The Exhilaration of Pondering
Intelligent Design Without
An Intelligent Designer

Copyright © by Barnabas D. Johnson



The theory of evolution is best conceived as a theory of coevolution in the sense that the evolution within our biosphere of any organism (unless secluded in a sterile laboratory) occurs within the context of other evolving life-forms. All species within any habitat compose the "environment" of each. Even where relationships appear remote, the so-called "butterfly effect" might elevate the remote to the significant, even the decisive. Unlikely, yes; impossible, no.

The term "coevolution" is often used narrowly to denote a special reciprocal relationship between two species in which genetic changes in one produce genetic changes in the other. But I use the term more broadly here, to emphasize (a) that virtually all organisms interact at least minimally within our biosphere; (b) that ideas, too, "evolve" within what is often called the noosphere, memesphere, or mindscape; (c) that the evolution of organisms and the evolution of ideas are deeply linked, because organisms are embodiments of ideas and "mind" is immanent in "nature" (including non-living systems, however large or small); and (d) these evolutionary process, both biological and intellectual, are — loosely speaking — mutually "co-creative": that is, synergetic.

This is essentially the same as saying that most of the stuff of Life and Mind is multi-causal and deeply mysterious. To say it is "synergetic" is merely to acknowledge that easily-identifiable parts seldom explain the wholes they compose, thereby inducing us to guess that unidentified "causes" are likely. Indeed, we find ourselves revisiting Aristotle's distinctions among kinds of causes … and, possibly, wondering whether synergism and causality are ultimately irreconcilable. Presumably a Grand Theory of Everything, if able to reconcile quantum theory and relativity theory, would also reconcile causality and synergism.


As suggested, even at the genetic level "ideas" are being "tested" for their "survival advantages" within a dynamic, evolving biosphere; information is being stored and processed, and "facts" and "values" are immanent here even if not transcendent. Does this amount to "intelligent design"? Well, it all depends on how "intelligence" and "design" are defined. It is awe-inspiring to posit a transcendental Intelligence at work, yet is it any less awe-inspiring to perceive Mind in Nature as "merely" immanent?

The words "immanent" and "transcendent" are tools of thought and communication that use us as much as we use them; we shape them, and are shaped by them. To say that something is "designed" does not necessarily require belief in a "designer" as that term is conventionally used. Getting beyond words, we stand in awe … and this awe is vastly enhanced as scientific explorations proceed. Yet of this we need harbor no significant doubts: Biological and cultural evolution and coevolution happen; they are facts; and, increasingly, we humans have the capacity to shape both, consciously, whether for good or ill. The question is not whether we can "play God"; we have been doing that for thousands of years, increasingly consciously; the question, rather, is — or ought to be — whether we can get better in our participatory-creation "play"; indeed, developing such competence ought to be our highest calling … our most serious work, our most creative labor of love.

First: Children of unfathomable mystery, we place our "faith" in "science" — specifically, the scientific method of inquiry and ascertainment — not because science has satisfactorily answered whether time starts or stops, or whether space implies boundaries, or whether Universe must always be One, or similarly-complex questions, but because religious dogmas based on sacred texts have so often cramped out capacity to make progress towards answering such seemingly-simple questions as whether our sun revolves around our world; granted, a quarter of American adults still (apparently) believe it does, and this is partly due to the continuing "spiritual enslavement" of dogmas based on sacred texts; but progress has been made, and the scientific method is a major engine of such progress.

Such progress is not merely "scientific"; it is also "spiritual"; that is, it focuses on non-material as well as material components of existence, change, evolution, and progress including information-processing, knowledge-accumulating, experience-organizing components. Indeed, at the deepest level, distinguishing between the "material" and the "spiritual" is illusory. Both are ultimately embodiments of intelligence, of information-processing; information and intelligence are ultimately mysterious.

Put generously, sacred dogmas have not withstood that "natural selection" which undergirds the evolution of our emerging global civilization. That "natural-selection" undergirding human understanding is less of "nature" than of "second-nature" cultural software as I will discuss later; yet the key point here is that it is "selection" and is "intelligent" and is not entirely unrelated to the "intelligence" that is immanent in the evolution of life.


Ponder the cramped "spiritual life" of one who believes that our world is the center of the starry heavens. It was science that freed humanity from that cramped spiritual existence.


The theory of evolution by "natural selection" is said to be controversial, especially by those who advocate the so-called "intelligent design" alternative. In my view, they are misconstruing the essence — including limits — of scientific inquiry while shortchanging profound insights regarding the formation and evolution of intelligence as immanent in Nature. They are confusing process with product, causes with effects.

Worse, they are trivializing what might be the deepest mystery of human existence — a mystery underlying the best rationale for a "religion" (however named) that can serve our age of global discontinuity with abiding values capable of freeing us from the bloodied bog of rival, faith-based, holy-book-idolizing certitudes.

Some accuse intelligent-design advocates of deliberately perpetrating a hoax; I would not go so far; I think they are sincere but misguided. What is more, I see silver linings in the cloud of ignorance and confusion they sow. That is my focus in this essay.


This misconstruing, shortchanging, and trivializing is unfortunate if not tragic, and is even more characteristic of "creationists" who, relying solely on biblical inerrancy, seek to impose a belief-system that idolizes texts and dethrones that which those texts should inspire us to exalt.

Creationists' cousins, the "creation science" enthusiasts, are perhaps the most misguided of all. They claim to rely on both faith and "science" (as they define it) but, like the Scholastics of 12th century Europe, they channel their so-called thinking to arrive at pre-ordained conclusions upholding unexamined faith. Where faith-based certitudes cannot be jettisoned in light of contrary evidence, science is impossible and, worse, the fundamental premise undergirding a healthy Ecology of Mind and Ecology of Values is trashed.

This premise — stated in ways intended to be most accessible to those who cleave to conventional notions of Humanity's relationship to Divinity — proclaims that God, Yahweh, the Nameless Depth and Ground of All Being, has endowed us with the capacity for systematic, observation-rich, experiment-augmented thought, and that there can be no sin more dismissively insulting to any Divinity deserving obedience or any Humanity deserving self-respect than our failure, in this era, to use that God-given capacity for clear, coherent, inspired, creative, transforming, earth-shaking, world-making thought.

There are ways of stating this that are less accessible to conventional religious parlance yet ultimately more insightful and rewarding. Most immediately, however, two abiding considerations require attention. First, "stating" involves mappings, not territories; it is our relationships with those territories that induce deepest wisdom; our relationships with those maps can be instructive, of course, but they must be in thoughtful service to our relationships with that which the maps seek to illuminate. Pondering the evidence for natural selection and immanent intelligence arguably carries us to insights that surpass those of all religious creeds. To find a universe in a grain of sand, to discern a university in a living cell, requires intellectual brilliance as it promotes spiritual awe. The hubris of text-based idolatry is the antithesis of both brilliance and awe.

Second, "information" resides not only in answers but also in questions. Put differently, the parameters of our questions posit the parameters of any answers that will be recognizable as responsive. This tangling "double bind" requires a creative "double take" that induces us to consider opting for a different kind of answer, "mu" — meaning, "I reject the parameters of this question; pose a different question." Often that different question, to escape another "mu" answer, must be a new kind of question. This, in turn, opens doors to a new kind of answer.

To be continued.

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