Unintelligent Design

An old philosophical joke goes like this: The student asks the great sage, “O Master, upon what does the Earth rest?” The sage replies, “O seeker of knowledge, the Earth rests on the back of an enormous turtle.”

The student then asks, “Tell me, Wise One, upon what does this turtle rest?” The sage answers with annoyance, “Well, obviously it’s turtles all the way down!”

The predictable brouhaha that erupted when President Bush suggested that intelligent design theory ought to be presented to public school students as an alternative to Darwinian evolution revealed, among other things, that a lot of people don’t get this joke.

Cynics can be forgiven for suspecting that the timing of the president’s public musings on this subject might have something to do with the outrage triggered among cultural conservatives by Senate Majority Leader Frist’s flip-flop regarding federally funded embryonic stem cell research.

Still, the controversy surrounding intelligent design theory is worth considering, if only for the light it throws on the misunderstandings that fuel the nation’s culture wars. To a certain sort of secular liberal, even discussing this subject indicates how far the country has slid toward falling into the hands of fundamentalist yahoos who despise science and reason and everything else that has saved Western Civilization from the Dark Ages.

To a certain sort of religious conservative, the reaction of such secular liberals merely proves that believers in Darwinian evolution are hell-bent on cramming atheistic materialism down the throats of impressionable children, in the guise of science, thereby robbing those children of the faith that has saved Western Civilization from the fate of godless nations.

Both of these views are wrongheaded. First, the secular liberal is mistaken in his belief that there are special people called scientists (or more broadly, rational thinkers, members of the reality-based community, etc.) whose beliefs are based solely on something called “the facts” or “evidence” or what have you, and who therefore don’t rely on faith-based reasoning.

The irony here is that, at bottom, everyone who believes in the theory of evolution (I myself belong to this group) does so largely for the same reasons that 13th century French peasants believed in the doctrine of transubstantiation: that is, because they’ve been successfully socialized to accept on faith what they’ve been told by certain authority figures.

Second, the cultural conservative is mistaken in his belief _ a belief held by many proponents of intelligent design theory _ that a more tolerant attitude on the part of natural scientists toward supernatural explanations would confirm that the divine origins of life are empirically verifiable.

Science can tell us nothing about God for the same reason that a comprehensive physical description of the Mona Lisa, down to the level of sub-atomic particles, would tell us nothing worth knowing about the Mona Lisa.

Thus scientists such as Richard Dawkins are guilty of idolatry (not to mention tremendous philosophical naivete) when they argue that Darwinian evolutionary theory refutes religious belief. Such arguments in effect transform the naturalistic axioms of the scientific method into pseudo-theological claims.

And supporters of intelligent design theory are guilty of impiety when they imagine that something like the nature of God could be subject to scientific verification (On this point they should consult the ultimate peer reviewed journal: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding.”)

The argument between those who treat science as a religion and those who want to make religious belief amenable to the methods of science can produce no winner, or even a coherent disagreement. For both sides, it’s turtles all the way down.

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)