President George W. Bush’s recent comments about public education and life’s origins have placed the intelligent-design movement squarely in the public eye. Should intelligent design be taught in science classes as an explanation of life’s origin, alongside evolution (where “evolution” is understood as involving no intelligent causes whatsoever), or not?
Having recently studied the question of intelligent design’s scientific status as a part of my PhD program in philosophy at the University of Waterloo, I would like to look at some popular philosophical objections to intelligent design and show that these objections fail. My hope is that by recognizing the failure of these objections the public and the scientific community will be more inclined to give intelligent-design theory a fair hearing.
Objection 1: Intelligent design is a failure because it merely fills in gaps in our present knowledge with an appeal to an intelligent cause, and these gaps will be filled with non-intelligent causes as we do more science.
Reply: This is known as the god-of-the-gaps objection and this objection unfairly represents intelligent-design theory. Intelligent design theorists do not argue, “I can’t see any solution to the problem, therefore a Higher Power did it.” Rather, proponents of intelligent design argue as follows: “The scientific community can see that, after years of trying, non-intelligent cause explanations demonstrably fail to account for phenomenon X; plus, the more we investigate X, the more we can see that the structure of X bears features that very clearly resemble the effects of known intelligent causes. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that an intelligent cause is responsible for X.”
In other words, the appeal to an intelligent cause is based on what we know, not on what we don’t know.
Incidentally, if we always hold out for a non-intelligent cause, in spite of contrary evidence, then we may fall prey to a naturalism — or atheism-of-the-gaps.
Objection 2: Intelligent design is not legitimate science because appeals to intelligent causes are not a part of the scientific explanatory enterprise.
Reply: This objection is false. In archeology the hypothesis of intelligent agency is readily available to explain the cause of, say, ancient cave paintings. Also, in forensic science the hypothesis of intelligent agency is readily available to explain “Who done it?” Was the death due to natural causes, or was it an accident, or was it designed (and thus a crime)? Also, in SETI (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence), the hypothesis of intelligent agency is available to explain radio signals that suggest intelligence.
Without the intelligent cause hypothesis, scientists who search for extra-terrestrial intelligence could in principle never recognize contact from ET, even if ET were to exist and communicated clearly.
Intelligent causes, then, are a legitimate part of the scientific explanatory enterprise. To stipulate that they can never come from outside the universe is to prejudge the data to fit a philosophical bias which rules out what might be the best explanation of that data.
Objection 3: Talk of “a cause of the universe’s beginning” lacks meaning; it’s nonsensical. To ask what caused the big bang assumes that the universe’s cause came “before” time, but time itself came into being at the big bang, so asking what caused the big bang is like asking, “What is north of the North Pole?” It’s absurd. So intelligent design is absurd.
Reply: This objection assumes that all causes precede their effects in time. But some causes are simultaneous with their effects — and this latter sense is all that is needed for intelligent design to remain within the realm of reason.
Think of a bicycle chain that moves the rear wheel sprocket. Or just consider the rear wheel sprocket moving the axle that moves the rear wheel. In these everyday cases there is simultaneous cause and effect. (In philosophical parlance, the cause is ontologically prior to the effect, but not temporally prior.) It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that time’s creation could occur simultaneously with its cause.
In other words, we are not asking something like “What is north of the North Pole?” Rather, we are asking something like, “What is above the North Pole?” Because such talk is not nonsensical, neither is intelligent design.
To better understand intelligent design theory as a scientific research program, I recommend the following book, even though I don’t agree with everything in it: William A. Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design, by InterVarsity Press.
Hendrik van der Breggen received his PhD last fall from the University of Waterloo philosophy department. He is an adjunct philosophy instructor at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener and at Heritage College and Seminary in Cambridge.