A Question About Intelligent Design

A Question to both ID Proponents and Proponents of EC (Evolutionary Creationism or Theistic Evolution) About the Concept of Design

intelligent-designHere’s a question I throw out there on the concept of design:

It seems to me that the inference to design is something that one can make irrespective of one’s discipline of study or area of expertise. I don’t need to be a scientist to infer design from nature. Many do that without any training in science at all. If that’s the case, can design be regarded as a scientific principle per se? Or is it a broader principle of reasoning that various disciplines can employ, in various degrees?

On his blog (in the series on ‘god of the gaps’ criticisms of ID), my friend Hendrik gives the example of finding several Scrabble tiles placed together in the form of an intelligible sentence. One quite naturally infers design here, but one does not need to be a linguist to do so. Now, one might need the assistance of a linguist if the tiles appear to be in random order, let’s say because the sentence is in a foreign language one does not understand or even recognize. We don’t, however, need the linguist, as linguist, in order to make the step of inferring design. We need the linguist to help us discern if the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions are present in order for us (as non-specialists in the field) to infer design. But we already seem to take the notion of design for granted (and to include things beyond linguistics, such as the existence of the mind of the author, as well as motivations, ideologies, loyalties & commitments, etc.), on the way to asking if the linguistic evidence in question supports our (beyond linguistics) design inference or not.

In short, one’s expertise in a field of study does not seem relevant to the discernment of design in general. It only seems relevant if one is considering whether certain observations (which are best understood by a particular field of study/expertise) support one’s overarching concept of design, which depends on other considerations in addition to the present observations. If the notion of design operates as I’m suggesting, it is not (it seems to me), strictly speaking, a scientific concept (though it can be one to which scientists as people/agents appeal to as a broader, more holistic explanation of reality).

SO, HERE’S MY QUESTION FOR ALL: Do you agree that in the sense I’ve described, science can discern necessary but not sufficient conditions for an inference to Design?

I think it would be interesting to tease this out.

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“Intelligent Design” illustration by Cindy Caldwell

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6 Responses to A Question About Intelligent Design

  1. Patrick,

    I’m inclined to think design inferences can be made broadly and, if (emphasis on “if”) empirical evidence warrants, scientifically—and if one doesn’t make Methodological Naturalism rule it out at the start in the definition of “science.” For substantiation of my view, see my many—too many?—comments at your previous post.

    About the design inference in science, besides the work of philosopher of science Stephen C. Meyer, I’ve also found the work of philosopher of science Del Ratzsch to be helpful, especially his books The Limits of Science: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective (IVP 2000) and Nature, Design, and Science: The Status of Design in Natural Science (SUNY 2001). Ratzsch’s online article “Design Theory and Its Critics” is helpful, too.

    I think this is all I’ll say for now—I’ve got to turn my gaze to other matters.

    P.S. I agree with the comments from Rebecca and Garry.

    P.P.S. I’ve responded to the comments you left on my “god-of-the-gaps” blog post you mention above.

    P.P.P.S. Thanks for hosting this discussion! Lots of excellent food for thought!

    • Thanks Hendrik for expressing your position clearly. I’ve appreciated this dialogue! I’ll check out your recommended sources when time permits. More for the reading list!

  2. Rebecca Dielschneider says:

    Patrick,

    First of all, I appreciate the time you put into writing your blog and to generating discussion. It is greatly appreciated.

    Now to the topic at hand… while I agree with one of your final statements that “one’s expertise in a field of study does not seem relevant to the discernment of design in general”, I’d like to emphasize your point about relying on an expert (linguist, scientist… whoever) to explain a phenomenon (order of words, order of nucleotides… etc), and then the inference of design can be left up to anyone, regardless of speciality. As you said, one would rely on a linguist to interpret a foreign language. Likewise, non-scientists need to rely on scientists to correctly interpret scientific findings without bias, so that these non-scientists may make an decision about design.

    A scientist can look at the DNA sequence GCGTATAGCTCATACCGTA and see beyond the nucleic acid gibberish. They can see the TATA as a typical promoter sequence, and the sequence TAC which is transcribed to AUG which is the start codon that codes for the amino acid methionine.

    However, not all science is as straight-forward as this sequence. Furthermore, interpretations can be wrong and scientists can have bias. A scientist is trained to have a hypothesis (that A+B=C), and this frequently leads to a bias (I need to find evidence that A+B=C). Unfortunately, bad science abounds.

    Interesting topic. No easy answer!

    Rebecca Dielschneider

  3. gbkoop says:

    Hey there. Good discussion.
    I am a pastor not a scientist, and although I have read quite a bit in this area, I consider myself a lay person, interested party, and practitioner in the Christian faith community. Patrick you know this already, but for others who might read this comment, I thought I would provide this preface as context.
    It seems to me, ‘design,’ is a conclusion drawn from a process or system of some sort. If this is the case, then how are conclusions viewed in relation to the scientific process?
    I also wonder about the connection between ‘design,’ or even ‘ID,’ and the ‘god of the gaps,’ criticisms. I hear the phrase, “god of the gaps,” quite often in my conversations with Theistic Evolutionists, but I am not quite convinced of the connection with ID. If ‘god of the gaps,’ is essentially a form of ‘clausing out,’ when something is unknown or missing, and saying, “well, that’s God,” that is considerably different than ID, which can employ scientific processes and draw a particular conclusion. My understanding is, ID is not ‘clausing out,’ but in pursuit of understanding, draws a particular conclusion.
    I appreciate this discussion and both your and Hendrik’s contribution to the body of knowledge in this area.

    Blessings…

    G

    • Hi Garry – thanks for your comment! Joshua Swamidass expressed his own views on this in yesterday’s post. You might find his comments (and Hendrik’s responses) helpful.

      I think sometimes the “god of the gaps” criticism gets applied too broadly. God does fill certain gaps that science inherently can’t investigate (i.e., that the triune God of the Bible is the ultimate source of our deepest longings, our true purpose, life’s meaning, etc.). Also, people that completely dismiss natural theology on the basis of a ‘god of the gaps’ criticism are over-applying it.

      I think what scientists object to is invoking God to fill gaps in our scientific knowledge. I’m not sure that ID proponents are always guilty of this, but I think they sometimes are. I do agree that we can “employ scientific processes and draw a particular conclusions” about design, but the conclusion (IMHO) is a scientifically informed philosophical conclusion, not a necessary conclusion from science itself. ID seems (correct me if I’m wrong) to want to make the stronger claim that design is a particular scientific conclusion. It seems to me that the definition of “design” itself is reliant upon realities and ideas that go beyond science (Mind, intentions, etc.). So, using it as a scientific explanation is a bit like giving a definition of a word and using the word itself in the definition. I’d rather say that scientifically and philosophically astute persons draw the inference to design. But I’m still thinking these things through!

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