Defining ID

| By Darrel Falk and Syman Stevens


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-reviewedBio-Complexity journal are typical scientific activities. Still, many have argued that the ID community only posesas 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?

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.


About the Authors

Darrel Falk

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

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.