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Good Questions on the Nature of Intelligent Design


Earlier, Evolution News responded helpfully to a question from an email correspondent. Here are more questions and answers. A reader writes with a few good queries on the nature of ID theory.


On the complexity and specificity arguments, I've read that there are two arguments used as evidence for a designer's existence. However, do such arguments entail that the designer is still intervening in the ongoing development of the universe and of life within it? Or does ID only state that there was a designer at least at the very beginning, and ID as a theory does not categorically state (or necessarily entail) that this designer is still interested in making changes? Thus, are the complexity and specificity arguments examples rather than actual requirements?

Answer: ID is about design detection, and makes no statements about ongoing design or a design mechanism. We simply say that there are elements in the universe that give evidence of being designed. Anything further goes beyond what we can say. For example, we can say nothing about how (by what mechanism) design is instantiated. As for specified complexity and irreducible complexity, they are methods of design detection. I see irreducible complexity as a special case of specified complexity. There are probably other valid arguments for design, such as the fact that the universe is intelligible to us when there is no logical requirement that it be so.


Does ID associate any particular attributes with this "designer"? I am aware that various prominent ID proponents have said, on different occasions, yes and no -- and I do see a difference between a) ID theory itself, and b) personal opinion on aspects of the theory. The first is a necessary contingent on the theory itself. The second is not. My analogy for this is -- Christians believe certain things. Catholics accept the main Christian belief, plus a few other things.

Answer: ID posits nothing about the attributes of this designer, other than the fact that the designer must be capable of carrying out design at the appropriate scale. Anything more is personal opinion. As one leading ID scientist has written:

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 demiurge; 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"(I make no hypothesis).

(Michael Behe, "The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis," Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), pg. 165)


Inherent in ID theory, is there the idea that there was purpose in the design? And, if so, what specific purposes?

Answer: ID also does not say anything about purpose, aside from the fact that things, especially biological things, look like they were made to carry out some particular function. They work together as a whole to make a functional organism. That functional organism is part of an ecosystem, and contributes to the functioning of that system. But is there an overall purpose to that system? To make a biosphere? This can be pushed out only so far; as to the reason for the existence of all of this -- why there should be such a planet, or the reason for our existence on the planet -- that goes beyond what ID can say. Final ends belong in the realms of philosophy and theology.


A personal question regarding how the ID debate has been fought. Why oh why was it based on biology??? IMHO, that was a terrible starting point! I would suggest later iterations and discussions focus on even more fundamental aspects of the universe. Time (apparently) is constant and measurable (not random and chaotic); the universal constant is just that -- a constant -- and without such a very, very limited range of variation, we could not exist (at least, not as we do now). Mathematics works -- again, in my thinking, a sign that this universe is rational; and if rational, designed (rationality and order from chaos...???). I know Plato et al. discussed this, but it seems to have been ignored in the ID debate. As I hope I have clearly indicated, I'm after answers that clearly differentiate ID as a theory in general from any personal takes on it (e.g., characteristics of the designer).

Answer: ID is not based purely on biology, though it may appear to be sometimes. The extreme fine-tuning of the universe for life; the fact that mathematics is rational and elegant, and fits the needs of science; the fact that chemistry is ordered so as to make its discovery possible, and that the planet is ordered so as to permit intelligent life to discover science at all (see The Privileged Planet) -- all these are arguments for design, design that is detectable by minds such as ours. I suggest reading A Meaningful World, by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt.

The reason it often appears that the argument is all about biology is because it is from there that the majority of pushback comes.

Thanks for your questions, and I hope my response helps.

Image credit: © Brian Jackson / Dollar Photo Club.