I don’t have much of a lead-in for this post, so I’ll get right to the point: I think it’s important to draw a distinction between two concepts when it comes to ID. Namely, the distinction between the Design Question, and Intelligent Design itself.
When I say ‘the Design Question’, I mean more or less this: The question of whether X is designed, where X is some particular artifact, some particular part of nature, or nature as a whole.
And by Intelligent Design, I think a good, concise view was given here by Jonathan Wells: Intelligent design maintains that it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided natural processes.
The purpose of this post is to point out that while ID and the Design Question are related (not to mention very important) they are nevertheless distinct: It’s possible to answer “yes” to the Design Question, and still reject ID as stated. Likewise, it’s possible to affirm an ID inference in many cases, yet still answer in the negative on the Design Question (say, affirming that organism X was designed, while still believing that nature as a whole was not designed.)
First, Wells’ statement has to be augmented: The mere reference to some empirical observation in coming to a conclusion is not sufficient to define ID. It’s the claim that intelligent design and ID inferences themselves qualifies as science. I consider this identification of ID with science as, in the eyes of its most prominent proponents, non-negotiable. As with everything, maybe ID will change someday, or maybe not – ideas can be fluid – but for now, you can’t really be an ID advocate while at the same time denying that ID is science.
So what does this mean? It means that you can accept that the bacterial flagellum (for example) is designed, you can accept empirical evidence in nature points to design, you can affirm that the entire universe is the product of design – but if you don’t consider your views or your inferences to be strictly scientific, you’re not an ID proponent. You may have a lot in common with some ID proponents, but in the end you have to stand outside of the big tent.
And I consider this important to highlight, because it illustrates this much: A person who rejects ID (and remember, simply thinking ID is not science is sufficient for rejecting it) may still come to a positive design conclusion about nature or natural things. Really, they may come to a conclusion more strong than ID itself can provide, and with powerful arguments of their own.
This is probably nothing new to most of the regulars here, but I bring it up because I think it’s a point that’s easily obscured when the subject of “Christian Darwinists” comes up. I could go on about this (and someday soon I probably will), but the problem is that you have “Christian Darwinists” who decry ID, and who seem downright reluctant to affirm design even outside the context of ID – or who affirm it in dodgy, non-committal terms. (Let’s not beat around the bush: I’m talking about Biologos here, or at least a number of their contributors.) When that’s the most common face of theistic ID-critics you come across, it’s easy to start assuming that if someone is not on board with ID, then they can’t possibly believe in design at all (at least, not in the relevant sense.)
Likewise, I think many ID critics come to the conclusion that ID proponents pin all of their views on design on ID itself, such that if ID doesn’t turn up a design inference, then they don’t believe in design or don’t believe it’s rational to believe in design. Not only do I think this is obviously false (though a complicated subject) in the cases of most prominent ID proponents, I think ID critics routinely underestimate the intellectual value ID provides regardless of whether or not they believe ID is science. To put it another way: ID encourages an interest in science, and an interest in asking important questions (like how it’s possible to determine this or that is designed, what factors into such an inference, etc.) Whether or not one believes it’s a scientific question, I’d think any theist would agree “Is this or that natural thing designed?” is a *good* question, an important question. And like it or not, ID encourages people to ask questions about the design question and to investigate the subject, rather than just accept what they’re told.
Anyway, hopefully this post will serve as a reminder about the core commitments of ID, how ID differs from the Design Question itself, and that it’s possible to still strongly affirm design even while disagreeing with ID. (I think one response to this may be that whether or not ID is science may not of the utmost importance, as opposed to agreeing that design inferences themselves are well-supported and rational. I could see that, but I’d also note that highlights the importance of understanding the distinction between ID and the Design Question once again.)