Does the emergence of Intelligent Design theory signify only that there are dangerously incorrect theocratic barbarians pounding at the gates of the great secular institution of science, threatening to return secular thinking to medieval superstitions? Or is it possible instead that Intelligent Design theory signifies the return of a legitimate but repressed philosophical sense to the role of reason and rationality in the development of scientific knowledge? There is a plausible case to be made, I think, that Intelligent Design theory does at some level signify the latter sense of reason, struggling to reclaim its voice and a legitimate place in contemporary discourse about the nature of science and knowledge.
On this view, it is probably the case that when we find hysteric fits over Intelligent Design theory from the quarters of science we are witnessing a confused, truncated empirical understanding of reason, suffering a neurotic ‘return of the repressed’ for having overzealously barred philosophical reason from a legitimate place in the understanding of scientific knowledge over the last 200 years where naturalism and instrumentalism have reigned.
The debate over evolution and Intelligent Design is of tremendous philosophical significance because it harbors broad normative implications for theory and practices around science, religion, education, and the public policies which govern them. The public debate, so often a grim, head-banging pitting of ‘science versus religion’, is evidently in need of a synthetic philosophical treatment that can think both within and beyond the conceptual confines of its disputants, who usually seem to be operating in radically different conceptual worlds. Perhaps they are.
On this argument, everything turns on revisiting the question and conception of reason itself. What is reason?
Here is one concept of reason. Reason is deciphering the ultimate purpose behind the patterns of things we observe, supposed to be imprinted somehow from without by a design or designer that transcends the natural constitution of the things.
Here is another concept of reason. Reason is only an instrument or tool that humans use to arrive at useful practical knowledge of their natural environment. Humans use the instrument of reason to construct hypotheses about impersonal, mechanical causes supposed to explain empirically observed patterns of natural behavior, including the behavior of other humans considered as natural objects.
Here is yet another concept of reason. Reason is not only an instrument or means to understanding natural behaviors, but also subject or end in itself. Reason is subject or end of its means insofar as we understand it to provide the logical conditions or rules governing our language use, which mediate and make possible the historical achievement of the social organizations in which we find ourselves, like the institution of science itself, whose guiding internal, normative ideal is rational self-governance.
Let’s call the first definition the “transcendental” concept of reason, the second definition the “instrumental” concept of reason, and the third definition the “self-regulating” concept of reason. We find the dispute over whether Intelligent Design theory or blind Darwinian evolution best explains human life characterized in most cases by crude expressions of transcendental reason pitted against crude expressions of instrumental reason. The natural sciences of course lend themselves to the instrumental conception of reason which we may call naturalistic.
Now, the naturalistic thinker, with his instrumental sense of reason, tends to blindly put himself into a public dilemma on the question of whether Intelligent Design theory has any business explaining human life, where natural science would allow only blind Darwinian processes.
The naturalistic thinker tends to subordinate the realm of the normative to the natural, to subordinate public, institutional, and political commitments to merely ‘subjective’ and ‘practical’ realities — mere appearance — as opposed to the fundamentally determining truth or reality that he takes natural science to give us access to. But natural science does not give us and cannot give us an empirical explanation of itself, of its own character as a rational social institution, appearing over time, historically. It cannot explain its own rationality as a result of natural mechanisms.
I grant that the transcendental conception of reason with which the cruder proponents of Intelligent Design theory operate may be more flawed and less plausible today than naturalistic instrumentalism at explaining human life, but neither is the instrumental sense of reason adequate to this task. Naturalistic thinkers would be foolish to assume that Intelligent Design theory is simply Biblical Creationism in disguise, denying the possibility that it could draw wider public support among intelligent persons. It can do this by appealing to many such persons across the political spectrum who are frustrated with the dominance of instrumental reason in science, business, and technology, with its reductive understanding of culture, humanistic knowledge, and public institutions. Restricting ourselves to naturalistic, instrumental reason we can produce only a mechanical explanation of the appearance of culture broadly, negating in the process any binding normative reason for the commitments it commands, despite its lack of any clear utility for the natural individual in many cases.