Principled (not Rhetorical) Reasons Why Intelligent Design Doesn’t Identify the Designer

[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Evolution News & Views as a 2 part series. The original posts can be seen here: Part 1 and Part 2.]

Mike Gene recently posted on Telic Thoughts responding to professor James F. McGrath, who accuses intelligent design (ID) proponents of being dishonest when they claim that ID does not identify the designer. This professor wrote: “That isn’t an instance of humility, but of strategy, and we all know why the strategy is being used: to wedge ID into science classrooms by disconnecting it from religion.” Similarly, I recently read a law review article co-authored by Barbara Forrest where she asserts with Stephen Gey and Matthew Brauer that “an intelligent designer is simply a subtle reference to God.” (More on problems with this article in Part 2.) Professor McGrath is perhaps unfamiliar with writings and position of ID proponents on this point. Thomas Woodward clearly explains the principled reasons why the biological evidence for ID may not 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.

(Thomas Woodward, Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design, pg. 15 (Baker Books, 2006).)

In other words, the flagellar machine itself indicates that it did not arise by a random and unguided process like Darwinian evolution, but rather arose by a non-random and intelligently directed process such as intelligent design. However, while biological structures may be scientifically explained via intelligent design, the structures themselves have no way of directly telling us whether the designer is Yahweh, Buddha, Yoda, or some other type of intelligent agency. Thus, in contrast to the professor’s incorrect accusation that this is part of a “strategy … to wedge ID into science classrooms,’ for ID’s non-identification of the designer stems from a scientific desire to take a scientific approach and respect the limits of science and not inject religious discussions about theological questions into scientific inquiry. In other words, using present knowledge, identifying the designer can’t be done by science. It is a strictly theological question, and thus for the theory of ID to try to identify the designer would be to inappropriately conflate science with religion.

Indeed, even the staunchly anti-ID website, TalkOrigins, admits that “an anthropomorphized designer need not be a deity. The atheistic religion of Raelianism, for example, proposes that humans were created by extraterrestrials.” It’s a rare instance to hear TalkOrigins sound like ID proponents, but they are correct. (It’s likely that the author’s motive is to protect atheism in light of nature’s design rather than to formulate ID as a science that doesn’t investigate religious issues.)

David DeWolf, John West and I also address this issue in our recent Montana Law Review article:

It is important to stress that the refusal of ID proponents to draw scientific conclusions about the nature or identity of the designer is principled rather than merely rhetorical. 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 from “uniform sensory experience” showing the effects of intelligence in the natural world. As Pandas explains, scientists have uniform sensory experience 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 was supernatural, science could only infer the prior action of intelligence, but could not determine whether the intelligence was supernatural.

(David K. DeWolf, John G. West, and Casey Luskin, “Intelligent Design Will Survive Kitzmiller v. Dover,” 68 Montana Law Review 7, 30 (Spring, 2007) (emboldened emphasis added)(internal citations removed).)

Charles Thaxton took precisely this approach in the Kitzmiller trial, where he explained:

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.

This is further explained below in an excerpt from our Montana Law Review article:

ID Does Not “Require Supernatural Causation”
ID as a scientific theory does not attempt to address religious questions about the identity or metaphysical nature of the designer. This has been the consistent view of ID proponents for the last two decades, and Judge Jones was presented with extensive documentation of this fact in amicus briefs filed by the Discovery Institute and FTE, which the text of his opinion seemed to have ignored. Judge Jones also ignored—or misinterpreted—key passages from the Pandas textbook that addressed this issue. For example, the published version of Pandas used in Dover schools explained 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.

One would think this passage would be highly relevant to the determination of the religious nature of ID, but Judge Jones did not even quote it in his ruling. Rather, he cited another passage from Pandas out of context in order to insist that ID requires supernatural causation:

[A]n explicit concession that the intelligent designer works outside the laws of nature and science and a direct reference to religion is Pandas‘ rhetorical statement, “what kind of intelligent agent was it [the designer]” and answer: “On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy.”

But an examination of the full passage cited by Judge Jones makes clear that he misused it. The passage does not state that an intelligent designer must be supernatural, but rather that science is unable to address this question:

If 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? On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy. But that should not prevent science from acknowledging evidences for an intelligent cause origin wherever they may exist. This is no different, really, than if we discovered life did result from natural causes. 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.

Indeed at one point, Pandas even seems to adopt methodological naturalism, stating that “intelligence . . . can be recognized by uniform sensory experience, and the supernatural . . . cannot.”

(David K. DeWolf, John G. West, and Casey Luskin, “Intelligent Design Will Survive Kitzmiller v. Dover,” 68 Montana Law Review 7, 28-30 (Spring, 2007) (internal citations removed).)

Are ID Proponents Open About Their Personal Views on the Identity of the Designer?

Above I gave principled reasons why ID does not identify the designer: “while biological structures may be scientifically explained via intelligent design, the structures themselves have no way of directly telling us whether the designer is Yahweh, Buddha, Yoda, or some other type of intelligent agency.” Unfortunately, some critics have misunderstood this point as implying that ID proponents are completely silent about who they believe the designer is, or that ID proponents deny the possibility that the designer could be God. This very misconception was printed in an article co-authored by Barbara Forrest that was published in a legal journal:

First- and second-generation creationists were quite willing to acknowledge who they believe designed the world. Proponents of intelligent design creationism, on the other hand, vociferously deny that the intelligent designer they postulate is equivalent to God, and in their statements to the general public they often deny taking any position at all on the nature of the world’s designer. … [P]roponents of intelligent design cannot acknowledge to the general public (much less to courts) the true identity of their intelligent designer.

(Matthew J. Brauer, Barbara Forrest, Steven G. Gey, “Is It Science Yet?: Intelligent Design Creationism and the Constitution,” Washington University Law Quarterly, Vol. 83(1) (2005).)

Brauer, Forrest and Gey seem to miss the fact that ID proponents have been extremely open to the general public about their views on the identity of the designer. Incredibly, the subsequent sections in Forrest et al.‘s article include citations to sources where ID proponents make public statements on their views on the identity of the designer:

  • In a public source cited by Forrest et al., Phillip Johnson writes in a very public book, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, that he sees “God as our true Creator.” (pg. 92)
  • In a public source cited by Forrest et al., Paul Nelson (as well as theistic evolutionist paleontologist Keith Miller) signed a public statement agreeing that “God is the creator of all things.”
  • In a public source cited by Forrest et al., William Dembski publicly stated, “As a Christian, I am a theist and believe that God created the world.”
  • Forrest et al. admit that Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box [was] written for a general audience” and cite it multiple times in their article, yet it is in this very book Behe specifically states that he is “a Roman Catholic.” (pg. 239)

Behe elsewhere gives some of the principled reasons I previously discussed why ID does not identify the designer:

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. … I did not claim that the biochemical evidence leads ineluctably to a conclusion about who the designer is. The biochemical evidence strongly indicates design, but does not show who the designer was.

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.” Indeed, contrary to Forrest et al.‘s assertion, Behe volunteered his views on this matter in court during the Kitzmiller trial at the very beginning of his direct examination:

Q. So is it accurate for people to claim or to represent that intelligent design holds that the designer was God?
A. No, that is completely inaccurate.
Q. Well, people have asked you your opinion as to who you believe the designer is, is that correct?
A. That is right.
Q. Has science answered that question?
A. No, science has not done so.
Q. And I believe you have answered on occasion that you believe the designer is God, is that correct?
A. Yes, that’s correct.
Q. Are you making a scientific claim with that answer?
A. No, I conclude that based on theological and philosophical and historical factors.
(Michael Behe, October 17 Testimony, AM Session.)

It’s worth noting that not all ID proponents identify the designer as God. For example, in 2004 UCLA neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz spoke in favor of intelligent design, and he identified himself as a “Buddhist Jew.” The philosopher Antony Flew provides another notable example of an ID-proponent who is not a traditional theist. And I have other colleagues in the ID movement who are entirely agnostic about the identity of the designer. But for ID proponents who are traditional theists, like Behe, Nelson, Dembski, or Johnson, science is a way of knowing, and as a scientific theory, ID informs us that life was designed. Their view that the designer is God is something they wholeheartedly believe, but it comes from a knowledge source other than science; it comes from other ways of knowing — from non-scientific sources of knowledge outside of intelligent design. Their views about the identity of the designer are their own personal religious beliefs and do not come from the scientific theory of ID. Phillip Johnson makes this distinction perfectly clear:

“[M]y 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.”

(Phillip E. Johnson, “Intelligent Design in Biology: the Current Situation and Future Prospects,” Think (The Royal Institute of Philosophy), 2007)

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.

Blinded by Scientism

How could Forrest, Gey and Brauer miss such obvious refutations of their claim that ID proponents “vociferously deny that the intelligent designer they postulate is equivalent to God”? I’ll try to give a charitable explanation.

Forrest et al. may make this mistake because they adhere to scientism, the view that science is the only valid source of knowledge. In fact Forrest is a secular humanist who strongly supports scientism, writing that that the greater the naturalistic account, the less likely supernaturalism becomes and that “the relationship between methodological and philosophical naturalism, while not one of logical entailment, is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion.”

So basically, Forrest believes that science is the only way to gain real knowledge. Perhaps her scientism is so deeply ingrained that she mistakenly thought that everything ID proponents believe about the designer must be a conclusion of intelligent design. Perhaps Forrest et al. cannot consciously make the distinction between knowledge that comes from scientific sources and knowledge that comes from non-scientific sources because they believe that all real knowledge must come from science. In other words, perhaps they forgot, as Ken Miller rightly stated during the Dover trial, that “everything that a scientist writes or says is not necessarily a scientific statement or a scientific publication.” (Kitzmiller Testimony of Kenneth Miller, Sept. 26 AM, pgs. 55-56.)

Regardless of whether my hypothesis explaining Forrest et al.‘s mistake is correct, they have promoted a false conspiracy that ID proponents are trying to hide their views on the identity of the designer. Ironically, Forrest et al. use the public statements where ID proponents state their belief in God as a misplaced attempt to prove that ID is religion. They want you to simultaneously believe that ID is religion because ID proponents have publicly stated they believe the designer is God, and that ID proponents dishonestly deny that the designer is God. Their argument contradicts itself, and they cannot have it both ways. But after these two posts on this topic, perhaps the third way—the correct way—is clear:

  • ID does not address religious questions about the identity 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.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.