The imposition of illusory design on science

In an exchange I’ve had with Hornspiel on BioLogos, he suggested that “design” was an unnecessary and unwelcome new addition to science as it has been practised for the last 400 years. His implication is that teleology has been rightly excluded, citing the usual arguments for methodological naturalism.

I want to leave methodological naturalism aside for a moment, and look at the actual place of design in science, historically.

Let’s start by looking at the global explanatory concepts that were in place both in scientific and general thinking from classical times until the nineteenth century – until Darwin’s theory, in fact. I say scientific and general because ultimately these were agreed common ground for all thought in the western world.

I’ll start with miracle, which was an assumption of Christian theology from the start, but was always clearly demarcated from the pursuit of science. Even at the height of mediaeval belief in miracles associated with saints, and so on, miracle was always known to be exceptional, and specific. It was never regarded as an explanation for normal phenomena, and never hindered the progress of knowledge. Its exclusion from science today is therefore purely ideological – it never sought a place there previously, and coexisted peacefully with what the natural philosophers investigated.

The same is less true of magic as a cause of events, with which scientific orthodoxy was long associated. The reason for this is simple – philosophers thought they could manipulate and predict the world by magic, whereas miracles are in God’s sole control. Magic lost its place in respectable science much later than we often suppose (Newton supported alchemy), but this probably coincided with its fading from the broader worldview of society after the seventeenth century. There are many reasons for its decline, but though still not without adherents, neither religion nor science has any wish to endorse it, so it is irrelevant to this discussion.

Turning to concepts that are still significant for science, natural law was an assumption long before it was formalised intellectually, and even longer before much real progress was made in defining individual laws. Everyone knew that a dropped object always falls, that mixing the same substances always has the same results, and so on. To those who thought about it, law was either the way God chose habitually to act, or perhaps decrees that he had written into creation as he once decreed laws for Moses. Not only that, but human beings in positions of authority create laws and rules. It was undoubtedly this belief in a rational, law-giving God that led to much of the early scientific quest. It is, of course, still the underpinning concept of science, even though its foundation in God’s wisdom has been forgotten.

Chance is a concept also, probably, as old as rational thought itself. Its unpredictable nature was fully known, but it was more often than not associated with unseen causes. In mediaeval Europe, a superstitious strand identified it with vague forces like destiny (such as the wheel of fortune so prominent in mediaeval literature), or even with occult laws, as in astrology. Yet from Biblical times, and in Christian thought, God’s sovereignty over chance was an item of orthodox faith. None of this was changed after Cardano began to look at the rules governing probability in the sixteenth century. You could load your chance of winning at dice, but a freak accident was still an act of God. Once again modern science has simply removed God as the final arbiter of chance and, like natural law, redesignated it as an unexplained absolute.

Design is the most interesting case, because it was always, in the past, a foundational scientific concept. Until the mid-nineteenth century, and long before William Paley’s formalisation of natural theology, the origin of living beings, the world itself and even the laws governing science were attributed to God (or to some other teleological agent like a Demiurge). True, from Plato’s time a self-organisational ability within matter had been an alternative, but it was never a popular one. And for good reason – the design anyone, including scientists, could see in nature was closely parallel to the abilty they had themselves to create and design what was useful or beautiful. The question, before Darwin, was mainly “How did God design?” Even evolutionary theories were attempts to answer that question, and so were not considered any fundamental threat to religion, though we must not forget the increasing tide of rationalism that, for ideological reasons, wanted to do away with all the old truths, including traditional morality and God.

How did Darwin’s work change this? As I suggested in a previous post  Darwin’s theory primarily provided a way of conceiving design without a designer. Variation and natural selection enabled one to imagine how an undirected process might give the illusion of design. As I stated in that post, the evidence actually provided was minimal, the main thrust being (through “one long argument”) that, because it was plausible and because one could imagine ways round most objections, it was true.

That situation is much the same 150 years later: the counter-hypothesis to the universal assumption of design has yet to offer unequivocal evidence that its proposal actually works. It remains attractively plausible, but it hasn’t actually disproved design in a single instance, let alone in the broad sweep of earth’s history.

Despite this, it has managed not only to displace, but to outlaw, design as an explanation in the natural sciences. Like the usurper in a bloodless coup, it has assumed the reins of power and quietly exiled the old ruler without actually demonstrating the illegitimacy of his position, nor the legitimacy of its own.

The political metaphor seems quite apt, really. In such a coup, the aim is to say just enough to explain away the changes as necessary, whilst carrying on business as usual. Darwinism, likewise, is good at saying how ignorantly we used to believe that divine intelligence created everything, before we knew better. But then it continues consistently to use the language of design and the concepts of teleology to make sense of what is actually found in the world. As anyone who looks at the literature can affirm, such design-language usually makes up the bulk of any paper, but culminates in a lip-service tribute to evolution at the end, like the obligatory “Heil Hitler!” in a conversation in the Third Reich.

The question is, though, whether the ongoing discoveries in science owe anything to the truth of the concept of design-as-illusion, or whether things actually make sense because they were designed. Either way, a good case for removing “design” from the position it has held in the human search for truth throughout history has not, actually, been made. You may like the new regime, but that doesn’t make it legitimate.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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