TFP on the Centre For Inquiry Toronto’s new Campus Podcast

The Centre For Inquiry Toronto is beginning a new Campus Podcast dealing with issues of freethought and secularism on Canadian university and college campuses. The Frame Problem will be a regular news source and contributor to the podcast. Below is a manuscript of the first submission, which concerns a recent article published in the University of Toronto’s leading student paper, The Varsity, on evolution and Intelligent Design Creationism. Justin Trottier, Director of CFI Toronto, will likely cut some parts out in the interest of time, but here it is as initially produced.

On “Rolling the Dice”, an article by Andrea Yeomans published in late November in the University of Toronto’s Varsity student paper.

I have read this article three times now, and each time I am more annoyed than the time before. There are a few things that make this article frustrating to read. Firstly, it attempts to depict Creationism and Intelligent Design as being relevantly distinct from one another when it comes to the God debate. Secondly, it claims that there actually is a debate occurring. Thirdly, it peddles the tacit suggestion that the scientific worldview and the theistic worldview are approximately equally valid epistemological competitors. Fourth, it grossly misrepresents both the accomplishments of evolutionary science as well as evolutionary theory itself. And finally, it suggests that the “debate” between science and theism is actually contributing to the intellectual development of our society, rather than just wasting time and energy on garden variety nonsense. 

Are Creationism and Intelligent Design Relevantly Distinct? 

The short answer: No.

Let’s look at how Ms. Yeomans describes the two, and dissect from there. Yeomans describes Creationism as the belief that the universe and everything within it was created by a presupposed God, one derived from religion. Creationism is also described as advocating for uncommon descent, as opposed to common ancestry of the different earthly species. Then there is the issue of the Earth’s age. Young Earth Creationists belief it to be between six and ten thousand years of age, while Old Earth Creationists side with science’s estimate of many billions of years. Creation science is described as being a concerted attempt to figure out how God created the universe. Some Creation scientists even went out to find evidence for specifics of the Bible, such as the great flood. Yeomans points out that not all Creationists deny biological evolution. Some subscribe to theistic evolution—that evolution is a creation of God, and that God may have played the role of director at some points. Yeomans states that some of these Creationists believe that humans were created specially by God. 

Let’s now review how Yeomans presents ID. Here is an exact quote:“Unlike creationism, intelligent design does need the universe to be created by an almighty deity. Instead, the theory holds that random processes, like biological evolution, are not enough to explain complicated aspects of the universe—as a sophisticated cause is a better explanation for the phenomena we experience. One of the better-known arguments was put forth in 1802 by William Paley in Natural Theology. He compares the phenomenon of finding a watch to that of observing complex organisms. The existence of a watchmaker is made manifest by looking at a watch. It is difficult to imagine such a complex and refined artifact arising by natural forces without the aid of a designer. So, too, argued Paley, one can observe a complex organism and infer it must have a designer as well. Some proponents of intelligent design believe that the designer is God—but not necessarily.”

First, let us appreciate the ridiculousness of this description of ID. First she says that ID does not require the universe to be created by an almighty deity, but then she says that ID posits the requirement of an intelligent designer. I wonder if she proofread this paper before submitting it. What is the distinction here? Creationism requires an all powerful creator whereas ID requires a creator that is not all powerful but that can direct the course and the very existence of the universe? At best we’re splitting hairs here. She also points out that some proponents of ID believe the designer to be God, but not necessarily. She even goes on to quote to quote local IDist Denyse O’Leary saying that she is reluctant to rush God into the discussion. Now this is absolutely ridiculous. Who else is the designer going to be but God? And not just any God, but the Christian God. It is not simply an innocent coincidence that all of the well-known IDists, such as Bill Dembski, Michael Behe, O’Leary, and Guillermo Gonzalez are all devout Christians. Behe and Dembski have even been quoted as saying that they believe the designer to be the God of the Bible.

It has been well-established that Intelligent Design is nothing more than Creationism dressed up to look science-y. Because Creationism had been banned from American science classes as it was clearly religiously based, ID was a carefully calculated attempt to present Creationism under a new name and new terminology in order to sneak religion into the American public school system. And this is not only the belief of secularists like myself, or even of scientists. It in fact was the ruling by conservative and Christian Bush-appointed judge John Jones in the famous (or infamous) Dover, Pennsylvania trial over the teaching of Intelligent Design in public science classes. One of the most damning pieces of evidence against the IDists in this case was the demonstration that the proposed ID textbook was nothing more than a previous Creation Science text with terms like “Creationism” and “God” replaced with “Intelligent Design” and “designer”.

When you look at the demographics of the ID movement, the court results, and the specific claims of ID, it is patently obvious that ID and Creationism are not meaningfully distinct. ID is simply the next generation of Creationism. It is a new Creationism designed to hopefully get passed the Constitutional barriers to teaching religion in public schools. And it is failing, just like its precursor had.

The next farce presented in this article was the portrayal of the creation-evolution debate as, well, a debate. It is not a debate any more than would be a debate between the theory of gravity and say, the notion that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is pulling objects down using extremely thin but unyielding spaghetti strands. One side of this “debate” is committed to having beliefs based on evidence, rationality and open inquiry. The other is committed simply to a particular set of beliefs, period. Hence, this latter group has been stunningly satisfied with arguments that would be laughable in seemingly any other discourse context. In 2000 years, the best arguments that they have managed to muster—and I use the terms “best” and “argument” very loosely—are arguments from ignorance, authority, the cherry-picking of vague scripture, the misrepresentation of evolutionary biology, and personal experience (interestingly, it doesn’t seem to bring them pause that people of various other religions have had similar experiences, as have secular meditators, impassioned attendees of political rallies, and the consumers of various illicit drugs).

And this leads us to farce three: the tacit implication that Intelligent Design Creationism (might as well just combine the terms for clarity) and the scientific worldview are similarly meritorious epistemological competitors. With statements such as “In the beginning, before you or I or even this universe existed, an event occurred that made our presence possible. Exactly what that special something was— the Big Bang, divine intervention—nobody knows”, and the absence of any commentary on the infinitely vast disparity with regard to evidence, the article completely masks the fact that the scientific worldview is based on evidence and the religious worldview is based on intellectually-irrelevant popularity.

Yeomans also misrepresents the accomplishments of evolutionary science and evolutionary theory. In setting up her piece, Yeomans writes:“For centuries human beings have pondered the question of life’s origins. But today we aren’t any closer to discovering the answer than we were when we started searching.” Hmmm. Well, I wouldn’t go saying this around Life Sciences departments. They’re pretty committed to the lie. This statement is just pure inanity. To say that we aren’t any closer to the origin of life is to discredit one of the most advanced intellectual accomplishments in human history. Evolutionary science goes bumper to bumper with any theory ever proposed when it comes to debating the most successful and influential idea in human history. Yeomans also sprinkles in a quick misrepresentation of evolutionary theory when she equates biological evolution with natural selection, neglecting other mechanisms such as genetic drift. We can be a bit more forgiving of this, however, as this is less commonly known. 

Yeomans closes out her article with another laughable set of declarations:“By definition, theories are falsifiable. Arguably, it is the debate that a theory engenders that makes it useful. The act of each viewpoint trying to falsify others encourages skepticism. This is how new theories are born. If we all agreed upon one theory, there would be immense intellectual laziness—the danger of taking things for granted. A little friendly competition isn’t a bad thing.”Since when has IDC ever been falsifiable? One of the numerous reasons that ID is not a science is that since it makes no predictions it has no potential for scientific falsification. Next, how does debating over God contribute to new theories in this day in age? It’s the same old tired debates that it has always been. Why? Because one side is not really debating in the sense that they are just saying their beliefs and holding them no matter how much they defy rationality and intellectual honesty. This is not a constructive debate so much as it is pushing against a brick wall. Finally, on the idea that if everyone agreed upon a theory nothing would change, well this is just irrelevant. Despite the fact that scientists agree on the historicity of evolution—as it would be untenable not to—there is still plenty of disagreement within evolutionary science and plenty of open questions. And hence, it is no surprise that the field has continued to advance at a staggering pace. 

“Rolling the Dice” clearly represents another instance of media misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Intelligent Design Creationism and evolution. While this piece is less concerning than many other productions on these issues in the sense that it is being read by a relatively modest number of people, it is more concerning in that it is being published in the most read student paper of a leading university, both generally and in the biological sciences in particular.

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