Sobering thoughts on ID

Intelligent Design activists have become more and more insistent, given the recent court rulings, that Intelligent Design is not religious (wink wink) as it merely identifies ‘designed’ objects and does not say anything about the ‘designer(s)’. While others have already shown how vacuous such claims are, a recent paper takes a different take on this issue. Elliott Sober in a paper titled INTELLIGENT DESIGN THEORY AND THE SUPERNATURAL – THE “GOD OR EXTRA-TERRESTRIALS” REPLY describes how ID points to a supernatural intelligent designer.

Sober wrote:

Abstract: When proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) theory deny that their theory is religious, the minimalistic theory they have in mind (the mini-ID theory) is the claim that the irreducibly complex adaptations found in nature were made by one or more intelligent designers. The denial that this theory is religious rests on the fact that it does not specify the identity of the designer – a supernatural God or a team of extra-terrestrials could have done the work. The present paper attempts to show that this reply underestimates the commitments of the mini-ID Theory. The mini-ID theory, when supplemented with four independently plausible further assumptions, entails the existence of a supernatural intelligent designer. It is further argued that scientific theories, such as the Darwinian theory of evolution, are neutral on the question of whether supernatural designers exist.

As I pointed out earlier, others have shown how ID inevitably points to the supernatural. For instance Wilkins and Elsberry in their paper The advantages of theft over toil: the design inference and arguing from ignorance show that

So a revision to Dembski’s filter is required beyond the first “Don’t-know” branch. This sort of knowledge of designers is gained empirically, and is just another kind of regularity assignment. Because we know what these designers do to some degree of accuracy, we can assess the likelihood that E would occur, whether it is the creation of skirnobs or the Antikythera Device. That knowledge makes E a HP event, and so the filter short-circuits at the next branch and gives a design inference relative to a background knowledge set Bi available at time t. So now there appears to be two kinds of design - the ordinary kind based on a knowledge of the behavior of designers, and a “rarefied” design, based on an inference from ignorance, both of the possible causes of regularities and of the nature of the designer

In other words, regular design is based on empirical knowledge which allows us to assign probabilities, whereas rarefied design is inferred based on our ignorance because we have no way to constrain said ‘designer(s)’.

Sober points out that ID activists have more to say about ID than the mini-ID argument

Sober wrote:

Defenders of the mini-ID theory have a lot more to say about intelligent design, and this is where more contentful versions of ID theory make their appearance. For example, Philip Johnson (1996), one of the main architects of ID theory, endorses theistic realism, “affirm[ing] that God is objectively real as Creator, and that the reality of God is tangibly recorded in evidence accessible to science, particularly biology;” he says that this is “the defining concept of our movement.” In their widely used ID textbook, Of Pandas and People, Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon (1993, p. 7, p. 26, p. 100) frequently contrast “natural” and “intelligent” causes; this indicates that the intelligent designers they have in mind are supernatural. And Dembski (1998b, p 20) rejects theistic evolutionism, which is the thesis that God used the evolutionary process to produce organisms and their adaptive features. Dembski’s gripe is with evolutionary theory, not with divine design.2

So why was ID separated from this mini-ID argument? Sober concludes that the reasons are to minimize infighting between Christian factions and that by not using the word “God”, the mini-ID argument may have a better chance passing the constitutional test. Of course, behind the scenes, ID activists present the rest of the story such as found in the Wedge Strategy by the Discovery Institute.

Sober wrote:

According to the Wedge Strategy, “design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian an theistic convictions.”

But while the motives are clear, Sober’s approach goes beyond motives and shows that the mini-ID arguments imply the existence of a supernatural designer.

Sober wrote:

It is not the point of the present paper to discuss any further the motives behind the construction of the mini-ID theory nor to argue that one of these versions of ID theory is the “real” theory of intelligent design. Rather, the goal is to trace out the implications of what the mini-ID theory actually asserts. The mini-ID theory does imply the existence of a supernatural intelligent designer when it is supplemented by four propositions that are independently supported.

Sober argues that the logical conclusion of the mini-ID argument is that human minds exist in nature which are irreducibly complex. If that is the case, then these minds require a natural or supernatural creator. But naturally created irreducibly complex minds eventually require a supernatural designer due to the finite age of the universe.

Sober wrote:

If the human minds that now exist in nature are irreducibly complex, then each of them was caused to exist by one or more earlier intelligent designers. Consider one of those earlier designers; either it is found in nature or it is a supernatural being. If the latter, we’re done – proposition (8) follows. So consider the former option. That intelligent designer, if it designed and produced an irreducibly complex mind, must have a mind that is irreducibly complex. If there is a finite amount of time ε such that it takes a mind in nature (e.g., a human agent) at least ε to design and build another irreducibly complex intelligent designer, then the causal chains that connect a later intelligent designer in nature to its earlier intelligent designer cause (also in nature) will have finitely many links. Each such chain, traced back into the finite past, must therefore reach a first intelligent designer in nature. But premise (1) says that these first natural minds, being irreducibly complex, must themselves be caused to exist by an intelligent designer, so the argument leads to the conclusion that a supernatural intelligent designer must exist.8

Four assumptions not part of the mini-ID argument were added

  1. The age of the universe is finite
  2. Causes preceded their effects
  3. The human mind is irreducibly complex
  4. Minds which design irreducibly complex systems are themselves irreducibly complex

So if these four assumptions are correct then logically it follows that the mini-ID argument requires a supernatural designer(s).

Sober concludes that

Sober wrote:

Defenders of the mini-ID theory need to explain why their theory should be restricted in this way. Perhaps they will want to argue that a supernatural intelligent designer is an eternal and self-sustaining being, and thus does not need a cause external to itself to come into existence or to remain in existence. Or perhaps they will maintain that a supernatural designer is a simple being, and therefore won’t exhibits complex features at all. Their answer can’t be that their theory is agnostic about the existence of supernatural designers, for as we have just seen, it is not.


Deciding whether the mini-ID theory has supernatural and religious implications is not as straightforward as seeing whether the word “God” appears in the statement “each irreducibly complex system found in nature was designed and produced by an intelligent being.” When independently plausible further assumptions are taken into account, the mini-ID theory entails the existence of a supernatural intelligent designer who made at least one of the minds found in nature.

So how do ID activists respond to the supernatural claim?

On ARN we find the following statement

From an ID perspective, the natural-vs.-supernatural distinction is irrelevant. The real contrast is not between natural laws and miracles, but between undirected natural causes and intelligent ones.

But that’s a false distinction as regular design inferences are based on regularity and chance hypotheses not the rejection of such hypotheses. For instance in criminology, intelligent design is inferred from positive arguments such as means, opportunities, mnotives etc as well as physical and circumstantial evidence.

Mathematician and philosopher of science William Dembski puts it this way: “Whether an intelligent cause is located within or outside nature (i.e., is respectively natural or supernatural) is a separate question from whether an intelligent cause has operated.”

No it isn’t since a natural design inference and a supernatural one are distinctly different in nature.

Human actions are a case in point: “Just as humans do not perform miracles every time they act as intelligent agents, so there is no reason to assume that for a designer to act as an intelligent agent requires a violation of natural laws.”

In other words, while ID may be scientifically vacuous, the claim is that it need not necessarily be pointing to a supernatural designer. Remember that ID is argued to replace methodological naturalism by allowing the inclusion of the supernatural. So in other words, the argument is that science is incapable to deal with Intelligent Design without some change. However, at the same time ID activists are arguing that ID is scientifically relevant because it is used by scientists in areas such as criminology, anthropology, archaeology etc.

The claim has been made that ID has no place in science and is never used in the study of science. This is not true. In fact, all of the following areas of science use evidence of ID as the major or sole means of study. Even though the designer is not a supernatural agent, but intelligent humans, the principles involved in studying these areas of science can be applied to the study of supernatural ID.

  1. Archeology: Is that rock formation natural or due to intelligent design?
  2. Anthropology: Do sharp, pointed rocks occur naturally or are they designed by intelligent beings?
  3. Forensics: Intelligent cause of death or natural circumstances?
  4. SETI: Are those radio signals natural or caused by intelligent beings?


This argument is based on a conflation between intelligent design and the ‘design inference’ used by ID activists. While science indeed can detect intelligent design, by using methodological naturalism as its foundation, ID by insisting that MN needs to be replaced, clearly has identified its designer(s) as supernatural.

Again this can be deduced from ID activists’ claims such as Dembski

Dembsk wrote:

Two main such constraints have historically been used to keep design outside the natural sciences: methodological naturalism and dysteleology. According to methodological naturalism, in explaining any natural phenomenon the natural sciences are properly permitted to invoke only natural causes to the exclusion of intelligent causes. Methodological naturalism is a regulative principle that purports to keep science on the straight and narrow by limiting science to natural causes. In fact it does nothing of the sort but constitutes a straitjacket that actively impedes the progress of science. If an intelligence actually did play a crucial role in the origin of biological complexity, methodological naturalism would ensure that we could never know it. Imagine a detective absolutely committed to explaining by natural causes why Frank’s corpse has a knife through the heart and the words “Die, Frank, Die!” etched on his chest. Methodological naturalism requires the same unthinking commitment from science.

In one paragraph, Dembski contradicts himself by first arguing that MN limits science to natural causes and at the same time arguing that a detective explaining a murder scene somehow invokes non-natural causes. In fact, the detective is using the exact concepts of MN to determine ‘intelligent design’. In other words, this is a false analogy. One cannot on the one hand reject MN since it limits intelligent design conclusions when on the other hand scientists using MN do exactly that.

TWC (Tom Clark) explores Dembski’s argument further:

Dembski has a plausible point about methodological naturalism, also made here. Science needn’t define itself as the search for “natural” or material causes for phenomena. In actual empirical fact, in building explanations and theories, science proceeds quite nicely without any reference to the natural/supernatural distinction. Science is defined not by an antecedent commitment to naturalism (whether methodological or ontological),[2] but by criteria of explanatory adequacy which underpin a roughly defined, revisable, but extremely powerful method for generating reliable knowledge. These criteria can themselves be understood as having being selected for (during the more or less spontaneous development of science) by virtue of giving us the capacity to predict and control our circumstances, and by giving us a unified picture of the diversity of phenomena that, as cognitive creatures, we find deeply satisfying.[3] The world that science gives us is what we call nature.


The IDEA center provides a poorly argued response namely that all intelligent designers can insert CSI. (Complex Specified Information). But let’s first establish that in biology CSI refers to a functional system (specified) which we do not yet fully understand (hence complex). While ID activists are thus quick to jump to the conclusion that CSI requires an intelligent designer, no logical argument links CSI, which is an argument from ignorance, to said ‘intelligent designer(s)’. Even worse, it has been shown that high information content can be generated by purely natural processes such as variation and selection, or in other words, unless ID activists can provide a comparable scientific hypothesis as to the origins of a particular system, ID remains scientifically vacuous. Of course, any natural explanation of such a system would by definition make the system non-CSI, hence the argument of CSI relies on the supernatural since that’s the only unconstrained explanation that would cause a particular system to remain ‘complex’ as we are unable to explain it scientifically.

In other words when Stepen Meyer states that

“Experience teaches that information-rich systems … invariable result from intelligent causes, not naturalistic ones.

Stephen C. Meyer, Mere Creation, pg. 140

He is simply wrong. Being wrong is nothing to be ashamed about, although some seem to continue to present Meyer’s arguments even after they have been shown to be wrong. And that does causes some concern to me.

Now the legal side of the argument

From the Kitzmiller ruling

The court concluded that creation science “is simply not science” because it depends upon “supernatural intervention,” which cannot be explained by natural causes, or be proven through empirical investigation, and is therefore neither testable nor falsifiable.Id. at 1267. Accordingly, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas deemed creation science as merely biblical creationism in a new guise and held that Arkansas’ balanced-treatment statute could have no valid secular purpose or effect, served only to advance religion, and violated the First Amendment. Id. at 1264, 1272-74.


In addition to the IDM itself describing ID as a religious argument, ID’s religious nature is evident because it involves a supernatural designer. The courts in Edwards and McLean expressly found that this characteristic removed creationism from the realm of science and made it a religious proposition. Edwards, 482 U.S. at 591-92; McLean, 529 F. Supp. at 1265-66.

So now the evidence

Defendants’ expert witness ID proponents confirmed that the existence of a supernatural designer is a hallmark of ID. First, Professor Behe has written that by ID he means “not designed by the laws of nature,” and that it is “implausible that the designer is a natural entity.” (P-647 at 193; P-718 at 696, 700). Second, Professor Minnich testified that for ID to be considered science, the ground rules of science have to be broadened so that supernatural forces can be considered.Third, Professor Steven William Fuller testified that it is ID’s project to change the ground rules of science to include the supernatural. (Trial Tr. vol. 28, Fuller Test., 20-24, Oct. 24, 2005). Turning from defense expert witnesses to leading ID proponents, Johnson has concluded that science must be redefined to include the supernatural if religious challenges to evolution are to get a hearing.(11:8-15 (Forrest); P-429). Additionally, Dembski agrees that science is ruled by methodological naturalism and argues that this rule must be overturned if ID is to prosper. (Trial Tr. vol. 5, Pennock Test., 32-34, Sept. 28, 2005).

The court merely applied a ‘design inference’ to the evidence and took it to its logically conclusion.

It is notable that not one defense expert was able to explain how the supernatural action suggested by ID could be anything other than an inherently religious proposition. Accordingly, we find that ID’s religious nature would be further evident to our objective observer because it directly involves a supernatural designer. A “hypothetical reasonable observer,” adult or child, who is “aware of the history and context of the community and forum” is also presumed to know that ID is a form of creationism.Child Evangelism, 386 F.3d at 531 (citations omitted); Allegheny, 492 U.S. at 624-25. The evidence at trial demonstrates that ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism. What is likely the strongest evidence supporting the finding of ID’s creationist nature is the history and historical pedigree of the book to which students in Dover’s ninth grade biology class are referred, Pandas.

Om IDTheFuture (sic), Paul Nelson asks the following questions

Ask yourself what follows if Sober is right. I don’t yet have an opinion, having only just downloaded the paper this morning (I’ll read it at my daughter’s orthodontist appointment later today). Does it follow that ID cannot be (a) true, (b) empirical – that is, carry observational or predictive content like any other good scientific theory, or (c) the locus of scientific research?

Never say never, but unless ID can show how it can be scientifically relevant, and so far it has failed to do so, then such questions are irrelevant. A reliance on the supernatural however seems to lack much of any scientific relevance as ‘anything goes’ unless we can constrain such intelligent designer. So far ID has much to hope for but little to show for.

No. What follows mostly, I’d say, would be implications for teaching ID in public school science classrooms, a topic on which Sober has been active lately, helping to draft the Berceau/Black legislation defining science as naturalistic for public schools in the state of Wisconsin.

Cool, more and more scientists are standing up for good science.