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Foundational Question: Is Intelligent Design Science?

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Editor’s note: Mr. Laufmann is a consultant in the growing field of Enterprise Architecture, dealing with the design of very large, very complex, composite information systems that are orchestrated to perform specified tasks in demanding environments.

It’s long been said that the path to the right answers lies in asking the right questions. Better questions tend to yield better answers. Not-so-good questions may yield little, or even hide the answers. Some questions illuminate, others obfuscate.

Intelligent design provokes (at least) two foundational questions. I’ll briefly address the first of these here, and the second in a subsequent article. First:

Is Intelligent Design Science?

This question is central in the ongoing debate about ID. It’s argued about often, sometimes loudly, and occasionally well. Because the topic has been covered thoroughly in this forum and others, I’ll present here just five observations about how this question is asked, debated, and answered.

  1. The answer is yes, intelligent design is science, though not everyone knows it yet.

However, the reasons behind this are understood neither widely nor well. In my experience there are two common areas of misunderstanding:

First, many people try to apply demarcation criteria that are not appropriate for historical sciences. Demarcation criteria, such as observability, testability, falsifiability, predictive capability, and repeatability, do not generally apply to the causes of unobserved and non-repeatable events in the past. This is as true of the random events in Darwinist theory as it is for the actions of an intelligent agent in ID. Further, philosophers of science have largely abandoned demarcation criteria because there are too many exceptions to such rules.

Second, relatively few people are versed in the methodological nuances of historical sciences, so fail to properly apply these to ID.

  1. The dispute over ID has more to do with the definition of science than with any particular scientific merits of ID.

A central question lies at the heart of the origins debate: Are unintelligent causal forces capable of producing the complex orchestrations of information and processing machinery that we see in biology? These orchestrations occur at multiple levels, from molecular machinery within a cell to complex body subsystems (like the skeletal or circulatory systems) to the human mind.

Darwin’s proponents argue that the answer is yes, unintelligent forces can do all the necessary work. ID proponents argue the other way. (See “Evolution’s Grand Challenge” for my take on this question.)

As historical sciences, both Darwinism and ID deal with past events in space-time history. All historical sciences apply a similar rational process to infer the best explanation (cause) for observed outcomes (effects).

The rules are the same. The process is the same. The reasoning follows a similar path. Clearly, there is methodological equivalence between Darwinism and ID. How then can the Darwinian view be science while ID is not?

  1. Most of the fireworks around ID are due to a conflict of worldviews.

In what way does ID offend? Put simply, the problem lies in the answers ID is willing to consider, and with the philosophical implications of those answers.

Many scientists, and a good number of laymen as well, conflate science with materialist philosophy. Many go further and conflate materialist philosophy with rationality.

By remaining open to the possibility that an intelligent, purposeful cause was involved in the history of life, ID presents an affront not to science, but to the presuppositions of materialism.

  1. The question about ID as science is asked by different people for different purposes.

Some people genuinely want to understand ID, and whether and how it fits into the objective study of the natural world.

There are good answers for such people. (See the links below for helpful resources.)

A second class of questioner is less interested in a productive discussion. For this person, questions about the scientific bona fides of ID can be used to hold at arm’s length any serious conversation about detectable design and intelligent causation.

Once science, materialism, and rationality become conflated, the definition of science can function in two important ways: (a) as sufficient warrant to disregard the claims associated with ID, or (b) as a bludgeon to beat up anyone who seriously entertains ID or associates with its proponents, especially those that otherwise look like perfectly respectable scientists.

One strategy that’s proven fairly effective is to label any proposal that dares to challenge a strictly materialistic perspective as “pseudoscience.” Once it’s tagged with a derogatory label, all related questions can be safely ignored. These tactics are so well rehearsed that they’ve become pro forma, often a matter of unconscious habit, among the most committed materialists.

It’s essential, then, to discern the motives behind the question and to respond accordingly. The first class of questioner sincerely wants to understand how all this fits together. The latter doesn’t understand how all it fits together and doesn’t want to.

The same question can thus lead to very different conversations. Yet both are worth the effort to engage.

  1. Whether ID is science is, at some level, merely a category question.

Consider the origins question from another perspective: What actually happened in space-time history?

If the ID hypothesis is correct and an intelligent cause intervened in the course of past events, but consideration of this possibility is not science, then by this definition science is incapable of fully addressing the question of origins. As a category of investigation, then, science becomes less interesting and it’s likely that a new category will be invented that will look just like science, but without the presuppositional baggage of materialism.

If science, or at least biology, is to remain relevant into the next century, it must come to terms with the growing body of evidence that demands a new look at the causality behind biological information and the biological machinery that processes that information. Biologists may well need to acknowledge that they’ve conflated science with their philosophical prejudices, rethink those cherished 19th-century presuppositions, reconsider the causal mechanisms they’re open to, and follow the evidence wherever it leads.

This is a practice that was once called “science.”

Caught in the Vortex

ID can easily get caught in the vortex between competing worldviews. While ID may not align with a person’s presuppositions, that may have more to do with his view of the universe than with the universe itself.

But the questions persist, and the growing body of evidence is real. The gaps in materialism’s explanatory capability are growing, and will not disappear merely because materialists wish them to do so.

Since what we really want to know is how these things came to be, it seems only reasonable to remain open to all likely explanations, at least until they can be discarded based on scientific, rather than philosophical, grounds.

Biology offers profound mysteries ripe for exploration. Given how little we really know about how life works, much less how it came to be, it seems only prudent to keep our options open and follow the data. And to ask good questions.

For a more thorough treatment of ID and science, see the following resources:

In a subsequent post, I’ll look at a second foundational question, which has the potential to yield still more interesting answers.

Image credit: Galápagos marine iguana © estivillml — stock.adobe.com.

Steve Laufmann

Steve Laufmann is a speaker, author, computer scientist, and consultant in the design of enterprise-class systems, with expertise in the difficulties of changing complex systems to perform new tasks. He leads the Engineering Research Group at Discovery Institute and chaired the program committee for the 2021 Conference on Engineering in Living Systems. He is co-author, with Howard Glicksman, of Your Designed Body (2022). When he can’t think of anything else to do, he enjoys landscape photography, pizza, and old movies.