Not Intelligent, Surely Not Science

by Michael Shermer

According to Intelligent Design Theory (IDT), life is too specifically complex (complex structures with specific functions, like DNA) and irreducibly complex (reduce a complex structure by one part and it loses its function, like eyes) to have evolved by natural forces. Therefore, life must have been created by a supernatural force – an Intelligent Designer (ID). ID theorists argue that since design can be inferred through the methods of science, IDT should be given equal time alongside evolutionary theory in public school science classes. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, and Tennessee have all recently proposed legislation that would require just that.

The evolution-creation legal controversy began in 1925 with the Scopes’ “monkey” trial over the banning of the teaching of evolution in Tennessee. The media attention generated by the trial caused textbook publishers and state boards of education to cease teaching evolution altogether, until the post-Sputnik scare rejuvenated science education in the 1960s. Creationists responded by passing equal-time laws that required the teaching of both creationism and evolution, a strategy defeated in a 1968 Arkansas trial in which the court ruled that the law was as an attempt to establish a religious position in a public school and was therefore unconstitutional. This led to a third strategy of passing equal time laws for “creation-science” and “evolution-science,” that in 1987 ultimately found its way to the Supreme Court of the United States. By a vote of 7 to 2 (Rehnquist and Scalia dissenting), the Court determined that a Louisiana act requiring public school teachers to teach creation-science “is facially invalid as violative of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because it lacks a clear secular purpose” and that the act “impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.”

This history explains why ID proponents are careful never to specify the nature of ID and to insist that what they are doing is science. For example, leading ID scholar William Dembski wrote in his 2003 book, The Design Revolution: “Intelligent design is a strictly scientific theory devoid of religious commitments. Whereas the creator underlying scientific creationism conforms to a strict, literalist interpretation of the Bible, the designer underlying intelligent design need not even be a deity.”

Intelligent Design Theory is not science. The proof is in the pudding – scientists, including scientists who are Christians, do not use IDT when they do science because the theory offers nothing in the way of testable hypotheses. Lee Anne Chaney, Professor of Biology at Whitworth College, a Christian institution, wrote in a 1995 article in Whitworth Today: “As a Christian, part of my belief system is that God is ultimately responsible. But as a biologist, I need to look at the evidence. Scientifically speaking, I don’t think intelligent design is very helpful because it does not provide things that are refutable—there is no way in the world you can show it’s not true. Drawing inferences about the deity does not seem to me to be the function of science because it’s very subjective.”

Intelligent-design theory lacks, for instance, a hypothesis of the mechanics of the design, something akin to natural selection in evolution. Natural selection can and has been observed and tested, and Charles Darwin’s theory has been refined.

ID theorists admit as much. At a 2002 conference on Intelligent Design, leading ID scholar William Dembski said: “Because of ID’s outstanding success at gaining a cultural hearing, the scientific research part of ID is now lagging behind.” In 2004, ID theoretician Paul Nelson wrote in Touchstone, a Christian magazine: “We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’ – but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.”

If ID is not science, then what is it? In a 2005 web article on “Intelligent Design’s Contribution to the Debate over Evolution,” Dembski wrote: “Thus, in its relation to Christianity, Intelligent Design should be viewed as a ground-clearing operation that gets rid of the intellectual rubbish that for generations has kept Christianity from receiving serious consideration.” IDT founder Phillip Johnson, a law professor at U.C. Berkeley, wrote in a 1999 article in Church & State magazine: “The objective is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.’”

On March 9, 2005, I debated ID scholar Stephen Meyer at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. After two hours of debate over the scientific merits (or lack thereof) of IDT, Meyer finally admitted in the question-and-answer period that he thinks ID is the Judeo-Christian God and that sub-optimal designs and deadly diseases are not examples of an unintelligent or malevolent designer, but instead were caused by “the Fall” of man in the Garden of Eden. Dembski has also told me privately that he believes ID is the God of Abraham.

In my latest book, Science Friction, I address IDT’s scientific claims point by point, so here I would like to address the underlying problem with the theory. “Intelligent Design” is nothing more than a linguistic place filler for something unexplained by science. It is saying, in essence, that if there is no natural explanation for X, then the explanation must be a supernatural one. IDers cannot imagine, for example, how the bacterial flagellum (such as the little tail that propels sperm cells) could have evolved; ergo, they conclude, it was intelligently designed. But saying “ID did it” does not explain anything. Scientists would want to know how and when ID did it, and what forces ID used. Invoking ID as God’s place filler can only result in the naturalization of the deity. God would simply become another part of the natural world, and thereby lose all of the transcendent mystery and numinous praxis that delimits religion and science.

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