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Intelligent Design: a Catechism

How did life on Earth come about? Recently the buzzword among those dissatisfied with Darwinism has been ‘Intelligent Design’. But isn’t this just another name for Creationism? Not so, argues Todd Moody.

What is Intelligent Design?

It’s the theory that there is empirical evidence for the claim that some things in nature are the result of intelligent agency, rather than unguided natural causes. In fact, Intelligent Design (henceforth ID) comprises a group of theories of this sort, that are logically independent of each other. For example, what might be called cosmological ID is the theory that there is evidence of design at the level of the fundamental physical constants of the universe. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘cosmic anthropic principle.’ There is also biological ID, the theory that living things show evidence of having been designed. Even here, however, there are important variations. Someone might argue that it is the origin of the first life, or proto-life, that provides the best line of evidence for ID, while the subsequent diversification of life is adequately explained in neo-Darwinian terms. Alternatively, one could argue that both the origin and diversification of life suggest ID at work. ID theorists might (and do) disagree on such questions, but they regard them as scientific questions to be settled by further empirical investigation. What they agree on is that it is legitimate to entertain the hypothesis of ID and that the hypothesis is to some extent supported.

It is as important to avoid the error of supposing that all ID theorists are in agreement as it is to avoid the error of thinking that all neo-Darwinists agree about everything. For the rest of this catechism I shall focus on what I take to be minimal biological ID, unless I specify otherwise.

Isn’t this just creationism?

It depends upon what you mean by creationism. As far as I know, there is no unifying definition of creationism either, but I think it’s possible to distinguish ID from most recognizable forms of it. I shall list three ID claims that do just this.

ID makes no claim as to the identify of the intelligent designer.

ID makes no claim that the design was implemented supernaturally.

ID gives no priority to revelation or to the reconciling of Scripture and science.

So, even without a tidy definition of creationism, I think it’s clear that creationists would part company with ID on at least one of the above points. For example, at least some creationists are also anti-evolutionists, believing instead in something called the ‘special creation’ of different species, or classes, or perhaps phyla. They may hold this belief because they think it is scientifically warranted and because they think it is scripturally warranted. ID theory does not adduce scriptural warrants for its claims and holds it as an open empirical question whether anything like special creation might have occurred. ID doesn’t depend on it, nor is it committed to proving it.

Are you saying that ID theorists don’t believe in God?

Not at all. As far as I can tell, most of them believe that the intelligent designer is God, and that the design acts were supernatural, and that this process is described in Scripture. That is, it’s my impression that most ID theorists have religious convictions of this nature, but these convictions are not part of ID. Many scientists have religious convictions of various sorts, and may even believe that science somehow supports those convictions. But they recognize that their religious convictions do not count as evidence for their scientific theories, and so they keep them separate. That means that, whatever their religious convictions may be, their scientific theories don’t depend upon them.

Doesn’t that make ID theorists covert creationists?

The word ‘covert’ implies that their religious convictions are somehow concealed, implying an intention to deceive. It just means that they, like many other scientists, know the difference between their scientific theories and their faith commitments, and are careful to distinguish them.

Sometimes this sort of question is intended to suggest that ID theorists have a ‘hidden agenda.’ The idea is that while ID is the minimalistic facade that they present to the outside world, what they really want is to spread their religion. On this view, ID is a Trojan Horse theory, seemingly nonreligious in nature, by means of which religious zealots will eventually try to smuggle theology into science education. One of the things at stake here is whether ID should be taught in science classes to school children, after all.

But this Trojan Horse argument is essentially a slippery slope fallacy. It claims that once we allow ID to be taught we cannot prevent the wholesale promulgation of religion in science education. Like most slippery slope arguments, once it is made explicit it is easy to see that it is absurd. ID theory takes one as far as a design inference and no further. It is easy to see that speculations as to the divine (or not) identity of the designer are speculations that go beyond the scientific evidence.

Aren’t they really just trying to prove the existence of God?

The trouble with this question is that it is really about the motives of ID theorists. This is no doubt an interesting thing to wonder about, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. Suppose it’s true that some ID theorists hope that their work makes the case for God’s existence stronger. What of it? That fact doesn’t count against ID; it’s irrelevant to it. To consider a parallel case, some scientists were delighted with the development of Big Bang cosmology, since it seems to indicate that the universe had a beginning, and this is more consistent with the idea of divine creation than a beginningless universe. Do we hold that against the Big Bang theory? Obviously not; the theory stands or falls on its own merits. Or take Richard Dawkins’ claim in The Blind Watchmaker that Darwin “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” This certainly reveals something about why Dawkins finds Darwinism appealing, but it tells us nothing useful about the theory itself.

Still, there is no reason to reject the question altogether. ID is certainly consistent with the idea of a God-created universe, but then so is the denial of ID. Belief in God definitely doesn’t require belief in ID, and ID doesn’t entail belief in God. For example, the biologist Francis Crick, one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, has argued that the best explanation for the appearance of life on this planet is that it was purposely implanted here by extraterrestrials. This theory is called directed panspermia. Although this isn’t often noted, I think it’s important to recognize that directed panspermia is itself a variant of ID, especially if we imagine that the implanted life forms were genetically modified to fit our world. That’s ID, even though there is nothing supernatural or divine about it, and even though Crick himself may not see his position as allied with ID. Ironically, the fact that the design inference does not warrant a further inference to the existence of the God of the Bible was pointed out by skeptics in response to the Argument from Design long before there was any theory of evolution.

ID is not the Argument from Design. It is an Argument to Design. Admittedly, the Argument from Design has always included an argument to design, and the two have not been carefully distinguished. Modern ID tries to correct this. To argue from ID to the existence of God (under some description) is a theological project that undoubtedly interests some ID theorists, but it is distinct from the scientific project of discovering whether there is empirical evidence of design in nature.

Wouldn’t this be the end of science?

Why should it be? Your question implies that if ID were accepted, scientists would just say, ‘God did it’ (or somebody did it), clean off their desks and go home. This is not how science works, or how it ever has worked. Theory acceptance is always provisional, and it is customary for there to be more than one ‘live’ theory on the table at any given time. For example, in the 1930s the ‘planetesimal’ theory of the origin of the solar system was widely accepted. Nevertheless, scientists did not lose interest in other theories, and eventually the planetesimal theory was replaced by the nebular theory (Although not all astronomers accept the nebular theory). The debate goes on.

Nobody is suggesting that ID should be accepted to the exclusion of all other theories, and that scientists should lose all further interest in questions of the origin and diversification of life. The suggestion is much more modest: ID should be included alongside other theories and allowed to compete with them, rather than being excluded from the start for dubious a priori reasons. If ID is wrong in a particular instance, then we can reasonably hope that scientists will find the evidence that shows it is wrong. What we don’t want is for ID to be assumed to be wrong, for dubious philosophical reasons, before that evidence has been found.

But doesn’t science deal only with natural causes?

No, not really. Suppose you find an unusually shaped shard of flint in a field and you wonder whether it is an ancient stone tool – that is, a product of intelligent design – or just a random piece of stone. Do you think that science can offer you no help with this? Obviously, a scientist – an archaeologist – is just the person you want to talk to. This sort of scientist specializes in identifying ID, in fact.

Lest you object that this kind of science can only work if we have background knowledge about the intelligent beings who might have produced such a stone tool, and why, consider the following fictional case. In the classic Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, scientists found an object buried on the moon. It was a large, metallic, rectangular solid, with straight edges. In the film, the scientists immediately and without hesitation inferred that this monolith was a product of ID, even though they knew nothing about who the designer might have been or what the thing was for. They based their design inference solely on the form of the thing. Is this illegitimate? Unscientific? Granted, it’s a fictional case, but the principles involved are perfectly clear. It’s just wrong to suppose that scientific explanations must exclude all reference to ID.

To make the point even clearer, I’d ask you to ponder the following two questions:

Is it possible that ID is true? If so, what would count as evidence for its truth?

It’s very hard to see why anybody would answer the first question in the negative. After all, what would make it impossible for ID to be true? Some might argue (and do argue) that ID is impossible because God wouldn’t do things this way, or there’s too much misery in the world, or whatever. This won’t do, however, because we’ve already established that ID is not an inference to a perfect God. Those who would want to make such a theological inference from ID will indeed have to address the problem of evil, which has been around for a long time. Their success or failure in this endeavor is not a good reason to reject (or accept) ID.

So, if ID is even possibly true then it makes sense to ask the second question. If we say that nothing could count as evidence for it then we place a very curious and arbitrary limitation on science. To say that nothing could count as evidence for ID means that even if ID were true, we could never have good scientific reasons to believe it. It means that the actions of some intelligent designer could not possibly have left any scientifically discernible trace. Why should anyone believe that?

In short, I can find no remotely plausible reason to suppose that ID is impossible, and no reason to suppose that there could be no possible evidence for it. So the remaining task is to address question 2 in earnest, and to try to understand what such evidence would look like. On this question, William Dembski, Michael Behe, Lee Spetner and others have offered proposals, based on the ways in which science already treats evidence for ID. Behe, for example, argues in Darwin’s Black Box (1996) that ‘irreducible complexity’ would be evidence of design. This refers to the complexity of a functioning system that cannot be arrived at by the stepwise accretion of parts, with each intermediate stage also functioning. Many machines have this property of irreducible complexity; according to Behe, so do some subcellular systems.

Whether or not a given system is irreducibly complex is an empirical question, of course. As Behe acknowledges, an attribution of irreducible complexity is quite falsifiable, since scientists may be able to show that something that appeared to be irreducibly complex isn’t, after all. But that only means that design inferences, like other scientific inferences, are tentative and open to revision in the light of new evidence.

In short, it is incorrect to say that science can only deal with natural causes, where ‘natural’ is opposed to ‘personal.’ It would be better to say that science attempts to exhaust the explanatory possibilities of natural causes first, before entertaining design theories. William Dembski calls this process the ‘explanatory filter’ and discusses it in great detail in his book The Design Inference (1998).

But doesn’t science exclude supernatural causes?

In order for a scientific theory to involve supernatural causes, there would first have to be some clear empirical analysis of what supernatural causes are. I don’t think we have such an analysis, so yes, science currently excludes explanations in terms of supernatural causes. As I already stated, ID theory must be agnostic on whether intelligent design operates naturally or supernaturally, at least until there is a scientific way to discern the difference between the two. This is why ID is not creationism. This doesn’t prevent someone from believing that ID is supernatural on other grounds, of course, but those grounds are external to the scientific content of the theory.

Aren’t scientific theories supposed to generate predictions and a research program?

Sure. And ID predicts that irreducibly complex systems exist in nature, so that attempts to devise plausible naturalistic explanations of them will fail. And if such explanations are found, then the claim of irreducible complexity is falsified and must be withdrawn. Of course, one such failure would not falsify ID as a whole, but if each case of apparent irreducible complexity were to fail in this way, the case for ID would be increasingly weakened. We might well ask the same question of neo-Darwinism: What does it predict? What would falsify it? A moment’s thought reveals that neo-Darwinism tells us that we won’t find cases of irreducible complexity in nature, so neo-Darwinists ought to be very interested in this sort of thing.

As for research programs, if ID is acknowledged as a legitimate scientific hypothesis, there remains the matter of investigating the how of design. What, for example, is the minimum number of design events that would account for the diversity of living things that we find, both extant and in the fossil record? This is an empirical question that can only be addressed if ID is a permissible explanatory hypothesis in the first place.

So just what do ID theorists want, anyway?

They want to be allowed to compete. They believe that there is a good case for ID right now, but are frustrated because their theories are rejected a priori. They think that ID ought to be allowed to stand or fall as the evidence comes in rather than being rejected in advance as somehow out of bounds. They do not want to be held to a higher standard of evidence than that to which neo-Darwinism is held. For example, ID theorists are often chided for not having made interesting predictions, even though neo-Darwinism itself has a rather poor record in this respect. After all, the engine that drives neo-Darwinism is random mutation and these are, by definition, unpredictable events.

The reason why ID is starting to be discussed in philosophy journals is precisely because the objections to ID are philosophical in nature, often based on generalizations about scientific method and knowledge. The often-repeated complaint that Intelligent Design theory is ‘not science’ is an epistemological claim, and needs to be squarely addressed as such. It also needs to be discussed in its simplest and most minimalistic form, without complicating it or even turning it into a straw man by association with various theological doctrines. Philosophically, there is nothing objectionable about the hypothesis that someone did this, even if we’re not in a position to say who or why.

© Dr Todd C. Moody 2001

Todd Moody is an associate professor of philosophy at St Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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