Written by Ted Troxell : July 17, 2008

I have not seen the movie Expelled, and I probably won’t. So I have nothing to say about the film, its execution, or what I’m sure is a stellar performance by the inimitable Ben Stein. I know the film’s premise, that it is a documentary about people who have been unfairly dismissed from their employment for espousing Intelligent Design theory, and again, I have no purchase on how well the film does this — but the topic is at least an interesting one. If people are being fired for reasons of religious faith or metaphysical assumptions, this is unfortunate, but not unheard of. I’m open to the possibility, however, that if people really are being fired, there’s simpler explanation: Intelligent Design theory is bad science.

Intelligent Design differs from something like “Creation Science” in that whereas the latter is concerned to scientifically prove that the earth was created in six 24-hour days, Intelligent Design theory accepts most of the tenets of evolutionary theory but declares that the complexity of evolutionary process ineluctably points to an intelligent cause for the whole mess. On the surface, this is unremarkable, since nearly every human culture that ever existed has assumed as much; for most people, all this had to come from somewhere. The problem is that the ID camp wants to make this a scientific precept. Unfortunately, such a speculation is an inference, not an observation; it is simply not something that can be empirically verified, nor (more importantly) can it be falsified, and thus scientific method must rule it out if it’s going to live with itself in the morning.

It raises questions that are of a more philosophical bent: Is an uncreated universe somehow more absurd than an uncreated God? If the universe is so complex that it demands explanation in terms of cause, why don’t we need to explain the cause? On what basis do we assume that whatever made the universe is something that stands ontologically alone? This sets us up for an infinite regress: if we need God to explain the universe, do we need a meta-God, shall we say, to explain God? How about a meta-meta-God? How far does the rabbit hole go?

Science stops the buck at the empirical, because this as far as it can see. Atheists like Richard Dawkins assume that this is as far as it can see because this is all there is — but again, Dawkins’ scientific creds notwithstanding, that’s an inference. Theology can take this a step further and say there is a God, and theology can get away with this because God is the proper subject of theology’s musings. It doesn’t have to explain God because it gets to define God as uncreated, and most of the time this is what it does. This is just too fuzzy for science, and understandably so.

Inferring a designer from the complexity of the created order tells us little more than we knew before, and nothing particular helpful by way of explanation. It is the sort of question that science — if not necessarily all scientists — has the good sense to stay out of. I’m not suggesting that we adopt Stephen Jay Gould’s assessment of religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria”, nor am I suggesting that we believe some things in a scientific way and other (perhaps contradictory) things in a religious way. What I’m suggesting is that we preserve the idea that the tools of science can only tell us so much.

Intelligent Design would seem to expand the purview of science to include vague speculations about God, and I find this scientifically unhelpful and theologically problematic. It is scientifically unhelpful because it tells us something that most people believe anyway, and something that doesn’t really contribute to our understanding of the world.

Theologically, while it may be possible to infer an intelligent cause for the observable universe, there’s no way to identify this cause, no way to sort out the difference between a God, many gods, or a race of hyperintelligent beings conducting an experiment in the galactic equivalent of their back yard. You’re still a long way from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The other problematic thing is that making God something we can arrive at scientifically seems a bit of a demotion. When a robust theology incorporates the truth claims of science, science is humbled, perhaps, but keeps its integrity as means of arriving at certain kinds of truth; when the tables are turned, science cannot but run reductionistic roughshod over theology’s verdant meadows. It’s true that atheists are more plentiful among the scientific community than the world at large, which would seem to make it something of an occupational hazard. But it seems to me this results from making scientific process your primary epistemological lens, an Enlightenment-era bias that Intelligent Design theory reinforces more than it challenges.

In the end, I think we ought to suspend judgment when it comes to evolutionary theory. It explains some things very well, and like any aspect of science, things are perennially in the tweaking stage. There are available to us robust theological readings of the creation narratives that do not demand that evolutionary theory be irrefutably true or irredeemably false. I think such theological positions are much more helpful than reactionary fundamentalists assertions of wooden literalism — the Answers in Genesis people scratched me off their Christmas card list a long time ago.

In Acts 7, when Stephen is brought up on charges before the Sanhedrin, he offers a capsule summary of Israel’s history. He begins, interestingly enough, with the call of Abraham. There are a good number of reasons for this, and I am aware of the dangers of reading too much into such a detail. Maybe he felt pressed for time, what with an impending stoning and all. But maybe the subtle message is: what we are called to is a lot more important than how we got here.

Author Bio:: Ted Troxell is a substitute teacher and musician living in Shepherd, MI

Image: Jesus! vs. Darwin! by The Searcher

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    "Science stops the buck at the empirical, because this as far as it can see."
    "What I’m suggesting is that we preserve the idea that the tools of science can only tell us so much."

    Yup. This is why, as far as an explanation for the universe itself is concerned, science is useless. Because of the infinite regression the universe cannot ultimately provide us with an explanation for it's own existence.

    "Intelligent Design would seem to expand the purview of science to include vague speculations about God..."

    IMHO, this is the exact same thing that hard-line atheists do. You also said, "Atheists like Richard Dawkins assume that this is as far as it can see because this is all there is — but again, Dawkins’ scientific creds notwithstanding, that’s an inference." The assertion that "God does not exist" is nothing more than speculation. IMHO, taking ANY stance on the existence or non-existence of God is beyond the scope of science (as is taking a stance on the reason for the existence of the universe). The funny thing is, the whole concept of using methodologies to explain the world around us was largely invented by Creationist Christians seeking to better understand God. It seems that the forerunners of scientific method had the assumption that God exists built in.

    That's where I stand. The existence of God is assumed. To me, it is nonsensical to think otherwise. And while science cannot provide us with a proof for the existence of God, it can provide us with insight into His nature.

    Greg Boyd has a neat book coming out soon called "The Cosmic Dance." You can see some of the sample pages @

    Nice article, Ted. I especially like your conclusion "what we are called to is a lot more important than how we got here."

    in Him,
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    Wow...! As a biologist-evolutionist.christian believer I like how you point out some of the tenets in the science vs religion discussion. I totally agree with your definition of Intelligent design (as contrasted to young-earth creationism). You're right when you say that ID is more related to philosophy. And even a philosophical demonstration of a superior being doesn't help when it is about a personal God. Pascal said that "The God of philosophy" is not the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I think that "The God of philosophy" explains a part of the Whole God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (I'm not compartimentalizing God; compartimentalization is just a human tool). We need a leap of faith to understand this personal God (without becoming "irrational fundies").

    Sometimes it is more necessary a "kerygmatic" approach rather than a "rational-apologetic" one.
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    I don't have anything to add...Ted, that was a generous and clear synopsis of the Gordian knot that many find themselves in over this issue. Kudos.
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    Very interesting article. I am very much in favor of holding "story" above "fact". I also think, though, that, thanks to the contributions of postmodernism, the empirical method for determining "fact" has been shown to be faulty. The positivist assumption that objective reality can be determined simply through sensory observation and not by supernatural revelation is ludicrous to me, since all scientific data is subject to human interpretation, which can vary depending on the criteria chosen- i.e., the underlying belief system (or their theology). Where I see the most useful "science" is in areas such as holistic healing, which look at the whole person and recognize the existence of invisible forces beyond human comprehension at work right alongside the observable. I would wager that once the parental lock-hold of The Universe According to the Scientific Elite is broken, science and theology would make a perfect marriage. Answers in Genesis is not the answer, though, they too are in the same positivist boat. I think we need to return to more primitive concepts of reality, to be able to recognize the Spirit of God actively working in and among every piece of creation, to recover a childlike wonder and admit to the possibility that maybe there are angels conversing with asses and maybe having a private joke about how dull we humans are.
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    I appreciate the poetry of your response, but I bristle a bit at language of a "return to more primitive concepts of reality", a sentiment that implies an awful lot of toothpaste going back in the tube. Maybe it's semantics, maybe I'm not properly postmodern, maybe I'm sleep-deprived and missing the point -- but I think there's a significant difference between recognizing and re-appropriating ancient wisdom that was unnecessarily jettisoned in the Enlightenment project, and calling for a wholesale return, which even if it seemed imperative, I'm pretty sure I don't have the knack. I can admit the possibility of a good many things about which I'm nevertheless pretty darn skeptical.

    Plus, as time marches on and the messianic and liberatory pretensions of postmodernism lose their lustre (don't get me wrong -- I'm a fan), we might find that even Descarte wasn't completely wrong.
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    I was afraid you might take that sentence that way. What I meant by a "return" was a recovering of a sense of the integration of all things, both seen and unseen, physical and spiritual. I do not mean that we should have such a literalistic reading of scripture that we suppress human discovery, as in the case of the church's condemnation of Copernicus' heliocentric solar system. But modern science is not an exact science, it too is a faith, or a discipline of a certain faith, and needs to be recognized as such. The evolutionary theory of origins is a child of the Enlightenment belief system of empiricism. Darwin had a theory and set out to prove it, but he already had an interpretive grid in place through which to filter his observations. So it is with all disciplines, including theology. The empirical method is not sufficient to determine absolute truth in any field. But if, as your article eloquently suggests, the story of what we are called to trumps even the need to know the absolutes, then why not make science a discipline of the Christian calling, instead of a religion that worships human achievement, incorporating the study of the universe with prayer and adoration, looking at the world sacramentally, as a vehicle through which our souls might be fed as well as our minds enlightened.
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    Thanks, Sara. The clarification helps. I don't want to give the impression that we're miles apart, because that's not the case. There's a lot to criticize in the Enlightenment, and doing so can be good fun at times. And it is true that at a certain level, all we have is story: we don't dispense packets of discrete, disembodied information -- we narrate. Is scientific process a kind of "faith"? After a fashion, yes.

    I'm no stranger to relativism (which should not be a dirty word) and no foe of pluralism. But I also like to hang on to some criteria by which I might choose between, say, Apollo's fiery chariot, Ptolemy's concentric crystal spheres, and Copernicus' heliocentric model. Each is a way of narrating experience and observation, and as such each is empiricist in some way.

    Copernicus has no so much been unseated, however, as tweaked, and I suspect that will continue to be the case. Likewise, Newton has been superseded by Einstein, but the shift here is different in that Newton's formulas still work just fine for big, slow things like bullets. In fact, at that level Einstein's model pretty much collapses into Newton's, which cannot be said of other paradigm shifts. Scientific process has changed the epistemological landscape. Of course, like all human knowledge, it is contingent, and I'm all for attempts to keep it from getting uppity. I'm just not convinced we're always dealing with apples to apples as we evaluate kinds of knowledge.
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    Ted, excellent commentary on ID.

    I would like to push back a bit on your statement "In the end, I think we ought to suspend judgment when it comes to evolutionary theory. It explains some things very well, and like any aspect of science, things are perennially in the tweaking stage." I agree that evolutionary theory is in the tweaking stage, but I find that it is more fine tuning. There is no doubt in my mind that God used evolution to create us and the world. As I've come to accept evolutionary theory (coming from a more Creation Science background), I have found that it changes the lens through which I see the gospel, Christian maturity, Revelations, and more. I believe that evolutionary theory does better at supporting the basic ideas of Christian faith than it supports an atheistic view. For me, what I am called to is better understood through knowing how I got here.
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    Actually, we agree for the most part. For the sake of dialog, however, I'm willing to concede that evolutionary theory could be wrong, or could be presented at some point with new evidence that can only be accounted for with a major overhaul. As I'm sure you know, scientific theories are never proven; the better ones simply fail to be disproved, at least long enough to be useful. I also like to create some distance between evolution as a working theory of biological process and evolution as a 'secular' myth of origins.

    Plus, using "suspend judgment" allowed for the wordplay of the title. :)
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    Thanks for this, as a Christian who spent my first 6 years of elementary school in a private, religious school in the 70's and the rest of my education in the public school system, I have never understood why my fellow Christians have their undergarments in such a twist over Darwin's theory of evolution. Since childhood, I've had no problem assuming that the evolutionary process was set in motion by God -- but like you I don't feel like that is something science needs to get into, science should just stick to observable "facts" and leave the rest to theologians.

    Your article seems to sum up precisely how I've always felt about the issue.

    Personally, I'd rather focus on getting Darwinism out of our economic policies than out of our schools.


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