Knowledge, Ignorance, and Intelligent Design Theory
Metanexus:Views 2001.11.07 3185 words
One of the most wonderfully curious turns of phrase that I ever stumbledupon in science was the delightful title of Rita Levi-Montalcini’s 1988autobiography. Levi-Montalcini, a neurobiologist, was the fourth woman toreceive the Nobel Prize in Medicine, which she received in 1986, along withStanley Cohen, for the discovery of nerve growth factor. And the title ofher tome? In Praise of Imperfection.
In praise of imperfection…it sounds almost blasphemous to utter the wordswithin hearing distance of anything scientific. And yet…it is the Petridish that contains the failed experiment and which is about to be discardedthat reveals the secret of all antibiotic therapy. In praise of imperfectionindeed.
Another praiseworthy quality not often brought to bear in certain domains ofscience is ignorance. Not merely the sometimes staged ignorance of theSocratic performer, but the plain ol’-fashioned ignorance reflected in theoft too true declaration: Well, I dunno.
There is strength in the statement I don’t know. It implies that there arediscoveries yet to be made, experiments yet to be run, and most importantly,it means science is still science — wallowing in hypotheses awaiting notproof but possible annihilation. It means, essentially, liberty.
In today’s column, Michael Lotti follows up on his Metanexus:Views column of2001.09.17 by re-assessing certain problems and pitfalls of IntelligentDesign theory. As Lotti observes:
Now of course Behe and Dembski purport to be adding to our knowledge via IDtheory. But I want to say that they fail, and they fail – however strangethis may sound – because they do not give natural human ignorance its due.A few words are in order, then, regarding ignorance.
In praise of ignorance? Indeed. Read on to find out more about this mostestimable subject. And please send your comments to me, Stacey Ake, at<[email protected]> or click on the comment button at the bottom of thewebpage to share your views.
Michael Lotti currently teaches humanities at Trinity School at River Ridgein Bloomington, MN. He received his doctorate in Philosophy from theUniversity of Wales, Swansea. His main interests are the philosophy ofscience, the philosophy of religion, and the teaching of the Great Books.
–Stacey E. Ake
Subject: Knowledge, Ignorance, and Intelligent Design TheoryFrom: Michael LottiEmail: <[email protected]>
When it comes to supporting or providing evidence of a Judaeo-Christianworld view, it is not hard to see that Intelligent Design Theory (hereafter,ID theory) is quite limited. Even if it is true that we can discernintelligent design in the natural world, such a design tells us nothingabout the designer; i.e. whether the designer is good or evil, smart orstupid, a creator or a manipulator, the God of Israel or a space alien.
ID theory is not just limited with regard to a Judaeo-Christian point ofview, however. In particular, when it comes to a view of human beings asresponsible stewards of creation, I want to say that ID theory, as it hasbeen presented by Michael Behe and William Dembski, is simply not amenableto Judaeo-Christian thought.
A Brief Look at Genesis
To explain why ID theory is not amenable to Judaeo-Christian thought, wemust start with the picture of humanity in the opening chapters of the Bookof Genesis. On Day 6, when God created Adam and Eve, He gave them the mostpotent of commands:
Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and havedominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and overevery living thing that moves upon the earth. (Genesis 1: 28 RSV)
Let’s forget, for a moment, all of the negative connotations (andrepercussions) of the word subdue and simply assume that God intended Adamand Eve to exercise a wise stewardship over the creation that preceded them.The question is, then, how were they to exercise such stewardship?
Two answers seem clear from the opening chapters of Genesis:
1) The stewardship is to be exercised with faith. The God of Genesis isno Aristotelian Prime Mover, winding up the clock of creation and leaving itto Adam and Eve to make the occasional repairs and adjustments. This God,on the contrary, is notably concerned with creation even after he createsit. Such concern is evident in the authority he grants to Adam and Eve inthe first place, along with providing these caretakers with each other forcompanionship. God’s concern is most evident, however in his command to Adamand Eve to refrain from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good andevil(Genesis 2:16-17 RSV). As we discover, Adam and Eve were simply notready for the knowledge of good and evil, but they had no way ofunderstanding this danger independently of God’s command. In other words,they needed the command from God, and they needed trust in it and in the Onewho gave it. In other words, they needed faith. In this sense, theirdisobedience was as much a fall from faith as anything else.
2) The stewardship is also to be exercised with knowledge andunderstanding. The description of Adam’s naming the animals (from Genesis2) is telling on this point. God does not tell Adam what the animals shouldbe called. He lets Adam decide, which means that Adam has the ability toobserve, make distinctions, and make judgments before issuing a name. Inother words, Adam has the ability to name because he has the ability to knowand understand. It is this ability to know and understand, of course, whichgives Adam (and Eve) the capability of having dominion over God’screation.
This power of knowing, coupled with faith, was to be the foundation of awise and good stewardship (or dominion) of creation. Alas, Adam and Evefell, so we will never know what such an order would have looked like. Butthe fundamental claims in Genesis about human beings and creation are stilltrue. We, the heirs of Adam and Eve, still have the power of dominion, andwe still ought to exercise this power with faith and with knowledge andunderstanding. Things are, of course, considerably darkened for us. Evenwhat should be the most obvious truths about God and creation are not alwaysso obvious to us. In addition, our knowledge and understanding are alsodarkened by pride, which is most manifest as a general unwillingness topursue what is good and true. Still, we cannot deny our power to know andunderstand, and thus we cannot hope to actually do what is good with regardto creation without exercising this power, along with great faith and with agood and humble will.
Knowledge and Ignorance
With this Judaeo-Christian framework in mind, let us return to IDtheory. In their work, Dembski and Behe emphatically state that they arenot offering anything pertaining to the realm of faith. They say that theirwork is not meant to be a foundation for natural theology, nor does itrequire anyone to have faith (in the Judaeo-Christian sense) in order toaccept it. They simply say that, by the standards of their own fields –
namely, microbiology and probability theory – one can reasonably concludethat an intelligent designer is responsible for some (or possibly much) ofthe natural world.
Any honest assessment of Behe and Dembski has to conclude that they aresincere, even if they are ultimately mistaken in their conclusions about IDtheory. For this reason, I would never say that ID theory, as presentedby these two thinkers, is not amenable to Judaeo-Christian thought becauseit undermines faith. As with other theories in mathematics and thesciences, ID theory should be judged by the facts and the quality ofreasoning, and faith or non-faith is beside the point.
The problem with ID theory, then, lies in the way that it fails tocontribute any knowledge and understanding to humanity for the sake of goodstewardship. Now of course Behe and Dembski purport to be adding to ourknowledge via ID theory. But I want to say that they fail, and they fail –
however strange this may sound – because they do not give natural humanignorance its due. A few words are in order, then, regarding ignorance.
As much as we are creatures with knowledge and with an ability toacquire more knowledge, we are also creatures who are ignorant. Ignoranceis, you might say, an irreducible part of the human condition. There arebasically two types of ignorance in human life. First, all people areignorant in the sense that they could know certain things but in fact donot. I do not know how to speak or read Arabic, for example, nor do I knowmuch about microeconomics, the history of Central America, particle physics,the ecosystems of Antarctica, and million of other things. I could knowabout such things, of course, but because of my natural human limitationsand weaknesses, I do not. Such ignorance could be termed particularignorance, for it is the particulars of an individual human life thatdetermine its shape. The second type of ignorance could be termeduniversal ignorance. This is ignorance that applies corporately; i.e. tothe things that we say that we don’t know. We don’t know the cure forcancer; we don’t know a lot about the origins of life on earth; we don’tfully understand how embryos develop; until recently, we didn’t know ifFermat’s last theorem could be proven. Another way to describe thisuniversal condition is to say that our knowledge always has boundaries,and while we are always extending the boundaries of our knowledge, we cannever say that our knowledge is unbounded. With each new advance inknowledge, some questions are answered and new ones appear.
This state of universal ignorance is made most obvious by theoccasional discovery that shows us that we were wrong about something wethought we knew quite well. The recent terror attacks in New York City andWashington, D.C., are a case in point. All of the experts on terrorismthought they knew what a suicidal terrorist was like; after September 11,they were all admitting that they had to rethink everything. On a morescientific front, several leading scientists thought that Albert Einstein’stheories could not be right, but when the eclipse of 1919 happened and thestars weren’t where they were supposed to be, a new way of thinking had tobe adopted. Such examples of knowledge gained, along with countless others,show quite clearly that we were ignorant beforehand, and it follows that, onmany fronts, we remain in ignorance.
This condition of universal ignorance comes with a moral: because theuniverse is full of unknowns and surprises, any honest knower ought to havea sense of humility and even wonder before all that he or she, along withthe rest of the human race, does not know. One could also say that despiteour seemingly innate desire for complete knowledge, we must always admitthat we can never say, with respect to any particular field, that there isnothing that is puzzling here or that there is nothing more to know here.The ramifications of the Genesis picture of humanity, then, could be termedparadoxical. On one hand, Adam and Eve and all the rest of us have acapacity and even a duty to know and to grow in knowledge and understanding;at the same time, though, we must forever admit our ignorance. To deny thepossibility of knowledge is an act of despair or defiance against the Onewho created us to know; to deny our universal ignorance is an act ofarrogance, which ultimately is an act of rebellion against the One who madeus limited.
The Problem with ID Theory
To understand why ID theory is not amenable to the Genesis picture ofhumanity, a brief review of my first article for Metanexus is in order.The first problem with ID theory, I stated, was that the label intelligentis too vague to be of any use unless it refers to something directly relatedto human beings, for it is only via human beings that we know whatintelligent means in the first place. This does not rule out thepossibility of non-human intelligent design; it only means that suchintelligence needs to correspond, in some direct way, to something wewould recognize as a sign of human intelligence. I then noted that IDtheorists obviously recognize that they have no positive criteria fordetecting intelligence in the non-human, non-animal world, for they do notargue that particular phenomena are, in and of themselves, obvious signs ofintelligence. Instead, they take the route of showing how naturalexplanations fail to account for such phenomena. In other words, they takewhat has been rightly called by others writing for Metanexus aneliminative approach. They do not so much argue for intelligentdesign as they attempt to eliminate the various natural explanations thatare available and then say that intelligent design is the only alternativeremaining. The problem with such an eliminative procedure, however, is thatany positive claim based on it is vacuous. In other words, so long as thereis no definable and recognizable marks of intelligence, the claim thatsomething is intelligently designed is no more than the claim that naturalexplanations have come to an end.
To return to the theme of this essay, we can note that when naturalexplanations come to an end, we are at the frontiers of our knowledge or, toput it another way, at one of the defining points of our universalignorance. Practically speaking, this means that we can, at best,hypothesize or speculate on what is beyond this frontier. Such hypotheseswill be rejected, accepted, or refined based on known facts or facts yet tobe uncovered. For the most part, this much is not in question by IDtheorists or their opponents.
What is in question is the status of ID theory as a workable hypothesis.It may seem, at such a point, that ID theory is as good a hypothesis as anyother. But this is not the case. For one, the label intelligentlydesigned is arrived at by process of elimination, for there are no positivefacts that confirm it. Again, once one divorces the term intelligent fromthe specific human context which gives it meaning, one also ceases to usethe word in a meaningful (some might say, in a scientific context,verifiable) way. One may as well say that a globular combination isresponsible for a particular phenomenon, but then give means of discerningthe action of a globular combination from anything else. There is, inother words, nowhere to go with such a hypothesis. It can lead to nofurther knowledge unless one could somehow get to know something about thesupposed designer – but even Behe and Dembski, knowing full well that it isimpossible to infer anything in particular about a designer from a design,assiduously avoid offering any positive description of the designer. Forthis reason, it is very difficult to see how ID theory could become thefull-fledged scientific research program that Dembski envisions. Whatpossible research could proceed from a hypothesis that is unconfirmable andwhich points in no particular direction? Only if one truly not interestedin gaining knowledge can one say, as Dembski does, that the lack of positivecontent to ID theory is hardly relevant.
Admittedly, there is one way to claim that ID theory, which is arrivedat by a process of elimination, is correct. One must claim that ID theoryis true because all possible natural explanations have been eliminated.This is, in fact, a claim that Dembski makes. His calculations ofprobability, he says, excludes naturalistic explanations in an exhaustiveway. He then notes that it is not logically exhaustive but onlyexhaustive with respect to the inquiry in question. This distinctionis not clear in his essay, but fortunately, this is not relevant. If thereare other logical possibilities, then his eliminative procedure has notbeen exhaustive. And with respect to the inquiry in question how does heknow that he has exhausted all possibilities? He can say that he hasexhausted all known naturalistic explanations, but it is simply wrong toinfer from that that all possible naturalistic explanations have beenexhausted. Dembski’s claim, then, is nothing but a denial of the naturalhuman condition of ignorance and, as mentioned above, well outside aJudaeo-Christian framework.
For these reasons, I say that ID theory is not amenable toJudaeo-Christian thought. As creatures meant to have dominion over creationwith the faith and knowledge at our disposal, any speculation orhypothesizing that does not hold the promise of leading to knowledge oughtto be eschewed, as should any claim to completely ignorance. ID theory, aspresented by Behe and Dembski, must do one or the other. And if someoneargues that ID theory has value because it can potentially increase faith, Iwould reply, along with Behe and Dembski, that this is treating ID theory asa kind of natural theology and, as such, is a misconstrual of their work.
What ID Theory has to Offer
This does not mean that the work of ID theorists like Behe and Dembskiis without value. According to their critics in their own specialties, theyare experts, and their expertise goes right to the cutting edge of theirfields. Yes, they make the mistake of positing ID theory, but one canignore this and instead note how clearly they articulate that which is notknown. This is especially true when they show that there is much thatDarwinian and neo-Darwinian theories cannot account for. But again, to saythat a Darwinian or neo-Darwinian theory does not account for X is not tosay that it can never account for X. And indeed, Darwinian or neo-Darwinianapproaches, unlike those of ID theorists, make clear what would count asfactual confirmation of their hypotheses. ID theorists should stop at theborders of our ignorance, then, instead of offering the unprovable andvacuous theory of an intelligent designer. Such a procedure would moreclearly point the way to future knowledge and, in that way, would beamenable Judaeo-Christian thought.
1 For this reason, I think it is unfair to say, as Robert Pennock does, thatDembski and other ID theorists have a hidden creationist or religious agenda(see his The Wizards of ID, posted on Metanexus 10/12/00.2 A Brief Philosophical Critique of Intelligent Design Theory, posted9/17/01.3 See Branden Fitelson, Christopher Stephens, and Elliott Sober’s How Notto Detect Design: A Review of William A. Dembski’s The Design Inference —
Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities, posted in three parts on9/14/01, 9/21/01, and 9/28/01.4 See part three of Another Way to Detect Design?, posted on Metanexus10/19/01.5 ibid.6 ibid.
This publication is hosted by Metanexus Online https://www.metanexus.net. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Metanexus or its sponsors.
Metanexus welcomes submissions between 1000 to 3000 words of essays and book reviews that seek to explore and interpret science and religion in original and insightful ways for a general educated audience. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Please send all inquiries and submissions to. Metanexus consists of a number of topically focused forums (Anthropos, Bios, Cogito, Cosmos, Salus, Sophia, and Techne) and periodic HTML enriched composite digests from each of the lists.
Copyright notice: Except when otherwise noted, articles may be forwarded, quoted, or republished in full with attribution to the author of the column and Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science. Republication for commercial purposes in print or electronic format requires the permission of the author. Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Metanexus Institute.