Intelligent Design: On the Absurdity of the Premise

In a desperate move to circumvent the doctrine of the separation of church and state and get creationism taught in public schools, Intelligent Design theorists are claiming a scientific proof for both the existence and nature of a Supernatural Intelligent Designer (SID) who bears a suspicious resemblance to the Christian God — i.e, a Heavenly Father (sun deity) made in the image of a transcendent human male. There hasn’t been such an uproar over evolution since the Scopes trial. And, the fervor of the religious right surrounding this debate is reminiscent of Catholicism’s rejection of heliocentrism 500 years ago. Let’s hope Richard Dawkins, one of the best evolutionary biologists of our day, doesn’t end up under house arrest like Gallileo.

This Intelligent Design (ID) claim is ridiculous on the face of it since science is focused on understanding the natural world, not the supernatural (if such a dimension exists) and scientific knowledge is grounded in material reality — not spiritual unreality. Science cannot use nature to prove the existence of non-nature. It is a scientific impossibility. So there should be no debate as to whether ID should be taught as science in public schools.

But, clearly a debate is underway. The question is “Why?” How have we allowed a few religious zealots to suck us into this morass, and why are we having such a problem dealing with it? I believe it is because the ID theorists, the media, and the rest of us are confusing logic with science — i.e., logical argument with scientific proof. It is as if anything which could be brought under the rubric of reason is by definition thought to be scientific. This, of course, is not the case. ID offers a logical argument, not a scientific proof, in support of a religious truth — a perfectly acceptable use of logic, and one with a long pedigree. However, I believe ID is not only non-science, it is flawed logic and uninspired theology.

To refresh your memory, Intelligent Design argues that, statistically speaking, it is highly improbable that the complexity that we call life could have been achieved as a result of random selection, as Darwin’s theory maintains. Therefore, life must be the result of a deliberate and intelligent selection — and thus the product of a Supernatural Intelligent Designer working away in his atelier in the sky.

Logically, this argument has two problems. Problem number one has to do with the use of statistics in a logical argument. As we all know, statistics can be used to prove or disprove just about anything. Furthermore, “statistically improbable” does not mean impossible.

Problem number two, which is much more serious, has to do with the logic itself. To leap to the conclusion that the putative statistical improbability of random selection proves there is a SID seems somewhat of a stretch. The “if, then” proposition just doesn’t work. First of all, if science should come up with evidence which indicates natural selection is not as random as first thought, then it does not ineluctably lead one to conclude that the selection process is the result of supernatural intervention; it just means that science will have discovered a little more about the process of natural selection. And science, as we all know, is a work in progress.

And then there is the theology. As far as I’m concerned, Intelligent Design is a retread theologically speaking. And theology, which is an effort to nail down ultimate reality, absolute truth, the first cause, etc. — like science — is also a work in progress, regardless of what adherents of particular religions would have you believe. Any given vision of ultimate reality is directly related to that work in progress called science — some science, somewhere. If that doesn’t make any sense to you given the current climate where religion and science appear to be polar opposites, let me explain.

Although science cannot prove or disprove the existence of a supernatural being, this does not mean that there is no relationship between science (especially theories concerning cosmology and the origins of life ) and religion. Every religion has a creation story. And, these creation stories are not created out of thin air, but are based on each culture’s latest and greatest scientific understanding of the size and shape of the universe and the origins of life. Science provides the basis for a culture-specific psychological worldview which is an interpretion of the scientific theory, an interpretation which gives human beings a mental image of who they are relative to the universe they inhabit — and how they should behave as a consequence. In other words, the scientific description of reality provides the soil from which religious ideas on ultimate reality, absolute truth, and the first cause take root.

Each psychological worldview includes a system of values. This value system, which by its very nature values one set of behaviors over all others and values those who exemplify those behaviors over those who don’t, is then institutionalized in a culture’s dominant religion, which — through the use of symbols that tap into the deepest and most basic human emotions, emotions, for example, which are associated with the powerful archetypes of mother or father — embeds itself in the collective unconscious of society.

For example, in the last 10,000 years or so of western culture, we have had three separate views of the universe which have produced three separate religious systems: a view of a universe limited to earth and nature which produced a pantheistic paganism where ultimate reality is symbolized as the Great Mother; a geocentric universe which expanded the focus of psychological reality to include both the earth and the sun and which produced a transitional patriarchal monotheism (Judaism and Catholicism); and a heliocentric universe which produced full-strength, high octane transcendent patriarchal monotheism (Protestant Christianity). Both types of patriarchal monotheism symbolize ultimate reality, absolute truth, and the first cause as the Heavenly God the Father, but the geocentric value system differs significantly from the heliocentric.

Each time science gives us a significantly new and different description of reality, we confound the latest perception of reality with reality itself, create a new worldview, and enshrine the newly emergent value system as unshakable religious truth. That we mistake perception for reality is understandable since these radical rethinkings are usually separated by millennia and frequently lost to cultural memory — or explained away by thinking “they were wrong then; we are right now.” When a new scientific version of reality comes along and is finally accepted by the collective, we accept it precisely because we believe it to be the last word. However, none of this happens without a struggle. Just think what Europe went through when the en-light-enment gave birth to Protestantism.

New scientific perceptions of reality, which deal primarily with facts, will always precede and be in conflict with religious systems, which deal primarily with emotions, for it is the role and goal of science to be open to and be searching for new “truths” about our world (which is not to say that scientists themselves do not get heavily invested in certain pet theories), while it is the goal of religion to stoutly defend what it believes to be ultimate truth.

There is a great deal of cultural value in religion’s intractability, since no culture could long survive if its value system was at the mercy of every new scientific fad to come along. Therefore, scientific radical rethinkings must contend with and be persuasive enough overcome the implacable resistance on the part of religion — and those in society who benefit from the existing value system. When this happens, the discomfort of the cognitive dissonance resulting from trying to reconcile the old religion with a new scientific reality which won’t go away becomes so great that the old religion gives way to a new system of values more in line with the new perception of reality.

This is the position we find ourselves in today. Intelligent Design represents just another ploy on the part of patriarchal monotheism to retain an outdated worldview and value system in the face of radical new understandings having to do with cosmology, our position in the universe, our relationship with nature, reproductive biology, and so forth.

Around 5000 years ago patriarchal monotheism came into being geographically in the Ancient Near East; it evolved into what was to become the most politically powerful religion of the Western world around 1500 years ago when an institutionalized Christianity was adopted by Constantine as the religion of the Roman Empire. Cosmologically speaking, however, it came into being in a universe which consisted of two primary entities, the earth and the sun. In this universe, the sun (and all the heavenly bodies) revolved around the earth. However, in spite of earth’s position as the cosmological center, the sun was seen as the center of value because the science of the time taught that the light from the sun was the sole source of natural life on earth. In addition, having figured out the role of intercourse in pregnancy (wrongly as it turns out), reproductive biology taught that the male seed was the sole source of human life on earth. Earth and woman were seen as mere incubators for the germination and development of new life; they had nothing to do with the life-giving creative process.

These scientific takes on cosmology, nature, and reproductive biology overturned and replaced a simpler pagan reality which had been in place for tens of thousands of years, where the human environment was limited to nature; and nature and woman, from whom all life arose as all could plainly see, were understood as solely responsible for the creation and maintenance of life.

The psychological impact of the new reality was tremendously powerful and was reflected in a radical change in religious thought and cultural values (which undoubtedly took place over a period spanning millennia). Pagan reality had supported a worldview in which Nature (the earth) and Woman were seen as the source of life and the source of value — in effect sacralizing the whole earth. Nature and Woman were conflated into a single idea, frequently symbolized in pagan religions pantheistically as a multiplicity of earth deities and a Great Mother Goddess who encompassed all.

The new reality, however, produced a new worldview in which the sacred, life-giving power was ripped from the womb of Earth and Woman and sent rocketing off into space, giving birth to the sun god, the transcendent God the Father, and patriarchal monotheism — which itself was a conflation of ideas, specifically ideas associated with the sun, human male procreativity, and a humanity empowered by technology.

Like the sun, this god resided in heaven not earth; like the sun he was the light of the world; like the sun, and the male seed, he was the sole source of life — the creator of the universe; like the newly technological humanity, he was separate from and superior to earth, all powerful and all knowing. In short, this transcendent male sun god became the new symbol for ultimate reality, absolute truth, and the first cause. Those made in his image, transcendent male humans who were after all the center and rulers of the geocentric universe, became the focus of his attention and his love, and a reflection of his value here on earth.

As a result, a humanity, which had seen itself as wholly immanent, as children of Mother Nature and, as such, wholly dependent on Her, came to view itself as the wholly transcendent offspring of the Heavenly Father, separate from and superior to Nature, with a mandate to rape and exploit Her. At least some of them, the males, did. Women often suffered the fate of Nature herself, with whom they had been so closely identified.

But, a geocentric universe meant that, in spite of the fact that the center of value resided in a patriarchal sun god, the earth was still the center of the universe and home to humanity, continuing to provide a rationale for the old ways, and Nature and Woman still retained some of their old magic. This lingering doubt about the true nature of Nature cast a lovely and mitigating pagan shadow over a relentless patriarchal monotheism in the person of Mary, the Mother of God, a thinly disguised version of the Great Mother.

However, with the growing acceptance of a heliocentric cosmology which placed the sun at the center of the universe, with the earth revolving around the sun instead of the other way around, the center of the universe and the center of value once again became one, and this one was the sun and its symbol God the Father. As a result, Mary and Catholicism in general, came under attack, and the patriarchal worldview achieved its final fulfillment in a totally masculine, totally transcendent Protestantism which values God over creation, heaven over earth, spirit over matter, mind over body, brain over heart, reason over emotion, male over female, etc.

Today, it is this sun-centered reality, this transcendent patriarchal worldview, which is being challenged by yet another take on the nature of things. Thanks to Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, we now know, or at least think we know — that we inhabit a universe of millions of galaxies and billions of stars, made even more complex by worm holes and black holes. Thanks to quantam mechanics, we are faced with string theory and the possibility of multiple dimensions. It seems we inhabit a reality more astonishing than our wildest imaginings. We know that neither the earth nor the sun is the center of the universe, in fact, as far as we know, there is no center of the universe. And, as space has grown exponentially, so has time. Just as we are surrounded by a spatial universe which appears to extend into infinity, so we are situated in a timeframe which also seems to extend into infinity in terms of both past and present. Even in terms of our own earth’s history, we have discovered that we are late comers and we face the reality that our existence may be of short duration, little noted nor long remembered. In the face of all this new knowledge, you might say that humanity’s sense of self- importance has taken a direct hit.

Instead of seeing our sun as the center of the universe and our species as the pinnacle of creation, we are faced with a new reality in which humanity is just one species among many which have come and gone on this planet, a planet which is the merest speck in an infinite universe, a universe whose mysteries may contain many life forms superior to ours.

In addition, we know that the creation of natural life is an interactive process which needs the soil, water, and air of earth as well as the light of the sun; and we have known for at least 150 years, since the discovery of the ovum, that the female role in sexual reproduction is at least as important if not more important than the male’s in the creation of new life. We know beyond a shadow of doubt that both earth and woman are co-creators — not mere incubators — of life.

Finally, although there is no argument that technology has given those humans who have it the ability to exploit the earth and other human beings, we are in the unenviable position of being hoist with our own petard, for in the process of achieving technological superiority we have poisoned the womb of earth and the womb of woman, putting all our lives at risk and proving that we are not so transcendent after all.

Although I’m sure that this perception of reality — just like those which have gone before — will not be the last word, it is what we have to work with for the time being. And the reality we live in today is a far far cry from the old heliocentric worldview. Which brings us back to why SID (remember SID) is such a bad theological idea.

Intelligent Design’s Supernatural Intelligent Designer is just another version of the tired old heliocentric patriarchal sun god. In the face of the immensities of space and time, the mysteries of quantam mechanics and a vastly insignificant humanity, to describe ultimate reality, absolute truth, and the first cause in terms of humans and human characteristics such as human intelligence, as ID does — is to participate in a collective insanity. In Jungian terms, it would be diagnosed as a galloping case of inflation, a sort of psychological priapism, if you will. In terms the Intelligent Designers can understand, it is blasphemy.

Science which over the last century has added vast amounts of information to the human understanding of material reality has at the same time revealed to us just how mysterious and awesome the universe is, and how little we know about it. In the face of this new perception of reality, it would be foolishness even to attempt to characterize absolute truth or ultimate reality — except to say that it, like the current perception of reality, exceeds human understanding.

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