Late last year we were sent a review copy of Intelligible Design: A Realistic Approach to the Philosophy and History of Science, published by the prominent World Scientific (2014). The book is a collection of philosophical, historical, mathematical, and scientific essays on design in nature. Many of the chapters are written by scientists from outside the United States, with Spain being especially well represented, who are friendly to intelligent design. However, not all of the chapters defend ID. Some of the authors critique ID, or claim it’s impossible to scientifically detect design in nature. But even the criticisms are thoughtful, making this volume a worthy addition to anyone’s collection of ID-related books.
In Chapter 1, Julio Gonzalo, one of the book’s co-editors who is also a physicist at Universidad San Pablo-CEU de Madrid, Spain, argues that the history of science and religion shows religion was very important in the development of science, and that science could only have developed in the Christianized West. He argues that the “Middle Ages” were not the “dark ages” they’re often presumed to be, but in fact were a period of great intellectual advancement, laying the foundation for scientific revolutions to come. The book’s other co-editor, Manuel Carreira, a physicist at Universidad Pontifica de Comillas, Spain, continues the argument in Chapter 2. He shows that only a Judeo-Christian conception of transcendent monotheism supported the rise of modern science. Later, Gonzalo argues that the indeterminate nature of quantum mechanics does not mean we live in an undesigned universe, but rather that the “intelligibility” of quantum mechanics is friendly to theism. He argues that design is detectable in the Big Bang, and that we live in a contingent, “created universe.” (p. 122)
Manuel Alfonseca (an electrical engineer and computer scientist) argues in Chapter 4 that there are limits to what science can discover. This chapter commences one of the threads in the book that are critical of intelligent design, though it’s a substantive and civil criticism. Alfonseca maintains that mathematician Greg Chaitin has proved an “incompleteness theorem” similar to Kurt G�del’s work, showing that it’s impossible to detect chance or design with 100% certainty. The argument is roughly as follows: The digits of pi fulfill all of the tests for randomness devised by top statisticians. But obviously the digits aren’t random. Thus, he argues “in our world, we also are, and always will be, unable to distinguish chance from providence.” (p. 71) Other chapters repeat this critique. I’ll explain what’s wrong with it in a moment.
In the next chapter Fernando Sols, a physicist at Universidad de Complutense de Madrid, picks up Alfonseca’s point that Chaitin’s work shows “the debate on the presence or absence of finality in nature is fundamentally outside the scope of the scientific method, although it may have philosophical interest. … Intelligent design may be an interesting philosophical or theological proposal, but not a scientific one. We will argue that the same can be said about the absence of design.” (pp. 99, 105) Sols and Alfonseca agree that both “chance” and “design” alike are ultimately unscientific postulates.
Here’s the problem: Sols and Alfonseca are both physics and math experts who deal in highly empirical (not historical) fields where very high standards of proof are taken for granted. Indeed, some might argue that math can reach standards of 100% proof. They aren’t historical scientists who are familiar with admittedly lower accepted standards of scientific proof in fields like geology, evolutionary biology, or intelligent design. They thus refuse to accept a conclusion as “scientific” if they can’t have essentially absolute proof. They don’t realize that short of such ironclad proof, you can still reasonably affirm, using scientific methods, conclusions that are an “inference to the best explanation.” An “inference to the best explanation” can be a perfectly legitimate scientific conclusion within the historical sciences.
Sols and Alfonseca are correct that we can’t absolutely prove design or chance with 100% certainty; I just disagree that this makes either conclusion “unscientific,” at least when we’re not dealing with final causes. In fact, I like the close of Sols’s chapter, where he imagines a hypothetical dialogue or debate between an ID-proponent and a materialist:
We are led to conclude that the debate about the presence or absence of finality lies outside the scope of the scientific method. Returning to our previous contenders, it is clear that, even if they are able to agree about the apparent random or non-random character of the sequences, the debater in a weak position always has an argument to deny the apparently winning interpretation. We have argued that the apparent irreducibility of the chance-design debate is actually fundamental, since it can be regarded as a consequence of Gödel’s theorems. (p. 116)
Why is it that either proponent “deny” the other’s view? In Sols’s view, the ID advocate can always say it may look random, but the designer could “simulate randomness” (p. 115), and perhaps God made it look that way. And the materialist could still roll out the excuse that though a natural structure may look designed, “with a nonzero probability, a randomly generated sequence may happen to show some repetitive patterns.” (p. 115)
The participants in this dialogue never engage ID’s empirical methods of detecting design. And they don’t acknowledge that the theory of ID doesn’t deal in absolute “final” causes, but rather with an inference to the best explanation — inferring either the efficient cause of material mechanisms, or intelligent causation. We can scientifically refute design while leaving open the possibility that in a final or ultimate sense, there might still be design. In fact, that’s the difference between intelligent design as a scientific hypothesis, and design as a theological doctrine. The theory of intelligent design claims to be the former, not the latter. In any case, Sols and Alfonseca seem to miss that just because one cannot absolutely prove a “final” cause, that doesn’t mean you can’t infer that one efficient cause is better than another.
However, in grappling with humanity’s ability to “deny” design as a final cause, I think they’ve stumbled upon a truth taught by the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans. Paul says that God has given plenty of natural evidence of design, but we have a choice to accept the best evidence for design, or to deny and “suppress” it. This is a consequence of the free will and free choice with which God also endows us. The evidence in nature is there, but people are still free to deny design as an ultimate cause if they choose. Absolute proof, of the kind found in mathematics, would constrain that freedom on these crucial questions. That doesn’t mean that the evidence for design in nature isn’t clear and compelling, and can positively yield a scientific inference to design using historical scientific methods of the “inference to the best explanation.”
Chapter 8, by Thomas Fowler and Daniel Kuebler, and Chapter 12 by Fowler, offer a history of evolutionary thinking and ID-based thought, as well as surveys of the various views in the origins debate. They correctly note that ID accepts “virtually all of modern science, especially physical sciences such as astronomy and geology” (p. 250) and that the ID movement “aided, by a number of publications and think tanks, has quickly become a formidable participant in the debate” (p. 152). They focus on many of the scientific criticisms of Darwinism, both in Darwin’s day and in our own.
The conclusion of Fowler’s Chapter 12 throws out a challenge to ID, saying: “The key issue for the Intelligent Design School is this: Can restrictions on generation of new information (and thus on system, process and structure complexity) by random biological mechanisms be demonstrated scientifically? i.e., can ID show that the above-mentioned gaps exist. The Intelligent Design School has to deliver on this issue!” (p. 244) The challenge is fair, but I’d like to think that ID has already met — and is continuing to meet — this challenge, given all the research being done showing that unguided mutational mechanisms are insufficient to produce many basic protein-to-protein conversions. Stephen Meyer reviews a lot of this research in Chapters 9 through 12 of Darwin’s Doubt.
A thoughtful volume like Intelligible Design, with worthy contributors from a variety of scientific fields, shows that design in nature is a serious question being debated — and advocated — by scientists and scholars around the world.