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Worthy Journalist David P. Goldman, a/k/a Spengler, Mangles "Intelligent Design"

I've seen this so many times that I've come to think of it as a syndrome, a characteristic if enigmatic pattern. One of life's mysteries is why some really smart and thoughtful people who you'd expect to be sympathetic to intelligent design instead reject it vigorously -- which is fair enough -- but without first having acquainted themselves with what ID advocates say. And that is very strange.

Such a one is conservative journalist David P. Goldman, someone I count as a friend. He has just written a column, mentioning me in a friendly way, under the headline "Why 'Intelligent Design' Subverts Faith."

David Goldman writes both under his own name and, for the Asia Times, under the pen name Spengler. You may have seen his byline in First Things, the Wall Street Journal, the interesting Jewish website Tablet, and elsewhere. He knows all about international politics, philosophy, classical music -- even economics, appearing on TV all the time commenting on financial affairs. His new book is How Civilizations Die, which our colleague Jonathan Witt has read and cites favorably here. Goldman is a formidably, even intimidatingly bright and well-read guy.

Yet while giving little evidence of being aware what intelligent design theory says, he writes a whole column arguing with ID -- or rather, not with ID but with a phantom of it by the same name, that is unrecognizable, even surreal.

David's telling of the story starts with the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which provided Voltaire with ammunition against theists who asserted that a benevolent and just God rules over the world. To illustrate this theistic vision, he cites Thomas Aquinas. "The workings of nature are so complex and perfect, the argument states, that they bespeak a design, and a design must have a designer. The trouble," observes Goldman, "is that the same clock seems to set off a bomb at random intervals."

To get around the problem of such evil, you could say the world is fallen, broken, and alienated from God. But this "dour vision" fails to satisfy Goldman. Here, in his narrative, is where "Intelligent Design" comes from.

It is hard to believe in a benevolent God without seeking the good in the universe, and that, I think, explains why popular religion...cleaves instead to a variant of the providential argument, namely Intelligent Design. Proponents of Intelligent Design include Christians like George Gilder as well as observant Jews like Michael Medved and David Klinghoffer -- friends and political allies, I note as a matter of full disclosure. I sympathize with them, but I think they are on the wrong track.
Goldman points to the "usual refutation of Intelligent Design," namely "that it requires assumptions that cannot be experimentally verified by scientists." I'm not familiar with this "usual refutation" -- I don't know what he's referring to. Intelligent design starts with the evidence of evolution -- change in the forms of life over vast stretches of time, which everyone who studies biology recognizes. It assumes the validity of this along with other uncontested evidence, but draws a conclusion differing from that of Darwinian evolutionists as to its interpretation. You can, of course, argue that ID's interpretation is wrong but Goldman doesn't do that.

He is not a sympathizer with "Darwinians," either, and faults us "Creationists" alongside them. Yes, he fails to make the elementary distinction between ID and creationism:

The quarrel between the Darwinians and the Creationists comes down to a confrontation between a quasi-religious belief that nature is a closed system that self-evolves in the absence of a creator, and the explicitly religious belief that a creator directs the process.
As I said, it's all unrecognizable.

This, for Goldman, is the "scientific debate" over "Intelligent Design," from which he turns about halfway through the column to offer his two "theological," as opposed to "scientific," objections to ID. These are: a) If "the evidence for Intelligent Design lies in the perfection of nature down to improbably refined levels of detail," then how can we explain the Lisbon earthquake and other calamities? This is why ID "subverts faith." And b) "If a design does indeed exist in the mind of God, why should we presume that we are able to understand it?"

The theological problem of natural evil, he finds, is best resolved by saying that God gave people the task of working with Him to find remedies: "Man is not the passive victim of earthquake, flood, famine or disease. We can build defenses against natural disasters, cure disease, and eliminate hunger. Whatever harm befalls us today, we can change our destiny in the future."

I hope I've done justice to David's case. There are two fundamental problems with it. First, he neither states nor responds to a single actual scientific argument associated with ID. I find it hard to believe that he's read any of the basic authors -- Meyer, Behe, Dembski, Wells, Sternberg, Berlinski -- or even read anything serious about them and the arguments and evidence they give. I would love to hear his response to some of the writing that biologists Douglas Axe and Ann Gauger have done here at ENV, or Casey Luskin's fine ongoing commentary on the evolution debate which should be accessible to anyone.

Or, for that matter, atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel's admiring comments about ID in his new book Mind & Cosmos (Oxford University Press).

Goldman seems unaware of any of this. ID as "popular religion"? "Explicitly religious"? Huh? What is he talking about?

Second, for goodness sake, ID isn't an attempt to resolve the enigma of evil in the world. Where would such an idea come from? He gives no example of an ID theorist who says as much. I don't know of any, and it would make no sense. Obviously, if you're a theist who is also an advocate of intelligent design, ID only underlines the question of why a good God, who exerts guidance in the world, nevertheless allows unmerited suffering.

ID by itself, of course, is honestly agnostic on the source of design. It doesn't make a theological argument: it makes a scientific one. It doesn't offer a resolution to the problem of evil and no legitimate scientific paradigm would seek to do so. That's for theology, a different domain of inquiry. It follows that no "theological" objection to intelligent design can carry water. A religious believer could say that ID -- the scientific observation of evident purpose and design in nature -- is what you'd expect given the premise of Jewish, Christian, or Islamic tradition. In my two chapters in God and Evolution, edited by Jay Richards, I show in detail from the standard, classic rabbinic sources that Judaism certainly expects there should be such evidence, from biology and cosmology. In that limited sense, ID is supportive of theism.

But the scientific evidence shows what it shows, regardless of what your faith tells you about anything. To argue against a scientific view, you need to offer science not religion. But that is what my friend David doesn't do. I just cannot understand how such a smart and otherwise admirably well-informed man can write something so poorly informed. To say the least, this is not representative of his best work.

It is a consolation, I guess, to be reminded that it's not just my fellow Jews, like David Goldman, who succumb to this peculiar temptation of criticizing ID without learning what the term encompasses. A reader today sends along a post by a Christian blogger, Melissa, who tries to correct the "Top Five Myths Christians (and Non-Christians) Often Believe About Intelligent Design."

Melissa laments,

There are few things more frustrating than hearing the same tired old myths and misconceptions over and over again, particularly when they directly relate to the subject you've devoted your education and career to. Intelligent Design theory suffers this plight, even at the hands of Christians who freely criticize it without doing their homework.
It's a good little list of myths, with brief and cogent refutations. David Goldman should take a look.