By now, everyone who follows the news has heard about intelligent design (ID). Contrary to caricatures, it’s a theory that draws on insights in well-established fields such as information and probability theory, forensics, and the philosophy of science. Design theorists argue that certain features of the natural world bear markers of intelligent agency. For instance, a whole series of physical parameters, it turns out, are eerily fine-tuned for complex life, inspiring many scientists to return to the old question of design.
The dogmatic response is that scientists may appeal only to impersonal causes. According to this view, scientists may deal with intelligent agents but only natural ones. Thus, leading ID critic Eugenie Scott argues that attempts to detect design in the form of extraterrestrial radio signals “is indeed a scientific project” because “it seeks natural intelligence” while “any theory with a supernatural foundation is not scientific.”
But this is a red herring, since the issue is simply whether the activities of an intelligence, whatever their source, are detectable. The question doesn’t require “a theory with a supernatural foundation.” Whether the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey was designed by aliens or a transcendent god, one still could tell it was designed, and on precisely the same grounds.
Scott’s position means that scientists must adopt something like the following rule: Assume that no intelligence had anything to do with the origin, history and workings of the universe, and that no design from such intelligence can be detected empirically. But what if intelligence did play a role and its effects are detectable? If we want science to give us knowledge about nature, scientists must be open-minded and not apply materialist blinders to their investigations.
ID is said to be unscientific because it is supposedly unfalsifiable or untestable: Nothing can count against it. Some critics even claim, in the same breath, both that ID is unfalsifiable and that it has been falsified. We recently received a set of questions from a reporter doing a story on ID. One question asked how we dealt with the fact that intelligent design was unfalsifiable. Another asked for our response to biologist Ken Miller’s refutation of Michael Behe’s design argument. But these objections can’t both be true. If ID can’t be falsified, then scientific evidence can’t falsify it. And if evidence can falsify it, then ID can’t be unfalsifiable. Such contradictory objections should arouse our suspicions.
Being open to evidence from nature is perhaps the cardinal scientific virtue. This is why contemporary arguments for intelligent design spend a lot of time on empirical evidence, and only then defend design as the best explanation for the evidence. Unfortunately, critics of intelligent design have mostly avoided the actual arguments and evidence offered by design theorists.
A final common objection is: Who designed the designer? This is generally offered as a knockdown argument sure to stop design theorists in their tracks. But if taken seriously, it would have Alice-in-Wonderland consequences. For example, Stonehenge looks like someone built it, but who built the builder? And what about the unknown author of the Gilgamesh epic? Who authored the author? We don’t know. Should we, therefore, refuse to infer design?
Of course not. We can detect design without knowing the origin of the designer. ID will stand or fall on the evidence of nature, not from red herrings and question-begging attempts to dismiss it by definition.
Jay W. Richards, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and Guillermo Gonzalez, assistant professor of astronomy at Iowa State University, are coauthors of The Privileged Planet: How our place in the cosmos is designed for discovery.