basic idea had already been formulated by Epicurus and, before him, by Democritus and (in a slightly weirder form) Empedocles. It took a whole lot of empirical observation and sophisticated theorizing before the idea of evolution by natural selection could reasonably be regarded as a viable scientific theory, let alone as indispensable to biology. No doubt some folks have a difficult time thinking their way out of what they’ve been taught to believe all their lives, and perhaps for them there is really nothing counter-intuitive about evolutionary theory. But in fact it cuts against the intuitions that most human beings in most times and places have had. This is not a strike against it. Rather, it illustrates something important about science and about rational inquiry more generally: sometimes the most reasonable theory available really does run contrary to strong, widely shared intuitions. The moral of the story ought not to be that those intuitions are lazy and stupid, but that successful intellectual inquiry is often hard. To castigate design inferences, even in biology, as mere laziness is akin to chiding someone as lazy just because he can’t run a marathon.

Of course, to many people, accepting biological explanations that appeal to natural selection will hardly seem like the intellectual equivalent of running a marathon. But such acceptance is itself more akin to watching somebody else run a marathon. It’s pretty uncool to tell people who can’t run marathons that they’re lazy. It’s even more uncool to sit on your ass watching other people run marathons and then tell people who can’t run marathons that they’re lazy. The fact is that most of us who believe in evolution — even most who can generate a roughly accurate description of the theory, a group that turns out to be rather smaller, in my experience, than the group of those who believe it — don’t believe it because we took a long, hard look at all the evidence, carefully considered the theory, and concluded that it’s the most satisfying explanation around. Most of us aren’t even competent to assess the evidence adequately. Virtually all of us instead believe the theory on authority. Not blind authority, and not unqualified authority, but authority. We didn’t do the hard work of assessing the theory in the way that genuine experts do, let alone formulate it for ourselves. If we see nothing counter-intuitive in it at all, chances are it’s because we’ve never been able to think our way out of our own prejudices. This is one thing, at least, that reading old books by smart people can do for us.

So I’m not defending ‘intelligent design’ in the least here. There are, as I am dimly aware, plenty of interesting scientific and philosophical problems and perplexities about the origin and development of life, but so-called intelligent design theorists don’t have much to contribute to understanding them, and until intelligent design theorists manage to generate empirically informative research projects that make some kind of positive contribution to biology, their ideas won’t have any real place in science classrooms. But it is foolish to allow political and religious antipathy towards intelligent design theorists to lead us to make ludicrous claims about the rationality of inferences to design or to overlook one of the most interesting and exciting things about science, which is exactly its tendency to surprise us, to lead us to conclusions that we wouldn’t have expected, to show that what is otherwise counter-intuitive and subjectively improbable is in all likelihood actually true.

So why do otherwise intelligent people allow ideology to lead them to say stupid things? I could conjecture that it’s just intellectual laziness, and there may be something to that. But it sure happens an awful lot, and not only to people who are usually intellectually lazy. I suspect that we get more informative explanations from the likes of Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt; in any case, a genuinely informative explanation will have to come from some psychologist somewhere, and not from me in my armchair. I wish I could conclude this diatribe with a self-righteous exhortation to the intelligent among you to shun this particular vice, but I know from experience that I’m not immune to it myself, so I’ll try to focus on keeping my own eye free of planks before I indulge in any more speck removal operations. I’ve never been especially successful at exhortation anyway.

So instead, for your delectation, a really counter-intuitive but ultimately plausible and very probably true story about the evolution of the eye:

4 thoughts on “Saying Stupid Things about Intelligent Design

  1. One principle of physics that was hard-won by Galileo/Descartes/Newton is the principle of inertia: a moving body will move at a constant speed and in a constant direction unless acted upon by a force (external forces or internal propulsion). I’ve come across people who allege this principle to be virtually a logical truth. The principle is so sure and clear to them in play in some elementary physical situations, they cannot imagine it being wrong or not plain. Yet the principle had been so counter-intuitive and against much manifest experience until Newton and pals and widespread modern instruction down from them. The earlier principle—that the base state of (inanimate) bodies was to be at rest and if they were not at rest they required a force moving them—seems a bit more simple for much ordinary experience (although it did call for some intellectual contrivances for some ordinary observed phenomena). I’m not aware of any faction clinging to the earlier principle today, and lack of contemporary religious commitments entailing the earlier principle may be a helpful background for easy acceptance of the principle of inertia today.

    Now I think of it, I’d suspect not intellectual laziness, but lack of square intellectual honesty due to personal emotional investments in traditional religious comforts, were I to come across someone defending intelligent design (say, I were to read a book on it, which I have not, and learn the thesis is not too far from its name). I say that of myself not only now with the basic frame of all life being within and from the wider frame of the physical and all intelligence, however conscious, being within and from the wider frame of life; but as well in my religious frame back in the ’60’s in high school in Oklahoma. Evolution was not taught as part of our biology course as I recall. (There was a further course, in zoology, I did not take, and it was rumored that the teacher for that course believed in evolution and was an atheist.) As part of my biology course, I made a class report on the theory of evolution, which I based on some encyclopedia article. In my presentation, I don’t know if I mentioned any conflict with Genesis, but I do remember what I came to think at that time. Evolution explained how God made the living world. Reserve for God the (largely unknown) why of things, whatever the how. That was stable enough for me (and many others, I gather), and when I would become an atheist in a few years, it was not over a cognitive dissonance peculiar to biology. Whole intellectual consonance and letting go of what had been one’s highest love (God) were factors in the minutes I decided to consider for real the possibility, gliding to the actuality, of the natural world as in everyday experience and in science as all and as afloat on its own.

    (I rambled, to be sure, in this note.)

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    • PS – I forgot to include that in my evolution-enlightened high school religious stance, I’d have seen my fellow Christians who were intellectually, educationally capable of understanding the basic evolution story and its evidence (not my grandparents for example), yet who would not accommodate evolution as true within their frame, as having personal emotional reasons for clinging to the literal account of Genesis. Worried especially of a slide from rejection of the seven-day creation story or rejection of the virginity of Mary (mother of Jesus) to a rejection of the Saviour.

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      • Incidentally, your distinction between intellectual laziness and intellectual dishonesty is a good one. One thing that the main proponents of Intelligent Design theory cannot be accused of is being lazy; it takes a hell of a lot of effort to do what they’ve done. I don’t know them personally or know enough about them to be in a position to pass responsible judgment on their honesty, but the general point that a person can be outstandingly energetic and hard-working intellectually, and yet severely intellectually dishonest for all that, is an important one that I don’t think I’ve seen appreciated widely enough.

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    • Inertia is a good example. It’s remarkably non-obvious, and it sure as hell isn’t a logical or conceptual truth. It’s not even clear to me whether the Newtonian view is actually inconsistent with the Aristotelian view that it is usually taken to have displaced, though of course it was inconsistent with particular Aristotelian theories. There’s a decent case to be made for the general Aristotelian view being consistent with the Newtonian view — roughly, if a body is in continuous uniform locomotion, then on Aristotle’s view it isn’t changing in the relevant sense — but in any case, if common sense intuition has to come down on one side or the other here, I’d say it comes down against Newton, though that is of course not Newton’s problem.

      I think it’s clear enough that a lot of opposition to evolutionary theory is driven by religious discomfort, but I don’t think that’s at all the only reason why one might reasonably find at least certain versions of the theory counter-intuitive. The classic Darwinian view, after all, is that every adaptation came into existence purely by chance as the result of a random genetic mutation, just happened to confer some kind of reproductive advantage, and so persisted. For one thing, this requires an immense amount of time for life to evolve into the complex forms that we find around us, and though there’s good independent evidence that there’s been enough time, it’s not easy to think in terms of such long stretches. For another thing, Darwin’s theory on its own is not nearly so powerful or convincing without a better understanding of genetics than he had; his theory was quite reasonably controversial even independent of theological considerations. Theists have always had mixed reactions to it, in any case; even in his own lifetime, many saw no threat to theism or even traditional Christianity from evolutionary theory, and while it’s obviously inconsistent with a literal reading of Genesis, say, I, for one, don’t think that it presents us with any good reasons against theism that we didn’t already know about. It may be hard to square the evolutionary picture of the development of life with a strongly anthropocentric view of the universe, but strong anthropocentrism has never been essential to theism as such; if the world is really the product of a divine mind, then humans are going to have a pretty unusual status insofar as we also have minds, but, well, humans are going to have a pretty special status on the purely naturalistic story too, provided we take seriously the idea that science can and even has discovered fundamental laws of nature.

      In short, I don’t think evolutionary theory creates any problems for philosophical theism as such, however many problems it creates for particular religious narratives; at best it adds some details to the case against theism, but that case has always consisted mainly of the claims that (a) we don’t need to appeal to divine agency to explain anything and that (b) widespread suffering and evil are inconsistent with the existence of divine agency. Dawkins famously said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, but aside from offering a better version of a view that has been around in Western thought since before Socrates, I don’t see that that’s true — perhaps Darwin and post-Darwinian theory allow one to be a more intellectually fulfilled atheist, but I don’t see any good reason to think that (a) and (b) stand or fall with Darwin or that Darwin ‘tips the scales’ in their favor. It does make the case for a non-teleological explanation of the development of life vastly stronger than what we find in, say, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and so it’s not irrelevant to the question. But philosophical theism isn’t really committed to rejecting the possibility of non-teleological explanations of the development of life, either. That’s one reason why most intellectually sophisticated theists today don’t reject evolutionary theory, however much they insist that it can’t provide a complete explanation.

      Of course, most people’s religious belief is not simply a matter of philosophical theism; in fact, in my experience surprisingly few religious believers are motivated by philosophical considerations. But I suppose one way of expressing my general attitude here is that I don’t care so much about the bad reasons that some or many people have for believing something; I care about the plausible reasons that someone might have for believing something. I suspect you and I have different assessments of the plausibility of theism; you’re an atheist and I’m not, so we must. But much of what I want to say about this topic would hold good even if there were some really decisive reasons against theism. There appear to be some really decisive reasons against the old Aristotelian view of locomotion, against the Aristotelian view of the eternity of the world, and certainly against the old Aristotelian view of the fixity of species. There may well be a certain state of intellectual achievement from which those views seem obviously false, but if there is, it’s an achievement, not just the deliverance of clear-eyed common sense unclouded by superstition, emotion, or abject logical fallacy. I don’t take you to be claiming otherwise, but it’s so often implicitly denied in (anti-)religious and otherwise ideological rhetoric that it seems worth repeating, or at least a bit cathartic for me to vent about.

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