Friday, January 27, 2012

What is Intelligent Design?

This screed came out of my pen in reaction to an article on Intelligent Design theory, which was sent to me by a very good friend.

I have believed both sides of this argument: I started out believing in Darwinian evolution, converted to ID, and have re-converted to belief in evolution.  To me, it seems abundantly clear (1) that change happens all the time, (2) that there is a significant degree of randomness involved in change, and (3) that people systematically underestimate the randomness (or overestimate their ability to understand it).  This does not mean that I think that everything Darwin said is true: it isn't, and current ideas about biological evolution look significantly different from what he put forward in On the Origin of Species.  In the future, theories will continue to evolve: it is not in the nature of things for permanent knowledge to exist.  Real knowledge depends on context, which is constantly changing.  Useful knowledge does not assert itself as something absolute, unchanging, non-evolving.

One problem that people on the ID side have (from my perspective) is that they fail to understand how design really works.  Take Paley's analogy: you find a watch on the beach (watch = universe) and presume that some watchmaker (= God) made it.  In real life, however, watchmakers don't make watches on their own, with untutored intelligence!  The original watch was a clock, which came into existence at multiple times in history in various formats: engineers took those formats and tweaked them, and tweaked them, and tweaked them, and continue to tweak them, creating all kinds of different watches.  No one individual ever invented a Platonic form of the watch ("one watch to time them all").  Someone came up with a gizmo that gave someone else an idea for another gizmo, and so on.  The watch is evolving as I write this.  Watchmakers are noticing random things in their old blueprints, in their customer base, in the work of other watchmakers, and they are building new watches (including some very different from an early Benedictine clock).  The original watchmakers did not come up with their watch out of thin air: the gizmos they built were likewise inspired by earlier gizmos (and a crowd of engineering ideas that no single historical individual is responsible for).  The way that "intelligent design" actually works in human terms is actually very much like the way modern biologists imagine biological evolution taking place.  Engineers share ideas and create multiple gizmos (which become prototypes for more gizmos) just as organisms share DNA and create multiple offspring (which become prototypes for more organisms).  One person is not responsible for creating watches (which are a collective phenomenon).  One thing is not responsible for creating biological life (which is a collective phenomenon).

Another problem with ID is that it does not really say anything about how we are to understand things.  The modern biologist's story of evolution doesn't just give you a fun myth for science class: it explains how diseases happen (as bacteria and viruses evolve to become better predators), how speciation happens (as isolated pockets of organisms develop apart from their parent populations), how ecosystems exist (as multiple populations of living things evolve together) -- and thus how our actions as human beings influence the prevalence of disease and living species.  It gives practical answers (that actually work sometimes!) to practical questions (should I build a house here? what kind of house? should I have a pet? what kind? what should I eat? what medicine should I take for a particular illness or infection?).  ID, on the other hand, just points out that the whole thing is a mystery.  "The universe is the product of an otherwise unknown and perhaps unknowable intelligent designer" (who for some reason left no business card on the beach with Paley's watch).  Can I ask the designer what to do when I am sick, when I want to build a house?  I can.  What does he say?  Nothing at all, until I remember that he is also known as God.  Then he says all kinds of stuff
"You are sick?  Sacrifice a lamb, or a goat, or two turtle doves, and leave an offering of incense with the priest (who must be paid handsomely to officiate).  That didn't work?  Well, maybe you can try dedicating a small statue of me (complete with thunderbolts in hand) at your local temple?  That didn't work?  How about a cast of the affected body part?  Still no dice?  Well, I suppose you could try burning or cutting yourself: remember that weird dream you had about being on fire the other night?  I sometimes talk to people in dreams.  Maybe you should ask the local madman what he thinks; I love schizophrenics: they always hear me so loud and clear!"  
Historically speaking, God has many conflicting faces (all of them suspiciously human, to my eye), and he offers all kinds of contradictory prescriptions for human life, contradictory prescriptions that are about as reliable as medicine before germ theory.  (By saying all kinds of different things over time, God occasionally offered somebody something that worked, much as some pre-modern doctors occasionally cured people with panaceas like quinine.  If I give quinine to every sick person I meet, the malaria patients will be cured; some people will get better on their own; and everyone else will die.  Old time medicine, like old time religion, worked, but it was not really reliable.  Sometimes, avoiding the consumption of pig meat may help society prosper; other times, not so much.  God is either really bad at seeing the difference or really bad at communicating it to his acolytes.)  The ID people have no practical advice to offer except the outworn ideas presented by God: some of these ideas work (perhaps even very well), and others don't, but it takes an evolutionist to see the difference.  The evolutionist may give you some of God's medicine, but he will follow up with you when it doesn't work, and will even invent new medicine (which won't always work, either).  The ID guy just hands you over to the priest, who gives you the divine panacea du jour and then lets you survive or die without bothering to think of anything new (and heretical: we have to stick to the tried and true, even when history shows us that it doesn't really work). 

Evolution is practical because it changes (mimicking the growth we see in life, and in God, for that matter).  ID is impractical because it does not change (mimicking the stagnation we see in death, and in many churches).  The people who believe in evolution are engaging in useful thought whenever they ask how changes occur.  The people who believe in ID are not, since they have no positive theory of change.  I reconverted to belief in evolution when I realized that in my experience (1) change is real, and (2) engaging it practically requires something more than uncritical acceptance of ancient mythology.  This is not because the mythology is worthless, but because it contains a lot of chaff mixed in with the wheat, chaff that needs to be sifted out if I am to avoid poisoning myself every time I take something from God's medicine cabinet (which we all do at some point: no one claims to know everything, except for some crazy fanatics, and we all fall back on "common sense" whose usefulness is open to question).        

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