Alongside my work as a software architect in Redmond, WA, I have the privilege of serving on the faculty of Biola University, near Los Angeles. My focus there includes preparing students to rebut the falsehoods propagated by academia and the scientific community about the historical relationship between science and religion, to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian evolution, and to defend the careful reasoning underlying a theistic worldview.
One of our yearly courses is an advanced seminar on intelligent design. Its purpose is to enable students to appraise the current debate between Darwinian evolution and ID.
We have lively discussions based on class texts, and invariably the nagging question comes up from several students every year: “Why don’t ID advocates quit being coy and just come out and say who they think the designer is? We already know most of them think it is the God of the Bible.” I never back down from this question, as it is wholly legitimate. However, as I explain in response, it does not fully factor in the actual project of intelligent design.
My reply starts by reviewing the notion of metaphysical naturalism (also called ontological naturalism, or philosophical naturalism). Metaphysical naturalism is the view that only physical laws and forces exist, and thus any discussion of supernatural concepts has no place in modern science. Generally, academia and the scientific community doggedly defend this view.
There is another philosophical view, methodological naturalism, that doesn’t explicitly commit itself to proscribing supernatural explanations. Methodological naturalism asserts that in doing science, we only consider natural causes, but takes no particular attitude towards intelligent agency. Under methodological naturalism, it doesn’t matter whether a person has religious attitudes or not. Scientists, whether religious, agnostic, or atheist, can work together to solve scientific problems on a day-to-day basis, regardless of their personal views. ID proponents would certainly not be adherents of metaphysical naturalism, but they do accept methodological naturalism as an ostensibly normative principle for doing science, while believing it unnecessarily constrains science from entertaining empirical proof of intelligent agency.
Despite what ID advocates may personally conclude about who the designer is, they still can work within methodological naturalism to explain scientific phenomena to the extent possible, since it is not a metaphysical position. But they fully part ways with metaphysical naturalism on the latter’s insistence that the natural world can, all on its own, produce the full complexity and diversity that we see in the universe and in biological organisms.
ID readily concedes that physical laws and forces can, alone, produce natural phenomena including snowflakes, clouds, lightning, and whirlpools. But no evidence demonstrates that natural laws can produce even single-cell organisms, which require a high degree of specified information, let alone butterflies, hummingbirds, or human beings.
Metaphysical naturalists accuse ID of offering a “God of the gaps” argument, inserting “God” into the gaps of our knowledge, purely from ignorance. This criticism, however, is false. ID’s argument is hardly one from ignorance, but from the knowledge we have that things requiring high degrees of specified information can, as far as we practically know, only be produced by intelligent agents. Human experience, what we know of our own creative endeavors, itself demonstrates this.
Returning to the question my students often ask, if ID advocates believe there is a designer, why don’t they specify who the designer is, particularly since many, but not all, are theists themselves? The answer is because 1) ID proponents don’t arrogantly purport to have exhaustive knowledge of who the designer might be, and admit that their particular notion of the designer may be wrong. 2) Harkening back to our discussion about methodological naturalism, ID seeks an approach where scientists and philosophers, regardless of personal views, may pursue the truth wherever the evidence leads. Finally, 3) ID fully allows those who wish to sincerely join the debate to argue for other mechanisms.
In not specifying a designer, ID leaves science open to pursue plausible explanations of biological complexity without getting tangled up in extraneous theological or philosophical discussions. The everyday practice of the current scientific establishment already curtails and constrains what science is able to discover. ID resists this trend, and instead seeks to democratize scientific investigation.
We invite a maximum diversity of researchers to join the hunt for the truth. Discussions of who or what the designer might be would only work against that.