Faith & Science
Ten Myths About Dover: #7 "The Dover Case Showed ID Is ‘Religious’ and a Form of ‘Creationism’"
Editor’s note: The Kitzmiller v. Dover decision has been the subject of much media attention and many misinterpretations from pro-Darwin lobby groups. With the tenth anniversary of Kitzmiller approaching on December 20, Evolution News offers a series of ten articles debunking common myths about the case. Look here for Myths 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10.
On December 21, 2005, the day after the Dover ruling was issued, The New York Times reported:
A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that it was unconstitutional for a Pennsylvania school district to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in high school biology courses because it is a religious viewpoint that advances “a particular version of Christianity.”
To show this, the article quoted a portion of Judge Jones’s ruling. But is ID actually religious? Is it a form of Christianity? We can immediately see that it is not since there are ID proponents who are not Christian or even not religious. How could these individuals unite around intelligent design if it were a “version of Christianity”?
Likewise, we can immediately see that ID arguments are scientific, and not religious, because they use the scientific method to make their claims. The scientific method is often described as a four-step process involving observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion. ID uses this methodology in making its claims:
- Observation: The ways that intelligent agents act can be observed in the natural world and described. When intelligent agents act, it is observed that they produce high levels of “complex-specified information” (CSI). CSI is basically a scenario that is unlikely to happen (making it complex), and that conforms to an independent pattern (making it specified). From our understanding of the world, high levels of CSI are always the product of intelligent design.
- Hypothesis: If an object in the natural world was designed, then we should be able to examine that object and find the same high levels of CSI that we find in human-designed objects.
- Experiment: We can examine biological structures to test whether high CSI exists. For example, when we look at natural objects in biology, we find many machine-like structures that are specified, because they have a particular arrangement of parts that is necessary for them to function, and complex because they have an unlikely arrangement of many interacting parts. These high-CSI biological machines are “irreducibly complex,” for any change in the nature or arrangement of their parts would destroy their function. Through experiments we can “reverse engineer” such structures and show that they cease to function if a part is removed, showing they are irreducibly complex.
- Conclusion: Because they exhibit high levels of CSI, a quality known to be produced only by intelligent design, and because there is no other known mechanism to explain the origin of “irreducibly complex” biological structures, we conclude that they were intelligently designed.
This argument for design involves no religious premises and is strictly based upon the scientific method. These very sorts arguments were described to Judge Jones in his courtroom by pro-ID biologists Michael Behe and Scott Minnich who served as expert witnesses in the case. For example, Scott Minnich stated:
- “The positive argument is that we know when we find irreducible — irreducibly complex systems or information storage and processing systems, from our own experience of cause and effect, that there is an intelligence associated with it. And so, it is logical to assume, when we find these systems in a cell, if we can — if the flagellum is irreducibly complex, then, yes, there’s an intelligence behind it. That’s a uniformitaria[n] deduction from cause and effect that we know from our everyday … experience.” (Scott Minnich, Nov. 4th AM Testimony, p. 57.)
- “One mutation, one part knocked out, it can’t swim. Put that single gene back in, we restore motility. Same thing over here. We put, knock out one part, put a good copy of the gene back in, and they can swim. By definition the system is irreducibly complex. We’ve done that with all 35 components of the flagellum, and we get the same effect.” (Scott Minnich Testimony, Nov. 3, PM Testimony, pp. 107-108.)
Judge Jones was presented with these strictly scientific arguments as well as experimental evidence showing that ID has used this method. He ignored all of this and ruled that ID is religion. Was his reasoning correct?
In the 1987 Supreme Court ruling Edwards v. Aguillard, the Court held that creationism is a “religious viewpoint” because it holds that a “supernatural creator” made humankind. Attempting to follow Edwards, Judge Jones claimed that “ID requires supernatural creation” and is therefore a form of creationism. But in fact his claim directly contradicts the testimony that was given to him by pro-ID expert witnesses during the trial. Here’s what Scott Minnich testified:
Q. Do you have an opinion as to whether intelligent design requires the action of a supernatural creator?
A. I do.
Q. What is that opinion?
A. It does not.
Q. Does intelligent design require the action of a supernatural creator acting outside the laws of nature?
(Scott Minnich, Nov. 3 PM Testimony, pp. 45-46, 135.)
Similarly Michael Behe testified:
Q. Do you have an opinion as to whether intelligent design requires the action of a supernatural creator?
A. Yes, I do.
Q. And what is that opinion?
A. No, it doesn’t.
(Michael Behe, Oct. 17 AM Testimony, p. 86.)
Behe also testified during the trial:
Q: So is it accurate for people to claim or to represent that intelligent design holds that the designer was God?
Behe: No, that is completely inaccurate.
Q: Well, people have asked you your opinion as to who you believe the designer is, is that correct?
Behe: That is right.
Q: Has science answered that question?
Behe: No, science has not done so.
Q: And I believe you have answered on occasion that you believe the designer is God, is that correct?
Behe: Yes, that’s correct.
Q: Are you making a scientific claim with that answer?
Behe: No, I conclude that based on theological and philosophical and historical factors.
(Michael Behe, October 17 Testimony, AM Session.)
As Behe and Minnich’s testimony shows, intelligent design does not invoke a supernatural creator. Instead, intelligent design invokes intelligent causation. This is precisely because ID wants to take a scientific approach to studying origins, and the methods of science cannot get us to the supernatural.
Sure, many ID proponents have their own personal beliefs about who the designer is. But these are their personal religious beliefs and not a conclusion of intelligent design.
ID as a science isn’t an argument for God because we don’t have observation-based experience with the supernatural. But we do have observation-based experience with intelligent causes. Thus ID can only infer an intelligent cause and cannot argue scientifically for “God.” All of this was explained to Judge Jones in an amicus brief filed by Discovery Institute:
The Theory of Intelligent Design Does Not Postulate a Supernatural Creator and Is Distinct from Creationism
Following Edwards v. Aguillard, plaintiffs argue that, like creationism, the theory of intelligent design is a religious viewpoint because it postulates a “supernatural creator.” But the plaintiffs mischaracterize intelligent design, which does not postulate a supernatural creator, but instead infers only an unspecified designing intelligence. Plaintiffs confuse the propositional content of the theory of intelligent design with the personal religious beliefs of some of the scientists who advocate it.
Of course, many advocates of intelligent design do affirm the existence of a supernatural creator as a matter of personal religious belief, as do many evolutionary biologists, including plaintiffs’ expert Kenneth Miller. But as intelligent design proponents have consistently maintained, the theory itself says nothing about the identity of the intelligent agent who may be responsible for the complexity of life — nor can it do so. See Appendix A.
There is a good scientific reason for this. The analytical tools permitting the detection of a prior intelligent cause, and the biological evidence that justifies the inference to such a cause, are insufficient to determine its identity. For this reason, design theorists carefully distinguish the case for intelligent agency (as the best explanation of biological data) from philosophical or theological speculation regarding the identity of the designing intelligence. Just as an archaeologist can infer the action of an intelligent scribe from a hieroglyphic inscription without knowing the scribe’s identity, so too can a biologist infer a designing intelligence from the information encoded in DNA without knowing its author. By limiting the scope of design theory, design theorists are not seeking to circumvent Edwards v. Aguillard –a canard repeated frequently in the media and by plaintiffs’ experts. Instead, design theorists are merely insisting on scientific rigor by claiming no more than what accepted methods of design detection and the biological evidence can establish. As Michael Behe explains:
I myself do believe in a benevolent God . . . But a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far. Thus while I argue for design, the question of the identity of the designer is left open. Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel–fallen or not; Plato’s demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being. Of course, some of these possibilities may seem more plausible than others based on information from fields other than science. Nonetheless, as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase hypothesis non fingo [I will not speculate].
These arguments for intelligent design at no point rely on or require a supernatural creator. In contrast, creationism begins with sacred texts and makes claims about the supernatural.
In Traipsing Into Evolution, David DeWolf, John West, Jonathan Witt, and I further explained ID’s empirical basis:
As a scientific theory, ID only claims that there is empirical evidence that key features of the universe and living things are the products of an intelligent cause. Whether the intelligent cause involved is inside or outside of nature cannot be decided by empirical evidence alone. That larger question involves philosophy, including metaphysics. … Intelligent causes can be inferred through confirmable data. The types of information produced by intelligent causes can be observed and then measured. Scientists can use observations and experiments to base their conclusions of intelligent design upon empirical evidence. Intelligent design limits its claims to those which can be established through the data.
As Michael Denton rightly stated in Evolution: A Theory in Crisis:
The inference to design is a purely a posteriori induction based on a ruthlessly consistent application of the logic of analogy. The conclusion may have religious implications, but it does not depend on religious presuppositions. (p. 341)
For a further discussion of how ID doesn’t identify the designer, please see:
- “ID Does Not Address Religious Claims About the Supernatural“
- “Is Intelligent Design Theory Really an Argument for “God”?“
- “Why Doesn’t Intelligent Design Identify the Designer?“
- “Straw Men Aside, What Is the Theory of Intelligent Design, Really?“
ID Doesn’t Have Religious Roots
The plaintiffs in the Dover case tried to tie ID to religious scholars. But contrary to John Haught, expert witness for the plaintiff, the arguments of intelligent design do not stem from William Paley or Thomas Aquinas. Intelligent design traces its roots back to ancient Greece and Rome. As the Roman philosopher Cicero noted:
Can any sane person believe that all this array of stars and this vast celestial adornment could have been created out of atoms rushing to and fro fortuitously and at random? or could any other being devoid of intelligence and reason have created them? Not merely did their creation postulate intelligence, but it is impossible to understand their nature without intelligence of a high order.”
Likewise, Jonathan Witt writes:
Opponents of the theory often insist that intelligent design emerged as a conspiracy to circumvent the 1987 Supreme Court decision, Edwards vs. Aguillard. There the Court struck down a Louisiana law promoting the teaching of creation science in public school science classes. The theory of intelligent design, critics insist, is merely a clever end-run around this ruling, biblical creationism in disguise.
The problem with this claim is that intelligent design predates Edwards vs. Aguillard by many years. Its roots stretch back to design arguments made by Socrates and Plato, and even the term “intelligent design” is more than 100 years old. Oxford scholar F.C.S. Schiller employed it in an 1897 essay, writing that “it will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of Evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.”
Indeed, the term “intelligent design” has a rich history that is completely separate from Paley and Aquinas. As I explained in “On the Origin of the Term ‘Intelligent Design’“:
Critics of intelligent design often allege that the term was invented by lawyers to get around the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Edwards v. Aguillard which struck down the teaching of creationism because it referred to a “supernatural creator.” This is plainly wrong, and it can’t hurt to explain, not for the first time, why it is wrong.
The terms “intelligent design” and “intelligent designer” have lengthy histories, long predating 1987. Charles Darwin himself referred to “intelligent design” in a 1861 letter:
One cannot look at this Universe with all living productions & man without believing that all has been intelligently designed; yet when I look to each individual organism, I can see no evidence of this.
In fact, the term was in use throughout the 19th century. A search of Google books from prior to 1900 confirms this, with multiple instances. Here’s one from 1847 in Scientific American:
And where must we look for this fountain but to the great store-house of nature — the innumerable and diversified objects there were presented to our view give evidence of infinite skill and intelligent design in their adaptation to each other and to the nature of man.
Oxford scholar F.C.S. Schiller wrote as early as 1897 that “it will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of Evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.” The term was also used by John Tyndale in 1874 in an address given to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Prominent 19th-century scientists held similar views, including even Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-developer with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection. By the late nineteenth century, Wallace came to believe that natural selection acting on random variations could not explain a number of things in biology, especially the development of the human brain. He concluded that “a Higher Intelligence” guided the process. In 1892, George John Romanes published his book Darwin After Darwin which stated:
- “I have heard an eminent Professor tell his class that the many instances of mechanical adaptation discovered and described by Darwin as occurring in orchids, seemed to him to furnish better proof of supernatural contrivance than of natural causes; and another eminent Professor has informed me that, although he had read the Origin of Species with care, he could see in it no evidence of natural selection which might not equally well have been adduced in favour of intelligent design. But here we meet with a radical misconception of the whole logical attitude of science. For, be it observed, this exception in limine to the evidence which we are about to consider does not question that natural selection may be able to do all that Darwin ascribes to it. The objection is urged against his interpretation of the facts merely on the ground that these facts might equally be ascribed to intelligent design.”
- “Innumerable cases of adaptation of organisms to their environments are the observed facts for which an explanation is required. To supply this explanation, two, and only two, hypotheses are in the field. Of these two hypotheses one is intelligent design manifested directly in special creation; the other is natural causation operating through countless ages of the past.”
- “For it is quite inconceivable that any known cause, other than intelligent design, could be competent to turn out instantaneously anyone or these intricate pieces or machinery, already adapted to the performance or its special function.”
- “Now the question whether organic evolution has been caused by physical agencies or by intelligent design is in precisely the same predicament.”
The modern intelligent design movement arose after the discovery of the DNA code in the 1950s and 1960s. It has been invigorated by the discovery that life is fundamentally based upon a language-based digital code and is full of molecular machines inside all living cells. I further wrote:
[T]he research and ideas that ultimately inspired today’s ID proponents were conceived in the 1960s and 1970s. Highly influential in this respect was the discovery that life depended upon information, whose structure was not only independent of its physical or chemical form, but whose ordering was not amenable to explanation by physical or chemical laws. As the chemist Michael Polanyi wrote in an article, “Life’s Irreducible Structure,” published in the journal Science in 1968:
Suppose that the actual structure of a DNA molecule were due to the fact that the bindings of its bases were much stronger than the bindings would be for any other distribution of bases, then such a DNA molecule would have no information content. Its code-like character would be effaced by an overwhelming redundancy. […] Whatever may be the origin of a DNA configuration, it can function as a code only if its order is not due to the forces of potential energy. It must be as physically indeterminate as the sequence of words is on a printed page.
The term “intelligent design” appears to have been coined in its contemporary scientific usage by the atheist cosmologist Dr. Fred Hoyle. In 1982 he argued that “if one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure of order must be the outcome of intelligent design.” The term “intelligent design” was also used by a non-scientist, James E. Horigan, in his 1979 book Chance or Design? Horigan framed his argument as an empirical one, “without resort to biblical or other religious references,” and without investigating questions about “ultimate purpose.”
Horigan and Hoyle themselves did not become part of the later ID movement, although their ideas were certainly very influential upon those who did. Thus, in 1984 — three years before the Edwards ruling — three scientists who did help found the ID movement published a book, The Mystery of Life’s Origin, argued for an “intelligent cause” behind the origin of the information in DNA:
We have observational evidence in the present that intelligent investigators can (and do) build contrivances to channel energy down nonrandom chemical pathways to bring about some complex chemical synthesis, even gene building. May not the principle of uniformity then be used in a broader frame of consideration to suggest that DNA had an intelligent cause at the beginning?
Those three scientists were Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen. Soon thereafter, Thaxton, a chemist and academic editor for the textbook Of Pandas and People, adopted the term “intelligent design” after hearing it mentioned by a NASA engineer.
So ID proponents started using the term “intelligent design” for reasons having nothing to do with legal concerns. Nor was the term initiated by lawyers.
Jonathan Witt tells the modern history of ID this way:
In By Design, a history of the current design controversy, journalist Larry Witham traces the roots of the contemporary intelligent design movement in biology to the 1950s and ’60s, and the movement itself to the 1970s. Biochemists were unraveling the secret of DNA and discovering that it was part of an elaborate information processing system that included nanotechnology of unparalleled sophistication. One of the first intellectuals to describe the significance of these discoveries was chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, who in 1967 argued that “machines are irreducible to physics and chemistry” and that “mechanistic structures of living beings appear to be likewise irreducible.”
Biochemist Michael Behe would later develop Polanyi’s insights with his concept of irreducible complexity. And mathematician William Dembski would find Polanyi’s work so influential that he would name Baylor University’s Michael Polanyi Center after him.
Polanyi’s work also influenced the seminal 1984 book The Mystery of Life’s Origin by Charles Thaxton (Ph.D., Physical Chemistry, Iowa State University), Walter Bradley (Ph.D., Materials Science, University of Texas, Austin), and Roger Olsen (Ph.D., Geochemistry, Colorado School of Mines). Thaxton and his co-authors argued that matter and energy can accomplish only so much by themselves, and that some things can only “be accomplished through what Michael Polanyi has called ‘a profoundly informative intervention.'”
Unable to show that ID’s published writings refer to a “supernatural creator,” the Dover plaintiffs turned to harping on the motives and religious beliefs of ID proponents. Expert witness for the plaintiffs Barbara Forrest, coauthor of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, testified extensively about the motives and religious beliefs of ID proponents. While all of this is irrelevant to whether ID is science, Judge Jones claimed that Forrest’s testimony provided “a wealth of statements by ID leaders that reveal ID’s religious, philosophical, and cultural content.” Judge Jones even stated, “It is notable that both Professors Behe and Minnich admitted their personal view is that the designer is God.”
But just because some ID proponents happen to be religious doesn’t mean that ID is religion. Of course many ID proponents are Christians. But that’s irrelevant. After all, there are non-religious ID proponents and sympathizers like Thomas Nagel or Bradley Monton. Moreover, if religious (or anti-religious) beliefs matter, then what do we make of the fact that many evolutionists are atheists? Consider the following:
Many critics of intelligent design (ID) have argued that ID is not science due to the alleged religious motives, beliefs, and affiliations of its proponents. Critics may trot out quotes from ID proponents discussing their own personal religious beliefs, motives, and affiliations, or discussing the larger philosophical implications they draw from ID, to allege that ID is not science, but religion. These common attacks against ID are both logically fallacious and highly hypocritical.
First, in science, the motives or personal religious beliefs of scientists don’t matter; only the evidence matters. For example, the great scientists Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton were inspired to their scientific work by their religious convictions that God would create an orderly, rational universe with comprehensible physical laws that governed the motion of the planets. They turned out to be right–not because of their religious beliefs–but because the scientific evidence validated their hypotheses. (At least, Newton was thought to be right until Einstein came along.) Their personal religious beliefs, motives, or affiliations did nothing to change the fact that their scientific theories had inestimable scientific merit that helped form the foundation for modern science.
Second, ID does not have religious premises. If it did, then the famous (now former) atheist Anthony Flew would not have been able to state, as he announced in 2004, that he was convinced that “the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design.” … ID is a scientific argument and not a faith-based argument: “nothing critics can say — whether appealing to politically motivated condemnations of ID issued by pro-Darwin scientific authorities, or harping upon the religious beliefs of ID proponents — will change the fact that intelligent design is not a ‘faith-based’ argument.”
Third, if critics want to harp upon the religious beliefs, motives, affiliations, and implications associated with ID, then they should realize that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Leading proponents of neo-Darwinian evolution frequently discuss their views of the cultural and metaphysical implications of neo-Darwinian evolution. Moreover, many of them have expressed anti-religious beliefs and motives for advocating evolution, and have close ties to atheist and secular humanist organizations.
When critics object to ID based upon the alleged religious motives, beliefs, or affiliations of its proponents, they make a highly hypocritical argument, for many leading Darwinists have blatantly anti-religious motives, beliefs, and affiliations. This observation does NOT thereby disqualify evolution from being scientific. Rather, since neo-Darwinism is a bona fide scientific theory, it shows that the religious or anti-religious motives, beliefs, or affiliations of scientists do not disqualify their scientific views from holding scientific merit.
After reviewing just a few examples of the anti-religious affiliations, beliefs, and motives of many leading proponents of neo-Darwinism, it is difficult to seriously maintain that the religious (or anti-religious) motives, beliefs, or affiliations of scientists, or the larger philosophical implications of a scientific theory, can disqualify a theory from being scientific:
Richard Dawkins is Oxford University’s Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and is probably the most famous evolutionist in the world. Yet Dawkins argues that belief in God is a “delusion” and that “Darwin made it possible to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Dawkins has stated his goal is “to kill religion” and has asserted that “faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”
America’s great champion of evolution, the late Stephen Jay Gould, similarly announced that “[b]efore Darwin, we thought that a benevolent God had created us,” but because of Darwin’s ideas, “biology took away our status as paragons created in the image of God.” Gould repeatedly discussed the “radical philosophical content of Darwin’s message” and its denial of purpose in the universe:
First, Darwin argues that evolution has no purpose. . . . Second, Darwin maintained that evolution has no direction. . . . Third, Darwin applied a consistent philosophy of materialism to his interpretation of nature. Matter is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity.
Darwinists sometimes like to pretend that Gould and Dawkins are outliers in their views. If only that were so.
A 2007 editorial by the editors of the world’s top scientific journal, Nature, stated that “the idea that human minds are the product of evolution” is an “unassailable fact,” and thus concluded, “the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside.” A very popular college evolutionary biology textbook (which I used for one of my upper division evolutionary biology courses during my undergraduate studies) declares that “[b]y coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous.”
Similarly, in the prestigious scientific journal, Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences, leading evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala celebrates that “Darwin’s greatest accomplishment” was to show that the origin of life’s complexity “can be explained as the result of a natural process — natural selection — without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent.” Just to make sure that his readers don’t try to invoke some kind of “God-guided” evolution, Ayala writes that “[i]n evolution, there is no entity or person who is selecting adaptive combinations.”
Cornell University evolutionary biologist William Provine has similarly stated that “belief in modern evolution makes atheists of people” and that “[o]ne can have a religious view that is compatible with evolution only if the religious view is indistinguishable from atheism.” Provine states that there are severe philosophical implications of Darwinian biology:
Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.
Also noteworthy is the fact that key public defenders of Darwin have strong ties to secular humanist groups. For example, Eugenie Scott is a physical anthropologist who now serves as Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education and was called by the scientific journal Nature “perhaps the nation’s most high-profile Darwinist.” But Scott is also a public signer of the Third Humanist Manifesto, an aggressive statement of the humanist agenda to create a world “without supernaturalism” based upon the view that “[h]umans are … the result of unguided evolutionary change” and the universe is “self-existing.” Another leading pro-evolution activist, Barbara Forrest, believes that “philosophical naturalism” is “the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion.” Dr. Forrest also sits on the Board of Directors of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, an associate member of the American Humanist Association, which publishes the Humanist Manifesto III.
Even the widely touted theistic evolutionary biologist Kenneth Miller has claimed in five editions of his highly popular high school biology textbooks that the implication of evolution is that it works “without either plan or purpose” and is “random and undirected.” Two other versions of Miller’s high school biology textbooks contain a striking discussion of some of the potential philosophical implications of evolution:
Darwin knew that accepting his theory required believing in philosophical materialism, the conviction that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomena are its byproducts. Darwinian evolution was not only purposeless but also heartless….Suddenly, humanity was reduced to just one more species in a world that cared nothing for us. The great human mind was no more than a mass of evolving neurons. Worst of all, there was no divine plan to guide us.
Harvard paleontologist and author Richard Lewontin explains how materialism is a key assumption propping Darwinian thought:
[W]e have a prior commitment … to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to … produce material explanations … [T]hat materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
Finally, leading Darwinian philosopher of science Michael Ruse admits that “for many evolutionists, evolution has functioned … akin to being a secular religion” whose main doctrine is “a commitment to a kind of naturalism.”
It is not possible to seriously dispute the fact that neo-Darwinian evolution is surrounded by a cloud of leading proponents with anti-religious motives, beliefs, and affiliations, who have plainly declared that the theory can have anti-religious implications.
I do not list these examples to argue that one cannot believe in evolution and religion. In fact, I firmly believe that people can accept evolution and religion. Nor do I list the anti-religious affiliations of leading Darwinists in order to contend that the anti-religious beliefs, motives, affiliations, and implications associated with neo-Darwinism make it unscientific. I accept and grant that neo-Darwinian evolution is a scientific theory, and thus I list the anti-religious affiliations associated with the theory to demonstrate that scientific theories must be tested independently of the beliefs, motives, and affiliations of their proponents, or the larger philosophical implications that some draw from the theory. In science, motives don’t matter, only the evidence does.
Pro-ID scientists should be able to stake out scientific positions on ID without being judged on the basis of their private religious beliefs, motives, or affiliations. Furthermore, pro-ID scientists should not have their views about ID disqualified from being scientific if people interpret ID’s scientific claims to have larger philosophical and metaphysical implications. In fact, three U.S. Supreme Court justices essentially recognized this very point in the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard ruling, stating that “A decision respecting the subject matter to be taught in public schools does not violate the Establishment Clause simply because the material to be taught ‘happens to coincide or harmonize with the tenets of some or all religions.'”
To argue that a concept cannot hold scientific merit simply because of the private religious beliefs, motives, or affiliations of its proponents, or because of its larger philosophical implications, destroys the very concept of First Amendment religious freedom that our country was founded upon.
Unfortunately Judge Jones did not appreciate this logic. He counted the religious motives and beliefs of ID proponents against ID but never considered how that reasoning, if applied fairly, could disqualify Darwinian evolution from being considered science. As we wrote in Montana Law Review:
Judge Jones stated that ID is “an inherently religious view” and no different from creationism. In making this finding, he did not distinguish between the implications of a scientific theory and the science from which the implications are drawn. Moreover, Judge Jones made no effort to examine whether the scientific theory against which ID competes (Darwinian evolution) contains parallel religious (or anti-religious) implications. If Judge Jones’s analytical method were sound, it would threaten the constitutionality of teaching about Darwinian evolution itself. Advocates of ID have never denied that the science of ID has implications for religious belief. Indeed, one reason for the intense interest in this area for many people is that the answers to the scientific questions have larger implications for philosophy, theology, and culture. In the same way that the famous British atheist, Anthony Flew, decided to abandon atheism because he was convinced by the argument for (actual) design in biology, Richard Dawkins has declared that “Darwin made it possible to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Both Antony Flew and Richard Dawkins have drawn implications for religion from their interpretation of the scientific data. But religious implications drawn from conflicting answers to the scientific question do not render the original question (whether design is actual or illusory) any less scientific. Neither Darwinism nor ID is rendered unscientific because some proponents of each theory passionately advocate philosophical, theological, or cultural positions that are believed to follow from their respective answers to the scientific question.
It is telling that Judge Jones treated statements about the religious implications of design as though they defined the theory, but never treated similar statements by leading advocates of Darwinism about its implications for religion as though they defined Darwinism. This is despite the fact that leading proponents of Darwinian evolution frequently raise the cultural and metaphysical implications of the theory in their writings. [See the documentation above.] … Whereas the plaintiffs were required to scour addresses by ID advocates to religious groups and confidential documents to “out” the religious agenda of proponents of the theory of ID, the implications for religion from Darwinian evolution could be found in a widely-used high school textbook written by one of the plaintiffs’ primary experts. Yet Judge Jones paid attention only to the religious implications of ID (concluding that it was therefore religion, not science) and ignored the implications from Darwinian evolution (which could have led to a parallel conclusion). A more blatant double standard would be hard to imagine.
Thus, Judge Jones adopted a fallacious argument claiming that if ID proponents are religious and have religious motives, and if some feel ID has larger religious implications, then ID must be religious. He never recognized that a scientific theory stands or falls apart from the personal religious beliefs of its proponents. He also never recognized that his own logic could be devastating to the teaching of Darwinian evolution, if applied in the same manner.
The ID Textbook in the Dover Case Didn’t Advocate Creationism
The Dover plaintiffs argued that the Of Pandas and People textbook shows that ID is religion. This led Judge Jones to state:
In fact, an explicit concession that the intelligent designer works outside the laws of nature and science and a direct reference to religion is Pandas‘ rhetorical statement, “What kind of intelligent agent was it [the designer]” and answer: “On its own science cannot answer this question. It must leave it to religion and philosophy.”
But Judge Jones misquoted Pandas, and he ignores the fact that Pandas never tries to answer this question by addressing whether the designer is natural or supernatural. Here is the full quote from the textbook:
If science is based upon experience, then science tells us the message encoded in DNA must have originated from an intelligent cause. But what kind of intelligent agent was it? On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy. But that should not prevent science from acknowledging evidences for an intelligent cause origin wherever they may exist.
In fact, Pandas even expressly states that science cannot study the supernatural, stating: “scientists … failed to distinguish between intelligence, which can be recognized by uniform sensory experience, and the supernatural, which cannot.” Taking a scientific approach, Pandas never tries to answer that question.
Indeed, Pandas makes it explicit that it is not promoting creationism:
The idea that life had an intelligent source is hardly unique to Christian fundamentalism. Advocates of design have included not only Christians and other religious theists, but pantheists, Greek and Enlightenment philosophers and now include many modern scientists who describe themselves as religiously agnostic. Moreover, the concept of design implies absolutely nothing about beliefs normally associated with Christian fundamentalism, such as a young earth, a global flood, or even the existence of the Christian God. All it implies is that life had an intelligent source. (p. 161)
Unable to show that the published version of Pandas promoted creationism, the Dover plaintiffs resorted to digging up prepublication drafts of the textbook. They claimed that this showed ID is religion because some of the early drafts used “creationist” terminology. We’ll address this more in a subsequent post, but for now, even the prepublication drafts of Pandas did not violate Edwards v. Aguillard because they did not postulate a supernatural creator.
It is true that some of the drafts used “creationist” language but this is not because the Pandas project was trying to promote creationism. Here is the real history of Pandas:
In the early 1980s, “creationism” — i.e., Young Earth Creationism — was really the only game in town as an alternative to evolution. It not only taught that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, but also liberally mixed theology with science, identifying the designer as God and trying to use science to support various interpretations of the Bible. Some theorists wondered if a more scientific approach could be taken — one that didn’t challenge mainstream scientific views on the age of Earth, but instead used a strictly scientific approach to detecting design in nature. This approach would not mix theology with science, and thus would not investigate questions about the identity of the designer or enter into debates about how to interpret the Bible.
Again, up to this point, “creationism” was the only game in town. Sometimes in the earliest days, in fact, ID advocates used that very term. But they clearly meant something different by it than did actual “creationists.” Obviously, they could not have anticipated the way Darwin defenders would later seize on the strategy of using ambiguous or multivalent language (“creationism,” “evolution”) to sow confusion among the public and in the media.
A pre-Edwards draft of Pandas said things like:
Thus, from the observation that human intelligence can communicate by manipulating sequences of alphabetic letters, creationists infer that a similar kind of intelligence was responsible for the message sequences of nucleotide letters in DNA. Some master intellect is the creator of life. But such observable instances of information cannot tell us if the intellect behind them is natural or supernatural. This is not a question that science can answer.
Similar passages can be found throughout the pre-publication drafts of Pandas. Though this passage uses the word “creator” and “creationist,” you’d never hear a typical “creationist” say that the data “cannot tell us if the intellect behind them is natural or supernatural.” Rather, as the U.S. Supreme Court correctly held in Edwards v. Aguillard, creationism always explicitly refers to the supernatural. Thus, even when using language referring to “creation” or derivative terms, the proto-ID project was fundamentally different from creationism because it didn’t get into questions about the supernatural.
It’s simple to understand why the early ID advocates switched to a different sort of terminology — referring to intelligent design. Judge Jones claimed that the Pandas textbook adopted “intelligent design” terminology to hide some creationist agenda. To the contrary, the reason “intelligent design” terminology came into widespread use was because ID proponents knew their project was distinct from creationism in important ways. They sought a new term to make clear that fundamental distinction. In other words, “intelligent design” terminology was adopted not to hide some notion that ID is creationism but rather to make it clear that ID is different from creationism in important, substantive ways.
As Jonathan Witt explains it:
The essential difference [between ID and creationism] isn’t whether the writer speaks of the “creation of DNA” versus the “intelligent design of DNA.” The difference is more substantive than stylistic. Creationism or Creation Science is focused on defending a particular reading of the Genesis account, usually including the creation of the earth by the Biblical God a few thousand years ago. The theory of intelligent design isn’t based on religious presuppositions but simply argues that an intelligent cause is the best explanation for certain features of the natural world. Unlike the creationism on trial in Edwards vs. Aguillard, the theory of intelligent design does not consider the identity of the designer nor does it defend the Genesis account (or that of any other sacred text for that matter). This is why a former atheist like British philosopher Antony Flew, who rejects the Judeo-Christian God, can nevertheless embrace the intelligent design argument for the origin of life.
Charles Thaxton, the academic editor for Pandas, explained his reason for the vocabulary change: “I wasn’t comfortable with the typical vocabulary that for the most part creationists were using because it didn’t express what I was trying to do. They were wanting to bring God into the discussion, and I was wanting to stay within the empirical domain and do what you can do legitimately there.”
Thaxton, who is a scientist and not a lawyer, adopted the terminology of “intelligent design” out of respect for the limits of scientific inquiry. As he explained:
Unfortunately for Westerners … anytime you use the word creation it automatically conjures up any of a number of religious discussions. We knew from the beginning of our project, that turned out to be the making of Of Pandas and People, that we wanted to avoid this automatically concluding that what you’re talking about was religion because in fact we were dealing with a biological discussion. So we were trying to operate entirely within the empirical domain. And my thought was, how to arrive at a set of terms that would allow us to traffic the literature and the discussion and build an argument without having to use terminology that would automatically bring one into the religious realm?
He continues, saying “we did what we could do to stay within the empirical domain and make legitimate inferences.” He then explains the terminology that was originally in the early pre-publication drafts of Pandas:
I realize that the charge was that we were trying to just use a substitute word for creation, but that isn’t the case at all. In the early days of writing the Pandas book, for example, although we understood what we were doing, most other people who we were talking to didn’t know our objectives really. And if you have a whole culture that knows about creation as a term … So we used that word early on, not for deception so we could later switch on them but because we wanted the materials to be understood that we were focused on. It was always clearly within the empirical domain, even the things that we wrote early on.
Thaxton recounts that after speaking widely on the subject of origins, “gradually it became clear that there was a real good way that there was a case we wanted — completely within the empirical domain — and we looked for a term that would do this and reading the literature and ah, ‘intelligent design,’ is the most appropriate term. And that’s why we did it.”
Again, here’s a nice explanation by Jonathan Witt:
The fact that intelligent design doesn’t identify the source of design is not political calculation but precise thinking, refusing to go beyond what the scientific evidence tells us. Consider intelligent design’s most famous design inference, the bacterial flagellum. Michael Behe shows that this microscopic rotary engine, like an automobile engine, needs all of its machinery in place to function at all. The best explanation for this irreducibly complex machine is intelligent design, but there’s no inscription on the bushing of this little motor that identifies its maker. To discover the identity of its designer(s), one has to look beyond science.
The term “intelligent design” was used to communicate this fact. In a recent telephone interview, Charles Thaxton told how, as he explored the idea of intelligent causation in the origin of life, he would sometimes use the term “create.” The term has a perfectly neutral dictionary meaning, but he said he became more and more aware that the term was at once too broad and too specific. Search Google Scholar for academic references in biology to “creation,” and one gets more than 50,000 hits, often referring merely to biological processes that bring certain structures into being. To create simply means to cause something to exist.
More problematic was that fact that many of Thaxton’s listeners would project into any form of the word “create” the Biblical account of creation. Since the evidence he and other design theorists were presenting said nothing about whether the God of the Bible was the source of that design, increasingly they avoided the term.
In the same year The Mystery of Life’s Origin appeared, Thaxton met Stephen Meyer, a young geophysicist and future program director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, now the institutional home for scientists and scholars around the globe working on the theory of intelligent design. Thaxton, Meyer, and others were by that time (1984) already using terms like creative intelligence, intelligent cause, artificer, and intelligent artificer as they grappled together with questions of design detection in science.
As the academic editor for the Foundation of Thought and Ethics, Thaxton was then serving as the editor for a supplemental science textbook co-authored by Kenyon, named Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. As it neared completion, Thaxton continued to cast around for a term that was less ponderous and, at the same time, more general, a term to describe a science open to evidence for intelligent causation and free of religious assumptions. He found it in a phrase he picked up from a NASA scientist. “That’s just what I need,” Thaxton recalls thinking. “It’s a good engineering term…. After I first saw it, it seemed to jibe. When I would go to meetings, I noticed it was a phrase that would come up from time to time. And I went back through my old copies of Science magazine and found the term used occasionally.” It was soon incorporated into the language of the book.
From the uses Thaxton ran across at conferences and in his back issues of Science, Thaxton saw that intelligent design was already a functioning term in science, and it was just a matter of extending the term to the process of design detection in natural structures.
Thus, Thaxton changed the terminology in Pandas not to hide some relationship between ID and creationism but rather to make it clear that his project had fundamental substantive differences from creationism.
Science, not Religion
The point of all of this is that ID arguments are based upon science, not religion. Judge Jones ignored ID’s arguments and the way that ID proponents have articulated their position. He twisted ID in order to claim that it is a religious viewpoint, the equivalent of creationism.
Intelligent design is about scientifically detecting information in nature that indicates an intelligent cause. It is not, as the New York Times and Judge Jones hold, a re-branding of a type of Christianity. Instead, ID attracts scholars from a variety of religious and non-religious perspectives who see evidence for design in nature. The Dover ruling failed to show that ID is religion because ID isn’t religion.
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