Ten Paces

Does intelligent design provide a plausible account of life’s origins?

Two writers go head to head.

By and From the January-February 2014 issue


Scientists working to identify the causes of events in the remote past often use a technique of reasoning called “the method of multiple working hypotheses” or “inference to the best explanation.” That is, they compare various hypotheses to see which would, if true, best explain the facts. But this raises an important question: Exactly what makes an explanation best?

The most important criteria scientists have developed, called “causal adequacy,” requires that scientists, as a condition of a successful explanation, identify causes that are known to have the power to produce the kind of effect, feature, or event that requires explanation. For instance, a volcanic eruption provides a better explanation for an ash layer in the earth than an earthquake because eruptions have been observed to produce ash layers, whereas earthquakes have not. 

Scientists must cite, in the words of the famed geologist Charles Lyell, “causes now in operation” or “presently acting causes.” This was the idea behind his uniformitarian dictum: “The present is the key to the past.” According to Lyell, our present experience of cause and effect should guide our reasoning about the causes of past events. Darwin himself adopted this methodological principle and used it to develop his case in the Origin. 

Philosophers of science have also emphasized causal adequacy as the key criterion by which competing hypotheses are adjudicated. But philosophers of science also have noted that assessments of explanatory power lead to conclusive inferences only when it can be shown that there is only one known cause for the effect or evidence in question. When scientists can infer a uniquely plausible cause, they can avoid the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent—the error of ignoring other possible causes with the power to produce the same effect.

In Darwin’s Doubt, I argue that it is possible to formulate a rigorous scientific case for intelligent design as an inference to the best explanation, specifically, as the best explanation for the origin of functional biological information. In the book, I show (for many reasons, not just those discussed above) that materialistic evolutionary mechanisms lack the creative power to generate both the genetic and the “epigenetic” information (the information not stored in DNA) necessary to produce new forms of animal life. But this critique of the “causal adequacy” of materialistic evolutionary mechanisms forms only part of the basis for a scientific inference to intelligent design. The action of conscious, intelligent agents clearly represents a known and “presently acting” (adequate) cause of the origin of functional information. Moreover, experience shows that large amounts of functional information—whether software programs, ancient inscriptions, or Shakespearean sonnets—invariably originate from an intelligent source, not from undirected material processes. And since intelligence is the only known cause of such information, the origin of the functional information necessary to produce novel forms of animal life in the Cambrian period points decisively to the past activity of a designing intelligence, even if we weren’t there to observe the first animals coming into existence.

Of course, many scientists dismiss intelligent design as “religion masquerading as science.” But the case for intelligent design is not based upon religious or scriptural authority. Instead it is based upon scientific evidence and the same method of scientific reasoning that Darwin himself used in the Origin of Species

In rejecting the theory as unscientific by definition, evolutionary biologists reveal a deep a priori commitment to methodological naturalism—the idea that scientists must limit themselves to materialistic explanations for all things. Yet, we know from experience that certain types of events and structures—in particular, information-rich structures—invariably arise from minds or personal agents. Indeed, no thinking person would insist that the inscriptions on the Rosetta stone, for example, were produced by strictly materialistic forces such as wind and erosion. Yet, by insisting that all events in the history of life must be explained by reference to strictly materialistic processes evolutionary biologists preclude consideration of a designing intelligence in the history of life, regardless of what the evidence might indicate. 

This commitment to a wholly materialistic account of the origins of life also helps to explain the reluctance to criticize the Darwinian theory publicly. Many evolutionary biologists fear that if they do so they will aid and abet the case for intelligent design—a theory they disdain as inherently unscientific. Those of us who support the theory of intelligent design advocate a more open approach to scientific investigation. Not only do we think the public has a right to know about the problems with evolutionary theory, we also think that the rules of science should allow scientists to “follow the evidence wherever it leads”—even if it leads to conclusions that raise deep and unwelcome metaphysical questions. 

Occasionalism Isn’t Science

by John Derbyshire

Why can't the purveyors of intelligent design get a break? They have been plowing their lonely furrow for 20 years now, insisting on their right to a seat at science’s banquet and promising that their ideas will bring about a revolutionary overthrow of orthodox biology (which they call “Darwinism” for propagandistic reasons) Any Day Now. They drop heavy hints that biologists are in a panic about the instability of their foundational theories, but are anxious to hide their doubts from public gaze.

Really? One would naturally like to see some illustrative examples. Twenty years on from the inception of ID, the revolution seems as far away as ever. The ID-ers are still shut outside the banquet with their noses pressed forlornly to the window, and the ancien régime looks to be as firmly established as ever. What’s the problem here?

The least charitable skeptics accuse ID promoters of running a racket, taking part in the grand old American tradition of fleecing the rubes. (As the immortal Al Bundy told his acolytes while winding up for his sermon at the Church of NO MA’AM: “Now it’s time to eece-flay the ongregation-cay.”) I’m a cynic, but not that much of a cynic. I have engaged in formal debate on Intelligent Design on three or four occasions. I once spent an hour in a room full of principals from the Discovery Institute (DI). They struck me as persons who believe in what they are selling. The Charity Navigator website lists their total 2011 revenues as $5.7 million, which is not a lot. The executives, according to that same website, are not extravagantly paid.

A related accusation with much more force is that some ID-ers are dishonest in advancing their aims. This was a running theme in the 2004 book Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, by Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross. You can get the flavor of the shenanigans from Forrest and Gross’s account, in their Chapter 4, of the 1999 Kunming conference, to which respectable scientists were lured under false pretenses:

According to scientists who attended the Kunming conference, the involvement of the DI in the conference became known only after the conference began…It was during the presentations by [DI Fellows] Wells and Nelson, when the conference was at an end, that [quoting a participating scientist] “the broader agenda of what was going on was apparent”…

(At the aforementioned meeting with DI principals I placed a copy of the Forrest-Gross book in plain sight on the desk in front of me. Seeing it, DI President Bruce Chapman reacted like a vampire to garlic. “That is a very bad book,” he shuddered.)

That brings us to the question of whether ID is really science, as its proponents claim, or pseudoscience, as practically all scientists believe. To form a judgment on that, you need to have some clear criteria for distinguishing science from pseudoscience. That is much harder than you’d think. It may in fact be impossible. 

Here we are in the thorny wood known to philosophy of science as “the Demarcation Problem.” This problem—more broadly, the problem of distinguishing true knowledge from opinion, illusion, fancy, and wishful thinking—has vexed philosophers of knowledge since Aristotle. My impression is that they have now finally given up on it. Is astrology, for example, a science or a pseudoscience? What about Freudianism? Or chemistry? Or Newtonian action-at-a-distance? We think we know the answers—replicability! falsifiability! predictive power!—but in fact there are arguments to be made on both sides in all cases. 

Even if you fall back on a purely social judgment—that science is what respectable authorities recognize as science, what gets you professorships and seats on prestigious government advisory committees—you are stuck with explaining Lysenkoism, which, though pure hokum, was surely science on that social definition (as, indeed, in that same environment, was Marxism).

So why can't the ID-ers get any respect? All we have so far is a certain promotional shiftiness.

Socially, the tribal-sectional factor is undoubtedly important. I shall draw here on an anonymous analyst who described the present-day United States as: “a country which is essentially divided between two hostile tribes engaged in perpetual low-intensity warfare. We’ll call them Hutus and Tutsis.”

Let’s also say that one tribe, Tutsis, holds a hegemony on all organs of education and opinion, virtually the entire government bureaucracy and all of popular culture. Many of the most prestigious institutions in the country consist of 95 percent or more Tutsis. Tutsi organizations like “Harvard University” and “the New York Times” are widely respected even by ardent Hutus.

Now of course there are Hutu organizations and no shortage of powerful Hutu people. But, unlike the reverse, there are virtually no prestigious institutions where Tutsis are excluded…

In this schema, ID is definitely Hutu by dint of its plain connections with the older style of fundamentalist Creationism. That older style is wellnigh a badge of Hutu-itude, a tribal marker of exceptional precision. Ain’t no pointy-head perfesser goin’ tell ME I’m descended from no monkey! Pass the likker jug there, Lud. Tutsis can thus scoff at ID as ignorant, rustic, and low-rent, without bothering to engage with its arguments. That’s a bit unfair, as ID promoters nowadays run more to sharp business suits and postgraduate degrees than (to borrow a Hutu characterization from Tom Wolfe) “Iron Boy overalls…or hats with ventilation holes up near the crown.”

The line of descent from old-school Creationism to ID is in plain sight, though, identifying ID with fundamentalist Christianity. (ID is in fact even more closely allied to fundamentalist Islam, but nobody notices that. More on this topic in a moment.) Christian fundamentalism is of course Hutu, and likely getting more so. 

Through its first decade of activity the American ID movement conducted a dainty dance with its religious inspiration, keeping it as much out of sight as possible in hopes of winning one of the recurrent lawsuits over the teaching of ID in public schools. 

Thus ID-ers, in debate, were always at pains to tell you that the Designer was by no means to be identified with the God of the Abrahamic religions. It might equally well be a space alien! They even had an avowedly irreligious non-Christian on board, like one of the tame Tibetan lamas the Chinese communists keep on hand for display to foreign visitors.

The 2005 Kitzmiller case killed stone dead the possibility of getting ID into the public schools, as well as revealing, in the Discovery Institute’s character attacks on the presiding judge, yet more of the crude low-kicking side of ID promotion. 

The net effect of Kitzmiller was beneficial, though. ID-ers are now more relaxed about admitting their religious connections—a slight but welcome increase in honesty. After Kitzmiller, ID-ers don’t have to lie so much.

It is the religious aspect that causes most scientists to shy away from ID. Not that scientists all hate God. Many of them are devout. Of the non-devout, most are just indifferent to religion. Actual God-haters like P.Z. Myers are a minority.

No, it’s not hatred of God that keeps ID shut out from the halls of science. The problem is more deeply metaphysical.

The metaphysics of ID is occasionalist. It holds, to abbreviate the doctrine rather drastically, that causation is an illusion; that everything happens because God makes it happen. 

Why does ice float on water? Aristotle thought it was a matter of shape (see On the Heavens, IV.6). Science says it’s because ice is less dense than water. The occasionalist says it’s because God wills it so. 

ID-ers likewise believe that any given species exists because the Designer wants it to, and came into existence by His will ex nihilo at some precise moment in time. Unkind critics refer to this as the Puff of Orange Smoke theory of the origin of species. 

Scientists are instinctively repelled by occasionalism because it doesn’t give them anything to do. If ice floats because it’s less dense than water, all sorts of questions and embryonic research projects bob to the surface (so to speak) of the curious mind. Do all less-dense-than-water objects float? Do those more dense necessarily sink? Why is ice, water’s solid form, less dense than the liquid form? Are there more substances with this property? Do they have other properties in common with water? Etc., etc. Science generates science, opening up new questions, new topics for inquiry, new problems. That’s the fun of it. That’s the point of it.


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About the Author

Stephen C. Meyer is director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and the author of Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligence Design. 

About the Author

John Derbyshire writes "Shelf Life," a books column, every other week. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism (Crown Forum).