Exactly what is “intelligent design”?
Opponents of the intelligent design (ID) argument often claim that it’s nothing more than re-vamped creationism devised to evade the law prohibiting the teaching of creation science in public school classrooms. At the mention of ID, detractors retort with something like, “Religion has no place in the classroom. We have separation of church and state for a reason. Besides, modern science has repeatedly shown that the earth is much older than 6,000 years. It’s all a bunch of fundamentalist, superstitious nonsense.”
This is a fine example of what is known as a straw man fallacy. Imagine a champion boxer coming into the ring for a fight, and instead of another boxer waiting for him, there’s a straw-stuffed scarecrow. Exactly how impressive would it be for this highly-skilled fighter to knock this opponent down for the count? Not at all, right? It’s the same with the straw man fallacy.
You can think of it this way:
Scientist 1 endorses X
Scientist 2 makes an argument for Y, then proceeds to tear down Y
Scientist 2 then claims he has defeated the argument for X
Notice that Scientist 2 has not defeated X, he has only defeated his distorted version of X. This is fallacious. My point here is: ID and creationism are two completely separate concepts; when opponents of ID argue against it by equating it with creationism, they’re committing the straw man fallacy. (ID is, however, COMPATIBLE with Christianity and other theistic faiths.)
So, if ID is not the idea that the Judeo-Christian God created the world and everything in it in six literal days approximately 6,000 years ago (young-earth creationism), what is it?
“Intelligent Design’s fundamental claim is that intelligent causes are necessary to explain the complex, information-rich structures of biology and that these causes are empirically detectable,” says William Dembski, who holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois. He says, “Intelligent Design [is] a theory for detecting and measuring information, explaining its origin, and tracing its flow…It is theologically minimalist. It detects intelligence without speculating about the nature of the intelligence.”
Simply put, ID proponents reason that there is a specified complexity present in the physical world that is best explained by the existence of an intelligent, designing cause. This is not at all the same thing as an argument from ignorance, which some will claim about ID. Suggesting divine causation when you do not know how something originated due to lack of evidence is one thing; but when you have strong indications of intelligent agency in the highly ordered and complex features of something and you posit an intelligent cause, that is something entirely different. It is inference to the best explanation.
Let’s start with a simple example and then we’ll move on to an actual example from biochemistry.
You walk into the kitchen one morning, to find a box of Alpha-Bits cereal spilled across the tabletop. There’s a pile of cereal surrounded by a random scattering of the letters. To one side, however, you see the following arrangement of cereal bits:
GOOD MORNING SUNSHINE
Is your first thought, “Wow, how cool that those 19 letters just happened to fall into that pattern”? Of course not. What you see is a pattern that exhibits specified complexity. This is what Dembski says is the hallmark of design. After you are able to eliminate blind chance with a high degree of certainty, intelligent agency is the only explanatory option you have left.
When this principle is applied to things in the natural world, such as living organisms, we can reasonably infer that an intelligent cause is responsible for the order and complexity discovered through rigorous scientific investigation of those organisms. The bio-informatics revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s illuminated the high degree of specified complexity inherent to DNA. Bill Gates has remarked, “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.”
DNA molecules (stated simply) are comprised of chains of base pairs involving a four-letter alphabet. A’s pair with T’s and C’s pair with G’s. These base pairs stick together and link up on “backbones” to form the double-helix structure. Here’s a diagram:
The human genome is made up of thousands upon thousands of different genes. Each individual gene has hundreds of base pairs arranged in a specific order, depending upon the gene’s function. This is an informatics system beyond anything the human mind has been able to achieve. Lots of theories have been offered for how this system could have come into existence through blind naturalistic processes, but not one of them is a sufficient explanation. Postulating that there is intelligent design behind something as magnificently complicated and precise as the human genome is not the same as saying, “Well, I don’t know how it happened. God must have done it!” What ID proposes is that it is possible to identify the specified complexity that, based on all of our experience, only comes from an intelligent source.
Notice that ID never attempts to identify this intelligent source. ID doesn’t imply that Christianity is true. It says nothing about the age of the earth. It doesn’t endorse the God of the Bible or of the Qur’an. There are even agnostics that are supporters of the work being done in intelligent design. One fabulous example is Dr. David Berlinski. Here’s a picture of me with Dr. Berlinski last October (sorry, couldn’t resist). He’s the one on the right. (That’s Dr. Michael Behe on the left!)
I’ll end with a quote: “The conclusion of intelligent design flows naturally from the data itself–not from sacred books or sectarian beliefs. Inferring that biochemical systems were designed by an intelligent agent is a humdrum process that requires no new principles of logic or science. It comes simply from the hard work that biochemistry has done over the past forty years, combined with consideration of the way in which we reach conclusions of design every day.” –Dr. Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box
For many excellent articles on ID, including rebuttals of the critics’ rebuttals, check out the Center for Science and Culture. For an impressive list of the credentialed scientists who are not intellectually satisfied with Darwinian Theory, check out A Scientific Dissent from Darwin.