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The Identity of the Designer: How to Avoid an Incoherent Criticism of Intelligent Design

Casey Luskin

An astute ID-friendly e-mail correspondent read my recent article examining Frank Ravitch’s error-laden book Marketing Intelligent Design, and sent me the following observation:

In short, the ID deniers try to engage us in a game where heads they win and tails we lose. If we affirm, for example, that the God of the Bible is a very good and logical fit for the agent whose obvious power and intelligence is manifest in the universe they accuse us of “dragging” religion into the scientific realm where it has no place! And if we studiously avoid any reference to who the designer is they accuse of venal dishonesty.

This is dead-right. You can’t attack ID for identifying, but also for not identifying, the designer. Both criticisms can’t be valid.

I remember first encountering this incoherent way of criticizing ID during the Dover Trial in 2005 when I was answering incessant, poorly framed objections from reporters. It was there that I also realized there are simple and correct answers readily available to be given to such objections:

ID proponents do not refuse to say who we think the designer is. For example, I’m very open that I believe the designer is the God of the Bible, and if you read the writings of many other leading ID proponents, it isn’t hard to discern their personal beliefs either. But nobody who understands ID would say that such claims about the identity of the designer are the conclusions of ID. My belief that the designer is God is my own personal religious viewpoint, and not a conclusion of the scientific theory of intelligent design. In fact, there are people in the ID movement who, like me, find the scientific case for design compelling, even though they have very different views about the identity of the designer. Some are Jews. Some are Muslims. Some are individuals of Eastern religious persuasions. Some of them are even atheists or agnostics. It’s pretty clear that accepting ID does not entail a particular view about the identity of the designer.

So when ID theory itself declines to try to identify the designer, it isn’t a matter of being coy. Rather, ID limits its claims to what can be learned from a scientific investigation the data. The data may allow an inference to an intelligent cause, but specifying the identity of the designer may go beyond what a scientific investigation can reveal. Thus, ID stays silent on such questions.

So what does ID claim? ID claims we can scientifically detect the prior action of intelligent causes, and it makes those claims using the scientific method. Since we have observation-based experience with the causal abilities of intelligent causes, we are scientifically justified in inferring intelligent causation when we observe the known-effects of intelligent causation in nature. (This link explains this process in much more detail.) But if you go further and try to specify the identity or precise nature of the designer, you might be going beyond what the data can tell you. Thus, ID respects the limits of science and only infers intelligent causation.

To put it another way, the empirical data — such as the information-rich, integrated complexity of the flagellar machine — may scientifically indicate that the flagellum arose by intelligent design. But as far as we can tell, that same empirical data does not tell us whether the intelligence that designed the flagellum is Yahweh, Allah, Buddha, Yoda, or some other type of intelligent agency. Since the theory of ID is based solely upon empirical data, it must remain silent on such questions.


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.



designerDover trialFrank Ravitchintelligent designMichael YarusPaul NelsonRichard DawkinsStephen Meyer