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Principled (not Rhetorical) Reasons Why ID Doesn’t Identify the Designer (Part 1)

[Read the full article, “Principled (not Rhetorical) Reasons Why Intelligent Design Doesn’t Identify the Designer,” here.]

Mike Gene recently posted on Telic Thoughts responding to professor James F. McGrath, who accuses intelligent design (ID) proponents of being dishonest when they claim that ID does not identify the designer. This professor wrote: “That isn’t an instance of humility, but of strategy, and we all know why the strategy is being used: to wedge ID into science classrooms by disconnecting it from religion.” Similarly, I recently read a law review article co-authored by Barbara Forrest where she asserts with Stephen Gey and Matthew Brauer that “an intelligent designer is simply a subtle reference to God.” (More on problems with this article in Part 2.) Professor McGrath is perhaps unfamiliar with writings and position of ID proponents on this point. Thomas Woodward clearly explains the principled reasons why the biological evidence for ID may not allow us to identify the designer:

There is no ‘Made by Yahweh’ engraved on the side of the bacterial rotary motor–the flagellum. In order to find out what or who its designer is, one must go outside the narrow discipline of biology. Cross-disciplinary dialogue must begin with the fields of philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology, and theology. Design itself, however, is a direct scientific inference; it does not depend on a single religious premise for its conclusions.

(Thomas Woodward, Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design, pg. 15 (Baker Books, 2006).)

In other words, the flagellar machine itself indicates that it did not arise by a random and unguided process like Darwinian evolution, but rather arose by a non-random and intelligently directed process such as intelligent design. However, while biological structures may be scientifically explained via intelligent design, the structures themselves have no way of directly telling us whether the designer is Yahweh, Buddha, Yoda, or some other type of intelligent agency. Thus, in contrast to the professor’s incorrect accusation that this is part of a “strategy … to wedge ID into science classrooms,” ID’s non-identification of the designer stems from a scientific desire to take a scientific approach and respect the limits of science and not inject religious discussions about theological questions into scientific inquiry. In other words, using present knowledge, identifying the designer can’t be done by science. It is a strictly theological question, and thus for the theory of ID to try to identify the designer would be to inappropriately conflate science with religion.

Indeed, even the staunchly anti-ID website, TalkOrigins, admits that “an anthropomorphized designer need not be a deity. The atheistic religion of Raelianism, for example, proposes that humans were created by extraterrestrials.” It’s a rare instance to hear TalkOrigins sound like ID proponents, but they are correct. (It’s likely that the author’s motive is to protect atheism in light of nature’s design rather than to formulate ID as a science that doesn’t investigate religious issues.)

David DeWolf, John West and I also address this issue in our recent Montana Law Review article:

It is important to stress that the refusal of ID proponents to draw scientific conclusions about the nature or identity of the designer is principled rather than merely rhetorical. ID is primarily a historical science, meaning it uses principles of uniformitarianism to study present-day causes and then applies them to the historical record in order to infer the best explanation for the origin of the natural phenomena being studied. ID starts with observations from “uniform sensory experience” showing the effects of intelligence in the natural world. As Pandas explains, scientists have uniform sensory experience with intelligent causes (i.e. humans), thus making intelligence an appropriate explanatory cause within historical scientific fields. However, the “supernatural” cannot be observed, and thus historical scientists applying uniformitarian reasoning cannot appeal to the supernatural. If the intelligence responsible for life was supernatural, science could only infer the prior action of intelligence, but could not determine whether the intelligence was supernatural.

(David K. DeWolf, John G. West, and Casey Luskin, “Intelligent Design Will Survive Kitzmiller v. Dover,” 68 Montana Law Review 7, 30 (Spring, 2007) (emboldened emphasis added)(internal citations removed).)

Charles Thaxton took precisely this approach in the Kitzmiller trial, where he explained:

I wasn’t comfortable with the typical vocabulary that for the most part creationists were using because it didn’t express what I was trying to do. They were wanting to bring God into the discussion, and I was wanting to stay within the empirical domain and do what you can do legitimately there.

This is further explained below in an excerpt from our Montana Law Review article:

ID Does Not “Require Supernatural Causation”

ID as a scientific theory does not attempt to address religious questions about the identity or metaphysical nature of the designer. This has been the consistent view of ID proponents for the last two decades, and Judge Jones was presented with extensive documentation of this fact in amicus briefs filed by the Discovery Institute and FTE, which the text of his opinion seemed to have ignored. Judge Jones also ignored–or misinterpreted–key passages from the Pandas textbook that addressed this issue. For example, the published version of Pandas used in Dover schools explained that ID merely seeks to infer “intelligent causes” and is compatible with a wide variety of religious viewpoints, including pantheism and agnosticism:

The idea that life had an intelligent source is hardly unique to Christian fundamentalism. Advocates of design have included not only Christians and other religious theists, but pantheists, Greek and Enlightenment philosophers and now include many modern scientists who describe themselves as religiously agnostic. Moreover, the concept of design implies absolutely nothing about beliefs normally associated with Christian fundamentalism, such as a young earth, a global flood, or even the existence of the Christian God. All it implies is that life had an intelligent source.

One would think this passage would be highly relevant to the determination of the religious nature of ID, but Judge Jones did not even quote it in his ruling. Rather, he cited another passage from Pandas out of context in order to insist that ID requires supernatural causation:

[A]n explicit concession that the intelligent designer works outside the laws of nature and science and a direct reference to religion is Pandas‘ rhetorical statement, “what kind of intelligent agent was it [the designer]” and answer: “On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy.”

But an examination of the full passage cited by Judge Jones makes clear that he misused it. The passage does not state that an intelligent designer must be supernatural, but rather that science is unable to address this question:

If science is based upon experience, then science tells us the message encoded in DNA must have originated from an intelligent cause. What kind of intelligent agent was it? On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy. But that should not prevent science from acknowledging evidences for an intelligent cause origin wherever they may exist. This is no different, really, than if we discovered life did result from natural causes. We still would not know, from science, if the natural cause was all that was involved, or if the ultimate explanation was beyond nature, and using the natural cause.

Indeed at one point, Pandas even seems to adopt methodological naturalism, stating that “intelligence . . . can be recognized by uniform sensory experience, and the supernatural . . . cannot.”

(David K. DeWolf, John G. West, and Casey Luskin, “Intelligent Design Will Survive Kitzmiller v. Dover,” 68 Montana Law Review 7, 28-30 (Spring, 2007) (internal citations removed).)

Part 2 will further discuss whether ID proponents are open about their views on the identity of the designer.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.