Intelligent Design: dodgy science, worse theology

Electron micrograph of bacterium H. pylori, with flagella clearly visible. Image by Yutaka Tsutsumi.

Electron micrograph of H. pylori bacterium, with flagella clearly visible. Image by Yutaka Tsutsumi.

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First, some clarification. We’ll start with what Intelligent Design is not:

Christian doctrine teaches that the universe, life, and human beings are created by God. That is, Creation was a deliberate act. Also, God is omniscient and omnipotent, and chose to exercise creation in a particular way. This is not the definition of Intelligent Design.

The teleological argument refers to a philosophical argument for the existence of God based on apparent design and purpose in the world around us. The universe and our place in it appear to be purposeful, and a purposeful creation suggests a purposeful Creator. Variations on this line of thinking can be traced back to before Plato, and it also features in the work of St Thomas Aquinas as one of his rational arguments for God’s existence. This is also not the definition of Intelligent Design.

So what is it?

Intelligent Design (or ID) maintains that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof.” (from intelligentdesign.org). In short, ID proponents claim that scientific inquiry can identify the intervention of intelligence in the evolutionary process.

The major feature of ID theory is the concept of “irreducible complexity”, specifically the idea that there exist structures and systems in nature that are so irreducibly complex that they could not have evolved step-wise via evolutionary theory.

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In general, if we talk about trying to discern God’s influence in the universe scientifically, we have two major problems:

  • There is no control group. Because God is omnipresent and not subject to human will, he can’t be excluded from part of an experiment to try and see what would happen “without” God’s intervention.
  • More generally, science lacks the tools for investigating the supernatural. If we are suggesting that this “Intelligent Designer” is in fact God (and thus supernatural), then it is not clear that his influence could be discerned by scientific inquiry. If we’re thinking of aliens (or anything else non-supernatural), then I am not sure that “intelligence” would be the most easily identifiable evidence.

There are major theological issues with ID because it argues that God’s involvement in the universe is only necessary for stuff that we can’t explain by natural law. This is a classic “god of the gaps” argument, and it is lousy theology. Christianity teaches that God is involved everywhere. That God is the author and sustainer of the natural laws. ID suggests that God mostly lets the universe tick along by itself, but every now and then he steps in to design a bacterial flagellum, or whatever the latest example of irreducible complexity is.

Philosophically, the entire premise of ID seems doubtful. The central claim of ID is that the intelligence of the “designer” can be discovered scientifically. But if the designer used normal physical processes in any way, it is not clear that the influence of “intelligence” could be discerned.

Let us consider: I put a kettle on the stove and the water boils. By studying the stove and the kettle and the water (or steam if you wait too long), you can discover exactly how the chain of events unfolded. But it is not clear that the intelligent involvement and motivation could ever be discovered in this way. Did I want a cup of tea? Was I acting on instruction from someone else (in which case my actions involve no intelligence of my own)? Even if we look at the all physical actions that I undertook to make the kettle boil, it is not clear that the “intelligence” involved could ever be identified scientifically.

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A note on irreducible complexity:

As a side note, I believe that irreducible complexity itself is an important avenue of study. But it is an avenue of study that involves evolutionary theory, not Intelligent Design. It is a challenge to see if there are limits to current understanding of evolution, and whether there are aspects of biological development that seem to argue against it. In the same way that dark matter and dark energy have forced us to reconsider a lot of what we thought about cosmology and gravity, it is possible that there could emerge a parallel biological paradigm which works in concert with evolutionary pressure to guide the development of life. But that is something for biological science to explore.

An argument against one theory is not an argument for another. So if we have a theory, we can make observations and conduct experiments that support or refute it. But refuting that theory does not support another: the two processes are independent.

The problem with ID is that it tries to argue against evolutionary theory, but gets a bit fuzzy on the details of what it is arguing for. ID proponents try to identify things in nature that can’t be explained by evolution, and then use such things to argue for ID. But what exactly is the unifying theory of ID?

“Sometimes, intelligence is involved rather than pure selective pressure based on reproductive fitness and survival. Other times, evolution just does its thing.”

But why was “intelligent design” applied in the case of a bacterial flagellum, and not elsewhere? For any explanatory power, a motivation for ID influence to appear in a particular biological feature would have to be clear prior to the knowledge that the specific feature appears to be irreducibly complex. This lack of a clear alternative theory means that, at most, irreducibly complex biological features can be seen as a challenge to current evolutionary theory. They cannot possibly be a positive argument for ID.

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Related posts:

“Creation Science” isn’t.

Hypothetically speaking

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

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16 thoughts on “Intelligent Design: dodgy science, worse theology

  1. I agree that ID is lousy theology but it is even worse science as you so aptly describe. This may explain why, after celebrating its 25th anniversary, ID has yet to produce any scientific advancements. This, I think, is a pretty good clue about its scientific qualifications.

  2. if we talk about trying to discern God’s influence in the universe scientifically, we have two major problems:

    Three: God doesn’t do tricks. 🙂

    I am not sure that “intelligence” would be the most easily identifiable evidence.

    ID doesn’t use intelligence in the common sense; one could equally call it “directed design”.

    ID … argues that God’s involvement in the universe is only necessary for stuff that we can’t explain by natural law.

    Not quite: ID argues that God’s involvement in the universe is necessary for stuff that we can’t explain by natural law. It is silent on God’s uninvolvement.

    This is a classic “god of the gaps” argument, and it is lousy theology.

    Evolution is lousy theology too. 🙂

    Irreducible complexity is not “unknown reduction”; the point is to prove irreducibilty.

    By studying the stove and the kettle and the water (or steam if you wait too long), you can discover exactly how the chain of events unfolded. But it is not clear that the intelligent involvement and motivation could ever be discovered in this way.

    I would find the evidence clear from the stove itself, a purpose-designed machine. Motivation is out of scope.

    [Irreducible complexity] is a challenge to see if there are limits to current understanding of evolution

    There is no shortage of those.

    But what exactly is the unifying theory of ID?

    Creationism?

    “Sometimes, intelligence is involved rather than pure selective pressure based on reproductive fitness and survival. Other times, evolution just does its thing.”

    I have never seen ID posit that.

    For any explanatory power, a motivation for ID influence to appear in a particular biological feature would have to be clear prior to the knowledge that the specific feature appears to be irreducibly complex. This lack of a clear alternative theory means that, at most, irreducibly complex biological features can be seen as a challenge to current evolutionary theory. They cannot possibly be a positive argument for ID.

    I can’t follow the logic here.

    I agree that ID is lousy theology but it is even worse science as you so aptly describe. This may explain why, after celebrating its 25th anniversary, ID has yet to produce any scientific advancements. This, I think, is a pretty good clue about its scientific qualifications.

    I think that you are missing the point here: I have yet to see a falsifiable test for the mechanism of evolution. Every scientist should concede that science is far from the only route to truth.

    • Guardian :

      ID doesn’t use intelligence in the common sense; one could equally call it “directed design”.

      I realise that. The point still stands, I believe.

      Guardian :

      ID argues that God’s involvement in the universe is necessary for stuff that we can’t explain by natural law. It is silent on God’s uninvolvement.

      …pretty much the definition of god-of-the-gaps theology.

      Guardian :

      Evolution is lousy theology too. :-)

      To be honest, I have fewer theological issues with evolution. Partly this is because I see science as a legitimate theological endeavour: at its best, it is an attempt to learn more of God by studying his creation. I see more intellectual coherence (scientifically) in evolutionary theory than ID. I don’t mean to suggest that evolutionary theory is without its problems and shortcomings, and I don’t think that the current framework for evolutionary theory is entirely satisfactory. Hence my final note on irreducible complexity.

      Guardian :

      “Sometimes, intelligence is involved rather than pure selective pressure based on reproductive fitness and survival. Other times, evolution just does its thing.”

      I have never seen ID posit that.

      Here’s an alternative paraphrase from earlier in the post:
      “Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof.”

    • I have yet to see a falsifiable test for the mechanism of evolution.

      May I suggest you stop closing them and claiming the world is just too dark to see. There are many ways to falsify the mechanisms of evolution.

      And when it comes to ascertaining the truth value for claims about how reality operates, I dare you to come up with a better method than science… or even one equivalent in producing knowledge. Pretending there are other ways ways of knowing about how reality operates doesn’t cut it as a criticism of science; it reveals a very deep confusion about what constitutes knowledge.

      • May I suggest you stop closing them and claiming the world is just too dark to see.

        Is this supposed to make sense, or is it just a pointless and gratuitous criticism?

        There are many ways to falsify the mechanisms of evolution.

        I did not say mechanisms.

        There are many lesser aspects of evolutionary theory that might be falsified, and indeed some have been, but they don’t go to the underlying mechanism of undirected random change, which is fundamentally unfalsifiable.

        And when it comes to ascertaining the truth value for claims about how reality operates, I dare you to come up with a better method than science… or even one equivalent in producing knowledge.

        Mathematics is clearly superior to science in that regard.

        Pretending there are other ways ways of knowing about how reality operates doesn’t cut it as a criticism of science; it reveals a very deep confusion about what constitutes knowledge.

        I did not say knowledge. Regardless, if you really believe that then the confusion is indeed deep — if not Rumsfeldian — but it is yours. Philosophy 101: look into epistemology and metaphysics; methodological naturalism is predicated upon both philosophy and faith, and is axiomatically closed-minded.

      • The basic mechanism – appreciating that there are several – for evolution is natural selection, which you describe as “undirected random change.” This description reveals a very poor grasp of what the mechanism describes. You might want to look into rectifying this deplorable – if not Comfortian – lack of understanding. I suspect you don’t even grasp the irony of insisting on falsifiability for evolution but then suggest mathematics is superior in producing knowledge to the method of science as if the two were naturally divorced. Of course, this simply isn’t true.

        The method of science will use any and all means to try to understand how reality operates and then subject the tentative conclusions to all kinds of testing… including falsifiability. An important component of this method includes applicable mathematics. But as far as using falsifiability as one part of the method to help verify tentative conclusions, this remains the same for any claims made about reality including those indicated by math alone. Math must use the method of science to take its insights from the theoretical to the practical. They are not separate methods of inquiry (with the goal of producing knowledge about reality) as you imply.

        Let me help ease your discomfort and misunderstanding about what methodological naturalism means in the exercise of doing science. No equivalent kind of faith-based belief is required and the charge of being “axiomatically closed-minded” to those who study the universe is as absurd as it is wrong. But then, I am beginning to suspect that maybe you simply don’t care to understand.

      • The greatest problem with ignorance is ignorance thereof. You do not appear to understand even the distinction between truth and reality, let alone the intrinsic limitations of science — or even the nature of pure mathematics. Consequently, your argument is not right; for any practical purpose it is not even wrong. It simply misses the point by as much as your manners are lacking, and it is not my job to disillusion you or broaden your education.

        Take the giant chip off your shoulder, study basic philosophy, and learn civility. Until you can conduct a debate in a [polite manner] (Note: edited for civility), you are free to entertain any misconceptions you choose. Good luck.

      • Ah yes, the “I’m offended at your tone” argument so I won’t deal with your criticisms of my position.

        It now falls to me to go forth and try to catch up with your rarefied philosophical expertise (that you assume permits you to misrepresent and misunderstand the method of science in the name of pursuing what’s true) and learn the manners you insist I must exercise before you’ll deign to stoop to responding in a practical manner.

        How about you learn to take legitimate criticisms for what they are (opportunities to re-examine your position) before pretending you are interested in a polite exchange about what is true after starting out with such blatant intentional misrepresentations (“Evolution is lousy theology too,” and “Every scientist should concede that science is far from the only route to truth.”). These statements you have provided act as a catalyst (for anyone actually concerned about what is true) to question the quality of your intellectual integrity. It’s not about my tone in response to them… because you’ve already demonstrated a willingness to set the bar so low.

  3. I realise that. The point still stands, I believe.

    Too many ambiguities for me to judge.

    ID argues that God’s involvement in the universe is necessary for stuff that we can’t explain by natural law. It is silent on God’s uninvolvement.

    …pretty much the definition of god-of-the-gaps theology.

    Necessary, but not sufficient. Nonetheless, ID does not argue that God’s involvement in the universe is only necessary for that which is unexplained by natural law.

    To be honest, I have fewer theological issues with evolution.

    To be fair, neither ID nor evolution are (nor are meant to be) theological other than in their implications, although ID’s implications are naturally more theological.

    “Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof.”

    That is a good deal more general! 😛 (Although without its leading context it would read more accurately “are best explained as” rather than simply “are”.) ID does not conclude that phenomena best explained by undirected processes are necessarily so, but rather the reverse.

    In other words:

    The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

    My basic point is that your objections to ID seem to be based on implications that go beyond what ID itself claims. Its proponents may even agree with you! 🙂

  4. Ah yes, the “I’m offended at your tone” argument so I won’t deal with your criticisms of my position.

    Uh, no. First, that is not an argument; it is a position. This distinction is far less subtle than those you need in the wider discussion here.

    Second, given that you seem so familiar with that position, you might want to introspect a little as to why it is that you get that response so often.

    Finally, I cannot tell which of catalysts or analogies it is that you have misused, but regardless the idea that responsibility for your behaviour falls on anyone other than yourself is absurd.

    The apparent limits of your education, on the other hand, may well not be your fault — but they are your responsibility. As should be clearly evident from my previous comment, I have neither the interest nor the inclination to remedy such without a serious attitude adjustment on your part. Perhaps Mike will be more amenable; certainly he could demonstrate how to conduct an argument as a gentleman.

    • “Undirected random change” is not an accurate description of evolution.

      To say that the methodological naturalism used by working scientists “is predicated upon both philosophy and faith, and is axiomatically closed-minded,” is not an accurate description of the methods used by those who do good science.

      In both cases, you can do something about these inaccuracies.

      • You should feel free to continue to believe that. What part of “I have neither the interest nor the inclination” is unclear here?

      • What part of “I have neither the interest nor the inclination” is unclear here?

        And this is why I wrote I am beginning to suspect that maybe you simply don’t care to understand, which you took to be cause to express your displeasure how I conducted an ungentlemanly argument. How dare I challenge your claims! How dare I have the effrontery of suspecting your motives when you refuse to respond to legitimate criticisms?

        Look, you make claims that I think are untrue. When challenged, you don’t deal with supporting your claims; you simply complain about the motives, methods, and vocabulary of others. If you have “neither the interest nor the inclination” to support why you think your claims are true, then why bother commenting unless you have some agenda that has nothing to do with respecting what is? And if this is the case, have the integrity to admit it and move on so that others don’t waste their time on the presumption that you do care.

  5. Pingback: Creationism ≠ Christianity « Spiritual Meanderings

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