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The Question of Motives

Actually, there is still one remaining line of defense, and that is to question the motives of design theorists. According to Larry Arnhart First Things November 2000), "Most of the opposition to Darwinian theory ... is motivated not by a purely intellectual concern for the truth or falsity of the theory, but by a deep fear that Darwinism denies the foundations of traditional morality by denying any appeal to the transcendent norms of God's moral law." In a forthcoming response to an article of mine in American Outlook (November 2000), Michael Shermer takes an identical line: "It is no coincidence that almost all of the evolution deniers are Christians who believe that if God did not personally intervene in the development of life on earth, then they have no basis for their belief; indeed, that there can be no basis to any morality or meaning of life."

For critics of intelligent design like Arnhart and Shermer, it is inconceivable that someone once properly exposed to Darwin's theory could doubt it. It is as though Darwin's theory were one of Descartes's clear and distinct ideas that immediately impels assent. Thus for design theorists to oppose Darwin's theory requires some hidden motivation, like wanting to shore up traditional morality or being a closet fundamentalist. For the record, therefore, let me reassert that our opposition to Darwinism rests in the first instance on scientific grounds. Yes, my colleagues and I are interested in and frequently write about the cultural and theological implications of intelligent design. But let's be clear that the only reason we take seriously such implications is because we are convinced that Darwinism is on its own terms an oversold and overreached scientific theory and that even at this early stage in the game intelligent design excels it.

Critics who think they can defeat intelligent design merely by assigning disreputable motives to its proponents need to examine their own motives. Consider Shermer's motives for taking such a hard line against intelligent design. Shermer, trained in psychology and the social sciences, endlessly psychologizes those who challenge his naturalistic worldview. But is he willing to psychologize himself? Look at his popular books (e.g., Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Believe, and you'll notice on the inside dustjacket a smiling Shermer with a bust of Darwin behind him as well as several books by and about Darwin. Shermer's devotion to Darwin and naturalism is no less fervent than mine is to Christianity. If there is a difference in our devotion, it is this: Shermer is a dogmatist and I am not. I am willing to admit that intelligent design might be wrong (despite significant progress I believe design theorists still have their work cut out for them). Also, I am eager to examine and take seriously any arguments and evidence favorable to Darwinism. But Shermer cannot make similar concessions. He can't admit that Darwinism might be wrong. He is unwilling to take seriously any positive evidence for intelligent design. But this is hardly surprising. Shermer has a vested interest in taking a hard line against intelligent design. Indeed, his base of support among fellow skeptics (who rank among the most authoritarian and dogmatic people in contemporary culture) would vanish the moment he allows intelligent design as a live possibility.

The success of intelligent design neither stands nor falls with the motives of its practitioners but with the quality of the research it inspires. That said, design theorists do have an extra-scientific motive for wanting to see intelligent design succeed. This motive derives not from a religious agenda but from a very human impulse, namely the desire to overcome artificial, tyrannical, or self-imposed limitations and thereby to open oneself and others to new possibilities -- in a word, freedom. This desire was beautifully expressed in Bernard Malamud's novel The Fixer (Penguin, 1966). Yakov Bok, a handyman in pre-revolutionary Russia, leaves his small town and heads off to the big city (Kiev). As it turns out, misfortune upon misfortune awaits him there. Why does he go? He senses the risks. But he asks himself, "What choice has a man who doesn't know what his choices are?" (pp. 33-34) The desire to open himself to new possibilities impels him to go to the big city. Later in the novel, when he has been imprisoned and humiliated, so that choice after choice has been removed and his one remaining choice is to maintain his integrity, refuse to confess a crime he did not commit, and thereby prevent a pogrom; after all this, he is reminded that "the purpose of freedom is to create it for others." (p. 286)

Design theorists want to free science from arbitrary constraints that stifle inquiry, undermine education, turn scientists into a secular priesthood, and in the end prevent intelligent design from receiving a fair hearing. The subtitle of Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker reads Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design Dawkins may be right that design is absent from the universe. But design theorists insist that science address not only the evidence that reveals the universe to be without design but also the evidence that reveals the universe to be with design. Evidence is a two-edged sword: Claims capable of being refuted by evidence are also capable of being supported by evidence. Even if design ends up being rejected as an unfruitful explanation in science, such a negative outcome for design needs to result from the evidence for and against design being fairly considered. On the other hand, the rejection of design must not result from imposing regulative principles like methodological naturalism that rule out design prior to any consideration of evidence. Whether design is ultimately rejected or accepted must be the conclusion of a scientific argument, not a deduction from an arbitrary regulative principle.

What choice does science have if it doesn't know what its choices are? It can choose to stop arbitrarily limiting its choices.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. William Dembski

Intelligent Design Coming Clean

The Question of Motives

Cards on the Table
Situating Intelligent Design in the Contemporary Debate
Intelligent Design as a Positive Research Program
Nature's Formational Economy
Can Specified Complexity Even Have a Mechanism?
How Can an Unembodied Intelligence Interact with the Natural World?
Must All the Design in the Natural World Be Front-Loaded?
The Distinction Between Natural and Non-Natural Designers


William A. Dembski
Dr. William Dembski

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See also:

Van Till: E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom...
Purpose and Design
Charles Darwin
Bacterial Flagellum
DNA Double-Helix
Books on Biology, Genetics and Theology