My friend, Stephen C. Meyer, has recently published a book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (Harper One, 2009), that has drawn praise from the philosopher, Thomas Nagel (in the Times Literary Supplement), a compliment that, unsurprisingly, has drawn the ire of others.
I just reviewed the book on Amazon.com. I gave it four stars, though not without voicing my deep reservations about the joint project with which Steve has aligned himself, the intelligent design movement. What follows is my review.
I carry no brief for Intelligent Design as defended by its leading advocates, Stephen C. Meyer, William A. Dembski and Michael Behe. In fact, in a forthcoming article in the St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy--"How to Be An Anti-Intelligent Design Advocate"--I offer criticisms of the approaches of Meyer. Dembski, and Behe.
The ID advocate tries to detect instances of design in nature by eliminating chance and necessity (or scientific law). This implies that one has no warrant to say that the latter two are the result of an intelligence that brought into being a whole universe whose parts, including its laws and those events that are apparently random, seem to work in concert to achieve a variety of ends. But this is precisely the position advanced by Thomas Aquinas and most classical theists. In response, someone could say that an ID advocate who accepts a cosmic fine-tuning argument does in fact have warrant to believe that chance and necessity are the result of intelligence as well, since both function as parts of the Creator's plan for the universe's fine-tuning.But then, what happens to irreducible and specified complexity as criteria by which to eliminate non-agent causes of apparently designed effects in nature? Perhaps this is why some ID advocates are reticent to call their "designer" God, since it would mean that God creates everything ex nihilo and then returns now and again to tidy things up a bit when they seem to be going awry.
But, as Brad S. Gregory writes in the Fall 2009 issue of the journal Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, this puts the ID advocates in the ironic position of sharing a philosophical assumption with the New Atheists, the latest apologists for Darwinian evolution who claim that it entails unbelief: "Advocates of intelligent design posit that ordinary biological processes of natural selection and genetic mutation can account for much but not everything in the evolution of species, the remainder requiring recourse to God's intervention. Insofar as proponents of intelligent design posit normally autonomous natural processes usually devoid of God's influence, they share important assumptions with the New Atheists...." Gregory points out the fallacy in this understanding of God's relationship to nature: "[P]erhaps in the past Darwinism wasn't explanatorily powerful enough to drive God out, but recent, further scientific findings no longer leave room for God." The result is a strange parallel of ferocious posturing between ID advocates and the New Atheists. Writes Gregory: "The intelligent design proponents scramble to find remaining places for supernatural intervention; the New Atheists claim there are none left. Both assume that God, conceived in spatial and quasi-spatial terms, needs `room' to be God--which is precisely what traditional Christian theology says God does not need."
Having said that, I do believe that Dr. Meyer's work ought to be taken seriously. It is not a defense of "creationism," or the grotesque neologism, "Intelligent design creationism." It is a critique of a materialist understanding of the origin of living organisms. And so in that sense, it is not even a critique of evolution, since the evolution of living organisms from a common ancestor by secondary causes is not inconsistent with living organisms having an intelligent primary cause.
There seems to be among the most vociferuous ID critics a case of the "guilt by association / genetic fallacy" tourrettes, a malady that manifests itself in the irrational practice of pointing out, like an involuntary vocal utterance, the religious beliefs and affiliations of some ID advocates, as if such revelations (pardon the pun) have any bearing on the quality of the arguments such advocates offer for their point of view. Consider just this example (though this "insight" can be multiplied many times over): "At heart, proponents of intelligent design are not motivated to improve science but to transform it into a theistic enterprise that supports religious faith." (Barbara Forrest, "The Newest Evolution of Creationism: Intelligent Design is About Politics and Religion, Not Science," Natural History 111.3 [Apr. 2002]: 80). It is bewildering to me why any serious person would think that what we teach our students is a logical fallacy ("the genetic fallacy") should have a place in our public conversation on such divisive issues. Just as it would be wrong for anyone to dismiss the arguments of ID critics because a disproportionate number of them are aggressive atheists and social liberals in comparison to the general population, it is wrong for these ID critics to dismiss the arguments of ID supporters because most of them are theists of some sort or another.
Nevertheless, I am not convinced that the sort of design detected by ID advocates defeats materialism, since, as I noted above, ID advocates appear to be offering a more sophisticated version of one of the bad side affects of the Enlightenment: gaps in laws and chance are the very places in which God (or a non-natural intelligent agent) may enter. I can, however, see why someone may find this approach promising. But, as a Thomist, I think it accepts too many of the assumptions of the approach to philosophy that gave us the problems in the first place.
For more on Thomism and intelligent design, go to my October 2, 2009 post for links and references.