If intelligent design is dead, why do critics have to keep killing it? This is the question I would pose to Huffington Post author Paul Wallace, who replied to my comment that “Rumors of ID’s death are greatly exaggerated” by stating that “ID has no future” because, supposedly, it’s a rehashed god-of-the-gaps argument.
Wallace tells the story of the great mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, who in the 17th century rejected “special creation” in favor of material explanations for the birth of a star. According to Wallace:
He began to consider special creation: a deliberate, separate act of God unconnected with any other natural event, direct and special tinkering by the divine hand. But in the end he withdrew from that conclusion, writing “before we come to [special] creation, which puts an end to all discussion, I think we should try everything else.” Over 400 years ago, Kepler understood that to claim special creation is to put an end to scientific inquiry.
Wallace’s critique of ID is misinformed on many levels.
First, ID proponents don’t view natural explanations as necessarily excluding design. If Wallace were familiar with ID arguments, he would realize that ID proponents argue for the fine-tuning of the natural laws of the universe which allow for life and point to cosmic design. From an ID perspective, the fact that stars can be born at all is the result of the intelligently designed fine-tuning of a myriad of physical laws and constants.
But there’s a catch that Wallace misses: those natural universal laws are necessary but not sufficient for life to exist. Thus, while in some instances natural laws themselves may give evidence of design, in other biological cases we can detect design by finding features that (1) go well beyond the capacities of natural causes, and (2) exhibit telltale signs of intelligent agency (such as being the product of foresight). This leads to the second problem with Wallace’s argument.
Wallace conflates ID with “special creation,” but ID doesn’t claim that we have to invoke special creation to detect design by finding evidence of foresight and planning in nature.
Wallace mentions special creation because this was a feature of the predominant worldview in Kepler’s era. But Kepler lived at a time when methods for detecting design had not yet been rigorously developed. William Dembski explains why modern methods of inferring design are a beginning, not an end, of scientific inquiry:
What has kept design outside the scientific mainstream these last 130 years is the absence of precise methods for distinguishing intelligently caused objects from unintelligently caused ones. For design to be a fruitful scientific theory, scientists have to be sure they can reliably determine whether something is designed. Johannes Kepler, for instance, thought the craters on the moon were intelligently designed by moon dwellers. We now know the craters were formed naturally. This fear of falsely attributing something to design only to have it overturned later has prevented design from entering science proper. With precise methods for discriminating intelligently from unintelligently caused objects, scientists are now able to avoid Kepler’s mistake.
(William A. Dembski, “Introduction: Mere Creation,” in Mere Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design, p. 16 (InterVarsity Press, 1998).)
Dembski’s point is crucial: if we can reliably detect intelligent causes, then intelligent design is a proper subject of scientific inquiry. And what we find in biology is far more complex than craters on the moon. In 2012, we know that life is fundamentally based upon a language-based code, information-processing, and molecular machines. What in our experience produces language, computer-like commands, and machines? Only intelligence.
Finally, it’s ironic that Wallace cites Kepler as an opponent of design, since Kepler argued that some natural phenomena (e.g., craters on the moon) are best explained by intelligence. So Kepler was not always the friend of strictly materialistic explanations that Wallace claims he was.
Of course Kepler turned out to be wrong about moon craters, but this didn’t prevent other scientists from developing accurate naturalistic explanations for them. This is a key point: If ID turns out to be wrong, that doesn’t mean that, as Wallace charges, ID would somehow bring an “end to scientific inquiry.” Rather, like any scientific theory, ID is held tentatively, subject to future scientific discoveries.
Why then should we assume, as Wallace does, that ID is always the wrong answer? Let’s turn the question around: What if ID is the correct explanation? If that’s the case, then it is critics like Wallace that refuse to consider ID who are bringing an “end to scientific inquiry.”
In essence, Wallace’s charge is that ID is a “god-of-the-gaps” argument. In its place, however, he advocates a materialism-of-the-gaps argument that holds we can never trust science to properly infer design.
In contrast, ID rejects “gaps” thinking of all forms. It tries to explain observed phenomena based upon what we do know, not what we don’t. And we know that in experience, language, information-rich code, and machines all arise by intelligent causes.
Perhaps in some cases material causes are the best explanations. Perhaps in others the best explanation is design. Perhaps in some, both material causes and intelligent design are part of the explanation. ID does not end science but rather adds another explanatory tool to science’s toolkit which can help us gain new scientific knowledge. And given that intelligence is the only known cause of language, programming code, and machines, it’s probable that many aspects of life are the result of design.
In Kepler’s Somnium, he wrote, “when things are in order, if the cause of the orderliness cannot be deduced from the motion of the elements or from the composition of matter, it is quite probably a cause possessing a mind.”
While Kepler was wrong to infer a mind when studying lunar craters, he was right that science can detect design. Today, whether we’re talking about the physical laws and constants of the universe, or the highly ordered specified and complex information in DNA, I think Kepler would agree we should infer design. For Paul Wallace to suggest that Kepler would have denied science the right to infer design betrays Kepler’s actual arguments.