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Non-Science of Intelligent Design?

Intelligent Design (ID) is the assertion that the universe and living things show signs of having been designed by an intelligent agent. This article provides a general discussion of ID and its relation to science and religion.

ID seems very much to support the idea of a creator; a superintellect who masterminded the whole universe. Strictly speaking, however, ID doesn’t make any claims as to the attributes of the intelligent designer; identifying the intelligent designer as God appears to be a natural conclusion.

Therefore, some religious people find a lure in the ID theory as it confirms their religious beliefs and counters the purely materialistic and naturalistic worldviews that either deny the existence of the Creator, or marginalize Him by making Him equivalent to nature or even subservient to the laws of nature.

Because of this, religious people may fall trap to the confirmation bias while evaluating ID. The confirmation bias is the tendency of humans to pay attention to, emphasize, and at many times overemphasize the evidence that confirms one’s own preexisting ideas.

At the same time, it is the tendency to de-emphasize, discard, or dismiss as unauthentic any evidence that disconfirms or refutes one’s preexisting beliefs and assumptions. Despite its potential, ID should be analyzed as objectively as possible lest one would only be affirming what he or she already believes in. We should strive to go beyond our biases while assessing the merits and demerits of ID. By doing so, we preserve the integrity of both religion and science.

What Is ID?

ID, according to leading ID theorist William Dembski 1, is committed to an ontological claim and an epistemological claim 2.

The ontological claim is that the universe shows signs of design, which is fundamentally distinct from chance and necessity 3.

The epistemological claim is that design can be observed and detected 4.

ID is a type of statistical inference where a hypothesis is rejected if the outcome falls within a region in the space of possible outcomes that has a very small probability given the hypothesis under investigation 5.

The outcome here may, for instance, be a biological organ, structure, or mechanism. The hypothesis is a scientific combination of chance and necessity that explains the outcome. By “very small probability” the ID researchers refer to a specific value of probability that takes the whole probabilistic resources of the universe into account. Dembski calls this value the “universal probability bound” and calculates it to be 1 in 10150. (That is, the universal probability bound is equal to one divided by one followed by 150 zeros–an extremely small number.6)

In other words, if the estimated probability of a biological structure emerging according to the Darwinian theory of evolution 7 is below the universal probability bound, then the organ is said to be designed because even if the whole probabilistic resources of the universe collaborate together to give rise to the structure, it is still highly unlikely to come to existence as determined by the Darwinian scenario.

Science and Types of Naturalism

For the sake of this discussion, naturalism8 can be classified into two types: metaphysical and methodological. Metaphysical (or ontological or anti-teleological) naturalism asserts that there is nothing in the universe but chance and necessity.

In this worldview, science relies on chance and necessity only, because nature itself constitutes a self-contained reality that exists, subsists, and operates solely on the basis of deterministic and nondeterministic laws.

Methodological (or pragmatic) naturalism, on the other hand, “pretends” that there is nothing but chance and necessity, for the purpose of advancing science and our understanding of nature in a coherent and systematic way 9.

It is clear that metaphysical naturalism ensues when one adopts methodological naturalism in addition to the belief that nature is the ultimate reality, and that science can explain everything. But can it?

Science does have its metaphysics and its own assumptions and beliefs that are taken for granted. These beliefs, such as the belief in the uniformity of nature, the comprehensibility of the universe, and causality, are very reasonable but they cannot be “proved” in a strict sense.

Many scientists look down on religion, because religion involves belief, not realizing that they themselves have their own biases and beliefs. This, of course, does not mean that science is a mere subjective project as claimed by some postmodernists, or that all beliefs are equally plausible.

A quick glance at how scientific theories are confirmed reveals that science is far from providing absolute certainty. Unfortunately, there are two extremes: one adopting science as the only means of discovering the truth, and another, aware of the shortcomings of the scientific methodology, denigrating science as an endeavor where reality plays a little role, if any, in the construction of scientific knowledge.

I adopt the middle position that recognizes the limitations of science but, at the same time, acknowledges the utmost importance of science as a superb source of knowledge about ourselves and our world 10.

Is ID Part of Science?

Non-Science of Intelligent Design? - About Islam

Metaphysical naturalism, also called ontological naturalism, philosophical naturalism and scientific materialism is a worldview which holds that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences, i.e., those required to understand our physical environment by mathematical modelling.

ID operates somewhere near the boundaries of science, and it can play an important role that is discussed below.

ID can’t be considered a part of science proper, however. It lacks the features that make it an acceptable scientific theory including the ability to make predictions to be verified by experiment.

For, if the conclusion is that there is an intelligent designer without knowing anything about his attributes and capabilities, how can we make testable predictions from that conclusion?

Though ID is grounded in science, its conclusion is very special and contradicts the methodological naturalism on which science is based. Science uses necessity, chance, or a combination of both to explain different phenomena.

It appears that methodological naturalism is the best way of doing science. Science aims at providing explanations for the phenomena present in the universe. To many religious people, God is the Creator. This provides an “ultimate” explanation to everything.

But since this belief explains everything, it does not help the scientific process. I can point at any natural system and say wholeheartedly that this is the work of God. But what can we do afterwards? It is methodological naturalism that allows us to explain a phenomenon in such a way that it can be utilized, hopefully for the benefit of humankind and to discharge the obligations of vicegerency11.

Having said so, one must also emphasize that methodological naturalism is not without problems. When combined with a belief in the unlimited explanatory power of science, it degenerates into metaphysical naturalism masqueraded as science.

This is manifest, for example, in the “science” of evolutionary psychology where all human good deeds are regarded as mere strategies for facilitating survival, and morality as an “adaptation” to further our reproductive ends12. The movement of ID is clearly motivated by such insults to our moral sensibilities, and by the disciplines that gain scientific recognition by demonstrating their unfettered commitment to metaphysical naturalism.

Powers (and Perils) of ID

If ID is not part of science proper, this doesn’t mean that it is useless. ID can provide a type of assessment of whether or not a proposed scientific explanation is adequate to explain a phenomenon. That is, ID is an excellent paradigm to define the plausibility of a set (or superset) of existing hypotheses.

Objectively speaking, if ID proves that the probability of a proposed explanation is below the universal probability bound, the best that can be said is that science, till now, cannot explain the phenomenon, assuming of course that the calculation is correct. If one trusts the calculation and thinks that it covers a whole set of hypotheses, then the conclusion may be that no scientific theory would be able to account for the observed phenomenon.

But one can also make the claims that: (a) the known mechanisms are operating in unknown ways, or (b) unknown mechanisms may be operative. This type of debate, unless there is a clear miscalculation, is often subjective and dependent on one’s views on the scope of scientific inquiry and investigation.

Put simply, ID can expose the inadequacy of a current explanation without making further judgments13. Based on one’s confidence in the ID calculation and one’s metaphysical framework, one can then proceed to form his or her metascientific conclusion.

Two arguments can be made. The first is that ID is an impediment to science as it moves from the deficiency of the current hypotheses to a statement that we will never succeed in explaining the phenomenon scientifically. This can be countered by another argument that ID, by showing the inadequateness of current explanations, may help awaken the scientists from their intellectual slumber, something that often takes place given the inertia of the scientific culture (and other cultures).

ID can be a motivator for scientists to think outside the box and try to propose alternative hypotheses. It is extremely unlikely that all the scientists will take an ID result and stop hunting for naturalistic explanations. The point is that ID may harm science, but ignoring it may also harm science. After all, everything has its share of merits and demerits.

Religion & Science: Final Word

Non-Science of Intelligent Design? - About Islam

Uniformitarianism is the principle or assumption that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe.

I completely agree with the assertion of ID that the universe shows signs of design. Nevertheless, I have the concern that ID may be a self-defeating exercise.

By insisting that the discernment of the existence of an intelligent designer is a clear-cut part of science, ID runs the risk of perpetuating the belief that science is the sole tool for searching for the truth, and that if one doesn’t make scientific arguments, then his or her case is null and void.

Though myself being a firm believer in science and the competence of the human intellect, I think the domain of science, albeit huge, is limited. Reason, revelation, experimentation, and intuition should form together the foundations of our knowledge. And, ultimately, it is revelation that provides answers to the really fundamental questions.


1- For the ideas and positions of the ID movement, I have mainly relied on Dembski’s writings. Books include: The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute, vol. 9 (coauthored with Michael J. Behe and Stephen C. Meyer), San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000; No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence, Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002; The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design, Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004. Articles include: In Defense of Intelligent Design; Reflections on Human Origins; Making the Task of Theodicy Impossible? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evil; etc. Dembski’s articles are available from http://www.designinference.com/

2- In philosophy, ontology is the study of being or existence, while epistemology is the study of the sources and scope of knowledge.

3- “Necessity” refers to deterministic laws.

4- In the exact words of Dembski from Making the Task of Theodicy Impossible? (see endnote 1), “[ID] is committed to an ontological claim and an epistemological claim. The ontological claim: Material mechanisms are incomplete—they are not coextensive with secondary causes. The epistemological claim: Design is empirically detectable.”

5- Statistical hypothesis testing is a procedure designed to confirm or disconfirm a set of hypotheses that are claimed to explain a certain phenomenon or a set of observations.

6- Given the age of the universe, the quantum requirement that the smallest possible time step is the Planck time (approximately 5.391e-44 seconds), and the number of particles in the universe, Dembski argues that the value of 1 in 10150 is a reasonable, and in fact highly conservative, universal probability bound.

7- In order to keep the focus on ID, I avoid any discussion of the Darwinian theory of evolution in this article.

8- Naturalism is a theory that denies that an event or object has a supernatural significance;specifically it is the doctrine that scientific laws are adequate to account for all phenomena.

9- Note that methodological naturalism does not imply that science has nothing to say about the supernatural. Imagine religion X that is based on a belief in a supernatural being who created the whole universe 30,000 years ago and mentioned this fact in no unequivocal terms to people in a revealed book. Accumulated scientific findings show that the text of religion X is simply not true though they do not at all falsify the existence of the creator. If the issue is not mentioned in the book of religion X clearly, i.e., it is open to a number of interpretations due to linguistic ambiguities, then it is the interpretation that the universe was created 30,000 years ago that is proven false. Other interpretations may survive the scientific attempts at falsification and require further investigation to ascertain their validity.

10- One example of a domain which I do not think science will completely solve its mysteries is that of “free will”—our ability to choose. Since free will means that humans have the capacity to transcend randomness, and genetic, psychological, and environmental determinism, science, with its insistence on the combination of chance and necessity, is unqualified to fully explain it. In fact, metaphysical naturalists, when they take their beliefs to their logical conclusion, consider that “free will” is a mere illusion, a fantasy that humans have created in order to survive the evolutionary struggle.

11- According to the Quranic account, God created Adam as a vicegerent on earth. Humans are supposed to conduct the affairs of the planet following a comprehensive moral code that defines their relationship vis-à-vis Allah, fellow humans, and the environment.

12- Dembski dedicates a section titled “Morality, Altruism, and Goodness” in his articleReflections on Human Origins (see endnote 1) to critically discuss evolutionary ethics and evolutionary psychology. As mentioned in endnote 5, I avoid going into the details of the evolutionary theory for the sake of keeping the focus on ID. For more information about evolutionary psychology, refer to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_psychology

13- That is the problem with the name “intelligent design.” I think the conclusion of the ID calculation should stop at showing the defect of an explanation.

This article was first published in 2009 and is currently republished for its relevance.