Happenings, News

Reflections on controversy over Intelligent Design


RECENTLY there has been a surge in the interest of the issue of “Intelligent Design” (ID) particularly in the United States but also elsewhere in Europe.

What exactly is this idea of “Intelligent Design”? Here is a short history of the movement and two questions the ID movement raises for us.

The birth of the ID movement is often credited to Philip Johnson, a lawyer at the University of California, Berkeley. In the 1980s, he realised that because of the way science was defined, there was no possibility of finding any evidence for or against Darwinian evolution. This is because scientists were only allowed to employ natural clauses in scientific explanations. Such a definition or “methodological naturalism” automatically precludes any discussion of the possibility of design in creation or metaphysics itself.

It is this particular philosophical assumption of origins – naturalism – that Johnson was critical of. Naturalism might be true, but it might also be false. His argument was simply that one should follow the evidence wherever it led and allow for the possibility of design (instead of simply accepting that life came about through a random or chance process as taught by the theory of Darwinian evolution).

Since then, a number of scientists, for example, William Dembski, Michael Behe and Stephen Myer, have published books and articles providing scientific support for ID. (It is important to note that the ID movement does not merely consist of Christians but a group of scientists and philosophers who are against Darwinism and are willing to “readmit intelligence as a bona fide explanation for certain natural phenomena”.)

While they created some controversy in the scientific community, wider public attention was only roused when a law suit was filed against a school board in the United States. The board had pushed for this ID theory to be taught alongside with the theory of evolution and was sued for violating the church-state separation by introducing a religiously-motivated curriculum in school.

It is not possible to evaluate the ID movement adequately here. Instead, I wish to reflect briefly on two questions raised by the current publicity over the ID movement.

1) Can science explain everything i.e. origins?

One of the key controversies over ID revolves around the issue of origins. Critics of the ID movement claim that naturalistic explanation, particularly Darwinian evolution, can explain how the universe came about.

If we were to be honest and look at the fundamental question, as a recent BBC World Service broadcast suggested, it is whether science is the only true source of knowledge (or that it is objective) while other sources e.g. religion are about feelings and values (subjective). That is, they would argue that scientific claims are true and verifiable whereas religious claims cannot be verified and are therefore simply accepted by “faith”.

We must not be taken in by such an argument. The statement “science explains everything” is in itself not a scientific statement. It is a philosophical claim. It cannot be verified or falsified.

2) What are the assumptions of science?

In order for the scientific enterprise to function, there are certain assumptions of science. One of the key assumptions of science is the “uniformity of nature”. That is to say, scientists assume that there are certain regular patterns in nature that are discoverable. Scientists assume that these patterns could be explained by theories or “laws” which do not change in time and space.

However, this assumption cannot be explained by science. Science merely assumes that true claims about nature can be discovered and that the law of gravitation will apply yesterday, today and tomorrow; on Earth, Venus or another planet in another solar system. (Scientists, of course, have to specify the conditions in which these laws apply).

Another assumption (or strictly speaking, two assumptions) is that there is something “real” out there and we can know something about it. In the social sciences, there are some who would argue that we cannot know anything definitely about anything because everything we know is dependent on our perspective. For these social scientists (who are often called “postmodernists”), all knowledge is social in nature (or that “reality is socially constructed”).

While many do not realise it, this is where a somewhat popular objection to Christianity – “what is true for you is not true for me” – comes from. It is this rise of postmodernism that scientists themselves have also become increasingly defensive about. It is a charge that scientists, without a metaphysical worldview, find difficult to refute.

After all, many today have forgotten the religious roots of modern science (which grew out of Western Europe). The early scientists, for example, Newton, Boyle, Locke (whose legacy has been often misunderstood) were Christians and saw their scientific work as an act of worship to God.

The scientific enterprise itself needs to be sustained by a compatible worldview that allows truth claims to be made. That, in part, explains why modern science grew out of the Christian roots in Western Europe rather than elsewhere. Without these roots, science itself simply becomes relegated by postmodernism into just another “opinion”.

It is for these reasons that I disagree with Christians or others who claim that “science explains the how” but “religion explains the why”. After all, the same God who acts in the spiritual realm also created the physical one.

What then does it mean for us to say that the two realms are part of the same creation? We need to understand more about what science is and what it assumes. What science does is dependent on what it is and what it can do (and therefore what it cannot do).

Religion or metaphysical claims will have implications on what reality is and how we can discover that reality. It is this desire to integrate both the spiritual and the physical realities that have led to the initial formation of the ID movement.

Goh Mui Pong, a member of Paya Lebar Chinese Methodist Church, is pursuing his PhD in Politics at the University of Cambridge.