Intelligent Design: Science, Philosophy, or Theology?

Following Stephen Meyer’s talks in NZ, a few people will be thinking more about intelligent design. What is it, and why does it matter?

The central claim of the intelligent design movement is that design is 1) empirically detectable (distinguishable from ordinary ‘natural’ processes), and 2) instantiated in the natural world. 

There are different claims that fall under this idea of intelligent design. Probably most controversially, the claim is about certain aspects of biological organisms that are said to particularly clearly evince design, but other areas in which evidence of design is said to be found include cosmology, astronomy, and chemistry/biochemistry.

As such, intelligent design seems to be a scientific kind of hypothesis. Perhaps not purely scientific, if we decide, firstly that science must be constrained by methodological naturalism, and secondly that design as a kind of cause falls outside the appropriate definition of naturalism; but still dealing with the same general realm that science generally does. Perhaps ‘natural philosophy’ or ‘meta-science’ might do as a term.

Inferences about the nature of the design observed quickly move into philosophical territory. But the same is probably true when dealing with anything near the foundations of science. 

So, the concept that design is evinced in the natural world includes aspects of science and of philosophy. Intelligent design, however, is not theology. It comports well with some theological claims, for sure – but so does belief in scientific law, and no-one calls the work of theoretical physicists acts of theology.

Proponents of intelligent design often argue that Christians must believe in it, because the Bible says that the universe declares things about God. I disagree with them – it may be that, indeed, the universe declares things about God – but that the nature of the declaration is not scientific or empirical in quite the way that ID sees it. Reformed epistemologists such as Alvin Plantinga, for example, have spoken about design beliefs being a ‘properly basic’ response to the natural world, rather than based on what we’d think of as an evidence-based inference. His book ‘Where the conflict really lies’ is a fascinating discussion of many things relating to the ID question. There are lots of interesting theological questions over whether God provides us with ‘scientific’ evidence of his existence.

Atheistic opponents say that ID is merely theology disguised in thin pseudo-scientific garments. But I disagree with them too – ID is compatible with very many different kinds of theologies, including many non-traditional views of God/gods/spirit/aliens etc and complete agnosticism on the existence of any kind of deities. Theistic opponents argue on the other hand that it is insufficiently theological, failing to identify the designer as e.g. the God of biblical Christian theism. Given that ID doesn’t claim to be theology, the critique as often made seems misplaced. The fact that it gets flak from both atheists and theologians says to me that ID occupies a very interesting place!  Along similar lines, both atheists and people with a theological bent often argue that ID is simply a ‘god of the gaps’ approach – and so both bad reasoning and bad theology! Bad reasoning for ignoring other possible natural causes, and bad theology for implying that God only acts in ‘gaps’ in the natural order’. 

However, it may be (heresy as it is to suggest it) that we don’t actually live in a causally closed universe – all theists, I think, should be at least sympathetic to the possibility, and it may well be required by theism. If God, or some other mind, does genuinely intervene in nature at one or more points in history, then perhaps ordinary natural processes will not be sufficient to explain the products of such action. In some cases, the gap may be large enough, and the product of the action similar enough to what we would tend to see as ‘designed’ to legitimately infer the action of a designer. Theologically, it is perfectly coherent to say that God has multiple methods of action – sometimes He acts specially in history (e.g. at the resurrection), presumably in a way that isn’t entirely explicable in terms of physical law and the initial conditions of the universe. If He acted in that way then, then why not also in other cases? This doesn’t prevent us believing that He also upholds the universe from moment to moment, by way of the ‘ordinary’ means of physical law. It may also be, as suggested before, that God does intervene but that this is not detectable (at least definitively) by the scientific kinds of means employed by ID theorists – this seems to me to be an interesting open question.

Finally, a philosophical suggestion: the evidence for design suggested by ID arguments (spanning the gamut from cosmology to molecular biology), while not an exercise in theology per se, certainly has theological implications. The kind of mind revealed or at least implied by ID arguments (if they succeed – perhaps e.g. the arguments from cosmology do succeed, but those from biology don’t – as many theistic evolutionists seem to think) fits better with biblical Christian theism than it does with a vague kind of deism, panentheism, or such. On biblical Christian theism, we have reason to expect that God has an interest in life, and particularly in human life. On the existence of some unspecified kind of cosmic mind, we have less (if any) reason to expect the outcomes we see. The arguments offered by the intelligent design movement (whatever their merits) imply a broadly ‘personal’ God, rather than an impersonal computer somewhere out there.