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The nonsense of “intelligent design”

God actually knows more than us

By Neil Ormerod

Intelligent design has become the latest hot topic in the increasingly blurred distinction between secular and sacred in Australian society. It has received qualified support from the Federal Minister for Education and Science, Brendan Nelson, and is being promoted within various Christian schools as an acceptable “scientific” alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution. However it can be argued that current accounts of intelligent design fail to grasp the depth of the Christian intellectual tradition and are based on a misunderstanding of God’s relationship to creation.

Of course, much depends on what its proponents mean by the term “intelligent design”. If they mean that the universe as a whole displays a profound intelligibility through which one might argue philosophically that the existence of God is manifest, then this position is in line with traditional arguments for the existence of God, for example, the “five ways” of Thomas Aquinas.

However, if by “intelligent design” they mean that God acts as an explanation for the normal course of events which would otherwise lack a scientific explanation, then they stand opposed to a traditional Christian understanding of divine transcendence. In seeking to save a place for God within the normal processes of creation, the promoters of intelligent design reduce God to the level of what Aquinas would call a secondary cause.

Such an approach is a more sophisticated version of so-called “creation science”. Creation science is poor theology and poor science. As theology it failed to read the biblical story within its historical and cultural context. Rather it read it through the eyes of modern positivism. The Bible could only be “true” if it were literally “true” in every detail. This type of literalist fundamentalism finds few supporters within mainstream Christianity. As science it was little more than a series of ad hoc assumptions which forced scientific hypotheses to concur with this misreading of the biblical story.

The position of intelligent design certainly goes beyond the obvious limitations of creation science. It does not reject or manipulate the scientific data. Rather it argues that the scientific evidence for biological change reveals “intelligent design”. If by such a statement proponents mean that science cannot explain the process of evolution but must recognise intervention by a divine agency then they reduce God to a secondary cause within the created order, and make divine action scientifically observable.

Theologically and philosophically the fundamental issue is that of the nature of chance. Contemporary formulations of evolution appear as a threat to some religious believers because they evoke chance in the process of biological change. But for Christians God is the sovereign Lord of creation, a provident provider whose determinations are certain. What God wills, necessarily happens. To evoke chance seems to threaten this. But as Aquinas argued centuries ago, because something necessarily happens, does not mean that it happens necessarily. Chance can still be involved. He argued that what God wills to happen by chance, will of necessity happen by chance!

It is not too difficult to conceive how chance events can lead to determined outcomes. Two examples suffice. Take a radioactive atom. It is impossible to tell when this atom will decay. It is a consequence of quantum effects which are inherently indeterministic. Yet if we put lots of such atoms together, we can predict precisely how many will be left after a certain time. This is the basis of carbon dating. Take the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Despite the long denials of tobacco companies, smoking causes lung cancer. But the relationship between them is statistical. We know that if we halve the rate of smoking we will halve the rate of related lung cancers. Yet we will never know whose lives we end up saving.

Without going into technical details the philosophical issue is whether statistical causes are real causes or simply a veil of ignorance for as yet unknown deterministic causes. Even some religious believers want to cling to the type of scientific determinism which has dominated our culture since the initial discoveries of Newton. Yet modern quantum theory has repeatedly confounded such expectations. Contrary to Einstein’s belief, it seems God does play dice with the universe!

Nonetheless, we human beings can use statistical causation (chance) to produce determinate outcomes. Aquinas knew this centuries ago. What the promoters of intelligent design are arguing is that God is not intelligent enough to produce determinate outcomes using statistical causation. Yet clearly we can. Do they think that God is not intelligent enough to use statistical causation? If we allow that God is more intelligent than us, then the whole basis of intelligent design is undermined. It is an unnecessary hypothesis which should be consigned to the dust din of scientific and theological history.

Neil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at the Australian Catholic University. An abridged version of this article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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