[Earlier version published in the Tribune on June 7, 2005; revised and adapted for this website on 7-20 and 8-18, 2005]

Why Intelligent Design and the Privileged Planet are Flawed
    Intelligent Design is a religious concept cloaked in the language of science. In fact, Intelligent Design is a new variant of an old creationist argument called the teleological argument, which has both Christian and non-Christian versions. In its most simplified Christian version, it is structured as follows: 1) Design implies a Designer; 2) This Designer is the Christian God.

    Members of the Discovery Institute and the Center for Science and Culture, some of the main promoters of ID, make very inconsistent representations of their religious agenda. William Dembski, author of Intelligent Design (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), is a case in point. On the one hand, Dembski tells us (p. 252): "Intelligent design is a strictly scientific theory devoid of religious commitments." But, on p. 209, he says: "So, too, Christology tells us that the conceptual soundness of a scientific theory cannot be maintained apart from Christ." It makes one wonder whether any of Einstein's theories could be maintained "apart from Christ."

    The Privileged Planet (TPP), co-authored by Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, is simply one of the latest attempts to argue that our planet was designed by some higher intelligence. The main evidence is that our planet seems to be uniquely positioned for life and scientific measurability/discovery.

    If our planet were much farther from, or much closer to, the sun, for example, then life might not exist. Therefore, it is inferred that our planet must have been intelligently placed in just this location in order for life to exist and for astronomers to observe the universe.

    One need only read theologies produced over the last hundreds of years to understand that this is not a new argument. Already in 1907, the famed Baptist theologian, Augustus Hopkins Strong stated in his Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, New Jersey: F. H. Revell, 1907, p. 75): "Order and useful collocation pervading a system respectively imply intelligence and purpose as the cause of that order and collocation. Since order and useful collocation pervade the universe, there must exist an intelligence adequate to the production of this order, and a will adequate to direct this collocation to useful ends."

    The utter superficiality of such Intelligence Design arguments become apparent when one realizes that our planet has millions of features that we could identify as unique. These million other features also might not exist if our planet were any closer to, or farther from, the sun.

    For example, if our planet were not located precisely where it is, then we might also not have AIDS viruses, congenital deformities, or death itself. So why do ID proponents think that life and intelligence were the features selected for intelligent design? Why don't ID proponents argue that our planet has been positioned where it is so that AIDS viruses, congenital deformities, and death could exist?

    The best explanation that TPP can muster for its selection is apparently on p. 303: "When considering universes, everyone recognizes, unless they're trying to avoid a conclusion they find distasteful, that a habitable universe containing intelligent observers has an intrinsic value that an uninhabitable one lacks."

    But TPP does not define "intrinsic value." In fact, TPP says (p. 300): "Such value is difficult to define, but we usually know it when we see it." Thus, TPP ends up with a very self-serving and circular argument that may be paraphrased: "Feature X was designed because I consider X valuable."

    Otherwise, ID advocates may simply be repeating an ancient biblical concept. As stated in Isaiah 45:18 (NRSV): "For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens he is God!), who formed the earth and made it he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!)."

    Even more puzzling is that TPP's co-author, who is an astronomer, seems to believe that the earth was positioned for his convenience (in order to make scientific measurements of the universe).

    This is analogous to a plumber arguing that if our planet had not been positioned precisely where it is, then he might not be able to do his work as a plumber. Lead pipes might melt if the sun were much closer. And, if our planet were any farther, it might be so frozen that plumbers might not exist at all. Therefore, plumbing must have been the reason that our planet was located where it is.

    Moreover, if this planet were designed to facilitate scientific discovery, it leaves unexplained the fact that 99.99999% of our planet's 4.5 billion-year history was not inhabited by creatures that could record measurements. One might just as easily postulate that the Designer meant for earth to be inhabited mostly by creatures that made no intelligent measurements.

    Related to ID are often what are called "Fine Tuning" arguments. Usually, such arguments list a myriad of physical constants and values that must "be right" in order for life to exist on earth. Thus, if the charge of the electron were different, for example, life would not exist on earth. Once one considers all the things that must "be right" for life to exist, then some astronomical probability is calculated to argue that life on earth cannot be pure coincidence.

    The main assumption is that the amount of physical constants and entities that "must be right" to produce any entity X is generally proportional to the amount of the Designer's purpose for X.

    Yet, this assumption can be reduced to absurdity. For example: Let P = the entire set of entities or physical values that must "be right" for human life to exist on earth. Mathematically, we can argue that many MORE things need to "go right" to produce computers and a host of other entities otherwise regarded as of no "intrinsic value."

    We need only P to make human beings, but we need P + 1 (i.e., human beings) to make computers. Given that mathematical fact, why do advocates of ID think that human beings are the ultimate "purpose" of the Designer? And why can't human beings be only an intermediary step in some conceivably longer causal sequence?

    Indeed, there is no escaping the fact that, whether we call the "Designer" the Christian God or not, the advocates of ID provide no scientific method to verify that any feature they observe about our universe corresponds to the intentions of a grand "Designer." And it is this ARBITRARY and UNVERIFIABLE attribution of intention that renders Intelligent Design an exercise in theology rather than in science.

Dr. Hector Avalos,
Associate Professor
of Religious Studies,
Iowa State University