Designing We Shall Go

"God is Dead": Nietsche ("Nietzsche is Dead": God)

January 11, 2006

A few thoughts regarding the recent foolishness in the courts of Pennsylvania over Intelligent Design:

A pertinent question is why the curricula of the schools should be the concern of judges, who are little more than the enforcement arm of the academic and journalistic elites, imposing on Kansas what could not be legislated in Washington. I see no evidence that judges deploy intelligence, knowledge, or any other qualification other than boundless belief in their unlimited jurisdiction.

Another question is precisely what is meant by Intelligent Design. The answer is not easily divined by reading newspapers: The press have many virtues, but facility in communication is not among them. Reporters, whose thinking is tightly templated, seem to think that Intelligent Design has something to do with Christianity. I know many who suspect intelligent design, but are not religious. This idea is too difficult for reporters, and too dangerous for Darwinists. If one heresy may be discussed, so may others be, and the cracks in the foundations become evident.

It is interesting to put the matter in historical context. To simplify exuberantly, but not inaccurately for present purposes: People long ago saw the world in (I hate words like this one) non-mechanistic terms. They thought that events occurred because Someone or Something wanted them to occur. They believed in dryads and maenads, sylphs and salamanders, gods and demiurges. It can be debated whether they were foolish, or responding as in a fog to things real but intangible.

They thought more about death in those days, perhaps because they saw more of it, and wondered. Existence was to them more moral than physical, and more often seen as a passage from somewhere to somewhere. Come Christianity if not much earlier, they accepted Good and Evil, upper case, as things that actually existed. In the cosmic order as they understood it, mind, intention, will, and consciousness trumped the material.

Then in roughly the fifteenth century a shift began to a mechanistic view of the world. Next came Newton. There were others before him, but he, though he was himself a Christian, was the towering figure in the rise of mechanism, the view that all things occur ineluctably through mindless antecedent causes. He said (remember, I’m simplifying exuberantly) that the physical world is like a pool table: If you know the starting positions and velocities of the balls, you can calculate all future positions and velocities. No sprites, banshees, or Fates, no volition or consciousness. He invented the mathematics to make it stick, at least for pool tables.

This notion of mechanism spread to other fields. Marx said that history was a mechanical unfolding of economics, Freud that our very personalities were a deterministic result of strange sexual complexes, Darwin (or more correctly his disciples) that we were the offspring of purposeless material couplings, first of molecules and then of organisms. Skinner made us individually the will-less product of psychological conditioning. Sociology did much the same for groups, giving rise to the cult of victimhood: I am not what I am because of decisions I made, but because of social circumstances over which I have no influence. Genetics now seeks to make us the result of tinker-toy chemical mechanism.

No will, free or otherwise. No good or evil, right or wrong. Consciousness being an awkward problem for determinists, they ignore it or brush it aside. Death is harder to ignore, but accepted only as a physical termination. One says, “John is gone,” but does not ask, “Where has John gone?” The world offers no mystery or wonder. All questions come down to no more than a fine tuning of our analysis of Newton’s pool balls. (Again, I am exuberantly….)

These two views, which reduce to the age-old puzzle of free will and determinism, can be endlessly argued, and have been. Mechanism prevails today because, within its realm, it works, and perhaps also because it does not suffer from the internal contradictions of religion. Technology, almost the only advance made by our otherwise unimpressive civilization, produces results, such as iPods and television. It does not answer, and cannot answer, such questions as Where are we? Why? Where are we going? What should we do? So it dismisses them. Mechanists are hostile to religion in part because religion does not dismiss these questions, but harps on them.

The two conflicting schemes attract adherents because mankind always seeks overarching explanations, particularly regarding origin, destiny, and purpose. Some of us are willing to say “I don’t know.” Others, well denominated True Believers, have to think that they do know. The country is replete with them: Feminists, Marxists, Born-Agains, rabid anti-semites, snake handlers, Neo-Darwinists. They care deeply, brook no dissent (a sure sign of True Belief), and have infinite confidence in their rightness (or perhaps don’t and pretend certainty to ward off a disturbing uncertainty).

In re Intelligent Design, the Darwinists have pretty much won. Their victory springs not so much from the strength of their ideas, but from their success in preventing Intelligent Discussion. They control the zeitgeist of the somewhat educated, as for example judges. It is enough.

Evolution is one of the three sacred foundations of political correctness, along with the notions that there can be no racial and sexual difference in mental capacities, and that religion is unprogressive and should be suppressed, Yet these are delicate things all three, and cannot well bear scrutiny. Thus the various determinists grimly avoid examination of their ideas.

The lacunae are nonetheless obvious. All is material? If I were to talk to a Neo-Darwinist, I might proceed as follows. “One day you will die. Where will you then be? Yes, yes, I know. We do not speak of this. Yet death does seem to be a bit of a reality. Do you never wake up at three in the morning and think, ‘Where in the name of—in the name of Logical Positivism, I suppose you would think—are we?’ If not, you are a great fool.

“Let me put the matter differently. Either you believe that there is life after death, or you believe there isn’t, or you aren’t sure—which means that you believe that there may be. If there is, then there exists a realm of which we know nothing, including what if any effects it exerts on this passing world. If there is nothing beyond the grave, why do you care about anything at all? You’ve only got a few more years, and then—nothing.”

Or I might say, “You don’t mind if I boil your young daughter in oil tonight, do you? The world being purely material, the only effect would be to interrupt certain chemical reactions conjointly called ‘metabolism’ and to substitute others. You cannot object to such a small thing. She will not mind: Consciousness not being derivable from physics, she cannot be conscious. Boiling children cannot be Wrong, as the term has no physical meaning, and in any event all my actions follow inexorably from the Big Bang. I am only doing as blind causality instructs me.”

In truth we know very little about existence, neither you nor I nor biochemists nor even federal judges. We defend our paradigms because we crave a sense of understanding this curious place in which we briefly are. We do it by ignoring the inconvenient and by punishing doubt. Thus the furor over Intelligent Design.