Intelligent Design and Stealth Creationism

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Last Friday, a friend named Scott Minnich addressed the weekly disputatio at New St. Andrews. Dr. Minnich is a professor in microbiology at the University of Idaho, and he testified in the recent trial in Dover, PA as an expert witness on behalf of Intelligent Design. His talk was fascinating — with regard to the politics surrounding the Dover decision, as well dealing with the issues of Intelligent Design directly.

But an issue came up in the Q & A that I wanted to pursue a bit here. One of the charges leveled against the ID guys by the (panicked) evolutionary establishment is the charge that this is just “stealth creationism.” After the interaction on Friday, I am convinced that this charge is false in one sense, and true in another.

In what sense is it false? I honestly believe that the ID proponents are honestly maintaining that they are concerned with the scientific evidence alone, and that the scientific evidence (in their view) does not tell us whether the design exhibited in the life around us was put there by a supernatural agent, or by a natural agent or agents. Their point would be that (for example) the flagellum of the bacteria exhibits an intricate and demonstrable design. The fact that this particular “object of study” was designed can be empirically demonstrated (which is true, it can be). But they say that the designer, whoever he was, did not leave a signature. We therefore do not know if it was the triune God of the Christians, or Allah, or a highly advanced civilization of space aliens. All we know is that the kind of machines we find on the cellular level are mind-bogglingly sophisticated, and that they cannot just happen by themselves. I am convinced that this argument is persuasive to the ID movement, and that they would honestly accept into their scientific ranks a guy who was maintaining that space aliens did it. Most ID proponents believe that it was God, but that, they would say, is not the scientific issue before them right now. That is a separate question. All they want to know is whether or not the things we are studying can be shown to have been designed.

But one of the basic ID arguments (on the micro level) is also the reason why this approach cannot be sustained in the long run, and is the reason why ID actually is stealth creationism. When it comes to the origins of life, one of the basic problems is this one: how do we build the first machine that knows how to build things? Before we have that first machine, we don’t have anything that knows how to build things, including those things that know how to build things. Before we build the products of the factory, we have to build the factory. And before the origins of life, we don’t have any information embedded in the natural world. We have things about which an observer could be informed, but with no observers, we have no information in the world. But with the advent of replicating life, information has to be embedded in the natural world, and transmitted from one generation to the next. This information is encoded, recorded, situated in the library of DNA. In what we are studying scientifically, a key component is the question of how this information got stored in the first DNA. This is a place where the ID movement has every right to press their point, throw it to the floor, and jump up and down on it. All life passes down the blueprints of life to subsequent generations. But how do we get from absolutely no blueprints at all to the first set of blueprints? Mutation and natural selection cannot work until there is something there to mutate, and struggling entities there to select for survival. How do we make the jump between inorganic and organic?

But this same argument would apply to macro machines (space aliens) as easily as it does to micro machines. How do we account for the first machine? If we make that “first” machine a really smart space alien, it doesn’t solve the problem at all. This just provokes the next obvious question. How did life arise on his world? If the space alien designer is a resident of the natural world, then the question “where did he come from?” is the most reasonable question in the world. We have just pushed the question of origins back to another planet — which is not the same thing as answering it. He is not supernatural, and that makes him a subset of the natural world. And there he is, exhibiting design in his ability to design things. So, does he believe in God? Or would we let him just push the question back to another planet and pretend that this was an answer?

Suppose the ID proponents were answered by the evolutionists this way: “Yes, we quite agree that our primordial soup could not have spontaneously produced life. The RNA and DNA capacities that we see exhibited in life around us actually floated down to our planet on interplanetary spores.” The next question is an obvious one. “Okay. And so how do we account for those?” And the ID proponents would ask it, they would press it, and rightly so. Why does it make a difference if the spores are carried in a space ship?

This point is understood by their evolutionary opponents, because they dismiss the idea of a non-supernatural designer as nothing more than a rhetorical debating trick. I don’t think it is a trick, because I think the ID advocates are maintaining it honestly. But that does not makes the argument sound, just because the motives are good. The scientific arguments for ID (which are compelling) require a supernatural designer. They require God. And this means that ID, honest protests notwithstanding, is stealth creationism.

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