Is intelligent design science, or not? Think carefully before you answer. The modern intelligent design (ID) movement is motivated by theological concerns and trades in on religious authority to meet its aims, but stripped of this background, can ID be relegated to the “junk science” bin? While the answer to this latter question is “Yes”, in a new paper (“The science question in intelligent design”) Sahotra Sarkar argues that proclaiming ID to be non-science without careful consideration does little good.
As Sarkar notes, there is no easily definable demarcation criteria to deem ID science or non-science without further consideration. Separating science from non-science has traditionally been a very thorny problem, and sometimes definitions are proposed that allow obviously non-scientific claims while booting out clearly scientific ones. What we might think of as scientific ideas at the beginning of their development, especially, may somewhat resemble what we deride as non-science during political posturing. There is indeed a difference between science and non-science, but it is doctrines that lie near the boundary (claims that trade in the language of science, at least) which can be difficult to classify. Only after we consider what intelligent design claims to explain can we more fully assess whether it can be considered science or not.
The problem is that intelligent design advocates have done a slipshod job of explaining what ID is all about. Words like “design”, “complexity”, “intelligence”, etc. are thrown around without any explanation of what they mean in the context of ID. The meanings of these terms are left for the audience to interpret, and this is consistent with both the theological underpinnings of the modern ID movement and the aims of that movement to acquire adherents through popular channels. An evangelical Christian (i.e. a target audience member for ID advocates) will interpret the “designer” or “intelligence” as the Judeo-Christian god. Indeed, in terms of the identity or characteristics of a Designer ID advocates are intentionally vague and often describe the designer they have in mind by using the analogy of a human design (which we can assume is not the universal Designer they have in mind).
Could there, however, be some shred of science in what ID advocates propose? While it does not allow for infallible demarcation between science and non-science, Sarkar checks to see what substantive claims ID makes. The problem is, as the famous creationist Philip Johnson has said, is that there is no “theory of ID” to be discussed.
As alluded to earlier, the general lack of an “theory of ID” can be attributed to a lack of definitions. ID advocates go on and on about detecting “intelligence”, but how are they defining “intelligence”? How does their concept of “intelligence” relate to the physical world? Sarkar takes an ID favorite, a bacterial flagellum, and asks why this particular part of the bacteria is considered the work of an intelligent being. Indeed, it is especially perplexing that ID advocates stress that it is an intricately designed feature but (according to them) the removal of any one part will cause it to cease functioning. This is more of an argument against evolution (i.e. this structure could not have evolved) than a positive example of design, especially since nothing about how the structure was designed or the supposed intelligence behind it is explained.
As Sarkar notes, ID truly relies on Christian theology, especially for definitions of words like “designer” and “intelligence.” Perhaps these terms are left intentionally vague so that they can easily be understood by those receptive to ID as representing a particular deity. Indeed, since modern ID is (at present) primarily a cultural movement it may not be in the best interest of ID advocates to define their terms explicitly. The development of a new science is not the goal of ID advocates so much as the overthrow of evolutionary science is.
In confronting ID, then, we should take care before stating that it is not science. Doing so without full explanation of why ID fails invokes the rather thorny demarcation problem, which does have some potential to backfire. A better method may be to point out that ID cannot be treated as a science until its core terms, like “intelligence” and “design”, are sufficiently defined. This criticism cuts more directly into the aims and behavior of ID advocates and avoids the relatively sticky philosophical ground of what is and what is not science. I hope Sarkar’s proposal does not fall on deaf ears.
Sarkar, S. (2009). The science question in intelligent design Synthese DOI: 10.1007/s11229-009-9540-x
[Hat-tip to John Wilkins]