Is intelligent design science?

science in blue

Why is it that Christian apologists have to deal with this topic so often? It seems that whenever I’m in discussion over just about ANY apologetics related topic, I’ll typically be challenged by someone over the topic of I.D. as a kind of ‘gotcha’ move. You see, (insert sarcasm) I must not be rational… after all, I (as a Christian) must believe the whole Intelligent Design thing, which IS NOT science. And, as we all know, if it isn’t science, it isn’t rational.

There are many problems here, such as my companion’s failure to deal with the original topic (diversion tactic, maybe?). But even if we chase this rabbit trail, we’ll soon find we’ve run into a wall. The ‘NOT science’ position won’t budge, and you will soon be served a generous helping of the Genetic Fallacy, along with sides of Guilt by Association and Circumstance Ad Hominem.

What they won’t typically do, is give you a good reason WHY intelligent design doesn’t qualify as science. This is because, for most people, their reaction and response have little to do with their understanding of science (or philosophy of science). Instead, the reactions come from a USA District Judge (John E. Jones III) who was so out of his depth in commenting on his 2005 decision (Kitzmiller v. Dover), that he simply copied what Eric Rothschild, the ACLU attorney, told him to say. From that point on, I’ve heard this, “Intelligent design is NOT science” being parroted by atheists and skeptics everywhere.

But every so often, you’ll come across someone who does give you some reasons. They will probably say something to the effect that intelligent design is not falsifiable, that it produces no peer-reviewed scientific results, or that it stops the advance of science. The first, even if it were true, is still a matter of debate in philosophy of science, the second is just plain false, and the third, silly.

These people don’t seem to understand that science is not some magical, master discipline that we’ve finally perfected in the last few decades by adding methodological naturalism to the mix. Science is simply a disciplined approach to uncovering the truth about the world around us, typically focused on the empirical. It is actually part of a set of overlapping disciplines with this common goal (for example, philosophy, which focuses more on rational argument and logic). How this goal and discipline is best accomplished is part of an ongoing debate within the philosophy of science. It seems few today, even among scientists, have much of this background knowledge.

For example, the constraint of falsifiability was made popular by Karl Popper but seems in opposition to Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm-shift view. Both were thrown into question by Imre Lakatos’ competing and progressive research program model of science. Paul Feyerabend would seem to throw all of these models into question. To put it simply, exactly how science should operate, isn’t nailed down.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, after discussing some of the proposed constraints placed on science over the years, had this to say:

“Observing methodological naturalism thus hamstrings science by precluding science from reaching what would be an enormously important truth about the world. It might be that, just as a result of this constraint, even the best science in the long run will wind up with false conclusions.”

Ultimately, it tends to come down to one’s metaphysical presuppositions. Methodological naturalism is NOT the neutral position it masquerades as. This became apparent in a recent debate between Dr. Michael Ruse and Dr. Fazale Rana over the origin of life. You can watch the entire event HERE, but skip to 2:04:11 and then to 2:16:27 and listen to Dr. Ruse’s answers to the audience questions. He would be willing to entertain intelligent design if we were talking about aliens, but not something supernatural. He then admits that his primary problem with supernatural is the problem of evil. The problem isn’t science here folks!

I’ve often posed a related challenge in return when I’ve faced the intelligent design is not science claim. Most scientist-types love SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence). The problem is, how can SETI be science if intelligent design is not, as both are looking for intelligence within naturalistic data. If intelligence and information content cannot be adequately detected, then how will these people know if they ever find E.T.? I have never gotten a serious response to this, having posed it for years, until recently.

An atheist pointed me to this article by Seth Shostak of SETI Institute. In it, he argues that intelligent design proponents are misguided in making such a comparison because, 1) they don’t understand what SETI is really looking for, and 2) what SETI is looking for isn’t complex, but artificial.

His first point has a bit of weight, as there may be some confusion here. SETI isn’t to the stage in their investigation that intelligent design researchers are, in that SETI is still looking for something to actually look at! So, yes, at this point, they simply are looking for ‘artificial’ narrow-band signals which would be ‘carriers’ to the actual data they WOULD certainly analyze if they ever find one. When I (or other ID proponents) make the parallel, it is future analysis of such a find we’re referring to, primarily.

But, his use of the term ‘artificial’ for his second point is more than a bit curious. What does artificial mean? The New Oxford American Dictionary says, “made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally.”(1) In other words, created, not natural. He has essentially replaced “design” —a word with connotations of contrived, fake, or even false—with “artificial.”

Further, he seems to have confused the term ‘complexity’ with what William Dembski really means when using it. He says that what SETI is looking for is actually not complex, but a simple, “organized and optimized” signal found within an unexpected environment, or “out of context.” While organized and optimized certainly sound rather designed to me, let’s compare this to what Dembski is really saying:

“Thus in general, given an event, object, or structure, to convince ourselves that it is designed we need to show that it is improbable (i.e., complex) and suitably patterned (i.e., specified). … The ‘complexity’ in ‘specified complexity’ is a measure of improbability.”

Isn’t ‘suitably patterned’ a bit like ‘organized and optimized,’ and ‘out of context’ a bit like ‘improbable?’ These two concepts sure sound similar to me… and I guarantee that if they ever find that carrier, the complexity will go up a great deal and what they will then be looking for will be quite the same: information. And information means author or designer, whether God or E.T.

But, what really puts the nail in the coffin(2), is taking a look at SETI’s FAQ page. For example, they say, “Any signal less than about 300 Hz wide must be, as far as we know, artificially produced.” So, let’s apply methodological naturalism in a similar manner to how it is imposed on intelligent design. Since they can’t, then, infer E.T. as the author for such a signal, they are going to have to give in to SETI being non-science, start using the term ‘faith'(3) a bit more, and start defending themselves against ‘E.T. of the gaps’ accusations.

Bottom line: Whether ID is science or not is a matter of philosophy and worldview, not the opinion of scientists and rogue judges.

Be aware though, this matters not just for the debate between Christian apologists and skeptics. As Plantinga pointed to above, this matters for science too. If you force science into a false worldview, you end up with false science. For example, until the last year or so, Darwinists were headed in the wrong direction when considering DNA function with the now defunct concept of Junk-DNA. Their false worldview lead them to impose this idea on their science, and now they are back-peddling, or rather, trying to pretend the new functionality fits their model and get you to ignore what they previously said. And don’t forget, such an error has real-world implications, such as delayed medical advances.

It isn’t religion that impedes science, but the skewed view of what science actually is.

1. New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
2. Just in case this ends up in translation… A figure of speech or idiom, meaning ‘put an end to’ (the argument)… ie. it’s dead!
3. incorrectly, but in line with how skeptics often use it

Image credit: … science in blue! by James Vaughan

This article was first published at Copyright © 2013 All rights reserved.


DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Steve Wilkinson

Steve loves getting people excited about Christian apologetics (case-making); seeing the beauty and rationality of Christianity and the Christian worldview. He is a husband, father, and long-time tech geek. Steve is director/educator at and also a designer/consultant at cgWerks. He holds a MA in Theology (Interdisciplinary - Christianity, Church & Culture) from Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. Canada. You can follow Steve on Twitter @TilledSoil, connect with him/ on Facebook, or catch up with him/ on Google+.

  • kevin

    I think a better question to ask ourselves concerning I.D. is whether or not it is a viable option for Christians. Does the supposed evidence that I.D. provides lead us to or at least does it cohere with the God of scripture. Personally the kind of god that I.D. would give us evidence for is but a being among other beings. The best or highest of all beings, but a being among other beings nonetheless, which seems at odds with the supremely transcendent God of scripture.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      I think it’s the only option for Christians. If God created (no matter how he did it), it is designed… even if that simply means the laws of physics somehow control the evolutionary process, or God works through some sort of quantum mechanism to guide it.

      The live question, then, is whether, and to what extent, we’d be able to detect and define that design. Most I.D. folks seem to believe it is quite obvious, where as Christians who are disputing this seem to think otherwise, or they seem confused on the matter and are just towing that line for secular academic credibility.

  • tildeb

    Steve, you misrepresent the criticisms about ID.


    You should know by now – after 25 years of trying to implement the Wedge Document – that ID does not produce knowledge. It is a complete failure. It is further revealed that it isn’t science because absolutely everything we inquire into is reducible with this methodology to ‘Therefore, Oogity Boogity‘. That’s why it isn’t science. It answers nothing. It explains nothing. There is not a single piece of new knowledge stimulated by ID in comparison to methodological naturalism – a method that has the bad manners to continue to yield new knowledge, new applications, new therapies, new technologies that work reliably and consistently well for everyone everywhere all the time. THIS is what you are trying to criticize: a method that WORKS. In any fair comparison, ID is exactly the same as any kind of creationism (quibbling about which Creator might be responsible, Blessed Be His Name). That’s it. That’s the sum total of ID. It does not produce knowledge, nor a single technology, therapy, or application that works. Furthermore, it has yielded nothing that works for everyone everywhere all the time except this pseudo-answer godidit (or some other mysterious organizer, planner, guide or what have you). It’s Paisley’s watch, plain and simple. It’s time to put away this 19th century argument because it’s factually wrong in practice and has been shown to be so for more than a century. Get with times.

    Now let’s remind the reader just how unfair you are willing to be. Note that within the scientific community itself (specifically the field of genetics), junk DNA was, is, and shall continue to be explored for possible uses. You present this example as if science was caught with its pants down because it looked (and acted) as if it were junk. Much of it still appears to be so. But it wasn’t ID that found some junk to play an active role, but you don’t explain this; instead, you choose to misrepresent the very active role methodological naturalism played in this discovery, as you very well know.

    Why the cabbage has a longer DNA sequence than you do is rather a mystery, wouldn’t you say… especially if at first glance almost none it seems to be activated?

    That you have inherited isolated sequences of seemingly unused DNA that has been altered by a viral event identical to other primates is rather curious, too. But POOFism doesn’t really help our understanding here, does it? And it makes even less sense that some guiding, designing, purpose-laden agency decided to insert it into your DNA during a creation event. ID provides us with no avenue of research. It just announces that this must be designed!

    And let’s quote what SETI – and not Dembski or your dictionary selection – defines as ‘artificial’ when we’re talking about SETI, shall we? My clarifying additions are in brackets and I’ve made bold the definition you seem to have lost along the way:

    “But their (ID proponents) second assumption, derived from the first, that complexity would imply intelligence (referring not just to Dembski but all the Discovery Institute promoters and Fellows trying to advance the Wedge Strategy), is also wrong. We seek artificiality, which is an organized and optimized signal coming from an astronomical environment from which neither it nor anything like it is either expected or observed: Very modest complexity, found out of context. This is clearly nothing like looking at DNA’s chemical makeup and deducing the work of a supernatural biochemist.”

    What you presume is an equivalent method of science – namely creationism rebranded into today’s ID – isn’t any such method. And that is not because of Judge Jones, or atheists, or evolutionary biologists, or some secretive global conspiracy you along with Ben Stein wish to make up; it’s because of ID itself. It doesn’t work as a productive method of inquiry into reality. And that little multi-million dollar fiasco of a claim (to be an equivalent method of science to MN) you can lay at the feet of all religious folk who empower belief in creationism/ID to be an alternative to knowledge when it utterly fails in every regard to be equivalent to the knowledge bounty of methodological naturalism… a method that allows you to read this comment, for crying out loud. And that’s a clue you seem oblivious to note in your rush to excuse ID through misguided vilification.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      “… and you will soon be served a generous helping of the Genetic Fallacy, along with sides of Guilt by Association and Circumstance Ad Hominem.”

      If what you’ve said above IS the real argument against I.D., then I didn’t misrepresent, I dismissed it as a formal fallacy (and rightly so).

      re: Junk DNA –

      “It stretches even their creative ingenuity to make a convincing reason why an intelligent designer should have created a pseudogene — a gene that does absolutely nothing and gives every appearance of being a superannuated version of a gene that used to do something — unless he was deliberately setting out to fool us… Leaving pseudogenes aside, it is a remarkable fact that the greater part (95 percent in the case of humans) of the genome might as well not be there, for all the difference it makes.”

      – Richard Dawkins (2009)

      I am personally quite aware of this argument, as just about every ‘creation vs evolution’ conversation I was involved in, ‘Junk DNA’ was one of the primary pieces of evidence thrown at my position.

      It was also central to Kenneth Miller’s testimony in Dover, for example. BTW, you should start using scare-quotes… as it’s not junk. That’s kind of the whole point! And, by ‘much of it’ do you mean the un-resolved 10-20% of ‘junk DNA’ (as 80-90% is proven functional)?

      re: SETI –
      I think you need to carefully read that section in my article again. I’m well aware of what it says on that page, including your bolded parts. I addressed that.

      re: Ben Stein –
      I haven’t even seen that movie yet, to be honest, so I can’t speak to all it’s points. However, the central thesis is sound. (You kind of prove it with your argument, BTW.)