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Leonard Sax on Intelligent Design and the “Ambiguity of the Evidence”

Photo: Stephen Meyer, via Discovery Institute.

I’ve just now got up to speed on Dr. Leonard Sax. My wife was familiar with his New York Times bestselling books, including The Collapse of Parenting and Boys Adrift. How had I failed to be aware of him? I will need to make amends now. He came to my attention because he wrote a very insightful review of Stephen Meyer’s Return of the God Hypothesis for the Claremont Review of Books.

He was a shrewd choice for a reviewer — and I say that as a former book review editor, so I have an appreciation for the art of combining books with reviewers. The Claremont Review gave Meyer’s last book, Darwin’s Doubt, to Yale computer scientist David Gelernter. Professor Gelernter chose the occasion to announce his abandonment of adherence to Darwinism. Why not choose another scientist for Return of the God Hypothesis

A Place of Despair

Sax is a physician and psychologist with degrees from MIT and the University of Pennsylvania. What he’s best known for are his books analyzing the crisis of parenting that has left young people “adrift” and “at risk” (his apt phrases). Sax describes learning about materialist theories of the origin of life four decades ago, and notes correctly that those theories remain “unsatisfactory and unpersuasive.” Meyer’s book presents evidence that materialism’s account of the origin of the cosmos, of life, and of biological complexity fails to give a better explanation than design theory that allows for a creator. The relevance to Sax’s work is that Meyer describes in his book how materialism has affected those same young people that Sax studies:

Meyer draws on his experience counseling troubled undergraduates as they face life’s biggest questions. If you believe the current default hypothesis that life is just a random accident signifying nothing, then that belief has existential consequences. Meyer describes undergraduates who see no point in anything because they have come to accept that existence is nothing but atoms and the void.

Now you see the connection. 

Darwinism and Its Implications

As Sax points out, that materialist science would come to a place of despair was foreseen by the end of Darwin’s own lifetime:

Friedrich Nietzsche was among the first philosophers to wrestle seriously with the implications of Charles Darwin’s theories. In Daybreak (1881), Nietzsche considered the metaphysical consequences of Darwinian evolution

“Formerly one sought the feeling of the grandeur of man by pointing to his divine origin: this has now become a forbidden way, for at its portal stands the ape, together with other dreadful beasts, grinning knowingly as if to say: no further in this direction! One therefore now tries the opposite direction: the way mankind is going shall serve as proof of his grandeur and kinship with God. But this too is in vain!”

Unlike modern atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Nietzsche did not believe science could ever provide salvation or meaning. On the contrary, he prophesied in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) that scientists would eventually collide with undecidable questions, raising perplexities that the scientific method itself was unequipped to address.

Nietzsche’s prophesy is now coming true.

An Offer of Hope

What adults and young alike are deprived of by materialism is, as Dr. Sax puts it, a sense of “ambiguity.” “Meyer,” he notes, “is careful to avoid any claim of proof.” Why is that important?

As Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science (1882): to deprive the world of its ambiguous (vieldeutigen) character, to deny even the possibility of supernatural meaning, is “to have existence debased to a mere couch-potato exercise for mathematicians.” If, on the other hand, you affirm the God hypothesis, then the universe reflects not mere random chance but the work and intention of a Creator. That belief, too, will have consequences for your own life — consequences which are more likely to inspire you to joy, or to wonder, where materialism tempts you to despair. If you take a middle road between those two positions, and acknowledge that the data can support the God hypothesis at least as well as the current materialist default, then that belief likewise will have consequences. The ambiguity of the evidence leaves you free to choose.

I greatly appreciate this way of framing things. As I read what Sax is saying, Meyer offers but does not seek to compel the choice to affirm a transcendent origin of the universe, with all that implies about an ultimate meaning to existence. Materialists seek to nullify that offer, and in doing so, they have done a disservice not just to science but to our culture, as many parents, myself included, can verify. Read this excellent review here for yourself.