I now and then see it claimed that, among its various contributions, one key benefit of Intelligent Design is that it poses a direct challenge to naturalism, or materialism. The problem I have with this sort of talk is that one of the key planks of ID is a kind of metaphysical neutrality – the recognition that any designer or designers responsible for this or that particular design in the natural world can, at least in principle, be (for lack of a better-word) “non-supernatural”.
This is claimed often enough by Dembski, Behe and company, but my favorite quote on this front comes from a post right on this site: ID’s metaphysical openness about the nature of nature entails a parallel openness about the nature of the designer. Is the designer an intelligent alien, a computional simulator (a la THE MATRIX), a Platonic demiurge, a Stoic seminal reason, an impersonal telic process, …, or the infinite personal transcendent creator God of Christianity? The empirical data of nature simply can’t decide.
The problem is that if this is accurate – and frequent, consistent attestation by a number of prominent ID proponents seems to indicate as much – then it seems to me false to think of ID in and of itself as representing a challenge to either naturalism or materialism. Indeed, ID – even if ID inferences are not only strong, but ultimately true – seems entirely compatible with both positions, at least in principle. But I think it’s possible to recognize that, while at the same time explaining how ID can nevertheless represent a challenge to these positions, at least in a qualified manner.
So, let’s get right on that. The explanation I have in mind is simple, but important.
As I said, I think ID – given its own ground rules – does not in and of itself challenge either naturalism or materialism, because ID concedes that it’s possible for the designers in question to be natural or material anyway. At the same time, ID does not make the demand that any designer be material or natural – if there really is an Immaterial Mind or immaterial minds, or what have you, then it’s entirely possible that such minds were responsible for any ID in question. That’s something for the philosophers and others to figure out.
Instead, what I see ID as challenging is the presumption of non-intelligence in popular & natural science – the idea that no designing mind or minds are or were responsible for most aspects of nature, regardless of whether this mind was natural or not, material or not. It makes intelligence and design into a kind of elephant in the room – the possibility that everyone knows exists in principle, that we have some undeniable first-hand data regarding, yet which must forever be ignored because to recognize it just introduces far too many inconvenient questions. Better to regard a question as unanswerable, or to reject causality altogether, than to acknowledge certain possibilities as live options.
But again, I want to stress: It doesn’t matter if the intelligence in question is considered natural, even material. And oddly enough, even as someone who rejects both naturalism and materialism (indeed, I find the the former category to be nigh-meaningless anymore, and the latter to be close to meaningless), I consider this to be one of ID’s greatest strengths. Whatever metaphysical position a person holds to, almost everyone* can recognize the sheer existence of both minds and design. And that sheer existence is enough, if one is consistent and thoughtful, to bring some interesting possibilities front and center when it comes to understanding the universe we inhabit.
(* I say ‘almost everyone’ because there’s always someone out there who’s willing to deny this or that idea, no matter how self-evident it is.)