Straw Men Aside, What Is the Theory of Intelligent Design, Really?
Over at Amazon I posted a review of Darwin's Doubt. The very first commenter on my review, calling himself "Nick," asked me the question:
What's the "scientific theory of ID"? Who or what is the designer and how can we tell? What did it do and how can we tell? How did it do it and how can we tell? Where did it do it and how can we tell? When did it do it and how can we tell? Please pass on my thanks to all your colleagues for never bothering to answer these questions.Given that my Amazon review responded in part to Nick Matzke's false accusations of errors against Stephen Meyer, I wonder if this is the same "Nick." It's not really important. But even though we've answered such questions numerous times, they are reasonable things to ask, and as a result I'm more than happy to answer them yet again -- not at Amazon for perpetually disgruntled critics, but here at ENV for everyone else to see.
Part A: What Intelligent Design Is Not
Many critics of intelligent design have promoted false, straw-man versions of ID, typically going something like this:
Intelligent design claims that life is so complex, it could not have evolved, therefore it was designed by a supernatural intelligence.Of those many ID critics who have promoted this false definition, some know it is a falsehood: I call them "Type I" critics. Others, whom I call "Type II" critics, actually believe the false version to be true but only because they have been misled by Type I critics. Of course it's not always easy to distinguish the two groups. In the Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling, for example, Judge Jones adopted the plaintiff's false version of intelligent design -- making him, according to my paradigm, a Type II critic, even though ID had been explained to him repeatedly in the courtroom what ID really is. Since Judge Jones knew how ID proponents define their theory, but nonetheless mischaracterized it, does this make him a Type I critic instead? Who can really know?
In any case, there are two main components of this definition, both false:
1. ID is NOT merely a negative argument against evolution
The first problem with the critics' definition is that it frames ID as merely a negative argument against evolution. In fact, ID offers a strong positive argument, based on finding in nature the type of information and complexity that, in our experience, comes from intelligence alone. I will explain this positive argument further in Part B of this article. Those who claim ID is nothing more than a negative argument against evolution are misrepresenting ID.
2. ID is NOT a theory about the designer or the supernatural
The second problem with the critics' definition of ID is that it suggests the theory is focused on studying the designer. The claim is that it specifically invokes supernatural forces or a deity. But ID is not focused on studying the actual intelligent cause responsible for life, but rather studies natural objects to determine whether they bear an informational signature indicating an intelligent cause. All ID does is infer an intelligent cause behind the origins of life and of the cosmos. It does not seek to determine the nature or identity of that cause. As William Dembski explains:
Intelligent design is the science that studies signs of intelligence. Note that a sign is not the thing signified. ... As a scientific research program, intelligent design investigates the effects of intelligence, not intelligence as such.1Similarly, Michael Behe explains that we can detect design even if we don't know anything about the identity or nature of the designer:
The conclusion that something was designed can be made quite independently of knowledge of the designer. As a matter of procedure, the design must first be apprehended before there can be any further question about the designer. The inference to design can be held with all the firmness that is possible in this world, without knowing anything about the designer.2Behe even suggests that "[i]ntelligent design does not require a candidate for the role of the designer."3
ID limits its claims to what can be learned from empirical data, meaning that it does not try to address questions about the identity or nature of the designer. While the empirical data allow us to study natural objects and determine whether they arose from an intelligent cause, such data simply may not allow us to determine the identity or nature of the intelligent cause.
One of the earliest works on ID, the textbook Of Pandas and People, explains that ID merely seeks to infer "intelligent causes" and is compatible with a wide variety of religious and nonreligious 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.4The text goes on to explain, "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? ... 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."5
This non-identification of the designer has remained the consistent position of ID proponents throughout its history. For example, William Dembski explains, "Intelligent design is modest in what it attributes to the designing intelligence responsible for the specified complexity in nature. For instance, design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the competence of science and must be left to religion and philosophy."6 Similarly, Michael Behe writes that ID remains silent on questions about whether the designer is natural or supernatural:
[ID] is not an argument for the existence of a benevolent God, as Paley's was. I hasten to add that I myself do believe in a benevolent God, and I recognize that philosophy and theology may be able to extend the argument. But a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far. Thus while I argue for design, the question of the identity of the designer is left open. Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel--fallen or not; Plato's demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being. Of course, some of these possibilities may seem more plausible than others based on information from fields other than science. Nonetheless, as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton's phrase hypothesis non fingo.7Some critics allege that ID proponents are "coy" about the identity of the designer, who they really believe is God. Yet major ID proponents in all the cases I'm aware of have been quite open about their own views as to the identity of the designer -- they have simply made it clear that these are personal beliefs, perhaps with philosophical or historical justifications, but not conclusions of science. For example, Michael Behe explains:
[M]ost 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. ... The biochemical evidence strongly indicates design, but does not show who the designer was.8When ID proponents say that ID does not identify the designer, they are, in Behe's words, "only limiting ... claims to what ... the evidence will support."9 During the Kitzmiller trial, Behe gave clear, direct, and unambiguous testimony on this topic:
Q. So is it accurate for people to claim or to represent that intelligent design holds that the designer was God?Similarly, Phillip Johnson writes, "My 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."11 As for myself, 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 quite apart from intelligent design.
Behe: No, that is completely inaccurate.
Q. Well, people have asked you your opinion as to who you believe the designer is, is that correct?
Behe: That is right.
Q. Has science answered that question?
Behe: 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?
Behe: Yes, that's correct.
Q. Are you making a scientific claim with that answer?
Behe: No, I conclude that based on theological and philosophical and historical factors.10
The refusal of ID proponents to use ID to draw conclusions about the nature or identity of the designer is principled rather than merely rhetorical. Simply put, there is no known scientific method for identifying the intelligent source responsible for design in nature. While the information in DNA points to an intelligent cause, that information by itself cannot scientifically tell you whether the intelligence is Jehovah, Allah, Buddha, Yoda, or some other intelligent source.
Since ID is based solely upon empirical data, it must remain silent on such questions. ID respects the limits of scientific inquiry, and thus refuses to inject discussions about theological questions into science. Stephen Meyer explains:
Though the designing agent responsible for life may well have been an omnipotent deity, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine that. Because the inference to design depends upon our uniform experience of cause and effect in this world, the theory cannot determine whether or not the designing intelligence putatively responsible for life has powers beyond those on display in our experience. Nor can the theory of intelligent design determine whether the intelligent agent responsible for information in life acted from the natural or the "supernatural" realm. Instead, the theory of intelligent design merely claims to detect the action of some intelligent cause (with power, at least, equivalent to those we know from experience) and affirms this because we know from experience that only conscious, intelligent agents produce large amounts of specified information. The theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine the identity or any other attributes of that intelligence, even if philosophical deliberation or additional evidence from other disciplines may provide reasons to consider, for example, a specifically theistic design hypothesis.12ID is primarily a historical science, meaning it uses principles of uniformitarianism to study present-day causes and then applies what it has learned to examine the historical record. It does so in order to infer the best explanation for the origin of the natural phenomena being studied. As Pandas explains, scientists have "uniform sensory experience"13 with intelligent causes (e.g., humans), thus making intelligence an appropriate explanatory cause within historical scientific fields. However, the "supernatural" cannot be observed. Thus historical scientists applying uniformitarian reasoning cannot appeal to it. Even if the intelligence responsible for life in indeed supernatural, science could only infer the prior action of intelligence, but could not determine whether the intelligence was supernatural.14
But there are other common misconceptions about what ID is.
3. ID is NOT a theory of everything
ID is a scientific theory of design detection, that's all -- not a full-blown theory of everything. It focuses on how we can detect the working out of purpose in biology, physics, cosmology, and other scientific fields.
Anyone expecting or demanding that intelligent design should explain everything that happened in the history of life and the cosmos will be disappointed. That's not what ID was intended to be. If you want to find out how old a rock is, ask a geologist. If you want to know how old a star is, consult experts in the field of astronomy or cosmology. Those fields provide perfectly good answers to such questions. But if you want to know whether something was designed or not, turn to the study of intelligent design.
If you demand that advocates of the "theory of ID" give you a full chronology of everything, you're asking the wrong question of the wrong people just as much as if you asked theorists of neo-Darwinism for such a chronology.
Part B: What the Theory of Intelligent Design Is
Intelligent design is a scientific theory that argues that the best explanation for some natural phenomena is an intelligence cause, especially when we find certain types of information and complexity in nature which in our experience are caused by intelligence.
1. ID uses a positive argument based upon finding high levels of complex and specified information
The theory of intelligent design begins with observations of how intelligent agents act when they design things. Human intelligence provides a large empirical dataset for studying the products of the action of intelligent agents. This present-day observation-based dataset establishes cause-and-effect relationships between intelligent action and certain types of information.
William Dembski observes that "[t]he principle characteristic of intelligent agency is directed contingency, or what we call choice."15 Dembski calls ID "a theory of information" where "information becomes a reliable indicator of design as well as a proper object for scientific investigation."16 A cause-and-effect relationship can be established between mind and information. As information theorist Henry Quastler observed, the "creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity."17
The most commonly cited type of "information" that reliably indicates design is "specified complexity." As Dembski writes, "the defining feature of intelligent causes is their ability to create novel information and, in particular, specified complexity."18 Though the terms were not originally coined by an ID proponent, Dembski suggests that design can be detected when one finds a rare or highly unlikely event (making it complex) which conforms to an independently derived pattern (making it specified). ID proponents call this complex and specified information, or "CSI." Stephen Meyer explains that in our experience, only intelligent agents produce this type of information:
"Agents 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."19By assessing whether natural structures contain the type of complexity -- high CSI -- that in our experience comes only from intelligence, we can construct a positive, testable case for design. And what happens when we study nature? Well, the past sixty years of biology research have uncovered that life is fundamentally based upon:
"[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."20
- A vast amount of complex and specified information encoded in a biochemical language.
- A computer-like system of commands and codes that processes the information.
- Molecular machines and multi-machine systems.
2. Intelligent Design is a historical science that is methodologically equivalent to neo-Darwinism
As we saw already, intelligent design is primarily a historical science, meaning it studies present-day causes and then applies them to the historical record to infer the best explanation for the origin of natural phenomena. Intelligent design uses uniformitarian reasoning based upon the principle that "the present is the key to the past."
Darwinian evolution applies this method by studying causes like mutation and selection in order to recognize their causal abilities and effects in the world at present. Darwinian scientists then try to explain the historical record in terms of those causes, for example seeking to recognize the known effects of mutation and selection in the historical record.
Intelligent design applies this same method by studying causes like intelligence in order to recognize its causal abilities and effects in the present-day world. ID theorists are interested in understanding the information-generative powers of intelligent agents. ID theorists then try to explain the historical record by including appeals to that cause, seeking to recognize the known effects of intelligent design (e.g., high CSI) in the historical record.
So whether we appeal to materialistic causes like mutation and selection, or non-material causes like intelligent design, we are using the same basic uniformitarian reasoning and scientific methods that are well-accepted in historical sciences. ID and neo-Darwinism are thus methodologically equivalent, meaning that either both are science, or both aren't science. However, we can know that ID is science because it uses the scientific method.
3. Intelligent design uses the scientific method
ID uses the scientific method to make its claims. This method is commonly described as a four-step process of observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion. I now will illustrate this by referring to four scientific fields: biochemistry, paleontology, systematics, and genetics.
- ID and Biochemistry:
Observation: Intelligent agents solve complex problems by acting with an end goal in mind, producing high levels of CSI. In our experience, systems with large amounts of specified complexity -- such as codes and languages -- invariably originate from an intelligent source. Likewise, in our experience, intelligence is the only known cause of irreducibly complex machines.21
Hypothesis (Prediction): Natural structures will be found that contain many parts arranged in intricate patterns (including irreducible complexity) that perform a specific function -- indicating high levels of CSI.
Experiment: Experimental investigations of DNA indicate that it is full of a CSI-rich, language-based code. Biologists have performed mutational sensitivity tests on proteins and determined that their amino acid sequences are highly specified.22 Additionally, genetic knockout experiments and other studies have shown that some molecular machines, like the flagellum, are irreducibly complex.23
Conclusion: The high levels of CSI -- including irreducible complexity -- in biochemical systems are best explained by the action of an intelligent agent.
- ID and Paleontology:
Observation: Intelligent agents rapidly infuse large amounts of information into systems. As four ID theorists write: "intelligent design provides a sufficient causal explanation for the origin of large amounts of information ... the intelligent design of a blueprint often precedes the assembly of parts in accord with a blueprint or preconceived design plan."24
Hypothesis (Prediction): Forms containing large amounts of novel information will appear in the fossil record suddenly and without similar precursors.
Experiment: Studies of the fossil record show that species typically appear abruptly without similar precursors.25 The Cambrian explosion is a prime example, although there are other examples of explosions in life's history. Large amounts of complex and specified information had to arise rapidly to explain the abrupt appearance of these forms.26
Conclusion: The abrupt appearance of new fully formed body plans in the fossil record is best explained by intelligent design.
- ID and Systematics:
Observation: Intelligent agents often re-use functional components in different designs. As Paul Nelson and Jonathan Wells explain: "An intelligent cause may reuse or redeploy the same module in different systems ... [and] generate identical patterns independently."27
Hypothesis (Prediction): Genes and other functional parts will be commonly re-used in different organisms.28
Experiment: Studies of comparative anatomy and genetics have uncovered similar parts commonly existing in widely different organisms. Examples of "extreme convergent evolution" show re-use of functional genes and structures in a manner not predicted by common ancestry.29
Conclusion: The re-use of highly similar and complex parts in widely different organisms in non-treelike patterns is best explained by the action of an intelligent agent.
- ID and Genetics:
Observation: Intelligent agents construct structures with purpose and function. As William Dembski argues: "Consider the term 'junk DNA.' ... [O]n an evolutionary view we expect a lot of useless DNA. If, on the other hand, organisms are designed, we expect DNA, as much as possible, to exhibit function."30
Hypothesis (Prediction): Much so-called "junk DNA" will turn out to perform valuable functions.
Experiment: Numerous studies have discovered functions for "junk DNA." Examples include functions for pseudogenes, introns, and repetitive DNA.31
Conclusion: The discovery of function for numerous types of "junk DNA" was successfully predicted by intelligent design.
This article has discussed what the theory of intelligent design isn't, and what it is:
- It isn't merely a negative argument against evolution.
- It isn't an argument for the supernatural, nor is it even focused on studying the designer.
- It isn't a theory of everything.
- It is a positive argument based upon finding high levels of complex and specified information
- It is a historical science that uses uniformitarian reasoning based upon the principle that "the present is the key to the past."
- It is methodologically equivalent to neo-Darwinism, such that ID and neo-Darwinism are both bona fide scientific theories.
- It is a science that uses the scientific method to make scientific claims in fields such as biochemistry, paleontology, genetics, and systematics.
- It is a scientific theory that argues that the best explanation for some natural phenomena is an intelligence cause, especially when we find certain types of information and complexity in nature which in our experience are caused by intelligence.
[1.] William Dembski, The Design Revolution (InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 33.
[2.] Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (Free Press, 1996), p. 197.
[3.] Ibid., p. 193.
[4.] Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon, Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, 1993), p. 161 (emphasis added).
[5.] Ibid., p. 7.
[6.] Dembski, The Design Revolution, p. 42 (emphasis added).
[7.] Michael Behe, "The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis," Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), pg. 165 (emphasis added). "Hypothesis non fingo" means to make no attempt at a hypothesis.
[8.] Michael Behe, "Philosophical Objections to Intelligent Design: Response to Critics," (July 31, 2000) at http://www.arn.org/docs/behe/mb_philosophicalobjectionsresponse.htm
[10.] Kitzmiller Transcript of Testimony of Michael Behe, October 17 Testimony, AM Session.
[12.] Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009), pp. 428-429.
[13.] Davis and Kenyon, Of Pandas and People, p. 126.
[14.] Much of this material was drawn from David K. DeWolf, John West, Casey Luskin, "Intelligent Design will Survive Kitzmiller v. Dover," 68 Montana Law Review 7 (Winter, 2007).
[15.] William A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (Cambridge University Press 1998), p. 62.
[16.] William A. Dembski, "Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information," in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives (Robert T. Pennock ed., MIT Press 2001), p. 553.
[17.] Henry Quastler, The emergence of biological organization, (Yale University Press, 1964), p. 16.
[18.] William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2002), p. xiv.
[19.] Stephen C. Meyer, "The Cambrian Information Explosion," in Debating Design (edited by Michael Ruse and William Dembski; Cambridge University Press 2004).
[20.] Stephen C. Meyer, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Vol. 117(2): 213-239 (2004).
[21.] Scott A. Minnich and Stephen C. Meyer, "Genetic analysis of coordinate flagellar and type III regulatory circuits in pathogenic bacteria," Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Design & Nature, Rhodes Greece, edited by M.W. Collins and C.A. Brebbia (WIT Press, 2004).
[22.] Douglas D. Axe, "Extreme Functional Sensitivity to Conservative Amino Acid Changes on Enzyme Exteriors," Journal of Molecular Biology, Vol. 301:585-595 (2000); Douglas D. Axe, "Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds," Journal of Molecular Biology, 1-21 (2004); Ann K Gauger, Stephanie Ebnet, Pamela F Fahey, Ralph Seelke, "Reductive Evolution Can Prevent Populations from Taking Simple Adaptive Paths to High Fitness," BIO-Complexity, Vol. 2010; Ann K. Gauger and Douglas D. Axe, "The Evolutionary Accessibility of New Enzyme Functions: A Case Study from the Biotin Pathway," BIO-Complexity, Vol. 2011(1) (2011).
[23.] See Kitzmiller Transcript of Testimony of Scott Minnich pp. 99-108, November 3, 2005; Robert M. Macnab, "Flagella," in Escherichia Coli and Salmonella Typhimurium: Cellular and Molecular Biology Vol. 1, eds. Frederick C. Neidhardt, John L. Ingraham, K. Brooks Low, Boris Magasanik, Moselio Schaechter, and H. Edwin Umbarger (Washington D.C.: American Society for Microbiology, 1987), pp. 73-74.
[24.] Stephen C. Meyer, Marcus Ross, Paul Nelson, and Paul Chien, "The Cambrian Explosion: Biology's Big Bang," in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, eds. John A. Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2003), pp. 367, 386.
[25.] See Meyer, Ross, Nelson, and Chien, "The Cambrian Explosion: Biology's Big Bang;" Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig, "Dynamic genomes, morphological stasis, and the origin of irreducible complexity," Dynamical Genetics, eds. Valerio Parisi, Valeria De Fonzo, and Filippo Aluffi-Pentini (Kerala, India, Research Signpost, 2004), 101-119; A.C. McIntosh, "Evidence of Design in Bird Feathers and Avian Respiration," International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics, Vol. 4: 154-169 (2009).
[26.] Meyer, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories."
[27.] Paul Nelson and Jonathan Wells, "Homology in Biology," in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, eds. John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2003), p. 316.
[28.] In this case of systematics, neo-Darwinism might make some of the same predictions. Is this a problem for the positive case for design? Not at all. The fact that another theory can explain some data does not negate ID's ability to successfully predict what we should find in nature. After all, part of making a "positive case" means that the arguments for design stand on their own and do not depend on refuting other theories. Moreover, there are many cases of supposed extreme "convergent evolution" that are better explained by common design. Additionally, regarding the predictions from biochemistry), paleontology, and genetics, neo-Darwinism has made different predictions from ID. In any case, in this example ID makes a slightly different prediction in that it does not predict that re-usage of parts must necessarily occur in a nested hierarchical pattern--a prediction which is in fact confirmed. See chapters 5-6 in Stephen C. Meyer, Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2013).
[29.] John A. Davison, "A Prescribed Evolutionary Hypothesis," Rivista di Biologia / Biology Forum, Vol. 98 (2005): 155-166; Nelson and Wells, "Homology in Biology;" Lönnig, "Dynamic genomes, morphological stasis, and the origin of irreducible complexity;" Michael Sherman, "Universal Genome in the Origin of Metazoa: Thoughts About Evolution," Cell Cycle, 6: 1873-1877 (August 1, 2007).
[30.] William A. Dembski, "Science and Design," First Things, Vol. 86 (October, 1998).
[31.] See Jonathan Wells, The Myth of Junk DNA (Discovery Institute Press, 2011); Richard Sternberg, "On the Roles of Repetitive DNA Elements in the Context of a Unified Genomic-Epigenetic System," Annals of the NY Academy of Science, Vol. 981: 154-188 (2002); James A. Shapiro, and Richard Sternberg, "Why repetitive DNA is essential to genome function," Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, Vol. 80: 227-250 (2005); A.C. McIntosh, "Information and Entropy--Top-Down or Bottom-Up Development in Living Systems?," International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics, Vol. 4: 351-385 (2009); The ENCODE Project Consortium, "An integrated encyclopedia of DNA elements in the human genome," Nature, Vol. 489: 57-74 (September 6, 2012).