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Not Intelligent & Surely Not Science

March 2005

According to Intelligent Design Theory (IDT), life is too specifically complex (complex structures with specific functions, like DNA) and irreducibly complex (reduce a complex structure by one part and it loses its function, like eyes) to have evolved by natural forces. Therefore, life must have been created by a supernatural force – an Intelligent Designer (ID).

ID theorists argue that since design can be inferred through the methods of science, IDT should be given equal time alongside evolutionary theory in public school science classes. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, and Tennessee have all recently proposed legislation that would require just that.

The evolution-creation legal battle began in 1925 with the Scopes “monkey” trial, over the banning of the teaching of evolution in Tennessee. The controversy caused textbook publishers and state boards of education to cease teaching evolution — until the Soviets launched Sputnik in the late 1950s and the United States realized it was falling behind in the sciences.

Creationists responded by passing equal-time laws that required the teaching of both creationism and evolution, a strategy defeated in a 1968 Arkansas trial that found that such a law attempted to “establish religion” in a public school and was therefore unconstitutional. This led to new equal-time laws covering “creation science” and “evolution science.” In 1987, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 7 to 2, said teaching creation science “impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.”

This history explains why proponents of intelligent design are careful to never specify the true, religious nature of their theory and to insist that what they are doing is science. For example, leading ID scholar William Dembski wrote in his 2003 book, “The Design Revolution”: “Intelligent design is a strictly scientific theory devoid of religious commitments. Whereas the creator underlying scientific creationism conforms to a strict, literalist interpretation of the Bible, the designer underlying intelligent design need not even be a deity.”

But let’s be clear: Intelligent-design theory is not science. The proof is in the pudding. Scientists, including scientists who are Christians, do not use IDT when they do science because it offers nothing in the way of testable hypotheses. Lee Anne Chaney, professor of biology at Whitworth College, a Christian institution, wrote in a 1995 article: “As a Christian, part of my belief system is that God is ultimately responsible. But as a biologist, I need to look at the evidence … I don’t think intelligent design is very helpful because it does not provide things that are refutable — there is no way in the world you can show it’s not true. Drawing inferences about the deity does not seem to me to be the function of science because it’s very subjective.”

Intelligent-design theory lacks, for instance, a hypothesis of the mechanics of the design, something akin to natural selection in evolution. Natural selection can and has been observed and tested, and Charles Darwin’s theory has been refined.

Intelligent-design theorists admit the difference, at least among themselves. Here is ID proponent Paul Nelson, writing last year in Touchstone, a Christian magazine: “Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’ — but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.”

If intelligent design is not science, then what is it? One of its originators, Phillip Johnson, a law professor at UC Berkeley, wrote in a 1999 article: “The objective is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism versus evolution to the existence of God versus the nonexistence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.’”

On March 9, I debated ID scholar Stephen Meyer at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. After two hours of debate over the scientific merits (or lack thereof) of IDT, Meyer admitted in the question-and-answer period that he thinks that the intelligent designer is the Judeo-Christian God and that suboptimal designs and deadly diseases are not examples of an unintelligent or malevolent designer, but instead were caused by “the fall” in the Garden of Eden. Dembski has also told me privately that he believes the intelligent designer is the God of Abraham.

The term “intelligent design” is nothing more than a linguistic place-filler for something unexplained by science. It is saying, in essence, that if there is no natural explanation for X, then the explanation must be a supernatural one. Proponents of intelligent design cannot imagine, for example, how the bacterial flagellum (such as the little tail that propels sperm cells) could have evolved; ergo, they conclude, it was intelligently designed. But saying “intelligent design did it” does not explain anything. Scientists would want to know how and when ID did it, and what forces ID used. In fact, invoking intelligent design as God’s place-filler can only result in the naturalization of the deity. God becomes just another part of the natural world, and thereby loses the transcendent mystery and divinity that define the boundary between religion and science.

This opinion editorial was originally published in the Los Angeles Times.

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22 Comments to “Not Intelligent & Surely Not Science”

  1. alex can Says:

    If evolution can’t explain the eye and flagellum any more than ID then isn’t it in the same boat?

  2. skeptic griggsy Says:

    And Keith Miller wanting to put design into evolutionary theory contradicts that natural forces, particularly selection, are their own bosses,not needing a super boss. We see patterns only; seeing design is just pareidolia ,like seeing Yeshua in a tortilla.

  3. John Shuey Says:

    Alex…

    Evolution can and does explain both the eye and the bacteria flagellum quite concisely. And no…since evolution is testable, falsifiable, and even observable, it most assuredly is not “in the same boat” as ID.

  4. Dan Says:

    For a nice talk on the evolution of the bacterial flagellum, take a look at :
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=RQQ7ubVIqo4

    As for the eye…. read almost any book on evolution (although I’d suggest “Climbing Mount Improbable”)

  5. Peter Irvine Says:

    My problem with ID is simply: who decides when an Intelligent Designer must come on the scene to work His magic as life evolves? Is it the eye He must work on but leaves the hands and feet, perhaps less complex, to “natural” processes? There is no limit to His intervention so why not always have Him there “fixing” things? So if the Intelligent Designer is working on EVERYTHING, who needs science and scientists to explain anything? Satan must be the patron angel of scientists who are just confusing all us mortals with their theories when ID is responsible for ALL things.

  6. Donald Cameron Says:

    I get fatigued by chronic and flipant misuse of the term Complex. The difference between complicated and complex is “Cause”. Complex systems are composed of simple systems, Complicated systems are composed of arbitrarily chosen aggregates.
    Irreducible Complexity is by definition an oxymoron.
    Natural selection is ridiculous in its obsequious acquiescence to statistical mythology. Neither does Evolution predict anything, nor can it be tested. Evolution, or the shotgun approach to theory does not predict or explain Artificial Intelligence, let alone how DNA arose.
    The idea that three dimensional SpaceTime is the only way to understand the universe is myopic.

    How can you teach children in all honesty about evolution when we have no cause and effect form and function definitions for Natural, Intelligence, Intellect, Life, Time, Truth, and a host of other presumptive syntactical constructs that are simply “taken on faith” as pathways to greater truths?

  7. Virginia Fillingim (Virg) Says:

    You teach them in all honesty that we don’t really know where we came from, or how we got here, but that we humans are so curious about that, that we’ve made up all kinds of stories about it. The stories you can believe are the stories that can be proven as wrong as we search for other explanations. That is the truth.

  8. Virginia Fillingim (Virg) Says:

    Comment is above

  9. Virginia Fillingim (Virg) Says:

    No further comment

  10. MorbidlyCheerful Says:

    I am surprised how people look at evidence then disregard it simply because it does not fit in their dogmatic world view. The truth being that everyday more and more evidence supports evolution, and has continued to do for about 150 years. To deny evolution is like saying gravity does not exist, or that the world is still flat. Time to wake up people or be left behind.

  11. some slacker Says:

    People will keep seeing mythological creatures in the dot-to-dot data stream that is our sense experience of the universe. No amount of yelling, “balls of flaming plasma viewed from our particular little patch of dirt make the patterns look like your myths, but they’re not” will stop the simple pattern-seeking junkie who wants an easier explanation than relativistic physics and cosmology. Design is easier to see than apparent design, because unpacking that “apparent” takes a vision that comes with some discipline. IDT are the Judeo-Christian successors of the ancient Greeks, seeing their own stories in the patterns they find.

  12. Mageduley Says:

    Great Documentary on PBS about Intelligent Design on Trial. It puts the ID controversy to rest unequivically. Check it out:
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/id/program.html

  13. Mageduley Says:

    This is the best part:
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/programs/ht/wm/3416_06_220.html

  14. Derick Ovenall Says:

    Evolution (of a meme) in Action: Increasingly, I am seeing in print the phrase “The proof is in the pudding”, this time it is even used by Michael. When I grew up in the U.K. many many years ago, the version extant was “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” and not “The proof is in the pudding.” Here the word proof is used with its old English meaning of “test” as in the German “Proben”. For example, the term “Proof Spirit” was used for a mixture of alcohol and water, which when used to dampen gunpowder, would just allow the gunpowder to ignite. Here again, proof is definitely used to mean test. IMHO not all mutations, even of memes, prove to be improvements.

  15. Darren Cohen Says:

    That’s true, Derick, the vast majority of mutations are detrimental to survival, but animals with those mutations usually die out. Only a small percentage of mutations prove to be beneficial. But it’s the animals with beneficial mutations that survive to reproduce.

  16. Lee Says:

    The ID people keep telling us to believe in their Fairy Tales because some things are just “unknowable.” Yet, look at all the “unknowable” things we know now. Remember that whopper about Earth being at the center? That was a good one and I recall that quite a few people went to the stake for crossing them on that one.

    Yet, STILL, they keep using that tired old tactic on us…

    It’s my guess, if we don’t destroy ourselves or get sent into another “Dark Age,” science will eventually tell us where we go when we die…

  17. Bill McLean Says:

    I have only one comment. Richard Dawkins. Read his books.

  18. Dr. Sam Green Says:

    Its hard to belive that “GOD” or a god created life on earth, but highly advanced aliens could have planted it.

  19. brian pike Says:

    Shermer, Dawkins, Dennet & co are all spot on, but are still too kid-glovish with the religious (superstitious) bunch. Follow this: either you believe in evolution or you don’t. If you don’t, then it is up to you to explain why homo sapiens (only coincidently) have so much in common with apes nad other mammals. It is also up to explain childhood diseases such as polio and leukemia, and how an omnivoyent and omnipotent designer could allow (condone) for example: torture, sexually abusive clergy, genocide and famine etc. just to name a few of “god’s creations”. It is time we atheists took off the kid gloves and put on the boxing gloves and got into the ring with these foolish believers. It is not so long ago that most people believed that the sun went around the earth (we still say “sunrise” and “sunset”). Totally wrong. It is not so long ago that most folks believed that sickness and infection was causes by “bad spirits”. Again, totally wrong.
    And it is not so long ago that the Greeks had a god for just about everything. Lightning was an angry good, a storm was an angry god. Utterly wrong as we know today. The religious lot should stop and think about why they find it necessary to base their lives on illusions and lies. Give us a plausible alternative (not higher-power gobbledegook, or alien intervention) to the random neo-darwinistic process of natural selection, one that explains so much that is observable and verifiable or please shut up!

  20. Jeremy Pierce Says:

    So Dembski and Johnson accept an argument that relies on no religious premise. One premise is that the world appears a certain way. The other is that the best explanation for that appearance is a designer. Neither premise appeals to religion.

    Then how do you try to show that the argument depends on religion? You point out that these guys also happen to be religious. They happen to believe in God as part of their religion, and they think the being they believe in is the same being the argument’s conclusion accepts.

    I can’t for the life of me figure out how this shows that the argument is religious. All it shows is that some people think the designer happens to be the same being people believe in religiously. It doesn’t show that anyone accepting the argument need do so. It doesn’t show that those who think the argument is good do so because of their religion. It doesn’t show that the theoretical basis of the argument is religious. Nothing of that sort follows from the one piece of evidence you’ve presented.

    Also, your last paragraph makes a category mistake. The ID argument is not about how questions. It’s about teleology. That’s why it’s long been called the teleological argument by philosophers. Scientists who ask what you refer to in the last paragraph are looking for how explanations, not why explanations. They want to know a process by which something came about. They don’t at all ask whether some being designed that process for a certain reason. One can believe in the same how process as standard contemporary evolution while thinking a designer designed it all for a reason, something Demsbki and Johnson both have not just acknowledged but insisted on. They aren’t getting at that question. They’re arguing that the best explanation is intent, not any particular process as to how that intent came about. It is thus a philosophical question, not a religious question, and philosophy has always been a significant part of the argumentation in science. Calling it religion massively misrepresents the argument.

    This isn’t about whether ID arguments are good arguments. I happen to think there might be something to cosmological fine tuning arguments but am less impressed by the biological ones from people like Behe and Dembski. Nevertheless, I know a serious misrepresentation when I see one, and what you’ve claimed about ID here is simply not true. It’s hard for me to see it as anything but a political attempt to marginalize the argument to prevent it from cropping up in science classes by representing it as religion when it’s not. Someone completely non-religious could accept such an argument.

  21. Jeremy Pierce Says:

    I should also say that accepting an ID argument doesn’t naturalize the creator. It’s an argument that there is a creator. The biological ID arguments are in themselves consistent with natural beings who designed humans, as a lot of science fiction has imagined (including such popular shows as Star Trek, Stargate, and the X-Files). The cosmological fine-tuning argument is more difficult to fit with that assumption. But stick with the biological argument. Even that argument doesn’t assume a natural designer. It’s silent on whether the designer is natural or super-natural. That’s not naturalizing the creator. It’s simply not giving an argument for a creator that’s supernatural. Some people give no arguments for a creator. Others give lots of arguments. Giving an argument consistent with a natural creator doesn’t mean you have to think the creator is natural. It just means that particular argument says nothing about that question either way.

  22. mike w Says:

    That,s funny that William “Dumbski” would admit the intelligent designer is the Christian god. In a 2001 article on line he says, “the intelligent designer does not necessarily have to be the Christian god”. It seems Mr Dumbski is a bold face liar- I am so-so shocked and dismayed, creationists are liars- go on.