Science, not theology, should decide the merits of Intelligent Design

Over at Biologos, an evangelical theologian named Robin Parry has written a hit piece titled, God is More Than an Intelligent Designer. Now, I have no problem with someone criticizing Intelligent Design. But I do have a problem when someone criticizes it without getting out of his armchair and taking a look at the evidence for and against it. My own position is that Intelligent Design theory should be evaluated on strictly scientific grounds. Parry, unfortunately, criticizes it for all the wrong reasons, which can be summed up in a single, dismissive phrase: “Your God is too small.”

Is Parry right? Let’s have a look at his arguments.

God of the gaps?

The problem with Intelligent Design (ID) is its tendency to look for God (or simply a “designer”) in the gaps of scientific explanations. So-called irreducible complexity, for instance, is seen as evidence of this “designer” because science cannot (in principle, we are told) explain it in terms of natural processes. But if future science did actually explain any alleged instances of irreducible complexity, then such instances would cease to be evidence of the “designer”. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

Well, of course. That’s the whole idea. Science stands or falls on the evidence. ID claims to be a scientific theory, so it has to be falsifiable.

Parry appears to be making an incorrect assumption, however: he seems to think that Intelligent Design requires the “designer” to intervene in, or tinker with, the physical world, overlooking the possibility that God might have “front-loaded” the cosmos, setting up its initial conditions so that life (including complex organisms) would emerge naturally. (Front-loading the laws of Nature wouldn’t work.) Parry should be aware that several leading figures in the Intelligent Design camp – including Professor Michael Behe – have argued that no tinkering by the designer is necessary. Indeed, in his book, The Edge of Evolution (pp. 229-232), Behe describes in some detail how the design of life could have been accomplished without any interference. [To be sure, philosopher and ID advocate Stephen Meyer disagrees: he argues that if chemistry can’t explain the origin of DNA, neither could the initial conditions of the universe; but this is a fallacious argument, because it compares apples and oranges: the laws of chemistry aren’t specific enough to account for DNA, but that doesn’t mean the initial conditions of the cosmos couldn’t possess the requisite specificity.] What this means is that in order to falsify the claim that irreducible complexity points to a designer, it isn’t enough to show that irreducibly complex structures could have arisen naturally. One also needs to make a plausible scientific case that no “bias” in the fundamental parameters or initial conditions of our cosmos would have been required, in order to generate these structures. (If biological complexity could only be explained by appealing to cosmic fine-tuning, that would be merely pushing the question of design one step further back.)

I might add that ID theorists have never claimed that phenomena which cannot be explained in terms of unguided natural processes are (a) evidence for the existence of God (as opposed to an unknown Designer), let alone (b) the only possible evidence for God. So the “God of the gaps” accusation is simply a baseless canard.

The designer: just another being?

The problem here is that the “designer” — which almost every ID advocate thinks is the biblical God — is pictured as one being among others (albeit a more intelligent and powerful one) acting as a cause in the world in the same manner as other causes act in the world.

Most ID advocates do indeed identify the “designer” with the biblical God, for philosophical and theological reasons – but not for scientific reasons. And no, the “designer” is not pictured as “acting as a cause in the world in the same manner as other causes act in the world,” for the simple reason that Intelligent Design theory is silent regarding the designer’s modus operandi. No-one knows how the designer acts. Nor does any ID advocate claim that the designer is but one being among others. Indeed, it is difficult to see how an ID proponent who upholds the fine-tuning argument for cosmological design (as many writers over at Biologos also do) could regard the designer of the cosmos as “one being among others.” At the very least, such a designer would have to be something lying beyond the cosmos – in other words, transcendent. The “one being among others” objection looks plausible only if we confine our attention to biological design.

God doesn’t act like that

The reason that this is a problem, at least for Christians, is that classical theology does not picture God in this manner — as one cause or being among and alongside others. Rather, divine Being is of a fundamentally different kind from creaturely being, and divine causation acts at a different level altogether. God is the one who imparts be-ing to the whole of created reality and who enables all of the powers of causation within creation. So God was the explanation for the whole, but was not to be found in the gaps.

There is nothing to prevent God from being both the One who imparts being to created reality and Someone Who intervenes in history. Indeed, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all insist that He is precisely that, for they ascribe various miracles to the Creator. Christians, for instance, believe in the virginal conception of Jesus. I fail to see how a theologian could gladly accept the virginal conception but balk at the idea of God bringing about a few divinely guided mutations in the lineage leading to human beings.

God and science don’t mix

The explanations of the empirical sciences function at the level of secondary causation within the created order, and pay no attention to metaphysical questions of primary causation. As such, God does not feature in scientific explanations. This is unproblematic so long as scientists don’t imagine that reality can be encompassed within the realm of what science can explain — that road ends up collapsing in on itself. Treating some things in the world (but not others) as the result of God rather than of inner-creational causes is to mix up these different levels of explanation. Setting divine and creational causes up in opposition as some kind of zero sum game is unhelpful.

To deal with the last point first: it is a myth to claim that Intelligent Design sets divine and creational causes up in opposition to one another. Rather, what it does is set guided and unguided causal processes in opposition to one another. Now, it is certainly possible for a theologian like Parry to maintain that all law-governed natural processes – including the processes leading to the formation of carbon (which is required by all living things) in the early history of the cosmos – are ultimately guided by the Creator. He is entirely correct, of course; but that kind of statement would cut no ice with a scientist. However, if one could show that the formation of carbon was itself a highly fine-tuned process, then he might conclude, as the late Sir Fred Hoyle did: “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.” Hoyle was hostile to religion, but he was courageous enough to follow the evidence where it led.

Parry asserts that God does not feature in scientific explanations. That would have been news to Sir Isaac Newton, whose Intelligent Design arguments I’ve documented in detail here. And in case someone wishes to object that Newton lived 300 years ago, when the rules of science were different, then how about the late nineteenth-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), who put forward a scientific argument for the existence of a Creator and who insisted that science didn’t rule out talk of a Creator; it merely ruled out discussion of his modus operandi? Heck, there have been at least 31 great scientists who made scientific arguments for the supernatural.

But if nineteenth-century scientists don’t impress you, then how about some prominent twenty-first century scientists who reject methodological naturalism? Here’s atheist cosmologist Sean Carroll:

Let’s imagine that there really were some sort of miraculous component to existence, some influence that directly affected the world we observe without being subject to rigid laws of behavior. How would science deal with that?

The right way to answer this question is to ask how actual scientists would deal with that, rather than decide ahead of time what is and is not “science” and then apply this definition to some new phenomenon…

There is a perfectly good question of whether science could ever conclude that the best explanation was one that involved fundamentally lawless behavior. The data in favor of such a conclusion would have to be extremely compelling, for the reasons previously stated, but I don’t see why it couldn’t happen. Science is very pragmatic, as the origin of quantum mechanics vividly demonstrates. Over the course of a couple decades, physicists (as a community) were willing to give up on extremely cherished ideas of the clockwork predictability inherent in the Newtonian universe, and agree on the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics. That’s what fit the data. Similarly, if the best explanation scientists could come up with for some set of observations necessarily involved a lawless supernatural component, that’s what they would do.

And here’s New Atheist and evolutionary biologist Professor Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True:

I’ve previously described the kind of evidence that I’d provisionally accept for a divine being, including messages written in our DNA or in a pattern of stars, the reappearance of Jesus on earth in a way that is well documented and convincing to scientists, along with the ability of this returned Jesus to do things like heal amputees. Alternatively, maybe only the prayers of Catholics get answered, and the prayers of Muslims, Jews, and other Christians, don’t.

And here’s P. Z. Myers, a biologist and critic of Intelligent Design, who regards the very concept of God as nonsensical, but who thinks that scientists could still discover and investigate causes that fall outside the natural order:

My position is that we cannot find evidence for a god, that the God Hypothesis is invalid and unacceptable, because “god” is an incoherent concept that has not been defined…

By the way, I do agree with Coyne on one thing: I also reject Shermer’s a priori commitment to methodological naturalism. If a source outside the bounds of what modern science considers the limits of natural phenomena is having an observable effect, we should take its existence into account.

Parry’s insistence that science has no place for God-talk strikes me as a trifle dogmatic, to say the least, when leading contemporary scientists who are also vocal atheists disagree.

Who designed the designer?

Let us continue with Parry’s piece:

Furthermore, the most that ID could ever demonstrate is that certain things in the world (but not the the world as a whole) were designed by a very intelligent (though not omni-intelligent) and powerful (though not all-powerful) being (or groups of beings). But such a being is more like an archangel than God. And of such a being we may still ask, “Who designed it?” for it would certainly not be the kind of thing that could explain its own existence. This intelligent designer would be as infinitely removed from God as a flea.

I’m sure Parry has heard of the fine-tuning argument. For advocates of Intelligent Design, this argument constitutes evidence for the design of the cosmos, while arguments relating to biological complexity point to life’s having been designed. So I don’t know why Parry thinks Intelligent Design can only show that “certain things in the world (but not the the world as a whole) were designed.” (And in case Parry wishes to object that our universe might turn out to be just a small part of some larger multiverse which was not designed, I should inform him that fine-tuning advocates have anticipated that objection: Robin Collins argues that a multiverse that could generate a universe like ours would itself have to be designed. Physicist Paul Davies also has a killer argument against the multiverse as an explanation for everything.)

I have a question for Parry. Assuming that the fine-tuning argument does point to the universe’s having been designed, would he agree that the designer of the universe would have to be omni-intelligent and all-powerful? If not, why not? (I’m asking because theologians and philosophers don’t agree on the definitions of these terms, and I’d like to know what Parry’s definitions are.)

What of Parry’s final point, that one could always ask who designed the designer, since “it would certainly not be the kind of thing that could explain its own existence”? For my part, I wonder what basis Parry has for his assurance that the designer of the cosmos “would certainly not be the kind of thing that could explain its own existence.” Why not? At the very least, one could argue that a transcendent designer of the cosmos might be self-explanatory. I’m not sure how Parry thinks an archangel could design a cosmos.

But as I have mentioned before, Intelligent Design theory doesn’t deal with the identity of the Designer. It is perfectly consistent to hold that scientific arguments can never establish that the designer is a self-explanatory Being, but that philosophical arguments can be marshaled to show that the designer of the cosmos is either a self-explanatory Being or a being kept in existence by a self-explanatory Being.


I am not for one moment suggesting that those who believe in God should not look at complex systems within creation and marvel at how they manifest God’s goodness and power — after all, such complex systems live and move and have their being in God, manifesting the Divine Logos — but that is a very different issue from seeking to find them as evidence of direct divine intervention. There be dragons!

I’ve dealt with the claim that Intelligent Design requires divine intervention above. Lastly, the problem with Parry’s “There be dragons!” dig at the ID movement (a reference to the medieval practice of putting illustrations of dragons, sea monsters and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps) is that most of the arguments for Intelligent Design were unknown to people in the Middle Ages, who believed in the spontaneous generation of life, and even fairly complex animals such as rats, mice and crocodiles from non-living matter. It was not until the invention of the microscope that we see Intelligent Design-style arguments appearing in the writings of scientists such as Robert Boyle. As for the universe, people in the Middle Ages were quite familiar with the Aristotelian view that it had always existed. No-one knew about the Big Bang or the fine-tuning argument. In other words, the “dragons” in the Intelligent Design account of the world are not old ones, but very new ones. The dragons may of course be slain, as new explanations for life and the cosmos are put forward – but my plea is this: let science, and not theology, do the slaying.

160 thoughts on “Science, not theology, should decide the merits of Intelligent Design

  1. stcordova,

    I don’t disagree with skepticism, but on what ground would Duke want to not tell the truth?

    A conversion dividend? You have clearly been affected by this story in your faith, and you regularly present it to others in the apparent hope it might effect a similar change in their perspective. It’s not unheard of for people to make miracles up, and not impossible that a desire to get others to see the light might get in the way of one’s ‘earth-bound’ standards of integrity, because Higher Purposes.

  2. stcordova,

    I don’t disagree with skepticism, but on what ground would Duke want to not tell the truth?

    What’s to be gained from his being objective about it, when he and you want a miracle? How is he to know the truth, by the way?

    You don’t even know if she was physically blind, and didn’t instead have conversion disorder (hysterical blindness is the older term).

    In the end, it really won’t do to christen outliers as “miracles.” That’s what creationists do, it’s what true believers do.

    Glen Davidson

  3. vjtorley: Why do you think it’s absurd to say that God intends some outcomes, and foresees but merely tolerates others?

    Because it makes it appear like God is sometimes hands on and sometimes hands off, as if anything at all can happen without God’s sustaining power.

    Nothing that is created exists of its own accord. All that is created is sustained in existence by God. There is no Godless “nature.” “Nature” is supernatural through and through. It’s not sometimes this and at other times sometimes that.

    That would be my answer. There is no time or place that God is absent from the “natural” world. So I agree that God is not a tinkerer.

  4. Hi Mung,

    The fact that God sustains each and every creature in being does not entail that he intends everything that creatures bring about.

  5. Allan Miller:

    . It’s not unheard of for people to make miracles up

    But the miracle of life you can’t make up despite many attempts by evolutionists and abiogenesis advocates to say it’s not a miracle. It is because of the miracle of life other miracle become more believable. There are other stories too, and some I’ve seen with my own eyes, but too personal to tell…

    Allan Miller:

    you regularly present it to others in the apparent hope it might effect a similar change in their perspective

    I don’t expect to change perspectives of people who say that even if they saw a miracle of God creating, they’d still believe in evolution.

    Regarding Alan Fox’s objection, I should point out there was another miracle reported in the Washington post of a woman whose leg was restored after she suffered a long time after a car accident. It made national news, no one seems to care. She even showed her legs off wearing a bathing suit. Who was this young lady? Cheryl Pruitt. Few people really cared about her story. Why? Probably because they didn’t get their miracle and the world is still a dark place where awful things happen, so it is hard to believe God works miracles.

    Nevertheless, if you won’t believe that miracle, the evidence of the miracle of life is there for you to examine every day.

    Anyway, who is Cheryl Pruitt? Miss America 1980. Here is the Washington post article:

    Cheryl Prewitt went through the windshield of the car she was riding in when it collided with a neighbor’s car 12 years ago.

    “I had 100 stitches,” said Prewitt, now 23 and Miss America, her soft smile just a shadow of the brilliant toothy gleamer she wears most hours of the day. “Emergency room stitches — they were done in a hurry.

    “My entire mouth has been sewn back together, my chin has been sewn back together, my forehead has been sewn back together — see this line?” Her fingers pass gently over each part of her face that she mentions, and she points to the barely noticeable vertical indentation that runs down the middle of her forehead. There are no other signs of the accident.

    Her makeup is heavy with foundation — almost theatrically thick. Her blush is rougey, her lipstick very red, her brilliant blue eyes overshadowed by long, sticky mascaraed lashes.

    But, like a winsome Flannery O’Connor heroine, she survived it all — survived the stitches, suffered through having one leg crushed in the accident which made it two inches shorter than the other. And through most of her high school years she walked with a limp. That was before she went to a faith seminar years later where she was healed and the leg grew, she says, two inches that very day.

    You want to dismiss it. Ok, I respect skepticism, but then you blindly believe in the “miracles” of evolution constructing radically complex machines at the molecular scale that the world’s best engineers, chemists, and physicists could not make.

  6. stcordova: I don’t expect to change perspectives of people who say that even if they saw a miracle of God creating, they’d still believe in evolution.

    The two are not mutually exclusive.

  7. Mung: Because it makes it appear like God is sometimes hands on and sometimes hands off, as if anything at all can happen without God’s sustaining power.

    But, unless you don’t believe human beings have free will, you have to believe there are things happening that God doesn’t cause to happen in the way that they happen, but merely “allow” to happen in the sense that he sustains them when and if they happen.

    God, I assume, isn’t making you have this argument. It is an argument between you and I, not between God and I, right? That means you are causing certain things to happen, not God. God sustains those choises you make, and if he did not, you could take no action at all, or you would stop existing entirely. At least, this is how I understand the concept of a sustaining cause.

    A metaphor could be a bridge going over some body of water, being upheld by a system of trusses and pillars. The vehicles crossing the bridge are the actions we take, human beings, and the pillars and trusses is God “sustaining” the bridge. Basically God is giving us a platform to drive our vehicles around on, and the free will to decide how and where to drive. So God is hands-on in his upholding the platform, but hands-off in his not forcing us to drive in certain directions. He just makes sure that, wherever we decide to drive, there’s a surface for us to drive on.

  8. stcordova: You want to dismiss it. Ok, I respect skepticism, but then you blindly believe in the “miracles” of evolution constructing radically complex machines at the molecular scale that the world’s best engineers, chemists, and physicists could not make.

    So intelligent design has failed, so it must be intelligent design. Great logic!

  9. stcordova: You want to dismiss it. Ok, I respect skepticism, but then you blindly believe in the “miracles” of evolution constructing radically complex machines at the molecular scale that the world’s best engineers, chemists, and physicists could not make.

    The best engineers, chemists and physicists cannot make a Jupiter, a Solar System, a Milky Way. That doesn’t stop you from thinking of them as natural, right?

    I don’t believe in “miracles” of evolution. Given how small we are in comparison with the rest of the planet, the solar system, the milky way, etc; how small our most ambitious enterprises compared with the vastness, spectacularity, and sheer power of natural phenomena, I have no problem with the idea that something this vast can contain a variety of complex phenomena going around at many scales, from the tiny to the huge. Thus, the idea that we are what we look like: tiny products of a vast universe, seems rather convincing.

    On the same basis, the idea that we must be the products of things exactly like us (in terms of having “intelligence”), only much bigger, but then devoid of any of the characteristics that make it possible for us to be engineers, chemists, physicists, etc (the very complexity you want to explain as a product of intelligence), is an instance of extreme arrogance, circular reasoning, and poor philosophy.

    Nature is vast, huge, rich, complex, powerful. Therefore this was done by someone like me! But you’re so tiny! So, it must have been someone like me, only bigger! But what would be needed for that much bigger thing? If we’re so small, so tiny, and to “design” us there’s a need for a universe this vast, how much vaster a universe for producing that thing like me, only much bigger, would have to be?

    The “who designed the designer” question aims at showing the poor philosophical “basis” for ID. The circularity. ID is trying to explain the very features that make intelligence possible by invoking an intelligence. If for us to exist and think there’s a need for prior intelligence, then where from, how come, that intelligence doesn’t have the need of what we need in order to be intelligent? If ID said that intelligence is not needed for that prior intelligence to be and operate, then we have to conclude that ID is about moving the point of “no prior intelligence necessary for intelligence to exist” one step away for no good reason. Faulty philosophy.

    All of that leads directly where ID doesn’t want to go: ultimately, they’re thinking religion, they’re thinking gods. Not science. Not philosophy. Just religion. Otherwise they would see the pertinence of the question, rather than react furiously when asked.

    Have a nice and productive week ladies and gents.

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