Many people are probably already aware of the controversial documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Starring Ben Stein, this film takes a look at the theory of Intelligent Design. It actually covers a variety of topics; including discrimination of ID theorists in the scientific community, criticisms of Darwinian evolution, and the supposed link between Darwinism and Nazism/eugenics.
First, my overall impressions with the film. I enjoyed the film on the whole. Despite some intense criticisms from some quarters, it was reasonably well-produced (I particularly enjoyed the music used). Stein interviews some of the leading figures in the controversy, which I found exciting. Stein seemed an odd choice for the movie, but he worked well enough. I didn’t find the movie hilarious, be neither was it ever dull. Most importantly, the themes and issues discussed in the film are, on the whole, important and quite worthy of discussion. Hopefully, the film will have a positive impact in this regard.
More importantly, I would like to talk about the issues raised in the film, which I have an interest in but which I have not discussed heavily on this site. Other than a review of Darwin’s Black Box, I haven’t commented on the Intelligent Design movement substantially. 1
Persecution in the ID Community
One of the main themes of the movie contends that ID theorists have been targets of discrimination in the academic community. Much of Expelled consists of interviews with these victims of persecution. Of course, this is a very contentious issue, and it is difficult to sort through the facts to discover what is really happening.
It appears to me that at least some accusations of persecution are legitimate, though some may be exaggerated. One particularly compelling example, in my opinion, is the case of Guillermo Gonzalez, a former professor at Iowa State University who was recently denied tenure. The facts of the case reveal that Gonzalez’s scientific credentials were enviable, indeed, probably better even than any of the faculty members who reviewed his tenure application. It is frequently reported that, with 68 peer-reviewed papers published in the literature, Gonzalez vastly exceeded the requirement of 15 such articles for tenure approval. Moreover, his work has clearly had a strong impact on the scientific community- this can be quantified by measuring the normalized citation count for his work in the scientific literature. Basically, this measures how often other scientists reference his work- clearly an important measure of scientific prominence. Gonzalez beats out all tenured professors in his department since 2001 (when he joined the university). 2
Complaints that Gonzalez’s productivity has ‘slowed’ are vacuous, because his performance in the years since joining the university has still outstripped other faculty members in his department. Ironically, the very year that some complain Gonzalez had the lowest productivity as far as publishing peer-reviewed papers is the very year that he co-authored a college textbook that is actually used at ISU. 3 For more information on his case, take a look at freegonzalez.com, and compare the claims found there with those at the NCSE site criticizing Expelled. I think a fair review of the evidence grants an overwhelming case for discrimination.
In any case, it seems to me that the case for discrimination against Dr. Gonzalez is fairly obvious. This is especially malicious because Gonzalez is an astronomer, not a biologist. Thus, it is very hard to see how his advocacy of Intelligent Design provide any sort of justification for his discriminatory treatment in the tenure case.
This is one of the cases with which I am most familiar, but I have neither the time nor the interest to investigate in great detail all of the cases of purported persecution. At this point I would say that there is excellent reason to suspect that some sort of discrimination took place in Gonzalez’s case. Moreover, given the vitriol directed towards Intelligent Design advocates in general, it is hardly surprising that many in the scientific community would attempt to undermine the careers and the credibility of Intelligent Design advocates. Hopefully, Expelled will raise awareness of this troubling trend.
Scientific Criticisms of Darwinian Evolution
Expelled has mixed success when it comes to criticizing Darwinian evolution from a scientific perspective. One of the issues the movie focuses on most extensively is origin of life studies. Strictly speaking, the origin of life is outside the purview of Darwinian evolution. Evolution deals with the development of life, but it is silent on the issue of the origin of life (commonly referred to as ‘chemical evolution’). Nevertheless, many scientists and philosophers who are most enthusiastic about Darwinian evolution also believe that a naturalistic explanation of the origin of life is important in the sciences. What they say about chemical evolution is, I think, rather revealing.
In the movie, Stein interviews the philosopher Michael Ruse, and presses him on the issue of the origin of life. Ruse admits honestly that nobody know how life originated. When Ruse mentions a possibility (the Cairns-Smith hypothesis that the first lifeforms developed on clay), Stein mocks the hypothesis as absurd.
Such derision is, I think, a bit misplaced, because it is only useful for rhetorical effect. In all honesty, Expelled does not look into the issue with enough detail or rigor to develop a responsible scientific analysis of the issue. However, in my view, the paucity of solid evidence for any naturalistic theory of life’s origins is striking. If Ruse and company were satisfied to simply admit this, then there would be no problem. However, the fact that they feel inclined to mention a variety of speculative and unfounded theories is telling.
Dawkins, in his harsh critique of Expelled, claims that Ruse offered just ‘one possible’ theory as a way of indicating the type of theories that are out there. Fair enough, I grant the point. However, Ruse, Dawkins and company give the false impression that naturalistic origin of life researchers have an embarrassment of riches- too many theories to know which one is right. In reality, the real embarrassment is the paucity of evidence in favor of any such proposed theory. Yet, committed non-theists like Ruse and Dawkins would prefer to mention any variety of unsubstantiated theories, as long as they can avoid any sort of inference to design. We see this often in the field- there is the famous example of staunch atheist and co-discoverer of DNA Francis Crick, who proposed that life may have been seeded here by an intelligent alien race. 4 Absurd? Of course it is, but better than allowing any sort of ‘supernatural’ explanation to take hold. I can only ask this point- if we are willing to speculate that an advanced alien race implanted our planet with the first life billions of years ago, then what is so nefarious about considering the possibility that God designed life and planted it on Earth?
Unfortunately, most of the criticisms of Darwinian evolution are even less well-developed than the criticisms of naturalistic origin of life scenarios. Therefore, this is not one of the strengths of the movie.
Darwinism and Nazism
A large portion of the movie is spent exploring the connection between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the horrors of Nazism and eugenics. I have mixed feelings about this as a strategy, but ultimately feel that spending such a great portion on the film on this issue, while emotionally moving, was nonetheless irrelevant.
My biggest concern is that any link between the theory of evolution and Nazism, eugenics, or any other sort of moral atrocity, even if completely true, is irrelevant to the truth of the theory. Just because a theory has negative consequences does not imply that the theory is false. Undoubtedly, this point will be mentioned again and again in response to this movie.
On the other hand, it is a rather ironic charge because it actually turns the tables on the nonbelievers, among them the vitriolic ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins, who claim again and again that religion has terrible consequences for society. Looking at some of the top atheist writings to appear over the past couple years- The God Delusion, Letter to a Christian Nation, God is Not Great- How Religion Poisons Everything, and The End of Faith- you can easily notice a trend. All of these books totally fail to deal with religion on an intellectual or philosophical level. Every one of them harps again and again the supposed evil consequences of religion (which, according to Hitchens, ‘poisons everything’), as if this is supposed to have some sort of bearing on the truth value of religion. By demonstrating the historically negative consequences of their passionate secularism, Expelled points the finger back at them. If they are willing to bring up every evil perpetuated in the name of religion, then why can’t we bring up every evil perpetuated in the name of secularism, atheism, and evolution?
In a certain sense, this type of tu quo argument is very satisfying. After subjecting myself the the tiresome ranting of the so-called ‘new atheists’ and their utterly simple-minded attempts to blame everything bad on religion, it is somewhat satisfying to see their professed ideologies blamed (at least in part) for horrible things like Nazism and eugenics. Nevertheless, my better judgment tells me that it is preferable to take the high ground on this kind of issue, and not retaliate against bad arguments by throwing bad arguments back. When it comes to evaluating the truth claims of a worldview, we should evaluate the worldview in terms of its ideas, and not in terms of the historical consequences that have followed as a result of human evil. Thus, in this regard, I was disappointed that Expelled made a big deal out of this issue.
Intelligent Design: Creationism in a Cheap Tuxedo or Valid Approach to Science?
Having discussed at some length the content of the film, let me explain briefly my perspective on the Intelligent Design movement. I am interested in this from a philosophical perspective. Frankly, I lack the scientific expertise to truly analyze the most advanced arguments for and against ID on the scientific level. Therefore, I tend to remain relatively agnostic about whether or not Intelligent Design, as a theory, is true. In my personal opinion, even granting wholesale the truth of the theory of evolution does not in any way displace the need for God’s existence, which I think can be established on other grounds. 5 Thus, though I hold an active interest in the issue, as a Christian I am not wholly committed to one view or the other.
Nevertheless, taking a philosophical approach to ID will prove very fruitful, because the vast majority of arguments against the theory are philosophical critiques that have nothing to do with the scientific particulars. A whole slew of such objections are frequently raised against Intelligent Design, all of which I think are quite poor.
First of all, it is always surprising to me how quick opponents of ID are to define science. The issue of defining science is a distinctly philosophical issue- one in which, quite frankly, the vast majority of Intelligent Design critics lack the credentials to address. Indeed, even the best philosophers of science recognize that defining science is a very difficult task. Thus, when critics of ID blithely dismiss the theory because they deem it ‘outside the realm of science,’ I have very little reason to take them seriously.
To briefly explain the issue, some philosophers contend that science must embrace methodological naturalism in order to operate effectively. This essentially means that, as a matter of practice (not necessarily as a matter of reality), science can only consider causes that operate within the context of the natural world. However, there are several problems with this theory of science that are quite significant.
First of all, by limiting explanations to ‘naturalistic’ hypotheses, methodological naturalism artificially restricts the number of live possibilities and therefore may hinder, rather than help, the discovery of truth. Many individuals are convinced that the goal of science should be to discover the truth about reality. What happens, however, if some phenomenon has actually been caused by a supernatural agent? If this is the case, then scientists will spin their wheels fruitlessly, trying to piece together the most feasible naturalistic explanation for a certain hypothesis. Even if they succeed in devising the most plausible naturalistic hypothesis, it may lack the plausibility of the non-naturalistic hypothesis and, more importantly, be untrue! In my view, this is what we see in origin of life research. Scientists, restricted by methodological naturalism, are spinning their wheels trying to develop a plausible naturalistic account of the origin of life. There is nothing wrong with pursuing a naturalistic approach, and indeed I encourage such endeavors wholeheartedly. However, eliminating from consideration the possibility of design will not necessarily help us discover the truth (especially if, as I believe, design is the truth! 6 )
Second of all, design explanations are frequently used in other domains of science, and so we need some sort of good argument to explain why they cannot be used in the biological sciences. Archaeologists look for signs of design in rocks to ascertain if they are an artifact, and SETI researchers hope to discover the existence of extraterrestrial life by looking for patterns in radio signals that would suggest a personal cause. If we can readily appeal to design causation in these scientific enterprises, why the restriction on certain sciences like biology, chemical evolution, and cosmology? The need for a strong argument is further highlighted by the fact that the vast majority of great historical scientists worked within a theistic science framework. In fact, as a theory of science methodological naturalism is a new kid on the block, and we must have a good reason for accepting it.
One argument in favor of methodological naturalism is that it retains the integrity of science. If we begin allowing supernatural explanations, anything goes. Moreover, it will bring the progress of science to a screeching halt, because any time we have an unexplained phenomenon, we can claim that ‘god did it’ and avoid the challenging work of scientific research. I think that this concern, however, is largely misguided.
First of all, given current scientific speculations- particularly in cosmology- the ‘anything goes’ approach hardly needs theology. Cosmologists regularly invoke alternate realities, alternate universes, and unseen extra physical dimensions in their theories. Indeed, in order to avoid the conclusion of design (ironically enough), some scientists are more than willing to invoke an unproven and unprovable multiverse. 7 These speculative theories are a dime a dozen, so I lack confidence that methodological naturalism can really restrain scientific discourse in any meaningful way.
Secondly, I think the view that allowing supernatural explanations on the table will lead to the end of scientific progress are excessively paranoid and a bit naive. First, consider that the great scientists like Newton, Galileo, Kepler, and so on were theists who sometimes invoked God as an explanatory force, yet we can hardly blame these individuals for ‘bringing the end of science.’ Second, the nature of science and scientific discovery will not allow for a stagnation of progress. For example, suppose that scientists decided that creation by God was the best explanation for the origin of life. Would this mean the end of further scientific investigation of the issue? Hardly- just as with any other scientific hypothesis, scientists would continue to challenge the theory and offer alternative theories of their own. This happens in every realm of scientific discourse- theories and explanations are not simply left alone, but are constantly challenged and revised. I see no reason to think that it would be any different with the theistic case (and, in fact, the historical case examples provided by the scientists I mention actually prove my point.)
Another complaint leveled particularly against ID is that it produces no fruitful research opportunities. Whether or not this is true is a point of contention, but even if the point is granted I can hardly see the relevance of this complaint. Although scientific fruitfulness may be preferred in a scientific theory, it seems quite naive to suppose that it is the most important factor of a scientific theory. There are plenty of scientific theories that might be true even if they are not particularly fruitful. This type of argument seems to be a dead end.
In any case, suppose we grant for the sake of argument that methodological naturalism is correct. Would such a theory of science rule out Intelligent Design as a theory? No, it certainly would not, a point made beautifully in the film by (none other than) Richard Dawkins. When Stein presses Dawkins about the possibility of design, he admits that it is possible that we could have been designed by intelligent aliens and planted on the planet Earth. Dawkins even suggests that we could discover evidence of this if it actually happened- for example, we could possibly discover some sort of ‘signature’ written in our DNA which would prove that we had been designed by the alien race.
Of course, Dawkins is infuriated that he was ‘duped’ into mentioning this possibility. He claims that he was merely trying to offer ID its best possible chance, and then explain that, even granting that chance, the alien race would ‘still have to have evolved.’ Why that is the case is unclear, but it is of no relevance. The theory of Intelligent Design is perfectly capable of being accepted even within a naturalistic framework, because all Intelligent Design claims is that some features of biological organisms are best explained with reference to an intelligent cause. Whether that cause is God, Zeus, or an intelligent alien race is simply outside the scope of the theory. The logical point here seems to be impeccable- it is clear that the intelligent cause posited by Intelligent Design theory could be an alien race. If it is an alien race, then the designer obviously doesn’t have to be supernatural, let alone the God of Christian theism. Therefore, ID is compatible, not only with methodological naturalism, but also with scientific materialism.
Moreover, as Dawkins notes, it is possible that we can detect evidence of design. Of course, this point is so obvious anyways that it is hardly revelatory. After all, we clearly think it is possible to detect intelligent design in archeology or SETI. But Dawkins gives away the game by tacitly admitting that it is at least possible to detect evidence of design in biological organisms. What possible justification could be given for excluding design explanations from biology?
Given the obvious fact that the intelligent cause referenced in ID theory does not have to be God or even a supernatural being, why then do critics of Intelligent Design persist in their claim that Intelligent Design is merely a form of creationism? It seems to me that there are several reasons for this, the first being a lack of clear thinking. Many critics of ID simply have not thought through the issue sufficiently, so they fail to recognize that ID is perfectly at home even within an entirely naturalistic framework. Second, the claim that ID is a form of creationism is merely a form of propaganda- an attempt to smear the opposition by falsely labeling them. I think that many critics of ID relish the opportunity to associate Intelligent Design with any and all types of intellectually backward beliefs. I say, dispense with the propaganda and the language smearing, and deal with the issues in an intellectually responsible way.
A third reason that critics of ID persist in their claim that the theory entails a supernatural cause is that they believe the appeal to the possibility of alien designers is insincere. In their view, this is merely meant to rationalize the scientific validity of ID, and in actual fact Intelligent Design theorists are a bunch of Christians who want to reintroduce the Bible into the classrooms. There are two major problems with this claim. The first is the most severe- this claim boldly commits the genetic fallacy. As a matter of fact, the motivations ID theorists may have for holding their theory is irrelevant to the matter of whether or not the theory is true. Who cares what ID proponents believe? This has no bearing on the scientific evidence one way or the other. Likewise, even if all evolutionary biologists were staunch atheists, it would have no relevance on whether or not the theory is true.
The second problem with this claim is that it is simply not true. Not all ID proponents are Christians, or even theists. For example, David Berlinski is a secular Jew- apparently he has managed to become one of the primary advocates of Intelligent Design without believing in God. Likewise, Michael Denton (who authored Evolution: A Theory in Crises decades ago), is not an explicit theist.
In summary, I think it is rather obvious that the philosophical objections to Intelligent Design are, on the whole, absolute rubbish. This debate needs to be solved on scientific turf.
1. For those who are unfamiliar, Intelligent Design is the theory that at least some features of biological organisms were the product of a designing intelligence. It explicitly rejects the thesis that the development of life can be fully explained with reference to naturalistic processes. However, contrary to the claims of many critics, Intelligent Design does not promote any particular designer. ID theory is perfectly compatible with atheism (though it might be argued that atheism is unlikely if ID is correct).
2. Luskin, Casey. “Evolution News & Views: Guillermo Gonzalez Has Highest Normalized Citation Count among ISU Astronomers for Publications Since 2001 .” Evolution News & Views. 28 May 2007. 3 May 2008
3. Crowther, Robert. “Evolution News & Views: ISU astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez’s stellar publication record outshines colleagues.” Evolution News & Views. 14 Dec. 2007. 3 May 2008
4. Crick, Francis, and Leslie Orgel. “Directed Panspermia.” Icarus 19 (1973): 341-346.
5. For example, the Cosmological Argument, the Teleological Argument, and many others have nothing to do with evolution and, in my opinion, establish the rationality of belief in God on separate grounds.
6. I am only speaking here of the origin of life. As I’ve mentioned in this article, I am taking a neutral stance concerning the case for intelligent design in biology.
7. The multiverse is one of the most popular responses to the teleological argument for God’s existence. Basically, the multiverse posits that there are many (perhaps infinitely many) universes that exist in reality. Given the existence of so many universes, it is not surprising that life exists in at least some of them. One prominent scientist who takes this approach is Martin Rees- see his book Just Six Numbers for an example.