[Editor’s note: This article was posted as part of a series of articles both for and against ID at OpposingViews.com.]
“In all irreducibly complex systems in which the cause of the system is known by experience or observation, intelligent design or engineering played a role [in] the origin of the system.”1Stephen C. Meyer (Ph.D. Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University) & Scott Minnich (Professor of Microbiology, University of Idaho).
Intelligent design (ID) has scientific merit because it uses the scientific methods commonly used by other historical sciences to conclude that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.2 ID theorists argue that design can be inferred by studying the informational properties of natural objects to determine if they bear the type of information that in our experience arise from an intelligent cause.
Proponents of neo-Darwinism contend that the information in life arose via purposeless, blind, and unguided processes.3 ID proponents contend that the information in life arose via purposeful, intelligently guided processes. Both claims are scientifically testable using scientific methods employed by standard historical sciences. ID thus is based upon the claim that there are “telltale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause.”4
Scientists employing ID compare observations of how intelligent agents act when they design things to observations of phenomena whose origin is unknown. Human intelligence provides a large empirical dataset for studying the products of the action of intelligent agents. Mathematician and philosopher William Dembski observes that “[t]he principal characteristic of intelligent agency is directed contingency, or what we call choice.”5 When “an intelligent agent acts, it chooses from a range of competing possibilities” to create some complex and specified event.6 Dembski calls ID “a theory of information” where “information becomes a reliable indicator of design as well as a proper object for scientific investigation.”7 ID thus seeks to find in nature the types of information which are known to be produced by intelligent agents, and reliably indicate the prior action of intelligence.
The form of information which reliably indicates design is generally called “specified complexity” or “complex and specified information.”8 Dembski suggests that design can be detected when one finds a rare or highly unlikely event (making it complex) that conforms to an independently derived pattern (making it specified).
Incidentally, the term “specified complexity” did not originate with proponents of intelligent design. In 1973, the leading origin of life theorist Leslie Orgel (who opposes ID) explained that “living organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity”:
“[L]iving organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals are usually taken as the prototypes of simple, well-specified structures, because they consist of a very large number of identical molecules packed together in a uniform way. Lumps of granite or random mixtures of polymers are examples of structures which are complex but not specified. The crystals fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; the mixtures of polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity.”9
In applying ID to biology, pro-ID biologists use commonly the term “irreducible complexity,”10 a term popularized and elaborated by my Opposing Views co-participant Michael Behe. Irreducible complexity is a form of specified complexity,11 which exists in systems composed of “several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”12 Because natural selection only preserves structures that confer a functional advantage to an organism, it is argued that such systems would be unlikely to evolve through a Darwinian process because there exists no evolutionary pathway wherein they could remain functional during each small evolutionary step.13 According to ID theorists, irreducible complexity thus is an informational pattern which may be taken as a reliable indicator of ID because “[i]n all irreducibly complex systems in which the cause of the system is known by experience or observation, intelligent design or engineering played a role [in] the origin of the system.”14
ID is a historical science, meaning it employs the principle of uniformitarianism, which holds that the present is the key to the past. ID investigations thus begin with observations about how intelligent agents operate and then proceed to convert those observations into positive predictions of what scientists should find in nature if intelligent design was involved in the origin of a given natural object.
For example, Stephen C. Meyer observes that “[a]gents can arrange matter with distant goals in mind. In their use of language, they routinely ‘find’ highly isolated and improbable functional sequences amid vast spaces of combinatorial possibilities.”15 Meyer further observes:
“[W]e have repeated experience of rational and conscious agents-in particular ourselves-generating or causing increases in complex specified information, both in the form of sequence-specific lines of code and in the form of hierarchically arranged systems of parts. … Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source from a mind or personal agent.”16
Using these observations, ID theorists then construct testable predictions about the type of informational properties we expect to find in nature if an intelligent agent were at work in designing a natural object. Specifically, the theory predicts that we will find large amounts of specified complexity in natural objects. The theory then looks at the historical record and performs experimental investigations to test those predictions and determine whether those same informational properties exist in nature, warranting explanation by design.
Design proponents thus use standard uniformitarian reasoning of historical sciences to apply an empirically-derived cause-and-effect relationship between intelligence and certain types of informational patterns to the historical scientific record in order to account for the origin of various natural phenomena.17 As Meyer explains, “by invoking design to explain the origin of new biological information, contemporary design theorists are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence. Instead, they are positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation.”18
In this regard, ID uses the scientific method to make its claims. The scientific method is commonly described as a four-step process involving observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion.19 As noted, ID begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI. Scientists then perform experimental tests upon natural objects to determine if they contain complex and specified information.20 One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can tested and discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures through genetic knockout experiments to determine if they require all of their parts to function.21 When experimental work uncovers irreducible complexity in biology, they conclude that such structures were designed.
My Opposing Views co-participants, Michael Behe and Jay Richards, have expounded upon some of the examples of specified and irreducible complexity that we find in biology and cosmology.
One can disagree with the conclusions of ID, but one cannot reasonably claim that it is an argument based upon religion, faith, or divine revelation. Nothing critics can say — whether appealing to politically motivated condemnations of ID issued by pro-Darwin scientific authorities, or harping upon the religious beliefs of ID proponents — will change the fact that intelligent design is not a “faith-based” argument. Intelligent design has scientific merit because it is an empirically based argument that uses well-accepted scientific methods of historical sciences in order to detect in nature the types of complexity which we understand, from present-day observations, are derived from intelligent causes.