Science & Faith
8/10/13 at 08:03 PM 67 Comments

What is the Theory of Intelligent Design? And How to be an Informed Critic

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Critic by Lajos Tihanyi. Oil on canvas, c. 1916. Which kind of critic are you?

There are two kinds of critics of intelligent design who don't even get the defining features of the theory correct: those who know that they are mischaraterizing what the proponents of ID are arguing, and those who simply don't understand. Judging from recent comments, I suspect both sorts of ID critics follow my blog here at CP. I just happened to notice that today over at ENV, Casey Luskin addressed this very issue. Let's see how his essay might shed light here.

Luskin responds to this question (sounds like what we've heard here in the CP comment zone, over and over):

What's the "scientific theory of ID"? Who or what is the designer and how can we tell? What did it do and how can we tell? How did it do it and how can we tell? Where did it do it and how can we tell? When did it do it and how can we tell? Please pass on my thanks to all your colleagues for never bothering to answer these questions.

Luskin suspects that the "Nick" who posted this comment on Amazon (reviewing Stephen Meyer's new book) is the same Nick Matzke whose review of Meyer's Darwin's Doubt has spread misinformation about the length of the Cambrian explosion. It turns out that Matzke is simply out of touch with what the leading Cambrian experts think, namely that the "explosion" took only 5-10 million years, a mere geological blink of the eye. I wrote about this earlier in this blog: What is the Significance of a “Darwin's Doubt” Review by a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Science Journalist? I explailned how this set up an otherwise first-rate science journalist to badly misjudge Meyer's book.

Luskin begins by identifying the star man version of ID that I've noticed here among some of my readers.

Intelligent design claims that life is so complex, it could not have evolved, therefore it was designed by a supernatural intelligence.

If you wish to critique ID, you ought to at least critique the most robust version of the idea as it is voiced by its leading proponents. To do otherwise is sloppy thinking, or worse, as Luskin explains.

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. 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?

Luskin continues:

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.

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.

Behe even suggests that "[i]ntelligent design does not require a candidate for the role of the designer." 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.

Read the rest of Luskin's essay here. After you truly understand what the agrument is, then try your hand at a responsible critique (or affirmation). Civil discourse calls for evaluating arguments your opponents actually make, not straw man substitutes that you use merely to score points below blogs.

Be sure to read beyond part one (what ID is not) and actually get to part two (what ID is). There you will learn this brief definition:

Intelligent design is a scientific theory that argues that the best explanation for some natural phenomena is an intelligence cause, especially when we find certain types of information and complexity in nature which in our experience are caused by intelligence.

You will also encounter three major subpoints regarding what ID is.

  1. ID uses a positive argument based upon finding high levels of complex and specified information
  2. ID is a historical science that is methodologically equivalent to mainstream evolutionary biology
  3. ID uses the scientific method

If you disagree, fine, but do so by actually engaging the arguments as present by the best advocates of ID. Honesty requires at least this much.

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