The "Intelligent Designer" Myth

In last week’s interview of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer by Nina Totenberg, both discuss what the framers of the constitution intended, referring a couple of times to the “underlying purpose of the…provisions of the Constitution.”

This reminded me of my high school and college study of great books, in which my class discussed and questioned the intent of the authors (Dickens, Twain, Shakespeare, Homer, Vyaas and company) to communicate various ideas to the reader. “What Bill was really trying to say was…”

It always struck me as far-fetched that any storyteller would attempt or intend to communicate specific important ideas to readers hundreds or thousands of years in the future, and do so implicitly, so that some study or analysis was required to unearth them. It seems especially unlikely knowing that many authors, currently considered great, wrote for their living, not their leisure, and hence had to cater to the patrons who supported them.

It is far more plausible that these authors simply wrote what they observed, contemplated, imagined or felt at the time, and possibly what they thought would be well-received by their patrons. Yet these authors chanced on general themes that stirred modern readers as well as their contemporaries, and expressed these themes in ways that were specific enough to be compelling in their time, but not not so dated as to lose meaning quickly over the years.

Is it merely a convention of modern commentators and critics to assign greater intent to these authors? Do we say, “Bill wanted to tell us this.” when we really mean “Bill’s work is revered, timeless, and therefore great because it has elicited this in so many readers through the ages.”? It’s just a shorter way of saying the same thing, right?

I think not. I think many readers truly ascribe superhuman levels of intelligence, insight, and foresight to the authors of great books. Looking back over the effects of their works, to these readers, these authors appear larger than life.

I don’t mean to disparage these authors. I believe it requires an exceptional combination of intelligence, inspiration, perseverence, and labor to achieve expression considered great over time. They may have had a specific definition of greatness that they actually labored for and achieved in their works. I merely suggest that while the effects of these expressions are powerful and persistent, it is wrong to assume the authors intended all the effects. Under this assumption, these authors appear superhumanly prescient, when in fact they were mere mortals like the rest of us.

The extreme case of this phenomenon occurs with religious texts. There is no doubt that various religious texts have stirred millions of people to momentous actions and personal, social and political transformations over decades and centuries. If one assumes that a single author must have intended the full history of effects, then it is no wonder authorship of these texts is ascribed to God or a prophet in direct communication with God.

Indeed, the idea of intelligent design (As has been stated eloquently by Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, it is not a theory, nor is it even a scientific refutation of the theory of evolution.) is founded upon the assumption that the great complexity and wondrous adaptations of modern organisms can only be ascribed to an author, the natural implication being that the author was/is a superhumanly intelligent or divine designer. We are led to imagine an enormous Einstein, brows furrowed, hunched over the universe, wondering where to tinker with it next.

Tags: Philosophy

Updated at: 4 October 2005 2:10 AM