Friday, February 12, 2010

Intelligent Design involves Intelligence?

Creationists and Evolutionists are a curious mixture. Throw them together and there will be more fireworks than in a Chinese New Year celebrations. Along came Intelligent Design (ID) and some Christians gave a sigh of relief. This sigh may be too premature as Stephen Barr, professor of physics of the University of Delaware points out in The End of Intelligent Design? published in First Things online

It is time to take stock: What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.
Very few religious skeptics have been made more open to religious belief because of ID arguments. These arguments not only have failed to persuade, they have done positive harm by convincing many people that the concept of an intelligent designer is bound up with a rejection of mainstream science.

He concludes,
I suspect that some religious people have embraced the ID movement’s arguments because they want “scientific” answers to the scientific atheists, and they know of no others. But there are plenty of ways to make a case for the reasonableness of religious belief that can be persuasive to many in the scientific world. Such a case has been made by a growing number of research scientists who are Christian believers, such as John Polkinghorne, Owen Gingerich, Francis Collins, Peter E. Hodgson, Michal Heller, Kenneth R. Miller, and Marco Bersanelli. I have addressed many audiences myself using arguments similar to theirs and have had scientists whom I know to be of firm atheist convictions tell me that they came away with more respect for the religious position. Religion has a significant number of friends (and potential friends) in the scientific world. The ID movement is not creating new ones.


  1. Barr sounds a little harsh. IMO, I.D. has helped brought to light (or engaged deeper):

    - the concept of complexity, esp. Michael Behe's bio-chemical work and the 'irreducible complexity' of nano-machines. at the very least, folks like Dawkins have more work cut out now (hopefully reducing the triumphalism)?

    - reverse engineering, something which (I suspect) evolutionists aren't "allowed" to posit if they believe that everything happened by blind chance. Only a belief in deliberate design enables the use of reverse-engineering to then determine why certain pieces are where they are

    Whilst I'm sure guys like Will Dembski and Phil Johnson wouldn't mind the (greater?) buy-ins' by religious skeptics, I don't think this was the overt purpose of the ID movement. ID is, if i'm not wrong, the *scientific* study /(of the) hypothesis that certain elements of the natural world *could not have evolved gradually* as per Darwin's theory.

    At this point, I wonder if certain evolutionists are being 'anti-scientific' in their (virtual?) dogma that something like ID is in principle denied i.e. I wonder if evolution is often seen as non-falsifiable. ID-ers, at the very least, are asking the Darwinists to either state that they adopt this principle OR to show how something as complex as the bacteria flagella could've evolved *gradually* over time.

  2. Hi Alywn,

    While complexity and reverse engineering are issues for discussion, we need to identify the earlier teleological argument for God's existence and the modern ID movement as identified by Barr.

    Modern ID claim itself to be scientific and that science as we know it needs to be redefined to allow for God or a Designer. It is an interesting approach as instead of proving their case, they are challenging the scientists to disprove their cases. It's asking your opponents to do all the work.

    I'll be interested to hear more of your take on this.

  3. hi Alex,

    happy new Tiger year to you :)

    I've read a couple of ID books, and I feel the debate lies in a few areas:

    - the level of complexity 'required' to prove a Designer. you mentioned that they haven't "proven their work", but the question we should ask is how much 'proof' is required? If Behe's mapping of the process involved in, say, the creation of eye-sight isn't enough - and I'm not necessarily saying it is - then what is?

    This is the thing about complexity which even the ID guys have 'admitted': there is no 'absolute' non-controversial level where we can say that a Designer has been at work and/or hasn't. E.g. I could argue that my Nokia handphone is far LESS complex than how antibodies in our bodies work (and therefore that we couldn't posit the creation of the antibody system as having been evolved by chance), but how could we arbitrate?

    - the philosophical principles allowed under scientific investigation i.e. are scientists required to reject (in principle!) the presence of a meta-Scientific Designer? Is this question ALLOWED to be posed at all?

    Maybe this is where the very issue of what 'counts' as science (and thus what counts as scientific) emerges. Can we allow for the scientific study of the possibility of a meta-scientific Designer or is this very subject of inquiry barred from the start? I reckon Dawkins would demand the latter scenario holds.

    As for the early teleological arguments, I would imagine that yes the ID movement is the 'new improved' argument from Design, the major difference between that most of its proponents are scientists making a case from the complexity of the phenomenon under study (e.g. Stephen Meyer has a new book on DNA out).

  4. btw, have you read Behe's "Darwin's Black Box"? good stuff.

  5. Hi Alwyn,

    Thanks for your interesting comments. Yes, I have read Behe's book when it was first published in 1996 concerning his biochemical thesis on 'irreducibly complex' construct and earlier in 1991, Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial.

    You are right to point out 'at what level' is 'proof' acceptable. It can only be arbitrary at best and unlikely to be acceptable to both parties.

    We have to be careful in our definition of science not to narrow it too much and not to treat it as a monolithic system. Physics and mathematics offer more room for science and science-beyond (metaphysical) than say chemistry and biology.

    My concern about modern ID is about their logical reasoning, fairness in listening to the other side, and its political-cultural-religious agenda.

    There is a good discussion going on in the Jesus Creed.

    Happy CNY!

  6. Kam Weng will weigh in on ID in the next edition of Kairos. Do check it out.

    I do agree w Alwyn tat Barr is a bit harsh. In terms of people who have been convinced by ID-like arguments is none other than the former atheist biggie Anthony Flew

    His conversion to a form of deism is triggered such arguments.

    For example, he said : ‘What I think the DNA material has done is show that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements together. . . The enormous complexity by which the results were achieved look to me like the work of intelligence".

    "I think that the most impressive arguments for God’s existence are those that are supported by recent scientific discoveries. . . I think the argument to Intelligent Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it."

    So it has convinced some though not all people. ID proponents do not merely invite people to disprove their case but to also propose a positive case.

    This is done by spelling out mathematically (Stephen Meyer?) what we recognize intuitively as design to be 'specified complexity'... and then proceed to look for examples of biological systems that show such traits.

    I'd like to think ID is still a live option and may a hundred models of faith-science integration bloom!

  7. Hi Hedonese,

    I look forward to Kam Weng's article.

    Thank you for sharing your opinion. I have always valued your feedback.