Is Intelligent Design Dead?

William Blake Ancient of DaysA decade ago Intelligent Design with a capital I and a capital D was a hot topic. A major trial testing the teaching of the ID in Pennsylvania was decided in late 2005 and Stephen C. Meyer’s massive book Signature in the Cell was published in 2009. It was a common topic in evangelical churches – viewed as a way to combat the evil influence of evolution. Quite frankly, it was a topic I was ready to see disappear. The controversy was tainting most conversations about Christianity in my circles at the University. Today there are other points of contention and Intelligent Design has moved to the back pages.

Is Intelligent Design dead?

Should it be? Is there merit to the idea, and if so where?

To be clear every Christian believes that the world is intelligently designed for a purpose. Although this is a point of contention for some in the secular world, it isn’t a point of controversy for Christians. From the young earth creationist to the evolutionary creationist and everyone between, we believe that God is at work in the world and humans are part of his plan and purpose. We are not merely a stop in the purposeless, contingent ramble of life forms through the space of biological possibility.

The Intelligent Design movement is different and goes beyond this. The hypothesis is that an intelligence behind the world can be identified empirically in the complexity of life. In his book The Faithful Creator, Ron Highfield spends some time digging into the ID movement and the theological implications of this idea. In particular he deals with William Dembski’s work on information content in DNA.

According to Dembski, studying DNA with the same methods researchers use to seek for signs of extraterrestrial intelligent life compels us to conclude that DNA bears the marks of intelligent design: contingency, complexity, and specificity. … The random mutation (chance) and natural selection (law) mechanisms of Darwinian theory, contends Dembski, cannot account for biological objects that exemplify “specified complexity.” Darwinian law and chance can do a good job “conserving, adapting, and honing already existing biological structures,” but they cannot account for the origin of these information rich structures. (pp. 161-162)

Although intelligent design theory alone says nothing about the designer per se, the existence of a designer leaves an obvious place where theology and science can be mutually supportive.

Highfield doesn’t find this a particularly useful scientific or theological approach.

The Bible declares that God created the world and that it proclaims the glory of its Maker. Intuitively and in faith, believers from ancient times to today sense the presence of the divine hand in the vastness, power, beauty, and order of creation. … But intelligent design theory does something different. It argues that what is believed by faith and experienced intuitively can be supported empirically, that is, by the same methods and data that support contemporary biological or cosmological theories. It argues that information, which wieghs nothing, occupies no space, does not reflect light and does not undergo change through time, can be detected by empirical means. (p. 162)

However, the best empirical evidence for intelligence isn’t found in the pattern of DNA but in the existence of intelligence in the universe. This is complexity at its highest. In fact, the sciences that look for intelligence … forensic science, information theory, cryptography etc. … rely on intelligence to detect intelligence. “Only a mind can detect information or the activity of another mind.” (p. 163)

Intelligent design theory as an empirical science alone cannot get us to a designer. It cannot offer an alternative to biological evolution. There is no reason to set it up against modern science as science. On the other hand, as a philosophical argument – reasoning from intelligence to intelligence – it has something to offer.

Consider the following (from p 163-164).

  1. We experience our own minds and their ideas.Some of the content of our minds seems to correspond to a reality outside of our minds, most profoundly other minds.
  2. We also experience things that seem merely to resist us and exclude us. They are opaque and unintelligible. We have only external relationships to them, and we assume that they have only external relationships to each other. The technical term for this reality is matter.

Given this we have three choices. (1) Idealism that reduces everything to the life of the mind, the kind of antirealism popular at times. (2) Materialism that reduces everything to physical laws with the mind an illusion. Reductionist materialism of this sort is common in the scientific literature. Turning back to Tuesday’s post, the most powerful critique of much sociobiology and evolutionary psychology from a Christian perspective is that it rests firmly on a foundation of reductionist materialism. (3) A dualism that recognizes both mind and matter as eternal.

Had Dembski argued from the mind’s perception of the pervasive presence of intelligible reality with in the universe, in itself and other human minds, in biological structures, in cosmological laws and in the micro world of subatomic structures to the existence of a cosmic mind, his argument would demand attention. It would be built on a primitive , undeniable and universal human experience. (p. 164)

Intelligent Design as a scientific method to undermine evolutionary biology is doomed to fail. Certainly no attempt to demonstrate empirical evidence for design presented to-date has been convincing to any but the already committed. But evolution is not the important front in the culture war of our day. Ontological naturalism, reductionist materialism, these are the important fronts. Just maybe the philosophical thinking behind intelligent design – the existence of intelligence – can make an impact here. At least this is what Highfield is suggesting.

What do you think?

Does the experienced reality of the mind and our interaction with other minds provide evidence for the existence of an intelligent creator/designer?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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