The Roots of ID
Some people claim that intelligent design developed in response to modern court cases or debates over Biblical creationism in the twentieth century. Others assert that intelligent design grew out of “Christian fundamentalism.” This selection of readings and other resources is designed to allow people to investigate and discuss the roots of intelligent design for themselves. The readings and questions can be used for personal study and reflection or for group discussion.
This is followed by a series of discussion questions pertaining to extracts of varying lengths from Plato, Cicero, Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, the Old and New Testaments, and the writings of the Early Church Fathers. The general thrust of these extracts and questions is simple – a claim that intelligent design is not a partisan, modern, Christian invention.
Firstly, the DI are being more than a little disingenuous here. No one – least of all the philosopher Barbara Forrest who has most completely documented the history of the modern design movement or Michael Ruse in his history of the design argument, Darwin & Design – is claiming that the design argument is a modern invention, merely that the argument reemerged as a major strategy within Christian anti-evolutionism in response to a series of legal defeats for fundamentalist strategies such as “creation science.” Note that I’m making a distinction between (1) the argument itself, and (2) the renaissance of that argument in light of events in the past 30 years through the development of a self-conscious ID movement.. When I have talked in public and in the classroom about the roots of the ID movement, I have always stressed the long history of the argument, via discussion of Plato, Cicero, Lucretius, Aquinas, Newton, Hume, Paley and, of course, Darwin (among others). The standard narrative sees the argument surviving Hume’s cogent attack in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion only to be polished off when Darwin offered the first coherent naturalistic mechanism by which apparent design (“contrivances”) could be achieved. Arguments about design had to be significantly modified in the years following 1859 (see, for examples, the works collected in Richard England’s Design After Darwin, Thoemmes, 2003). For the majority of the twentieth century, the design argument – though sometimes used – fell into relative disuse until its resurgence in the 1990’s following the Edwards decision.
Secondly, I’m not sure that the DI’s sourcebook actually helps their case for disentangling design from Christianity. Verses from Proverbs, Job, Psalms, Matthew, Acts, and Romans – while they may show that the design argument predates Edwards v. Agulllard – do nothing to separate the argument from Christianity. Inclusion of the non-scriptural writings of Theophilus, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Dionysius, Lactantius, Athanasius and Chrysostom doesn’t help either. Whether these arguments
appeal primarily to evidence that only Christians can accept, or do they point to facts, observations, and arguments that non-Christians can see and understand? (b) How are these writings from Christian thinkers similar to or different from the writings of Plato and Cicero on design? (c) What do these Christian writings show about whether the design inference is based primarily on the authority of the Bible or on evidence and logic to all human beings regardless of whether they accept the Bible?
is largely irrelevant, given the apologetic nature of the writings. Of course the writers appealed to extra-Biblical evidence. What is important here is not the arguments themselves but the role they were being marshaled to play in Christian apologetics, a role that they are essentially still playing today.
The Christian nature of all of this is clearly indicated by the relative attention given to Christian and non-Christian material (all word counts are approximate):
- Plato: 1000 words from Philebus (though Laws X is briefly mentioned) completely stripped of their context and indeed any indication of what the dialogue is attempting to argue
- Cicero: 480 words from De Natura Deorum again completely decontextualized
- Scriptures: 16 verses from Proverbs, 4 chapters from Job (specifically God’s reply to Job), 6 verses from Psalms, 7 verses from Matthew, 3 verses from Romans, 10 verses from Acts
- Jewish Thinkers: 220 words from the Wisdom of Solomon, 360 words from Philo of Alexandria, 215 words from Josephus
- Early Church Fathers: 11 pages accounting for over 8000 words
Acknowledging that the extracts given above are not exhaustive and are, nonetheless, representative of the available material, it is notable how little the scriptures argue for design. The representation of Jewish thinkers is perfunctory and the vast majority of the sourcebook is given over to the Church Fathers. In fact, if we ignore scriptural sources, we have approximately 1500 words from the secular Plato & Cicero being joined by ~800 from Jewish sources and 8000+ from the Church Fathers. The best evidence for the antiquity of the design argument – or at least the most sustained evidence – comes from the Christian writers. (I am of course aware that Plato and Aristotle use the argument in various places, but the DI choose not to include these, instead clearly concentrating on the Church Fathers. They also ignore Hume’s treatment of the argument which is in many ways more clearly stated – via the voice of Cleanthes – than Cicero’s. The reason for this omission is fairly obvious: Hume decimates any attempt at an argument from design).
Similar to Hume’s Dialogues, Cicero’s De Natura Deorum is a three-way interaction, in this case between an Epicurean, a Stoic and an Academic. The issue here is not whether design can be detected but whether the gods (whom all three interlocutors agree exist) care for humans in any meaningful way. While the extract chosen by the DI “outlines the basic Stoic argument about design in nature”, the DI fails to note that Cicero then offers cogent arguments against this position through the other two characters. Plato’s Philebus is a late dialogue whose central argument is an interaction between two claims:
Philebus was saying that enjoyment and pleasure and delight, and the class of feelings akin to them, are a good to every living being, whereas I [Plato through Socrates] contend, that not these, but wisdom and intelligence and memory, and their kindred, right opinion and true reasoning, are better and more desirable than pleasure for all who are able to partake of them, and that to all such who are or ever will be they are the most advantageous of all things.
In the end, Plato claims that the good life consists of a mixture of pleasure and knowledge. I will leave it up to the reader to figure out the function of the design argument within the overall argument. So in the case of both Cicero and Plato, the sourcebook does not invite us to seriously engage with the arguments presented in the context they are given. Instead, we are essentially invited to merely accept Cicero and Plato as proto-design proponents (pdesignproponentists, if you will).
Lastly, the document briefly rallies Thomas Jefferson (as a deist) and Alfred Russel Wallace (as an evolutionist) to support their claim that the appeal to design is not necessarily a Christian argument. No actual writings by Wallace are presented, and unmentioned, of course, is Wallace’s spiritism and the fact that he was more of a selectionist that even Darwin. Once again, information is ripped from its historical context.
The intended audience for their sourcebook is “a small group, an adult Sunday School class, a church school science class, or a mid-week adult education program.” Any such group of students would be left with a slanted depiction of how the design argument has been supported – and refuted – though the past 2,500 years. If I engaged in such non-contextualized presentation in my classroom, I would rightly be accused of being a bad teacher. More importantly, the audience would receive no indication of how the argument ceased to be scientifically and philosophically tenable and instead became an issue of interest solely to apologists and theologians.
The question remains as to how relevant it is to even identify design arguments outside of Christian apologetics. It is not surprising that various individuals have argued that design can be detected in nature; whether this design is real or apparent and whether it indicates the sort of designer that the individual wishes to exist, is another matter. Psychologists have discovered that humans in general – and children in particular – exhibit three innate biases:
- Essentialist bias: all natural kinds have an immutable essence
- Teleological bias: what they see must be purposeful and goal-orientated
- Intentionality bias: actions and outcomes must be the work of an intentional agent
These biases are actually useful for children to make predictions in the world and are defaults that adults revert to at times. We clearly see all three at work in the design argument.
The “Roots” document ends with a series of questions to which I offer the following answers:
- What do these readings show you about the origins of intelligent design as an idea? The readings merely indicate the inherent bias to seeing design is a universal in human cultures.
- Is intelligent design a response to modern court rulings or an outgrowth of “Christian fundamentalism”? The design argument is not, the design movement is.
- Is it dependent on the authority of the Bible rather than the observations of nature and the inferences drawn from those inferences [sic]? No, but then again, no one is arguing it is. As a form of natural theology, it serves as a gateway to the acceptance of revealed religion.
- How long have people been debating about whether there is evidence of design in nature? Since the sourcebook has strenuously avoided any presentation of debate (see the treatment of Hume and Cicero, for example) this question is meaningless.
Note: Thanks to Pete Dunkelberg for pointing out a few minor typos. That’s what I get for writing this while in a cafe in Crete.
Update: A link from PZ made this the #45 post on WordPress.com for June 4th. Behold the power of Pharyngula.