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Ten Myths About Dover: #1, "Judge Jones Addressed the Actual Theory of ID, Not a Straw Man"

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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 23456789, and 10.

“Everybody understood that intelligent design was a religious proposition, and we are absolutely thrilled that Judge Jones has seen through the smoke and mirrors used by intelligent design proponents.” So said Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, in an interview with Time Magazine in December 2005.

This raises a good question: What do we mean when we speak about “intelligent design”?

According to Judge Jones, ID is a religious argument — merely a negative criticism of evolution that appeals to the supernatural. In his view: “In addition to the IDM [intelligent design movement] itself describing ID as a religious argument, ID’s religious nature is evident because it involves a supernatural designer,” and “ID proponents primarily argue for design through negative arguments against evolution…”

But this is not at all how ID proponents define intelligent design. It is certainly not how ID proponents defined ID during the Dover trial. Instead, Judge Jones ignored how ID advocates define their own theory and instead struck down a straw-man version. Casey Luskin describes the straw man this way: “Intelligent design claims that life is so complex, it could not have evolved, therefore it was designed by a supernatural intelligence.” In response to the claim of a supernatural designer, he notes:

The second problem with the critics’ definition of ID is that it suggests the theory is focused on studying the designer. The claim is that it specifically invokes supernatural forces or a deity. But ID is not focused on studying the actual intelligent cause responsible for life, but rather studies natural objects to determine whether they bear an informational signature indicating an intelligent cause. All ID does is infer an intelligent cause behind the origins of life and of the cosmos. It does not seek to determine the nature or identity of that cause. As William Dembski explains:

Intelligent design is the science that studies signs of intelligence. Note that a sign is not the thing signified. … As a scientific research program, intelligent design investigates the effects of intelligence, not intelligence as such.

(William Dembski, The Design Revolution (InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 33)

Similarly, Michael Behe explains that we can detect design even if we don’t know anything about the identity or nature of the designer:

The conclusion that something was designed can be made quite independently of knowledge of the designer. As a matter of procedure, the design must first be apprehended before there can be any further question about the designer. The inference to design can be held with all the firmness that is possible in this world, without knowing anything about the designer.

(Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (Free Press, 1996), p. 197)

As for whether intelligent design requires a supernatural creator, Luskin addressed that question in depth in a previous post in this series (“Ten Myths About Dover: #7, ‘The Dover Case Showed ID Is ‘Religious’ and a Form of ‘Creationism’“).

Judge Jones was aware of these points, because Michael Behe explained to him 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.


Q. Do you have an opinion as to whether intelligent design requires the action of a supernatural creator?

Behe. Yes, I do.

Q. And what is that opinion?

Behe. No, it doesn’t.

Likewise, Scott Minnich testified:

Q. Do you have an opinion as to whether intelligent design requires the action of a supernatural creator?

Minnich. I do.

Q. What is that opinion?

Minnich. It does not.


Q. Does intelligent design require the action of a supernatural creator acting outside the laws of nature?

Minnich. No.

Indeed, the textbook at the heart of the Dover case, Of Pandas and People, also made clear that ID doesn’t assume or seek to demonstrate the supernatural:

Today we recognize that appeals to intelligent design may be considered in science, as illustrated by current NASA search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Archaeology has pioneered the development of methods for distinguishing the effects of natural and intelligent causes. We should recognize, however, that if we go further, and conclude that the intelligence responsible for biological origins is outside the universe (supernatural) or within it, we do so without the help of science.

(Of Pandas and People, 1993, pp. 126-127)

It’s important to understand that ID’s stance on these points is not some kind of legal “strategy.” Casey Luskin explains:

ID does not identify the designer. But this refusal is principled, not some kind of rhetorical or legal “strategy” or politically motivated “policy.” It stems from a desire to take a scientific approach and respect the limits of scientific inquiry, rather than inject religious discussions about theological questions into science.

And it’s not the case that these theological questions can be addressed by science but ID avoids them out of a desire to stay away from theological issues. Rather, ID does not identify the designer because given our present knowledge and technology, there is no known scientific method of doing so. Because ID sticks to scientifically tractable questions, it stays silent on such matters. This is a crucial point to appreciate if you want to understand why ID doesn’t identify the designer: it’s not because ID takes a scientific approach and science arbitrarily avoids such questions; it’s because ID takes a scientific approach and science has no means of addressing such questions.

Thomas Woodward, an ID historian and scholar of rhetoric, explains the principled reasons why the current biological evidence allows us to detect intelligent design, but is insufficient to allow us to identify the designer:

There is no “Made by Yahweh” engraved on the side of the bacterial rotary motor — the flagellum. In order to find out what or who its designer is, one must go outside the narrow discipline of biology. Cross-disciplinary dialogue must begin with the fields of philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology, and theology. Design itself, however, is a direct scientific inference; it does not depend on a single religious premise for its conclusions.

(Thomas Woodward, Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design, p. 15 (Baker Books, 2006))

In other words, the empirical data — such as the information-rich, integrated complexity of the flagellar machine — may indicate that the flagellum arose by intelligent design. But that same empirical data does not inform us whether the intelligence that designed the flagellum was Yahweh, Allah, Buddha, Yoda, or some other source of intelligent agency. There is no known way to use such empirical data to determine the nature or identity of the designer, and since ID is based solely upon empirical data, the scientific theory of ID must remain silent on such questions.

Stephen Meyer likewise explains:

The theory of intelligent design does not claim to detect a supernatural intelligence possessing unlimited powers. Though the designing agent responsible for life may well have been an omnipotent deity, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine that. Because the inference to design depends upon our uniform experience of cause and effect in this world, the theory cannot determine whether or not the designing intelligence putatively responsible for life has powers beyond those on display in our experience. Nor can the theory of intelligent design determine whether the intelligent agent responsible for information life acted from the natural or the “supernatural” realm. Instead, the theory of intelligent design merely claims to detect the action of some intelligent cause (with power, at least, equivalent to those we know from experience) and affirms this because we know from experience that only conscious, intelligent agents produce large amounts of specified information. The theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine the identity or any other attributes of that intelligence, even if philosophical deliberation or additional evidence from other disciplines may provide reasons to consider, for example, a specifically theistic design hypothesis.

(Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell (HarperOne, 2009), pp. 428-429)

As Meyer suggests, ID is primarily an historical science. It uses principles of uniformitarianism to study present-day causes and then applies what it has learned to the historical record in order to infer the best explanation for the origin of the natural phenomena being studied. ID starts with observations showing the effects of intelligence in the natural world. As one ID textbook explains, scientists have “uniform sensory experience” with intelligent causes (i.e. humans), so intelligence is an appropriate explanatory cause within historical scientific fields. However, the “supernatural” cannot be observed, and thus historical scientists applying uniformitarian reasoning cannot appeal to the supernatural. If the intelligence responsible for life were supernatural, science could only infer the prior action of intelligence, but could not determine whether the intelligence was supernatural.

The point of all this is that ID’s non-identification of the designer isn’t a “policy” or a “strategy,” but rather it’s something that just flows out of ID’s choice to take a scientific approach, rather than a theological one.

Judge Jones was wrong to claim that ID deals with the supernatural. His false definition of ID also ignored the positive case for design, framing ID as simply a negative argument against evolution.

He claimed that intelligent design proponents hold to a “contrived dualism,” stating, “ID is at bottom premised upon a false dichotomy, namely, that to the extent evolutionary theory is discredited, ID is confirmed.” He further wrote:

However, we believe that arguments against evolution are not arguments for design. Expert testimony revealed that just because scientists cannot explain today how biological systems evolved does not mean that they cannot, and will not, be able to explain them tomorrow. (2:36-37 (Miller)). As Dr. Padian aptly noted, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Judge Jones is right that negative arguments against evolution are not by themselves arguments for design. But intelligent design is not merely a negative argument against evolution. Instead, it requires positive evidence. How? Intelligent design uses the scientific method to make its claims. The first step in that method is to observe how intelligent designers — human ones — act. Casey Luskin notes:

  1. Intelligent agents think with an “end goal” in mind, allowing them to solve complex problems by taking many parts and arranging them in intricate patterns that perform a specific function (e.g. complex and specified information)…
  2. Intelligent agents can rapidly infuse large amounts of information into systems…
  3. Intelligent agents “re-use” functional components that work over and over in different systems (e.g., wheels for cars and airplanes)…
  4. Intelligent agents typically create functional things (although we may sometimes think something is functionless, not realizing its true function)…

Human beings are capable of producing information that is both complex and specified. Complex refers to high improbability. Specified means that the information matches an independent pattern. When we find high levels of complex and specified information in nature, we conclude that it was a product of intelligent design.

As Casey Luskin explains:

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 sixty 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. When we look at nature, we find high levels of CSI. A design inference may thus be made. This is the essence of the positive case for design.

Judge Jones heard expert testimony on this positive argument. Scott Minnich testified:

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 uniformitarian[n] deduction from cause and effect that we know from our everyday … experience.

(Scott Minnich, Nov. 4th AM Testimony, p. 57)

Michael Behe also testified: “This argument for design is an entirely positive argument. This is how we recognize design by the purposeful arrangement of parts.”

Judge Jones was thus given the positive argument for design, but he denied this testimony and claimed that “ID proponents primarily argue for design through negative arguments against evolution.”

So what is the correct definition of intelligent design? As our Frequently Asked Questions page notes, “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”

Smoke and mirrors, unfortunately, were the tactics of the Darwin lobby at the Dover trial. Judge Jones did not strike down the actual theory of ID. His ruling addressed the ACLU’s caricature of ID. At Dover, the positive, scientific theory of intelligent design emerged unscathed and continues to grow in persuasiveness today.

Good scholarship demands letting a person or group define their own position. Unfortunately, before critiquing what he thought was “intelligent design,” Judge Jones failed to do that.

At the end of the day, therefore, the Dover ruling really is not a refutation of intelligent design at all. Judge Jones presented and criticized only the straw-man version, effectively ignoring the theory of ID as its advocates explain it. This means that, contrary to what you hear from the media, from evolution activists, and from Darwin defenders in academia, ID’s big day in court has not yet come.

The theory of ID, meanwhile, is doing just fine. It flourishes because the scientific evidence continues to accumulate — unveiling information throughout nature that we recognize, from our positive experience, comes only from intelligence.

Image: © Eduard Kim / Dollar Photo Club.

Sarah Chaffee

Now a teacher, Sarah Chaffee served as Program Officer in Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. She earned her B.A. in Government. During college she interned at Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office and for Prison Fellowship Ministries. Before coming to Discovery, she worked for a private land trust with holdings in the Southwest.



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