Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Intelligent design is not Creationism

Intelligent Design, writes Melanie Phillips in The Spectator, is not Creationism, however much its enemies would like to claim it is. It is, rather, the inference of a Creator from science, not from Scripture.
.... I hold no particular brief for ID, but am intrigued by the ideas it raises and want it to be given a fair crack of the whip to see where the argument will lead. What I have also seen, however, is an attempt to shut down that argument by distorting and misrepresenting ID and defaming and intimidating its proponents.

One way of doing so is to conflate ID with Creationism. I wrote below that this is wrong, since ID comes out of science and Creationism comes out of Biblical literalism. ....

The first thing to note is that the distinction I was drawing was not between ID and religion but between ID and Creationism. Creationism holds that the universe was literally created in six days or — through ’young earth’ Creationism — that it was created in a few thousand years; either way, it flies in the face of the fact that the universe is billions of years old. Therefore Creationism is inimical to science. But few religious believers in the west subscribe to this literalism, as opposed to belief in a Creator which is common to all of them; Christianity and Judaism (even more so) promote the idea that Genesis is a poetic metaphor.

Since ID holds that some vague kind of intelligent force must have been behind the creation of the universe, there’s surely very little difference (and considerable overlap) between ID proponents and the vast majority of mainstream religious believers – amongst whom are numbered many scientists who have no difficulty reconciling their scientific knowledge about the universe, and the evolution of life within that universe, with belief in an ultimate Creator who kick-started the whole process. ....

.... ID proponents say the idea that science can account for everything – the doctrine known variously as materialism or scientism – flies in the face of reason and evidence and seeks to commandeer the space previously reserved for the unknowable, or religion, which can sit very comfortably alongside science, as it does for so many.

Those who have imbibed evangelical atheistic materialism with their mothers’ milk, however, find it impossible to get their heads round this. Shouting from the rooftops that ID is not science but camouflaged religion, they react so viscerally precisely because ID does come out of science and talks its language. ....

...ID is not in itself a scientific discovery. It is rather an inference from scientific discoveries. Looking at the complexity of the created world, it says the evidence points inescapably to a guiding intelligence as the cause of that complexity. It is an idea, a conclusion to a chain of observation and thought. When people demand proof of this idea, what they are actually demanding is proof that an ‘intelligent designer’ exists. The fact that there are no peer-reviewed studies (!) demonstrating the existence of such a cosmic ‘designer’ provokes this yah-boo response. But it is obviously no more possible to prove the existence of an ‘intelligent designer’ than it is to prove the existence of the Biblical God.

ID is thus a paradox. The whole point is that it states that the ‘intelligent designer’ it posits as the only logical inference from scientifically verifiable complexity cannot be known through scientific means. This is because the essence of the ID idea is that there is a limit to science beyond which it cannot go, since science cannot prove nor disprove the existence of God nor any kind of ‘ultimate designer’ of the universe which thus stands outside that universe and its laws. That is where science stops and faith begins.

ID makes space — as the result of science — for belief in a creator, whether this is a deistic being (conveniently vague) or the Biblical God (uncomfortably moral). That certainly takes us into the realm of faith. Indeed, as already noted it takes us into pretty much the position occupied by many believers in Biblical religion – but it does so through the route of science. ....

To repeat – I have no particular brief for ID. I am not in a position to judge whether its arguments about ‘irreducible complexity’ and the logic of intelligent design are soundly based or not. But I do know that the attempt to shut down this debate runs against every principle of rationality and scientific freedom; and that the claim that it is rooted not in science but in religious fundamentalism is a falsehood designed to smear and intimidate people into silence. .... [read it all]
Update 5/6: On a related note, an interesting new site, BioLogos, has been created by Dr. Francis Collins, recently retired leader of the Human Genome Project. Considerable space on the site is devoted to explaining its approach, which differs both from Creationism and Intelligent Design. One of these pages addresses the relationship between science and religion:
Science and religion are sometimes thought to offer entirely different and separate bodies of knowledge. Science is thought to provide systematized and empirical knowledge of the world and its behavior, whereas religion is thought only to give value and purpose for one’s existence. ....

Science is not the only source of factual statements, and religion does reach beyond the realm of values and morals. As [Stephen Jay] Gould acknowledges, science is limited to the factual claims about the world’s physical behavior, and therefore provides only a portion of complete knowledge. Writing on the same topic, Dr. Francis Collins borrows an example from astronomer Arthur Eddington:
"[Eddington] described a man who set out to study deep-sea life using a net that had a mesh-size of three inches. After catching many wild and wonderful creatures from the depths, the man concluded that there are no deep-sea fish that are smaller than three inches in length!"
.... For centuries, religion has had plenty to say to the sciences. To keep the discussion concise, the development of modern science is a good example. It is often thought that religious belief was actually a hindrance to the early progress of science, and the disagreement between the church and Galileo...is cited as a popular case. However, religious belief actually was entirely compatible with scientific progress. For example, when the top 52 scientists during the emergence of modern science in medieval Europe were surveyed for their religious beliefs, 62 percent could be classified as devout, 35 percent as conventionally religious, and only two scientists, 3.8% percent, could be classified as skeptics. Given that many of these scientists — referred to as natural philosophers — helped lay the foundation for modern science, there is hardly room to suggest there was any incompatibility between scientific advancement and religion. With those statistics in mind, it should not be surprising that a religious worldview played a significant role in nurturing the development of modern science. This is well summarized by professor Roger Trigg:
"Their belief in God gave them confidence that the physical world, in all its complexity and vast extent, could be understood. […] As a matter of historical fact, modern science has developed from an understanding of the world as God’s ordered Creation, with its own inherent rationality."
This is not to say that modern science would never have developed without the aid of religious faith. However, if religious belief can also function as a framework within which scientific progress flourishes, then there is certainly substantive interplay between the two bodies of knowledge.

Furthermore, religion has not only served to advance scientific discovery, but it also exerts a positive and significant influence on the practical application of scientific discoveries. With the constant advance of technology and medicine, new questions are continually raised as to what applications should be deemed ethically acceptable. The scientific method alone does not provide a way of answering these ethical questions but can only help in mapping out the possible alternatives. Such ethical concerns are only resolved by standards of morality that find grounding and authority through faith in a higher being. .... [more]
The Spectator, The Questions | The BioLogos Foundation


  1. Wow, great article! Thanks for the link. There are so few people in the media (or anywhere) that recognize the major differences between Creationism and ID.

    Along those lines, you may be interested in the work of Bradley Monton, an atheist philosopher professor who sees potential value in discussing ID in schools. Lots of thoughts on that at his blog... here's a relevant recent post:


  2. Sorry to pop up unannounced and uninvited, by the way. :) I've periodically stopped by Standfast's blog (and, less frequently, this one) since I was introduced to them by a common friend/acquaintance of ours, the inimitable Ginny B. By the way, I'm glad to see Standfast is back on the blog-wagon! :)


  3. Travis,
    No invitation necessary! Glad to have your comments. Greet Ginny for me.

  4. If intelligent design is not merely a re-branding of creationism, then how do explain the provenance of the phrase "cdesign proponentsists"?

    For that matter, how do you explain any of the following:

    "Indeed, intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory."
    - Leading IDC advocate William Dembski

    "The Intelligent Design movement starts with the recognition that "In the beginning was the Word," and "In the beginning God created." Establishing that point isn't enough, but it is absolutely essential to the rest of the gospel message."
    - Leading IDC advocate Phillip Johnson

    "Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools."
    - Leading IDC advocate Phillip Johnson

  5. I have no idea what "cdesign proponentsists" means.

    Interesting quotations, but citing them is not particularly responsive to the point of Phillips' article. Regardless of what various proponents may have said, there are very significant differences between Creationism [of whatever type - see Collins at http://biologos.org/questions/biologos-id-creationism/] and ID, whatever its failings may or may not be as science.

    Thanks for the civility of the comment - some of those I received [and didn't post] tended to reinforce Phillips' argument.


Comments are moderated. I will gladly approve any comment that responds directly and politely to what has been posted.