ASKING THE TOUGH QUESTIONS

By William A. Dembski

 

 

When the Athenian court convicted Socrates for subverting the youth of Athens, he was given the option of proposing an appropriate punishment for his misdeeds. Since Socrates was convinced not merely of his innocence but also of his good worth, he proposed that Athens "punish" him by honoring him as a city benefactor. This proposed punishment did not set well with the Athenian court. Had Socrates proposed exile, he probably would have lived. As it was, his proposal earned him a hemlock milkshake.

 

Just as Socrates was a benefactor for Athens, so intelligent design is a benefactor for science. Just as the Athenian court thought otherwise, so does the scientific community. If I have one gripe with the scientific community's reception of intelligent design, it has nothing to do with its less than cheerful acceptance of the idea. Rather, what I find objectionable is its willful refusal to admit that intelligent design is accurately focusing attention on some deep conceptual problems in biology (however they end up being resolved). Even Michael Ruse, whom I regard as a friend, exhibits this narrowness when in responding to Jonathan Wells he writes, "Scientists have looked at ID in some detail and found it sadly wanting."

 

Have they really? Some scientists have reflexively reacted against intelligent design because they see it as a political movement (unfortunately with some justification) or as a variant of biblical creationism (fortunately without justification). The fact is that intelligent design is asking biology some tough questions and forcing evolutionary biology to own up not to some minor crevices that need papering over but to vast conceptual lacunae that require fundamental rethinking of the discipline.

 

But don't take my word for it. A prominent biologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences with whom I maintain an irregular correspondence wrote me last year. He sees three main alternatives for biology: (1) Intelligent design. (2) Darwinism. (3) Some natural biological process, as yet undiscovered, that yields organisms without relying solely on natural selection. Commenting on these alternatives, he writes: "Of these, I sort of favor (3).  If (3) is true, then Darwin et al. have found a mechanism that works in simple cases (which it certainly does!) but misses more important mechanisms of evolutionary change and adaptation. The search for the missing mechanisms can only be helped by people like you asking tough questions.  Keep at it!"

 

This biologist (I'm not at liberty to say who he is) exemplifies the best of the classical liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill. For Mill, the health, vigor, and prosperity of an idea depended on the idea having critics who disagreed with it not merely as a matter of show but were firmly committed to an opposite point of view. Only in this way can the acceptance of an idea avoid becoming a blindly held dogma. Only in this way can the ramifications as well as limits of an idea be properly appreciated.

 

Making room for intelligent design in science has nothing to do with what Michael Ruse calls "an illicit appeal to the American sense of fair play." The academy generally and the scientific community in particular are quite rightly meritocracies. For intelligent design to have a place at the table it must earn a place at the table. Yes there is prejudice and resistance. But slowly we are earning a place at the table. In my own case, I have no problem publishing my work on intelligent design in academic journals and books. Quite the contrary, without my knowledge or permission MIT Press recently even reprinted two of my essays in an anthology devoted to intelligent design edited by Robert Pennock.

 

Granted, my work is mainly at the intersection of philosophy of science and statistics, and therefore not in biology proper. But I have biologist colleagues who are now publishing intelligent design relevant articles in the peer-reviewed molecular biology and bioinformatics literature (e.g., Journal of Molecular Biology).

 

According to Schopenhauer, the acceptance of radical ideas that challenge the status quo proceeds in four stages. First the idea is regarded as preposterous -- it is so absurd as not to merit consideration. Second it is regarded as pernicious -- the idea is firmly on people's radar but now is regarded in moral and even apocalyptic terms (e.g., "intelligent design spells the end of science"). Third, it is regarded as possible -- it's now evident that the idea is not entirely absurd and may even have far reaching consequences. And fourth, it is regarded as plausible -- a new status quo has emerged and the mainstream can't imagine how people in times past could have thought otherwise. With intelligent design, we are now at the transition from stage two to stage three. This is the hardest transition.