*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.