Brief thought on the problems of intelligent design

I have been asked why I think that ID is problematic. It's a good question so here are my brief and inadequate thoughts on why I find it unhelpful.

The problem with it is its tendency to look for God in the gaps of scientific explanations. Irreducible complexity is seen as evidence of God because science cannot (in principle, we are told) explain it. If future science did actually explain any alleged instances of irreducible complexity then such instances would cease to be evidence of God.

The problem here is that God is pictured as one being among others (albeit a more intelligent and powerful one) acting as a cause in the world in the same manner as other causes act in the world.

The reason that this is a problem is that classical theology did not picture God in this manner — as a being, as one cause among and alongside others. Rather divine Being was of a fundamentally different kind from creaturely being and divine causation acted at a different level altogether. God was the one who imparted be-ing to the whole of created reality and who enabled all of the powers of causation within creation to be. So God was the explanation for the whole but was not to be found in the gaps.

The explanations of the empirical sciences function at the level of secondary causation within the created order and pay no attention to metaphysical questions of primary causation. As such, God does not feature in scientific explanations. This is unproblematic so long as scientists don't imagine that reality can be encompassed within the realm of what science can explain — that road ends up collapsing in on itself. Treating some things in the world (but not others) as the result of God rather than of inner-creational causes is to mix up these different levels of explanation. Setting divine and creational causes up in opposition as some kind of zero sum game is unhelpful.

Furthermore, the MOST that ID could ever demonstrate is that certain things in the world (but not the the world as a whole) were designed by a very intelligent (though not omni-intelligent) and powerful (though not all-powerful) being. But such a being is more like an archangel than God and of such a being we may still ask, "Who designed it?" for it would certainly not be the kind of thing that could explain its own existence. This intelligent designer would be as infinitely removed from God as a flea.

I am not for one moment suggesting that those who believe in God will not look at complex systems within creation that ID proponents look at and marvel at how they manifest God's goodness and power — after all, such complex systems live and move and have their being in God, manifesting the Divine Logos — but that is a very different issue from seeking to find them as evidence of direct divine intervention. There be dragons!


Alastir Noble said…
Dear Robin,

You miss the point about ID at several levels. ID does not argue from what we don't know but from what we do know. So the fine tuning of universal constants, the irreducible complexity of many biological systems, and the massive information bank in DNA are clear pointers to design and intelligent causation. There are no gaps there. The inference to design is wholly scientific. The reason why the scientific consensus does accept ID is because it has become defined by the philosophy of naturalism and excludes intelligent causes before it examines them. That is dogma not science. The only gaps I know of, and they are huge, are in evolutionary theory. Why do Christians feel obliged to bow down to what is simply philosophical bias and scientific nonsense - ie a universe out of nothing and life by accident? This is what makes Richard Dawkins 'an intellectually satisfied atheist'. As a scientist I prefer ID - at least it remains true to the empirical evidence and does not propose nonsensical hypotheses about origins. Dr Alastair Noble, Eaglesham.
Robin Parry said…
Thanks Alastir

I agree with you that philosophical naturalism is no more than a philosophical bias. In fact, I think that it is likely incoherent, or at least verges on being self-refuting. I don't see it as having anything to do with science so I am not sure whether it is scientific nonsense — it is simply outside of the domain of science. If a scientist embraces that position that is fair enough but it is not a scientific position to embrace. Or so it seems to me.

However, the position I am setting out is not at all bowing the knee to naturalism. It is no more than classical Christian theology and it long pre-dated the scientific revolution and debates about science and God.

You are correct that Darwinian naturalism won't work for reasons pointed out by Plantinga and many others (though there is not a similar philosophical problem with theistic evolution, as Plantinga also points out). The problem is not evolution per se but evolution combined with philosophical naturalism. I am an evolutionist. I am not a naturalist.

Dawkins is only intellectually satisfied because he has not thought carefully enough about metaphysics. His whole case is predicated on a misunderstanding about the meaning of the word "God." What he rejects is not God but a god. Well, that was never what Christians traditionally believed in anyway so ... big deal.

Do I misunderstand ID? Perhaps, although it is not clear to me that I do. Perhaps you can clarify things for me. Take the bacterial flagellum as an instance of irreducible complexity. Are you saying that this is not brought about by means of secondary causes internal to creation? I had taken it that you were saying this.

I would be interested to know what your thoughts are on my more substantial points: that the intelligent designer falls infinitely short of being the God of traditional Christianity. In short, the most one can show that he is is an intelligent and powerful designer of some parts of the universe. (Or might it be an intelligent design team? As Hume pointed out, we cannot be sure that there is only one of them.)

(To repeat what I said in the post, I do think that the order of the world is the way it is because of the Divine Logos. So I do see divine order in DNA and the like. But I remain very cautious about ID.)
Caleb said…
Dr. Noble,

Didn't you mean "the reason why the scientific consensus does NOT accept ID". Thank you for your response by the way. This is in line with how I have seen ID.


Thanks for your response to my question! I'll be interested in your response to Dr. Noble.
O.R. Pagan said…
If I read and understand the comments correctly, one of the issues is the scientific problem of the origin of life. Biological evolution has nothing to say about that. Also, biological evolution has random components, whether it be gene mutations, duplications and what you, but the selection of the traits influenced by such mutations is anything but random. My two cents...
Dr. O.R. Pagan
(And Pagan is my real last name... It seems to have come from Scotland in the 1600s... (:-)...)
Robin Parry said…
Dr Pagan

natural selection may have little or nothing to say about the very origins of life. I don't know. I am not a biologist. I tend to think of natural selections getting to work only after you have basic life. My understanding of it was that it was offered as an explanation of how life evolves.

However, this is not at all to say that we should look for direct divine acts at the origins of life. I expect that there is some scientific account for the origins of biological life. That seems a very reasonable presumption given what we know of God's creation.

Such a scientific explanation would in no way threaten the notion that God is the creator. Not even an incy wincey bit.

I don't look for God in gaps. What science cannot explain (and as a matter of logic never could) is the existence of the whole contingent order of reality. It is God that holds the cosmos in being by his powerful word. It is God that is the prime cause of everything that science investigates.

There are currently very big problems with scientific accounts of the origins of life and none of those I have come across sound even close to doing the job, but to pin our theology on science never getting there is a mistake (in my opinion)
Anonymous said…
Robin, your post was tremendously helpful in advancing my understanding. I have been instinctively hesitant to embrace ID because of something you point out here.

If I may rephrase the understanding this post granted me:

There is no empirical evidence OR lack of empirical evidence that can prove (or disprove, for that matter) the existence of a supernatural Creator.

ID is a fine thing, I think, as long as it remains a philosophy of wonder and not assertion. "Wow -- look at the characteristics of that design!" is a far cry from the argument from ignorance ID has often become.

Caleb said…

A few thoughts:

Intelligent Design does not claim the designer is the God of Christianity. It could be an archangel , it could be a “design team”, it could be the God of the Bible. I don’t understand why you say it couldn’t be more than an archangel. I think its true that it couldn’t be PROVEN to more than an archangel, but that is not what ID claims.

ID does not make claims about how design happened: It could have been all front-loaded biologically from the beginning or God could have “tinkered along the way”. (Intervening miraculously at one or more points) I tend to think that there was some sort of biological front-loading.

It is critical of the Darwinian Mechanism of Natural Selection and Random Variation (or Mutation, in neo-Darwinism) as sufficient explanation to explain novel biological features. It is critical of any non-teleological explanation, as in Theistic Evolution, which basically embraces standard evolutionary theory.

It does not reject evolution, or even common descent.

I have heard various opinions from those sympathetic to the movement as to whether Intelligent Design is better categorized as a Science or a philosophy.



Josh Vanhee said…
Hi Robin, I came to your blog through a friend's post on facebook, and just want to point out my appreciation for the thoughtful post. As an unbeliever (ex-believer) I do take issue with one comment from one of the posts:
Dawkins is only intellectually satisfied because he has not thought carefully enough about metaphysics. His whole case is predicated on a misunderstanding about the meaning of the word "God." What he rejects is not God but a god. Well, that was never what Christians traditionally believed in anyway so ... big deal. "
This made me laugh out loud - the comment about Dawkins. The point is, why would he - or anyone - have to reflect on metaphysics, if meta is nothing but what you imagine beyond physics? To be a naturalist does appear to be a bad word here, but I was honestly very disappointed with Platinga's arguments and with the laziness in trying to keep up with at least the last 20 years of scientific progress. The same can be said for ID. The theories surrounding quantum physics lend a new depth to the extent of chaos in and around us, and as Einstein himself said in his etheric theism, the extent of this chaos made him uncomfortable and he hoped for this to be disproven. Rather than being little islands of order in a universe of chaos, our bodies seem to equally be made up of the same amount of chaos and order.
Next, this makes it very clear that the most useful and necessarily default position for scientific progress is the one where, at the very least, you keep the concept of God locked up in a closet. That is why I agree with Dawkins to not let any god into the equation, because it will just muddle the picture and slow down our inquisitiveness. If there were an outside team of creators, then we are discovering an increasing degree of subterfuge on their part to hide their actions, rather than display them. If there is any god, though, I do like the multiple ones from Greek mythology - makes for a great ongoing universal soap.
O.R. Pagan said…

Granted, nobody knows exactly how "everything came to be". I was merely stating a clarification on a common misconception about evolution & the origin of life. True enough, the actual mechanism (s) that account for the phenomenon of life are poorly -if at all- understood. Oh, and i am not anti-theist, far from it. At my personal FB profile I state something in the lines of "I am a Christian (or at least, I am trying to be...) -sometimes. I believe, sometimes I do not and most times I am halfway there, one direction or the other; does that makes sense? Also, a churchgoer not because I believe but because (1) I would love to and (2) I want to have someone to thank for my life and experiences on this planet."

I am interested on the faith-science relationship, but. I know next to nothing about theology and a thing or two about science. I have a blog where I explore this among several other topics. I think you would like to read one of my blogposts mainly about "Atheistic bullying". If you are interested drop me a line ( or at Twitter (@Baldscientist). Take care!
Robin Parry said…
Hi Josh

Thanks for your comment. It's interesting. To understand why Dawkins et al. are indeed mistaken when they avoid metaphysics I suggest that you read David Bentley Hart's new book "Experiencing God." I honestly think that you'd enjoy it. He has a very different approach to Plantinga.

Dawkins is right, however, to look for scientific explanations for things. Of course. And looking for God to play a role in such explanations akin to natural causes is to make a mistake in understanding the nature of scientific explanations and the nature of theological explanations. So metaphysics would not put God back into the picture in a way that would mess up science.

But naturalism is more than a method of investigation to Dawkins. It is a metaphysical view. And at that level it fails. Indeed, it is arguably self-defeating.

I won't prattle on but I would urge you to read Hart's book and see why you think. You won't find another ID or Plantinga approach.

Caleb said…

I'm still confused by your comment: "Furthermore, the MOST that ID could ever demonstrate is that certain things in the world (but not the the world as a whole) were designed by a very intelligent (though not omni-intelligent) and powerful (though not all-powerful) being."

Does ID claim who the designer is?
Why do you say ID limits who the designer could be?

I fully appreciate if you do not have time to respond anymore to this. I certainly wish Dr. Noble would take the time to respond to your questions to him.

The main problem I have with the Intelligent Design Movement is that at times, some of it's proponents can be a bit snarky, and engage in dialog in a condescending and arrogant manner, which I've seen some atheists do as well. As much as I disagree with Theistic Evolution, rarely have I seen them lower their standards in how they communicate their ideas. (And again, though I disagree with Theistic Evolution, I do lean towards a guided evolution and am open to common descent).

Here is a link to a somewhat substantial article replying to David Bentley Hart's critique of ID:


Robin Parry said…

Gracious me! That blog post is not a blog post—it's a book! I am afraid that I simply don't have time to read it. Sorry.

It looks interesting, although the first few sections (which I did read) were not, to my mind, very persuasive. I really don't think ID can demonstrate as much about the designer as he hopes it might. However, his article would need to be taken seriously and read carefully and responded to at length and, alas, I simply cannot do that.

I guess there may be various different modes of ID. I have certainly come across seven-day creationist ID people as well as evolutionist ID people (and even an atheist).

The question for me is how to redeem and incorporate the insights of ID. For I certainly have no objection to the cosmos being teleologically ordered towards life. Indeed, I positively insist on it. In that I do have something in common with ID people. Perhaps I need to get my head around some more nuanced versions of ID. The versions I came across were hot on scientific details but not so hot on philosophical and theological wisdom. But perhaps there are ways to do it that avoid such problems. Would need to ponder.

I am unclear about your comments on theistic evolution. Presumably, if it is theistic then it must be guided in some sense. Otherwise one wonders in what sense it is theistic.

Caleb said…

Ha! I don't blame you for not having time to read and respond to that article in depth. Indeed, I did not expect you to. I just wanted to make you aware of other readily available resources that address some of Hart's ideas in a sophisticated manner, and that addresses Thomistic thought more in depth.

As far as "Theistic Evolution", that would refer to the idea that God uses evolution in the exact same way that atheists/agnostics claim, through randomness, and that evolution cannot be teological (goal oriented). Proponents would be: Biologos, the organization founded by Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome project and author of "The Language of God", Kenneth Miller, professor at Brown, and Francisco Ayala, former Dominican priest and professor of Biology at UC-Irvine. Ayala advocates understanding God's use of the essentially random process of evolution as a solution to the problem of evil. (Because God didn't directly create humanity, but randomness did, then God is somehow off the hook.) See:

That doesn't fly with me. I'm much more intrigued by Talbot's suggestions at the problem of evil:

Intelligent Design Folks on the other hand that have impressed my include, Stephen Meyer, Michael Behe, John Lennox.

One of the things that I like about Intelligent Design is that I see it as a "Big Tent" approach. It is a broad framework under which numerous subgroups, that may disagree quite a bit on specifics, can find a home. I see Christian Universalism in that way, as quite broad, with the ability to encompass a variety of viewpoints within in, but also having specific delineations as well.
Danny said…
Both ID & big bang (of course ID & big bang can be synthesized into a coherent position with theistic evolution) have the same core problem. In the beginning, "what?" Mainly big bang cannot explain pre-big bang and thus has the exact same issue as ID. The difference is before ID viewpoint says "God" and before big bang says "we don't know." Of course theistic evolution can fuse the two viewpoints if one so chooses.

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