As demonstrated in Jessica L. Tracey’s paper, Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution (referenced below), many turn to intelligent design theory in search for meaning when faced with their own mortality. Despite the scientific proof supporting evolutionary theory (and the one that I believe is most accurate), intelligent design is perhaps a worthwhile theory because it provides people with what they seek, which is purpose and meaning.
There are many ideas as to how humans came to exist, but the theories of intelligent design and evolution are two of the most popular. They are also the two theories in the strictest of opposition. The concept of intelligent design states that life can only be explained if there is an intelligent being leading the process. On the other hand, the theory of evolution states that through the process of natural selection, the parent’s best genetic traits are passed to their offspring.
Evolutionary theorists believe there is no meaning to our existence and deny the possibility of a soul or after-life. For these scientists, human life is a result of the same forces of nature that are responsible for creating insects. If life is merely the result of the forces of nature, then there can be no purpose for our existence, which is a bleak and meaningless way to live. Individuals who subscribe to evolutionary theory are often reminded of their own mortality when considering their biological similarity to animals, which causes them to question if there is anything that sets humans apart from animals and makes them special. Since evolutionary theory lacks the existential comforts that humans commonly seek, people are more likely to turn to theories that offer significance and meaning in times of crisis.
As opposed to the undirected and random process of evolution, intelligent design theory asserts that life is neither meaningless nor futile. Since naturalistic accounts are insufficient for explaining the complexity of the world, intelligent design theorists believe that there must be an intelligent creator responsible for the beginnings of the universe. Although intelligent design theorists claim that there is purpose behind our existence, their belief is in no way religious nor does it make any assertions about an after-life. Many still find the theory to be appealing because it is presented as a scientific theory that gives us meaning, although it is not actually based in science. Opponents of intelligent design argue that it lacks sufficient support and only poses as an scientific theory to gain support; in spite of these claims, individuals frequently turn to intelligent design in times of need.
Regardless of arguments against intelligent design, the theory receives support from the public, educators, and government officials. In their paper, “Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution,” Jessica Tracy and colleagues examine the possible causes behind the widespread support for intelligent design theory. The researchers sought to investigate the effects that the fear of one’s own mortality had on a person’s beliefs, specifically those dealing with intelligent design and evolution. Another goal of the study was to examine the psychological motives behind adherence to a worldview such as intelligent design.
The participants in the study were prepped by thinking and writing about their mortality. Once sufficient “mortality salience” was achieved, the subjects were then instructed to read works on both evolution and intelligent design. Afterwards, they were asked a series of questions concerning their attitudes toward each of these theories. The results of the study found that, when faced with their own mortality, individuals preferred to believe in intelligent design. The results of the study were in no way affected by any ideologies or preexisting attitudes of the participants toward evolution, education, or religion.
In a desire to attach meaning to the world and stave off perceived existential threats, humanity has always longed to find a greater sense of purpose. Our primary psychological motives are largely responsible for influencing our beliefs, especially when it comes to maintaining our own psychological security. We all are subject to these psychological motives, even if most are subconscious. Since crippling anxiety can result from the deep contemplation of one’s own mortality, people choose to counteract these thoughts by turning to things that give their lives meaning and purpose. We utilize psychological mechanisms that will stop any death-related fears or existential crises in an attempt to cope with these feelings. Changing world-views is one such psychological tool. World-views promote feelings of immortality by explaining the world as an organized, comprehensible and meaningful place; in an effort to transcend death, these feelings of immortality act as a shield against our existential anxieties.
Intelligent design theory is of course one such stable and composed worldview, which claims that life has an ultimate purpose, and therefore has meaning. Since the idea of an intelligent creator helps assuage the fear people have when faced with their own mortality, many turn to intelligent design as a psychological coping mechanism. In comparison, evolutionary theory offers no such existential comforts. Intelligent design appeals to non-religious individuals who are searching for meaning but prefer not to risk contradictions in their scientific worldview with the addition of religion; this theory is also of interest to those hoping to find balance between their religious and scientific world-views.
Aside from psychological motives, our cognitive processes also influence our world-views. In a study involving young children and adults with Alzheimer’s disease, both groups where shown to prefer a teleological explanation of the world. A teleological worldview provides comfort as it explains the origin of objects and posits the existence of final causes, purpose and meaning in the world. They each desired an explanation of the world that gave it meaning, as that in turn gave their lives meaning and purpose. The preference for a theory that provides purpose is not something that can be outgrown. The appeal of intelligent design remains with us throughout our lives. If it didn’t, then people would not be so quick to turn to it in times of need.
In addition to the scientific and philosophical debates over evolutionary theory and intelligent design, there is also a debate in schools concerning whether intelligent design should be taught in science classes. Disputes over this issue have taken place in locales across North America, including PA, LA, Texas and Canada. In 2004, a Dover, PA school board decided that all ninth-grade students should be taught intelligent design and were provided with the text, “Of Pandas and People.” Despite their efforts to make students more open-minded, a law was passed the following year, which banned intelligent design from science curricula. Places such as Louisiana and Texas have had more success. Teachers in Louisiana are allowed to bring outside sources, including material supporting intelligent design theory, into their classes. In 2009, the Texas board of education ruled that both intelligent design and evolution were to be taught in science classes. Canada has also faced issues concerning intelligent design in schools: in 2006, the group responsible for federal research funding, denied monetary support for research into the effects of intelligent design while claiming that there was not enough justification to assume that evolutionary theory was the correct theory. Despite these debates, many teachers are still able to educate their students on intelligent design. In a national survey, at least one-fourth of science teachers spent some time teaching intelligent design, with half believing that intelligent design is a valid alternative to evolution.
As humans, we need there to be some greater meaning to this world. When confronted with our own mortality, we seek purpose. Evolution often does not provide people with the answers they are looking for, as the theory places humans on the same level as every other living thing in the universe. Therefore, many turn to the theory of intelligent design in search of answers and meaning, particularly when faced with their own mortality, as was concluded by Tracy’s paper. While intelligent design might not meet some scientific standards, that does not mean it should be discounted as a belief system, especially when individuals turn to the theory for comfort. The continued belief in intelligent design theory shows that it must have something vital that evolutionary theory is missing; what evolution lacks is a place where people can turn for answers, hope and comfort, things that any belief structure should espouse.
What are your thoughts on this matter?
Tracy JL, Hart J, & Martens JP (2011). Death and science: the existential underpinnings of belief in intelligent design and discomfort with evolution. PloS one, 6 (3) PMID: 21479169