Christian Objections to Intelligent Design

Francis Collins, one of our leading geneticists and the longtime head of the Human Genome Project, has a new book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. The book gives an interesting account of Collins’ journey to the Christian faith and is an exploration of his thoughts on the interaction between faith and science. He doesn’t offer any revolutionary insights, but does talk about many interesting topics in a manner that is very accessible for the novice who is interested in this field.

One thing Collins describes is very helpful. Many people have asked me why a scientist who is a Christian would ever be opposed to intelligent design, and I haven’t been able to give a concise answer to that question. Collins offers a very helpful chapter on just that, and I’ll summarize some of his points below. All of this information is summarized from Collins’ book (pp. 181-195).

Intelligent design (ID), in its current form, is about 15 years old. It appeared in 1991 when Phillip Johnson, a Christian lawyer at UC Berkeley, published Darwin on Trial which first laid out the position. Michael Behe, a biochemist, introduced the idea of irreducible complexity (a key to the ID position) in the book Darwin’s Black Box.

ID has roughly three propositions

  1. Evolution promotes an atheistic worldview and therefore must be resisted by believers in God.
  2. Evolution is fundamentally flawed, since it cannot account for the intricate complexity of nature (e.g. bacterial flagellum, the blood coagulation complex, and the process of vision in the eye).
  3. If evolution cannot explain irreducible complexity, then there must have been an intelligent designer involved somehow, who stepped in to provide the necessary components during the course of evolution.

Collins admits these objections appear compelling, but goes on to present scientific objections to ID. First, he suggests ID fails to even qualify as a scientific theory. Theories not only make sense of experimental observations, but look forward as well. ID simply cannot suggest further experimental verification. “Outside the development of a time machine, verification of the ID theory seems profoundly unlikely.”

Second, “ID theory does not provide a mechanism by which the postulated supernatural intervention would give rise to complexity.” Further damaging ID theory is the recent development in cell and molecular biology whereby irreducible complexity is being shown not to be reducible after all. Collins suggests ID proponents have confused the unknown with the unknowable. For instance, the human blood clotting cascade (which I had the privelege of working on during my graduate studies) is slowing becoming understood as a system that has developed incrementally over time.

“So,” Collins concludes, “ID fails to hold up, providing neither an opportunity for experimental validation nor a robust foundation for its primary claim of irreducible complexity.” For Collins, ID is slowing being revealed to be a complicated “God of Gaps” approach where God is ascribed to various natural phenomena that the science of the day is unable to sort out. Futhermore, he believes that ID,

“portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan for generating the complexity of life. For a believer who stands in awe of the almost unimaginable intelligence and creative genius of God, this is a very unsatisfactory image (p. 194).”

Collins closes this chapter with admiration for the sincerity and faith of those who endorse and advance intelligent design. He also admits to undertsanding ID as a reaction of those who have faced outspoken evolutionists who portray evolutionary theory as demanding atheism. He then closes the chapter with these words, “To the believer and the scientist alike, I say there is a clear, compelling, and intellectually satisfying solution to this search for truth (p. 195).”  In the following chapter, Collins lays out his understanding of science and faith in harmony – a synthesis known in many circles as Theistic Evolution.  Perhaps I’ll outline that on another day.  What do you think of Collins’ response to ID?

6 thoughts on “Christian Objections to Intelligent Design

  1. There are plenty of people out there who confidently express their certainty concerning issues they are completely unqualified to comment on. I prefer not to appear to join them. That being said…

    Intelligent Design suggests “irreducible” complexity as evidence of intelligent design, presumably by God. The argument appears to be structured in such a way to suggest that where there is no “irreducible” complexity, God is taking a break or otherwise letting the machinery run its course. This strikes me as a sort of punctuated deism (apologies to Eldredge and Gould). It is at least aesthetically unappealing.

    The fact that we are able to understand any the process should be recognized as being the true miracle. And the faith that those parts that escape our grasp are nevertheless rational (understandable in principle) is a tribute to the majesty of God.

    It is possible that there are signs to be found as evidence of deliberate design, similar in concept to the signs described in the Gospel of John. But then, how do we distinguish between real miracles and mere evidence of our own ignorance?

    Thank you for allowing the space for my meandering. I doubt that this confused Southern Baptist is in any way qualified to respond to Dr. Collins.


  2. Thanks jd, I’m glad you decided to wade in with your comments. I think the idea is that there is likely no system that is so complex it could not have been gradually formed by evolutionary processes. What Collins is advocating against is a “God of the gaps” approach that assigns God’s activity to those areas we don’t understand. With this approach God’s potential area of action decreases with every new discovery, and that is unacceptable for a Christian. With apologies to significant Christian thinkers such as Kevin Corcoran, I think we need to avoid reductive materialism and the idea that God’s divine action is relegated to those areas (temporal and spatial) that we don’t understand. I think that’s may be where you’re going with your thoughts about miracles and evidence of ignorance.

  3. I am the author of “The First Scientific Proof of God” (June 2006) This proof reveals God’s intelligent design and a modern creation theory. The book could have been titled as “The Unity of Science,Theology,and Religion and the Ends of Atheism and Evolution”

    The personalities in my thoughts are Abraham, Moses, Plato, Jesus Christ, Nicholas of Cusa, Leibniz, and Cantor. In the modern creation, I use a system of mmortal spiritual atoms, which forms a system of functional things. The infinite sets of changing things are counted with Cantor’s transfinite numbers. There is no beginning or end in this development of panentheism. A single symbolic language will reveal those endless rest periods of God that exist beyond the 7th day mentioned by Moses.

    I made a review of Dr. Collin’s book on

    My biggest concerns today are the claims of physicists and Christians that the world comes to an end. These claims cannot be proven. Yet these claims are developing suicide bombers and child molesters.

    George Shollenberger

  4. I think that Collins ultimately misunderstands intelligent design. Intelligent design is ultimately just about agency. Here’s the real question that Intelligent Design asks — is choice real or imaginary? The materialists say that it is imaginary. There is chance and necessity, but choice is not part of the picture. Intelligent Design, on the other hand, believes that choice is a fundamental property of the world. That the world is in fact open for choice. And, in so thinking, many also believe that the artifacts of choice contingencies are identifiable and distinct.

    The idea that ID’ers think that certain systems are “unevolvable” is in fact false. Certainly some of them do, but many, including Behe who coined the term irreducible complexity, believes that these structures are in fact evolvable. What he does NOT think, is that they are evolvable via random mutation + natural selection. So, they are evolvable, but via a telic, not an atelic process. This doesn’t mean that God reached down and fiddled with some nucleotides several times throughout history (though there are some who believe that — Dembski I think is one of them). But instead, when evolution happens, especially the big, holistic systems at work in biology, that these are generated as part of a planned system of adaptation, not a happenstance system of random mutations and natural selection. Behe’s next book, The Edge of Evolution, will show that almost all observable instances of evolution DO NOT happen on the random mutation + natural selection model, but instead on the more teleological, a-lot-of-coordinated-parts-at-once-model.

    The evidence against the natural selection model are quite significant, ranging from the mathematical (No Free Lunch and optimization theory) to the biochemical (read any biochemical journal and you’ll find mechanisms, not random mutations, being the cause of evolution) to the meta-mathematical (there is a great paper called “Biological Function and the Genetic Code are Interdependent” which shows, using Godel’s incompleteness theorem, that any self-referential coding system requires an intelligent agent to produce).

  5. Jonathan, I appreciate you offering this substantive comment. I look forward to spending some time thinking about your response.

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