Sunday, May 9, 2010

Intelligent Design – useless or worse than useless?

It is very unlikely that Intelligent Design will ever be accepted by the scientific community. The primary reason for that is very obvious – ID is not science.

ID cannot be science because it can never be falsified – a requirement of a scientific hypothesis. ID never can be falsified – and therefore cannot be science - as long as one possibility for the designer is an omnipotent and omniscient God. Such a God, by definition, can do anything and do so for reasons that we mere humans might not be able to understand. As long as such a God is a possible designer – even if not the only possibility – any natural phenomenon is possible. Because of that, until the possibility of an omnipotent and omniscient God is specifically excluded as a possible designer, ID cannot possibly be science.

But what if the extremely unlikely happens and ID is accepted by the scientific community, what happens next? Even if that were to happen, ID would prove to be useless or even worse than useless in its effects on science.

One philosopher of science, Bruce L. Gordon, in an essay titled "Is Intelligent Design Science?" says:

"Is intelligent design (ID) a 'science stopper'? In a word, no. Every viable research program generates its own set of questions. While many of the questions that are natural to an ID approach to science will be different from those that are pursued under the rubric of evolutionary naturalism, they will be no less scientific and, I suspect, no less fruitful. It is also important to realize that ID theorists are NOT advocating a cessation of research from the perspective of neo-Darwinian or self-organizational complexity theories. These approaches are tremendously interesting and fruitful in their own right, and it would be foolish to abandon them.”

The lack of specific examples should be noted.

Let’s apply a little common sense.

First of all, it would seem that it would be very important to identify the designer. In particular it would be important to know whether or not the designer was a supernatural being. There’s a group of people called “Raellians”. They believe in a form of ID. Specifically they claim that life on Earth is basically a science experiment being performed by an alien species. This alien species visits Earth, plants new species of organisms and then periodically tests them to see how viable they are. It is this species that is responsible for the alien abductions that people occasionally report.

If the designer was an alien species, as the Raellians believe, then it would be very useful to know that. Because, in that case, whatever mechanisms were used by those aliens might be duplicated by humans since they would be naturalistic mechanisms.

On the other hand, if the designer was a supernatural God, then there is really no point in trying to understand the mechanisms. That’s because humans can’t perform supernatural mechanisms – i.e. perform miracles.

Alas, ID evidently won’t be able to help us out with this. As one ID advocate said:

“Indeed, no matter how widely accepted ID theory becomes, it is likely that science will never ascertain the identity of the designer.”

So it appears that ID will be useless in this regard.

Another possible benefit to accepting ID is that it might allow us to identify where we should invest out scientific research funding. For example, there is a quite a bit of research going into the study of “abiogenesis” – which is the search for an explanation of how life could have arisen from chemicals. Many ID advocates insist that even the first life form was too complex to have come about from the combination of chemicals. Therefore they insist that the very first living thing (and maybe all “kinds” of living things) only could have come through the intervention of an Intelligent Designer. If the ID advocates are correct, abiogenesis research is doomed to be useless.

By most accounts, Sir Isaac Newton spent more time doing research into alchemy than anything else. That research was fruitless. Based on our understanding of how atoms work we know why it was fruitless. If, in the early days, someone had proven to Newton that alchemy research was doomed to be pointless, presumably he would have invested his time in other areas of research. Since he was such a brilliant scientist, he may have made scientific discoveries centuries earlier than what became the case. Our entire world might be different than it is now if only Newton had been convinced not to spend so much time on alchemy.

The ID advocates would have us believe that abiogenesis research will be as fruitless as Isaac Newton’s research into alchemy.

In that case, we are better off stopping such research right now. Why invest time and effort researching things that can never reach their desired scientific goals?

Why indeed?

But apparently ID won’t benefit us in this way either. If you go back and read the quote presented at the beginning of this post you read:

“It is also important to realize that ID theorists are NOT advocating a cessation of research from the perspective of neo-Darwinian or self-organizational complexity theories. These approaches are tremendously interesting and fruitful in their own right, and it would be foolish to abandon them.”

So we would just continue to do science just as we are now.

So it appears that ID will be useless in this regard as well.

It is very important to note, however, that there are some real dangers implicit in the acceptance of ID.

Much scientific research is HARD WORK. When doing things like sequencing DNA, you have to be very careful not to allow any contamination of any kind. Often time-consuming experiments have to be performed over and over again. Undoubtedly the amount of time required exceeds the initial expectations of the scientists.

If ID was accepted as an explanation for naturalistic phenomena, scientists engaged in such difficult research would always be tempted to say, “Gee, this research is a lot more difficult and time-consuming than I initially expected. Wait! I know! I’ll declare this naturalistic phenomenon to be intelligently designed. I’ll write a paper saying that and move onto some other form of research.” Dr. Michael Behe’s hypothesis of “irreducible complexity” could be used in many such situations. If something is “irreducibly complex”, there’s no point in trying to reduce it any more.

In this sense, ID would be less than useless. It would provide an excuse for terminating potentially rewarding scientific research due to providing an excuse to terminate such research early.

Moreover, as a practical matter, it is difficult to imagine research organizations spending valuable research dollars on things that have been determined by ID advocates as being intelligently designed. None of those organizations are funding alchemy research now. It is unrealistic to expect that they would fund research into a naturalistic source for life on Earth if there is a committee somewhere that determines that the first life forms on Earth were not the result of naturalistic processes.

So, realistically, some scientific research would be terminated due to a lack of funding. This would be another example of where ID is less than useless.

So we seem to be faced with only two alternatives:

  1. ID is useless.
  2. ID is worse than useless.

In either case, ID research should not be pursued.


  1. Your thesis that intelligent design is not falsifiable is a straw-man. See my critique of said thesis:

  2. 1. Vestigial organs (the list is shrinking)
    2. Junk DNA

    2 things overlooked by evolutionists, which were predictions of evolution.

    You make a good point; abiogenesis = alchemy. Very true.

    Remember, the scientific method bloomed under a Christian Europe. Christians believed their mandate to subdue the world included studying it.