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Distributed June 2, 2005
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About 830 Words

Robert Scholes
Five Questions About Intelligent Design

“Intelligent design” is now the subject of constant debate in and around biological circles. Humanists would be happy to help sort things out, if only they could understand what the issues really are. Toward that end, Robert Scholes poses five not entirely rhetorical questions.

There’s a big debate going on over in the biology department or around the biology department, but it’s not clear that the debate is about science. For a humanist like myself, a life-long student of language, literature and rhetoric, the debate is very interesting, since it’s on a topic that has often been considered by poets, novelists and philosophers: a matter that is now being called “intelligent design.”

From what I understand about this debate, it looks as if my scientific brethren could use a little humanistic help in resolving it, which I and others like me would happily offer if we could just understand exactly what the issues are. I have spent some time, recently trying to find out what is meant by intelligent design and what is actually at stake in the debate, but, after a fair amount of web surfing, I still have questions that I hope someone will answer for me.

These are questions, in part, about rhetoric, but they are not rhetorical questions. That is, they are not meant to imply their own answers. I really don’t know what the proponents of intelligent design have in mind on some of these issues, and I would very much like to know just that. I will raise those questions in a moment, but first I want to say what I think the debate is about. It may be that I have got it wrong, and it would be good to know that, too.

It seems to me that the big question is whether the world as we know it is an accident or the result of a plan. Frankly, I don’t find either one of these suppositions very comforting, but those seem to be the only choices offered. Ignoring the accidental theory, let’s look more closely at what intelligent design may mean with respect to this world. It must mean, obviously, that the world is not an accident, but the fruit of a serious effort. The first question that comes to mind, then, is the source of the effort. If the world was designed, it must have been designed by someone or something.

When you look into it, the possibility arises that it was designed by a committee – or perhaps a legislature. I can imagine a legislative sub-committee on bodily organs, for example, deciding to give everyone an appendix because a committee member has an appendix factory in his district that needs work. But I don’t think that is what the proponents of intelligent design have in mind. I think they have in mind a single Designer of some sort – in which case I would like them to be a bit more specific about the nature of this Designer.

If the theory of intelligent design is designed to lead us to thoughts of a Designer, as I suppose it is, I have five questions that I would like its proponents to answer:

  1. Are we to assume that the Designer has intentions that we can understand, or does this being work in mysterious ways beyond human capacities to comprehend? Either answer would clarify things considerably. The answer I dread, however, is “Both,” with some privileged person designated to tell us which is which.
  2. If we assume that we can comprehend the Designer’s intentions, must we seek to do so only by examining the world itself, or are we to suppose that the Designer sends us verbal messages every now and then, like the Bible, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon?
  3. Do we suppose that the Designer set things going, made the rules, and since then has kept hands off while the Design works itself out, or does the Designer intervene every now and then to keep the Design on track – which would suggest some imperfection in the original design?
  4. All science assumes an orderly universe, in which physical laws never change. Intelligent design may make the same assumption. Or it may assume a Designer who can suspend the laws from time to time, allowing what we call miracles to happen. For example, the laws of biology require the union of sperm and egg for human conception to occur. Does intelligent design accept these laws as inviolable, or does it allow for the occasional virgin birth?
  5. Does the design apply only to the physical universe or does it apply to human history as well? The philosopher Hegel thought that history was a hideous slaughter bench, justifiable only as required by a design for the raising of human consciousness. Of course, he also thought that this raised consciousness would ultimately transcend all historical religions. Do the proponents of intelligent design have something like that in mind? Or do they assume that the Designer is actually a partisan of some particular religion, with plans for that one to suppress all the others and suffuse the world with its truth? And, if so, can they tell us which one is designed to win?

Robert Scholes is research professor of modern culture and media at Brown University, where he also directs the Modernist Journals Project. Scholes was president of the Modern Language Association for 2004.

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