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Intelligent Design Theory (ID) is essentially a mutation of the Teleological Argument, in that it is an argument from design. What sets it apart from other theories of this kind is that it seeks specified complexity in nature. Basically this means that it looks for recognizable patterns that look like they may have been designed, and labels them as designed.

Proponents of this theory argue that such amazing things as biological structures are unlikely to have occurred at random. They have complex systems built into them that seem, if observed in the right light, to have been designed. Essentially, it is an attempt to take Occam's Razor to the design question.

The following of this theory has been growing, largely in recent years. It has been used primarily by opponents of Darwinism in an attempt to debunk the Theory of Natural Selection.

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The problems with the Intelligent Design Theory are many. The most obvious ones follow:

  • The entire theory depends far too much on the anthromorphizing of a 'designer', in that it assumes a designer would think as humans do. In my opinion, this is its principal flaw. (See: Stupid Design Theory)
  • It tries to pass itself off as scientific, but falls far short. Science is the observation of the empirical, and the study of the non-empirical, or a priori is completely in the sphere of philosophy. There are many adherents to the ID theory who say that it is wholly empirical. While it is true that finding specified complexity may be considered empirical, observing a designer of some kind is not. Therefore it is as philosophical as any other argument of its kind.
  • It is presented as a non-theological argument, yet most of its proponents are theists who think that it proves God exists. The Teleological Argument is far more to the point and doesn't try to present itself as science.
  • There is a large website (www.arn.org) with lots of information on this theory, and after looking at it for a while, it becomes clear that these people attempt to debunk Darwinism by hook or crook. They cite examples of incorrect drawings being used in schools to teach evolution, among many other things. If the ID theory held water, this sort of low-dealing would be unnecessary. The merit should lie in the argument, not in an attempt to dissect irrelevant things to make the argument look more appealing.
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Perhaps the best thing I can say about Intelligent Design Theory (ID for short) is that it makes for good debate. Having said that, it is important to note that the current incarnation of ID theory is essentially the same as that of William Paley. His book, Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1809) put forth the same argument that Michael J. Behe does in Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (1996).

This is not to say that the idea is bad because it is old; rather, it is to say that if one can make a convincing case that one is bad, one can also say the other is. I define bad in this case as not useful for its intended purpose. Both Paley and Behe are not out to add to the storehouse of science knowledge. Instead, for whatever reason, both are out to show that the existence of God can be demonstrated using empirical evidence. This can be shown to be bad for religion and for science and fails in its intended purpose--at least logically. ID theory appears to be gaining much ground through political means.

An interesting digression on this point is that ID theory is really just another form of the Doubting Thomas argument. Here is the context:

"The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe." John 20:25, King James Version.
The ID theorist is clearly like Thomas in this context, because the converse of the ID argument--that empirical proof of God is possible--is that ID theory needs the proof in question in order to support the claim that God created life. ID theory is holding up blood clotting cascades, bacterial flagella, and vesicular transport systems as the "print of the nails" constituting evidence of God. In that sense, ID theory runs against those who keep their faith separate from their empiricism.

In any event, common to Paley's and Behe's works is the claim that the best explanation for biological complexity is a supernatural intelligence. For example: Paley uses the analogy to a watch needing a watchmaker due to its complexity; Behe uses the flagellum of a bacterium to show that it is an outboard motor and so, like other outboard motors, required an intelligent designer. Paley argues that apparent imperfections in living things do not argue against a designer; Behe does the same in his book. The list goes on, and as I have time I will add to it.

My main objection to ID theory is that it uses poor analogies, such as comparing watchmaking (a natural exercise) to the creation of life (a supernatural exercise according to the argument), and exaggerated criticisms of mainstream science to try to discredit centuries of scientific effort. Absent is any concession that even if nature can't directly create a watch, it just might have been able to allow the formation of biomolecules, then DNA, then cells, then small animals and plants, then bigger animals and plants, then animals with backbones, animals with bigger brains, mammals, and finally humans, some of whom are good at making watches.

Creationists who infer the existence of God using the argument from design reveal their Christian prejudices. Even if we were to assume the intelligent design of, say, humans, application of Occam's Razor in light of current technology would lead to a conclusion of polytheism.

The canonical example is of a watch (the Watchmaker Theory). Observation of a watch would lead to the belief that it had been consciously designed and constructed, since a mechanism of such complex structure and function would not arise by chance in nature. The argument is extended by analogy to biological organisms, humans in particular, or perhaps the earth or the entire universe. Any of these are far more complex than the watch, so, creationists argue, they must have been consciously designed as well.

But a watch is far from the most complex system created by human effort and design. Perhaps a single watch could be the product of a lone watchmaker, but bigger machines, themselves incredibly complex agglomerations of dozens, perhaps hundreds of subsystems each at least as complex as the aforementioned watch, require the efforts of large teams.

Consider a jet aircraft: the complex aerodynamics that allow such a machine to fly take years of study to master. The aircraft's propulsion system is another matter entirely, and it's highly unlikely that the person responsible for designing the turbines is sufficiently expert in chemistry to be able to synthesize the fuel. Then we have electrical systems to worry about, navigation and flight control, landing gear, the list could go on for pages. And the engineers who did the design work likely aren't skilled enough machinists to actually build the aircraft parts to the extreme precision needed.

The Earth, or the human body, is a system far more complex than the most advanced flying machine. If such a system were the product of intelligent design, its creation would be far more plausible as the work of a large group of specialists than as the unique effort of the almighty autocrat of Christian theology. In the rather far-fetched case that we were designed by conscious effort, there was most likely a whole army of gods on the task.

The following is a paper I wrote for my The Challenge of Modernity class, CORE 152.

Jesus Saves Souls, But Can God Save the Phenomenon?: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theories in Favor of Darwinian Selection

According to Anthony Aveni, one of Colgate University’s Astronomy professors, the purpose of science is to “save the phenomenon”—that is, to provide a model which can explain data observed in empirical observation and predict the results of future such empirical attempts. While Aveni applies this understanding of science to his work with the stars, it is as crucial to our understanding of the process of evolution. After all, both fields of study share similar limitations—one cannot see the millennia-long process of biological evolution firsthand any more than one can experiment on a real star within a laboratory.

In both fields, however—and, in truth, this holds true for all of science—God has often been invoked as an explanation. Aveni speaks of “demons” who move the planets in elliptical orbits for no real reason. Similarly, both William Paley and Michael Behe have written arguments for an understanding of humans as originating from an intelligent design, i.e. God.

Paley’s argument is a version of the age-old teleological argument, and remains to this day the most elegant explaining of said argument. The teleological argument states that the existence of complex order in the universe implies the existence of a creator. Paley compared the most complex items he could think of—humans—to a watch. He claimed that a watch, having complex and seemingly purposeful elements, implied a maker. Did it not then follow that human beings implied a maker as well? “What could a . . . maker have done more to show his knowledge of his principle, his application of that knowledge . . . ?” (Paley 44).

While Paley’s take on intelligent design is pre-Darwinian and relies mostly on philosophy, Robert Behe’s arguments are post-Darwinian and biological in nature. According to Behe, if there can be shown to be complexity which is irreducible—that is, unable to function without all of its parts and therefore not able to come into being through evolution—then one must accept Intelligent Design as least hypothesis. Through a convoluted line of reasoning centering on the biochemistry of blood chemistry, Behe believes that humans are examples of such irreducible complexity.

But can God ever be the least hypothesis? It would seem that invoking intelligent design fails to ever save a phenomenon: beyond the phrase “Intelligent Design” or “God,” no workable model of the phenomenon can be constructed. Certainly, there is no capability to predict beyond the empirical data we currently possess. In short, we are left with a situation that is not paradigmatic of what science is or how it works.

Of course, this is not really refuting Paley or Behe. Just as there may well be demons who are moving the lights in the sky, it may be that there is an Intelligent Designer who created humans and the world they live in. Furthermore, s/he may have done so only an instant ago, and given us implanted memories and deliberately misleading archaeological evidence. We will never know that this is not the case. However, this path leads to psychosis, and represents nothing more than idle speculation.

It does not seem that it falls within the realm of human capability to know what is “actually” happening in some objective universe. It is instead left to us to structure our experience in such a way as to make it intelligible to our own selves. If we can structure our experience in such a way so that we need not rely on Intelligent Design, than that structure is more capable of explaining the world we live in. This is what science is, no more.

But what of Behe’s claim that Intelligent Design is the only way of explaining biological phenomena? Surely Behe underestimates the power of the human mind, if he believes there is no way of structuring the data without relying on Intelligent Design. Note that this statement can be made a priori, without actually refuting Behe’s theory or constructing an alternate model (although we will attempt to do this later). The creative power of the human mind is infinite.

How is Darwin’s explanation superior? It provides a explanation of the origin of species—and, thus, humans—without the need for a reference to a deity. Darwin attempts to create a model of events, albeit imperfect, which actually, to some degree or other, is capable of explaining the data in a way that Intelligent Design theory is not, actually integrating the data. This is Darwin’s avowed purpose from the beginning: “It occurred to me . . . that something might perhaps be made out on the question of the origin of the species by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it” (1).

Darwin postulated a process, called natural selection, through which species would gradually change in their characteristics, and through which wholly new species would rise from older ones. Darwin was able to find causes in the natural world, namely in “the struggle for existence leading to the preservation of each profitable deviation of structure or instinct” (459).

It is not surprising if Darwin’s explanation is found to be not the “correct” one, as more empirical data is revealed, necessitating a potentially different model. This is the process of science; no model of the universe ever remains static for long. However, Darwin’s system is superior to Behe’s just by not needing to rely on an Intelligent Designer.

It is, however, possible to reply to Behe’s objections to Darwin. To do so on the biological and chemical levels is far beyond my area of expertise (although I trust those who have in turn objected to Behe), but a few concepts can be said on a more abstract level. The more complex a manifold is, the more difficult to be sure it is complex irreducibly. A mousetrap, for example, is a clear example of irreducible complexity (as Behe claims) when one looks at it as having a small number of distinct parts. But what if one sees each molecule as a separate and distinct part? Certainly, a mousetrap would still work even if many of its molecules were missing. With the near infinite complexity of even a small part of the human body, it seems to be unclear how anyone would be able to come to the conclusion that this complexity would be irreducible. Certainly, it would be impossible to know this with perfect certainty.

Teleological arguments like those of Paley or Behe can be attractive, but ultimately are little more than an excuse to stop the process of scientific inquiry by ascribing all empirical data to “God.” The existence of order in the universe—even order that at first glance seems to be infinitely or irreducinly complex—does not imply the existent of a designer, especially when the order is not necessarily intrinsic to the universe itself. Order is perceived in the universe through the process of science, by our attempts to make the universe intelligible. Otherwise, we would not be able to make sense of our environment, and could not survive. When seen in this light, it is not surprising we see order in the universe, or in ourselves.

This perspective is that of the anthropic principle. For me, it is the most convincing response to teleological arguments such as those of Paley and Behe. The fact that evolution has resulted in creatures as complicated as us does not need to depend on a God or an Intelligent Design. It is the obvious corollary of the fact we do, indeed, exist.

At least, I do. I’m not so sure about you.

Works Consulted

Aveni, Anthony. Course lectures. ASTR 102, “Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe.”
Behe, Michael. “Darwin’s Black Box.” Course handout for CORE 151J.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. 1859. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 2001
Paley, Wiliam. “Natural Theology.” Course handout for CORE 151J.

The important point to remember here is that just because someone doesn’t agree with Creationist Intelligent Design doesn’t mean they reject God.

The biggest reason that Creationist ID fails as a science is because it isn’t defined in any clarity at all. Darwin defined what evolution is and explained its mechanisms very carefully and clearly.

Can Creationist ID proponents say the same? How closely to Bible lore does ID hew to? Did God create everything in 7 days about 5,000 years ago? I want to see a paper that clearly lays out the argument on Creationist ID as opposed to all the current method that relies on attacking evolution.

For example, I personally believe that there is something greater than us, but that no person alive knows the nature of the miracle. Who is to say that evolution is not the mechanism established to create intelligence in this universe?

Any dynamic system needs processes to maintain and improve it, and life is dynamic, not static. Evolution as an adaptation mechanism is vital to ensure life can survive in the face of an environment subject to change from influences both local (hurricanes and volcanoes) and extreme (asteroid strike).

What if God is in the details? Just establishing a universe with consistent laws and mechanisms that function in a way that fosters life is a divine achievement. Why can't the "big bang" be the first push of the domino?

Sadly, so far every ID argument I have encountered is a disingenuous repackaging of creationism that ignores most of the facts involved.

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