The science of intelligent design is good and modest, as most real science is. The possibility of design and a designer that it opens up is suggestive and interesting. Intelligent Design theory cannot prove that there is a Designer. And no other kind of theory, no matter how good its science, can prove that there is not a Designer.
Paul Bloom, a psychology and linguistics professor at Yale, has an intriguing article in the current Atlantic, “Is God an Accident?” He reports on fascinating research that he and others have done on how children understand physical things and psychological things. Little children understand that the body dies, but believe the mind lives on. Even infants seem to understand basic physical processes, like falling. Intriguingly, infants seem also to grasp basic social processes, like helping. These ideas do not arise simply from teaching and socialization.
Bloom has a theory of what to make of these empirical findings, which he expresses in this metaphor:
Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a baby’s brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks.
From this metaphor, he develops a theory of the origin of religion. Our brains rightly understand the physical actions of physical objects, and the psychological actions of psychological objects. We then accidentally cross the two kinds of understanding, and infer the existence of two other kinds of phenomena: the psychological actions of physical objects, and the physical actions of psychological objects. From the first kind of inference, we make the error of anthropomorphizing, seeing intentions, will, and meaning in the actions of non-human, and even non-living objects. From the second kind of inference, we make the error of believing that things we imagine have physical existence. In other words, as Bloom says in conclusion, God is an “accidental by-product of our mental states.”
This is an intriguing idea. I can see its appeal as a way to solve the intellectual puzzle of why we believe in beings we cannot see. But Bloom distorts the possible alternatives to make his theory seem true and scientific. The only alternative theories for the origins of religion that he considers are that it is the opiate of the masses, a lie told by the powerful to bolster their power, or that it is a socially functional fraternity, based on an arbitrary set of beliefs enforced to hold a social group together. In other words, Bloom simply assumes that the only serious explanations for religion are secular ones. Is that a scientific conclusion? No, it is a premise, a belief statement. Does Bloom’s theory of the origin of religion rest on compelling new science? No, it rests on a metaphor – “akin to two distinct computers in a baby’s brain.” This is also a belief statement, one that we are not even meant to take literally.
As I noted at the outset, “intelligent design” has been criticized as just the old theological creationism dressed up in bogus science. Bloom’s “unintelligent non-design” is just the old atheism dressed up in bogus science.
Let’s keep the real science. And let’s stop pretending that it can explain things it can’t.