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The Philosophy of Intelligent Design, part 1

Why it is Unreasonable to Exclude ID from Institutional Science

  • 22 December 2015
  • Author: Scott Cherry
  • Number of views: 4119

© by Scott Cherry, December 2015 

Part 1

The question of origins, i.e. the origin of the species is an enormous one for which there are generally two broad possibilities: 1) naturalistic and 2) theistic, or 3) a combination of the two (which is really a subgroup of #2).  By the former I mean all views that do not allow for a theistic cause, and by the latter I mean all those that do allow for one.  Indeed, philosophically there can only be these two.  Either there is or there isn’t an intelligent mind responsible for the origin of everything, which I hope we can agree is a “brute fact”.  In the realm of science these two options can be captured either by the Darwinian theory of evolution (naturalistic) or by Intelligent Design (theistic), respectively. A great many (though not all) Darwinian scientists from group #1 would call a “foul” because they hold to a view that a truly scientific theory may not or should not invoke a theistic cause.  For this group there is certainly a fixed rule that permeates institutional science.

By this I do not mean that all scientists embrace evolution and reject God, nor do I mean that all religious people reject evolution.  What I mean is that regardless of their personal views on the subject, public institutions highly favor evolution in the name of pure science, and disfavor Intelligent Design due to its religious implications, which we will define below.  (There are exceptions, of course, but they are very limited.)  If it is any sort of rule it is a philosophical one, not a scientific one.  But is it a fair and a reasonable one?  And is it truly scientific?  In this paper I will argue that it is not.  The prevailing institutional science of origins has unfairly “ruled out” a priori all possible causes that are not strictly naturalistic (i.e. mindless and purposeless) as pseudo-science.  Not even false per se, just disallowed.  This discussion will give special attention to the notion of irreducible complexity as a test case. 

Some simple definitions are in order here.  First, evolution is a theory that attempts to explain the progressive origins of all life forms over billions of years from a common ancestor.  Philosopher Thomas Nagel says that “the defining element is the claim that all this happens as the result of the appearance of random and purposeless mutations in the genetic material followed by natural selection due to the resulting heritable variations of reproductive fitness.”  By contrast he says, Intelligent Design is “best interpreted not an argument for the existence of God, but as a claim about what is reasonable to believe about biological evolution if one independently holds a belief in God that is consistent both with the empirical facts about nature that have been established by observation, and with the acceptance of general standards of scientific evidence.” (p. 188)  In his excellent book, Darwin’s Black Box, Dr. Michael Behe, Professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University, says the notion of design is simply “the purposeful arrangement of parts”.  Distilled from his book, he defines Intelligent Design as the science of observing systems in nature with independent components that are ordered together to produce an identifiable function requiring the greatest amount of the system’s internal complexity and logic.  (I observe that the universal ability to recognize design is fundamental to our humanness.)  Behe adds that “inferences to design do not require that we have a candidate for the role of designer.  We can determine that a system was designed by examining the system itself, and we can hold the conviction of design much more strongly than a conviction about the identity of the designer.” (p. 196)  In my own terms, ID is a discipline that employs scientific means to discover and observe design in nature from which evidence of a designer may be inferred. 

My basic observation and starting point for this discussion is the indisputable fact that evolution enjoys the supreme position of status in this country’s educational and science institutions, as well as others.  A) Regardless of the personal beliefs of teachers, it is a simple and well-known fact that only evolution is allowed to be taught in public schools as was determined as recently as 2005 in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.  B) The situation is not much different in most public and many private colleges and universities: Evolution is the only acceptable view in all science courses and most other disciplines.  Evolution is the only view of origins approved of by the state and by science and academic institutions.  There are very few college courses on ID.  Again, it is largely irrelevant whether an individual’s personal beliefs differ on the matter.  (I could reinforce this point but I think it will be generally acknowledged if not celebrated.)

This is true because evolution is viewed as science but Intelligent Design (ID) is not. Why is that?  ID is viewed as a pseudo-science because of its association with creation and therefore “religion”.  But ID scientists and I contend that it is not a “religious” discipline and should not be confused with creation, or even creation science.  By that I mean that ID does not depend on the religious texts or the creation narratives of any religion to formulate its paradigm or research program.  But it does presuppose that a designer is possible, and that’s where it seems to cross the line.  Does that really disqualify ID as science?  Should it?  Thomas Nagel and I say no.

Thomas Nagel is an atheist philosopher of science who subscribes to evolutionary theory and has done some rather unorthodox thinking on these questions.  In his paper, “Public Education and Intelligent Design” he offers a number of reasons for this.  First he says,

The contention seems to be that, although science can demonstrate the falsehood of the design hypothesis, no evidence against that demonstration can be regarded as scientific support for the hypothesis.  Only the falsehood and not the truth of ID can count as a scientific claim.  Something about the nature of the conclusion, that it involves the purposes of a supernatural being, rules it out as science. (p. 189) 

This seems like double-standard to me. Another passing observation I draw from this excerpt is that, in Nagel’s view, ID is falsifiable. I assert that it is so either by dismissing the appearance of design in things or by dismissing actual design. This criterion was very important to Karl Popper (Godfrey-Davis, 61) and other philosophers like Anthony Flew who argued assiduously against theism on this point.  It is also important to present-day scientists, but more on this later.

Nagel goes on to ponder the fundamental distinction between the two systems.  What is it really? Is it scientific knowledge?  He observes that for Darwin in the 1850s there were (and still are on the bio-chemical level especially) huge mysteries about the biological mechanisms by which a random, purposeless process of natural selection could occur to achieve its progressive effects that were every bit as ambiguous as those that would be employed by a designer.  So Nagel concludes that the real sticking point is not the ‘unknowns’ that can be ascribed respectively to the ‘forces of the gaps’.  Rather, it is the element of purpose which science rejects. (p. 189)  With this in mind he goes on to philosophize about the very nature of the concept of a designer that does not fit well into the prevailing science framework:

…The purposes and actions of God, if there is a god, are not themselves, and could not possibly be, the object of a scientific theory in the way that the mechanisms of heredity have become the object of a scientific theory since Darwin.  … So the purposes and intentions of God, if there is a god, and the nature of his will [and the very creative process, which itself is elusive to science even on the human level], are not possible subjects of a scientific theory or explanation.  But that does not imply that that there cannot be scientific evidence for or against the intervention of such a non-law-governed cause in natural order.  (p. 190, underlines mine).

This is a very important statement for the question at-hand because it speaks to the connection between evidence and the design inference, which is the very premise of ID.  It is not that the Bible or Qur’an say so, it is that the scientific evidence appears to say so.  The fact that there are religious texts and their adherents which agree with the design inference—and that its proponents allow for the possibility of design—should not relegate ID to the sphere of religion. 

Nagel goes on to draw this conclusion:

I suspect that the assumption that science can never provide evidence for the occurrence of something that cannot be scientifically explained is the principle reason for the belief that ID cannot be science; but so far as I can see, that assumption is without merit. (p. 190)

Here Nagel is doing classic philosophy of science par excellence in my opinion; he is scrutinizing the very boundaries of modern science based on their philosophical assumptions.  As a respected atheist scholar he has scrutinized the core institutional assumption that the design hypothesis is unscientific, the core assumption that precludes ID from mainstream science. 



1. Nagel, Thomas (2008). “Public Education and Intelligent Design.”  Philosophy & Public Affairs, 36, No. 2 (Spring): 187-205

2. Behe, Michael (1996). Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: The Free Press (Simon and Schuster)    


3. Swinburne, R.G. (1968). “The Argument from Design.”  Philosophy, 43, No. 165 (July): 199-212

4. Godfrey-Smith, Peter (2012). Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

4. Shanks, Niall; Joplin, Karl H. (1999) “Redundant Complexity: A Critical Analysis of Intelligent Design in Biochemistry.” Philosophy of Science, 66, No. 2 (June): 268-282

5. Boudry, Maarten; Leuridan, Bert (2011). “Where the Design Argument Goes Wrong: Auxiliary Assumptions and Unification.”  Philosophy of Science, 78, No. 4 (October): 558-578

6. Weisberg, Jonathan (2005). “Firing Squads and Fine-Tuning: Sober on the Design Argument.”  The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 56, No. 4 (December): 809-821

7. Allen, Colin; Bekoff, Marc (1995). “Biological Function, Adaptation, and Natural Design.” Philosophy of Science, Vol. 62, No. 4  (December): 609-622

8. Stanley, H.M. (1885). “Is the Design Argument Scientific?”  Mind, 10, No. 39 (July), 420-425.   

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