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Answering Another Objection to Intelligent Design: “You Can’t Prove God Exists”

Casey Luskin
Photo credit: CHUTTERSNAP via Unsplash.

Jay Richards recently did an ID the Future podcast answering the objection that ID is bad theology. This brought to mind another objection to ID that I feel like I’m hearing more and more these days. The objection goes something like this: “I don’t accept intelligent design because you can’t prove God exists.” 

This objection has been around for a long time. Back in 2005 a theistic evolutionist blogger, “Darwin Catholic,” objected to intelligent design saying, “I don’t think you can prove God’s existence using science itself.” In 2011, anti-ID law professor Frank Ravitch objected to ID saying, “Science does not prove that God exists.” More recently, Oxford physicist Ard Louis, who is closely affiliated with the anti-ID BioLogos Foundation, said we “can’t prove God the way I can prove something scientifically.” I’ve heard this objection around the Internet lately as well.

So is it correct to say “You can’t prove that God exists scientifically?”

Well, you can’t “prove” that “God” exists in the same way that we can put chemicals in a test tube and show that some compound or element is present in a solution. So in that sense it’s a reasonable statement.

The problem with offering this as an objection to intelligent design is that intelligent design as a scientific theory doesn’t claim we can “prove” the existence of “God” through science in the sense of a deductive logical proof. What intelligent design does say is that we can infer that intelligent design is the best explanation for certain features of nature. This inference can then form the building block of a larger argument for God’s existence, as Stephen Meyer shows in his new book The Return of the God Hypothesis. However, this larger argument draws on more than just science in my view, and one can make an inference to design inside science without being committed to the larger argument. Let’s dig in further.

Science Doesn’t Deal in Absolute Proof

Philosophers of science generally agree that, strictly speaking, science does not “prove” things. An MIT Press book dealing with the philosophy of science reminds us that “hypotheses are never affirmatively proved, they are only falsified.” Thus, the National Academy of Sciences correctly states (correctly in my view) that, “Truth in science, however, is never final, and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow.”

Rather than absolute proof, scientific theories deal in evidence—you can have powerful empirical evidence supporting a testable scientific claim, but science never “proves” anything the way we might “prove” a mathematical theorem. Thus, most ID proponents would agree with Michael J. Biercuk who wrote at The Conversation, that “in science, uncertainty is always present….”

So to object to ID because it doesn’t “prove” something or other is to misstate what intelligent design is. As a scientific theory, all intelligent design says is that there is evidence for a given proposition — perhaps very strong evidence. One can also go further and say that as a historical scientific theory, ID explains the evidence better than other models do. This is why Stephen Meyer has said that intelligent design is an “inference to the best explanation”:

Geologists and other historical scientists use this method when there is more than one possible cause or hypothesis to explain the same evidence. In such cases, historical scientists carefully weigh the relevant evidence and what they know about various possible causes to determine which best explains it. Contemporary philosophers of science call this the method of “inference to the best explanation.” That is, when trying to explain the origin of an event or structure from the past, historical scientists compare various hypotheses to see which would, if true, best explain it. They then provisionally affirm the hypothesis that best explains the data as the most likely to be true. …. 

Formulated as an inference to the best explanation, the argument for design from biological information exemplifies the standard uniformitarian canons of method employed within the historical sciences. 

(Signature in the Cell, pp. 154, 377)

This is exactly how intelligent design works—not providing absolute proof, but as an inference to the best explanation.

Intelligent Design Studies Nature More than the Designer

Before we get into the next part (which will ask whether intelligent design appeals to “God”), it’s important to make the brief subpoint that intelligent design is typically not focused on studying the designer, but rather studies natural objects to investigate how they arose. In the past I explained this point here:

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.”

Having established that intelligent design doesn’t usually focus on studying the designer, let’s investigate further to see exactly what cause intelligent design appeals to.

Intelligent Design and God

So if intelligent design is an inference to the best explanation, what is the explanation that intelligent design is inferring is best? Is it “God”?

Within biology, ID theorists have been very clear that intelligent design only allows you to appeal to an intelligent cause. 

Intelligent design is modest in what it attributes to the designing intelligence responsible for the specified complexity in nature. For instance, design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the competence of science and must be left to religion and philosophy.

(Dembski, The Design Revolution, p. 42)

Again:

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. 

(Meyer, Signature in the Cell, pp. 428-429) 

Again:

Although the IDM did not identify the designer as anything more than a source of biological information, there was little doubt that believers in the Christian God, including me, would find scientific acceptance of ID highly encouraging. … [M]y personal view is that I identify the designer of life with the God of the Bible, although intelligent design theory as such does not entail that.

(Phillip E. Johnson, “Intelligent Design in Biology: the Current Situation and Future Prospects,” Think (The Royal Institute of Philosophy), 2007))

Again:

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 religious premise for its conclusions.

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

The last quote provides a good explanation for why the biological data do not allow you to conclude that “God” is the designer — a point that I elaborate here:

In other words, the flagellar machine itself indicates that it did not arise by a random and unguided process like Darwinian evolution, but rather arose by a non-random and intelligently directed process such as intelligent design. However, while biological structures may be scientifically explained via intelligent design, the structures themselves have no way of directly telling us whether the designer is Yahweh, Buddha, Yoda, or some other type of intelligent agency.

Now it’s possible that physics-based arguments for design could extend the argument further than you can make within biological design. For example, if we’re looking at the nature of a designer who could cause the big bang which started our entire universe or if we’re talking about a designer who could fine-tune the laws of the universe for life on a universe-wide scale, then obviously we’re going to need to appeal to an intelligent agent outside of the universe, which is one of the points of Stephen Meyer’s new book. The requirements for a cosmic designer would seem to be much grander than the requirements for a biological designer.

Even when it comes to cosmic design, however, to call the designer “God” is to provide a specific identity of the designer which goes beyond what the scientific data alone can tell us. Thus, if you go so far as to appeal to “God,” you’re going beyond what can be learned by a strictly scientific study of the evidence, and since the theory of intelligent design uses scientific methods, you’re going to go beyond what ID strictly defined can tell you.

So Intelligent Design Does Not “Prove” God?

That’s right. Intelligent design does not claim that you can “prove” that “God” exists. What intelligent design does claim is that the best explanation for the origin of many complex features of nature is an intelligent cause. This is useful because it opens up many new lines of scientific investigation.

It’s important to be careful to accurately state the views of those whom you disagree with. This means that if you’re objecting to intelligent design on the basis that “we can’t prove that God exists through science,” then you’re objecting to claims that ID does not make and making an argument that pretty much all ID proponents would agree with: Most everyone I know in the ID movement would agree that can’t use science (and thus we can’t use the theory of intelligent design) to absolutely “prove” that “God” exists! What you can do through ID, however, is provide empirical evidence for the action of an intelligent designer. And that empirical evidence may well have larger implications for debates about the existence of God, as Stephen Meyer will show in his new book.