Intelligent Design is NOT science – and here’s the proof…

If ever the name of an organisation was a misnomer then its that of the latest peddlers of the unscientific snake oil of creationism, ‘Truth in Science‘, which, according to the Guardian, is currently claiming that its ‘resource materials’ are in use in 59 secondary schools in Britain despite the government having made it clear that:

“Neither intelligent design nor creationism are recognised scientific theories and they are not included in the science curriculum.”

Jim Knight, Minister for Schools, Department for Education and Skills (November 1 2006)

The article even quotes Nick Cowan, head of chemistry at Bluecoat school, in Liverpool, as having said:

“Just because it takes a negative look at Darwinism doesn’t mean it is not science. I think to critique Darwinism is quite appropriate.”

Nick is correct in his statement inasmuch as it is not wrong to attempt to critique Darwinian evolution and that the mere fact that a particular theory might take a negative view of the theory of evolution by natural selection does not, on it own, mean that they theory is not science, but where he is sadly mistaken to the point of calling his professional competence as a science teacher into question in, seemingly, implying that the so-called theory of ‘intelligent design’ is any way a scientific theory.

Intelligent design is not a scientific theory, it is a deliberately conceived and contrived attempt to introduce a teleological argument into the teaching of science where no such argument belongs; creationism re-drafted and re-modelled to fit into the cracks between extant scientific knowledge and understanding of the nature of the universe.

So, for the benefit of Nick and any other science teacher who might have a received these materials from ‘Truth in Science’ and have been taken in by the false suggestion that the supposed ‘theory of intelligent design’ is in any respect scientific, let me clarify matters for you and explain precisely why it is not science.

To begin at the beginning with a dictionary definition of science:

Science. noun.

(a) The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.
(b) Such activities restricted to a class of natural phenomena.
(c) Such activities applied to an object of inquiry or study.

You’ll note the important qualification in point (b), ‘restricted to a class of natural phenomena‘, i.e. phenomena that can be explained and accounted for by entirely natural means. Any phenonmenon that relies on a supernatural explanation, whether this is a god (or gods), fairies, pixies, elves, goblins, leprechauns, Gandalf, Harry Potter or an infinite number of precariously balanced turtles, is not science.

That, at least, should be fairly simple to understand – and if you’re a science teacher and you cannot understand that then, frankly, you have no business calling yourself a science teacher.

Why is ‘intelligent design’ not science? Well I’m glad you asked.

The first reason why it is not science is that it cannot be tested experimentally; one of the so-called theory’s main proponents, Michael Behe has conceded precisely that point.

There is no experiment one can conceive of that can be used to test the supposed theory of intelligent design. The only possible empirical proof would be to observe the designer at work and in the actual act of ‘designing’ an organism – ‘god’ would have to provide proof of his/her/its existence in order to prove the validity of intelligent design, which, were it to happen, would negate entirely the concept of faith – one has no need to believe in the existence of supernatural being if that being provides absolute proof that they exist.

Second, the supposed theory of intelligent design makes no predictions, in fact it is impossible to predict in advance the actions of the supposed designer.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection does, by complete contrast, make predictions. It predicts that for given species the process of natural selection will, over time, serve to encourage, support and reinforce those traits and characteristics that are most advantageous to the survival of the species. A tiger has a striped body because in its natural environment that colouring confers a survival advantage. A striped tiger is better camoflaged than one with a plain colouring, similar to a Lion, and therefore better able to get in close to its prey without attracting the prey’s attention, making it more successful in hunting its prey; eating being one of life’s little prerequisites for survival.

Darwin’s theory provides both a rational explanation for why tigers have striped and an explanation as to how that particular colouring evolved to become the ‘natural’ colouring of tigers – it also explains precisely why different species of tiger, living in different environments, have different colourings, variations on the basic theme of stripes.

Intelligent design makes no such predictions and offers no such explanations, it merel proposes that tigers were specifically designed to suit their environment, but there is no fundamental reason why that should be case; the hypothetical designer could just have easily have designed the tiger to be bright blue with orange sport, purely as a matter of whim.

Third, intelligent design propose no new hypotheses of its own. In fact intelligent design has only one hypothesis that it applies to anything and everything – the ‘designer’ did it – and as has already been shown such a hypothesis is incapable of being tested experimentally and make no predictions against which the hypothesis could be tested.

Taken together, these three faults demostrate that intelligent design in not falsifiable, it does not admit to the possibility of a contrary case and is, therefore, not science.

On its own, this is sufficient to rule out the suggestion that intelligent design is in any material or abstract sense a ‘scientific theory’, however there is one further flaw in ‘intelligent design’ that logically and conclusively demonstrates that it is not a scientfic theory, a flaw that resides in the central concept of the ‘theory’, that of the suggested existence of a designer.

Who is this supposed designer, and where did they come from?

Remember, a scientific theory cannot rely on explanations derived from the supernatural – a phenonmenon that can only be explained in supernatural terms is not scientific but theological and, therefore, has no place in the science classroom. We can, therefore, immediately rule out any consideration of any view of ‘intelligent design’ predicated on the concept of ‘Theistic Realism‘, as proposed by Phillip E Johnson (another key figure in the promotion of ‘intelligent design’, which holds that all true knowledge must begin with the acknowledgement of ‘god’ as creator because he believes that the unifying characteristic of the universe is that it was created by ‘god’. Such a view is in no way either empirical or naturalistic, rather it is an attempt to redifine science outside of naturalistic constraints.

As a final ‘clincher’ Johnson’s ‘authority’ for this worldview is based solely on scriptural references, thereby demonstrating conclusively that this is theology and not science.

If one rules out the possibility of ‘god’ as designer, this being thoroughly and obviously unscientific, one is left only with the concept that the alleged ‘designer’ must be something other than a ‘god’, a being of some desciption (and of considerable intelligence, far beyond the present capacity of the human race) but nevertheless one whose existence in fintie in space-time and who in neither entirely omnipotent nor omniscient.

The possibility that such a designer could, hypothetically, be a corporeal being, an extra-terrestrial or extra-dimension entity of near unimaginable intelligence – but not ‘god’ – is the Trojan Horse that proponents of ‘intelligent design’ have used to weedle their way into the classroom, despite the fact that, as in the case of Phillip Johnson, if you push the issue hard enough then what you find is that they what they really mean when they talk about a ‘designer’ is ‘god’.

In fact, neither the term ‘intelligent design’ in its current usage, nor the present ‘theory’ came into use until after the US Supreme Court ruled, in 1987 (in Edwards vs Aguillard), that a Louisana State law requiring the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in state schools was unconstitutional as it was intended to advance a particular religion in violation of the US First Amendment. Crucially, in its ruling in this case, the Supreme Court stated that the:

“teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction”

As a matter of no great coincidence, Stephen C Meyer, the founder of the Discovery Institute, the best known organisation dedicated to the promotion of ‘intelligent design’, claims that the term ‘intelligent design’ emerged at a conference in 1988 called Sources of Information Content in DNA, and was been coined by Charles Thaxton, the editor of Of Pandas and People, which was published in 1989 and is generally consider the first book on ‘intelligent design’, although as has since emerged, early drafts of the book used the term ‘creationism’ throughout, only for this term to be replaced, almost entirely, by the term ‘intelligent design’ in the final, published’ version of the text.

This, if it demonstrates anything, shows that ‘intelligent design’ is not more than creationism repackaged to fit the Supreme Court’s ruling in Edwards vs Aguillard.

But getting back to the designer, the question one must ask, if the hypothetical designer is not ‘god’, is where exactly did this designer come from?

Did they perhaps evolve elsewhere in the universe/multiverse, in which case their supposed intervention in our own existence serves only to place us one, step (or more) removed from evolution. It would not, however, invalidate Darwin’s theory of evolution, defeating entirely the primary objective of the proponents of ‘intelligent design’.
Was there, perhaps, another designer who designed the designer who designed us?

Such a hypothesis can lead only to one of two conclusion, each of which is self-defeating. Either the chain of designers must resolve itself to an ‘ultimate designer’ who ‘popped’ into existence from nothingness in an act of spontaneous self-creation – this would, again, make this designer a ‘god’ and negate any possibility of ‘intelligent design’ being anything other than theological in nature – or one must postulate the existence of unending sequence of designers stretching away to infinity.

This latter possibility is called, in formal logic, a reductio ad absurdum (in English, a ‘reduction to the absurd’) – the proposition that each designer must themselves have been designed by another superior designer in strict hierarchical sequence leads one to an absurd outcome of an infinite series of such designers, each superior to the last (or inferior if one moves down the chain). That the original premise leads to an absurd outcome is considered to be logical proof that the original premise is false.

It is, therefore, not possible that a hypothetical ‘designer’ can be anything other than a ‘god’ – although this is not necessarily the Christain ‘god’ either – irrespective of whether that designer is the one with a supposed immediate responsibility for the design of life in this universe, or an ultimate designer removed by an unknown number of steps from that which is supposedly our our designer.

One cannot logically postulate the existence of an intelligent designer who is not, in addition, a ‘god’, such that it follows, logically, that the supposed theory of ‘intelligent design’ is one entirely dependent on a supernatural explanation of the nature of the universe and, therefore, wholly unscientific.

(Hat Tip for the Guardian story to Labour Humanists)

  • Whenever the creationists come out with “Evolution is just a theory”, I always counter with “Creation is just an opinion.”

    And an uninformed one, at that.

  • Niels

    Nice. You could also point out that, if the designer is not ultimately a god, ie omnipotent, omniscient, onmnicognizant, etc, he/she/it loses the innate moral authority on which most religions are balanced. If a god is not perfect and absolute, mistakes may be made, and a certain level of distrust is required.

    So not only is Intelligent Design not science, it is logically self-defeating.

  • Creationism is UTTER cobblers. Amongst Muslims, Harun Yahya is the main disseminator of this myth, lifting almost all his ideas from US Christian right but with special emphasis on the idea that Darwin is the evil ideologue of Western materialism. Sadly, the fact that the Turkish press have exposed H.Y. as a meglomaniac who thinks he’s the Mahdi and shags women left, right and centre has done little to dampen his popularity. I am all for Darwinian biology, but Darwin himself was a racist (read his own account of meeting black people in the developing world) and the cultural impact of his ideas outside of biology has often been dire. On the other hand, Wallace, who co-discovered the theory, was a nice socialist who had black friends. But he never gets a mention coz he was also a spiritualist.

  • “Darwin himself was a racist (read his own account of meeting black people in the developing world)…”

    ‘It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children — those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own — being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty:’
    The Voyage of the Beagle; Charles Darwin, 1839

  • Thanks, Pete.

    Julaybib: The entanglement of Darwin’s work with racism came after the fact, when evolution was used to justify unfounded theories of racial biology.