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Why Do Theistic Evolutionist Theologians All Seem to Have Exactly the Same Misconceptions About Intelligent Design?

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Over and over, theistic evolutionists seem to repeat the same misunderstandings about intelligent design. For some reason this is true especially of theistic evolutionary theologians. They consistently appear unfamiliar with what ID theorists say, wrongly maintaining that ID is a “God of the gaps” argument. Their particular wrinkle on this is to claim ID holds that if we don’t detect design, then God is absent from the process. Not for the first time, I am going to try to help clarify what ID is, and what ID isn’t.

Last December, over at Patheos, theologian Peter Enns tried to critique intelligent design. He wrote along these familiar lines:

ID research is dedicated to finding and exploiting alleged “gaps” where a naturalistic evolutionary processes would collapse in on itself were it not for God’s direct intervention. A classic example of defending this “God of the gaps” approach is the allegedly “irreducibly complex” motor of the bacterial flagellum.

Sounding much the same, theologian Neil Ormerod more recently claimed over at BioLogos that ID says “chance is incompatible with divine design” and he mischaracterized ID as offering the following argument:

Dawkins’s rejection of a creator God is linked to the position that God cannot be involved in random processes.

On the other hand I think we can find the same assumption operative in those who adopt the position of Intelligent Design. Their argument is as follows:

  • chance is not enough to explain the process of evolution (for which they provide apparent evidence, viz., irreducible complexity);
  • the only way to fix the gaps in the evolutionary process is to posit an Intelligent Designer who intervenes in the system;
  • therefore God is still a viable option.

I appreciate Dr. Enns’s and Dr. Ormerod’s civil tone, and I’m sure they made all these arguments in good faith. Nonetheless, there is a lot of confusion on their part about what ID is. You get the strong sense that they are critiquing ID without having really studied it.

First, ID is not about finding “gaps.” We don’t infer design based upon what we don’t know, but rather upon what we do know about the cause of information-rich systems, such as irreducibly complex machines. Irreducibly complex features contain high levels of complex and specified information (CSI), and we know from experience that high-CSI systems arise from the action of an intelligent agent. Stephen Meyer and Scott Minnich explain:

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. … Indeed, 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.

(Scott A. Minnich & Stephen C. Meyer, “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, p. 8 (M.W. Collins & C.A. Brebbia eds., 2004).)

Or, as Meyer says:

[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, 117(2):213-239 (2004).)

Thus, we don’t infer design based upon merely “finding and exploiting alleged ‘gaps.'” Indeed, in making their claim, Drs. Enns and Ormerod appear to presuppose that all “gaps” will be filled by evolutionary mechanisms. So by making the “God of the gaps” charge, they are essentially committing a “Darwin of the gaps” fallacy.

Second, ID isn’t an argument for “God,” but simply for an intelligent cause. Sure, many folks in the ID movement (myself included) believe the designer is God, but we don’t claim this as a scientific matter. Religious believers among us have other reasons. As a science ID doesn’t claim to identify the intelligence responsible for life.

The refusal of ID proponents to draw scientific conclusions about the nature or identity of the designer is principled rather than merely rhetorical. There is no known scientific method for identifying the intelligent source responsible for design in nature. While the information in DNA points to an intelligent cause, that information by itself cannot scientifically tell you whether the intelligence is Jehovah, Allah, Buddha, Yoda, or some other intelligent source.

Why? ID is primarily a historical science, meaning it uses principles of uniformitarianism to study present-day causes and then applies them to the historical record in order to infer the best explanation for natural phenomena. ID begins with observations about how intelligent agents work. We observe that such intelligence is the sole known cause of high-CSI systems. This uniform sensory experience of the world makes intelligence an appropriate explanatory cause within historical scientific fields. Using the principle of uniformitarianism, this allows us to detect the activity of intelligence in the natural world.

These methods often allow ID to detect the action of an intelligent cause, but to identify the cause as “God” would go beyond what the scientific data tell us. Science may infer the prior action of intelligence, but it does not and cannot determine whether the intelligence was supernatural. Why not? Because both natural and supernatural designers would produce high levels of CSI. Nothing about high CSI allows further discrimination between a natural and supernatural source. Since ID is based solely upon empirical data, respecting the limits of scientific inquiry, it must remain silent on such questions.

Peter Enns doesn’t seem to appreciate that ID approaches these questions from a scientific standpoint. He doesn’t realize ID isn’t a theological doctrine, even if it provides insights about nature that are interesting to theologians. He writes:

The common response to ID by theistic evolutionists is that God is actually part of what is erroneously called a ‘naturalistic’ process. Evolution, it is argued (and I agree), is God’s way of creating. Of course, there can be all sorts of philosophical baggage attached to evolution — e.g., that a naturalistic process disproves God, etc. But such philosophical conclusions are rooted, I would argue, in the same mistaken notion that “God’s involvement” is necessarily of an interventionist kind.

Again, this badly misunderstands ID. Dr. Enns doesn’t define what he means by “evolution,” and he doesn’t explain how God uses “evolution” to create. However, for the sake of the argument, I’ll leave all that alone. Here’s the relevant point: whether it was God “using” mutation and selection or not, we know on scientific grounds that the mechanism of natural selection acting on random variation has limits, and cannot generate irreducibly complex features. Darwin himself wrote:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.

But we do know of a cause that generates high CSI systems that can’t be built in a stepwise manner: intelligence. So we rightly infer intelligent “intervention,” if you will, when we find irreducibly complex systems.

Finally, Drs. Enns and Ormerod make another mistake common among theistic evolutionists. They claim that ID says God cannot be involved in overseeing natural processes that involve chance and/or law. Enns thus writes, “The common response to ID by theistic evolutionists is that God is actually part of what is erroneously called a ‘naturalistic’ process.” He thinks that ID proponents would say that if we can’t detect “interventionist” design, then God is not “actually part” of the process. Ormerod likewise claims that ID adopts “the same assumption” of Dawkins, that “God cannot be involved in random processes” — chance events which Ormerod then links to “secondary causes.” This is not at all what ID proponents (those who are theists) would say. I’ve already explained this in response to BioLogos’s Dennis Venema when he made the same mistake.

Enns and Ormerod paint ID as bad theology, as if ID advocates denied that God is the author of all nature when God uses “secondary” or “natural” causes. But as a scientific theory, ID does not make theological claims of any kind. Thus, as a science, ID never claims that if we observe the ongoing, regular and repeatable activity of “naturalistic” processes, then somehow God is, theologically speaking, absent from the process. ID theorists properly leave such questions to theologians.

Indeed, ID proponents who believe in God never deny that God can use secondary material “natural” causes to achieve his will. In those instances, the science of ID would simply say that material causes are the best explanation. ID therefore does not “eliminate the possibility of divine action” (as Venema put it) when “we use science to understand natural cause and effect.” Indeed, ID proponents have often inferred design from the fine-tuning of the laws that govern the universe and make it friendly for life. Indeed, this is an area where the perspective represented by BioLogos supposedly agrees with intelligent design. Thus,

Enns’s description of ID is backwards: In the contexts of physics and cosmology, the actions of natural laws themselves can trigger a design inference.

Again, the key is to understand that ID is a scientific theory and not a theological doctrine. When ID theorists look for scientifically detectable design at the biological level, they often treat natural causes as background. So the biological design that’s detected normally involves features that (1) go well beyond the capacities of natural causes, and (2) exhibit known, telltale signs of intelligent agency (again, this is why ID isn’t a “gaps”-based argument). On the other hand, when ID infers a natural cause (e.g., chance, law, or chance and law together), pro-ID theists would simply say God used a natural cause, and would not say that, theologically speaking, God is somehow “absent.” Jay Richards explains this point in his contributions to God and Evolution.

All theists who support ID affirm that God is, in some sense, behind every event. “Natural cause” never means (for theists anyway) “not caused by God.” I’m not aware of any ID theorist (who is also a theist) who has ever said otherwise. When we scientifically infer a natural cause, that might mean we don’t scientifically detect design, but it doesn’t mean that we theologically claim God is somehow absent.
This leads to the question, why does ID critique theistic naturalism, and how does ID contrast with theistic evolution?

Theistic naturalism isn’t merely the view that God at times (or even most of the time) works through natural causes. Rather, theistic naturalism assumes that God must only use natural causes and is never allowed to work in other ways that might break the ongoing, regular and repeatable activity of natural laws — or at least that we can never confidently say that God used a non-natural cause. Enns expresses this view (sort of) when he denies our ability to detect God’s “intervention” in nature, and presupposes that “gaps” in our knowledge will be filled with evolutionary mechanisms.

ID rejects such a priori views. ID is entirely compatible with the view that God at times (or even most of the time) works through natural causes. But ID isn’t pre-committed to answers about how God must have acted in all cases, and leaves open the possibility that sometimes God doesn’t use “natural” causes, and has “intervened” in nature. ID simply wants to follow the evidence where it leads. That’s the nature of good science.

By contrast, theistic naturalism insists that if God exists, he must always use secondary material causes, and is never allowed to act in nature in a scientifically detectable way. The reason ID proponents critique naturalism (whether theistic naturalism or otherwise) is because it presupposes materialistic answers to all questions about how life arose and diversified. That is bad empirical science.

I would say it’s bad theology too, but I leave that question to theologians. I try to focus on what I know: in this case, science. I recommend the same approach to theistic evolutionists. One thing is for sure: Theistic evolutionists would do well to familiarize themselves with ID arguments before they critique ID as a “gaps”-based argument which claims that if we don’t detect design, then God is absent.

Photo source: Josí María Mateos/Flickr.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, 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.



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