Irreducible gaps in the Intelligent Design Record
I discussed in the three previous blogs why I do not think the core principle of irreducible complexity espoused by the Intelligent Design movement is a reasonable objection to macroevolution, and why I think the ID movement is not self-consistent. These arguments, and some others, can be summarized here.
Scientific explanation: ID does not rule out all possible natural explanations of its key items of ‘irreducible complexity’ (in spite of the apparent logic of its argument), so cannot invoke design as the only possible explanation. In particular ID does not consider:
- The extent to which genomes of creatures from bacteria to complex animals such as humans, are constantly shuffling DNA in the germ line providing massive variability in structures and proteins
- The fact that fitness can be increased in small incremental steps in some instances, such as the development of the eye from a localized light-sensitive spot, by adding accessories that each increase its usefulness.
- The ability of complex organisms to interact with and integrate almost any new protein structure that appears through changes to genes. On occasion such new proteins may develop a new or improved function or substance.
- New pathways may develop in parallel to existing pathways, through gene duplication and mutation, allowing alternative metabolic and structural developments to occur.
Scientific Method: ID critiques Neo-Darwinism but offers no alternative theory, other than the “it must have been designed” argument which can be applied without discrimination or discernment to any gap in human knowledge (until that gap is filled).
The reason scientists have difficulty engaging with Intelligent Design people is that the latter have a philosophy that is divergent from main-stream science. The divergence is not over the existence of God, because many evolutionary scientists believe in God. Rather the philosophy of ID is different from main-stream science because it assumes from the start that there are many structures and processes that are too complex to be explained by natural processes, and can only be explained by Intelligent Design.
The task of ID proponents, rather than researching scientific questions, is to seek and find instances of such complexity, and raise the flag of ID over them. That is, they have an agenda, not to try to find scientific explanations, but to find things that defy scientific explanation. And often they are too ready to dismiss any possibility of natural explanation, which leads to a risk of intellectual laziness. “If we can’t think of a way, then there can’t be a way other than Intelligent Design.” This is not how science operates. I can understand people’s reluctance to engage with Intelligent Design, just as I could understand the reluctance of astronauts to engage with the Flat Earth Society.
Philosophy and theology: I fully believe in God’s involvement in everything I see in the universe, but I don’t see that as an alternative to natural development, natural causes and evolutionary change. Intelligent Design is in reality a metaphysical concept, embodying purpose and meaning. However ID proponents use this metaphysical concept to explain natural phenomena. Thus the ID paradigm confuses metaphysical and natural explanations. By interposing metaphysical events into natural development (as in the diagram below), it suggests that the Designer and nature “take turns” in doing the work of creation. God is reduced to the level of a natural cause (one of the reasons, no doubt, that the New Atheists believe that if God caused the universe then in turn God must have been caused by something else). Even more concerning, where is God in between these acts of ID? The philosophy of ID gives the impression that God tinkers with the processes of the universe every now and again, and leaves nature to its own devices at other times.
Historical motivation: It appears from their own documents that ID started as a political movement that attempted to hide a creationist agenda (teaching alternatives to evolution in schools) in a scientific critique. It denies the creationist label to the outside world, while defending its purpose to the church as a religious one, as statements by the leaders of the movements show>
“[Intelligent design] simply argues that certain finite material objects exhibit patterns that convincingly point to an intelligent cause. But the nature of that cause–whether it is one or many, whether it is a part of or separate from the world and even whether it is good or evil–simply do not fall within intelligent design’s purview….Despite its constant repetition, the charge that intelligent design is a form of creationism is false.” William Dembski (1)
“Our main 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.” Philip Johnson (2).
This is less than honest.
A larger vision
Is there nothing positive that can be said, then, for the claims of Intelligent Design? I believe, despite their historical motivations, that most current proponents of ID are sincere believers and are passionate about being true to the Bible and to the scientific process, as am I. The ID movement has initiated a lot of worthwhile discussion about complexity and about information. My wish is that its proponents would embrace a wider view of the capabilities of natural processes and an enlarged vision of the God who imbued the universe (or even multiverse) as we know it with the stunning properties that enable life.
1. Dembski, William A. In Defence of Intelligent Design. In: Clayton P, Simpson ZR, editors. The Oxford handbook of religion and science. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press; 2008. p. xvi, 1023 p.
2. Johnson P. American Family Radio. Cited in: Pennock RT. The pre-modern sins of Intelligent Design. In: Clayton P, Simpson ZR, editors. The Oxford handbook of religion and science. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press; 2008. p. xvi, 1023 p.