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Misrepresenting the Definition of Intelligent Design

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Links to our 7-Part Series Responding to Ken Miller:

Part 1: Science and Religion: Is Evolution “Random and Undirected”?
Part 2 (This Article): Misrepresenting the Definition of Intelligent Design
Part 3: Confusing Evidence for Common Ancestry With Evidence for Darwinian Evolution
Part 4: The Name-Dropping Approach to Transitional Fossils
Part 5: Spinning Tales About the Bacterial Flagellum
Part 6: Misrepresenting Michael Behe’s Arguments for Irreducible Complexity of the Blood Clotting Cascade
Part 7: Ken Miller and the Evolution of the Immune System: “Not Good Enough”?

At the Dover trial, Ken Miller asserted under oath that intelligent design is merely “a negative argument against evolution” which requires an appeal to the supernatural:

It is what a philosopher might call the argument from ignorance, which is to say that, because we don’t understand something, we assume we never will, and therefore we can invoke a cause outside of nature, a supernatural creator or supernatural designer.

Dr. Miller even stated this holds true in all cases: “The evidence is always negative, and it basically says, if evolution is incorrect, the answer must be design.” (Day 1 PM Testimony, pp. 15, 36-37.) These are outright misrepresentations of ID made by Dr. Miller, and it’s likely you’ll hear these same mistakes at any anti-ID lecture Dr. Miller gives.

The Positive Argument for Design
At the Dover trial, ID proponents were extremely clear that ID is not merely a negative argument against evolution, but a strong positive argument. Michael Behe refuted Miller’s testimony by stating: “This argument for design is an entirely positive argument. This is how we recognize design by the purposeful arrangement of parts.” (Day 10 AM Testimony, p. 110.) Behe also made this clear in the afterward to Darwin’s Black Box:

[I]rreducibly complex systems such as mousetraps and flagella serve both as negative arguments against gradualistic explanations like Darwin’s and as positive arguments for design. The negative argument is that such interactive systems resist explanation by the tiny steps that a Darwinian path would be expected to take. The positive argument is that their parts appear arranged to serve a purpose, which is exactly how we detect design. (Darwin’s Black Box, pp. 263-264 (2006).)

Scott Minnich and Stephen Meyer also explain the positive argument for design:

Molecular machines display a key signature or hallmark of design, namely, irreducible complexity. In all irreducibly complex systems in which the cause of the system is known by experience or observation, intelligent design or engineering played a role the origin of the system … in any other context we would immediately recognize such systems as the product of very intelligent engineering. Although some may argue this is a merely an argument from ignorance, we regard it as an inference to the best explanation, given what we know about the powers of intelligent as opposed to strictly natural or material causes. (“Genetic analysis of coordinate flagellar and type III regulatory circuits in pathogenic Bacteria,” in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Design & Nature, Rhodes Greece (2004).)

ID is thus not merely a negative argument against evolution but is based upon finding in nature the types of complexity which in our experience derive from intelligent causes. Stephen Meyer makes this point clear in a scientific paper published in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington: “Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source from a mind or personal agent.”

This specified complexity, also called complex and specified information (CSI), is a tell-tale indicator that intelligence was at work. Meyer explains why this makes for a positive — not negative — argument for design:

by invoking design to explain the origin of new biological information, contemporary design theorists are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence. Instead, they are positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation. (Stephen C. Meyer, “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Vol. 117(2):213-239 (2004).)

ID and the Supernatural:
ID proponents have made it clear that ID appeals to an intelligent cause, and necessarily not to a supernatural one. During the Dover trial, pro-ID microbiologist Scott Minnich was asked “whether intelligent design requires the action of a supernatural creator,” and replied, “It does not.” (Day 20 PM Testimony, pp. 45-46.)

Likewise, William Dembski writes that “design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the competence of science and must be left to religion and philosophy,” (The Design Revolution, p. 42 (2004)) and explains with Jonathan Wells that “[e]xplanations that call on intelligent causes require no miracles but cannot be reduced to materialistic explanations.” (The Design of Life, pp. 13-14 (2008).)

Similarly, Michael Behe writes that “as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase hypothesis non fingo [to make no hypothesis].” (“The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis,” Philosophia Christi, Vol. 3, p. 165 (2001).)

The reasons why ID merely appeals to intelligence and not to the “supernatural” are principled rather than rhetorical. As explained earlier, we have observation-based experience with intelligence, showing us that intelligence is the cause of high CSI. This allows us to scientifically detect intelligent causation when we find CSI in nature. But we have no observation-based experience with the supernatural, and thus a scientific investigation which detects high CSI in nature can infer intelligent causation, but such a scientific investigation could not go so far as to specify that the intelligence is supernatural. ID is thus a positive argument that, contrary to Miller’s words, does not merely argue that “if evolution is incorrect, the answer must be design.” (Day 1 PM Testimony, pp. 15, 36-37.) In contrast, ID uses a positive argument and respects the boundaries of science: it merely appeals to intelligence, does not try to go beyond what the data can tell us and determine whether the designer is natural or supernatural.

Good scholarship always tries critique one’s opponents’ actual and strongest arguments rather than merely tearing down straw men caricatures. Unfortunately, Dr. Miller is notorious for using the latter approach rather than the former when attacking ID. As Michael Behe observes:

In philosophy there is something called the “principle of charitable reading.” In a nutshell it means that one should construe an author’s argument in the best way possible, so that the argument is engaged in its strongest form. Unfortunately, in my experience Miller does the opposite — call it the “principle of malicious reading.” He ignores (or doesn’t comprehend) context, ignores (or doesn’t comprehend) the distinctions an author makes, and construes the argument in the worst way possible.

In Only a Theory, Miller claims, “The most sincere compliment anyone can pay to a scientific idea is to take it seriously.” (p. 44) Does Dr. Miller show any indication that he takes ID seriously?

B. Truth or Dare: Why does Dr. Miller misrepresent ID as a negative argument against evolution that appeals to the supernatural when so many leading ID proponents have made it clear that ID has a strong positive argument and appeal to an intelligent cause, not a supernatural one? Is he informing his audiences about the actually theory of ID as promoted by its proponents? Does Dr. Miller feel that the actual arguments of ID proponents are too strong, so he must twist them, dodge them, and tear down straw men?

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.



Ken Miller