Recently I attended an informal philosophy discussion group including both theists and atheists. The topic for the meeting was whether intelligent design qualifies as science or not. After I presented my handout to the group showing that ID is indeed a scientific theory, we had a cordial conversation, with a healthy mixture of pro-ID and anti-ID viewpoints being expressed. Toward the end of the meeting, a few participants still complained that intelligent design is in fact a faith-based position. By that, they meant that it unscientifically assumes design at the outset. Are they right?
I’ve spoken to many atheists and atheist groups over the years. Wherever I go, even after carefully explaining how ID uses the scientific method, I always find a couple of people who stick to the unyielding position that ID is “faith-based.” When I press them to identify where exactly in my argument I have invoked any religious belief at all, I never get a precise answer. Instead, they simply assure me that ID assumes design, and therein lies the role of faith.
That is a great misunderstanding of ID.
Intelligent design works like any other historical scientific theory. It doesn’t assume that the theory will be true at the outset; rather, it tests the evidence from nature to assess whether the theory is true or false. Though design advocates conclude (after detailed scientific investigations) that certain features of nature were designed, ID’s starting point is agnostic. At the beginning of its investigation, ID takes no position on whether scientifically detectable design is actually present. ID seeks to test that the design hypothesis. It never assumes it is true. Here’s how it does that.
Before formulating a theory to explain natural phenomena, historical scientists make observations of the natural world. They seek to identify causes that are otherwise known to be in operation. In ID’s case, theorists study intelligence to understand the types of information and complexity that intelligent agents generate.
Next, a historical scientific theory uses those observations to formulate hypotheses or predictions about what we should find in nature if the theory is correct (or, if it’s incorrect). In this way, ID postulates that if natural structures were designed, we will find high levels of complex and specified information, or CSI.
Finally, scientists perform experimental tests on natural systems to determine if the hypothesis or predictions are confirmed or disconfirmed. As one example, ID proponents conduct mutational sensitivity tests on proteins, the building blocks of molecular machines that function in the cell. They have found that proteins are rich in CSI. If the predictions and hypotheses are confirmed, then the scientists conclude — tentatively, subject to future studies — that their model is correct.
That’s the scientific method of seeking truth. It is not “faith-based.” Rather, it tries to minimize starting assumptions and let’s nature speak to us on its own terms.
True, every scientific theory that has ever existed begins at least by assuming it is possible that the theory is correct. It also assumes it’s possible that the theory is incorrect, and that the evidence can help us decide which is the case.
Assuming that it’s possible that a theory is correct is different from assuming that a theory is correct. If scientists didn’t assume that it’s possible that a theory is correct, then they’d never be able to go out into nature in search of evidence. It is that evidence, not “faith,” that will determine whether the theory is sound or unsound, supported or refuted.
In these respects, ID is no different from any scientific theory. At the outset, ID theorists assume that it’s possible we will be able to scientifically detect design in nature. We also assume it’s possible that we won’t detect design. Studies of nature will decide the matter.
I think this helps explain why some misguided critics adamantly insist that ID is faith-based. The problem is that they are not minimizing their own starting assumptions. Instead, they assume that there is no design in nature, and that material causes must explain everything. Because they so heavily privilege materialistic explanations, in their minds they think that anyone who even admits the possibility of design is starting from a non-neutral position.
They’re wrong. Rather, it’s these ID-critics who are starting off in the non-neutral position. By presupposing that material causes are correct in all cases, they are blinded even to the possibility of non-material causation. They thus perceive anyone who is not similarly blinded as being biased or promoting “faith-based” ideas. If you even allow the possibility of design, in their minds, you’re promoting faith. In reality, these materialists are the ones who are “faith-based.” Before weighing the evidence, they assume that nature is material causes all the way down.
To be fair, not all atheists and materialists think like this. Many critics of ID admit that it’s possible that intelligent design could be correct, and that we should let scientific studies of nature decide the question. They may not be convinced by the evidence for design, but they’re open to considering the possibility of its being true.
So how do you move a close-minded materialist who cannot allow the possibility of design into the position of an open-minded materialist who is at least willing to allow the evidence to speak for itself? The task isn’t easy. I have found among materialists a high correlation between those who claim ID is faith-based and those who engage in strident name-calling and mockery, railing against ID with its supposed ties to “conservative politics,” and generally being unwilling to engage in thoughtful dialogue. I saw a little bit of that during the discussion group in which I recently participated.
Sadly, people like this have usually stopped seeking truth — and their problem with ID is not really about the scientific evidence. If there’s a solution, it involves being patient and friendly. A touch of grace is needed. After all, try as we might to remain objective, no one is entirely unmoved by bias and partiality. Remembering our common human tendency to err might just give us the dose of humility needed to reach those whose biases otherwise prevent them from seeking, and finding, the truth.
Image: � creative soul / Dollar Photo Club.