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Defining ID

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July 30, 2010 Tags: Design
Defining ID

Today's entry was written by Darrel Falk and Syman Stevens. You can read more about what we believe here.


The topic of Intelligent Design (ID) comes up frequently here at The BioLogos Forum. Just use the Resource Finder on this page to see for yourself. But because ID can be hard to pin down, it’s worth pausing to remind ourselves what we’re talking about when we use the term on this site. It has also been argued recently (see the comments here) that our website’s definitions of ID are in need of editing, and are in need of being distinguished from our own opinions about ID.

In this post, we’d like to revisit the definition of ID, clarify some ways that BioLogos differs from ID, and raise a few questions about how to best define ID on this site.

ID, Self-Defined

Why not begin with the definition provided by the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (CSC), the leading force currently promoting ID:

Must we choose between natural selection and God's sovereignty? Read more here.

Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

From just two sentences, we can already see that ID refers to several things. In no particular order, they are: 1) a theory, 2) a scientific research program, and 3) a community of scholars.

With regard to Part 1 (ID as a theory), there is little to say here –– the ID community is certainly entitled to define its own theory. However, it is worth pointing out that many (including us at BioLogos) do not feel that this “theory” is a theory at all, but rather a hypothesis. And we at BioLogos are also uncomfortable with the manner in which this hypothesis is framed. We do not believe that one must choose between an intelligent cause (the God of the Bible, in our case) and a process like natural selection. We’re also uncomfortable targeting “certain features” of the universe as being explained by an intelligent cause, which would seem to imply that other features are not similarly explained. We know of no biblical or scientific reason to make such an assumption.

These three points deserve their own posts to flesh out the particulars, but this isn’t the place for that. Let’s leave this first part of the definition alone, and be content with just making these distinctions for now.

For one such critique of how Intelligent Design is often framed as a theory, see Karl Giberson's "The Proof is in the Pudding, Not the Recipe".

Parts 2 and 3 deserve a bit more attention. The claim that ID is a scientific research program is more hotly contested, and not everyone would agree with it. BioLogos has already hosted some discussion both for and against the claim, and we’ll explore it further below. As for the claim that ID is a community of scholars, there is no doubt that experts in each of these fields are represented in the ID community –– ID is a very big tent. Still, this subject is worth a bit more discussion, which also follows below.

ID as Science

As many of us know, this is a touchy subject. The ID community is known for pointing out that their research follows the scientific method, and of course the establishment of the Biologic Institute and the peer-reviewed Bio-Complexity journal are typical scientific activities. Still, many have argued that the ID community only poses as a scientific enterprise.

We have no problem acknowledging that the ID community is doing science –– we just believe that the science supporting their hypothesis is poorly done. For example, Karl Giberson has written an interesting piece about why following the scientific method doesn’t ensure that the end result will produce new information about the world; Darrel Falk has written and spoken about his concerns with the ID community’s scientific work; and Kathryn Applegate is currently in the middle of a blog series about the problems she sees specifically with Michael Behe’s work.

But despite our concerns with the quality of their work, we acknowledge that the ID community follows the scientific method, and that their research is analogous to other historical sciences like archaeology, paleontology, or cosmology. Instead of denying that ID is doing science, we intend to continue to show why it is that the scientific community has grave concerns about the quality of the science that the ID community has put forward to date.

ID: More Than Science?

Another important question to consider is whether ID is different from any other research program given the amount of public advocacy in which it engages. The ID community has established quite a reputation through such projects as Ben Stein’s Expelled, or What Hath Darwin Wrought, or its ongoing attention to Judge Jones’ ruling at Dover. Projects like this point to a broader, more political agenda than might be expected from a scientific research program. This community of scientists, philosophers, and other scholars is clearly interested in influencing culture. In fact, it sounds a lot like the kind of community we have here at BioLogos, and we don’t call ourselves a scientific research program.

Now, some might argue that doing science responsibly will always involve the additional task of advancing the public understanding & acceptance of that science. Perhaps, but the question we need to answer today is whether these kind of activities, which appear to take up the majority of the ID community’s time and money, should show up in our definition of ID on this site. We’ll ask for your thoughts below.

ID as a Community

As most of us already know, part of our difficulty with defining ID is the fact that so many different perspectives on origins science fit under the ID tent. ID proponents range in opinion on Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, and even common descent. This makes it impossible to lay out “the ID perspective” on almost any particular issue, like the age of the Earth or whether starlight has always traveled at the same speed.

We recognize that the ID community is entitled to this diversity, but we do feel that this characteristic says something negative about the quality of ID as a scientific research program. Rather than rallying every alternative to Darwinian evolution under one tent, it seems that a more productive approach would be to try narrowing down the number of possible histories that could be true of the world. After all, is there anything more fundamental to origins research than determining the age of the universe?

But regardless of what ID’s “big tent” aspect does for the quality of its science, it is certainly true that the bigger the tent, the harder it is to pin down on our site. Since our website focuses primarily on the compatibility of origins science with the Christian faith, it’s a challenge to place ID somewhere in the spectrum of perspectives. It’s much easier for us to define the Discovery Institute’s CSC than to define the origins perspective of leading Intelligent Design advocates.

However, one thing is certainly clear: As it has been pointed out elsewhere, and as mentioned in the definition above, ID proponents believe that some features of the world are best explained by a mind. In fact, this has been argued at Uncommon Descent to be “the core of ID.”  And by claiming to be a scientific enterprise, this means the ID community believes that it is possible to scientifically demonstrate the existence of a mind being responsible for creation.

For more, see Darrel Falk's excerpts from the documentary Test of Faith here and here.

To clarify, this is perhaps one of the most important distinctions between BioLogos and ID. As is evident from a scan through our site, BioLogos often promotes “pointers” to God’s existence, and frequently acknowledges that “the heavens declare the glory of God.” But we at BioLogos are doubtful that it will be possible to scientifically demonstrate or measure the existence or activity of God in the kind of way that the ID community expects.

All disagreements aside, the point here is that the ID community’s premise that it is possible to scientifically demonstrate the existence of a mind being responsible for creation should be included in a description of ID proponents’ perspectives on origins. And maybe that tenet, together with our concerns about the quality of their science, is the only thing that should be mentioned about ID, since perspectives on origins vary so much within the tent.

Concluding Questions

As we consider how to best define Intelligent Design here at BioLogos, we have a few questions to consider:

  1. It was suggested above that it’s not worth one’s time to try and pin down an official ID perspective on origins, except to say that a mind has directed the process (whatever that process is), and that it is possible to scientifically demonstrate that fact. What do you think? Is this the only belief that should be included in describing the origins-perspective of ID proponents at a place like our Leading Figures page?
  2. Our biggest concern with the ID movement is the quality of its science. Should this be included in our definition of the ID movement? To us (and to scientists in general), it is the most defining difference.
  3. ID clearly has a social agenda that extends beyond the lab bench and the computer screen. It is well known that ID began with a “wedge document” firmly grounded in cultural issues, and which went on to lay out a scientific agenda designed to provide underpinning for a set of philosophical and political presuppositions. Isn’t ID different than normal science in that regard? Should this difference be included in our definition of ID?

We welcome your thoughts below.

Clarification: The wedge document was written in the mid to late 1990's before the publication of the first peer-reviewed scientific article, but not the very beginning of the movement.

Darrel Falk is former president of BioLogos and currently serves as BioLogos' Senior Advisor for Dialog. He is Professor of Biology, Emeritus at Point Loma Nazarene University and serves as Senior Fellow at The Colossian Forum. Falk is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.
Syman Stevens studied physics at Furman University, and theoretical physics at the University of Cambridge. He then received a fellowship to the Trinity Forum Academy, where his research focused on Christian approaches to scientific theories of human origins. During this time, he met Dr. Francis Collins, whom he helped to draft responses to a collection of most frequently asked questions about science and faith. After completing an MA in the philosophical foundations of physics at Columbia University, he assisted Dr. Collins in the early stages of establishing the BioLogos Foundation––first as Program Director, and later as Executive Director. In September of 2010, he moved to Oxford, England, where he is currently pursuing his doctorate in the philosophy of physics.

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Alan Fox - #24481

August 4th 2010

OT @ aiguy

I’ve been following your recent comments at UD with interest and enjoyment. I hope your posting privileges survive. I seem to recall them being curtailed at ARN and Telic Thoughts, possibly because your patient and polite comments were impossible to refute. Hope you can find time to contribute further here!

aiguy among pigeons

aiguy - #24508

August 4th 2010

Hi Alan -

Glad you’re enjoying my thread at UD… yes, I’m surprised they’ve let me go on so long there (still I’ve been accused of being “patently rude” and “beyond the pale of civil discussion” )

I notice we still haven’t actually seen any definitions forthcoming for intelligent design… small wonder…

CBBurn - #24770

August 6th 2010

ID could be defined as:

The study of patterns in nature best explained as the product or result of intelligence.

This presents it in its true scientific form as a design theoretic.

CBBurn - #24774

August 6th 2010

Following on, forget the Wedge document and distill out the polemics - only then can science do its work objectively, without interference, and maybe you’ll have a constructive dialogue. Whether ID stands up to scrutiny remains to be seen.

At the end of the day, you have to ask does ID pose pertinent questions that need to be addressed? The answer has to be a resounding yes. If these are ignored, speaking as a scientist, I’m left with the uneasy feeling that not all possibilities are being adequately evaluated.

Peter - #50103

February 4th 2011

We can test to determine if intelligence is responsible for DNA the same way we test to determine if any one of the evolutionary mechanisms are responsible for the transition of dinosaurs into birds:

We examine the capabilities and limitations of natural selection, genetic drift, and horizontal gene transfer, as well as those of non-evolutionary mechanisms.  This involves looking at what types of species each evolutionary and non-evolutionary mechanism is able to cause a transition from and cause a transition to.  After doing this, we determine if dinosaurs and birds are the types of organisms most likely to be influenced by natural selection, or genetic drift, horizontal gene transfer, or a non-evolutionary mechanism.  Once we make this determination it can be stated whether an evolutionary mechanism is responsible for the transition, or if a non-evolutionary mechanism is responsible.  If we do not know of a non-evolutionary mechanism that could be responsible, but we know that an evolutionary mechanism can be responsible, then by default it must be an evolutionary mechanism.

continue reading below…

Peter - #50104

February 4th 2011

Similarly with intelligent design, we examine the capabilities and limitations or intelligent sources, as well as those of non-intelligent sources.  This involves looking at what types of products are able to be caused by an intelligent source, and what types of products are able to be caused by a non-intelligent source.  After doing this, we determine if the digital code within DNA is the type of product that can be caused by an intelligent source or a non-intelligent source.  If we do not know of a non-intelligent source that can produce digital code, but we know that an intelligent source can produce digital code, then by default it must be an intelligent source.

This is why the statement, “An intelligence produced the digital code in DNA” is at least as equally scientific as the statement, “An evolutionary mechanism caused some species of dinosaur to change into birds”.

Peter - #50106

February 4th 2011

Responses to Darrel Falk’s concluding questions:

1.  No.  Since we know that DNA contains a code, and all codes are languages (being that they can only be caused by intelligent agents), then we can assume that there are rules of grammar contained within the code.  More specifically, that the function of genes or sequences of genes will be influenced by their context, that is, the other genes that surround them.  This assumption carries significant potential to improve gene therapy.  Further, knowing that digital code can be produced only by an intelligence, we can search for a mechanism capable of transmitting information into DNA and altering digital code that is known to be usable by an intelligence.  One such mechanism is electromagnetic waves.  Thus, ID can lead to new research programs concerning gene therapy and electromagnetic waves.

2.  No.  The quality of someone’s science is a matter of opinion.  Our opinions should never be included in the definition of the concept of someone else.

Peter - #50107

February 4th 2011

3.  We know that ID did not begin with the Wedge Document because the concept of ID and the evidence for it pre-existed it’s formulation.  In other words, ID supporters gathered together and produced the Wedge Document, the Wedge Document did not produce ID supporters.  However, ID is different than normal science in the sense that it is related to religious/metaphysical beliefs, much like the “Big Bang” theory.  Nevertheless, this should not be included in it’s definition, with perhaps the exception of a sociology of science course.

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