At last week’s ID legal symposium at St. Thomas University School of Law, Peter Hess, a theologian with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), gave a talk titled “Creation, Design and Evolution: Much Ado about Nothing.” Nearly all of his objections to ID were theological in nature, as he stated that ID is “not only not science” but also “poor theology” and “blasphemous.”
The NCSE is increasingly turning to religious objections in their campaign against ID, pitting one particular religious view (theistic evolution) against ID’s science. This is of course their right to do, but it’s amusing since the NCSE regularly attacks ID on the grounds that the ID movement allegedly unnecessarily pits one narrow religious view against the science of evolution. Now they are doing that very thing against ID.
Indeed, many of Dr. Hess’s objections were based upon fundamental misunderstandings or misconstruals of ID.
Refusing to Acknowledge ID’s Research Program
The main non-theological objection Hess made was his claim that ID “does not yet have a working research program.” ID critics like Dr. Hess are more than welcome to disagree with ID, but if they’re going to attack ID, they may wish to at least make sure their arguments are defensible and sound.
As was repeatedly pointed out to Dr. Hess throughout the rest of the day, ID does have a working research program, as seen in the work being done at the Biologic Institute and the Evolutionary Informatics Lab, among other examples.
Misconstruing ID as Disallowing Any Evolution
The most fundamental problem with Dr. Hess’s argument was his mischaracterization of ID as never permitting the action of evolutionary processes. Hess thus stated: “Intelligent design cannot allow that evolution is a process chosen by God.” That’s absolutely false: ID doesn’t claim that evolutionary processes can never be at work in the world around us. Indeed, ID proponents readily adopt arguments for cosmic design based upon observations that the laws and constants of the universe appear fine-tuned to support advanced life-forms like humans. In such instances, ID embraces the laws of nature as evidence of specified complexity integrated into universal laws.
What ID says is that some features of nature may be best explained by modern evolutionary biology, and others are best explained by intelligent design (and perhaps other features still by other material mechanisms). Thus, ID in no way rules out the possibility that neo-Darwinian processes have been part of the story of life. What ID claims is that such material mechanisms aren’t the entire story, and that in many important instances intelligent design is far superior an explanation to Darwinism.
Hess and the NCSE, on the other hand, constrain both science and theology to claim that material mechanisms must be the entire story. Dr. Hess has it exactly backwards. He says (wrongly) that “intelligent design cannot allow that evolution is a process chosen by God,” but it would be far more accurate to say that theistic evolutionists like Dr. Hess and the NCSE “cannot allow that intelligent design is a process chosen by God.”
Since Hess’s objection to ID was framed theologically, in this case a theological rebuttal is most appropriate: Hess and the NCSE are the ones constricting science and theology, not ID. ID allows for the possibility that Darwinism was at work and says we should test for whether ID or Darwinian processes are the better explanation. But the NCSE and Dr. Hess say we should assume from the beginning that intelligent design was NEVER a process at work, and exclude ID from our explanatory toolkit. It is Hess who is restricting our ability to explain things–not ID.
Making God the ‘Great Evolver’ Does Nothing to Solve the “Problem of Evil”
As noted, Dr. Hess’s reasons for excluding ID from the explanatory toolkit were all theological.
His main objection is that ID, by “insisting on God as the cosmic designer who periodically intervenes periodically to propel evolution in propitious directions, inevitably lays the responsibility of concomitant suffering squarely at the feet of the designer.” He thus claims that ID “flounders on the shoals of natural evil.”
Keep in mind that Hess is a theist and said at the symposium that he is a Roman Catholic theologian. Hess thinks that if God used neo-Darwinian evolution to create life rather than some process involving ID, then that somehow solves the problem of evil.
Hess’s “solution” does nothing to solve the problem of evil. It just pushes the question back one small level. Making God the ‘great evolver’ does nothing to absolve God of any alleged “responsibility” for suffering in the world. It changes absolutely nothing.
Some students I spoke with at the symposium quickly recognized Hess’s fallacy and were unconvinced by his argument that an ID-based view somehow makes God more responsible for evil, whereas a theistic evolutionary view somehow gets God off the hook. If God is God then He’s still in charge either way. They saw no difference and no solution to evil by making God the great evolver rather than a designing intelligence.
The reality is that the “problem of evil” is a theological problem, and theologians have had answers to it for millennia. The solution here to the “problem of evil” lies in theology, not in choosing one scientific paradigm (neo-Darwinism) versus another (ID).
NCSE Theologian Goes All-Out Ad Hominem Against ID
And this brings us to the theologian’s charge that gives this post its title. His exact statement was as follows: “A third problem with intelligent design is that its practitioners are either ignorant of science or seriously deluded or fundamentally dishonest.” (Click for mp3.)
I asked Dr. Hess which of the three options I was, but he refused to answer my question. In fact, he tried to backpedal and claim that he was only discussing certain ID proponents who advised a Catholic cardinal who supported ID–not everyone in the ID movement. But the context of his original words clearly indicates that this was one of his main gripes (the “third problem”) with ID in general.
In any case, it seems that the NCSE’s theologian has been spending too much time with Richard Dawkins, who similarly charged that doubters of evolution are either “ignorant, insane or wicked.”
I think that many in the audience found Peter Hess’s talk unpersuasive. That’s certainly how I felt.
Postscript: In a post on the conference, Josh Rosenau claims I accused “NCSE and the science community in general of all manner of dishonesty.” That is a false claim. The word “dishonesty” (and its cognates) were used at no time during my presentation. Nor did I make any implied accusations of “dishonesty” whatsoever against the NCSE or the “scientific community” in my talk. One can make scientific arguments and criticisms without stooping to make charges about “dishonesty”; this is the approach I always prefer to take in this debate. If Rosenau took my scientific critiques as evidence that someone I was critiquing was dishonest, that’s his own inference, but is not something I said. I was merely using mainstream scientific articles to make factual counter-arguments to the claims of various evolution lobbyists, and was not trying to paint anyone in the modern evolution lobby as dishonest. As seen above, however, one NCSE presenter (not Mr. Rosenau) took a different approach, making direct charges that ID proponents are “dishonest”. This was most unfortunate as it detracted from the otherwise high quality presentations at the conference.