Straw Men Aside, What Is the Theory of Intelligent Design, Really?
Casey Luskin August 10, 2013 6:33 AM
Part A: What Intelligent Design Is Not
Many critics of intelligent design have promoted false, straw-man versions of ID, typically going something like this:
Intelligent design claims that life is so complex, it could not have evolved, therefore it was designed by a supernatural intelligence.
Of those many ID critics who have promoted this false definition, some know it is a falsehood: I call them “Type I” critics. Others, whom I call “Type II” critics, actually believe the false version to be true but only because they have been misled by Type I critics. Of course it’s not always easy to distinguish the two groups. In the Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling, for example, Judge Jones adopted the plaintiff’s false version of intelligent design — making him, according to my paradigm, a Type II critic, even though ID had been explained to him repeatedly in the courtroom what ID really is. Since Judge Jones knew how ID proponents define their theory, but nonetheless mischaracterized it, does this make him a Type I critic instead? Who can really know?
In any case, there are two main components of this definition, both false:
1. ID is NOT merely a negative argument against evolution
The first problem with the critics’ definition is that it frames ID as merely a negative argument against evolution. In fact, ID offers a strong positive argument, based on finding in nature the type of information and complexity that, in our experience, comes from intelligence alone. I will explain this positive argument further in Part B of this article. Those who claim ID is nothing more than a negative argument against evolution are misrepresenting ID.
2. ID is NOT a theory about the designer or the supernatural
The second problem with the critics’ definition of ID is that it suggests the theory is focused on studying the designer. The claim is that it specifically invokes supernatural forces or a deity. But ID is not focused on studying the actual intelligent cause responsible for life, but rather studies natural objects to determine whether they bear an informational signature indicating an intelligent cause. All ID does is infer an intelligent cause behind the origins of life and of the cosmos. It does not seek to determine the nature or identity of that cause. As William Dembski explains:
Intelligent design is the science that studies signs of intelligence. Note that a sign is not the thing signified. … As a scientific research program, intelligent design investigates the effects of intelligence, not intelligence as such.1
Similarly, Michael Behe explains that we can detect design even if we don’t know anything about the identity or nature of the designer:
The conclusion that something was designed can be made quite independently of knowledge of the designer. As a matter of procedure, the design must first be apprehended before there can be any further question about the designer. The inference to design can be held with all the firmness that is possible in this world, without knowing anything about the designer.2
Behe even suggests that “[i]ntelligent design does not require a candidate for the role of the designer.”3
ID limits its claims to what can be learned from empirical data, meaning that it does not try to address questions about the identity or nature of the designer. While the empirical data allow us to study natural objects and determine whether they arose from an intelligent cause, such data simply may not allow us to determine the identity or nature of the intelligent cause.