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March 31, 2006

And now for something different: Intelligent Design

One of the more humorous blog posts I've ever read talked about what bloggers should write about on blogs. Rule #3 (or something like that) went something like this: If you are afraid to write about something, that is exactly what you should be writing about. And once you've written about it, do it again. So, I have been afraid of writing about Intelligent Design. I will admit it. But now, I guess, it is time to get my thoughts on the screen. Why now? To that I would say, why not? Don't even try to figure out my thought patterns. Usually I am focused on stadiums, but I do, on occasion, branch out to other controversial topics. I mean, I need to get hate mail about other stuff too every now and again. As always, if you can make it to the bottom of this drivel, let me know what you think.

First of all let me say that if you believe in God, if you believe in a higher power, then by default you also believe in some form of "intelligent design" (lower case i, lower case d). It would be odd to believe in God, but not believe that He created the heavens and the earth. In fact, I would wager that is impossible. Correct me if I'm wrong.

So, since I have made it abundantly clear throughout the course of writing on this blog that I believe in God, I must also say that I believe that He created the heavens and the earth. So far so good. Having said that, though, I honestly believe that the promoters of Intelligent Design are making a huge mistake. Pitting faith against evolution is doing more harm than good. But before I get into that I will write about Galileo.

Galileo? Yes, his life provides a pretty neat illustration of my point. As many of you probably know, Galileo spent a fair amount of his life in prison and under house arrest for promoting the idea of "heliocentrism" or the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Today we laugh at the idea that the Sun could revolve around the Earth. This idea is so unquestionably wrong it isn't even worth discussion. However, back in the 1600s, this discussion was all the rage. Why? Because the Bible actually states, or alludes, in numerous passages that the Earth is the center of the celestial world.

Take for example Psalm 104:

You fixed the earth on its foundation, never to be moved.

Being a Psalm, or a poem, this passage is wide open for a variety of interpretation, but in the 1600s the implications of this Psalm were plainly clear: The Earth does not move.

Another example comes from Joshua 10: 12-13:

Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. ... So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

Again, the interpretation of this passage in the 1600s was that before God told the Sun to stop moving, it actually moved around the Earth. Today we know this line of reason to be unequivocally false. Does this make the Bible wrong? Does this mean the Bible is not the "infallible Word of God"? I would say no. I would say the problem, of course, lies in the perplexing need to literally interpret the Bible at all times and in all instances. Galileo paid a heavy price for his promotion of heliocentrism and his challenging of a literal interpretation of God's word in the matter of the rotation of the heavenly spheres.

St. Augustine actually had some interesting things to say about this. Augustine himself argued against a too literal interpretation of the Bible especially when it deals with matters of science. In an important passage within his "The Literal Interpretation of Genesis" (early 5th century, AD), St. Augustine wrote:

"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?"

I think Augustine nailed it here. Promoters of Intelligent Design are doing way more harm than good in using the Bible as a science text book when it should be used more as a path to salvation. Promotion of this deluded teaching of Intelligent Design actually encourages people to abandon the entirety of the Bible. Seriously, what does it matter how God created the heavens and the Earth? What matters is that he did it, and more importantly that he opened the gates of heaven through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Augustine also writes in The Literal Interpretation of Genesis:

With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.

As you can see, this argument concerning how literally to take the book of Genesis has been on the mind of Christians for quite a while. And hopefully you can see some parallels between the arguments against heliocentrism and now the arguments concerning Intelligent Design. Personally, I do not believe that promotion of evolution is anti-Biblical or anti-Christian, just like I don't think the promotion of heliocentrism is anti-Biblical or anti-Christian. There is too much evidence suggesting that the Earth is billions of years old (not thousands), and that the species and life of Earth have been changing and adapating throughout all that time. And as science continues to uncover more about the origins of life, Christians are going to have to come to grips with more and more of these ideas. It is inevitable.

In conclusion, I refuse to put God in a box. I refuse to even entertain the notion that the creation of the universe and all the wonder that it holds can be contained in approximately 30 verses in the book of Genesis. It is almost comical to think about. This does not mean I am abandoning the word of God. Again the true importance of the Bible can be found in its teachings about religion, neighborly love, salvation, and the words of Jesus. It should not be used as a science text book. Seriously, isn't it more miraculous to think that God put together this amazing system of adaptation and evolutionary change than to think he just said, "Poof! There is a platypus." This does not mean I accept the entirety of evolution either, but I do think it has more scientific accuracy than the story of God literally creating the universe in 6 days. That is my opinion anyway. Feel free to disagree. And now I leave you with something I read in the Washington Post which more eloquently and concisely sums up my feelings:

The relentless attempt to confuse [science and religion] by teaching warmed-over creationism as science can only bring ridicule to religion, gratuitously discrediting a great human endeavor and our deepest source of wisdom precisely about those questions -- arguably, the most important questions in life -- that lie beyond the material.

How ridiculous to make evolution the enemy of God. What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule, pliable and fecund enough to give us mollusks and mice, Newton and Einstein? Even if it did give us the Kansas State Board of Education, too.

Posted by snackeru at March 31, 2006 8:06 AM | Stuff I wonder about


Nice non-stadium entry, Shane. I agree with you that ID folks are picking the wrong fight. Belief in God and the teachings of the Bible doesn't at all preclude teaching/believing evolution or other sciences. Also, I find it interesting that a lot of the same social conservatives who promote ID in public schools to "teach the controversy" are now pushing to constitutionally ban gay unions for fear that they will likewise have to "teach the controversy" of homosexuality. But that's a story for another day...

I really wish people would stop focusing on "issues" like this, and that opportunist politicos and talk-radio hacks would quit promoting them as issues. Even stadiums are far more worthy of our time and consideration than this pseudo-religious posturing!

Posted by: spycake at March 31, 2006 11:29 AM


Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at March 31, 2006 12:48 PM

As you say, a lot depends on exactly what you mean by "Intelligent Design". I think part of the problem is that it's used by a lot of people to mean a lot of different things.

The only time I have any problem with teaching evolution is when it's taught as an Incontrovertible Fact. I have no problem with teaching it as a theory. I have no problem with teaching that it is currently the generally accepted theory, and with presenting the evidence regarding how it came to be generally accepted. But if there is one thing we can learn by studying science, it's that there are a lot of Incontrovertible Facts which we later discover are not true. In fact, it's been said that we know less now about how the universe works than we did a hundred years ago, because in those hundred years we've discovered that a lot of things we thought we knew aren't so.

We should do our best to teach kids the truth. Christianity will be able to stand up to it. If it can't, then we need to take a look at Christianity.

Posted by: Jeff A at March 31, 2006 2:45 PM

The connection of ID to the 'gay marriage' issue is lamentably true. Witness this wild exchange with Michele Bachmann:

"The whole purpose of this amendment isn't to restrict anyone's rights," she said. "It's to let the people decide the laws we live under. And I will make sure that gays and lesbians have the same right to vote as anyone else."

In her mind, this business is pretty simple. She said it was wrong when there were laws prohibiting blacks and whites from marrying each other. This is different.

"Gender is an essential irreducible complexity," she said.

Irreducible complexity, a term favored in intelligent design circles, apparently means a baseline truth.

"Didn't having a penis used to be the essential irreducible complexity?" I asked. "You had to have one to have any rights."

"That's your word," she said, sounding exasperated.

Posted by: Gary Fouty at March 31, 2006 2:51 PM

Interesting thoughts, Jeff. I agree we should teach our children the "truth" and I certainly know what the "truth" is. However, I seriously can't stand the thought of a skeptic or atheist teaching my kids about religion in a classroom if he/she has been forced to do so by a school board. It makes no sense to me. There are so many interpretations and variations of Christianity itself that the teaching of it is best left to me as a parent and the church I go to. As you say, I have no problem with teaching evolution as a theory in a classroom, but I actually have a big problem with someone being forced to teach religious topics/matters of faith in a classroom. Please, please, please leave that to me.

And Gary, I read that Doug Grow article too. This gay marriage debate is such a phenomenal waste of time it boggles the mind. I mean, people are arguing about gay marriage when they could be solving the stadium problem! Where are our legislators' priorities? I'm sure you will agree...

Posted by: Shane at March 31, 2006 3:14 PM

I don't anyone is teaching evolution as "Incontrovertible Fact." It's being a taught as a scientific theory. However a scientific theory is different that a theory meaning speculation, e.g. "I have a theory why the Packers suck." A scientific theory means that there is a tested, logical body of evidence supporting a particular point. Scientist also refer to the theory of gravity. It's only a theory but there is a whole heckava evidence that it's there.

Also it is ridiculous on its face that we know less about the Universe than we did 100 years ago. It may be true that recent discoveries have led to areas of inquiry never imagined, but 100 years ago, we still didn't quite know there were billions of galaxies or the big bang, and the theory of relativity was still being discussed in arcane European scientific journals.

Posted by: freealonzo at March 31, 2006 3:26 PM

Is it possible to know more and less at the same time? Every new thing we find out about the universe (especially in the realm of quantum physics or computing) reveals about 100 new questions. That is what it feels like sometimes.

Posted by: Shane at March 31, 2006 3:32 PM

I didn't mean to kick us off-topic. Back to ID, I kinda understand where Jeff is coming from, but this debate isn't really about the merits of evolution. which consists of both facts (the process) and theory (i.e. the origins of life) and is pretty much taught the same everywhere. Intelligent design, as preferable as it may be to some, is not even a theory by definition -- it can't be tested. ID has no place in a science classroom alongside countless other testable theories like evolution, gravity, relativity, etc. That's what the current debate is trying to force, and that's what so gosh-darned pointless.

Taking Jeff's logic, does this mean that we have to tippy-toe around virtually everything in the science classroom? That we have to explicitly tell schoolkids that parts of these "theories" are suspect, and there is such-and-such evidence from the Discovery Institute to refute these theories? You know, I grew up in a Catholic household, went to both church/youth group every week, and also learned about evolution in public schools. I never had any trouble reconciling the two points of view, nor did any of my classmates. If there's any "controversy" to teach now, it has been completely manufactured by grown-ups for God knows what reason (pun intended). And if you've had to debate the merits of the two "competing" theories for more than a second, you've wasted your time.

Posted by: spycake at March 31, 2006 3:47 PM

I agree with freealonzo's comments above, worded so much better than my own. Nobody's teaching the scientific theory of evolution as Incontrovertible Fact. That's a manufactured controversy from proponents of ID.

Nor will any public school encourage children to try homosexuality if gay civil unions are ever recognized. SORRY, didn't mean to bring that up again, and my 'backspace' key isn't functioning properly, or some such excuse...

Posted by: spycake at March 31, 2006 3:55 PM

I didn't mean to imply that I thought teachers in public schools should be teaching religion. If it came across that way, my bad.

It's been a long time since I was in a high school classroom, and even longer since grade school, so I have no first-hand knowledge of what's being taught about evolution. I can only go by what I hear. But if there truly is nowhere that evolution is being taught as an Incontrovertible Fact, then an awful lot of people, not just right-wing activists, are lying.

Again, I have no problem with evolution being taught as a theory, and I agree that saying it's a theory isn't the same as saying it's just speculation or someone's guess. As I said before, I have no problem with kids being told it's the generally accepted theory, and I have no problem with them being told why it's generally accepted. And I also agree that there isn't time to tell kids about every possible theory on every possible subject.

I must confess that the connection of this issue to same-sex marriage eludes me, but maybe I missed something.

Posted by: Jeff A at March 31, 2006 4:36 PM

Although I agree with your argument, I'm not sure I understand why you make the assumption that believing in a higher power = believing that higher power created the world. I'd be interested to know why you think one follows from the other. To me that seems to suggest a rather narrow concept of what God is/could be.

Posted by: ldfs at March 31, 2006 4:48 PM

Nope, I showed you mine, now you have to show me yours. Why don't you think belief in God means you believe He created "the heavens and the Earth"? That is what I, as a Christian, say I believe when I say the Apostles Creed. My narrow concept is a pretty central tenet of my faith.

Posted by: Shane at March 31, 2006 7:10 PM

Jeff, there isn't a direct connection, it's more of a peeve of mine. Minnesota state rep Michele Bachmann has advocated teaching intelligent design, or as President Bush has said, "teaching the controversy," but she has very vocally promoted her same-sex marriage ban for fear that schoolchildren will someday be taught that homosexuality is acceptable. If there's any "controversy" worth teaching in my book, it's that homosexuals might just be normal, okay folks, not social outcasts or sinners who need saving.

Sorry to hijack Shane's thread.

Posted by: spycake at March 31, 2006 7:56 PM

As the Greet Machine's token atheist, I feel I should weigh in here. First, evolution is as solid scientifically as heliocentrism or gravity, so teaching it as a fact (like gravity, etc.) is just being realistic. Science teachers shouldn't have to apologize or hedge their certainty about evolution. "Incontrovertible fact" is something that does not exist in science - only religions have those (zing!). Obviously I agree with Shane that religious ideas shouldn't be taught in science classes. And I think it's very intelligent for the religious not to pit faith against science, because science has been winning that battle ever since the enlightenment.

Posted by: Tim at March 31, 2006 8:43 PM

As a Catholic who believes in evolution (not a cafeteria Catholic on this either Rome supports Evolution) I know that we can explain the entire universe with biology, chemistry and physics. I just believe that God created those rules, flipped the switch and said "let it rip!" Wanna call that integelligent design? Fine by me.

There is a school of thought out there that proposes that evolution is actually the process by which the Holy Spirit is becoming one with God. It's kind of complicated but I could probably explain it with a couple of Jaegermeisters in me.

Posted by: freealonzo at March 31, 2006 10:30 PM

Excellent - excellent - post, Shane.

Is it possible to know more and less at the same time? Every new thing we find out about the universe (especially in the realm of quantum physics or computing) reveals about 100 new questions. That is what it feels like sometimes.

I would say learning something that exposes more questions doesn't mean we know less. I suppose it depends on what question you are answering.

"In total, do we know more than we knew yesterday?" Yes. Even knowing there are 100 new questions is knowledge in itself.

"How many known questions have we answered?" Well, more than yesterday. However, as a percentage of the total questions we're aware of, uncovering those new 100 queries has made our "percentage known" less.

I'd still, personally, say it's pretty clear that we know more.

Posted by: bjhess at April 1, 2006 9:36 AM

Something different, indeed, and good stuff at that.

You started with an a priori belief in the existence of a supreme being. I agree that belief in such supremacy doesn't make much sense if it doesn't include responsibility for the physical universe. I also agree that Christianity is not well served by getting into an us-vs.-them confrontation with proponents of evolution.

There is another perspective from which to view this, though. Some proponents of evolution find that scientific explanation attractive because it can be consistent with the non-existence of God. Others, however, find that the "irreducible complexity" or other factors make purely naturalistic evolution an explanation that requires as much faith as does the theistic alternative. In other words, a realization that "the heavens declare the glory of God" can lead FROM scientific observation TO faith.

I think that some of the more thoughtful ID critiques of evolutionists' logic and interpretation of evidence has led to clarifications of the nature of scientific method. Should intelligent design be mandated as an alternative scientific explanation? No. Should there be an opportunity somewhere for any explanation to be challenged? Absolutely - for the benefit of the proponents as well as the critics.

Posted by: ofergopher at April 1, 2006 4:41 PM

This is a tough issue to discuss, mostly because those who are so invested in evolution won't discuss ID honestly.

I'm not saying it's volitional - at least, not across the board (though there are those in the evolution camp who know enough about the theory & issues that their criticisms cross the line to intellectually dishonest).

The ID camp is not monolithic - it's not composed of Christians trying to prove the God of Genesis exists.

The premise of ID is very simple - if evolution is true, then it should "work" in every context, and there seem to be circumstances - important circumstances - where it doesn't.

As I understand it, the premise of natural selection is (a) organisms mutate; (b) some mutations give the organism bearing them a significant advantage over those that don't have them; (c) over time, the lineage that possesses the useful mutations flourish & those that don't wither; so (d) again, over time - and S-L-O-W-L-Y, step by step, the lineage adapts.

The problem, though, comes with complexity. Example: assume your car is an "organism" that starts out with no front-end steering; the front wheels don't pivot, there's no linkage to a steering wheel, there's no wheel.

Under natural selection, the whole steering system has to show up at once because that's the only way the organism has an 'advantage'.

The tires pivoting without any ability to control them wouldn't give your car an advantage; instead of only being able to go straight, you'd have no idea - or control - over where it went. A steering wheel connected to nothing would be of no use. Linkage connected to nothing would be of no use.

Under pure "natural selection" there'd be no reason for the organism to keep any of the features unless they all appeared at exactly the same time - and that's not "small mutations that, over time" result in the evolution of the organism. As far as I know, evolution does not have a "quantum leap" component which explains traits, etc. suddenly appearing that weren't there before.

Now, some will say "well, the fossil record's incomplete".

Fair enough - but that answer implicitly acknowledges that, in the absence of that record, they really can't be so cock-sure that they're right.

And that they might, really, be wrong.

Posted by: BD at April 1, 2006 5:57 PM

BD is correct, there are areas if natural selection that evolution doesn't explain. Again Evolution is a scientific theory. The problem with ID is that it places God in these gaps. As science continues to fill in what is not known, God is placed in a narrower and narrower gap. Pretty soon God is is only needed to describe the freaks of nature. I think God is greater than a God of the gaps.

I don't think the car analogy is all that great and I don't agree with the premise. Think of an eye. I am sure some organism didn't all of a sudden mutate an eye with a fully functional iris, cornea, etc. What happened is that an organism probably mutated a cell that was more sensitive to light. Because this organism was attracted to light it was able to get more food and thus dominate...you can see where this is going. Finally biologist have shown that many charecteristics are used for something else until other characteristics come along and then the original characteristic shows its advantage.

Finally if natural selection and evolution might be wrong, why do I have to get a flu shot every year?

Posted by: Anonymous at April 1, 2006 7:59 PM

Sorry, didn't mean to post anonomously. That last post was mine.

Posted by: freealonzo at April 1, 2006 8:54 PM

Hey, I have a buddy who is BIG into ID. Deciding to lookup what they push before jumping into an argument against him, I found some surprising things.

The pro-ID campaign claim that Evolution is the religious view, and that ID removes all aspects of religion from the schools. I was a little shocked at this, but they get into it quite a bit.


I can't find it scanning thru the webpages, it was during a debate that the Wayzata school board had recently when debating the issue.

It just seems so fundamentally wrong to me to question evolution, even though I too am a Catholic. I never had a problem combining the two beliefs in my head, but this does make the pro-ID side come out like they are trying to create something that doesn't need to be created. And that they are doing it for an alternate reason, rather than the pure "push our beliefs on you".

I don't trust people that do this. And I feel like the world of people that I like and trust is shrinking daily.

So, I avoided the argument with my buddy. I talked about his kids, his house, his job. If religion came up, I switched the conversation. I'd rather be a little rude, than lose a friend.


Posted by: drake33 at April 1, 2006 10:25 PM

I thought I was the Greet Machine's resident atheist? Since that title is taken, I'll take resident agnostic I suppose.

At any rate, I came across this via Marginal Revolution. Turns out prayer isn't very effective in healing sick patients.


If I could just say one thing about the whole 'God' debate it would be that we're focusing on the wrong question.

Whether God exists is inconsequential, after all, we are here. What matters is does he care about, or acknowledge us?

Let's assume, for a second, he doesn't care one way or the other how our lives turn out, shouldn't we then be seeking justice and fairness on earth - instead of expecting to get it in heaven?

Posted by: Andy at April 3, 2006 3:45 PM

Sorry Andy, didn't mean to bogart the godlessness. Just goes to show that we're more common than you might think (and better looking).

Posted by: Tim at April 3, 2006 9:05 PM

Oh please ... let's take a look at the facts:

Me: 3 kids, beautiful wife
Tim: No kids, no significant other

I'm not saying that having three kids proves that I, as a Christian, am more appealing to the opposite sex ... well, actually that is exactly what I am saying.

Christians: 1
Atheists: 0

Posted by: Shane at April 3, 2006 9:19 PM

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