Unintelligent by Design

Since the State of Missouri decided to take up this hogwash this week, I thought I’d re-post an old piece of mine on the subject.

There is nothing intelligent about the so-called Theory of Intelligent Design.  The fact that this country continues to squabble over evolution in the early 21st century is embarrassing, but given our fascination with running baboons for public office, it shouldn’t be surprising.  While it is tempting (and fun) to simply mock ID proponents, their occasional progress through state legislatures is terrifyingly real, and their strategy is clever.

The Intelligent Design movement veils its religious agenda behind a cloud of scientific and intellectual sounding gibberish in order to play a syllogistic shell-game with America’s students as their suckers.  They gain political ground with claims to asking for fair, open-minded debate; and by avoiding references to God, Genesis, and religion, they sidestep immediate constitutional dismissal and demand to be heard on the grounds of semantics and logic.

In a nutshell, Intelligent Design advocates offer variations on a single theme:  that certain features of the universe and of living systems are so complex that their functioning existence can only be logically explained by an intelligent designer (i.e. a designer who wants these systems and beings to exist, the artist formerly known as God).   The syllogism of Intelligent Design goes like this:

PREM:   Life and the universe are highly complex systems.

PREM:  Highly complex systems in human society are typically created by intelligent purpose.

CONCL:  Therefore, humans and their world must have been purposely created by some higher intelligence.

Any first-year philosophy student can tell you that this logical construct alone does not hold up because the conclusion requires a leap that does not necessarily follow from the premises.  This is not a syllogism but an emotional plea for a magical explanation of the unexplained.  It has exactly the same logical integrity as the following:

PREM:   I found presents under the Christmas tree.

PREM:  I did not see anyone put the presents under the tree.

CONCL:  Therefore, Santa Claus put the presents under the tree.

No matter where you look, you will find an Intelligent Design proponent making essentially this same argument using different examples.  Some will talk about the complexity of the human eye.  It defies logic, they will say, to look at the human eye and question the intelligent purposefulness of its design.  You wouldn’t assume a pocket watch happened by accident, and the eye is far more complex than the watch.  They will repeat this logical circle with examples from other biological, chemical, and physical features of our world until your complex eyes glaze over.

When I.D. advocates proclaim that Darwinian evolution is an unproven theory that deserves no more priority over their alternate theory, they are trading on the fact that both theories are based entirely on observation.  One big difference, though, is that Darwin explains nature by observing nature, while Intelligent Design attempts to explain God by observing mankind.  This is the essential sleight-of-hand at work in the parlor trick currently being played by the I.D. movement.

It is impossible to reproduce evolution in a lab, so it’s tough to prove Darwin by experiment, but we can observe clear evidence of evolution in small systems like viruses, which we know mutate for the purpose of their survival.  All epidemiological strategy is based on this knowledge, and if the I.D. proponents disagree, they should head to church and not the hospital the next time a virus evolves itself into a human pandemic.

Or, do the I.D. folks assert that viruses don’t count, that the creator did not purposely and intelligently design the millions of viruses and is, in fact, not constantly redesigning them into ever more virulent strains?  If the H5N1 virus mutates and kills millions of people of every faith from Christian to atheist, what does the I.D. proponent argue is the creator’s purpose in this action?  Presumably, Pat Robertson will say that the creator meant to wipe out the infidels, but lacks the precision-guided “smart virus” to avoid collateral damage, but what will the so-called rational voices of Intelligent Design offer by way of explanation?

On the subject of small things, what do we do with quantum mechanics?  One of the fundamental, vexing challenges of all physics is the absolute uncertainty of quantum mechanics, which teaches us that predictable outcomes at the subatomic level are nearly impossible and, hence, outcomes on the astronomic scale of the universe are, likewise, a giant crap shoot.  Each of these premises is proven scientific fact and does not in any way depend on Darwin:

PREM:   Our bodies are mostly water.

PREM:  Water cannot exist without oxygen.

PREM:  Oxygen in the universe is produced by supernovae. 

PREM:  A supernova was necessary to produce the life-sustaining earth.

PREM:  Supernovae in space-time are not entirely predictable.

CONCL:  Therefore, either our existence occurred by chance; or the creator has to go through a lot of fuss to get us here.

Based on the scientific evidence of physics, avoiding Darwin altogether, the so-called creator appears to be a deranged idiot – or at least imperfect.  If you hired a contractor to build you a house, and he spent 50 years digging up an entire neighborhood in order to complete a single linen closet, would you consider his methods intelligent and purposeful?  All the biological complexity of life on our planet is contained within a microscopic dot on the map of a volatile, mostly lifeless, universe.  In other words, if there is a creator that actually wants us to be here, it is extremely inefficient – so inefficient, it is hard imagine it has the intelligence to design our complex world.

So, the I.D. argument is confined, in this case, to one of three choices:  1) The creator created us but not the entire universe (meaning the creator is finite and some astrophysics is just plain wrong); 2) The creator is a deranged idiot; 3) The creator is infinite and its methods are incomparable to those of man (i.e. God moves in mysterious ways).

Of these, the strongest argument is the second — that the creator is a deranged idiot.  It actually unifies scientific evidence and Intelligent Design, except for the intelligent part. It asserts that a creator is responsible for our existence, but that there is no discernible method to the creator’s madness (i.e. that we serve no purpose).

The first argument is viable for the I.D. crowd, too – that the creator is a component of, not master of, the entire universe, but did create the earth and life upon it.  This still begs the question why the creator wants us here, but we’ll get back to that.

The third argument – the creator’s ways are beyond the scope and comprehension of man — is where the case for Intelligent Design circles back on itself and collapses altogether.  This is because the entire case for Intelligent Design is based upon the argument that our human, mortal experience must logically be applied retroactively to a creator.  Technically, it either strips the creator of absolute power, or it simply undermines the following I.D. argument:

PREM:  Humans design complex systems and objects in order to serve a purpose.

PREM:  Life itself is a combination of complex systems and objects.

PREM:  All complex systems and objects must be purposely designed.

CONCL:  Therefore, a creator must have designed life on purpose.

But if the contrast between the scale of our volatile universe and our miniscule existence within it leads one to the “God moves in mysterious ways,” defense, then the foundation of the Intelligent Design argument disintegrates in its assumption that we can understand the creator’s purposes by comparing them to our own mortal aims.  In other words, the Intelligent Design argument cannot exist without the presumption that we serve some purpose for the creator, and this purpose cannot be proven through scientific method.  All human belief in a purpose and the endeavor to understand that purpose is what we call religion. Hence, no matter how the words are parsed, Intelligent Design cannot be rationally divorced from the notion of faith, which makes it an unscientific “theory” of creation.

PREM:  Intelligent Design presumes human life serves the purposes of a creator.

PREM:  We cannot know our purpose through the scientific method.

PREM:  The purpose of human existence is a matter of faith.

PREM:  Intelligent Design is based on faith

PREM:  Faith is the core of religion.

PREM:  Intelligent Design is religion.

PREM:  It is unconstitutional to teach religion in American public schools.

CONCL:  It is unconstitutional to teach Intelligent Design in American public schools.


2 thoughts on “Unintelligent by Design

  1. I just want to make a point about your failure to understand philosophy:

    while your biased statement about “santa clause leaving presents under the tree” is TRUE in and of itself, the same premise with the conclusion that “parents left the presents under the tree” is equally unprovable and requires an EQUAL leap in logic.

    this sums up your entire argument.

    1. Your assertion that I don’t understand syllogisms appears to be predicated on the fact that you do not understand science. In the example, the child will conclude that Santa Claus left the presents and require no further explanation because this one seems reasonable and also fulfills the myth she wants to believe (at least until she’s older). The adult will, however, hypothesize that parents left the presents and will then be able to support and ultimately prove this hypothesis with data. But thanks for playing.

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