Does Intelligent Design Really Explain a Complex and Puzzling World?

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March 15, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Does Intelligent Design Really Explain a Complex and Puzzling World?

Science seeks to explain the world. While philosophers have developed elaborate criteria for what constitutes an explanation without coming to a consensus, it has always seemed to me that a good scientific explanation has two primary characteristics:

  1. Complicated things are explained in terms of simpler things that are easier to understand or, more commonly, are already understood.
  2. Psychological puzzlement is reduced when an explanation is provided. There may still be puzzlement, but it should be either reduced, or relocated to some other unrelated phenomena.

These general considerations may explain why so few scientists are attracted to the explanations provided by the intelligent design movement. When an intelligent cause is offered as the “explanation” for certain phenomena, the explanation is more complicated than the phenomena. For example, if certain information-rich strings of DNA were assembled by an intelligence intervening from “outside,” that intelligent agent would be way more complicated than the string of DNA. We have greatly complicated our “system” by adding this designer to the mix of things that have to be organized into an explanation. We are trying to explain something relatively simple in terms of something very complicated.

The oft-used example of Mount Rushmore being the product of an intelligent agency is misleading. We can certainly detect that it is designed and we know that we must invoke intelligent—in this case human—designers to account for it. But our understanding of human behavior has been developed and refined over millennia. We take for granted that the patterns that make up the faces on Mount Rushmore pre-exist in the minds of the artists who did the work. Our “explanation” is really nothing more than a statement that a pattern has been transferred from the minds of the designers to the side of the mountain.

It seems to me that this winsome example conflates cause with explanation. Very little is truly “explained” by saying that a pattern has moved from one place to another.

A different example makes this point clearer. Suppose you find your friend with a bullet hole in his head and you wonder if this was a stray bullet or an assassination. You find a video recording and discover that there clearly was an assassin. So the death was “intelligently designed.” But is the assassin on the video the “explanation” for the death or simply the “cause”? Unlike the Mount Rushmore example, we lack a ready-made explanation for why an assassin would kill your friend. The identification of intelligent cause does not explain the phenomena at all.

The problem of puzzlement is similar. If we say that an intelligent agent has produced certain strings of DNA, are we more or less puzzled by the problem of DNA when we are all done? Frankly, I am more puzzled after hearing this claim. This “explanation” generates a set of questions even more troubling than our original query about how information-rich strings of DNA came to be. For example, what about DNA strings that look like gibberish? Why did our intelligent agent produce an information-rich string and sandwich it between two pieces of nonsense? Why do so many pieces of DNA look “broken” like our gene for making Vitamin C? And, how exactly, did our agent produce the strings in question? Dozens of additional questions arise.

Puzzlement is increased, not decreased by invoking an intelligent agent to explain natural phenomena. Scientists will thus not feel like they are making progress with this line of investigation.

Neither of these two key points can be formulated into a rigorous demarcation argument that neatly divides good scientific explanations from bad ones. French physicists, following Descartes, opposed Newton’s theory of gravity for decades. They thought the claim that bodies could reach across empty space and pull on each other so ridiculous—so puzzling—that they championed an alternative theory. In 1700 it would have been hard to resolve this question to everyone’s satisfaction. But the Newtonian effort had a vitality that carried it steadily forward until eventually the French alternative passed into the dustbin of history.

Complexity and simplicity are not as simple as they appear, however, so applying such criteria is far from trivial. Complexity does not, for example, have anything to do with how hard an explanation is to understand. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is harder to understand than the ideas of Newton that it replaced, but this is not because it is more elaborate or more complex. The challenges of understanding relativity come entirely from the associated mathematical equations that are harder to solve. There is a useful comparison with language here.

Imagine that all recipes for making cookies were written in Chinese and all recipes for making cakes were written in English. English speakers would find cookie recipes hard to understand; Chinese speakers would find cake recipes harder to understand, although their enthusiasm for bilingualism would certainly be helpful. The complexity of an explanation has to do with its “moving parts.” How many different components? How many time intervals have to be measured? How many subtle interactions have to be tracked? Is the history of the system relevant? How many interlocking phenomena have to be noted and related to each other? Regardless of the languages in which they were written, we would all agree that recipes for cake are more complex than recipes for chocolate milk.

The question of puzzlement is also complicated. What does it mean to say that “puzzlement is reduced” and how large a reduction is required for that process to be considered meaningful? One of the most puzzling features of the natural world, that perplexed astronomers for 2000 years, was the observation that the planets occasionally moved “backward” in the sky, executing what looked like loop-de-loops. Various complicated explanations were provided, the last one being that of Copernicus in his landmark book in 1543. Copernicus solved the problem by suggesting that the earth moved around the sun and the apparent backward motion of the planets was just an optical illusion created when the earth passed other planets in its orbit about the sun.

Copernicus’s breakthrough was not immediately hailed as a great explanation, however, because so many questions were raised by his claim that the earth moves. Many people were quite troubled by the claim that the earth was hurtling through space at unimaginable speeds without so much as a breeze or wobble. This seemed far more puzzling than the loop-de-loop motions of the planets. It was not until Galileo worked out the physics of a moving earth, and Newton showed how gravity could keep the earth in a stable orbit, that the new Copernican system seemed less puzzling.

Concepts like complexity and puzzlement are imprecise—clear in a general sense, but foggy around the edges. There is room for disagreement. And this is why it is so important to appreciate that science is a communal enterprise. A group of experts needs to brainstorm, argue, and even quarrel about explanations to make sure they are adequate. One of the greatest strengths of science is the way that skeptical critique has been built into the process. Many scientific ideas are stillborn because skeptics make demands that cannot be met and the futility of those ideas is quickly exposed.

Scientific progress has a certain “feel” to it and anyone who has spent time in a research group knows that feeling. There is a shared intuition that explanations are “drilling down” to ever more fundamental levels of reality. DNA is explained in terms of molecules; molecules are explained in terms of atoms; atoms are explained in terms of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are explained in terms of quarks. Puzzlement drives the enterprise but it seems to gradually and steadily reduce over time. Astronomers no longer fret over the many things that puzzled Copernicus.

Intelligent design does not “feel” scientific. It may not be the “science stopper” that some of its critics claim, but it seems to lack explanatory momentum. After nearly two decades of energetic exploration it seems to me that it should be going somewhere. We should be able to see how the initial ideas led to explanations that identified new questions and how those questions provoked investigations that uncovered ever more adequate explanations. The world should seem less puzzling now than it did.

But none of these things have happened, which explains why the initial goals of the Intelligent Design Movement have not been met, why the scientific community is paying no attention, and why Christians looking to understand the Creation should be skeptical.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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karl Giberson - #7053

March 17th 2010

On Information:

Arago and others have said “One simply cannot ‘produce small amounts of information’ if there *IS* no pre-existing information in the first place.”

Even the ID folk don’t really believe this.  The argument that the first cell cannot arise spontaneously is not based on the APPEARANCE of information but rather the IMPROBABILITY of such an arrangement.  If the event is merely improbable, rather than impossible, there must not be any rule against the emergence of information.  The so-called “laws” about information are not like the laws about energy conservation, which specifically prohibit spontaneous creation of energy.


Gregory Arago - #7063

March 17th 2010

It’s true that I am not an ‘ID folk.’

Do you not profess there is a mind/Mind involved in the creation, ‘emergence’ or interpretation of ‘information,’ Karl? I’m glad you speak of ‘emergence,’ because it admits of ‘threshold’ which evolutionary ‘gradualism’ usually does not.

“Religion and spirituality are fine, they are obviously phenomena that occur in human societies, like sports or whatever.” - Nick

I’d prefer to think of religion and spirituality as percepts, ways of seeing, than as concepts, the way many western rationalists do. To compare these things with sports seems rather relativistic. They should be treated with respect, not with pleasantries and ignorance.

Miracles may not be ‘scientifically useful,’ but they are nevertheless profound in the human lives that experience them. If one doesn’t believe in miracles, they can still ‘do science.’ But I suggest that their life outside of the ‘laboratory’ is much less ‘full and beautiful’ (M. Weber) as a result. There is no ‘law’ against scientists believing in miracles.

gangesa wrote: “Information is everywhere all the time.”

What then is *not* information?


Mike Gene - #7075

March 17th 2010

Hi Nick,

Ah, it’s very simple.  Karl’s posting was talking about unconstrained design hypotheses, which do have the untestability problem.  A sufficiently constrained design hypothesis is a different beast and is testable.

Sorry, I didn’t get that out of the essay, as it would seem the objections are independent of your criteria and remain even with a constrained hypothesis.  But I suppose someone could combine these different critiques to come up with some awkward conglomerate.  For example, Karl writes, “We have greatly complicated our “system” by adding this designer to the mix of things that have to be organized into an explanation. We are trying to explain something relatively simple in terms of something very complicated.”  So are you saying the hypothesis must be constrained to proposing designers that are simpler than the thing they are trying to explain?


Mike Gene - #7076

March 17th 2010

Regarding the DI etc., of course they are also pushing an unconstrained design hypothesis.  There are several motives to avoid constraints….

Yes, I noted that you would part company with them on that point.  But prior to this, there is some striking agreement that is being overlooked.  You both agree that, in principle, science could legitimately include intelligent design into its sphere (methodological naturalism is not required).  And you both agree that science would not require independent knowledge of the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives.


Mike Gene - #7077

March 17th 2010

Heh, close, but you’re not quite there yet.  Science doesn’t require independent *knowledge* of the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives in order to infer design—but it does require *decently-constrained hypotheses* about the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives.

But it’s just your personal view I’m getting close to.  As I told you, many scientists think otherwise and do require independent knowledge of the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives in order to infer design (two other people apart from me are making this claim in this comment section alone).  So who is right?

Let’s look a little more closely at your view.  I would agree that we don’t require independent knowledge of the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives in order to infer design—and we do require decently-constrained hypotheses about the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives.  We differ in that you think this can all be part of science and I don’t.  I think if we are to make all these myriad assumptions about a cause that is not known to exist, while introducing teleology into biology, we better take that outside of science.


Mike Gene - #7078

March 17th 2010

Since we don’t have independent *knowledge* of the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives, then the constraints you speak of must come in the form of assumptions.  So we would have to make assumptions about the designer’s identity, assumptions about motives, assumptions about methods, and assumptions about objectives.  Assumption about other attributes/features that some other scientist-skeptic might raise.  In other words, you are saying that when it comes to science, the more assumptions in our hypothesis, the better.


Mike Gene - #7079

March 17th 2010

Okay, you believe science can include design hypotheses in biology as long as they are rooted in multiple assumptions about an unknown and undetected designer that function as constraints.  How many of these assumptions must exist in order to deem the hypothesis as part of science?  You yourself have added a qualifier already, where the need for constraints has now become decently-constrained hypotheses.  The judgment about whether or not the hypothesis is sufficiently constrained to be considered “decently-constrained” would ultimately be a subjective judgment.  Also, you added another dimension: the hypothesis should have “some initial plausibility based on the known data.”  Another layer of subjectivity. 

So it turns out that while you insist science can incorporate intelligent design, this is just your subjective opinion tied to subjective judgment calls.  That explains why there are many scientists who do not think independent knowledge/evidence of the designers is superfluous if science is to infer design.


Mike Gene - #7080

March 17th 2010

So my position on this is still designer-centric—and frankly, the whole idea of an intelligent *design* explanation that is not designer-centric is fundamentally silly.

No, designer-centrism is the demand for independent knowledge of the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives in order to infer design.  You reject that position, thus you reject designer-centrism.  The position you advocate is designer-assumptive.  Your problem is in insisting that science can reject designer-centrism.  No, science is an inherently conservative and demanding enterprise, where non-teleological hypotheses have been working just fine.  Without independent evidence of the designers, science has no method to evaluate and determine whether or not something was designed.


Mike Gene - #7086

March 17th 2010

Hi gangesa,

Scientists stopped considering “design” for several reasons.  Analogy illustrates, nothing else.

Does that render it useless?  Of course not.  To illustrate is one form of guidance and any investigation requires guidance.  In fact, when analogy turns out to be an incredibly fruitful guide, we begin to wonder if there is more to it than mere illustration.

  Next, design isn’t a conclusion, science being endless, would investigate the how, where, when etc., of design.

No, without any independent evidence of the designers, science cannot investigate such things.  Luckily, the ability to investigate is a human trait; it can and does occur outside of science.


Mike Gene - #7087

March 17th 2010

You are too smart, Mike, not to know how much of a hair-raisingly daunting enterprise that is when you consider biology.

Which is why I have always argued it best to take the design investigation outside of science.

  So let’s say we have learned over the years that some hypotheses are unproductive and some projects hold no prospects of generating knowledge.

Meaning that if life and/or evolution was designed, science could not detect it. 

Of course, this fact is often obscured by the way so many design proponents are totally invested in the notion that if we could only demonstrate a natural or evolutionary process was insufficient to the task, we could usher design on to the stage.  Their critics share in the same thinking process.  Science can indeed address whether a gap exists, so this creates the illusion that people are doing science in advocating/refuting design.  But given that design is not logically entailed in a gap, it is just an illusion.  The only thing being debated are gaps.

So again, science can determine whether or not life evolved. 

But science cannot determine whether or not life/evolution was designed.


Gregory Arago - #7088

March 17th 2010

I’m curious, what specific *kind* or *type* of knowledge do you see ‘design investigation’ as containing/representing if it is ‘outside of science’, Mike? This seems like a bold move to avoid the ‘designer identity’ problem.

It doesn’t seem to me that you’ve said ‘design investigation’ is a philosophical exercise before. And I thought that you were a person involved in ‘doing science,’ especially in the realm of natural-physical science. Now I’m a bit confused!

As you know, BioLogos is interested in “promoting and celebrating the integration of science and Christian faith.” Do you see ‘design investigation’ as supporting this goal, and if so, how?

It is clear to me that you are *not* promoting ‘Intelligent Design’ of the variety that Karl is addressing in his OP.

Personally I, wouldn’t choose the term ‘integration’, but rather cooperation and collaboration. Maybe one could argue that natural philosophy and natural theology became ‘disintegrated’ in the ‘modern’ age and a re-integration is now called for in the ‘post-modern’ age in which we who are here discussing live today. Perhaps BioLogos can represent science, philosophy and theology dialogue after modernism. Just thinking aloud…


Bilbo - #7100

March 17th 2010

I believe that prior to Darwin teleologocal explanations were accepted in biology.  So it’s only been for the last 150 years that teleology has been considered non-scientific.  Now suppose, as a thought experiment, that before Darwin came along we had already discovered the inner workings of the cell—a world of carbon-based nanotechnology, where complex systems of complex molecular machines—guided by a complex storage and translational coded information system—worked in coordination to keep the cell functioning and reproducing.  How many think that teleology would have been discarded from biology?


Mike Gene - #7101

March 18th 2010

Hi Gregory,

I’m curious, what specific *kind* or *type* of knowledge do you see ‘design investigation’ as containing/representing if it is ‘outside of science’, Mike?

Got me.  The type of “knowledge” that comes from following up one’s curiosity about a puzzle in an ambiguous world.

This seems like a bold move to avoid the ‘designer identity’ problem.

I have no such problem to avoid.  It’s a move that is dictated by the realization that science cannot determine whether or not design is in play.  Since that question has long fascinated me, I understand that I thus need to take the investigation outside of science.


Mike Gene - #7102

March 18th 2010

It doesn’t seem to me that you’ve said ‘design investigation’ is a philosophical exercise before. And I thought that you were a person involved in ‘doing science,’ especially in the realm of natural-physical science. Now I’m a bit confused!

I’ve always been up front about this being an intellectual hobby.  It’s also like intellectual yoga, in that it helps to stretch the ol’ gray matter. 

As you know, BioLogos is interested in “promoting and celebrating the integration of science and Christian faith.” Do you see ‘design investigation’ as supporting this goal, and if so, how?

No, I don’t see how any design investigation would support that goal.  In fact, I’m suspicious of the goal to “integrate,” as I see lots of red flags all around it.  It sounds like someone is trying to create something called Scientific Christianity.


Mike Gene - #7103

March 18th 2010

It is clear to me that you are *not* promoting ‘Intelligent Design’ of the variety that Karl is addressing in his OP.

Indeed.  For example, Karl’s argument about complicated designers makes sense only when applied against the god-of-the-gaps argument that insists things are too complex to have come into existence without a designer.  I have never adopted that position.  His argument fails against an actual design argument, as can be seen by the simple fact that human designers are more complicated than anything they have ever designed.  Of course, that could change in the future, but it wouldn’t erase the fact that I am more complicated than this message I am designing. 

Personally I, wouldn’t choose the term ‘integration’, but rather cooperation and collaboration.

Maybe.  But I’ve become increasingly convinced that compartmentalization is a good thing, as it signifies our attempt to be honest about the limitations of our puny minds.  I think mutual understanding is a better goal.


Bilbo - #7104

March 18th 2010

Gregory:  “What kind of knowledge is design investigation, if not scientific?”

Mike:  “Got me.”

So I’ve maintained for a while now.  There is no demarcation between science and other kinds of systematic empirical knowledge.


Mike Gene - #7105

March 18th 2010

Let me drive my point home from a different angle.  Karl explains that a good scientific explanation has the following characteristics: “Complicated things are explained in terms of simpler things that are easier to understand or, more commonly, are already understood.”  No scientist here has objected to Karl’s criterion and this because they all agree.  It’s almost like a rule.

But there is an exception – detecting human design.  In that case, simpler things (like arrow heads and pyramids) are explained in terms of more complicated things (humans).  But that’s because “our understanding of human behavior has been developed and refined over millennia. We take for granted that the patterns that make up the faces on Mount Rushmore pre-exist in the minds of the artists who did the work.” In other words, it is already commonly understood that humans design.  We all have direct, subjective experience as designers and objectively experience each other’s designs.  That experience overrides the rule.


Mike Gene - #7106

March 18th 2010

But take away that experience, that independent knowledge of the designers, and Karl’s criterion kicks into place.  Without independent evidence of the designers, science has no method to evaluate and determine whether or not something was designed.  In fact, it seeks to explain complicated things in terms of simpler things that are easier to understand, when we have no reason to believe that a designed artifact must have a simpler designer.  Meaning that if life and/or evolution was designed, science could not detect it.


Mike Gene - #7107

March 18th 2010

Hi Bilbo,

So I’ve maintained for a while now.  There is no demarcation between science and other kinds of systematic empirical knowledge.

That’s because you are looking from a philosophical perspective.  Try a sociological perspective.  Science is, after all, a human expression.  A human trait.  Science is what scientists do.  Today, it is the expression of a community.  To understand science, you need to understand the community, its rules, its values, its “rituals”, and its behavior.  A shift in perspective like this gives us a more clear demarcation. 

One of the reasons so many scientists are so upset about the ID movement is that it claims to be part of the community, yet it won’t play by the rules and values that bind the community.  It’s not that much different from the way Christians are upset when some goddess-worshiping neo-pagans go around claiming to be Christian.


Bilbo - #7108

March 18th 2010

Hi Mike,

I’m not sure you saw my post up above with my thought experiment.  If new age “Christians” had some solid evidence that Christianity was once a pagan religion, then they would have the sort of justification that IDists have in calling their endeavor science.


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