Is Intelligent Design “Agnostic”?

(The polls are still open! I’d like to have feedback from you about the future directions of this blog! Exclamation points abound!!!)

A small update: I have corrected an error I made based on a false assumption.

I like to think of myself as being pretty fair-minded, willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. This sometimes has led me into debates with people who aren’t really interested in conversation, or to take certain arguments at face-value for the sake of being generous to the person making them. I guess I’d rather be wrong out of love for my fellow humans than right out of cynicism.

So what to do with the article titled Creationism is biblical, Intelligent Design is agnostic? The author argues that Intelligent Design should not be lumped in with Creationism because there is nothing within ID that postulates a specifically Christian “intelligent designer”. The conclusion drawn is that ID is a legitimate compromise between “nothing vs. Christianity”.

I admit I don’t know much about James Kirk Wall, the author of this piece—he claims to be a religious agnostic. (Correction: he does not claim to be agnostic; see his comment below.) However, he’s simply wrong about Intelligent Design on several levels:

  1. His dichotomy “nothing vs. Christianity” is incredibly simplistic and ignores a huge amount of writing on this subject over the last 150 (and more!) years. As a start, I would recommend that he read Evolution Vs. Creationism by Eugenie Scott for a highly readable and truly fair-minded introduction to the subject, with a substantial bibliography for further reading. (Actually, I recommend it for anybody, and I apologize for not passing it along to you all earlier.) If the choice were truly between “nothing vs. Christianity” framed as Wall does, there could be no Christian evolutionary biologists—yet there are plenty of people who fall into that category who reject Creationism in its various forms. Arguably, science itself is necessarily agnostic over the question of a creator and/or designer, though I don’t really want to open that can of worms in this post.
  2. Although Intelligent Design on its surface is “agnostic” about who or what the “designer” is, nearly all the proponents of ID are conservative Christians with a political, social, and educational agenda that has nothing to do with truly open-minded inquiry. (An exception to this rule is Ben Stein, a Jewish ID advocate who blames evolution for Nazi atrocities.) Even though ID pays lip service to neutrality on the nature of the “designer”, throwing around ideas like “aliens”, etc., to the writers who promote it—Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski, etc.—there’s no question who the designer actually is. A few non-Christian thinkers have signed on to ID, it’s true, but their advocacy of ID is explicitly anti-evolution.
  3. As a related point, although many Intelligent Design advocates are not young-Earth Creationists (that is, thinking the Earth and universe are roughly between 6,000-10,000 years old), that’s hardly the same thing as saying they aren’t promoting an explicitly Christian point of view, albeit one that isn’t universally shared among Christians any more than the young-Earth view is. Creationism is a term that refers to the explicit reference to a creator—or in this case a “designer”—as a quasi-scientific argument, so ID decidedly falls into that category, and has been ruled as such by the US courts. This is the reason I try to capitalize “Creationism” in my writing—I want to separate out the general belief in a creator from Creationism, which inserts explicit reference to extra-scientific material into a scientific context.
  4. Ultimately, Intelligent Design is a science-killer: at some point the ID advocate says “you are forbidden to inquire farther”. It’s a line in the sand: to ID, there are biological systems science cannot explain (the vertebrate eye, the bacterial flagellum, etc.), and ID a priori forbids investigation of certain types. Again, I refer the author of this piece to Scott’s book for a much more thorough analysis.

The “fairness” argument is one that on its surface sounds really reasonable. However, if a “compromise” between science and Creationism involves science giving up what makes it work—examining evidence and constructing testable theories—and replacing it with an unfalsifiable hypothesis involving an intelligence not subject to experiment. That’s hardly a compromise.

(Tip of the pen(dulum) to Roger Ebert on Twitter for this link.)


10 Responses to “Is Intelligent Design “Agnostic”?”

  1. 1 JulianVgs March 25, 2011 at 08:12

    Excellent post. I would like to add that an intelligent designer is everything but “intelligent”. Diseases? Remains of hair and tail in our body? appendix (what’s that for anyway)?. It seems God was in a hurry.

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis March 25, 2011 at 10:46

      The main problem with that is it’s sort of a teleological argument in reverse. The ID argument is some structures couldn’t have evolved because they’re too complex, ergo they were designed; you’re saying design isn’t optimal, ergo no designer. However, my lower-back pain agrees with you about suboptimal design!

  2. 3 James Kirk Wall March 25, 2011 at 14:28

    Thanks for posting your take on the article. I never claimed to be a religious agnostic.

    Intelligent Design is a philosophical concept. I never claimed that it was scientific. Philosophy and science should not be thought of as competing. We need both. Through science we have apparently discovered that particles pop in and out of existence in empty space. We don’t know why. We can philosophize about why with the hopes that we can come up with something that can be verified using the scientific method. When prosecuting people suspected of crime in a court of law, we use both the Socratic Method combined with scientific evidence to prove or dis-prove the charges. Richard Dawkins himself used an “if” statement regarding a divine intelligence that was referenced in the article. He was not referencing a divine intelligence that was tied to Christianity or the Bible. So what would this be called if not intelligent design?
    To be dogmatic about everything ultimately having a natural scientific explanation is not agnostic.
    To be dogmatic about everything ultimately being a result of a greater intelligence is not agnostic.
    To have an open mind regarding these two positions or other possibilities is agnostic.
    I maintain my position that Creationism is biblical and Intelligent Design is agnostic.
    If anyone wishes to have an interactive argument, please comment on my Facebook page Agnosticism – The Battle against Shameless Ignorance

    • 4 Matthew R. Francis March 25, 2011 at 15:51

      Thank you for clarifying—I apologize for hypothesizing certain things ahead of the facts.

      I certainly don’t reject philosophy (though I’m no philosopher myself), and I think you misunderstand when I say science is agnostic on the position of a creator or designer. Science is the best way to understand the natural world; it cannot access non-physical reality if such exists. That’s the limitation of science, but it’s not a very strong one in my opinion. It’s not dogmatic to say that science is valid in its own realm.

      Here’s another way to put it: there is no experiment that can distinguish between a designed universe with the physical laws we observe and one that is not designed. Religious people do believe in an intelligent designer, but that’s not the same thing as saying certain phenomena (especially in organisms) cannot have arisen naturally. What it’s saying is that invoking supernatural causes to explain natural phenomena is a science-killer, and that the hand of a designer is not an explanation of physical phenomena–it’s a cop-out from a scientific point of view. This isn’t to say there can’t be a designer, just that said designer is not accessible to experiment. Therefore, science must remain agnostic about its existence.

      • 5 James Kirk Wall March 25, 2011 at 18:14

        Philosophy is the love of knowledge and wisdom. Are you sure that you’re not a philosopher?
        The definition of science may be agnostic, but we shouldn’t ignore the human aspect. Science is scientists who are human and humans contain at least some level of bias. We know of Christian scientists who carried bias and attempted to prove creationism was scientifically sound (unsuccessfully of course.) Intelligent design is not a science killer, just something scientists can consider when they’re off duty.
        The only thing that I’m arguing in the article is that there needs to be a separation of terms between creationism and intelligent design.
        What about the Deists who believe in God, but not religion? What term should they use if Intelligent Design cannot be separated from Biblical implications?
        Also, I don’t believe we can completely separate science from religion. There is a mass grave yard of Gods killed by science, but is it possible microbiology may prove life was designed? If such a discovery was made, would it prove that the earth was 6,000 years old and Jesus is the son of God? The answer of course is no.
        I’m making a philosophical argument regarding the definition of terms, not scientific.

      • 6 Matthew R. Francis March 26, 2011 at 08:54

        I am certainly not a trained philosopher!

        Creationism and Intelligent Design go together for the simple reason that they both attempt to impose non-scientific means of knowledge onto science. Deists are not necessarily Intelligent Design advocates any more than Christians necessarily are; many of the harshest critics of ID come from within Christianity. (I’ll see if a former colleague of mine would be willing to contribute to this discussion—he’s a religious philosopher and Methodist minister, and he minces no words about ID.)

        Your claim that ID is merely a philosophical position and has no bearing on science is undermined by your question about whether microbiology can “prove” life was designed. The short answer is that it cannot. The reasons are simple (though I may elaborate on them in a later blog post, just because it’s me and I can’t stop talking): there is no experiment that can distinguish between a “designed” lifeform and one that occurred apart from design, following the ordinary mechanisms of biochemistry. This is precisely because the mechanisms of biochemistry are how we understand life from a scientific standpoint! It is independent of whether or not a designer put these mechanisms into action. ID is not scientifically neutral because it claims science can (or should!) show the hand of the designer. But that is beyond the purview of science.

        A person of faith may see God’s hand in the elegance of the universe; an atheist may see God’s absence while looking at the same evidence. I hear people say how much science reinforces their faith or absence thereof all the time, and obviously not all of these people can be correct simultaneously. However, science itself can’t judge between them.

  3. 7 James Kirk Wall March 26, 2011 at 23:17

    “I am certainly not a trained philosopher!”
    Neither was Socrates

    Creationism – the literal belief in the account of Creation given in the Book of Genesis; “creationism denies the theory of evolution of species”

    Intelligent design is the assertion that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause

    My only argument is that creationism is directly tied to the Bible while Intelligent design is “religiously” agnostic.
    By “agnostic” I meant not tied to any specific religion. Perhaps that is where the confusion is.

    In regards to science “never” being able to prove intelligent design, that is unknown. Michael Behe thought he discovered irreducibly complexity. His argument has been countered. That does not mean that as micro biology continues to advance that there never will be something discovered that provides significant evidence for intelligent design. We don’t know.

    Scientists are dedicated to finding natural causation. That does not mean a scientist cannot have an “if” thought regarding a divine intelligence as Richard Dawkins did. I don’t believe that Dawkins “killed” science by having this thought.


    • 8 Matthew R. Francis March 27, 2011 at 17:11

      Everything you say just reinforces my main point: ID is not a scientifically-neutral position. It is disingenuous to say it is merely a philosophical position with no bearing on science.

      Many scientists do speculate on God and design, but that hardly makes them ID advocates.

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