A Few Words on Intelligent Design

| | Comments (19)

I am not a critic of Intelligent Design. When it comes right down to it, I generally accept the principles of intelligent design. But intelligent design is NOT science and if one buys intelligent design, one is accepting evolution. I find it odd that people should be such enthusiastic stompers of evolution (a scientific theory) and endorsers of intelligent design (a philosophical construct.)

Scientists who attack intelligent design as "not science" are not being entirely true to themselves. It would be equally valid to attack neo-darwinism. Neo-darwinism is the philosophical construct that grew up around Darwin's original proposal of evolutionary theory. While neodarwinism added some aspects to the theory as a whole (for example allopatric speciation), it also set on top of evolution an interpretive framework. Although the scientists using it would probably think of it as value neutral, it is not. Neo-darwinism assumes as its underpinning the absolute randomness of everything that happens in the natural world and in the mixing of genes. But absolute randomness is, in fact, an axiom, an expectation and it is improvable. Moreover, it is loaded with a philosophical bias that makes the theory including it untestable.

I think it is safe to say that those of us who are not creationists can buy the fact that through the distribution of genetic material animals change slowly over time. We know this is true because selective breeding gives us different kinds of dogs, cats, horses, and even drosophila. Now science can tell us that this gradual change is the result of a shift in the gene pool and science can propose reasons for the shift--allopatric speciation, island biogeography, temperature variation, "survival of the fittest," evolutionary morphospace and baupläne, etc. All of this so far is valid and scientifically testable. You can do experiments for a great many of these things and see if they cause genotype shifts in populations. What is untestable is that the mechanisms behind all of this are random. For example, when we do our experiments, we are using controlled conditions and the happenings are not at all random. The mixture of genes might be to some extent, but we cannot even say that for certain---brownian motion is not a truly random event--it is shown to be weakly deterministic.

Thus the assumption of randomness and unquideness is the philosophical bias that underpins science. Science is the pursuit of explanations of phenomena in the natural world apart from those factors that cannot be observed by science. In other words, science has an underlying "neutral" hypothesis that implicitly assumes atheism. The atheism is not antagonistic (in most cases) it is simply the condition required to try to determine what happens in the natural world. If scientists always had recourse to "the a miracle occurs" their explanations would amount to nothing.

Now, intelligent design comes along with various problems that have been observed before in evolutionary theory. For example, what good is half an eye? Gould proposed an odd little theory called exaption in which he proposed that an organ or body part that had previously served some other function is co-opted to become an eye or ear or something else. Now, as with a number of Gouldian notions, this is not a testable hypothesis it is a speculation. The same is true of his theory of contingency. Contingency is a marxist overlay employing Hegelian dialectical materialism to suggest that if everything did not occur precisely as it occurred in evolutionary history then we must perforce wind up at a different place in the present day. Such a speculation precludes scientific knowledge that the DNA of nearly all species is multiply redundant--that is there are a great many copies of genes that code for certain things that can be turned on and off by regulator genes. Right here we have a mechanism for redundancy. In Wonderful Life Gould speculates that if Pikaia had not assumed its place in the Cambrian Burgess pantheon then vertebrates would not have developed or would have been very, very different creatures. Perhaps. But how do you prove this scientifically? How do you experiment with it? What observational set can you propose that would isolate the appropriate factors and leave us with only the conditions required by Dr. Gould. In fact, there probably aren't any. Contingency is a philosophical speculation supported by a great deal of reasoning but no evidence whatsoever. It is the marxist class struggle imposed on the history of life.

I have demonstrated amply by this point that science has its share of nonscientific thinking. Intelligent Design is part and parcel of this. It is a philosophical lens through which to examine data. It sees what Behe calls "irreducible complexity" and leaps to the causal conclusion, "intelligent design." But it begs the question--we have labeled the thing irreducibly complex, but is it really, and is there some other mechanism to produce this. Obviously Behe does not think so, but Behe is also looking at it through a biased lens. I honestly don't know enough about the biochemical pathways that Behe speaks of to pronounce intelligently on the question of irreducible complexity, but others have suggested that the words themselves entail the bias of the philosophy.

Intelligent design is evolution in theistic garb. That's the first thing everyone should understand. They propose no new mechanisms, they basically accept the Darwinian lines of massive overproduction of offspring, natural struggles, development of species. What intelligent design does is it defies the implicit atheistic assumption of naturalist science and says that all of this is guided by a designer. Now, it may come as a big surprise to you, but this still implies that humans had ape-like ancestors (NOT as is so often stated humans evolved from chimps). The paradigm hasn't shifted. What has shifted is the philosophy through which the paradigm is interpreted. Now we have determinism laid on top of the natural world.

I happen to think that this is the correct explanation of things. God can cause through whatever mechanism He wishes any changes in the natural world. Knowing as He does His own rules and laws, He can easily cause to happen whatever needs to happen to lead to the end. What I reject is that proving this statement falls into the realm of science. It does not. It falls into the realm of religion, belief, and philosophy. God cannot be proven from these mechanisms. Because of its implicit bias, science can only be surprised by God, it cannot find Him in the data. Now, a scientist looking at the data may see God--that is the work of the Holy Spirit communicating through the data--but using that data to "prove" God is simply not viable.

The objection to intelligent design is not that it is bad science (although this is what scientists might tell you) it is that it contravenes a necessary assumption of science and the way science works to make a special exception for a sensitive case. The objection to intelligent design is that it is a philosophical assumption that poses as a theory. It offers nothing that evolution does not offer already. It is simply the theistic side of the coin. Atheists (Dawkins among them) argue that evolution proceeds in a random fashion (a point they cannot prove with any evidence whatsoever) and theists say that it proceeds by design. In either case the mechanism is as Darwin originally suggested--natural occurrences acting upon a population.

So, intelligent design is not a scientific theory, it is a philosophical construct. Evolution IS a scientific theory that must carefully be teased apart from a philosophical assumption of "no intervention." Proper teaching of evolution would require a very careful statement that we can assume nothing about how the mechanism proceeds. What appears random may be random but we cannot prove randomness. What we assume to be guided could be guided, but we can even less assume that.

Intelligent design is a philosophy attempting to disguise itself as a new scientific theory. It offers nothing in the way of evidence or proof of its propositions. It has discovered nothing new and it offers no insight that those of us who were believing Christians didn't have before its formal statement. Through my entire career as paleontologist, I believed and I still believe that everything that happens is guided and determined, watched over and supported by a God who cares and who has an end in mind. But I wouldn't dare propose this as a startlingly new theory of science or faith. Intelligent designers should have the intellectual honesty to examine their underpinnings and admit that what they are teaching is a philosophy--a different slant on the same data. Now, we can debate a different issue which is whether or not public schools should offer this understanding as a philosophical alternative to neo-darwinism; however, that is an entirely different issue and one that requires different "rules of engagement." For the time being I merely wanted to make clear what intelligent design is and what it is not. It is a philosophical construct, it is NOT a scientific theory that can be acted on according to the rules of science. That is why most scientists object to it. How do you disprove "then a miracle occurs?" It is entirely possible that just our use of terms--"irreducible complexity"--presents a barrier to other hypotheses and explanations for those who embrace the terminology.

We need to keep in mind Gödel's theorem, which reduced to a non-mathematical statement boils down to--within any given closed system there are propositions that can be made that cannot be proven using the axioms of the system. Intelligent design is one of these (as is atheistic evolution) neither is provable under the rules of order for scientific investigation.

Bookmark and Share


I've come a long way since the time I though Intelligent Design was a school of architectural theory or ergonomics.

But I still get very confused and readiing about evolution/Intelligent Design tends to give me a headache and leads to frustration. Do you think it is terribly sinful to try not to think about the question at all and trust in God's purposes , realizing that there are some things we may not ever get to know in this life? (I must maintain a certain level education in these issues since parenthood makes one responsible for the education of children...but I think I would rather dismiss the kids questions by telling them not to worry about it. )

Thank you, Steven. That's the best explanation I've read on the subject.

Dear Ellyn,

I think it's important that children understand that organisms change over time, both through their own life-times and in the larger time scale. We can breed horses for a desired characteristic, etc.

I do not think that evolution effects very many people on a day to day basis. Also, in a homeschooling environment, I intend to teach my child the fundamentals of evolution with my particular bias in the matter--that God guided it all.

But I think that for most people evolution has about as much relevance as topology, manifold space, or superstrings. Nice if it happened, not earth shattering if it didn't--no big deal one way or the other.

And, in fact, I think it's wonderful to leave the whole matter in God's hands. So long as children have a basic understanding that living things can and do change and that there are mechanisms which relay or cause these changes (genetics), then I think the overall question of how it happens (guided or unguided) is, to most, an irrelevant bit of trivia. However, if your child wishes to become a biologist or a paleontologist, they should be innoculated against the atheistic evolution germ upfront, because then it becomes a recurrent issue.

So, in short, I think it's fine to ignore this whole debate.



You wrote: Science is the pursuit of explanations of phenomena in the natural world apart from those factors that cannot be observed by science. In other words, science has an underlying "neutral" hypothesis that implicitly assumes atheism. The atheism is antagonistic (in most cases) it is simply the condition required to try to determine what happens in the natural world. If scientists always had recourse to "the a miracle occurs" their explanations would amount to nothing.

I don't really agree with this. I'm not sure how to express my disagreement, either, and maybe I misunderstand you. But, here goes.

Science looks for order in an apparently disorderly universe. Science looks for patterns of behavior, for rules that underly the way things work. If I may use the term, science has at its foundation the assumption that the universe has an intelligible design (but not neccesarily intelligent).

That seems fundamentally non-atheistic to me. Theologians speak of God in some way as that which gives order to the universe. We humans tend to think of God through anthropomorphic blinders, and as a result we can lose sight of God's true nature in our ordinary language, but if we really stop to think about God's nature and pass through the via negativa of stripping away all of our false assumptions about God, to me it has always seemed inevitable that science is fundamentally compatible with God. I've even read atheistic scientists who hold to the "everything is random" bit agreeing that they have a harder time on that score for science.

To try to explain myself better, let me turn to Aquinas: Aquinas speaks of five ways of knowing about God. One of the more memorable criticisms I've read of Aquinas is that if you understand some of his ways properly (without the anthropomorphic blinders we humans tend to put on God), you end up reading his final statement and scratching your head: and this is what we call God. Lots and lots of people read it and think, But that's not what I think of when I think of God.

Am I making any sense here? I don't think I'm explaining myself well.

Dear Jack,

What you write is not so much about what science is but what science means and indicates. My reference to atheistic assumptions is the underlay of all post enlightenment science--it's sort of a basic "play fair" rule in science. You can't propose a mechanism up to point A and say "then God intervenes and Polonium results." And I meant for the sentence you quote above to say "not antagonistic." My reference was to method not to the ultimate meaning or purpose of science.

But thank you for the clarification, and I need to go back and fix some proofing errors. Thank you.



Steven, thanks for a good reflection on intelligent design.

May I comment that your calque of Gödel's Theorem is really too loose to be useful? First, because in Gödel the "closed system" (I suppose you mean consistent) must be "big enough", and second because for a Gödelizable system, the proposition can not only be "made" but is true in fact.

If your analogy was right then there would have to be a proposition of biology which was (a) not provable or disprovable by means of science, but (b) true anyway.

In fact, I'd say, (c) the proposition would have to be true on the same sort of grounds as those by which we accept scientific reasoning as valid: for Gödel's proof uses the sort of grounds by which we investigate and accept mathematical reaonsing as valid.

And I meant for the sentence you quote above to say "not antagonistic."

Ah yes, that changes everything. Thanks :-)


...the proposition can not only be "made" but is true in fact.

I read this, and I was wondering about it. What is meant by "true"? In mathematics "truth" means logical consistency with the axioms; is that what you mean, but it might not be true if one took another assumption?

Let me take two examples: (1) With the Axiom of Choice, for example, everyone wants to believe it's true, but it doesn't have to be. If you assume it, however, you arrive at things that must be true, but boggle the mind. So in theory one could deny the Axiom of Choice and assume something that counters it, but then we would have other strange results. (2) Euclidean geometry vs. non-Euclidean geometries. What's true in one model is not true in the others; it depends on the assumptions.

Steven, thanks for this wonderful piece which elaborates so well on your comments over at my place (where I must again thank you for your patience as I puzzled through this with my limited resources ... aka my brain! ha!). I am going to save this in my "resources" files. It is the most thorough and even handed explanation I have ever seen.

Excellently put. I am frequently met with befuddled expressions by students in my biochemistry class who (a) realize I am a committed (but they let me out recently!) Christian from some of the stuff on my website, then (b) listen to my molecular evolution lecture. I never really understnewton's laws of motion.ood the opposition of many intelligent Christians to evolutionary theory until I realized that hardly anyone - Christian or atheist - _understands_ evolutionary theory in any coherent way, not because it is particularly difficult a the base, but because they never hear it without the associated philosophical baggage. Evolutionary theory - by itself - has no more theological content than Newton's laws of motion.

Dear AM,

Thank you for your reflections. I would contend that conditions A and B are met, but that condition C is assumed in A and B and hence the analogy holds better than say the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

But perhaps your point is that "guided Evolution" is not a proposition proposable within a strictly biological system. On that matter I would agree entirely because it is a scientific philsophical hybrid.



Great post. It appears from my perspective that what you call the "randomness" argument has been attached to evolutionary theory with such success that it is rarely questioned as science by popular opinion. Is this your perception?

Dear Steven,

I'd glad someone is here to think about these things. My complete thoughts on the subject are, "God directs evolution. Now, what do you want on your pizza, and would you like a Guinness with it?"



Dear Bill,

And to my mind that is absolutely the perfect attitude. Hey, Ellyn, if you drop by, take Bill's advice, much more succinct, direct, and clear than my own.

And I'm not joking. For the vast majority of the world, this is precisely the amount of time it deserves.



Steven, you write:

"I think it is safe to say that those of us who are not creationists can buy the fact that through the distribution of genetic material animals change slowly over time. We know this is true because selective breeding gives us different kinds of dogs, cats, horses, and even drosophila."

Surely you can see the flaw in this "deduction". Microevolution does not prove macroevolution. The observed reality of small genetic change does not even prove the *possibility* of greater genetic change: much less does it prove that greater change has already taken place.

There are limits to change, you must agree: the question concerns what those limits happen to be, not whether they exist at all.

Dear Steven,

Thank you very much for this post. I have been tripping over this dispute here and there in the blogosphere for months; I have always wanted to weigh in on it, but could never articulate my thoughts. You have done it clearly, lucidly, and eloquently. Te saluto, magister!


Good thoughts...
And Bill's advice is timely...Friday is usually pizza night at our house!

Dear Jeff,

You bring up a very good point--one of the "flaws" if you will with the theory. It is not so large as many think it. There are those that are determined that interspecies speciation does not occur, and yet we have firm evidence of it in such things as clines, ring clines, and island biogeography show ample evidence of speciation in process.

I won't argue this with you, not because it is not worth arguing, but because I respect your right to believe as you will. As I said before, this matter is insignigificant to the vast majority of humanity. In whatever way God decided to produce the abundance of life on Earth, it is here. If we believe that each species is an act of special creation, I have no real beef with that. I do not agree, but then I can be proven wrong in time--in heaven these things will be clear.

But the reality is whether or not one cleaves to evolution as a mechanism, God produced all that is. His ways are mysterious, and for those outside of science and paleontology of little consequence. Science can be shown to be wrong. I don't think the evidence mustered against evolution at this point holds a lot of water--but I also prefer not to debate the matter--not from weakness of argument, but out of deference to those who hold a different view.



For those interested in evolution & religion, this book has received some impressive reviews.



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 12, 2005 7:18 AM.

My Former Beloved Pastor was the previous entry in this blog.

Santo Subito is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll