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Here Is What We Mean by Intelligent Design (And What We Don’t)

Nautilus at S.E.A. Aquarium, Singapore
Photo credit: Shaun Low via Unsplash.

Intelligent design (ID) as a theory is widely misunderstood — and that is one fact that motivated me along with my co-authors in writing the new book that I edited, God’s Grandeur: The Catholic Case for Intelligent Design. Of course, Catholics are far from alone in misunderstanding ID. The problem stems largely from the fact that there is a lot of misinformation that has been advanced about ID by both critics and confused or underinformed commentators. People hear various reports about what ID is from sources such as news outlets, public commentary, social media, and finally, science journals and books. Anyone is free to write about ID, as they should be, whether they know what they are talking about or not. Often, they do not. There is no gate keeper. And some of these people have agendas against ID and may misrepresent ID deliberately. So it goes in a debate about ideas.

While all ID proponents agree that certain features of nature are best explained by an intelligent cause, on many side issues ID proponents may have different points of view, with different assumptions. For example, ID makes no claim about universal common descent. Some ID supporters agree with universal common descent, but many ID supporters argue against the idea that all life shares a common ancestor. There are also different views about the ways in which design may be instantiated, and the degree to which natural processes are involved. These different views are not necessarily a sign of something bad — in fact to a large extent they reflect a healthy diversity of models that exist and are being discussed, tested, and refined. Scientists come into it from different backgrounds, and their opinions about how things work may change as they learn more. To add to the mix, engineers, computer scientists, and mathematicians are involved, bringing their own contributions which are different from those of biologists. ID is multidisciplinary and stronger because of that. All have their part to play.

(Of course, the theory of evolution is also in flux, with debates about what portion of the genome is functional, the role of epigenetics, and more. It’s in the nature of scientists to disagree.)

Science Through Hearsay

Thus, most science consumers have heard about intelligent design through hearsay, from scientists and others who likely suffer from misconceptions, or are narrowly focused. I have seen Internet debates about whether random mutation can create new information. The debaters often talk at cross purposes, with different meanings of information being the chief problem. Do we mean a new sequence, or a new functional sequence? What do we mean by functional? Do we mean something new, some new action, or do we mean some new action that is beneficial to the organism? 

Lastly, few of our opponents have read ID books. Don’t get me wrong, we have intelligent and fair interlocuters who are knowledgeable about ID, have read our books, and disagree. But opponents, when they read our books, have been known to change their minds. Paleontologist Günter Bechly, one of the contributors to God’s Grandeur, comes to mind.

In case you wondered, in the book we talk about God as the designer because when scientific arguments are integrated with philosophical ones, as they are in God’s Grandeur, the scope of the design in life and the cosmos, extending to the evidence of purposeful fine-tuning before the instant of the Big Bang, clearly points to a transcendent intelligence as the designer.

What Intelligent Design Is

Therefore, one of the first things we needed to do in God’s Grandeur was establish what we meant by intelligent design, and what we didn’t mean. The introduction to the book was written by Logan Gage, a professor of philosophy at Franciscan University. He lays it out in his typical lucid prose. I have set some crucial points from that chapter in bold for emphasis.

…Intelligent design (ID) proponents typically define intelligent design as the view that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process. Note that this doesn’t mean that no evolution has occurred, or that natural processes and forces don’t have their place. It is rather the minimal claim that it’s not natural processes and forces all the way down — a claim to which we Catholics are dogmatically committed, believing as we do that all things originate in God.

Design proponents have made arguments for real rather than apparent design at different levels. For instance, they’ve argued that the beginning of the universe requires an intelligent cause (William Lane Craig and James Sinclair), that the laws of physics are designed (Robin Collins), that our planet is uniquely designed (Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards), that chemistry as we know it is designed for life (Michael Denton; Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt), that the building blocks of living things cannot be found by blind searches but must be designed (Douglas Axe), that the first living creature and the fossil record give evidence of design (Stephen Meyer), and that both macro- and micro-features of living things give evidence of intelligent design (Michael Denton; Michael Behe).

Note three quick things about these arguments. First, contrary to ste­reotypes, these arguments are not “god-of-the-gaps” arguments. None of these arguments claims, “I don’t know what caused this, so God musta done it.” Rather, the standard mode of argumentation for design proponents is an inference to the best explanation — a common form of reasoning in general and in the historical sciences (like evolutionary biology) in particular. They argue that there are positive signs of intentional design in nature and that non-intentional explanations are weak by comparison. This is highly consonant with the Catholic [and Christian] Faith. The Scriptures (e.g., Ps. 19 and Rom. 1), the Church Fathers (e.g., St. Gregory of Nazianzen), and the councils (e.g., Vatican I) all declare that God’s handiwork in nature is detectable by human reason and not just by faith.

Second, detecting design does not entail that we have detected divine “intervention” in nature. Design can be detected whether or not there was any direct action. One can tell that a field of corn was intentionally planted even if intermediate causes such as drones were used to plant the seeds. Similarly, design arguments need not imply unmediated divine action….

Third, these arguments have clear theological implications, but ID proponents attempt to stick to the publicly available scientific evidence and do not argue from religious texts. Most intelligent design proponents are Christians,but an argument that the designer is the Christian God would require more than just the scientific evidence. ID proponentsare not being coy about their belief in God but being careful about their conclusions. Aquinas does the same thing.

What Intelligent Design Isn’t

Many Christian intellectuals seem to think that ID theorists believe either God intervenes directly, or else natural processes are entirely responsible for what we see in nature. This is a false dilemma. God Himself is the one who made the natural laws, and He is free to use natural processes as instruments of His will (as secondary causes). As Professor Gage writes:

ID does not imply a zero-sum game where if God is responsible for something then He must act directly, and nature cannot be a true cause as well. Rather, the minimal claim is only that some features of our world give very good evidence of having been intelligently designed somewhere in their origin story.  What ID denies is that every feature of nature is the product of natural forces all the way down. 

Indeed, every Christian — and every traditional theist — should acknowledge God’s action in the creation of the universe. God had to be involved directly in the beginning at the very least, even if it was just to make the natural laws. However, it must also be pointed out, as Logan Gage writes, that “the view that God only acts in nature through natural laws is not the view of St. Thomas Aquinas or the Church.”13

An Accusation of Interventionism

Other Christians accuse ID of requiring interventionism — the idea that God intervenes in His creation through direct divine action. But ID does not make that claim. ID simply says that we can detect design and its effects, but not necessarily how the design was instantiated. Interventions are possible but not required. Nonetheless, Christianity doesclaim God intervenes in His creation directly. We call these acts miracles, and Christians must acknowledge at least two — the Incarnation and the Resurrection — though many others are described in Scripture as well. And here we have the odd phenomenon of some Christians decrying interventionism, as if it never, ever happens, and saying God only acts through natural causes.

Dr. Gage discusses another misconception — the idea that ID is mechanistic. Once again, this is a charge that is brought by Christians, not non-believers. A materialistic scientist is mechanistic, because, by definition, she believes there is only matter and energy acting in combination to produce everything. This is vastly different from the ID view. And it springs from a misunderstanding.

ID theorists speak of molecular machines. So do evolutionary biologists. But ID theorists do not make the claim that everything is mechanism and that living organisms are machines. Far from it. So where does this idea come from? Professor Gage writes:

The problem is a kind of reductionism that emerged out of early modern mechanical philosophy. It tended to treat organisms as nothing but the sum of their parts. ID theorists do not do this. Even if ID proponents thought that certain components of organisms are literal machines, it would be fallacious to infer that they are reductionists who think that whole organisms are machines. In truth, there is no general philosophy of nature presupposed in ID arguments, let alone a mechanistic Cartesian one.

I hope Gage’s words and mine have clarified what we mean by intelligent design and what we don’t mean. This way, the reader can read God’s Granderur as it is intended. Remember, intelligent design is the view that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process. The issue for ID is not how it was done, when it was done, to what extent it was done, or even who did it. (The last question, as I said, must await illumination from other fields, such as philosophy.) It’s simply this: the origin and operation of the universe and living things display clear evidence or purposeful design.