Is Intelligent Design an Interesting Philosophical Idea?

We have shown that intelligent design is not a scientific theory, is not even a valid scientific hypothesis, has no scientific evidence specifically supportive of it, is not scientifically testable, and even if it were true, would have absolutely no effect on the course of science. Yet some scientists say "Nevertheless it is an interesting idea, worth exploring as a philosophical notion." And many non-scientists will say "Even if it can't be proven logically or scientifically, it is certainly justifiable to believe it."

The road to creationism is paved with bad philosophy. —Philip Kitcher. [Abusing Science, p. 82.]

I find those responses perplexing. Why is the idea of an intelligent designer so seductive to many persons, even those who do understand that the idea has no logical or scientific support? Perhaps the answer lies not so much in philosophy as in psychology.

Is ID worth exploring as a philosophical proposition? How can it be? It is only a variant of the argument from design that goes way back in history, and has been so fully discredited that it rates but a chapter in philosophy textbooks. Addition of the so-called "evidences of design" in nature adds nothing to the strength of the argument.

The heart of the matter seems to be an "argument from incredulity". Many people simply cannot imagine that the natural world has no purpose and no designer. They cannot accept that there are questions we can ask that have no answers that we can find or could possibly comprehend.

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Alice in Wonderland. —Charles Lutwidge Dodgson

All of our thinking, and our "common sense", is a product of our experience with the natural world. We come to accept certain principles as universally true. Among these are:

  • Every effect has a cause.
  • Causes precede effects.
  • Something cannot arise from nothing.

All these are generally true of our direct sensory experience with the natural world, so we come to accept them as "universal truths". But when we imagine things beyond, or outside of, the directly accessible natural world, we have no rational reason to suppose that these comfortable principles still apply. They are "illusory universal truths". These naive principles are ingrained in our thinking and even in the very language we use. We simply have no appropriate language for rational discussion of supernatural notions.

As one examines the arguments for and against Intelligent Design, or any other supernatural notion, one sees pervasive inappropriate projection of this kind. As I read books on such subjects, I become impatient and infuriated that so many words are wasted by people who ought to realize that they are falling into this trap. Most of those who debate ID, on both sides of the issue, seem to be unconcious victims of the seductiveness of naive (and unstated) "illusory universal truths".

God does not compel the belief of skeptics by leaving puzzles in creation which science cannot solve. —George Murphy (theologian) [Intelligent Design as a Theological Problem, Covalence 4, 2, p. 9.]

Suppose that all of the scientific claims of ID proponents were true—their claims of irreducible complexity, their claims of design in nature, and their claims that some things in nature have no possible natural explanation. Even if all those claims were true (and that certainly hasn't been demonstrated), none of it would in any way establish the validity of the notion of an intelligent designer. One simply cannot project our science or our logic or even our notion of "intelligence" onto a hypothetical supernatural entity. Such an entity, by definition "beyond" the natural world, might transcend natural laws and even logic, and has no obligation to operate according to our naive notions of cause and effect, purpose, design, and intelligence. So if we were to somehow know (one can't imagine how) that there are events that have no possible natural explanation, that would simply be a fact that would lead us nowhere and tell us nothing useful. We'd have to accept it and admit that we'll never know the reason. It would remain an unsolved mystery.

Of course, human nature being what it is, that wouldn't stop people from speculating (inventing) reasons. And it wouldn't stop scientists from looking for natural processes to bridge the apparent gaps. But if the gaps in natural processes were really supernatural, all efforts to explain them would be futile.

Some of you may be thinking, "Maybe the gaps in natural evolutionary processes have a lawfulness of a higher order that we could figure out, and then we could develop a "meta-science" of them." If so, they would no longer be supernatural, and the new "meta science" would be just an extension of ordinary science. Others might say, "Perhaps there's an intelligent designer that actually does obey natural laws and obeys our logic, or some extension of them." That's pretty much the same thing, with the "intelligent designer" concept added on. It's no more useful a concept for science than the luminiferous ether of the 19th century was.

Arguments for intelligent design are deeply superficial.

So this is the "paradox of the supernatural". We can do science only because the natural world is predictably lawful. If we observe something that's not predictably lawful it would be called "supernatural", and would be beyond any possibility of our understanding by science, or by logic, or by any conceivable method. Many times in the history of science we have encountered natural phenomena that we couldn't understand. But we eventually achieved understanding of them through more investigation. There's much we still don't understand, but we have no choice but to keep trying, for there's no evidence that anything is beyond understanding through natural processes, and no way to prove that anything is supernatural.

Finally, we ought to humbly accept that all "Why?" questions are fundamentally unanswerable, and quit wasting time on them. We can content ourselves with trying to make sense of the regulatities of the natural world, and using what we learn. We should recognize that our understanding of nature may never be complete or perfectly precise, and therefore should not use words like "truth" "proof" and "believe" (in their absolute sense) when talking about science.

    —Donald E. Simanek, March 2006.
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Top of page.

Intelligent Design Creationism: Fraudulent Science.
The Evolution Deniers.
Intelligent Design: The Glass is Empty.
Order from Disorder. Creation in Everyday Life.
Random Thoughts on Randomness.
Is The Real World Really Real?
Uses and Misuses of Logic.
The Scientific Method.
The Proof is Pudding.
Theory or Process?
Why not Angels?
What's bugging the creationists?
Summary and Conclusions.

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