Intelligent Design & the Fear of Death
by David Klinghoffer
The other night my oldest son and I watched the 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu, an early cinematographic take on the Dracula story that includes many haunting images. One of them is a mantelpiece clock that strikes the hours by an automated hammer-wielding skeleton. It’s a classic memento mori, a reminder of death’s relentless approach and a stimulus to the wisdom that comes with that knowledge. People once decorated their homes with such objects for the purpose of attuning the mind to ultimate questions that we might otherwise treat lightly.
That raises the problem of what surprising news the authors of a research paper in PLoS ONE thought they had to share. The title says it all: “Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution.” With a little bit of the air of a snarky high-school science fair entry, authors Jessica Tracy, Joshua Hart and Jason Martens want to sock it to ID advocates by showing scientifically that openness to intelligent design proceeds not from “logic and reasoning” but from “psychological motives.”
When shown a passage of ID scientist Michael Behe’s writing and another by Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins, subjects were more likely to accept Behe’s conclusions if they had first been asked to write a description of their own death.
What else would anyone with some common sense expect? People open their minds to socially disapproved ideas for all kinds of reasons. While admitting that ID has no religious content, the authors say it offers “comfort in something larger and more significant than one’s own brief life — via the understanding there is a purpose to the human enterprise.”
Yes, they’re right! They find their study to be “consistent with research demonstrating humans’ basic need to maintain a sense of meaning.” Again, obviously, right! ID speaks to this need. Evolution, when honestly presented, negates it. Dawkins’s old Oxford colleague, chemist Peter Atkins, expressed this well in his 1984 book The Second Law:
We are children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.
Only someone who’s fooling himself about evolution’s ultimate meaning, or who possesses a stunted soul and so just couldn’t care less, could read such a passage and not feel the need to seek out an alternative view…
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