group of serious scholars in science and philosophy have been building the case that the origin of living things requires a designer. This intelligent design movement has been growing since the mid 1990s,1 and continues to be controversial. How should Adventists relate to it? Why the controversy?
Intelligent Design Advocates—What’s Their Message?
Living cells are unbelievably complex. Every cell possesses thousands of microscopic biochemical machines, each doing its specific chemical task. Advocates of intelligent design (ID) maintain that these structures and biochemical processes are too complex to result from evolution, from chance mutations and natural selection. ID advocates study molecular features, such as the blood coagulation system, that require several or many parts to be present all at once before the system can function at all.2 An analogy sometimes used to illustrate this argument is the common mousetrap. The mousetrap requires several parts, all properly assembled, before it will catch mice. If one part is missing, it won’t work. So how could it have “evolved” one part at a time when it’s worthless until all the parts are put together? The mousetrap is an example of what’s known as irreducible complexity. It can’t function without all of its parts (its complexity) present at once. Even if one complex part happened to appear, it would be useless by itself.
This is a big problem for the theory of evolution, because natural selection has no ability to see what will be needed in the future. For example, even if one protein needed for a new biochemical system happened to form, natural selection cannot know that this useless protein should be protected because it will be useful later. The result? Natural selection should eliminate the unneeded protein, rather than keep it around until enough of the other proteins can evolve to make the new biochemical system functional. Those who oppose ID present arguments they believe solve the problems, but I find those arguments unsatisfactory, as I discuss in detail elsewhere.3
If ID is finding good arguments that a Creator is needed to account for the existence of life, why would people-even some Christians-object to it? There are three main groups, each with its own reasons.
1. Folk in the first group deny there is a designer. Or if there is, that he certainly was not involved in the origin of life or of the universe. It isn’t hard to understand why this group would oppose ID, since they don’t believe in a deity at all. (I’ve not met any Seventh-day Adventists in this group.)
2. The second group includes theistic evolutionists, who believe God used the evolution process over many millions of years as His means for creating. They don’t believe God was directly active in the evolution process, however. To them the “apparent” design in nature is actually the result of natural selection, not from direct design by the Creator. They commonly believe that God allowed the universe to “make itself” through chance mutations and natural selection.4 There are some Adventists in this second group, in spite of theological conflicts over the origin of sin and evil that result from this view.5 Theistic evolution doesn’t deny the existence of God, but does deny that life was divinely designed, and thus theistic evolutionists oppose ID.
3. There is a third group of objectors to ID, and this group has a very different reason for their opposition. This group, which includes some Seventh-day Adventists, objects to ID because ID stops short of typical conservative Christian beliefs. ID doesn’t concern itself with the age of the earth or the age of life, and it doesn’t identify the God of the Bible as the designer. Nor does it advocate the Flood or a literal Creation week. ID seeks to make just one point: life is too complex to arise without intelligent design.
This third group of objectors maintains that since ID doesn’t include a biblical creation, a flood, or the biblical God in its logical arsenal, ID is to be rejected. A literal understanding of the Genesis account of Creation and the Flood is dear to the heart of Adventists. It’s part of the biblical plan of salvation and what we call “the great controversy.” Given all this, ID isn’t considered a good idea, unless it openly supports these beliefs.
What It Is. What It’s Not
The ID movement is not comprised of persons who necessarily reject a literal creation, a biblical flood, or the biblical plan of salvation. The principal persons involved in the movement vary from young earth creationists who accept the Bible and interpret Genesis literally, to some who are not Christians at all. They agree on one thing—life has features that require an intelligent designer; life could not arise by evolution.
Some ID advocates believe in the biblical God of creation and the literalness of the Genesis account of history, and they still believe those things when they are advocating concepts of ID. Appreciating the work of the ID movement doesn’t imply that we reject or even question a literal biblical creation, the Flood, or a Creator-Redeemer. ID simply doesn’t address the identity of the designer or when or how the design process occurred. ID limits itself, rather, to a more specific issue—the necessity of intelligent design in the origin of life and of complex life forms.
Does it in any way undermine Adventist beliefs? Does it support them?
Inserting a Wedge
By addressing the one specific issue (that life requires a designer), ID sets its sights on a more limited goal, but a very important one. Its goal is to break the hold of the naturalistic world- view that dominates science today. Naturalism is the belief that science must explain all phenomena in the universe by the laws of physics and chemistry alone, without reference to any divine or supernatural influences.
Naturalism and atheism became prominent in the scholarly world more than 200 years ago as part of a movement away from the controlling influence of governments and some religions and their overbearing attitudes in previous centuries.6 Naturalistic thinking gradually grew, becoming the ruling philosophy for science in the minds of many scientists (and theologians) today. Naturalism does not allow science to even consider the possibility of a Creator or a God who inspired the Bible.
The biblical evidence and logic commonly used in favor of creation and a biblical flood can be effective when speaking with conservative Christians who already accept the Bible as the standard for truth, but to many scientists our arguments simply bounce off the protective wall of naturalism. If our explanations don’t agree with naturalistic assumptions, our explanations are not heard at all, because they are considered, by definition, to be nonsense. This is why many scientists so vehemently reject the idea of creation or intelligent design of life.
So if naturalism has such a controlling influence in science, how can this situation be changed to allow open public discussion of the merits of both secular and religious views of origins? Or will a completely secular view of life’s origin continue to maintain its tight hold on the scholarly world?
We could take the position that we don’t care what science says. We could decide that those scientists are hopeless, and we will just appeal to a more open-minded audience. But there are problems with that approach. A friend of mine, who is an evolutionary biologist at a major university, said, “There are many scientists who don’t know what to do with the evidence for evolution, but they are not willing to give up on God.” I see reasons to believe he is right. And we must care about this large group of individuals. Jesus told doubting Thomas that those who have stronger faith would be blessed, but He also cared about Thomas enough to give him evidence to win his trust.7If these scientists openly discuss their doubts about the ruling scientific concept of origins, it could endanger their employment because of the prejudice against creationism in the scientific community. Naturalism is now like a protective wall around science, keeping out any consideration of creation or intelligent design. So how can scientists and others who are searching find the answers to their questions? That protective wall must be broken down to allow free public discussion of naturalism versus design.
The ID movement addresses its chosen, limited issue to increase its chance of weakening the protective wall of naturalism. Trying to attack this wall of union between science and naturalism head-on is not likely to meet with much success. A person running full speed into a big log will only break his bones. But that same person can break up that log with a good wedge and a large hammer. Phillip Johnson, the leading light behind the ID movement, uses this concept to describe a critical goal of ID. The sharp point of a wedge may have a better chance of opening a crack in a solid structure, he says, and this crack can ultimately break the structure apart.8
For ID, the crack that needs to be opened is to break apart the union of science with the philosophy of naturalism, and open up a place for free discussion of the possibility that there is a Creator.
There are a couple of issues regarding the strategy used by the ID movement that can cloud one’s perception of ID. Some ID advocates maintain that ID does not require the designer to be the biblical God or any other divine being, but it could even be an alien from space. The only conclusion they draw from their science is that life requires an intelligent designer of some type. That is technically true, but then their writings or talks to Christian groups indicate they do think God is the designer. This is interpreted by others as deception.
I think it would be better if they were more open from the beginning about their belief in God as the designer, to avoid any implication of deception or duplicity. Also the political attempts to have ID taught in public schools have generated much controversy. This can appear to be a violation of the separation of church and state. However, naturalistic views of origins are actually not science but a philosophical commitment that can be described as a religion. Perhaps the only valid way, in this instance, to keep religious preference out of public schools is to leave both views of origins out of public school science classes.
ID and the Controversy Over Origins
When we build a house, the first step is to build a foundation. Without a foundation the house will not progress very fast. For the Christian, the foundation is the Bible. Then a concrete floor can be poured on the foundation.
But is that where we stop? If all we have is the concrete floor, the house will be incomplete and will not be very functional. If we are attempting to bring knowledge of the Creator to a skeptical culture, we first need a smooth floor on which the structure can be built. The floor symbolizes openness to the possibility that God is real and is the designer of life. But the stranglehold of naturalism must be broken before many biblical concepts can have a wider influence.
If we stop with the floor the structure is incomplete. We must then go on to build a complete house on that foundation and floor. In this analogy of origins the Bible is the foundation, and the floor is ID-a platform that allows bringing a creator into the discussion. The rest of the “house” would be a more complete knowledge of creation, the Flood, the entrance of sin, and the Creator’s redeeming grace so abundantly given to us. We don’t base our faith on science, but on Scripture. ID and other scientific work can play a supporting role in revealing God’s creative work, just as God’s response to Job didn’t answer Job’s questions about suffering but drew attention to the greatness of God’s creative power.9
We have a critical part to play in building a completed house, filling in the picture started by the ID movement. Some ID leaders build solidly on the biblical foundation. Others in ID may not recognize the Bible as the foundation, but their work can still help fill in the smooth floor to prepare the way for the building. Even if we don’t agree with everything in the ID movement, we can still appreciate its work, because its efforts have done more than any other approach to open modern minds and lead them to doubt contemporary science’s insistence that life is only the meaningless result of impersonal laws of chemistry and physics.
The more successful it becomes in its task, the faster we can make progress sharing what we have to offer to complete the picture of a loving God and His power to create and to save us from a world of sin and suffering.
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1See, for example, Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1991); Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law & Education (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995); The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000); Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996); William Dembski, Mere Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998); Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999); No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002); The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004); Darwin’s Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
2 Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution
3 Leonard R. Brand, “A Critique of Current Anti-ID Arguments and ID Responses,” Origins, No. 63 (2008): 5-33; readers can find it at grisda.org.
4 John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1994), p. 76; Science &
Theology: An Introduction (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1998), p.78.
5 Leonard R. Brand, “A Biblical Perspective on the Philosophy of Science,” Origins, No. 59 (2006): 6-42; grisda.org.
6Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism (New York: Doubleday, 2004).
8 Phillip Johnson, The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism.
9 Job 38-41.
Leonard Brand, Ph.D., is professor of biology and paleontology, and chair of the Department of Earth and Biological Sciences at Loma Linda University.