Friday, April 26, 2013

[Opinion] Three Remarks on Intelligent Design


Intelligent design (not capitalized) refers to the idea in general.

Intelligent Design (capitalized) refers to the recent intellectual movement that goes by that name which is a specific embodiment of some aspects of intelligent design.

1. I have recently finished reading William A. Dembski and Jonathan Wells' The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (2008).

The Design of Life (2008) is a general introduction to the theory of Intelligent Design in biological systems aimed at the proverbial educated reader by two leading proponents of Intelligent Design.

I have also watched the 2012 movie Prometheus starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron.

The book is about the origin of life on Earth in general while the movie is about the origin of human life in particular.

Both take intelligent design as the cause of the origin of human life on Earth.

The purpose of this blog post is to make three points about intelligent design (and Intelligent Design), none of which are original.

I like to blog them because I think they are not duly appreciated:

(a) Intelligent design is not Biblical Creationism.

(b) Intelligent Design is not committed to the God of the Bible as the designer of human life.

(c) If intelligent design is false, then so is Biblical Creationism.

2. Prometheus (2012) called the originator of human life on Earth "Engineers" and these Engineers are extra-terrestrial beings.

The opening scene of Prometheus (2012) has an Engineer drinking a potion by a waterfall on Earth that destroyed him and altered his DNA; the unsaid implication of the scene is that human life on Earth originated from these altered DNAs.

The next scene has Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discovered in a cave in Scotland in 2089 drawings that give clues as to where these Engineers can be found in the sky.

The third scene has 17 crews setting out on the spaceship Prometheus in the year 2093 to find their originators, the Engineers, in an undisclosed planet.

3. Intelligent Design as a scientific hypothesis claims that life on Earth was originated by intelligent design and leave open as to who or what that designing intelligence might be.

Three definitions from (Dembski and Wells 2008, 3):

"Intelligent Design. The study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the product of intelligence."

"Intelligence. Any cause, agent, or process that achieves an end or goal by employing suitable means or instruments."

"Design. An event, object, or structure that an intelligence brought about by matching means to ends."

As illustrated by Prometheus (2012), the intelligence that originated life on Earth need not be God or a god, but just an intelligent being.

Many (most?) of the Intelligent Design theorists have religious commitments; in particular, a commitment to Christianity.

But as a concept, intelligent design is not the same as Biblical Creationism.

The relationship between the two concepts is:

(a) Biblical Creationism implies intelligent design; but

(b) Intelligent design does not imply Biblical Creationism.

(c) Since intelligent design does not imply Biblical Creationism, therefore intelligent design is not logically equivalent to (or the same as) Biblical Creationism.

My first point is that intelligent design is not Biblical Creationism.

And by the same token, as a specific embodiment of some aspects of the idea of intelligent design, Intelligent Design is not Biblical Creationism.

In theory, one can be an atheist and believe intelligent design to be true.

And there are intelligent design adherents who are not Christian theists.

An example of one prominent atheist who promotes a form of intelligent design is John Gribbin, an astrophysicist trained at Cambridge University.

("Fine-tuned Universe", Wikipedia): "John Gribbin and Martin Rees wrote a detailed history and defence of the fine-tuning argument in their book Cosmic Coincidences (1989). According to Gribbin and Rees, carbon-based life was not haphazardly arrived at, but the deliberate end of a Universe 'tailor-made for man.' "

I have read Gribbin's Science: A History 1543-2001 (2002) a few years ago and have only recently learned, to my surprise, that he is an intelligent design theorist.

An example of a prominent atheist who converted to deism (not Christian theism) is Antony Flew (1923 - 2010).

Antony Flew was among the most prominent British atheist since Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970).

Flew's conversion to deism due to intelligent design arguments in 2004 was a cause of controversy among the atheistic community.

4. My second point is that Intelligent Design is not committed to the God of the Bible as the designer of human life.

Whatever the personal religious commitments of an individual Intelligent Design theorist might be, Intelligent Design as a theory is meant as a scientific theory.

As a scientific theory, Intelligent Design must fit the empirical data.

Although there are evidences that human life originated by intelligent design, the empirical data themselves do not suggest what the particular intelligence that might be.

Intelligent Design as a theory properly leaves as an open question the nature of the designing intelligence.

In a sympathetic review of The Design of Life (2008) in, Lael Weinberger does not seem to appreciate this point:

"The Design of Life is squarely within the Intelligent Design (ID) camp. This book embodies many of the valuable contributions that ID has made to the origins debate, most notably fresh presentations of important creationist arguments (such as the argument based on information). But this book also embraces the key philosophical and theological flaw in the ID movement: the unwillingness to identify the designer. The issue is rarely addressed in the book, but when it comes up, Dembski and Wells quickly make it clear that the designer need not look at all like any typical concept of God (certainly not the God of Scripture). They write, ‘ … an intelligence that brought life into existence need not be supernatural—it could be a teleological organizing principle that is built into nature and thus be perfectly natural’ (p. 262)."

Lael Weinberger misses the nature of Intelligent Design theories.

(a) Intelligent Design is not Biblical Creationism and it is not meant as a "fresh presentations of important creationist arguments".

But since Biblical Creationism implies intelligent design, any argument, evidences or data that corroborate Intelligent Design will also, to some extent, corroborate Biblical Creationism.

(b) The reason for Dembski and Wells' "unwillingness to identify the designer" is because the empirical evidences do not identify the designer.

Intelligent Design is meant to be a scientific theory.

Whatever the personal religious commitments of Dembski and Wells might be, as good scientists, they do not claim more for their theory than what the empirical and theoretical evidences suggest.

It might be the project of some Bible believers to prove the Bible true from science.

It might be the project of some critics of the Bible to prove the Bible false from science.

Whatever the merits of these projects, they are not the aims of Intelligent Design.

The claim of Intelligent Design is that the empirical data support the hypothesis that life on Earth originated by intelligent design.

It is for the above two points that I find the introductory paragraph to "Intelligent Design" in Wikipedia very misleading:

"Intelligent design (ID) is a form of creationism promulgated by the Discovery Institute, a politically conservative think tank based in the U.S. The Institute defines it as the proposition that 'certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.' It is a contemporary adaptation of the traditional teleological argument for the existence of God, presented by its advocates as 'an evidence-based scientific theory about life's origins' rather than 'a religious-based idea'. All the leading proponents of intelligent design are associated with the Discovery Institute and believe the designer to be the Christian deity."

5. The distinction between "context of discovery" and "context of justification" was made famous by the philosopher Hans Reichenbach (1891 - 1953).

The context of discovery is concerned with questions about psychological factors that lead a person to think of an idea.

The context of justification is concerned with questions about what reasons, arguments or data are offered for accepting an idea as true.

In The Design of Life (2008), Dembski and Wells have taken the high road and present their theory within the context of justification:

(a) Positively, they give empirical and theoretical reasons for believing Intelligent Design to be true; and

(b) Negatively, they rebut criticisms of their theory.

Similarly, in criticizing Intelligent Design's rival neo-Darwinism, Dembski and Wells give many empirical and theoretical reasons why they think neo-Darwinism is false.

I find the evidences for Intelligent Design from molecular biology particularly interesting: where did all the information encoded in DNA came from?

It is the claim of Intelligent Design theorists that the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection by blind variation and selective retention is not able to generate the information.

I have the sense that Intelligent Design has gained some momentum within the scientific community.

The current argumentative (or rhetorical or dialectical) strategy of some neo-Darwinists to saddle Intelligent Design as just Biblical Creationism will not work in the long run because the claim is not true.

Hopefully, the days when Intelligent Design is confused with Biblical Creationism and be dismiss as a "religious" theory will soon be over.

Hopefully, the days when a scientific theory can be dismiss because of the religious commitments of its investigators will also soon be over.

Hopefully, in their criticisms of Intelligent Design, the neo-Darwinists will stop mixing the context of discovery with the context of justification.

6. Personally, I am a Christian who believes the Bible is the Word of God and therefore believe in Biblical Creationism.

The relationship between the Bible and science is very complex.

Although intelligent design does not imply Biblical Creationism, Biblical Creationism does imply intelligent design.

So from a Biblical perspective, Intelligent Design can be considered as a part of Biblical Creationism and a part that can be investigated by the current sciences.

(Equally, atheists can consider Intelligent Design as a part of some atheistic theories.)

(As an analogy, consider that both Biblical and Confucian ethics teach us to honor our parents. The ethical principle to honor one's parents can be thought of as part of Biblical ethics and as part of Confucian ethics.)

As such, if Intelligent Design as a theory has empirical content, then to that extent Biblical Creationism also has empirical content too.

And if that is true, then Biblical Creationism is not just merely a religious claim that is neither corroboratable nor falsifiable.

Since Biblical Creationism implies intelligent design, if Intelligent Design (a specific aspect of intelligent design) is falsifiable, then Biblical Creationism is also falsifiable.

My third and final point is that if intelligent design is falsified, then Biblical Creationism will also be falsified.

Because of this and as a Christian, I wish Intelligent Design all the best.


Dembski, William A., and Jonathan Wells. 2008. The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems. Dallas, Texas: The Foundation for Thought and Ethics.

Weinberger, Lael. n.d. Review of The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems, by William A. Dembski and Jonathan Wells.
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"Antony Flew", Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia,
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"Fine-tuned Universe", Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia,
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"Intelligent design", Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia,
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"John Gribbin", Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia,
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"Jonathan Wells (intelligent design advocate)", Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia,
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"William A. Dembski", Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia,
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