The following is a paper I wrote for my The Challenge of Modernity class, CORE 152.
Jesus Saves Souls, But Can God Save the Phenomenon?: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theories in Favor of Darwinian Selection
According to Anthony Aveni, one of Colgate University’s Astronomy professors, the purpose of science is to “save the phenomenon”—that is, to provide a model which can explain data observed in empirical observation and predict the results of future such empirical attempts. While Aveni applies this understanding of science to his work with the stars, it is as crucial to our understanding of the process of evolution. After all, both fields of study share similar limitations—one cannot see the millennia-long process of biological evolution firsthand any more than one can experiment on a real star within a laboratory.
In both fields, however—and, in truth, this holds true for all of science—God has often been invoked as an explanation. Aveni speaks of “demons” who move the planets in elliptical orbits for no real reason. Similarly, both William Paley and Michael Behe have written arguments for an understanding of humans as originating from an intelligent design, i.e. God.
Paley’s argument is a version of the age-old teleological argument, and remains to this day the most elegant explaining of said argument. The teleological argument states that the existence of complex order in the universe implies the existence of a creator. Paley compared the most complex items he could think of—humans—to a watch. He claimed that a watch, having complex and seemingly purposeful elements, implied a maker. Did it not then follow that human beings implied a maker as well? “What could a . . . maker have done more to show his knowledge of his principle, his application of that knowledge . . . ?” (Paley 44).
While Paley’s take on intelligent design is pre-Darwinian and relies mostly on philosophy, Robert Behe’s arguments are post-Darwinian and biological in nature. According to Behe, if there can be shown to be complexity which is irreducible—that is, unable to function without all of its parts and therefore not able to come into being through evolution—then one must accept Intelligent Design as least hypothesis. Through a convoluted line of reasoning centering on the biochemistry of blood chemistry, Behe believes that humans are examples of such irreducible complexity.
But can God ever be the least hypothesis? It would seem that invoking intelligent design fails to ever save a phenomenon: beyond the phrase “Intelligent Design” or “God,” no workable model of the phenomenon can be constructed. Certainly, there is no capability to predict beyond the empirical data we currently possess. In short, we are left with a situation that is not paradigmatic of what science is or how it works.
Of course, this is not really refuting Paley or Behe. Just as there may well be demons who are moving the lights in the sky, it may be that there is an Intelligent Designer who created humans and the world they live in. Furthermore, s/he may have done so only an instant ago, and given us implanted memories and deliberately misleading archaeological evidence. We will never know that this is not the case. However, this path leads to psychosis, and represents nothing more than idle speculation.
It does not seem that it falls within the realm of human capability to know what is “actually” happening in some objective universe. It is instead left to us to structure our experience in such a way as to make it intelligible to our own selves. If we can structure our experience in such a way so that we need not rely on Intelligent Design, than that structure is more capable of explaining the world we live in. This is what science is, no more.
But what of Behe’s claim that Intelligent Design is the only way of explaining biological phenomena? Surely Behe underestimates the power of the human mind, if he believes there is no way of structuring the data without relying on Intelligent Design. Note that this statement can be made a priori, without actually refuting Behe’s theory or constructing an alternate model (although we will attempt to do this later). The creative power of the human mind is infinite.
How is Darwin’s explanation superior? It provides a explanation of the origin of species—and, thus, humans—without the need for a reference to a deity. Darwin attempts to create a model of events, albeit imperfect, which actually, to some degree or other, is capable of explaining the data in a way that Intelligent Design theory is not, actually integrating the data. This is Darwin’s avowed purpose from the beginning: “It occurred to me . . . that something might perhaps be made out on the question of the origin of the species by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it” (1).
Darwin postulated a process, called natural selection, through which species would gradually change in their characteristics, and through which wholly new species would rise from older ones. Darwin was able to find causes in the natural world, namely in “the struggle for existence leading to the preservation of each profitable deviation of structure or instinct” (459).
It is not surprising if Darwin’s explanation is found to be not the “correct” one, as more empirical data is revealed, necessitating a potentially different model. This is the process of science; no model of the universe ever remains static for long. However, Darwin’s system is superior to Behe’s just by not needing to rely on an Intelligent Designer.
It is, however, possible to reply to Behe’s objections to Darwin. To do so on the biological and chemical levels is far beyond my area of expertise (although I trust those who have in turn objected to Behe), but a few concepts can be said on a more abstract level. The more complex a manifold is, the more difficult to be sure it is complex irreducibly. A mousetrap, for example, is a clear example of irreducible complexity (as Behe claims) when one looks at it as having a small number of distinct parts. But what if one sees each molecule as a separate and distinct part? Certainly, a mousetrap would still work even if many of its molecules were missing. With the near infinite complexity of even a small part of the human body, it seems to be unclear how anyone would be able to come to the conclusion that this complexity would be irreducible. Certainly, it would be impossible to know this with perfect certainty.
Teleological arguments like those of Paley or Behe can be attractive, but ultimately are little more than an excuse to stop the process of scientific inquiry by ascribing all empirical data to “God.” The existence of order in the universe—even order that at first glance seems to be infinitely or irreducinly complex—does not imply the existent of a designer, especially when the order is not necessarily intrinsic to the universe itself. Order is perceived in the universe through the process of science, by our attempts to make the universe intelligible. Otherwise, we would not be able to make sense of our environment, and could not survive. When seen in this light, it is not surprising we see order in the universe, or in ourselves.
This perspective is that of the anthropic principle. For me, it is the most convincing response to teleological arguments such as those of Paley and Behe. The fact that evolution has resulted in creatures as complicated as us does not need to depend on a God or an Intelligent Design. It is the obvious corollary of the fact we do, indeed, exist.
At least, I do. I’m not so sure about you.
Aveni, Anthony. Course lectures. ASTR 102, “Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe.”
Behe, Michael. “Darwin’s Black Box.” Course handout for CORE 151J.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. 1859. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 2001
Paley, Wiliam. “Natural Theology.” Course handout for CORE 151J.