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The New Republic

Creations

Post date: 08.12.05
by Leon Wieseltier

The cunning souls who propound intelligent design are playing with fire, because they have introduced intelligence into the discussion. It is a standard to which they, too, must be held. The theory of intelligent design must itself be intelligently designed. I cannot judge the soundness of their science, but that is not the only standpoint from which they must be judged. Their science, after all, is pledged to a philosophy. Philosophically speaking, I do not see that they have demonstrated what they congratulate themselves for demonstrating. The "argument from design," the view that the evidence for the existence of God may be found in the organization of the natural world, is an ancient argument, but philosophers have grasped, at least since the sixth section of the third chapter of the second book of the Critique of Pure Reason, that it may establish only the wisdom of a creator, and not the existence of one. It is impossible, of course, not to marvel at the complexity and the beauty of the natural order; but marveling is not thinking. The mind may recoil from the possibility that all this sublimity came into being by accident, but it cannot, on those grounds alone, rule the possibility out, unless it is concerned only to cure its own pain. (Cosmic accident is also an occasion for awe.) Intelligent design is an expression of sentiment, not an exercise of reason. It is a psalm, not a proof.

Intelligent design was conceived as the solution to a religious problem, not a scientific one. The problem is that the cosmogony in Genesis does not resemble what we know about the origins of the world. Which is to say, intelligent design was prompted by the consequences of literalism in the interpretation of Scripture. Now, there is no more primitive form of monotheistic religion than this. If you believe that the world was created by God in six days because the Bible says so, then you must also believe that the Israelites saw God's hand, because the Bible says so, and that Moses spoke to God face to face, because the Bible says so, and that God's feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, because the Bible says so, and so on. The intellectual integrity of monotheism depends upon the repudiation of such readings. Sanctity is not an excuse for stupidity. But once the legitimacy of figurative reading is admitted, the fabled dissonance between science and faith, the fundamentalist melodrama, evaporates. Was the world made in six days? Then "days" must not mean days, and may mean many millions of years. Was man "formed ... of the dust of the ground"? Then "formed" must not mean whole and at once, and "the dust of the ground" must refer to some unspecified variety of physical origination. Otherwise Scripture is wrong--but according to the believer Scripture cannot be wrong. And so the believer may turn comfortably to science, without the dread of heresy. Truth is never heresy, except for those who make their religion vulnerable to truth.

I do not mean to gloat. If you were raised on Scripture as a child, if the Bible was your first enchantment, then it is not an easy matter to pull slightly away, to confer upon your improvising intellect so much power over its significations. I remember my torments, in the holy and walled city of Brooklyn, on the subject of dat u'madda, religion and science; but I recall them also as the philosophical characteristics of adolescence. There really is something childish about the notion that everything is exactly as the Bible says it is: this is the spell of fairy tales. I was eventually released from my anxiety about the freedom of my mind by a startling passage in Maimonides, who is not for children. Almost perversely, he wished his students to know that his belief in the creation of the world was not owed to the Bible's account of the creation of the world. This is how he denied them a fundamentalist satisfaction: "Know that our shunning the affirmation of the eternity of the world is not due to a text figuring in the Torah according to which the world has been produced in time. For the texts indicating that the world has been produced in time are not more numerous than those indicating that the deity is a body. Nor are the gates of figurative interpretation shut in our faces ... regarding the subject of the creation of the world in time. For we could interpret them as figurative, as we have done when denying His corporeality." If science could prove that the world was eternal, then the eternity of the world would by some hermeneutical means accord with Scripture. If science can prove that man evolved over millions of years from other species, ditto. The gates of figurative interpretation were opened in my face, and I grew up.

On July 7, The New York Times published an article by Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna. It was submitted to the paper by the public-relations firm that represents the Discovery Institute, a hotbed of intelligent design in Seattle. Denouncing materialism, the cardinal wrote to register a doctrinal disagreement: "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense--an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection--is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science." This is scholastic smoke. An unplanned process may also be God's plan, an instrument of providence. God's will may take many forms. The cardinal seems to have resurrected the old Islamic idea of "occasionalism," known in its Western version from the writings of Malebranche, to get in on the anti-Darwinist action. This was the view that the belief in natural causes is an offense to God's omnipotence, and the acknowledgment of such causes a descent into the pagan worship of nature.

I had thought, in my Judaic innocence, that Aquinas had gloriously secured natural causality for the Church once and for all. Now I must suppose that the Church's unsophisticated new construction of God's will is a manifestation of God's wisdom. For His agents on Earth have cultural uses for anti-Darwinism. They think it will make us good, because Darwin makes us bad. No doubt this is why President Bush wants "to expose people to different schools of thought," and have intelligent design taught alongside evolution: to retard our corruption. But isn't the idea that morality is founded in nature itself a sin of materialism? And are we to teach other false ideas alongside other true ones? I do not want my son to waste his time on phlogiston. I mean, what is truth? The question is begged yet again, this time by the pomo of Crawford.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of TNR.

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