Book Review: The Intelligent Design Debate & The Temptation of Scientism

The Intelligent Design (ID) debate is one of the raging debates in contemporary times. Two opposing camps have established themselves. There is the pro-ID who support creationism; there is the anti-ID who support evolution. The debate is reflected strongly in the theism vs. atheism debate in popular culture. In The Intelligent Design Debate and The Temptation of Scientism (Routledge, 2016), Erkki Vesa Rope Kojonen takes a step back from the often vitriolic passion of the debate and provides a calm and refreshing overview of the important details that get lost over the shouting of both sides. Kojonen’s book allows readers to see the ID debate in a new light that is unlike what popular culture portrays.

The Intelligent Design (ID) debate is one of the raging debates in contemporary times. Two opposing camps have established themselves. There is the pro-ID who support creationism; there is the anti-ID who support evolution. The debate is reflected strongly in the theism vs. atheism debate in popular culture. In The Intelligent Design Debate And The Temptation of Scientism (Routledge, 2016), Erkki Vesa Rope Kojonen takes a step back from the often vitriolic passion of the debate and provides a calm and refreshing overview of the important details that get lost over the shouting of both sides. Kojonen’s book allows readers to see the ID debate in a new light that is unlike what popular culture portrays.

Kojonen does not aim to prove or disprove ID (p. 2). He is not supporting either side and aims instead to provide a balanced view of the debate (p. 49). The book undertakes to understand the cognitive landscape and terrain of the entire ID debate (p. 3, 190). Kojonen is very open: he admits there is no “silver bullet” that can settle the debate once and for all (p. 8). The academic literature provides good critiques of ID as well as lots of bad critiques (p. 192). His view of the debate is that many conclusions were reached “prematurely” (p. 8). The debate is characterised by more polemics, less listening, more mischaracterisation, less understanding (p. 9). On some issues, he agrees with ID; on other issues, he disagrees. Due to this, Kojonen recognises he is a “lonely duck” whom both sides will not be happy with (p. vii).

Taking a step back from the ferocity of the debate, Kojonen points out that both sides, in fact, agree with each other on a lot of essential points. Lots of critics of ID accept the points that ID make (p. 49). There is a “broad consensus” that fine-tuning in the cosmos is a scientifically established fact (p. 35). Both sides of the debate agree that evolutionary biology is an “incomplete science” (p. 68). Theodosius Dobzhansky acknowledges that not all the details of evolution have been worked out yet (p. 56). Both sides agree that belief in design is intuitive to humans (p. 125). ID can be seen as agnostic towards God (p. 90, f. 7). Michael Behe admits that the designer of life for ID could be a “demon” or a “dope”, not God (p. 156). Even atheists can accept ID, because the designer could be a space alien (p. 19). ID accepts that evolution does not entail atheism (p. 174). Elliott Sober emphasises that randomness in evolution doesn’t exclude God (p. 25). ID can be combined with evolution (p. 157, 158). Ernst Mayr made clear that a person could accept some parts of evolution, and reject other parts (p. 55). ID is compatible with “common descent” (p. 57). Johnjoe McFadden and Franklin Harold accept Irreducible Complexity cannot have come from evolution, but they also reject ID (p. 67-8). Darwin himself was not an atheist; he was an agnostic who wavered between belief and unbelief (p. 149, f. 2).

Kojonen highlights the important role philosophy and theology plays in the ID debate. Both sides use philosophical and theological considerations in dealing with cosmic design (p. 47). The debate on biology in interspersed with philosophical and theological arguments (p. 71). The acceptance or rejection of ID is usually done for philosophical and theological reasons (p. 150). Kojonen’s point is to make clear that the ID debate is not a purely scientific matter, but has its philosophical and theological aspects. This is true for both sides of the debate.

A careful reading of the criticisms levelled against ID will show traces of philosophical and theological stances. The Problem of Evil is obviously not a scientific issue; it is a philosophical and theological issue (p. 43-4). Yet Darwin rejected a designer to nature due to the Problem of Evil (p. 54, 150). The entire atheistic critique of cosmic design is based on the notion that design is not explanatory; this notion is not a scientific fact but a philosophical stance (p. 46). Richard Dawkins has stated that even if there is no evidence for evolution, he would wait for another naturalistic explanation of life instead of accepting design. As Kojonen points out, Dawkins is making it clear that he holds a priori grounds for rejecting design; this is a philosophical stance not a scientific fact (p. 70). Dawkins holds that the success of evolution means we can hope to eliminate teleology from our understanding of the universe. Yet Kojonen has this to say: why place biology as the centre of our understanding of the universe? Why not place cosmology with the fact of fine-tuning as the centre instead? If a person moved from cosmology to biology, a sense of teleology remains. If, however, a person moved from biology to cosmology, then teleology is removed. The choice of placing either biology or cosmology as the centre of one’s understanding of the universe is a philosophical decision, not a scientific one (p. 181-2).

Kojonen criticises ID on several grounds. The agreement of most biologists to evolution provides a “good prima facia reason” to doubt ID (p. 48). A weakness of ID is its small sample size. Typically, ID argue from man-made designed objects to natural objects. The objects in nature far outnumber the man-made designed objects that are referred to. Also, the sample does not contain any natural objects; so, the induction from small sample to larger sample extends from one category to a totally different category. All of this lowers the probability of the induction used in ID (p. 132-3). William Dembski formulates an “eliminative argument” against evolution. Dembski uses mathematical computations to eliminate chance and evolution as satisfactory explanations of life. Since chance and evolution are eliminated, the only option left is ID. Kojonen points out a “serious problem” with the argument. For ID to be plausible, it must have its own stand-alone probability. Merely eliminating improbable options doesn’t entail that ID is the correct option if it too is improbable. Thus, Dembski’s eliminative argument is “not enough” to justify ID (p. 141-143). A “perplexing” feature of ID literature is the incessant critique of Darwinism. As Kojonen emphasises, merely finding flaws in evolution hardly entails ID; all we can say is that further searches for natural explanations are needed (p. 119). While ID claims to be doing scientific research, most of ID literature is interpreting the scientific research done by others (p. 12, f. 6). Many contemporary theologians, who believe in God, reject the specific arguments propounded by ID (p. 31). If we understand Divine Action using the metaphor of God creating the world as a perfect machine, then ID’s stance actually disproves God’s existence. A perfect machine wouldn’t need its creator to regularly tamper with it. If there were any gaps in the natural laws, then it shows the world isn’t a perfect machine; so, God didn’t create it (p. 103). Theologian Conor Cunningham lambasts ID’s conception of God as “diabolical,” “closer to a devil,”  and that ID is similar to New Atheism (p. 24, 93, 185, 186). While Phillipe E. Johnson is happy to cite the Bible in defending ID, Kojonen shows how Johnson’s citation testifies to his lack of familiarity with the Bible (p. 187). The conclusion of ID arguments is not necessary, which is an avenue critics of ID can utilise (p. 133).

True to his balanced approach, Kojonen also provides critiques of anti-ID. A common criticism of ID is that the designer is neither observable nor falsifiable. This is an unsatisfactory criticism. Science allows for indirect observations, such as for the Big Bang and electrons. Also scientific theories are rarely directly falsifiable, because they can be amended to cover anomalies (p. 82-3). Kojonen highlights how many anti-ID engage in “atheism of the gaps,” where they assume that all mysteries will be solved naturalistically (p. 101). Natural theology focuses on the issue: ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ The answer to this question cannot, even in principle, be falsified by future scientific discoveries (p. 104). Anti-ID usually dismiss design as improbable. But Dawkins himself admits that the “appearance of design” is central to biology and needs explanation. If even Dawkins can acknowledge nature looks designed, how can anti-ID glibly brush off design as something not serious? (p. 120). The Problem of Evil is a rather strange argument; since, the Bible is filled with descriptions of the suffering of life and how people must have patience in the face of such hardship (p. 149-150). Even David Hume didn’t use the Problem of Evil to reject a Creator; he only used it to show the Creator wasn’t good (p. 151). Dembski has a knockdown argument against the Problem of Evil. He tells us to imagine if we entered a torture chamber and saw all the grisly instruments of torture. While everyone will be repulsed by the evilness of the place, no one will imagine there is no designer of the torture chamber or no maker of the instruments of torture. Thus, the Problem of Evil can never “undercut” the notion of a designer (p. 156).

The major problem Kojonen finds is that the ID debate is held in the framework of scientism (p. 6, 87). Scientism is a form of “scientific imperialism” (p. 4). It is erroneous for two reasons. Firstly, it is “self-refuting”. Scientism restricts knowledge to science, but such a restriction is a philosophical claim. Science itself is silent on this philosophical claim (p. 5). Secondly, for science to even work, morality is essential. Scientific research is based on valuing truth, on co-operation between scientists, and on the humbleness to admit errors (p. 15). Unfortunately, there is a widespread “cultural scientism” (p. 92, 106). This provided the “temptation of scientism” that ID fell for (p. 169, 173, 186, 188). ID grants too much ground to scientism (p. 192). This “strategic acceptance of scientism” is worrying (p. 92).

Although Kojonen says he is merely relaying the features of the ID debate, he does forward his own preferred views on important issues. ID arguments by themselves are insufficient to justify theism (p. 146). When all is said and done, there is no strong connection between biological complexity and ID, but there is a weaker connection (p. 117-8). It is a mistake to see ID as the only position for a theist; since, powerful philosophical arguments have already been formulated against materialist scientism (p. 187). Contrary to New Atheism, the science of evolution can be separated from the metaphysical atheistic conclusions usually tagged onto it (p. 193). Kojonen holds that natural theology provides a more sophisticated view than ID. He utilises John Haught’s notion of an “extended hierarchy of explanations”. Theology explains ultimate reality, which is one level, while scientific theories explain natural phenomena, which is a different level. Both theology and science serve as explanations, but they in no way compete against each other; since, each explains at a different level of its own (p. 79). Kojonen defends this notion by arguing as follows: if we reject scientism, then we can accept different disciplines are valid, even if they are not part of the natural sciences. Each domain answers its own questions. While theology deals with personal explanations, science deals with non-personal explanations. This doesn’t mean either theology or science are devalued; since, a psychologist uses personal explanations, which are absent from quantum physics, but we wouldn’t devalue psychology just because a quantum physicist sees the world differently (p. 80). Natural theology provides a cumulative case for theism, utilising several separate arguments. If one argument falls, the cumulative case still stands (p. 105). It is important to discuss the full range of philosophical and theological arguments for theism rather than focusing only on design arguments (p. 140). Kojonen formulates an interesting argument from design inside evolution. Evolution only works due to natural laws. Science has shown natural laws are fine-tuned. Thus, evolution is a result of fine-tuning (p. 176). Moreover, the very “fitness landscape” must be fine-tuned so that one biological system can transform into another biological system (p. 177). It may be wondered what type of designer this may be. Kojonen gives a memorable metaphor from St. Aquinas. On discussing the God of Philosophers and its relation to the God of Religion, St. Aquinas tells us to imagine we see a person far off in the horizon. We can be sure the person is a human, but due to the distance, we cannot know the person is actually Peter. In the same way, the God of Philosophers is a hazy concept, whose actual identity is the God of Abraham (p. 94). Similarly, the designer sensed through nature is too hazy to identify clearly, but for all we know, it could be the designer that we call God.

Throughout his book, Kojonen is refreshingly non-polemical. He is careful and considerate of both sides of the ID debate. He is willing to praise them and criticise them as well. The ID debate has become too enmeshed in the political and cultural conflicts in America, as Kojonen details (Chp 2, Part 1). He decries the “culture war” that distracted participants from engaging in a “real academic discussion” about ID (p. 9). It is perhaps because Kojonen is a European academic, from Finland, that allows him to engage in his balanced appraisal of the debate. In Europe, especially Scandinavia, ID isn’t as politically and culturally charged as in America. Kojonen hoped his book will make both sides understand each other better (p. 190). He wishes for more “mutual respect” between both camps, because people can disagree with one another without losing sight that they agree on a lot already (p. 194).

The Intelligent Design Debate is not a book suited for beginners. For those unfamiliar with the different positions on ID, they are advised to first get acquainted with popular accounts of evolution and intelligent design. For those already familiar with the ID debate, Kojonen’s book adds an extra level of sophistication and nuance to the debate. His book is one of the most detailed academically referenced book a person can come across on ID. He doesn’t provide conclusive views for or against ID, but he does clearly communicate many of the details of the debate that get lost in the heat of polemics.

For those engaged in da’wah, Kojonen’s book allows for greater study of the ID debate in a way that more popular books cannot provide. Kojonen’s method of balanced appraisal is helpful in a da’wah situation when a person is faced by a passionate atheist. Most of the time, agitated by the passion, the atheist will make generalised statements that are not substantiated by anything other than his polemical need to criticise theists. For instance, atheists typically cite evolution as the strongest proof of atheism. But this is disingenuous, because even distinguished evolutionists accept that evolution doesn’t, in and of itself, exclude God. Kojonen’s book will also help those who share Islam to cultivate their ability to sift between scientific facts and philosophical or theological stances. Many times, atheist propagandists oscillate to and fro between science and philosophy without realising. For instance, all talk about scientific discoveries proving Man is insignificant is not science talking. The matter of significance is not a scientific one; it is a personal one. Science cannot tell us the difference in significance between two identically shaped footballs. But we know that the football that belongs to us is more significant than the other football that belongs to someone else. By cultivating the ability to differentiate science from philosophy and theology, those who share Islam can counter atheistic critiques by first dismantling them into their component parts, then refuting specifically the philosophical and theological issues, whilst accepting the scientific facts. Lastly, for Muslims who are frustrated by the polarity of pro-ID and anti-ID that permeates social media nowadays, Kojonen provides a nuanced discussion that allows readers to reach their own conclusions. Such Muslims may find the matter is more sophisticated and complex than a simple ‘God vs. Evolution’ matter, as most people unfortunately hold.