A couple of days ago I posted my opening statement to a formal online debate I’m currently engaged in with Christian neo-Darwinist Francis Smallwood at Musings Of A Scientific Nature. My opening statement can be found here, and his here. What follows are my opening thoughts on the question whether ID is ‘creationism in a cheap tuxedo’, or a valid scientific theory. At the bottom of this post you can find a link to Francis’ first response to me on his blog.
Is Intelligent Design science or ‘creationism in a cheap tuxedo?‘
As I have already outlined in my opening statements, intelligent design theory states ‘that there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause…’1 ID theorists also claim that the theory is a scientific one, ‘…an inference from scientific evidence, not a deduction from religious authority.’2 The question whether ID theory is scientific or just creationism is one that provokes much, if not most, of the discussion on this issue and it is a lot rarer to hear measured, rigorous debate about whether the theory has the empirical evidence on its side. Because of this it only seems necessary to sweep away some of these caricatures and straw men in order for us to discuss the validity of the methods by which we can detect design and what the empirical evidence itself suggests. In this part of the discussion, I will argue that ID is indeed a legitimate scientific theory and will attempt to defend it against claims to the contrary. I will also attempt to defend it against the common accusation that it is a synonymous with biblical creationism.
One of my prevailing irritations when it comes to discussions about ID is the fact that it is so frequently misunderstood and misrepresented by many critics and the media, sometimes shamelessly so. I held this position even when I rejected ID. As a result, many people tend to look upon it with much suspicion and unwarranted scepticism. Whilst ID advocates have been largely consistent and clear in their claims, they are often met with accusations of being fringe lunatics, fraudsters, and stealth creationists. The infamous 2005 Dover trial in Pennsylvania had a huge impact on the public perception of ID, where Judge Jones ruled it out as being a religious doctrine and not scientific. Since ID had falsely been given the religious label, and was being used by a group of creationists to get it into school science classes, it was ruled out as being unconstitutional, violating Church-state separation. It was a public relations disaster. Unfortunately one of the most common rhetorical moves used by critics is when they illegitimately equate ID with biblical creationism in order to discredit it. It was famously labelled ‘creationism in a cheap tuxedo.’3 by Leonard Krishtalka.
In Charles Foster’s book The Selfless Gene: Living with God and Darwin, he asserts that intelligent design is ‘The currently fashionable fig-leaf to cover the nakedness of creationism…’4 This asseveration echoes the sentiments of most ID critics but it is plainly a gross mischaracterization. ID theory is solely based on what theorists believe to be empirical evidence and mentions nothing of God, theology, or any religious belief in its premises. It should be pointed out that ID is quite a broad tent because amongst its supporters are Young Earth and Old Earth creationists, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, and it is even technically possible for ID to be embraced by those who hold to an atheistic worldview because design theory is ‘a philosophically minimalistic position’5 and thus carries ‘minimal metaphysical baggage…’6 Even though there are people within the design community who advocate biblical literalism and Young Earth creationism, this does not mean that ID is based upon any religious doctrine.
My own acceptance of ID was not the result of a theological reading. It was the result of a long, arduous, and detailed look at the arguments and evidence. The leading theorists in the ID movement also testify to coming to their position by looking at the empirical evidence and finding out that Neo-Darwinism has many deficiencies. One of the movement’s most prominent figures is Michael Behe. He recalls that one of the reasons he came to his position was through reading Michael Denton’s book Evolution: A Theory In Crisis. Denton is a Biochemist and an agnostic.7 Through Behe’s scientific research he noticed evidence of ID in Biochemistry. From this observation it should be plainly clear that Behe did not come to his position by scrutinising the Gospels through his microscope! ID is not creationism and critics would do well to acknowledge this. It is no fig-leaf and it is hiding nothing.
As ID theorist Steven Meyer writes ‘there are no good-non—question begging-reasons to define intelligent design as unscientific.’8 When considering the scientific status of ID, it is necessary to look in detail at what science is and isn’t. This necessarily involves much philosophy of science because science cannot answer the question itself. One way to help us the answer the question is to look at the history of philosophy and science. It is important to note first of all that throughout history the word science has meant different things and has changed considerably. Science in the early modern period simply referred to the study of nature and was called natural philosophy. Natural philosophers were permitted to appeal to all four of Aristotle’s four causes, which Aristotle thought were necessary in order to truly explain things in nature. It wasn’t until figures like Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Thomas Hobbes that the rejection of final and formal causes was proposed, eliminating reference to function and teleology. When one speaks of science these days, it almost always refers exclusively to the natural sciences and it now seems to be largely equated with the principle of methodological naturalism, a principle I will examine in detail in subsequent responses.
One of the biggest myths about the sciences is that they speak with a single unified voice and that it has a set of principles that are uniform throughout the sciences. The truth is that natural science is very diverse and certain concepts need to be distinguished from one another. It seems that there are several categories in which different scientific fields fall into although many of them overlap: Experimental, observational, historical, and origins. Some unifying features of the sciences are that they are based on public evidence, they can be confirmed and tested empirically, are systematic, and use standard methods of reasoning. ID does conform to these principles and is based on publicly available evidence, is testable, makes predictions, and although falsifiable, this is not a necessary or a sufficient condition for a theory to count as science.
I realise that here I have only touched the surface of this topic and in my following response I will delve deeper into the principle of methodological naturalism and ID’s status as a scientific theory.
- Stephen C. Meyer. Signature In The Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. (New York: HarperCollins. 2009). p. 4.
- Leonard Krishtalka. Quoted by Gleen Branch in ‘Human Nature After Darwin by Janet Radcliffe Richards’. Philosophy Now. 40. March/April 2003, p.44.
- Charles Foster. The Selfless Gene: Living With God and Darwin. (Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton. 2009). p.XIV
- Marcus R. Ross. Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationism: Investigating Nested Hierarchies of Philosophy and Belief. http://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2003AM/finalprogram/abstract_58668.htm
- Peter S. Williams. I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism. (Southampton: Damaris Publishing. 2004). p. 349
- Unlocking the Mystery of Life: The Scientific Case for Intelligent Design. (Illustra Media. 2002)
- Stephen C. Meyer. Signature In The Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. (New York: HarperCollins. 2009). p. 421
Here is the 1st response from Francis: