A Primer on Intelligent Design

*This post was originally published June 8th, 2006*

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had long been interested in the science of life and its origins and I have spent a number of years exploring the intersection between science and faith. In recent years the conversation has centered primarily on Intelligent Design, a theory much talked about in the media, courts, schools and scientific circles. To that end I wanted to give those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the issue an overview of the discussion to date.

Below are a series of questions and answers about Intelligent Design. I attempted to be as even-handed as possible though I readily acknowledge that in general I support intelligent design as a scientific theory.

What is Intelligent Design (ID)?

Intelligent Design is the scientific theory that states that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause not an undirected process such as mutation and natural selection. It is a theory promulgated to answer this question, posed by William Dembski, an originator of the theory of ID, and one of its primary proponents:

Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause?

That question can be asked by anybody regardless of metaphysical belief; and the answer, presumably, wouldn’t require a particular belief either.

To that end, two main criteria have been proposed to determine the earmarks of intelligent activity in the formation of an object (or organism) – they are irreducible complexity, and specified complexity.

Irreducible complexity is drawn from a statement by Charles Darwin:

“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”
–Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition, Harvard University Press, 1964, p. 189

Thus Michael Behe describes an irreducibly complex system this way:

“A single system which is 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”
–Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, p. 9

In simpler terms if you have a mechanism (for example, a mousetrap) you can only reduce that mechanism down to a certain number of parts before it ceases to function in any useful way. In biological terms all the parts to a irreducibly complex biological system must be in place at once in order for it to function in any useful way and confer a survival advantage to the organism. Thus, such systems could not be formed by a series of gradual modifications as required by Darwinian evolution.

In the case of specified complexity, developed by William Dembski, the idea really centers on information patterns. If a pattern is both specified (that is fits a defined arrangement) and complex it is a reliable marker of intelligent activity. Thus a mountain side may be complex, that is made up of a variety of materials, but it isn’t specific in its arrangement. A crystalline structure like a diamond might be specific because its structure is organized in uniform a pattern but they aren’t complex.

Intelligence allows for patterns that are both specified (organized in discernible pattern) and complex, like written languages, computers codes and machines. In short, it allows us to discern the degree to which intelligence played a part in the formation of Mount Rushmore versus the natural formation of a cliff wall.

These two criteria form the basis of intelligent design theory.

Does ID disprove evolution?

ID is primarily a criticism of evolution on one specific point; primarily that undirected causes such as mutation and natural selection aren’t sufficient alone to account for the current genetic diversity we see in biological systems. Beyond that it allows for other evolutionary concepts such as common descent, adaptive radiation and natural selection.

Intelligent Design also acts as a critique of the natural origin of life and the universe though this is not a criticism of evolutionary theory per se  because evolutionary theory isn’t an attempt to explain the origin of life and the universe.

Is ID Creationism?

No – ID and Creationism have fundamentally different goals; creationism attempts to reconcile the narrative of Genesis with scientific theory while ID simply attempts to answer this simple question – Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? Of course, creationists often find the information ID provides as useful (just as they sometimes find the information provided by other sciences as useful) but this doesn’t make ID and creationism the same thing.

Is ID science?

This depends how one defines science. If the standard definition is used that science is any idea arrived at through hypothesis, repatable observation, investigation and testing  then yes, ID qualifies as science.

If one adds the current addendum that all explanations must be the product of wholly natural phenomenon (that is, non-intelligent, or non-directed forces) as does methodological naturalism, then ID wouldn’t qualify as science. If methodological naturalism is a required assumption of science, then science itself conceivably prevents us from answering fundamental questions about the origin of the universe, life and the origin of species by dismissing viable explanations.

Didn’t the court rule ID wasn’t science?

In the Kitzmiller v. Dover case Judge John E. Jones III ruled that ID was not science and as such could not be taught in the science classroom. If one holds that courtrooms are where science is conducted, then yes, at least in the Middle District of Pennsylvania ID is not science,; though of course the court also ruled ID may be true.

It should be noted that to this day, evolution is the only scientific theory which requires court protection from detractors in order to maintain viability.

Aren’t all supporters of intelligent design Christians?

No, actually a number of them aren’t; among non-Christian ID supporters we have Anthony Flew (Agnostic), Michael Denton (agnostic), Mustafa Akyol (Muslim), Slade Gorton (Jewish). Of course, whether or not they are Christian is rather irrelevant; one could safely say 95% of atheists are evolutionists of one stripe or another, but that doesn’t really say anything about whether or not evolution is the best explanation for the existence and variety of life on earth.

Does ID hurt science or science education?

I have always been perplexed by this idea; that somehow if ID were accepted as a viable alternative to evolution that all critical thinking would end. This runs counter to two obvious facts, the first being that historically science in large part is the product of a Christian culture that had no problem reconciling the existence of a Creator with natural exploration. In fact many great scientists among them Newton, Kepler, Bacon, and Pascal were notable commentators on theology as well as scientific icons.

The second obvious fact is that the debate between evolution and intelligent design is perhaps one of the most vibrant scientific discussions of the twenty-first century. It has driven an interest and exploration into origins and genetic capability, and the very structure of life. There is really only one side who wants to shut down discussion in the debate, and that side isn’t supporters of intelligent design.

I hope this helps further the discussion now going on about Intelligent Design both for supporters, critics and the casual observer.


12 Responses to A Primer on Intelligent Design

  1. jw1 says:


  2. Ken says:

    Yes, even-handed.

  3. Glenn Shrom says:

    I really like this post, even though I ran across it so long after it was originally posted. I thought you might enjoy a good balanced book, which points out that “certain” features are best explained by intelligent (not necessarily supernatural, not neccesarily natural) causes, whereas others may best be explained by Darwinist ideas of mutations and natural selection. Too much of the popularized ID has been anti-evolution, whereas the point has never been to be “anti-” anything.

    Getting Past the Culture Wars: Regarding Intelligent Design

  4. Aristocrat says:

    Intelligent design is not a scientific theory. And you, yourself, give the best example of why it does not meet scientific standards.

    You say it is a theory to answer the following question:

    “Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause?”

    What scientific methodology has ever tested whether an object has features that signal the action of an intelligent cause? What exactly has been tested? What were the results of those tests. Where were they presented for peer review and how was it established that the answer to the question was yes?

    I submit to you that there is no way to tell if the features of living organisms signal the action of intelligent life except one way. That is if we don’t understand the feature we attribute it to intelligent design.

    Attribution without evidence is not science. It’s guessing and it is scientifically groundless.

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  6. Bettawrekonize says:

    Software consists of a combination of interdependent rules that must be followed. The rules that guide programs are subject to various mathematical principles and various disparate rules, instructions, and functions that must work together to form a usable program. For example, the physics engine to a video game (say Quake or Doom 3 or whatever) may require many engineers and physicists to contribute years and years of development (I believe three years for Final doom? Or one of the Dooms, I can’t remember) and the physics engine needs to follow strict mathematical principles and laws for it to work well.

    These physics engine don’t appear as a result of random chance. Try getting a magnet and randomly sticking it to your magnetic hard drive and see if you get a physics engine like the one in Quake. Or a space emulator like Celestia or some others. What you get is garbage. For these physics engines and physics emulations to work one needs an array of different instructions working together to form consistent, well defined, predictable, reliable, and usable software.

    The universe, with the laws of physics, likewise follows consistent and well defined laws. These laws provide a good degree of predictability and consistency. It’s laws are way more advanced and sophisticated than any simulation that we have created and emulating these laws would require many many instructions and rules working together to form a universe with reliable and consistent laws of physics, laws that follow well defined mathematical principles, laws that enable life, planets, stars, galaxies, etc… to reliably exist and progress with reasonable predictability and certainty. There is no inherit reason why random chance wouldn’t produce unreliable and unpredictable laws of physics that can’t sustain our existence. It could very well be that some function or instruction that makes up the laws of physics causes objects to (pseudo) randomly disappear and reappear elsewhere in the universe or not reappear at all, with no apparent cause. One could write a program this way as well. But even that would be a product of design. Non-design, like randomly magnetizing your hard drive, produces nothing. It won’t even produce a physics engine yet alone an unreliable and seemingly inconsistent and unusable one. Our laws of physics are a product of multiple rules working together to form the ability to have very sophisticated and complicated systems that have different components that work together to serve various functions or to just act in a reasonably consistent manner. That’s not random chance, that’s design.

    The laws of physics are made up of a set of rules where the removal or (slight) alteration of even one of them can cause life, stars, etc… to stop existing. Delete gravity, for instance, and life on Earth would probably be impossible. Or change its direction. All these rules come together, the set of rules themselves are ‘irreducibly complex’ or whatever, just like the set of instructions to form software of the set of components that form a car.

  7. Boo says:

    Evolution is not about random chance, and computer software is not biology (although it might behoove you to look up evolutionary algorithms) therefore your comment doesn’t really apply, Bettawrekonize.

    And no, ID is not science by the very definition put forth in the original post:

    “If the standard definition is used that science is any idea arrived at through hypothesis, repatable observation, investigation and testing then yes, ID qualifies as science.”

    ID has never done any of this. It has no testable hypotheses, no predictions, no mechanism, no published research, nothing.

  8. Bettawrekonize says:

    ID can be falsified. ID compares designed characteristics of known origin with objects that lack such characteristics and it attempts to determine if there are any designed characteristics of known origin that are only observed to emerge as a product of design. Then it attempts to determine if objects of unknown origin possess these characteristics. If they do it can reasonably be concluded that such objects are a product of design. For example, if you saw an unknown spaceship looking object on the moon, an object of unknown origin, you would not conclude it’s a geofact. You would conclude it’s an artifact.

    ID can be falsified. If I propose that a characteristic only emerges as a result of design one merely has to show its emergence without design to falsify my claim. It’s simple, it’s intuitive, and it’s testable.

    Universal common descent can not be falsified. Darwin stole natural selection from others, evolutionists originally formulated acquired traits and that turned out to be wrong. Furthermore, Darwin and others have made many wrong predictions and have predicted virtually nothing correctly based on the tenants of UCD and unguided formations of the universe (ie: Junk DNA, useless appendix, the necessity to form punctuated equilibrium, etc…). For example, those who believed in the unguided formation of the universe predicted the rubber band theory. That turned out to be false. Yet the underlying premise is still holds. There comes a time when a hypothesis has made so many substantially wrong predictions that it should be thrown out entirely. It has either been falsified or it can not be and is hence not science. If Newton or Einstein or Mendel or others had been so wrong about everything they would be forgotten by now. Yet, despite being wrong about almost everything, universal common descent and a naturalistic universal cause is still imposed on students at taxpayer expense as an empirical – as the only empirical – explanation.

  9. Bettawrekonize says:

    Yet the underlying premise is still believed *

  10. Bettawrekonize says:

    “of the set of components that form a car.” should read “or the set of components …”

  11. IntelligentAnimation says:

    My only quarrel with the article is that it pits ID against evolution, even though earlier in the same article it is stated that ID does not disprove evolution. Either it is against evolution or it isn’t.

    One of my main complaints against ID is the fact that it is too wide an umbrella. One can be an IDist while being for evolution or against evolution, believing Darwinism works – at least to some extent – or that it doesn’t work at all, being a theist or an atheist.

    If you are calling it “debate between evolution and intelligent design”, then you alienate those of us who support intelligent evolution. Evidence supports evolution AND evidences proves intelligent cause. Why must we pick either side when both sides go against the evidence?

    I would also add that while you are correct that ID isn’t just for Christians (you could have added atheist Fred Hoyle as a leading ID proponent and you could have noted that Flew changed from atheist to theist because of the evidence of ID) there still has been a history of some underhanded creationism in disguise among some proponents. This was costly in Dover, as the science itself was not what was rejected, just the duplicity.

    I do agree with the underlying scientific premise of ID, because some things ARE best explained by intelligent cause, but I reject the ID movement as it currently stands.

  12. IntelligentAnimation says:

    Boo falsely claims: “It has no testable hypotheses, no predictions, no mechanism, no published research, nothing.”

    ID is one of the most testable and tested theories of all time, and there are an abundance of peer-reviewed papers documenting it. It is very easy to test ID verses Darwinian evolution and it is done daily:

    ID predicts boldly that if you change the environment of an organism it will change genetically to adapt to the changed need.

    Darwinism claims that mutations are random and have no relation to utility.

    These two claims could not be more different and, considering how rapid the pace of evolution and the high amounts of mutations in each generation, it is very easy to put both theories to the test. Simply change an organism’s environment and sit back and watch evolution unfold before our eyes in real time.

    In the year 2013 it is now certain that evolution specifically targets needs (when and only when needed) and that mutations are only random when bombarded with mutagens like toxic chemicals or radiation.

    That’s why the NGSS has dropped the word “random” from its section on mutations and has dropped the claim that all genetic changes are errors and dropped the claim that errors can lead to beneficial evolution. With the ENCODE project we now know the function of nearly all of the human genome and we know that the changes are almost always purposive, even though most are unexpressed and thus not subject to selection.

    ID was right all along and Darwin couldn’t have been more wrong.

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