Is intelligent design a dumb idea?

Current conflicts in biology
Jack Collins
Discovery Institute
May 1, 1999
Print Article1/ Introduction: How is this becoming a "current problem"?

The notion of "intelligent design" for explaining what we see in the world of living things--including ourselves--is becoming a matter of open controversy of late. For example, in policy statements from the National Association of Biology Teachers and the National Science Teachers Association (available on the Internet), you'll find references to it as a dangerous idea which all sensible biology teachers and school officials should squelch. Eugenie Scott, of the National Center for Science Education, is alarmed by the "intelligent design" movement, because many of its members have reputable Ph.D.'s in the sciences and philosophy, and positions at reputable universities and research labs. Perhaps last December you saw (or at least heard of) the episode of William Buckley's program Firing Line that featured a debate between people like Eugenie Scott, on the one hand, and advocates of intelligent design on the other.

One of the advocates of ID is a biochemist at Lehigh University, Michael Behe (Ph.D. from University of Pennsylvania), whose book Darwin's Black Box is something of a best-seller (for its kind of book). Then there is William Dembski, a fellow with a Ph.D. in philosophy and one in math, whose book The Design Inference has just come out from Cambridge University Press. And of course the "leader" of the movement, if that's the right word for such a diverse group of independent-minded people, is Phillip Johnson, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley. His books Darwin on trial, Reason in the balance, and Defeating Darwinism by opening minds are making a bit of a stir (both among friends and opponents). And Johnson seems to be impossible to stop: he winds up speaking and debating all across the country, and now across the world (he was quite recently a featured speaker at a major scientific conference in Varonna, Italy); a feature on him appeared in the New York Times not too long ago.

But of course the movement is visible because it's controversial. Its opponents are afraid it'll be treated as a valid aspect of science--or at least a valid option for scientific theories, and they want us all to believe that to accept "intelligent design" would be a dumb move on our part, because it really is a dumb idea. So this evening I want, first, to define just what ID is, and what claims it makes; second, to consider some of the objections to it that would make it a dumb idea (from theology, philosophy of science, and biology); then, third, I'll assess these objections to see if they're valid; and then we'll wrap it all up by answering the question.

2/ What is "intelligent design"?

I hope everyone here has had the thrill of looking at a biological creature--whether it's yourself, or a friend, or your dog or cat or goldfish, or the birds and flowers in your backyard, or whatever--and feeling a sense of awe and admiration. Just watch how a big cat moves (or even a house-cat) when it's after its prey; watch a bird flap its wings and take off, or a hawk glide as it catches an updraft. Look at the patterns in a spider-web; and what of the cicadas this past summer--what a strange life cycle!

Mixed in with that awe is curiosity: how come they work that way? They act as if someone designed them to act. And what of humans? Where do we get these mysterious capabilities for reason, for speech, for variety of music, and even the curiosity we have about the world around us? (Cf. the song on a Disney video, "You are a human animal, you are a very special breed; for you are the only animal, who can think, who can reason, who can read!")

We normally consider science to be a valid tool for answering questions like this. I for one think that science is at its best when it's the search for truth. And intelligent design theory says, at its simplest, that it is legitimate to have as a part of our tool-kit for scientific explanations of things we meet in the natural world, the option to say that they were "designed." Now it's very important to be clear just what I mean by that. I define "design" as:

the imposition of structure upon some object or collection of objects for some purpose, where the structure and the purpose are not inherent in the properties of the components but make use of these properties.

Of course, the existence of "design" means there is an agent behind it. As a scientific endeavor it does not require us to say who the designer is; theists will of course be thinking of God.

Major areas of such identification would be first, the cosmological anthropic principle: why are the constants of the universe so finely tuned to support life on this planet? Is it reasonable to suppose that this is the result either of chance or of some as yet unknown natural law? One finds plenty of statements from the cosmologists expressing their awe at the situation, even in religious terms.

A second major area for identifying intelligent design would be in the biological world. This is the burden of Michael Behe's concept of "irreducible complexity" articulated in his Darwin's Black Box: according to him we find complex systems in the biological world that cannot be explained by gradualistic development because they need a minimum number of components to be specifically functional before the whole system works. Hence, the theory goes, a better explanation for why these systems are there is that a designer imposed the structure on the components. Biological design can also be invoked, say, in the origin of life itself: what we know of the biochemistry involved does not favor the idea that a "natural process only" explanation is true. Also, DNA as a message-bearing medium can be called the product of design: indeed, if it does carry a message, then its message cannot be the product of the component chemicals or it is not a message at all. Other areas of design would be the origins of various levels of differentiation among living groups (e.g. phyla), and the origin of human beings themselves. These ideas are opposed to "evolution," if by "evolution" one means what the NABT means by the word: "an unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments." Another writer calls it an "historical scenario that proceeds from molecules to mankind along a continuous pathway of natural phenomena" (Howard van Till). Intelligent design theorists are neutral, however, on the question of whether all living things share a common ancestor, although many design theorists doubt that they do.

It is plain that the identification of "intelligent design" proceeds by finding insoluble "gaps" between what we see and the processes we know about that might have produced what we see. That is, there is a "gap" between the properties of DNA and the properties of its component chemicals. There is a gap between human capacities (e.g. in the intellectual, moral, linguistic, aesthetic, and spiritual spheres) and what we find in every other animal. From these gaps comes the assertion that it took special agent activity to bridge the gaps.

3/ What would make it a "dumb idea"?

Well, if that's what it is, what would make it a dumb idea? The objections have come from the areas of theology, philosophy of science, and biological research itself.

(a) theological objections

It's just re-packaged "creation science" (= young earth creationism, Biblical literalism)

This claim comes from, say, the NABT and NSTA, which say: "Whether called 'creation science,' 'scientific creationism,' 'intelligent-design theory,' 'young-earth theory' or some other synonym, creation beliefs have no place in the science classroom" (NABT).

It's not young earth creationism!

Now, since as we'll see that the first objection is not accurate, there are those who advocate "young-earth creationism" as the only allowable project; and they're quite critical of intelligent design. In their view there's no difference between the Big Bang theory and naturalistic evolution of life.

It displays a wrong view of God's action in the world

Now some religious people object to intelligent design theory because its search for gaps implies, as they think, a less-than-fully-intelligent Designer who could not come up with a world with all its physical capacities built in (e.g. the biologist Ken Miller on the Firing Line program).

It's just the"God-of-the-gaps"

According to this way of thinking, all gaps in our scientific descriptions of things are simply due to ignorance: and as science progresses, it'll shrink those gaps. Once we didn't know what causes earthquakes, now we have a better idea. The "God-of-the-gaps" problem comes when we say that the gap must be due to some special activity of God; and then when science understands the natural mechanism, it seems like God gets crowded out of his universe. It's even worse if people base their belief in God on those gaps, which have now disappeared: have their reasons for believing in God also disappeared? Wouldn't it be better to take by faith that God is involved in every natural event, and leave the how to the scientists?

(b) philosophical objections

It's an inappropriate application of theology to science

A philosopher might suggest that a further problem comes when we try to make science conform to theological positions. We often hear that theological and scientific explanations are supposed to be complementary: that is, they answer different questions. For example, if my wife tells my child, "God will heal your cut," she is not intending that to be an alternative explanation for how a physiologist would describe the cells and their self-repair. Instead she's saying that all that work of the cell happens because it all comes from God and he governs it. Well, the philosopher might say, all scientific and theological statements must be of that sort.

It's not "science" (cf. Overton's definition)

Another kind of philosophical objection is the view that it's just outside the bounds of science. Science, we're told, must confine itself to natural explanations for everything it encounters. For example, this comes from the NSTA position paper:

Science is a method of explaining the natural world. It assumes the universe operates according to regularities and that through systematic investigation we can understand these regularities. The methodology of science emphasizes the logical testing of alternate explanations of natural phenomena against empirical data. Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces, because these are outside its provenance. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes.

(c) scientific objections

It's not there to be found

Richard Dawkins is a professor at Oxford, and is probably the world's most visible advocate of Darwinism as proof of a purely naturalistic reality. In his book The Blind Watchmaker, he makes the following assertion: "biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." In other words biologists have the task of removing the appearance of design and replacing it with a purely naturalistic explanation.

It stymies scientific progress

Dawkins is so eminently quotable; (in an interview in Chronicle of Higher Education) he dismisses Behe's book by saying that the declaration of design is just the result of laziness. If Behe were a real scientist he'd get off his behind and find the naturalistic explanations for the objects he studies! How can anyone so lazy get tenure at an American university? Others say it more calmly: namely, that if you identify design you stop scientific research. Once you say that DNA is the product of design, you no longer ask for natural explanations of how it came to do that.

4/ Are these objections valid?

Let's consider these objections to see if they have any weight.

Let's take the theological objections first. First, the notion that ID is just re-packaged "young-earth creationism" is laughable. There is no ID position on the age of the earth-probably most of its advocates accept the standard geological picture of a 4.5 billion year old earth. You should recognize, though, that this will not stop its opponents from playing the anti-fundamentalist card. In the Firing Line program I mentioned, several members of the anti-ID team tried to paint all opposition to Darwinism as just young-earth fundamentalism; that was hilarious, since the pro-ID side included Phil Johnson, an old-earth creationist; Mike Behe and William Buckley, both Roman Catholics who have no problem with an old earth (or even with the possibility of common descent for all animals!); and David Berlinski, a mathematician who is a secular Jew (once when I told him I went to MIT and worked as a high-tech engineer, and then went into the ministry, he asked me "What happened to you?").

As I said, realizing this turns many young-earth creationists against ID; they say it's a compromise of a "literal reading" of the Bible. And other opponents will take this up and say, "See, you're not being consistent." Now, it just so happens that what I know best is the Hebrew language; and I would argue that the Genesis account does not require a young earth, but instead the six days are "God's work days". That doesn't stop it from being a true and historical account; it just makes us careful about chronology.

A more important objection is the one that says that ID displays a wrong view of God's action in the world. Now, I've just completed a manuscript which is now under review, in which I argue first, that in the Bible it's quite legitimate to talk about natural processes (e.g. Gen 1:11-12; James 3:11-12): and in situations like this, the ordinary function of God's creation, we recognize that God's activity is that of maintaining the order of what he made. We should not appeal to any special divine action in a context like that. However, there are also unique events which do involve special divine activity (e.g. creation, exodus, virgin birth, resurrection of Jesus): that is, the natural, created factors doing what God made them to do are not enough to explain what happened, God has added something to the mix. I do not expect ever to find that medical studies will show us how dead human bodies in themselves have the capability of rising from the grave; if it happened, it's because it was a supernatural work. And this means that no one would ever be rationally justified in insisting that only natural factors are valid for describing what happened.

So the theological issue is not whether God may work in his world this way, but whether the Bible represents God as having done this at all; and, in my judgment, the Bible does represent him this way. Now, if you consider what's involved in the origin of life, you can see how this would be so. It's generally agreed among biologists that what we have in DNA is information--it's a message that tells a cell what kinds of proteins to make, and when. And for it to carry a message, the message cannot be an outgrowth of the medium (the message in the book is not provided by the ink and paper). To say that a natural process produced an information sequence is actually a contradiction in terms. And even God can't make that happen! As C.S. Lewis put it (in The Problem of Pain),

Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. . . Meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words 'God can.' It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities.

This takes us to the objection that ID is just "God-of-the-gaps," and that instead of promoting religious belief, in the long run it undermines belief because it relies on gaps that science will eventually eliminate. In reply I want to argue that there are gaps and then there are gaps. By that I mean, some gaps are due to our ignorance and some are due to the properties of the things themselves. For example, suppose you don't know anything about geology, and you want to explain the 1980 Mt St. Helens eruption. Since you don't know anything about the physical causes, you feel quite legitimate in saying, "It must have been God's judgment on someone's sin." But then a geologist comes along and tells you about plates, and lava, and so on; he gives you the physical mechanism that brought about the eruption. Does this undermine faith? Does this sweep away the declaration of divine judgment? It does, to the extent that your faith depended on not knowing a physical mechanism. This was simply a gap due to ignorance.

On the other hand, consider Stonehenge. I don't think anyone can seriously challenge the universal human reaction to that thing, "it was designed!!" We recognize that there's a huge difference between, on the one hand, the complex arrangement of Stonehenge, which could not have come about by the properties of the rocks that make it up--and, on the other, the rock formations you find in Utah, which we are comfortable in ascribing to the wind, weather, and geology. That is, we recognize that there's a gap between the natural properties of the rocks in Stonehenge and the highly structured configuration we find them in; and no new knowledge about rocks is going to change that. There is no question about the rationality of our declaration of design when we see that thing. These gaps are detectable discontinuities.

The popular writer G.K. Chesterton wrote the following:

No philosopher denies that a mystery still attaches to the two great transitions: the origin of the universe itself and the origin of the principle of life itself. Most philosophers have the enlightenment to add that a third mystery attaches to the origin of man himself. In other words, a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable when there came into the world what we call reason and what we call will.

These bridges across the abyss of the unthinkable are gaps due to natural properties, not due to ignorance.

Let's move on to the philosophical objections. The first was that all theological statements are complementary to scientific ones. Well, says who? Christianity doesn't accept that. Christianity is founded on an empirical claim, namely the resurrection of Jesus. Anyone could test the claim: the tomb was either empty or not; the body actually walked around or it did not. The apostle Paul was even willing to say, "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:17). So the Christian message is hardly afraid to make empirically testable claims. The only question is, does it make them about this particular topic?

Another philosophical objection is that design is not properly part of science. But the answer is, why not? Isn't it rational and scientific to identify design in Stonehenge? If we insist that "science" can only deal with natural explanations, then we're trying to win by controlling the definitions. Why can't we just say that "science" is "the study of the world around us"? If we insist that, for some particular historical event, only natural-process-based explanations will count as science, that's only rational if we already know beforehand that natural factors are the only things involved. But what if we don't know that? Are we really willing to allow science to be independent of rationality?

Besides, we might notice that when Richard Dawkins says that the purpose of biology is to disprove design, he's admitting that the question is actually on the table for science. And it's just possible that the effort to disprove it might fail. The only way to insure that it won't fail is to make the commitment to disproof a world-view precommitment, which is just what Dawkins does.

Perhaps instead the objectors mean that it's not the duty of scientists to say where things come from. If that's what they mean, that's not a problem: so long as that means they are committed to full disclosure about the difficulties. As it turns out, the NSTA statement is not committed to such honesty. It specifically discourages teachers from discussing problems with evolutionary theory, and attributes all those problems to lack of knowledge--sooner or later, it asserts by faith, we'll fill in those gaps. (We'll come back to those in a minute.) But just speaking for myself, I'd have a lot more respect for someone who comes out and says, "Here is a problem, that on the face of it is incompatible with my theory: I have absolutely no idea how you can get information out of natural processes, but I'm unwilling to draw any conclusions from that," rather than someone who says "I know by faith that we'll solve it, so don't you dare question my theory."

And finally, let's consider the objections from the empirical study of living things itself. As we've seen, Richard Dawkins says that to refer to design is actually futile, because it's not there to be found. Well, here's where we need to put up or shut up. Let me just catalogue a few phenomena that intelligent design explains better than naturalism does: the information-bearing function of DNA (as we've discussed); the existence of irreducibly complex systems in biology (e.g. blood-clotting); the inability to explain how the acknowledged existence of small-scale adaptive changes (such as finch-beak variation in the Galapagos Islands; or the peppered moth color variation in England) accounts for large-scale variations (e.g. the origin of new phyla), or for where finches, moths, and biologists come from in the first place. Indeed, as J.B.S. Haldane, a famous evolutionist of the middle of this century acknowledged,

If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain [i.e. if my activity of thinking is entirely explicable by the natural properties of my brain, which it must be if ID is false], I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true ... and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms. (Quoted in Lewis, Miracles, 24.)

Each of us is sitting next to a profound argument for the existence of intelligent design.

And finally, what of the claim that any appeal to intelligent design halts scientific progress? After all, once you say something is designed, you stop looking for explanations, don't you? Well, my first reply to this is, so what? Who wants to spend a dime on research into how the rocks of Stonehenge got into the shape they're in now? So, certainly, some lines of study will get closed off, and that's all to the good: now we can give our attention to things like: How do the properties of those rocks support the design, or would some other rocks have been better? How did they get those stones there? Who were those people and when did they build Stonehenge, and why? But also, I don't think we need to worry about the declaration of design (or at least of irreducible complexity) is going to stymie progress. After all, science is a human activity, and human beings are just the kind of ornery beings who take pleasure in disproving other people's claims. So such claims will undergo severe review.

What we actually need is a set of criteria for detecting design, something a bit more rigorous than intuition. In fact, an advocate of intelligent design, William Dembski, done just that (in The Design Inference, new from Cambridge U. Press). ID has actually advanced science.

5/ Conclusion: Is eliminating ID from the discussion a dumb idea?

So now we can come back to our original question: Is intelligent design a dumb idea? We want to have a clear definition of it, so we know what we're talking about; we've considered some of the standard objections to it from the fields of theology, philosophy of science, and biology itself. None of those objections is compelling; in fact, properly considered, they show that the elimination of intelligent design from the scientist's toolbox of explanations would itself be a dumb idea.

I think the difficulty, one that we all feel, is just that which we encounter with Stonehenge. Now that we know it's designed, what was that humming thing designed for? And what of ourselves: if we were designed, what were we designed for? The Bible claims to have an answer for that, too; but that will have to be another discussion.