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Revisiting the Positive Case for Intelligent Design

Evolution News


By Casey Luskin
Recently I’ve had two encouraging discussions about the positive case for design. The first took place at the recent conference at Wheaton College where one of the speakers called intelligent design a “God of the gaps” argument. He didn’t intend that as a criticism, but afterwards we got into a friendly discussion about how ID is not a “gaps-based” argument after all, since there is a positive case for design that doesn’t depend on negating evolution, or pointing out a “gap” in our knowledge.
The second conversation came just after the Tennessee academic freedom law passed, when an ID-friendly science teacher e-mailed me. The teacher had seen my article explaining why ID is not covered by the law, but he asked the following question (paraphrased): If teachers are allowed to critique evolution, then in doing so aren’t they teaching intelligent design?
I replied to the question with a resounding no, in three parts.
First, it’s very easy to give scientific critiques of neo-Darwinian evolution (especially as it’s taught in textbooks) without necessarily getting into ID. For example, without talking about intelligent design, you can discuss the fact that textbooks overstate the degree of similarity between vertebrate embryos and overstate the case for common descent. Or you can talk about how some features of organisms cannot be built in a step-by-step Darwinian fashion, likewise without any mention of intelligent design. Or you can talk about how the genetic data does not fit into a grand tree of life without saying a thing about intelligent design.
Second, scientists commonly debate the evidence for and against a theory, without necessarily offering an alternative, or replacement theory. Thus in science, sometimes the best conclusion you can draw is simply, “The evidence points in different directions, and right now, we just don’t know for sure.” In a classroom, this can be a great place to leave things. It will get students thinking about these questions and stimulate their interest in science.
Third, the argument for intelligent design is not a mere critique of evolution. Logically, we don’t establish intelligent design merely by negating evolution. After all, evidence against one theory is not necessarily evidence for another theory. Rather, to infer design, we have to make a positive case for it.
Intelligent design is a scientific theory that holds some aspects of life and the universe are best explained by reference to an intelligent cause. Why? Because they contain the type of complexity and information that in our experience comes only from intelligence.
As a result, intelligent-design theorists begin by studying how intelligent agents act when they design things. Intelligence is a process, or a mechanism, which we can observe at work in the world around us. Human designers make a great dataset for studying how intelligent agency works.
When we study the actions of humans, we learn that intelligent agents produce high levels of complex and specified information (CSI). Something is complex if it’s unlikely, and specified if it matches some independent pattern. William Dembski and Stephen Meyer explain that in our experience, only intelligent agents produce this type of information:

  • “[T]he defining feature of intelligent causes is their ability to create novel information and, in particular, specified complexity.” (William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence, p. xiv (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2002).)
  • “Agents can arrange matter with distant goals in mind. In their use of language, they routinely ‘find’ highly isolated and improbable functional sequences amid vast spaces of combinatorial possibilities.” (Stephen C. Meyer, “The Cambrian Information Explosion,” in Debating Design (edited by Michael Ruse and William Dembski; Cambridge University Press 2004).)

  • Meyer further explains that in our experience, only intelligence produces high levels of CSI:

    [W]e have repeated experience of rational and conscious agents — in particular ourselves — generating or causing increases in complex specified information, both in the form of sequence-specific lines of code and in the form of hierarchically arranged systems of parts. … 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.” (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).)

    Thus, in our experience, high levels of complex and specified information — such as in codes and languages — arise only from intelligence. By assessing whether natural structures contain the type of complexity — high CSI — that in our experience comes only from intelligence, we can construct a positive, testable case for design.
    And what happens when we study nature? Well, the past 60 years of biology research have uncovered that life is fundamentally based upon:

    • A vast amount of complex and specified information encoded in a biochemical language;
    • A computer-like system of commands and codes that processes the information.
    • Molecular machines and multi-machine systems.

    But where in our experience do things like language, complex and specified information, programming code, or machines come from? They have one and only one known source: intelligence.
    As I previously noted, Tennessee’s new academic freedom law wouldn’t protect teachers who explain the argument for design, because the law only protects teaching ideas that are already part of the curriculum, and ID isn’t in the curriculum anywhere in Tennessee. If teachers simply critique evolution, that is not equivalent to teaching ID, because ID is not based upon a mere negation of Darwinian evolution. There’s an extremely important positive case that, in making an argument for design, is always necessary.
    Photo credit: John Goode/flickr.