I am a scientist. I am also a Christian. As a scientist, I believe in the laws of nature that govern much — some might say all — of what happens. As a Christian, I affirm that God designed and created the universe and its natural laws, although Scripture is vague about the details. In this sense, I believe in God’s intelligent design. That is theology, not science.
However the proponents of “Intelligent Design” (ID) claim something different. ID is proposed as a scientifically valid alternative to Darwinian natural selection. It holds that “certain features in the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection” (definition from the Discovery Institute web site). ID is attractive to many religious people because it appears to offer a scientific basis for William Paley’s “watch found on the beach” design argument for God. However, trust in ID may be premature.
U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III, in his decision in Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al., wrote: “After a searching review of the record and applicable case law, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science” (p.64). Most scientists agree. As commonly understood, an acceptable scientific explanation may use only empirically established universal principles (“laws of nature”). “Design” as understood by ID does not satisfy this criterion. ID proponents argue that science should be redefined to permit non-natural causes for certain kinds of phenomena, which they claim can be identified empirically by normal scientific methods.
The two main ID theorists are microbiologist Michael Behe and mathematician and philosopher William Dembski. Behe claims that certain biological structures are “irreducibly complex,” and could not have arisen as a result of Darwinian natural selection. Dembski has proposed a statistical “explanatory filter” that he asserts can determine whether something is the result of natural law, chance, or design. A “designed” phenomenon displays “complex specified information,” with “irreducible complexity” as a special case. Scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers have published detailed analyses of these claims, and mostly found them wanting. Needless to say, ID proponents disagree.
What if the definition of science were changed to allow non-natural causes? Would ID then be good science? Science progresses by testing hypotheses. Even with the expanded definition of science, a hypothesis such as “God did it, no further discussion allowed,” leaves too many unanswered questions to be acceptable. So what questions face an ID-based science?
ID claims that “irreducible complexity” and “complex specified information” cannot be explained in terms of natural causes or chance. This is a negative statement. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is the only well-established negative “law of nature.” Apart from centuries of everyday experience, summed up in a Flanders and Swan song as “heat won’t pass from a cooler to a hotter,” the formal statement of the Second Law has survived over a century of attempts to circumvent it. If ID is science, one should expect at least one clear example of “complex specified information” to resist all attempts at natural explanation over a comparable time period. The jury will be out on this for decades to come.
ID hypothesizes that “complex specified information” is the result of design by intelligent agent(s). This goes beyond the “complex specified information” hypothesis. Proponents make clear that ID makes no claims about the nature of the designing agent(s). It could be extraterrestrials, Zeus, Brahma, Baal, Yahweh, or any of innumerable other alternatives. If ID is science, it should be possible to discover unambiguous positive empirical evidence not only about the existence of the designer(s) but also something about their/her/his/its nature. Of course, this is the goal of natural theology, but at present it still takes faith to perceive the hand of God in natural phenomena.
There is a huge gap between a design and its realization, between the blueprint and the product. Automobiles may be “intelligently designed,” but they do not materialize out of thin air. Just as conventional science can describe the step-by-step details of human manufacturing processes, so also should conventional science be able to describe how “intelligent designs” become reality. In doing so, it should clarify precisely where and how design exerts its influence over natural processes.
The concept of “complex specified information” will not be generally accepted until several candidates survive decades of systematic attempts to find a natural explanation acceptable to most scientists. More compelling would be empirical positive evidence, reproducible by anyone, for the existence of a designer or designers. Yet more compelling would be reproducible scientific evidence for the characteristics of the designer(s). Complete acceptance of ID by the scientific community would surely follow if additional evidence were found to explain how “intelligent design” blueprints turn into products.
What are the consequences for faith if ID is true as science? If ID is no more than a hypothesis to explain a negative assertion that has not been around long enough to be thoroughly tested, then we should heed the warning by Holmes Rolston: “The religion that is married to science today will be a widow tomorrow” (Science and Religion: a Critical Survey, Random House, New York, 1987, p.vii.), and not put our trust in ID.
If future scientific research identifies enough characteristics of the designer(s) to make a tentative identification, things get more interesting. If they are extraterrestrials, the Raelian movement gets a huge boost. (Their web site www.rael.org offers a “message from the designers.”) If Brahma, perhaps we should all convert to Hinduism. If Zeus, the ancient Greeks were way ahead of us. If Baal, our ancestors in the faith blew it. Only if research positively identifies a designer with characteristics closer to the God of the Bible than to any other gods should Christians be comfortable with ID.
If scientific research not only identifies the designer as probably the biblical God, and if it elucidates the mechanisms of how God’s designs become realized as material structures, then we will “know the mind of God” more profoundly than Stephen Hawking could ever imagine. Will theology then become just one more branch of natural science, on a par with physics and chemistry?
I am a scientist. I am a Christian. What is my take on ID? I am reminded of the joke about a man who dropped his keys in a dark spot but searched only under a street lamp because that is where there was light. I am convinced that any search for God under the streetlight of science will end in disappointment. I affirm by faith that God designed and created the universe and its natural laws. That is theology, not science. May it always remain so.
Derek Pursey is a Presbyterian elder and deacon, and a member of Westminster Church in Dubuque, Iowa. He is also the current president of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology, and the Christian Faith (PASTCF). Professionally, he is professor emeritus of physics, Iowa Sate University, and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.