OpEd: The philosophy of intelligent design (Seattle Times)


The Seattle Times has published an editorial on intelligent design titled The philosophy of intelligent design. The editorial focused on the relevant issues surrounding intelligent design namely that it is poor science [1}.

Intelligent design implies that God did it. That may be true. Certainly, millions of Americans believe so. But intelligent design is not a scientific theory because there is no set of facts that would disprove it. No matter what science says tomorrow, a believer in intelligent design could say, “Yes, that’s the way God did it.”

While ID proponents argue that ID is falsifiable, it inevitably comes down to arguments that “evolution could not explain X” arguments based on our ignorance being shown to be erroneous. Since ID fully embraces evolutionary theory, it can thus not be disproven.

These issues are important for students to discuss, as the president said. But where? Presidential science adviser John H. Marburg III, who told The New York Times that intelligent design “is not a scientific concept,” said Bush believes it should be discussed as part of the “social context” in science classes.

That’s possible, though the better place for intelligent design to “be properly taught” is in an elective philosophy class.

It’s good to hear that the science advisors corrects the record.

See also Letters to the editor



R. Nichols Wrote:

Proponents of Intelligent Design theory seek to ground a scientific research program that appeals to teleology within the context of biological explanation. As such, Intelligent Design theory must contain principles to guide researchers. I argue for a disjunction: either Dembski’s ID theory lacks content, or it succumbs to the methodological problems associated with creation science-problems that Dembski explicitly attempts to avoid. The only concept of a designer permitted by Dembski’s Explanatory Filter is too weak to give the sorts of explanations which we are entitled to expect from those sciences, such as archeology, that use effect-to-cause reasoning. The new spin put upon ID theory-that it is best construed as a ‘metascientific hypothesis’-fails for roughly the same reason.

R. Nichols, Scientific content, testability, and the vacuity of Intelligent Design theory The American Catholic philosophical quarterly, 2003 , vol. 77 , no 4 , pp. 591 - 611

Richard Colling Wrote:

In his new book, “Random Designer,” he writes: “It pains me to suggest that my religious brothers are telling falsehoods” when they say evolutionary theory is “in crisis” and claim that there is widespread skepticism about it among scientists. “Such statements are blatantly untrue,” he argues; “evolution has stood the test of time and considerable scrutiny. [1]”

Sharon Begley in Tough Assignment: Teaching Evolution To Fundamentalists, Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2004; Page A15

Patrick Frank Wrote:

Abstract: The assumption of design of the universe is examined from a scientific perspective. The claims of William Dembski and of Michael Behe are unscientific because they are a-theoretic. The argument from order or from utility are shown to be indeterminate, circular, to rest on psychological as opposed to factual certainty, or to be insupportable as regards humans but possibly not bacteria, respectively. The argument from the special intelligibility of the universe specifically to human science does not survive comparison with the capacities of other organisms. Finally, the argument from the unlikelihood of physical constants is vitiated by modern cosmogonic theory and recrudesces the God-of-the-gaps.

Patrick Frank “On the Assumption of Design”, Theology and Science, Volume 2, Number 1 / April 2004, pp. 109 - 130.


The writers of the op-ed do not specify how they are using the term “falsifiable.” It would be good if they did. It has vague meaning for a lot of people.

The authors did write this: “A scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable to fail. The theory of evolution, for example, postulates complex life arising from simple life. If the geological record showed otherwise – that the further one went back, the more complex life was, or that unrelated species repeatedly appeared as if from nowhere – that would falsify the theory.”

Let’s say someone says: “An intelligent being used a high-tech device to turn inert matter directly into the first two human beings (one male and one female) to live on earth.”

That would seem to be “falsifiable,” given the language the authors of the op-ed use. We could specify conditions that would help us determine that the alleged event did not occur. For instance, as we learn more about the data that supports common descent, the claim is one that we could determine to be false. For instance, we could determine that all hominids descended from a common ancestor. We could look at genetic data, the fossil data and see organisms reproducing now.

Now is the claim “President Bush should not have ordered the invasion of Iraq” falsifiable? Whether it is or not, it is very important. Bush should not have ordered the invasion. So, let’s say it is not falsifiable. Some unfalsifiable claims are very important. Is the claim “Shakespeare was a great play-write” falsifiable? Whether it is or not, it is an interesting claim. I’ve experienced a number of Shakespeare’s plays. He was a great play-write.

According to the op-ed: “Intelligent design is the new name for the idea that the Earth’s different species originated through the active management of God.”

Many of the people promoting the idea that “intelligent design” ought to be taught in the public schools often say, or suggest, that evolution (cells to elephants) didn’t happen. The idea that evolution (cells to elephants) didn’t happened shouldn’t be taught in a philosophy class or anywhere. I’ve spoken with a number of philosophers about this issue. They don’t want anti-evolution material taught in philosophy class, because evolution is overwhelmingly well-supported. Many philosophers would not object to the so-called argument from design being taught in philosophy class as long as it wasn’t taught to mean or suggest that evolution didn’t happen. For instance, if the argument from design were taught in the context of whether “God (or Gods) caused the Big Bang,” they wouldn’t object to that. Some of the best treatment of the argument from design can be found in Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion. Here is a passage from the Dialogues. The character speaking is Cleanthes:

“How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being whom you suppose the Author of nature, or, according to your system of anthropomorphism, the ideal world into which you trace the material? Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world or new intelligent principle? But if we stop and go no farther, why go so far? Why not stop at the material world? How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum? And, after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progression? Let us remember the story of the Indian philosopher and his elephant. It was never more applicable than to the present subject. If the material world rests upon a similar ideal, this ideal world must rest upon some other, and so on without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world. By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God; and the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better. When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humor which it is impossible ever to satisfy.”

ID is nothing but the conjecture that evolution could not be the how certain biological forms and creatures came into existance. The rant about why this must be so, but then they simply assert that ID musttherefore be the cause for these creatures and forms - uh? Now can science be as simple as saying it must be so, so it must be so.

No sorry, perhaps a few folks will be fooled by the ID argument, but for those poor souls that is just the start of a long difficult effort that is doomed to fail. Because they no must go out and od the science and proove their conjecture.

And, unfortunately, ID must prove two elements. First, it must discover and prove the mechanism that the designs were implemented. Second, they discover and prove that the designs exist. There must be evidence of pre-design, things like blue prints, schematics, etc that pre-date the biologic form or creature.

Well, it is time to stop whining and get going on the science if you are an ID’ist.

*Big* editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer, too … http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/[…]12320487.htm

“Do not teach science and belief “alongside” each other.That would be misleading. Science is science; intelligent design is religion. The two are different modes of knowing. They are incommensurate, with different focuses, standards of evidence, and goals. They should be taught - separately - as two sources of wisdom, two great signposts directing humankind into the future. You can’t build a railroad by reading the Torah, and you can’t baptize a child by reciting the Periodic Table. Why would you try? Science and belief are not in a race; they are not alternatives; they do not and need not compete. Don’t teach our children that they do.”

It does argue that “While discussing evolution, draw the reader’s attention to a sidebar on intelligent design, a side-discussion giving it airtime and respect. Do you even need to say the words intelligent design? Optional. Your blue box could say simply, “There are other accounts of the beginnings of life. Many religions teach that life, indeed all existence, has a divine origin. These belief systems are worthy of respect and consideration; they are the bedrock for the lives of billions of people.”

But intelligent design is not a scientific theory because there is no set of facts that would disprove it.

No, ID is not a scientific theory in large part because there is no set of facts that would tend to confirm it.

I wish these newspaper people would understand what a theory is.

But intelligent design is not a scientific theory because there is no set of facts that would disprove it.

No, ID is not a scientific theory in large part because there is no set of facts that would tend to confirm it.”

Yet, there are facts that could prove ID. The discovery of the designer, the mechanism of implementation of the designs, and evidence of pre-existing designs - i.e. pre implementation.

ID is not a scientific theory becase none of these facts / discoveries has been found. Anyone can make a conjecture.

Regardless of my view that it would be a fools errand to seek the evidence of ID. If ID’ists actually believed that ID was something other than a belief in god, then I would expect they would endeavor to find the evidence.

It is time for ID’ist to confess their religous basis for ID or find the evidence. Their lack of effort on evidence is proof of their true views.

“But intelligent design is not a scientific theory because there is no set of facts that would disprove it.”

“No, ID is not a scientific theory in large part because there is no set of facts that would tend to confirm it.”

Actually, both of these are true. The second one gives ID advocates more credit. It implies that ID is an honest hypothesis that goes nowhere due to lack of evidence. This would in fact be the case, if ID advocates were honest.

The first makes the cynical observation, about the behavior of ID advocates, that IN ADDITION TO not making any effort to seek empirical facts to support ID, ID supporters will and routinely do claim that any fact identified by scientists who actually do some work “supports ID”. Evidence for common descent supports “common design”, as a common and laughable example.

The fact that ID advocates will make no testable claim, but merely claim that anything and everything supports their position somehow, certainly disqualifies ID as a “scientific theory”. This may be something of an understatement.

I was annoyed by the assertion that “evolution says that complex life arose from simpler life” (quote may not be exact). This is part of what happened in evolution, true. But there is no inherent reason why “complex” organisms could not be ancestors to “simpler” descendants, and this is probably the case in some lineages, such as intestinal parasitic worms. Also, much of evolution consists of “complex” ancestors giving rise to different but equally “complex” descendants.

“Complexity” is either a mathematical concept with certain limited applications, or a commonly used subjective term, depending on the context. In the context of public discussions of evolution, it is nearly always used in a subjective way* (*there is no reason why mathematical concepts of complexity could not be applied to evolutionary biology, and someone probably does this, but usually references to the “complexity” of life are subjective).

The US public just cannot, ever, ever seem to grasp the idea that evolution is neutral with respect to human cultural values. Not “lower to higher”, not “inferior to superior”, not even necessarily “simple to complex”.

Satire is, I think, one way to respond to ID/creationist people. I wrote a little song that sums up their view (as I see it). You can download it from the Washington Post mp3 hosting site at


It’s called “God made the World (in less than Seven Days)”

It’s a rough recording, so email me if you want the lyrics.



It is time for ID’ist to confess their religous basis for ID

They already have. Their goals and their entire strategy for attaining those goals is mapped out, explicitly, in the Wedge Document.

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on August 7, 2005 11:54 AM.

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