Daniel Schorr, Katrina, and Intelligent Design

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I found myself driving for quite a while yesterday so I ended up listing to NPR a bit, and caught this commentary on Katrina by Daniel Schorr. I don't have time to transcribe it [Update: Transcript in the comments], but you can listen to it if you like. The synopsis is actually a fairly good summary:

NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr asks where the scourges of hurricanes, drought, and famine fit into the debate over "intelligent design."

Schorr began by saying that Intelligent Design is a new form of creationism, and went on to ask, essentially, what kind of a designer would design natural disasters like these? He concluded by quoting someone who referred to hurricanes as natural events, and then asked, (paraphrasing loosely), "If nature is designed, can we really call them natural? Or are they designed? And that brings us back to the debate about nature versus intelligence."

Now, this whole argument about "bad design" is a relatively common argument against intelligent design. People point to various organisms (i.e. parasites) which appear only to exist to harm other organisms, or particularly nasty diseases, or (in this case) natural disasters, and essentially argue, "No good designer would do such a thing!"

I really have a problem with this sort of argument -- and even more so with Schorr's form. Intelligent Design doesn't claim anything particular about the designer, other than that the evidence indicates that the designer is intelligent. So to even argue such a thing, you're assuming that you know what the designer would do. And that's rather silly, since you're arguing that the designer must not exist (or must not have designed life) because you know what he would have done if he did exist. So at the same time you're arguing (if this is your view) that (a) it's impossible to see from nature that such a designer exists, yet (b) it's possible to determine somehow what the attributes of such a designer would be if he did exist. It doesn't seem like you can have it both ways -- if it's impossible to determine from nature that a designer exists (or possible to prove he doesn't) then you also shouldn't be able to determine anything about said designer. On the other hand, if you can determine the designer exists, then you can start asking what you can tell about his/her/its attributes.

I found Schorr's argument particularly bugged me because he begins by equating Intelligent Design with (Christian) creationism. Now, if that's his view, then the Bible does offer some reason why there is great suffering in the world, including things like natural disasters. The Bible explains that the world is not in its ideal (designed) state any longer, as a result of the sin of Man and the subsequent fall. That is, things are not all as they should be, so people die, diseases happen, and people have to toil greatly to accomplish much of anything on earth. This wasn't how God originally designed things, according to the Bible, but man sinned, and so bad things happened. [We could go into this a lot more, but the purpose of this post isn't to address the whole problem of evil and pain.]

Schorr, however, seems to want to ignore that aspect of creationism. That is, he equates ID with creationism -- but then ignores the fact that creationism does offer an explanation for why there is so much evil and suffering in a world created by a good God. So I find it particularly bothersome that not only does he equate creationism with ID and claim to know what an intelligent designer would do, but he also ignores what creationism actually claims. Any one of those seems problematic enough, but I get rather annoyed when someone manages to do all three at the same time.

If anyone wants to transcribe the commentary (which is pretty short) or can find a permanent link to it, I'll be happy to post that in an update here. [Update: Transcript in the comments.]

UPDATE 2: John Piper has remarked on the same commentary here, and remarks, "No, Mr. Schorr, you have something to answer for, not God. God answers to no man."

13 Comments

Do people believe in intelligent design AND evolution?

I think there's a god, and it is responsiable for everything, in some way, but I believe things were meant and designed to evole in a logical way.

I would never consider myself a supporter of intelligent design whether or not the two theories are compatable, and in NO WAY think it should be taught to school children, but I'm interested if there is a significant group of people who are broad minded enough to combine the two.

Do people believe in intelligent design AND evolution?

Some people do, yes. The most prominent names I know of are Walter Bradley and Howard Van Till. Both of them are involved with the main ID groups that opponents of ID claim are anti-evolution. They publish alongside other ID advocates cooperatively. The main people who argue for ID welcome them. They're interested in whether the argument establishes a designer, and Bradley and Van Till think ID arguments do establish that but don't conflict with evolution. Most of the other ID proponents agree that ID doesn't conflict with evolution. Philip Johnson, the founder of the contemporary ID movement, states this explicitly in his books numerous times. The debate is not about evolution. It's about whether the existence of a designer can be shown with an argument.

Melissa,

It all depends on what you mean by evolution. At the most minimal level, it's the notion that natural selection can accomplish certain gradual changes in populations over time (like bacterial drug resistance). Everyone I know who believes intelligent design believes that.

At a slightly higher level, by evolution, you might mean that some species can develop or have developed into others over time, either by natural selection or some other means (for example, a process directed by God is not strictly speaking natural selection, which is by definition NOT directed by God). There are certainly people (perhaps even most people) who believe in Intelligent Design who believe this, although not everyone.

At an even higher level, you could believe that all species "evolved" from a universal common ancestor (this is called universal common ancestry). We have to be particularly careful here in terminology, because there are (at least) two groups of people who hold this view. There are those who believe that this happened purely by natural selection (NOT guided by God, and thus a purposeless and random process), and those who believe that God did guide, or may have guided, this evolutionary process to accomplish the designs he wanted. I don't think anyone who believes Intelligent Design can fall into the former group, because if natural selection operated unguided by God and by random chance, it's unclear how at the same time God could design life through it. But there are certainly Intelligent Design people in the second group -- that is, people who believe that God guided an evolutionary process to accomplish his design. I would say this group is significant; I don't have a number for you in terms of percentage of the intelligent design movement, but my guess would be something like 1/4 or 1/3, maybe more.

My sense is that people who actually do science relating to intelligent design (yes, there are such people) tend to be somewhat uncertain about how much they think natural selection can actually accomplish; some are actually trying to do research on this topic.

I don't particularly think ID is to the point where it should be taught, either, but I do agree with the Discovery Institute about teaching the controversy -- that is, I think it's appropriate to discuss in the classroom some of the issues that Darwinism has trouble explaining, as I think it's misleading to teach that Darwinism has everything explained.

Here's the transcript, sorry for any errors:

On my 89th birthday I ask indulgence through depart of customary journalistic detachment. Into the long running argument about creationism verses evolution there has lately been added a new catchphrase: a version of creationism called intelligent design.

President Bush has staked out a non-position on this subject which is: that both sides ought to be properly taught in the schools of America in case there are some who haven’t made of their minds.

But as the President cuts short his vacation by two days to deal with the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina he might well have reflected if this was a result of intelligent design then the designer has something to answer for.

Rarely in my lifetime can I remember (besides from World War, the Holocaust, the plaque epidemics) so much grievous pain visited upon the human species by human beings or by forces beyond their control. Drought, flood and famine, a deadly tsunami, war and insurrection and the United States while fending off conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan leads the way in the sales of arms to developing countries.

Death and destruction seem not to be equal opportunity scourges. Hurricanes strike with greater force at well healed occupants of beach homes than inland residents. On the other hand, as the Wall Street Journal noted, the evacuation of New Orleans was a model of efficiency for those with cars leaving the others to seek shelter in the Superdome.

Are hurricanes part of some mysterious design? The New York Times explains that “the severity of hurricane seasons varies with the cycles of natural change of temperature over the Atlantic over several decades��?.

Did you say “natural��?? But where does natural come from? Oh…here we go again…

This is Daniel Schorr.

You know, there's also the element in the Christian story about how none of this is anywhere near as bad as the spiritual state of humanity and its eternal consequences, and the worse the effects of the fall get the more they remind people of how bad things are between us and God apart from Christ.

It doesn't seem like you can have it both ways -- if it's impossible to determine from nature that a designer exists (or possible to prove he doesn't) then you also shouldn't be able to determine anything about said designer.

But by definition, an Intelligent Designer must be intelligent. The better critics of Intelligent Design attack that very premise by pointing out various unintelligent "designs" in life. The classic example is how mammalian eyes are wired up "backwards" while squid's eyes are wired up "correctly". The question is posed "why would an intelligent designer use a better/more intelligent design in a lower lifeform and use the worse/less intelligent design for the higher forms? That does not show eveidence of intelligence, but rather the contrary."

I don't think Abednego meant to say that there's no possible objection along the lines of bad design. He was dealing with the particular one that requires moral bad, I think. That's certainly the one Schorr was raising. That one does fall prey to the problems he raised, I would say.

Also, technically speaking, intelligent design only shows (assuming the argument is good) that the particular phenomena in question had some intelligence behind them. It doesn't aim to show that every event or structure in the universe is designed. The existence of some things that aren't designed well might be a prima facie argument against the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being, but it's not an argument against the much more restricted conclusion of intelligent design arguments. It's not as if intelligent design arguments are saying that overall there are more designed-looking things than things that seem contrary to design, and then you win by finding more things that seem designed or more things that seem contrary to design. Some people make the problem of evil look like that, but it's not parallel to the design argument. Design arguments explain specific phenomena, and if other phenomena have a different explanation then those can be treated differently, but you still would have established that the thing you're looking at was designed, even if the thing someone else has pointed out isn't (or not in the same way, anyway).

Finally, doesn't the response to the problem of evil count against this sort of thing anyway? If a fallen universe is going to have imperfections by design, then the existence of things that seem exactly how an intelligent designer wouldn't design them is irrelevant. You still need to explain the things that seem designed, and an ID theory fills that bill. If the same theory also explains the things that don't seem designed, as it can, then all is explained. The question is whether the alternative account that most scientists accept can also explain both facts, and that's not something I'm taking a stance on.

Wink,

Jeremy's right, I'm not really dealing with bad design objections here -- although there certainly are some reasonable explanations why the human eye is wired the way it is [I can dig up some pointers if you like.] One interesting fact is that there have been a number of instances (i.e. junk DNA) which have been pointed to as evidence of what would be bad design if ID is right -- only to have more recent evidence suggest that maybe they're not so useless after all (I think the appendix is another example, as it was often cited as a "vestigial" organ). I think many of the things people point to as evidence of bad design are better explained by, "We just don't understand why it works that way yet."

I also agree with Jeremy's last two paragraphs. The fact is that ID isn't suggesting that the universe is perfect, or that the designer designed things so that they are presently perfect.

I think one can also say (with regard to Wink's point) that there is an equivocation going on. Sometimes we use 'intelligence' in a causal sense, to indicate that which is able to do certain things non-intelligent; at other times we use it as a synonym for 'competence', which presupposes but is not necessarily implied by the former. The two are not the same; the bare ID argument, stripped of flourishes, is for a designer that's intelligent in the former sense, whereas the bad-design arguments are arguments for incompetence. They miss their mark. If someone claims that I've done something stupid, they've only claimed a lapse in my competence, not a lapse in my sheer capacity for acting as an intelligent being.

Brandon,

That's a good point; I hadn't thought about that aspect. I guess it ties in with my point that the argument involves the claim to know what the designer would do: To use your way of putting it, they claim to know that the designer wouldn't do something they would call "stupid" or poorly designed.

One answer for the occurrence of hurricanes and tsunamis is the fall of Adam -- but that's hardly a majority position among Christians.

Schorr's musings do point to one of the greater holes in ID thinking, however. It insinuates a very mean intelligence behind much of what humans experience.

Christians should reject that view on faith, as the Oomphalos explanation was rejected as painting a deceiver God, in the 19th century.

It is indeed a majority position among Christians, at least those who follow the Bible (the only ones worthy of the name), because it's so clearly presented within the pages of the Bible. It's in fact a completely non-controversial position within biblical Christianity. The prophets over and over again will attribute natural disasters to the hand of God and represent them as God's judgment.

The only way you could assume this requires a very mean intelligence is if you're completely unfamiliar with standard responses to the problem of evil, which describe how a loving and very un-mean God would allow such things.

The Flying Spaghetti monster stikes again. He designed the weather as well as pasta.

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