Appearance of Design: Intuition or Illusion?
A couple of years ago I happened to catch a musical performance on Fox News. One of the general assignment reporters, Kelly Wright, was sharing a Christian song that he had written. It was called "I Believe," and its message was captured in the very first verse.
Or see the birds flying high in the sky
That lets me know there's a God somewhere
While this is hardly a convincing apologetic for the existence of God, it does harbor an extremely important point. The vast majority of people believe in some sort of Supreme Being. If you ask them why this is so, you will hear a very common answer. To the average man, it is just a matter of common sense: "Look around you; look at the world; look at the beauty and wonder of life; it all had to come from somewhere!"
Life is remarkable and complex, and the more we learn the more amazing it all becomes. The default reaction is to be captivated by it – simply note any child's wonder on a visit to the zoo or a peer into the microscope. People just seem to have this notion that life is special, and the impression of intentionality and design presses hard upon them. For many, to insist that life is a fluke of nature is as absurd as trying to convince them that Mount Rushmore was carved by wind and rain.
This is not merely an emotional response to nature, but an inference from experience as well. The only experience we have of functional complexity originates from the minds and hands of intelligent designers, like humans. It is the same principle that NASA would use to infer the existence of alien life if a mere bolt were found on Mars, and it is the underlying assumption of SETI as they look for extraterrestrial radio signals containing even simple patterns.
Such ideas about life had been the bane of atheism for the better part of history until Darwinian theory arrived to exorcise these intuitions from our consciousness. Prior to Darwin, there were various speculative theories about the origin of life, like spontaneous generation, but they had to be satisfied with being classed more as philosophy than science. Darwin gave atheism the intellectual respectability that it had long sought. One of Darwinian evolution's chief apologists, Richard Dawkins, said it well in his book, The Blind Watchmaker.
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following [David] Hume: 'I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.' I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
Dawkins implies that biological design begs for an explanation. He's just averse to permitting God to serve as that explanation. But unless some alternative explanation can be offered, the intuition that complex order is best explained by a designer – the essence of Intelligent Design – stands unmolested. If I discover in the morning that my fresh-cut wood has been mysteriously stacked by my shed, then I would certainly be justified in thinking that some benevolent person has intentionally done the deed. Perhaps I would be mistaken, and it is in reality the work of a tornado, but until that case can be made I would be in my rights to stick with my initial assumption.
When Richard Dawkins tells us in The Blind Watchmaker that "biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose," he outright admits to the default impression of design. However, he then goes on to explain why this is only a false impression, and that the order and purpose found in nature can actually be explained by evolutionary processes.
It may theoretically be the case that genetic variation and natural selection are the true authors of biology, but that is the alternative explanation offered in answer to the mystery of life. The theory of evolution has prevailed long enough that its supporters now believe it to be the natural and default victor. It may indeed be the reigning paradigm, but with each generation it must labor anew to suppress our intuitions. And this is why, in spite of all the academic and media hype, the purely random and materialist version of the theory continues to be rejected by the majority of the population.
I would propose, then, that the defeat of evolution would put design back onto center stage. Intelligent Design advocates are often criticized for trafficking in the flaws of evolutionary theory rather than offering positive evidence for design. But a critique of evolution is a case for Intelligent Design. As Dawkins admits, nature appears to be "designed for a purpose," and "design" implies a designer of some intelligence. If evolutionary theory fails at making the case that this appearance is merely an illusion, then we are justified in taking the appearance of design at face value. Intelligent Design lies just beneath the waxy veneer of evolution. It only remains to be seen what can truly be scratched off where there is liberty to do so.