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