Earlier today I was browsing P.Z. Myers’ blog Pharyngula, and there I read a post about Melanie Phillips of the UK’s The Spectator. Phillips was writing that she was angry at Ken Miller for saying that Intelligent Design is just Creationism in not-so-new clothing. Specifically, in an interview with John Humphrey on the BBC’s Today program, Miller said ID was “nothing more than an attempt to repackage good old-fashioned Creationism and make it more palatable.” This clearly upset Phillips who proceeded to go on and on about how ID was nothing like Creationism and how it is awful that there is this ongoing attempt to discredit ID by linking it to something as “ludicrous” as Creationism. I won’t go into detail about how wrong she is on this issue, and I would strongly urge anyone interested to read Myers’ blog post on this very subject as it does a great job of summarizing the details that leave no doubt as to the connection between the “scientific” Intelligent Design and the “religious” Creationism.
My interest here has to do with the veracity of the claims that Phillips uses in her argument. I am concerned about this because, as far as I can tell, every word she writes is either a lie or is the result of willful ignorance. Her primary thesis is this: “Intelligent Design not only does not come out of Creationism but stands against it.” To bolster this position she claims that ID comes out of science, whereas Creationism clearly does not, that ID only claims that there is a creator, while Creationism claims that God is the Creator, and, perhaps most importantly, “both Creationists and many others of religious faith disdain Intelligent Design, just as ID proponents think Creationism is totally off the wall.” The question now is whether there is any truth whatsoever to any of these claims.
First, it seems unclear how it could be that ID “stands against” Creationism. Creationism encompasses a few different systems, each religion having a creation myth peculiar to it. Perhaps the most well-known versions of Creationism, at least here in the West, are Young Earth Creationism (YEC) and Old Earth Creationism (OEC). The primary difference between YEC and OEC have to do with interpretations of the Bible, the YEC’ers believing that the Bible claims the Earth is around 6000 years old. They believe the Bible is literal and inerrant, and that much of the fossil record and geological formations which give the appearance of an old Earth are the result of the Noaich flood. OEC allows for the Bible to be more metaphorical and, as such, has no problem with the Earth being billions of years old. Many OEC’ers even allow for evolution of some sort. The important point is that God is the Creator, He set everything in motion, and the world proceeds along according to His Plan.
So, does ID “stand against” either of these positions? I can’t see how it does. Here is one of the primary problems with ID: it doesn’t say much of anything. The only thing ID really says is that some things were designed. There are various arguments used to get to that point, but that’s the whole of its position. Life is still a set of special creations, of complex wholes that just pop into existence without any evolutionary forbearers. ID says nothing about what was designed. What is says is that there are limits to what isn’t designed. For example, one of ID’s posterboys, Michael Behe, says that the bacterial flagellum is “irreducibly complex, and, hence, requires a designed. Did the rest of the bacteria require a designer? I’m guessing that Behe would reply in the affirmative to that, though it isn’t really important. What is important is the recognition that ID in no way rules out modern bacteria being designed as-is. While it says that a designer was required at some point, there is nothing within ID that provides a cut-off for when things were designed. In light of that, there doesn’t seem to be any clear way in which ID is in some sort of conflict with YEC or OEC. The “theory” itself has no means of making any such distinction.
Let’s look at the next issue, that “Intelligent Design comes out of science.” While there may be a few scientists supporting the position, it isn’t clear at all that ID is in any significant sense “scientific.” As far as coming out of science, the peer-reviewed scientific journals are mute on ID, so it didn’t come from there. As for its even being considered scientific, it offers no explanations, and it offers no predictions, and, most importantly, it doesn’t appear to be falsifiable. The first two in the list are the entire point of science, and the latter is generally taken to be something that is required of any position that is legitimately scientific. The problem with ID is that it isn’t all that specific about what structures are supposed to be designed. Those structures that were suggested by Behe to be irreducibly complex have repeatedly to be shown not to be so at all. But all Behe has done is dance around waving his hands suggesting that people haven’t understood what irreducible complexity really is. The more honest response would be that he hasn’t yet been able to produce a description that would allow his examples to maintain their irreducibly complex status, and that is exactly the problem. No matter what evidence is produced to demonstrate that ID’ers are wrong, they continue to insist that ID is an appropriate position to hold, and their constant refusal to nail down specifics, to say exactly what would falsify ID, is what makes ID anything but a scientific theory.
Phillips also says that ID is distinct from Creationism in that the creator of ID need not be the God of Creationism. While that may technically be true, it isn’t at all clear what else could serve as the kind of designer required to bridge the gap suggested by ID. Some have wistfully supposed that it could be an alien species, but it doesn’t appear that anyone has taken that seriously. Further, it isn’t at all clear that such a position is actually allowed within the ID camp. One of the big defenders of ID, William Dembski, is well-known for his idea of specified complexity. In a nutshell, this idea suggests that DNA is both specified and complex, and, as such, must be the product of some larger intelligence. It is the complex specified information (Dembski’s term) within DNA that points to its design. He is explicit that nothing like natural selection, nor any of the other natural mechanisms of physical law or chance, could have given rise to such specified complexity. If this is the case, then it is difficult to see how any other intelligence could have arisen by purely naturalistic means as surely the information that is coded in whatever serves as the mechanism for their physical organization and reproduction must be both specified and complex as well. It appears, then, that the only possible intelligence that could have been responsible for the design that is supposed in life must be of a non-natural origin. Even if this is not the Christian God, it is not at all clear that it is different in kind from that entity. It looks to be the same kind of thing, and, in that sense, the intelligence required in ID doesn’t seem opposed to the intelligence in traditional Creationism.
I’ll now look at the last issue Phillips raises, that “both Creationists and many others of religious faith disdain Intelligent Design, just as ID proponents think Creationism is totally off the wall.” It seems I can quickly dismiss the last part of this assertion in that, looking above, it doesn’t appear that ID is significantly different from Creationism, so there is no room for ID proponents to suppose that Creationists are “off the wall” in any sense that ID’ers themselves aren’t off the wall. Moreover, doing a quick search I cannot find a single instance of any such assertion. (If someone else can find such a thing I will be happy to respond to that then). In terms of Creationists disdaining ID, nothing could be further from the truth. Popular Creationist websites, such as Answers in Genesis, frequently make use of ID arguments, while fundamentalist churches often invite proponents of ID to come speak. Dembski’s and Behe’s books are suggested reading on many fundamentalist churches reading lists. It just is not true that there is some sort of ill-will between proponents of Intelligent Design and Creationism. To suggest otherwise is to attempt to deceive one’s audience.
There is no question that the position exhorted by Phillips is at odds with how things actually are, so the question now is this: is Phillips willfully lying, or is she really that ignorant of the issue? I don’t see that it makes a big difference for my concern. Either way, she has failed to live up to her obligations to her readers. The moral obligation as a reporter, even a columnist, to not lie to your audience should be obvious. But, also, there is the obligation to not talk about things about which you know nothing. By writing an article in a widely read paper you are putting yourself out there as an authority. People believe you know about the subject on which you’re writing because that’s how you set yourself up. To write on some subject, to state such an unequivocal opinion, when you are completely uninformed on the topic is wrong. As such, whether because she is a liar or because she failed in her duty as a columnist, Phillips failed to live up to her obligation to her readers.
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