Intervening in First Things

William Blake, "Ancient of Days" (1794)

The website of the magazine First Things recently featured a response by Stephen H. Webb, one of the magazine’s columnists, to Stephen Meredith’s essay entitled “Looking for God in All the Wrong Places,” which appeared in the February 2014 issue of First Things. (Who would have thought that the offices of First Things and the offices of NCSE both enjoyed a wealth of Steves?) Webb is concerned to dispute Meredith’s accusation that “intelligent design” is a variant of the philosophical view called occasionalism—associated especially with the seventeenth-century philosopher Nicolas Malebranche—according to which God is the only real cause. Where Meredith claimed, “The Intelligent Design movement has not used the term ‘occasionalist’ to describe itself, to my knowledge, but it is an occasionalist philosophy nonetheless,” Webb replies, “Meredith is right that occasionalism is bad theology, but he is wrong that ID is a species of it.”

First, let’s dispose of a distraction. Meredith and Webb both assume that the designer of “intelligent design” is God. Yet proponents of “intelligent design” commonly insist that science is capable of establishing the existence only of a designer, not its identity. In his Darwin’s Black Box (1996), Michael J. Behe suggests, apparently with a straight face, that it is impossible to ascertain scientifically whether the designer is God, or extraterrestrial aliens, or time travelers—although when the Raëlian Movement (which indeed believes that life on Earth was created by extraterrestrial aliens) endorsed the teaching of “intelligent design” in the public schools, there was a resounding silence from the general direction of the Discovery Institute. Neither Meredith nor Webb seem to take the disavowals of God seriously, which I think is reasonable; at any rate, in what follows, I’m going to join them in that assumption if only for the sake of argument.

Now, I don’t want to try to adjudicate the dispute over occasionalism, mainly because I’m not convinced that it’s especially interesting as compared to what is presented in Meredith’s essay and Webb’s response as a secondary issue: whether “intelligent design” is interventionist. Meredith explicitly described “intelligent design” as involving God’s intervention in nature, e.g., “when proponents of Intelligent Design assert that an ‘intelligence’ intervenes, they argue that it does so explicitly within the realm of nature, suspending ordinary natural law—thus abstracting the intervention from both a religious context and natural law.” Webb, however, replied, “ID theorists reject an interventionist account of God’s relationship to nature.” Who is right? In fact, neither Meredith nor Webb is right, at least if “intelligent design” is understood in accordance with a more or less official formulation of the position.

“Intelligent design,” if its main theoretical architect William A. Dembski is to be trusted, is not properly understood as requiring divine intervention, pace Meredith, but not properly understood as precluding divine intervention either, pace Webb. Dembski devotes a chapter of The Design Revolution (2005) to articulating a position of neutrality vis-à-vis intervention: “intelligent design is compatible with the creationist idea of organisms being suddenly created from scratch. But it is also perfectly compatible with the evolutionist idea of new organisms arising from old by a gradual accrual of change” (p. 178). Although he writes that “intelligent design” is “not an interventionist theory at all” (p. 179), he clearly means that it is not necessarily interventionist: “design can be real and discernible without requiring an explicit ‘design event,’ like a special creation, miracle or supernatural intervention” (p. 181, emphasis added).

The neutrality of “intelligent design” vis-à-vis intervention is not at all surprising in light of the ambition of the “intelligent design” movement to serve as a big tent beneath which antievolutionists of all stripes are welcome to shelter. (The metaphor, I believe, is originally [PDF] Paul Nelson’s; the implicit invitation to wonder how many clowns can be crammed into such a tent, I believe, is inadvertent.) On the age of the earth, the extent of common descent, and the identity of the designer “intelligent design” is resolutely unwilling to take a stand. Phillip Johnson, the godfather of the movement, famously wanted for young-earth creationists and old-earth creationists to make common cause to defeat “Darwinism,” only resuming the debate after victory was theirs. It is practically inevitable that “intelligent design” takes no stand on whether the designer intervenes in, preprograms, or mysteriously works behind the scenes of nature.

Still, although Meredith and Webb are both wrong, Meredith is arguably closer to the truth, since “intelligent design” in practice is indeed associated with intervention, even in the view of its leading proponents. For example, the political scientist Larry Arnhart, a long-time observer of the “intelligent design” movement, relates,

A few years ago, I lectured at Hillsdale College as part of a week-long lecture series on the intelligent design debate. After Michael Behe’s lecture, some of us pressed him to explain exactly how the intelligent designer created the various “irreducibly complex” mechanisms that cannot—according to Behe—be explained as products of evolution by natural selection. He repeatedly refused to answer. But after a long night of drinking, he finally answered: “A puff of smoke!” A physicist in the group asked, Do you mean a suspension of the laws of physics? Yes, Behe answered.

Behe’s “puff of smoke” can’t be rejected as a momentary aberration. Although Dembski in particular takes great pains to acknowledge the bare possibility of non-interventionist versions of “intelligent design,” they seem to be taken as seriously within the “intelligent design” movement as Behe’s designing extraterrestrial aliens and time travelers.

Why am I belaboring the official neutrality of “intelligent design” vis-à-vis intervention? Not because I want to endorse or oppose interventionist views in theology; not because I want to urge anyone who writes on “intelligent design” to consult Dembski’s works; not even because I want to highlight a falling out among Steves. Rather, it is interesting as a further, and not often recognized, way in which “intelligent design” reveals itself to be trying to be all things to all people, or at least all antievolutionists. The author of Revelation was not enthusiastic about such a strategy, writing to a Christian community in modern-day Turkey: “I know thy works, that thou are neither cold nor hot. I would thou wert cold or not. So, then because thou are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15–16, KJV). Occasionalist or not, interventionist or not, “intelligent design” surely is Laodicean.

Glenn Branch
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Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.
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