The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has an official position on the nature of “science” here. For the reasons set forth below, ID proponents should have no problem with the NSTA conceptualization. The NSTA position emphasizes the following characteristics of science:
Scientific knowledge is simultaneously reliable and tentative. Having confidence in scientific knowledge is reasonable while realizing that such knowledge may be abandoned or modified in light of new evidence or reconceptualization of prior evidence and knowledge.
Although no single universal step-by-step scientific method captures the complexity of doing science, a number of shared values and perspectives characterize a scientific approach to understanding nature. Among these are a demand for naturalistic explanations supported by empirical evidence that are, at least in principle, testable against the natural world. Other shared elements include observations, rational argument, inference, skepticism, peer review and replicability of work.
Creativity is a vital, yet personal, ingredient in the production of scientific knowledge.
Science, by definition, is limited to naturalistic methods and explanations and, as such, is precluded from using supernatural elements in the production of scientific knowledge.
Many people incorrectly believe that ID runs afoul of this conceptualization of science because it violates the tenants of “naturalistic explanation” and the bar on “supernatural elements.” This is not true.
In order to understand why this is so, we must first have a proper understanding of what a “naturalistic explanation” is as opposed to a “supernatural” explanation. All the NTSA is saying here is that science operates under the strictures of methodological naturalism. Certainly this is true, and for ID to be considered science it must not appeal to supernatural explanations.
But what does it mean for an explanation to be “naturalistic”? The root wood of “naturalistic” is, of course, “natural.” My dictionary defines “natural” as “existing in or formed by nature.” The word “nature” is in turn defined as “the sum total of forces at work throughout the universe.” The word “supernatural” is defined as “of, pertaining to, or being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena.”
In summary, therefore, a naturalistic explanation invokes causes that are within the “sum total of forces at work throughout the universe.” A “supernatural” explanation invokes causes that are “unexplainable by natural law or phenomena.” So far so good. The next question we must ask ourselves as we delineate a naturalistic explanation from a supernatural explanation is “what are these forces at work throughout the universe?”
Since at least Aristotle we have known that for any phenomenon its existence can be explained by the interplay of chance, necessity and agency. Very often at this point the discussion breaks down over the issue of free will. For those, such as Aristotle, who believe free will exists, “agency” is a tertium quid (a third thing) beyond chance and necessity. The metaphysical materialist on the other hand must deny the existence of free will. For the materialist, what we perceive as free will or agency is an illusion, the complex interplay of the electro-chemical processes of our brain, which are in turn caused by chance and necessity only.
But the discussion needn’t break down here, because everyone should agree that whether intelligent agents have free will or not, they do in fact leave distinctive indicia of their activities. Did the engineers who designed the space station have free will or where they compelled to design the space station by purely electro-chemical reactions in their brain that can be reduced to the interplay of chance and necessity? For our purposes here it does not matter how one answers this question, because however one answers the question, it is certainly the case that the space station was designed by an intelligent agent. And it is certainly the case that the intelligent agents who designed the space station left indicia of their design by which an observer can distinguish it from asteroids and other satellites of the Earth that were not designed by intelligent agents.
The point is that for our purposes here, we need not argue about whether intelligent agents such as humans have an immaterial free will. Whether free will exists or not, it cannot be reasonably disputed that intelligent agents leave discernable indicia of their activity.
Therefore, I am going to make a bold assumption for the sake of argument. Let us assume for the sake of argument that intelligent agents do NOT have free will, i.e., that the tertium quid does not exist. Let us assume instead, for the sake of argument, that the cause of all activity of all intelligent agents can be reduced to physical causes.
Now where are we? We are left with the conclusion that ID has no problem whatsoever positing natural causes. This is easy to see if one looks at the question in the context of analogous scientific endeavors. When a cryptologist is trying to separate information from random noise, he is detecting design. There is no need for him to assume that the code maker was other than natural. When SETI researchers look for radio signals displaying recognizable patterns, they are attempting to detect a radio signal designed by an intelligent agent. There is no reason for them to assume the agent is supernatural. When a forensics expert detects the act of a criminal, he obviously does not need to believe the criminal is a deity who acts outside of nature.
The point I am making is not controversial, or at least it shouldn’t be. Even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins agrees with me in principle. In the movie Expelled the following exchange occurred between Dawkins and Ben Stein:
Stein: What do you think is the possibility that that intelligent design might turn out to be the answer to some issues in genetics or in evolution?
Dawkins: Well, it could come about in the following way. It could be that at some earlier time somewhere in the universe a civilization evolved by probably some kind of Darwinian means to a very very high level of technology and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. Now that is a possibility and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it is possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the detail, details of biochemistry or molecular biology. You might find a signature of some sort of designer . . . And that designer could well be a higher intelligence from elsewhere in the universe . . . But that higher intelligence would itself have had to have come about by some explicable or ultimately explicable process. It couldn’t have just jumped into existence spontaneously. That’s the point.
Thus, when detecting design, even the design of life, there is no need to assume a supernatural cause. Dawkins admits that in principle the design of life can be detected even if we posit naturalistic assumptions. And why not. As Dawkins states in the passage above, the creation of at least certain types of life is a matter of the application of sophisticated technology. That technology is beyond our present means, but with the work that some researchers are doing (e.g., Craig Venter) it is not such a stretch to believe that within a few decades humans might be able to design simple life forms. And a future researcher trying to determine whether the new life form was designed or not would be able to do so using naturalistic explanations only.