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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Intelligent Design: Just the Facts Ma'am

Well friends, I write to you from the woods of Northern Wisconsin as I am attending a week-long conference here. Today I heard a stimulating lecture on the Intelligent Design movement (ID) by Dr. Angus Menuge, professor of philosophy at Concordia University, WI. If you've ever heard Dr. Menuge then you know that he is not only very knowledgeable and articulate on this subject but has a lively sense of humor as well.

Dr. Menuge was one of over 15 expert witnesses who talked at the recent hearings in Kansas over the teaching in the public schools of alternative scientific theories about the origin of life. His testimony can be found here.

The Intelligent Design movement is one aspect of the current scientific controversy over Neo-Darwinism. ID, in short, is the scientific recognition of evidence of design in all living organisms. The Neo-Darwinist ideologues refuse to admit that a controversy even exists in spite of a growing body of scholarly literature.

Not long ago, the famous British scientist, Anthony Flew, converted from atheism to theism because, as he himself stated, he determined to follow the evidence wherever it lead him. I applaud his intellectual honesty.

The ID proponents are not asking for the advocacy of any particular religious beliefs in the classroom, only that both sides of this legitimate scientific controversy be presented without bias.

According to Dr. Menuge, one of the individuals at the hearing disapproved of teaching the controversy for fear that it might "confuse" the children. As Dr. Menuge commented, that would be like deciding not to explain the two party political system of American government because it's just too doggone confusing.

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Mark Nutter said...

I just read through the transcript of Dr. Menuge's testimony at the Kansas BoE hearings, and a couple of things came through fairly clearly: one, that he regards a Darwinian view of evolution as being incompatible with faithfulness to God, and two, that he sees "methodological naturalism" as a weapon to be used against evolution.

I wonder about that, because it seems he's stretching the point overmuch just to try and raise an accusation against Darwinism. Science is indeed limited to offering natural causes and natural phenomena as the verifiable agencies for its scientific explanations, but that doesn't mean that anything beyond the natural is necessarily untrue--merely that it is not scientific. Science, after all, does have its limits.

Surely Dr. Menuge would not propose the alternative, that science throw open the gates and embrace supernatural and unverifiable "explanations" as being just as valid and scientific as those obtained by so-called methodological naturalism? Shall we endow magic and voodoo and astrology and so on with the same dignity we would give to intelligent design?

I think Dr. Menuge's crusade against methodological naturalism mischaracterizes what is really going on in science, and demonizes what is actually a vital and essential quality of the scientific method. Natural science should give us natural answers for the same reason mathematics gives us mathematical answers and medicine gives us medical answers. And if methodological naturalism can't recognize design (and I would dispute the claim that it can't), then we shouldn't attack it, but should merely acknowledge its limitations and turn to tools better suited to the task.

Darrell said...

According to Dr. Menuge, one of the individuals at the hearing disapproved of teaching the controversy for fear that it might "confuse" the children.

This is so infuriating! I thought that "confuse" used to mean "to make indistinct or to addle." I guess now it means "to expose to ideas other than those you support." Dr. Menauge's techniques are really something. Stalin and Pol Pot might approve of them.

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

I hope I was not unclear. Dr. Menuge is the good guy. He is the one in support of offering both sides of the controversy. I meant to say that he reported that one of the other participants objected because it might confuse the children.

Phil said...

You write: "The Intelligent Design movement is one aspect of the current scientific controversy over Neo-Darwinism. ID, in short, is the scientific recognition of evidence of design in all living organisms."

According to Dembski himself, the Intelligent design movement has a long way to go before it can be accepted as a science. See his essay "Becoming a Disciplined Science: Prospects, Pitfalls, and Reality Check for ID"

ID has NOT presented scientific evidence of design in all living organisms.

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

You assert: "ID has NOT presented scientific evidence of design in all living organisms."

Clearly the dozen or so scientists who testified in Kansas disagree with you. Dembski is not the only voice out there.

I'm not a scientist nor do I claim to be. I will only say that there is a growing contingent of knowledgable people who believe the evidence is not uniformly supportive of natual selection.

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

More for Phil,

You directed my attention to a paper Dembski wrote in 2001. I'd direct your attention to one he wrote in 2004.

In it, he writes: "Intelligent design is showing that system after biological system is beyond the reach of blind purposeless material processes like the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection.

What is intelligent design? Intelligent design is the science that studies signs of intelligence."

It seems to me that he IS saying that there is scientific evidence of intelligent design. Whether you find his evidence convincing is a different question entirely.

As I stated before, I am not a scientist and am not able to argue the science here. I frankly just believe it would be beneficial to allow all the evidence to be presented. The two books that most impacted my understanding of this issue were "Darwin's Black Box" by Michael Behe and "Darwin on Trial" by Johnson.

Mark Nutter said...

Pastor, have you read anything by Keith or Ken Miller? There is an even larger number of scientists who find evidence of intelligent design in evolution itself, and even Dembski is beginning to consider the possibility of Intelligent Evolution. If you think about it, given the competitive and ever-changing environment on earth (plus the odd asteroid strike every now and then) it's a lot more intelligent to design life on earth with the ability to evolve new species than to hobble life with only limited ability to adapt within narrow and rigid boundaries. Plus it's a lot more creative and artistic to endow life as an endlessly innovative and bountiful source of novelty and ingenuity--a fitting praise for a wise and ingenious Designer. Even the atheists have to admit that Nature's design is pretty amazing, whether or not they can bring themselves to say the same for its Designer.

The hearings in Kansas are a big mistake--they've changed the official state definition of evolution to explicitly deny that God had anything to do with its marvelously sophisticated engineering! I know Dr. Menuge meant well, but shame on him for having supported such an atheistic definition of evolution! He should have testified for the other side.

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

I appreciate your comments. I am not familiar with the Millers you mention. I do realize that various theories of theistic evolution are under discussion. In fact, my hunch has been that most of the ID people believe in some form of theistic evolution.

This is my understanding of the Kansas hearings. Currently, the only scientific theory of origins being taught in the public classrooms is atheistic materialism, neo-Darwinism. Any alternate theory that suggests the existence of an intelligence behind nature is dogmatically reject, regardless of the evidence which may be presented. Menuge believes that these alternate theories should be taught as well. This would not exclude theistic evolution at all.

Phil said...

"Intelligent Design" is a metaphor with serious problems. Dembski bases the ability to detect design in nature on the characteristics of human design. Things designed by humans have a property he calls "specified complexity". He then claims that natural objects also have this property, and so by analogy they must be a product of intelligent design also. (But he isn't willing to say who or what the "designer" is.)

If indeed natural objects exhibit intelligent design, all Dembski is entitled to claim is that they were designed by human-like intelligence (e.g., space travelers or the Wizard of Oz).

Here's the kind of trouble you can get into by believing that living things are the product of intelligent design :

I have or have had numerous defects, which include

crooked teeth
a tumor of the pancreas that produced excess insulin
arms of unequal length
Parkinsonian tremor
an infected gall bladder
an off-center navel
one ear higher than the other
an impacted wisdom tooth

If I were a car, I would be quite a lemon.

I used to think that all this was just bad luck, and I could accept that. But now intelligent design tells me that even my bad genes were created as the result of intelligent choice. There's a depressing thought.

Let me ask you, if the "designer" can get the design right sometimes, why can't he/it get it right all the time? Wouldn't a really intelligent designer use feedback to correct the defects he created, like software companies try to do, instead of mindlessly repeating the same errors?

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

I'll try to answer your questions as best I am able. First, you are correct that most of the ID people are not proposing to identify the intelligence behind nature. That is the realm of religion. But if science truly does display features of design or irreducible complexity (as Behe argues quite convincingly), shouldn't it be considered and examined? Or must we blindly adhere to the only orthodox theory, neo-darwinism?

I, for one, do believe we know the identity of the Creator. But His identity is NOT known from creation. The Creator revealed Himself through prophets and apostles, and especially through the incarnation of His Son. But I take that thesis on faith, not as a matter of science.

You ask about the competency of the Intelligent Designer because of defects in our bodies. It's a fair question. And it is intrinsically related to one of the most perplexing philosophical and theological questions of all time: If God is good, whence came evil/suffering into the world?

I'll just use your example of nearsightedness. That is not part of your design. Our illnesses or shortcomings or irregularities are not part of the Creator's blueprint. The problem does not lie in the original design but due to some outside force which has caused that to happen.

If I shoot out the tires of my neighbor's car, that is not the fault of the person who designed the tires.

I could design a piece of software. If it crashes due to bugs or flaws in the design itself, then I am at fault. But if something from the outside, like a virus, invades my software or corrupts the code, that is something else.

You can see that if we continue down this path, we will be talking about such things as free will, original sin, death, Satan, the Fall of man, destiny, etc.

If you wish to go further with this line of thought, I would be willing and happy to do so. But realize our discussion is now one of metaphysics more than physics. That is fine by me because I believe the two fields of thought overlap.

One caveat. My experience with this medium, like e-mail, has demonstrated that people often exercise less restraint and tact than they would in a face-to-face encounter. Ad hominem attacks (from anyone to anyone) shut off all meaningful discussion. Don't you agree?

Mark Nutter said...

Regarding the situation in Kansas, the state Board of Education currently has a creationist majority, but the committee revising the science curriculum only had 8 creationists out of 25, so creationists were in the minority on the committee. That's why the creationist version is called the Minority Draft even though the creationists are in the majority on the BoE.

Under the old curriculum, evolution is being taught in a religion-neutral manner. In the opinion of certain creationists, explaining what science knows about the origin of life without explicitly stating that God created it, or at least guided it, is the same as saying God didn't guide it. And they're entitled to their opinion, but in point of fact the existing curriculum does not deny that God did or could have guided the origin and development of life on earth. It simply states that such questions are outside the scope of the science classroom.

On page 15 of the Minority Draft, the following change is proposed, in the official state definitions for evolution and the the evolutionary origin of life:

Biological evolution postulates an unpredictable and unguided natural process that has no discernable direction or goal. It also assumes that life arose from an unguided natural process.

Notice 2 things: (1) This is a change--they are altering the curriculum, which they would not need to do if it were true that the existing curriculum explicitly taught that God had no role in the origin and development of life on earth, and (2) they are changing it to deny that God had any role in the origin and development of life on earth!

Now, clearly their goal as creationists is to try and discredit evolution and to teach kids in Kansas that God created the world in 6 literal 24-hour days, and that if you believe that any part of evolution is true, you're nothing but an atheist or someone who has been duped by the atheists. But look at what they're really doing: under the guise of complaining that science education teaches kids that God had nothing to do with evolution, they're changing the curriculum so that it really does teach kids that God had nothing to do with evolution!

Dembski, Behe, Nelson, Wells, and any number of Intelligent Design scientists agree that some amount of evolution can and does occur, so what's happening in Kansas right now is that a small number of well-intentioned and ill-informed men and women are getting ready to prepare a whole generation of young Kansans to think that life evolved and God had nothing to do with it. Talk about sowing the seeds!

What we should be doing is teaching kids that natural science gives natural answers for the same reason that medical science gives medical answers and mathematics gives mathematical answers and theology gives theological answers: everybody has their area of expertise, and that's the kind of answers they're supposed to give. Scientists aren't supposed to be telling theologians how to do their job, and that's why we're not supposed to be taking theological questions to scientists to answer. The scientist's job is just to understand as much as possible about how Nature works, and when he gets to the end of what Nature does, he's supposed to stop, and let somebody else take over, because it's not his job any more.

Now, that's not to say there's no room for a theory of intelligent design either, though I think perhaps some people are perhaps over-eager in the possibilities for its scientific application. But by the same token others are overanxious to dismiss it as unscientific, when it isn't. It has its place, though there's a lot of work left to be done. That's why the Discovery Institute is advising people (like in their recent letter to the PA legislature) not to push for teaching ID in the classroom yet. It's still underdeveloped as a theory. But that's another topic.

Phil said...


Good points on Kansas. Thanks for the clarification.

Pastor Scott,

If you have the time, yes, I would be interested in pursuing this further.

David P. Barash in What's so intelligent about this design? argues that design flaws *are* part of the original design:

"...if you were designing the optimum exit for a fetus, would you engineer a route that passes through the narrow confines of the pelvic bones? Childbirth is not only painful in our species but downright dangerous and sometimes lethal, owing to a baby's head being too large for the mother's birth canal.

"Anyone glancing at a skeleton can see immediately that there is plenty of room for even the most stubbornly large-brained, misoriented fetus to be easily delivered anywhere in that vast, non-bony region below the ribs. (In fact, this is precisely the route obstetricians follow when performing a Caesarean section.)"

"There's much more that the supposed designer botched: ill-constructed knee joints that wear out, a lower back that's prone to pain, an inverted exit of the optic nerve via the retina, resulting in a blind spot...."

For further discussion, see Evolution and the Origins of Disease by Randolph M. Nesse and George C. Williams.

For a discussion of bad design in other animals, see Evidence for Jury-Rigged Design in Nature.

Also Olshansky, S.J., B. Carnes, and R. Butler. 2001. If Humans Were Built to Last. Scientific American, March, 2001, in which the authors note that walking upright probably contributed to human intelligence and an expanded foraging range, but at the price of aging-related disorders, including slipped disks, lower back pain, varicose veins and worn-out joints.

The authors cite the weak link between the optic nerve and retina, which is prone to detaching after decades of use, fragile hair cells in our ears leading to hearing loss, and a common passageway for food and air, raising the risk of inhaling food or drink as muscle tone decreases with age.

Then, there are what the authors refer to as “plumbing problems.” In males, these problems include a urethra prone to constriction by an enlarged prostate that may obstruct the flow of urine, and in females, bladder and pelvic-floor muscles and ligaments that weaken with time and multiple pregnancies, which may lead to incontinence.

It would appear that we are not designed to last forever, and that, I would argue, is part of why life is so precious.

Now all of the above can be understood to beg the question. Bad design is still design.

Once you maintain that there is design in nature, you have to explain bad design. On the other hand, if nature was not designed (instead, substitute "structured" for "designed"), or if the design is beyond human understanding and thus undetectable, then you don't have to ask, "If the Designer created only the good, how do death, evil and suffering fit in?"

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

I appreciate your thoughtful comments on this subject. As I've mentioned, I am not a scientist and am really not qualified to address some of these matters very deeply. I don't want to embarrass myself.

I am chiefly equipped to approach the issue philosophically and theologically. I believe in the existence of a Creator. My belief is not founded upon the intelligent design movement, though the subject intrigues me. So with this a priori belief, it naturally makes sense to me that there would be evidence for design in the universe, including the world of biology.

So I admit that I am predisposed to see evidence of design. But because some people are predisposed to believe in a divine designer doesn't mean that design isn't really there, and evidence of it can't be noticed and studied scientifically. [Sort of a variation on "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.] And to be accurate, not all of the ID proponents are Evangelical Christians and certainly not all of them are 6 day creationists. There are some prominent and well-regarded figures in the fields of science and philosophy, who, on the basis of reason and observation, are turning to some form of theism. Asking that these perspectives be included in a school curriculum, without bias, doesn't seem to be unreasonable.

I would go so far as to say that to insist, even in light of possible evidence to the contrary, that natural selection is the only acceptable explanation is, itself, a form of religious dogmatism. There does exist such a thing as secular fundamentalism.

Personally, I find it much harder to believe that irreducibly complex structures and organisms would occur randomly than that their creation was directed by a higher intelligence. And some bright scholars in astronomy, quantum physics, mathematics, as well as biology, are concluding the same thing. This suggests that our public school students are only getting one perspective on things.

Now, regarding the question of why our bodies fail, age, die and decay. I think you will find that I am quite a traditionally orthodox Christian in this.

As an article of faith, I believe that God created human beings in order that they would live forever. I understand disease, dysfunction and death as a corruption that entered with human rebellion against God.

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the real incarnation of the eternal Son of God, who by taking on human flesh, has sanctified human life. And by His own bodily resurrection has paved the path for those in Him to rise bodily and live bodily forever.

Evil is defined as the rebellion against God's way. God, in addition to creating human life, also created disembodied intelligences - namely angels. As St. John the Divine wrote from Patmos, there was a war in heaven. Some of the angelic beings rebelled against God and this was possible because God created them as free agents. Man also was created as a free agent, capable of obeying or rebelling. By rebelling, God placed the curse of death on all of creation.

But there is a new creation promised. A re-creation. And Jesus was the first man of this new humanity. The New Testament calls Him the second Adam.

These are religious convictions. But I do not concede that religion contradicts true science, true philosophy, etc. I believe in one truth. Either the resurrection of Jesus happened literally and historically or it did not. And if it did, then that has some pretty far reaching implications. And if it did not, we really are just star dust.

Phil said...

Estimates* of the number of separate species of organisms described in scientific literature range from 1.5 million to 1.75 million.

Of these, 1.4 million species are insects. Of the insects, over 350,000 are beatles.

Why is there so much diversity? Why is nature skewed to favor insects, especially beatles?

If the Intelligent Design "theory" is true, how does it address these questions, other than say that's the way things were designed? Or how about this:

The biologist J.B.S. Haldane was asked what might be learned about the Creator by examining the world. His response: "an inordinate fondness for beetles."

All ID has to do to be successful is to generate some testable hypotheses that help us understand biotic reality. It has not done this.

* Biodiversity II: Understanding and Protecting Our Biological Resources (1997), National Academies Press, p. 27. (I don't know why this is an estimate. A species has either been described or it hasn't. Perhaps it has to do with disagreement over whether or not certain organisms constitute separate species.)

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...


Wow! I didn't know there were so many "bugs."

The question "why" is philosophical. It's teleological. It's like saying, "what is the purpose of _____?" And it seems to me that asking what is the "purpose" of something implies an intelligent designer. Designers have purpose. Randomness cannot offer purpose. I don't see how anyone can objectively proove "why" about anything. "Why" is about meaning and meaning is in the realm of faith. Why are we here? Why is there something instead of nothing? But then, I am not an expert in scientific investigation and could be corrected.

I think, however, you are not asking "why" but rather, "what is the function of?" If one's governing principle is natural selection, then one says that the phenomemon under question helps the fittest to survive somehow. Am I wrong?

It seems to me, as a non-scientist, that science is poorly equipped to answer most "why" questions, and is not always clear on "what is the function of" either. For example, why do I have an appendix? For a long time, it was thought that that particular organ had no function and was vestigial. But I seem to recall newer findings which reveal that it does have a useful function.

Why do objects fall to the ground? Newton gave one answer. But Einstein offered a different answer. And so forth.

Why are there so many beetles? I honestly don't know. Science seems to be good at answering "what," "where," "when," even "how." But "why" is a little trickier, I think. We are best when our faith in science remains limited.

This is probably not an adequate response to your question, Phil, but it's the best I've got.

New Curriculum at Concordia Theological Seminary