ID Does Not Address Religious Claims About the Supernatural
“I wasn’t comfortable with the typical vocabulary that for the most part creationists were using because it didn’t express what I was trying to do. They were wanting to bring God into the discussion, and I was wanting to stay within the empirical domain and do what you can do legitimately there.” (1)
--Chemist Charles Thaxton explaining why he adopted “intelligent design” terminology, thereby giving birth to the “Intelligent Design Movement”
ID has scientific merit because it is does not try to address religious questions about the supernatural and limits its claims to what can be scientifically inferred from the empirical domain; this makes ID distinct from creationism and shows that ID respects the scientific method and methodological naturalism’s requirements that scientific claims be repeatable and reliable.
Intelligent design (ID) as a scientific theory limits its scientific claims to what can be learned from the empirical data and does not attempt to address religious questions about the identity or metaphysical nature of the designer. This makes ID distinct from creationism and shows that ID respects the limits of scientific inquiry. Setting any potential failings of methodological naturalism aside, ID does not violate methodological naturalism’s requirements that scientific claims be based upon observable, repeatable, and reliable scientific investigations.
A. Intelligent design does not study the designer, but rather studies natural objects to determine if they bear the tell-tale signs that they were designed by an intelligent cause.
Many critics of ID mistakenly believe that the theory is focused upon studying the designer, alleging that it specifically invokes supernatural forces or a deity. But ID is not focused on studying the actual intelligent cause responsible for life. Instead, ID studies objects in nature, attempting to determine if natural objects bear an informational signature indicating that an intelligent cause was involved in their origin. As William Dembski explains:
“Intelligent design is the science that studies signs of intelligence. Note that a sign is not the thing signified. … As a scientific research program, intelligent design investigates the effects of intelligence, not intelligence as such.”(2)
Similarly, Michael Behe explains that we can detect design even if we don’t know anything about the identity or nature of the designer:
"The conclusion that something was designed can be made quite independently of knowledge of the designer. As a matter of procedure, the design must first be apprehended before there can be any further question about the designer. The inference to design can be held with all the firmness that is possible in this world, without knowing anything about the designer."(3)
Behe even goes so far as to suggest that “[i]ntelligent design does not require a candidate for the role of the designer.”(4) Thus, as a scientific theory, ID does not focus on studying the actual intelligent designer, but simply studies objects in nature to determine if they bear the signs of intelligent design.
B. Intelligent design does not attempt to address religious questions about the identity or metaphysical nature of the designer.
As noted, ID limits its claims to what can be learned from the empirical data, meaning that it does not try to address religious questions about the identity or nature of the designer. While the empirical data can allow us to study natural objects and determine whether they arose from an intelligent cause, the empirical data may not allow us to determine the identity or metaphysical nature of the intelligent cause.
One of the earliest works on ID, the textbook Of Pandas and People (“Pandas”), explains that ID merely seeks to infer "intelligent causes" and is compatible with a wide variety of religious viewpoints, including pantheism and agnosticism:
“The idea that life had an intelligent source is hardly unique to Christian fundamentalism. Advocates of design have included not only Christians and other religious theists, but pantheists, Greek and Enlightenment philosophers and now include many modern scientists who describe themselves as religiously agnostic. Moreover, the concept of design implies absolutely nothing about beliefs normally associated with Christian fundamentalism, such as a young earth, a global flood, or even the existence of the Christian God. All it implies is that life had an intelligent source.”(5)
The text goes on to explain that, “[i]f science is based upon experience, then science tells us the message encoded in DNA must have originated from an intelligent cause. What kind of intelligent agent was it? ... We still would not know, from science, if the natural cause was all that was involved, or if the ultimate explanation was beyond nature, and using the natural cause.”(6)
While Pandas was a very early ID work, published long before many major ID ideas and concepts were formulated and published, Pandas’ non-identification of the designer has remained the consistent position of ID proponents throughout its history. For example, William Dembski explains that "Intelligent design is modest in what it attributes to the designing intelligence responsible for the specified complexity in nature. For instance, design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the competence of science and must be left to religion and philosophy."(7) Similarly, Michael Behe explains that ID remains silent on questions about whether the designer is natural or supernatural:
"[ID] is not an argument for the existence of a benevolent God, as Paley's was. I hasten to add that I myself do believe in a benevolent God, and I recognize that philosophy and theology may be able to extend the argument. But a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far. Thus while I argue for design, the question of the identity of the designer is left open. Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel--fallen or not; Plato's demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being. Of course, some of these possibilities may seem more plausible than others based on information from fields other than science. Nonetheless, as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton's phrase hypothesis non fingo.”(8)
Some critics allege that ID proponents are “coy” about the identity of the designer, which they really believe is God. Yet ID proponents are also very open about their views about the identity of the designer—they have just made it clear that these are their own personal beliefs and not conclusions of intelligent design theory proper. For example, Michael Behe explains:
“most people (including myself) will attribute the design to God--based in part on other, non-scientific judgments they have made--I did not claim that the biochemical evidence leads ineluctably to a conclusion about who the designer is. In fact, I directly said that, from a scientific point of view, the question remains open. ... The biochemical evidence strongly indicates design, but does not show who the designer was”(9)
Thus, when ID proponents state that ID does not identify the designer, they are, in Behe's words, "not being coy, but only limiting ... claims to what ... the evidence will support."(10) During the Kitzmiller trial, Behe gave a clear, direct, and unambiguous testimony explaining that his personal beliefs the identity of the designer is God are not derived from the scientific theory of intelligent design.(11)
Similarly, Phillip Johnson writes that “my personal view is that I identify the designer of life with the God of the Bible, although intelligent design theory as such does not entail that."(12) In fact, I too believe the designer is the God of the Bible, but this is not a conclusion of ID; it is my personal religious view that stems from factors outside of intelligent design. Any fair analysis must come to the following conclusions about ID and questions about the identity or nature of the designer:
• ID does not address religious questions about the identity or nature of the designer, and in fact ID proponents have diverse views about the identity of the designer;
• ID proponents give principled reasons why ID does not identify the designer, stemming from ID’s intent to respect the limits of science and not attempt to address religious questions that go beyond what can be scientifically inferred from the empirical data;
• Whether traditional theists or not, ID proponents are entirely open about their views on the identity of the designer;
• ID proponents make it clear that their views about the identity of the designer are their personal religious views, and not conclusions of ID.
C. Intelligent design’s non-identification of the designer stems from an intent to respect for limits of scientific inquiry and not make claims that go beyond what can be learned using scientific methods.
The refusal of ID proponents to use ID to draw scientific conclusions about the nature or identity of the designer is principled rather than merely rhetorical. ID's non-identification of the designer stems from a desire to take a scientific approach and respect the limits of scientific inquiry, and not inject religious discussions about theological questions into science. In short, ID does not identify the designer because under present knowledge and technology, there is no known scientific method for identifying the intelligent source responsible for design in nature. Thus for the scientific theory of ID to try to identify the designer would be to inappropriately conflate science with religion.
Thomas Woodward explains the principled reasons why the current biological evidence for ID is insufficient to allow us to identify the designer:
“There is no ‘Made by Yahweh’ engraved on the side of the bacterial rotary motor--the flagellum. In order to find out what or who its designer is, one must go outside the narrow discipline of biology. Cross-disciplinary dialogue must begin with the fields of philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology, and theology. Design itself, however, is a direct scientific inference; it does not depend on a single religious premise for its conclusions.”(13)
In other words, the empirical data, such as the information-rich, integrated complexity of the flagellar machine, may indicate that the flagellum arose by intelligent design. But that same empirical data does not inform us whether the intelligence that designed the flagellum is Yahweh, Allah, Buddha, Yoda, or some other type of intelligent agency. There is no known way to use such empirical data to determine the nature or identity of the designer, and since ID is based solely upon empirical data, the scientific theory of ID must remain silent on such questions.
ID is primarily a historical science, meaning it uses principles of uniformitarianism to study present-day causes and then applies them to the historical record in order to infer the best explanation for the origin of the natural phenomena being studied. ID starts with observations showing the effects of intelligence in the natural world. As Pandas explains, scientists have “uniform sensory experience”(14) with intelligent causes (i.e. humans), thus making intelligence an appropriate explanatory cause within historical scientific fields. However, the "supernatural" cannot be observed, and thus historical scientists applying uniformitarian reasoning cannot appeal to the supernatural. If the intelligence responsible for life were supernatural, science could only infer the prior action of intelligence, but could not determine whether the intelligence was supernatural.(15)
D. Intelligent design is distinct from creationism.(16)
In order to address claims that ID is creationism, we require a working definition of “creationism.” Even ID’s leading critics admit that ID is not creationism when creationism is defined as young earth creationism (“YEC”). As Eugenie Scott writes, “most ID proponents do not embrace a Young Earth, Flood Geology, and sudden creation tenets associated with YEC.”(17)
There are more general definitions of “creationism” than the widely-known YEC view. Leading scholars on both sides of this debate agree that creationism defined generally holds that “supernatural” powers created life.(18) Indeed, in its 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court basically adopted this definition, finding that creationism was religion because it referred to a “supernatural creator.”(19) Under this broad definition of creationism, ID still is not creationism. This is because, as we have seen, ID does not try to address questions about whether the designer is natural or supernatural, and in fact within biology explicitly allows that the designer could have been natural. For this reason, intelligent design lacks the key defining characteristic that caused creationism to be both unscientific and unconstitutional.
Creationists base their claims upon faith or divine revelation. But as I argued in my first opening statement, ID makes its arguments using the scientific data, and not faith or divine revelation. ID should not be considered the same as creationism.
From its early days, the ID-project has made empirically-based arguments that stayed entirely within the empirical domain and avoided religious questions about the supernatural. Thus, in a desperate effort to tie ID to creationism, Darwinists resort to weak semantic or “guilt by association” arguments, rather than substantive arguments, to claim that ID is creationism.
In this regard, Darwinists have often cited language in early pre-publication drafts of the Pandas textbook that used the term “creation” and later pre-publication drafts as well as published editions that used the term “intelligent design.” They alleged the terminology was switched merely in an effort to evade the Edwards ruling, which found “creation science” unconstitutional.
Conceptually, early drafts of Pandas, although they used the word “creation,” did not advocate “creationism” as that term has been defined by the Supreme Court and most scholars in this debate.
Before the Edwards ruling, pre-publication drafts of Pandas specifically rejected the view that science could determine whether an intelligent cause identified through the scientific method was supernatural. A pre-Edwards draft argued that “observable instances of information cannot tell us if the intellect behind them is natural or supernatural. This is not a question that science can answer.”(20) The same draft explicitly rejected William Paley’s eighteenth century design arguments because they unscientifically “extrapolate to the supernatural” from the empirical data. The draft stated that Paley was wrong because “there was no basis in uniform experience for going from nature to the supernatural, for inferring an unobserved supernatural cause from an observed effect.”(21) Another pre-publication draft made similar arguments:
“[W]e cannot learn [about the supernatural] through uniform sensory experience . . . and so to teach it in science classes would be out of place . . . [S]cience can identify an intellect, but is powerless to tell us if that intellect is within the universe or beyond it.”(22)
By unequivocally affirming that the empirical evidence of science “cannot tell us if the intellect behind [the information in life] is natural or supernatural,”(23) it is evident that these pre-publication drafts of Pandas meant something very different by “creation” than did the Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard, in which the Court defined creationism as religion because it postulated a “supernatural creator.”
Unfortunately, in his Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling, Judge Jones bought into the revisionist history of ID that claims ID is just repackaged creationism, and the Judge presented a sharply truncated and inaccurate view of the intellectual history of design. A correct history will make it clear that “intelligent design” was not a term invented to avoid the Edwards ruling, but a project that has always been distinct from the core claims of creationism.
Judge Jones traced the origins of ID back to the natural theology of William Paley and the arguments of the thirteenth century Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Even some critics of ID admit that “design arguments are not new,"(24) for the debate over design in nature began at least as early as the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.(25) The Greek philosophers Heraclitus, Empedocles, Democritus, and Anaximander believed that life could originate without any intelligent guidance.(26) Plato and Aristotle, both advocated that a mind was required to explain life's existence.(27) In more modern times, Isaac Newton asked in his treatise Opticks, “Was the Eye contrived without Skill in Opticks, and the Ear without Knowledge of Sounds? [...] And these things being rightly dispatch’d, does it not appear from Phænomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent…”(28)
The debate over design continued vigorously among scientists and philosophers—not just theologians—at the time of Darwin in the 19th century. Zoologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, a critic of Darwin, invoked an “intellectual power”(29) to explain the diversity of living organisms in his “Essay on Classification,” published in the late 1850’s, near the time that Darwin published Origin of Species. The term “intelligent design” was invoked as a plausible alternative to blind Darwinian evolution in 1897 by Oxford scholar F.C.S. Schiller, who wrote that “it will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of Evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.”(30) Even the independent co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, concluded that it was possible—and appropriate—to detect design in nature.(31)
The research and ideas that ultimately inspired ID proponents were conceived in the decades and years prior to the Edwards ruling.(32) Highly influential behind ID arguments was the discovery that life depended upon information, whose structure was not only independent of its physical or chemical form, but whose ordering was not amenable to explanation by physical or chemical laws. As the chemist Michael Polanyi wrote in an article titled, “Life’s Irreducible Structure,” published in the journal Science in 1968:
“Suppose that the actual structure of a DNA molecule were due to the fact that the bindings of its bases were much stronger than the bindings would be for any other distribution of bases, then such a DNA molecule would have no information content. Its code-like character would be effaced by an overwhelming redundancy. […] Whatever may be the origin of a DNA configuration, it can function as a code only if its order is not due to the forces of potential energy. It must be as physically indeterminate as the sequence of words is on a printed page.”(33)
The term “intelligent design” appears to have been coined in its contemporary scientific usage by the atheist cosmologist Dr. Fred Hoyle, who in 1982 argued that “if one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure of order must be the outcome of intelligent design.”(34) The term “intelligent design” was also used by non-scientist James E. Horigan in his 1979 book Chance or Design? where Horigan used the term “intelligent design” and framed his argument as an empirical one, “without resort to biblical or other religious references,” and without investigating questions about “ultimate purpose.”(35)
Horigan and Hoyle, however, did not become part of the later ID movement. But in 1984—three years before the Edwards ruling—three scientists who did help found the ID movement published a book titled The Mystery of Life’s Origin that made arguments for an “intelligent cause” in the origin of the information in DNA:
“We have observational evidence in the present that intelligent investigators can (and do) build contrivances to channel energy down nonrandom chemical pathways to bring about some complex chemical synthesis, even gene building. May not the principle of uniformity then be used in a broader frame of consideration to suggest that DNA had an intelligent cause at the beginning?”(36)
Those three scientists were Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen. Soon thereafter, Thaxton, a chemist and academic editor for the Pandas textbook, adopted the term “intelligent design” after hearing it mentioned by a NASA engineer.(37) Thaxton’s adoption of the term “intelligent design” took place pre-Edwards was not an attempt to evade a court decision, but rather to distinguish ID from creationism, because, in contrast to creationism, ID sought to stay solely within the empirical domain. As Thaxton testified during his deposition in the Kitzmiller case:
“I wasn’t comfortable with the typical vocabulary that for the most part creationists were using because it didn’t express what I was trying to do. They were wanting to bring God into the discussion, and I was wanting to stay within the empirical domain and do what you can do legitimately there.”(38)
Thaxton, who is a scientist and not a lawyer, adopted “intelligent design” terminology out of a desire to respect the limits of scientific inquiry, not as some conspiracy to avoid a Supreme Court ruling. When recounting the history of why he adopted “intelligent design” terminology, Thaxton explains that his goal was not to avoid any court decisions but to help people understand that their argument was “trying to operate entirely within the empirical domain”:
“Unfortunately for Westerners … anytime you use the word creation it automatically conjures up any of a number of religious discussions. We knew from the beginning of our project, that turned out to be the making of Of Pandas and People, that we wanted to avoid this automatically concluding that what you’re talking about was religion because in fact we were dealing with a biological discussion. So we were trying to operate entirely within the empirical domain. And my thought was, how to arrive at a set of terms that would allow us to traffic the literature and the discussion and build an argument without having to use terminology that would automatically bring one into the religious realm?”(39)
Thaxton continues, saying “we did what we could do to stay within the empirical domain and make legitimate inferences.”(40) He then explains the terminology that was originally in the early pre-publication drafts of Pandas:
“I realize that the charge was that we were trying to just use a substitute word for creation, but that isn’t the case at all. In the early days of writing the Pandas book for example, although we understood what we were doing, most other people who we were talking to didn’t know our objectives really. And if you have a whole culture that knows about creation as a term … So we used that word early on, not for deception so we could later switch on them but because we wanted the materials to be understood that we were focused on. It was always clearly within the empirical domain, even the things that we wrote early on.” (41)
Thaxton completes his account by recounting that after speaking widely on the subject of origins that “gradually it became clear that there was a real good way that there was a case we wanted – completely within the empirical domain – and we looked for a term that would do this and reading the literature and ah, ‘intelligent design,’ is the most appropriate term. And that’s why we did it.” (42)
In conclusion, the term “intelligent design” not only long pre-dates the Edwards ruling, but the basic arguments for design pre-date Christianity. Moreover, modern members of the ID movement started using the term “intelligent design” not to evade a court ruling, but because they sought terminology that would accurately communicate their project’s original intent to remain “entirely within the empirical domain” and avoid investigating religious questions about the supernatural. Since the U.S. Supreme Court declared creationism to be a religious viewpoint because it postulated a “supernatural creator,” it seems that regardless of what wording was used early on, the ID project has always been substantively distinct from creationism. Any arguments that ID is creationism because early pre-publication drafts of the Pandas textbook used “creation” terminology are false conspiracy theories based not upon substance, but semantics and revisionist history. The very fact that Darwinists must resort to such arguments shows just how weak is their case that ID is creationism.
Any readers interested in learning about the true history of the origin of intelligent design might benefit from listening to two podcast interviews with Charles Thaxton on this topic at:
The Mystery of Life's Origin: An Interview with Dr. Charles Thaxton, Part One
The Mystery of Life's Origin: An Interview with Dr. Charles Thaxton, Part Two
E. Intelligent design does not violate the mandates of observability, reliability, and predictability as required in the spirit behind methodological naturalism..
According to the leading ID critic Eugenie Scott, “Methodological naturalism simply requires that, in trying to explain any particular observation or experimental result, an investigator may not resort to miracles.”(43) The most common justifications for making MN a requirement of science is that MN ensures that scientific claims are based upon observable, predictable, and reliable empirical data. For example, biologist John A. Moore argues that science cannot invoke miracles because, "the relationship of the natural and the supernatural are unpredictable … [if] the cause of a natural event is the whim of a deity, the event is neither predictable nor fully understandable."(44)
ID is not an appeal to a supernatural cause, nor does it employ miracles. As William Dembski and Jonathan Wells explain, “Supernatural explanations invoke miracles and therefore are not properly part of science. Explanations that call on intelligent causes require no miracles but cannot be reduced to materialistic explanations.”(45) At one point, the Pandas textbook even seems to adopt methodological naturalism, stating that "intelligence . . . can be recognized by uniform sensory experience, and the supernatural . . . cannot."(46) Thus ID does not invoke supernatural explanations that are, in Moore’s words, subject to the “whim of a deity” nor are they, in Scott’s words, a “resort to miracles.”
ID makes reliable inferences. ID is based upon a simple observation-based cause-and-effect relationship between mind and the origin of information. To reiterate, I quoted Stephen Meyer arguing in my first opening statement:
“[W]e have repeated experience of rational and conscious agents-in particular ourselves-generating or causing increases in complex specified information, both in the form of sequence-specific lines of code and in the form of hierarchically arranged systems of parts. … Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source from a mind or personal agent.”(47)
ID explanations are thus based upon our predictable, empirically-based understanding of the types of information produced by the action of intelligence. As William Dembski explains, the methods of detecting design have the reliability required by science:
"What has kept design outside the scientific mainstream these last 130 years is the absence of precise methods for distinguishing intelligently caused objects from unintelligently caused ones. For design to be a fruitful scientific theory, scientists have to be sure they can reliably determine whether something is designed. Johannes Kepler, for instance, thought the craters on the moon were intelligently designed by moon dwellers. …. With precise methods for discriminating intelligently from unintelligently caused objects, scientists are now able to avoid Kepler's mistake"(48)
In its booklet Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, the U.S. National Academy of Science (NAS) provides the following definition of science:
“Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from the confirmable data—the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science.”(49)
ID plainly satisfies this definition of science from the NAS. Intelligent causes can be inferred through confirmable data. The types of information produced by intelligent causes can be observed and then measured. Scientists can use observations and experiments to base their design inferences upon empirical evidence. ID limits its claims to those which can be established through the data. In this way, ID does not violate the mandates of predictability and reliability laid down for science by methodological naturalism (whatever the failings and limitations of methodological naturalism).(50)
Critics will immediately reply that while ID may not specifically invoke supernatural causation, it leaves open the possibility there was a supernatural creator. For this reason, they will argue that by permitting supernatural causation, ID may be subject to the “whim of a deity” and loses the predictability and reliability required by methodological naturalism. This argument is logically flawed.
While it is true that ID permits supernatural causation, the same is true of neo-Darwinism. For example, theistic evolutionist Kenneth Miller believes that neo-Darwinian evolution allows for the supernatural creation of life on earth,(51) but neither Miller nor ID proponents are arguing that we can scientifically conclude that there was supernatural action in the creation of biological life. As discussed, the scientific theory of ID cannot determine if the designing intelligence was natural or supernatural. Thus neither ID nor neo-Darwinism violates methodological naturalism.
More importantly, the design can be strongly inferred regardless of whether the designer is natural or supernatural. An underlying assumption of ID is that intelligence is a property which we can generally understand through our observations of intelligent agents in the natural world. An intelligent agent could have at least some predictable modes of designing because it has the property of intelligence, regardless of whether or not the agent was "natural" or "supernatural." In other words, both natural and supernatural designers would produce high levels of complex and specified information, allowing us to detect design regardless of whether that intelligence is acting in the natural world, or from some other “supernatural” realm. For this reason, John Moore’s “supernatural/natural” distinction does not offend design detection because an underlying assumption of ID is that we can understand how intelligent agency works and detect design regardless of whether or not the intelligent agent was natural or “supernatural.”
The theory of ID is simply an effort to empirically detect whether the “apparent design” in nature acknowledged by virtually all biologists is genuine design (the product of an intelligent cause) or is simply the product of an undirected process such as natural selection acting on random variations. Creationism typically starts with a religious text and tries to see how the findings of science can be reconciled to it. ID starts with the empirical evidence of nature and seeks to ascertain what scientific inferences can be drawn from that evidence. Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design does not claim that modern biology can identify whether the intelligent cause detected through science is supernatural. The charge that ID is “creationism” is a rhetorical strategy on the part of Darwinists who wish to delegitimize ID without actually addressing the merits of its case.(52)
No matter how often ID’s critics might claim that ID is creationism, and no matter how chic they aim to sound when calling ID “creationism’s Trojan horse” or “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” or a “labcoat,” the fact of the matter is that ID is a legitimate scientific alternative to neo-Darwinism that has key differences from creationism. ID’s critics may coo at such rhetoric, but those interested in the facts should not.