Intelligent Design and President Tilghman

John Teevan, guest contributor

Clerk’s Log, MJD 53817.9: Continuing our discussion on naturalistic evolution and Intelligent Design, we present the following letter by John Teevan (who graciously agreed to share it with us), a condensed version of which was published in the 5 April 2006 Princeton Alumni Weekly. It addresses Princeton University president and molecular biologist Shirley M. Tilghman’s 1 December 2005 Romanes Lecture at Oxford University, entitled “Strange Bedfellows: Science, Politics and Religion,” in which she comes down rather hard on ID.

President Tilghman is obviously intelligent, and her Oxford lecture on science’s search for origins as compared to intelligent design was excellent. It was as clear as anything I have read on the topic, but I have two comments.

First, her argument implies that while intelligence in design is out, design remains. This could be called “unintelligent design” and would happily eliminate a creator. But that does not work as we are left with design coming from Darwin’s forces of natural selection. By throwing out “intelligence” and keeping some kind of natural “design” we are like people who look at a house and decide to believe in carpenters, but not in architects. That only shifts the argument rather than resolving it. We must believe in neither architects nor carpenters, or in both.

Now if there is neither intelligence nor design, then we are neither intelligent nor designed. If the wonders of the kidney are useful but random then so are our thoughts. We may imagine that our minds are exempt from this, but we cannot escape; brains simply have minds. While Dr. Tilghman’s argument is a wonder even in a world of carpenters, it too must be as random as kidneys. Rather than calling her speech excellent, we should say that her biologically conditioned synapses further conditioned by her environment have yielded a speech that resonates with similarly conditioned primates.

That resonance has even more to do with the shared assumptions of her peers than with science or truth. Regardless of how broadly these assumptions resonate, they remain assumptions confirmed by “evidence” as with any world-affirming faith.

Who would dare to be an outlier and presume to argue against the dominant assumptions? Either madmen or people ahead of their time. Voltaire was ahead of his time, but any freshman who turned in an essay that sounded like Candide would be ridiculed as juvenile. Candide has had its turn, as did the Greek cosmology adopted by Aquinas and the church which ridiculed its famous scientific outliers. Newton certainly believed in both the architecture and carpentry of the universe. We must ask if we have gone well beyond him or if we have changed science into the faith of scientism.

Second, we must also note that scientific knowledge is seen today as a mere modern construct, a phenomenon that is surprisingly out of place in the post-modern world. People are allowed to hold to the scientific meta-narrative as long as they do not insist that it is “true.” Science, like Candide, is a relic: a relic of Bacon’s hope of controlling the world for the benefit of mankind. Sadly, science has given us pollution and nuclear horrors without keeping its promises of a better quality of life for all. Today’s late adapters may form brilliant arguments and may find great resonance with those who agree, but so did that relic and pioneering Democrat, William Jennings Bryan.

Michael Polanyi, certainly an outlier, has argued that everything that is human and truly interesting about a person is unmeasurable by science. This allows Dr. Tilghman’s argument to be the result of an intelligent rather than of a random mind, but it comes from a very different set of assumptions.

Scientism like capitalism not only empties society of its values, it tends to empty the human person of its worth. There is an alternative even if it is scorned by people whose very intelligence tends to disprove their own assumptions.


Since not all readers have access to the Princeton Alumni Weekly, I thought you might be interested (especially in light of his background) in seeing the response of Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, to President Tilghman’s speech, from the PAW‘s 8 March 2006 issue. — MS

President Tilghman urges that skeptics of Darwinism such as myself be engaged in debate “respectfully.” Unfortunately, she doesn’t follow her own advice. Instead, she employs inflammatory rhetoric, warning darkly of an “assault” by “Christian fundamentalists.” Now, I’m a Roman Catholic who learned Darwin’s theory in parochial school and still thinks it explains much of biology, although certainly not all. So do I count as a “fundamentalist”? Does the writing of books exploring intelligent design, like my Darwin’s Black Box, constitute an “assault”? Is it “respectful” to characterize the action of citizens petitioning their legislators as an “assault”?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think President Tilghman’s address itself illuminates why so many people are so suspicious of Darwin’s theory. When a theory has to be defended with emotionally charged calls-to-arms, it makes people smell a rat. If a scientist has good evidence in hand for a theory, she should simply state it. If she doesn’t, she should plainly admit it.

Michael J. Behe
Department of Biological Sciences
Lehigh University

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2 Responses to Intelligent Design and President Tilghman

  1. Nate says:

    This is a great response to Shirley M. Tilghman’s lecture against ID. I’ve said it before, and I still believe it, that all this boils down to people not “believing” or “recognizing” that a “god/gods” exist. Because if a “god/gods” exist, then they must first recognize we are not in control of our destiny. Secondly, the “god/gods” must be defined (meaning that one religion is right, and all others are not).

    But even the blantant denial of wanting to recognize that there is an intelligent design to our lives and universe, does not make it false (especially when evidence of science proves intelligence). To me, it makes the verse “Professing themselves wise, they became fools” a very applicable verse. It baffles me that people would rather believe a bald-faced lie than accept truth. I pray that they turn from their pride, ignorance, and sin, before they meet Truth in judgement. Because when that happens, it will be too late to recognize His existence.

    That brings me to the challenge we as Christians (the holders of Truth) face. We have to unite together with what we believe about “origins.” I think this divide on “young vs old-age earth” is what prevents more scientists from coming to know Truth in Christ. To me, this is more important than ID vs Evolution.

    My stance is similar to my brother in Christ, Michael Spence, in that we live in a Young Earth/Universe. I believe the days of creation were literal 24 hour days. I cannot help but to feel that those whose stance is “Long Age Earth/Universe” believe this ignorantly, or, in the case of seminary leaders, have compromised the Word of God for government funding. Let’s face it, the “Long Age Earth/Universe” theory derived from seminary. Seminaries are government funded, and have to comply with government standards (which requires teaching evolution). So instead of presenting the “Theory of Evolution” as false, and presenting the scientific theory of “Creation,” it seems the “powers-that-be” in church leadership of seminaries decided to compromise their beliefs instead of making a stand. When it comes to “Young-age vs Old-age” argument, I cannot accept anything but “Young-age” because anything else goes against what the LORD said, as well as the Patriarchs of OT/NT taught. If we compromise the Truth of the Word of God, we’ve made it a lie! That is why our society is in the position that it is in: Christians have compromised the Truth.


  2. Michael says:

    Actually, seminaries aren’t all government funded. I work for one that isn’t, for example (and while there are federally-funded scholarships, those are given directly to students; we don’t see a nickel of it). Nor have I seen any government regulation that ties funding to the teaching of evolution. So I’m not convinced that money is necessarily the motivation for a school’s choice of doctrine.

    Rather, I suspect that theological schools that teach evolution do so because of the way they have chosen to deal with extrabiblical evidence. The current scientific paradigm reads that evidence — selectively, one can argue — as supporting an old universe and an evolved biosphere, and they have decided to bow to that authority (see the Dilbert blog links cited in a previous comment). For believers to unite concerning the age of the earth and the rest of the universe, not to mention other Genetic <chuckle> issues such as the Flood, they will require at least one of two things:

    • an analysis of the same evidence that supports a young earth and/or a young universe (see, for example; the book Thousands … Not Billions, edited by Donald B. DeYoung; D. Russell Humphreys’s Starlight and Time: Solving the Puzzle of Distant Starlight in a Young Universe, which addresses my own biggest question concerning the age of the cosmos, is an interesting proposal also).
    • a determination to uphold the authority of the biblical text and adopt a wait-and-see attitude concerning specific scientific questions.

    As for compromising the truth of the text — yep. And that always has consequences, both present and future. Reason is a God-given tool, and should be used, but it has its limits. Ultimately everyone rests on an authority, whether it’s the authority of the God of the Bible, Carl Sagan, James Dobson, Aristotle, Richard Dawkins, or someone else. Your future — indeed, your destiny — depends on whose authority you choose to honor.

Hi! Please let me know what you think!