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The Enduring Challenge of Intelligent Design 

A paper on the Implications of Intelligent Design by Dr Alastair Noble, Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, UK, July 2013.

The primary aim of the Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) is to promote the public understanding of Intelligent Design (ID) and its implications. Its specific objectives are to:

  • promote the professional investigation and public debate of Intelligent Design;
  • challenge, on the scientific evidence, the neo-Darwinian claim that the development of life is purely the result of undirected forces; and
  • encourage consideration of the wider implications of Intelligent Design.

This paper addresses the third of these objectives and explores the philosophical and theological implications of Intelligent Design.


The origin of the Centre for Intelligent Design in the UK (C4ID), established formally in 2010 lies primarily in two events which occurred a few years earlier. The first of these was the UK tour of Philip Johnston in 2004, a Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley and former law clerk for Chief Justice Earl Warren at the US Supreme Court. His lectures dealt with the substance of his book, Darwin on Trial (IVP 1993, and highlighted the inadequacy of neo-Darwinism as a credible theory of the origin and development of life. To the network of organisers and others who were intrigued by Johnston’s forensic dissection of Darwinism, it became apparent that the theory was not sustained by the evidence but rather by the a-priori commitment of the scientific community to the philosophy of naturalism.

The second event was an informal visit to Cambridge in 2005 by Dr Stephen Meyer, Director of the Centre for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle and fast becoming the world’s leading authority on Intelligent Design. A lecture given by Meyer dealt with the digitally-coded information carried in DNA and the inescapable conclusion that it is best explained by the activity of intelligent mind.

These two events convinced the core group that were to form C4ID that there were arguments both about the inadequacy of reigning paradigm of neo-Darwinism and also for design in nature from a variety of phenomena which suggested the activity of intelligent mind. They became committed to the promotion of the academic study and the public debate of Intelligent Design (ID).

Back to the Future

Of course, Intelligent Design is not a new idea, though the current description of it is relatively recent. It was in fact the position held by many of the pioneers of modern science, like Copernicus, Galileo, Kelvin, Maxwell, Newton, and Pascal. It was the position which convinced these giants of science that the universe was rational, observable and predictable, and inspired them to do their work.

The history of ID can be traced back to the philosophers of ancient Greece and earlier, and its enduring strength can be witnessed in the inscription over the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, ‘The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein’, ironically the very place where the chemical structure of DNA was elucidated by Crick and Watson in 1953.

The modern Intelligent Design movement, however, has its roots in the USA and, in particular in a meeting of scientists and philosophers in 1993 at the California beach resort of Pajaro Dunes. These academics, including Philip Johnston, Michael Behe, Paul Nelson, Bill Dembski, Scott Minnich, Dean Kenyon, and Stephen Meyer, shared a common dissatisfaction with the scientific inadequacy of neo-Darwinism and sensed that the elaborate sophistication of living things suggested a much more likely explanation, which they increasingly described as ‘Intelligent Design’. The bottom line of their discussions was, ‘let’s go where the evidence leads’, a commendable position for a group largely composed of scientists. And interestingly, they were not alone in their quest. In 2008, the ‘Altenberg 16’, though not committed to ID, shared similar misgivings about Darwinism, a theme which is increasingly appearing in the scientific literature.

Where the Evidence leads

C4ID initially operated on the principle that, if the evidence for design in nature was explored and elucidated, academics would be among the first to embrace it. The public debate seemed, if anything, even easier to sustain as several surveys suggested at least 50% of the British public were already largely convinced.

Encouraged by such data, C4ID organised a UK-wide tour in 2010 for Michael Behe, Professor of Biological Science at Lehigh University, Penn USA, which attracted over 3,000 adults. In 2011, this was followed by an inaugural lecture given by Dr Stephen Meyer and hosted by Lord MacKay of Clashfern at Horseguards Hotel in London which attracted around 100 prominent citizens.

In addition, C4ID has organised a series of conferences with well-known lecturers, and has maintained a stream of presentations, publications and web articles. It has also a presence on Facebook.

However, it quickly became apparent that the evidence is not the primary issue. A number of scientists and other public intellectuals do not engage in a discussion of the evidence. They dismiss ID as ‘creationism’ and ‘fundamentalism’ without even understanding it, and frequently engage in ad-hominem abuse of its proponents. Few arguments are advanced against the evidence for design. Instead, insulting and intimidating accusations are levelled against those who argue for ID. One well known journalist observed to an ID advocate, ‘When you get this level of abuse, you must be on to something!’

The fundamental problem, therefore, is one of worldview, not evidence. The philosophy of naturalism is being used to define scientific method and any explanation of origins which invokes a higher intelligence is, by definition, ruled out, regardless of the evidence. This is, of course, a public scandal and a complete denial of academic freedom and probity.

For these reasons, C4ID will continue to extend its promotion of the scientific evidence for ID and increasingly include consideration of the philosophical challenge it poses and the theological implications it uncovers. This is consistent with its original objectives.

C4ID has always run the risk that the opponents of ID will assert that ID is religion masquerading as science. That, however, is a shallow and unjustified assertion, and one which fails to notice that contemporary science is virtually equated with atheism, as, for example, in the well-known Dawkins’ claim that Darwinism makes him ‘an intellectually fulfilled atheist’.

There is no doubt that ID is a coherent and complex position whose sound scientific propositions have profound metaphysical implications. In summary, ID:

  • challenges the philosophy of naturalism;
  • promotes the various scientific strands of the argument for design in nature; and
  • gives support to theism, the worldview which originally led to the birth of Western science.
Challenging Naturalism

In his classic book The Universe Next Door James Sire traces the dominant strands of Western thought, from the Reformation and the Enlightenment, from its Christian theism, through deism, to naturalism, nihilism, existentialism and postmodernism. He describes the intellectual path in these words:

In theism God is the infinite-personal Creator and the sustainer of the cosmos. In deism God is reduced; he begins to lose his personality, though he remains Creator and (by implication) sustainer of the cosmos. In naturalism God is further reduced; he loses his very existence.

Naturalism is essentially the doctrine that nature is all there is and that God exists only as an idea in the minds of religious believers. Naturalism is the virtually unquestioned assumption that underlies not only natural science but intellectual work of all kinds.

In science it becomes ‘methodological naturalism’ which defines the scientific method in terms of explaining natural phenomena in terms of physical processes alone. While methodological naturalism holds good for most of experimental science, it encounters a problem in the historical sciences and particularly in the study of origins. Naturalistic science is forced to rule out the possibility of an intelligent source for the universe before it even begins to evaluate the evidence.

Eugenie Scott, the former Director of the National Centre for Science Education, states the position with devastating illogicality:

Science neither denies nor opposes the supernatural, but ignores the supernatural for methodological reasons.

And Scott Todd, an American biochemist, comes to an equally bizarre conclusion:

Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such a hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.

If science chooses to define itself in this way, it ensures that there is, at least, a 50% chance of getting the wrong answer. And in fact, the position is much worse than that. The existence of real yet immaterial genetic information deep within every living cell makes the activity of an intelligent mind the inference to the best explanation. Naturalistic science has, actually, no answer to this problem, short of saying, since we assume naturalism, it must have happened somehow.

And naturalism has a much more serious problem: where did anything come from? To this ultimate question, the naturalistic answer has to be either ‘matter is eternal’ or ‘the universe just jumped into existence’ by chance or by some as-yet-unknown physical process. Lawrence Krauss actually proposes this, although his critics say he actually argues it comes from prior quantum fields, which, of course, still leaves the ultimate question unanswered.

None of this provides any credible answer to the origin of the universe, just a series of restatements of the problem. The more satisfying conclusion is that, in a universe of cause and effect, there has to be a First Cause which itself has no prior cause. Intelligent mind seems much more likely to fit that bill than mindless matter or eternal energy. At least science should be open to exploring all the possibilities in light of the evidence.

Sadly, going where the evidence leads is no longer the issue in the science of origins. It has become, going where the philosophy dictates. In the study of the origins of life and the universe, this is an academic scandal of immense proportions.

The modern Intelligent Design movement, which began by elucidating the clear evidence of mind and design in Nature, is now in the position where it has to challenge the crass naturalistic assumptions of science which prevent objective analysis of the data available to us.

Intelligent Design, therefore, inevitably challenges Naturalism. It cannot be dismissed on the basis of the unproven and unproveable assumption which is ideological naturalism.

The fundamental challenge in any debate within the current scientific consensus is whether we are dealing with natural science or naturalism.

Promoting Design

It is worth noting that the nineteenth-century context in which Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution was that of divine creation as elaborated by the churches. In some cases this took the extreme position that every variation in nature was uniquely created by God. However, the more general issue and nub of the argument is whether blind, purposeless forces can replace the activity of a Designer who is the architect of the whole universe and all the processes within it. If random mutation and natural selection are unequal to the creative task of generating complex life, as is increasingly becoming apparent, then the general position of planned creation rather than mindless evolution is the correct scientific alternative to consider. Intelligent Design, among other things, asks if there is scientific evidence for design and argues from the data that there is.

It is also frequently claimed that the traditional ‘watch therefore watchmaker’ argument for design made by William Paley in the 18th century has long been discredited. But that is a false claim. Paley’s argument is still cogent and persuasive and mirrors arguments for design made as long ago as Cicero in the 2nd century BC. However, Paley’s argument is from analogy – just as a watch has a watchmaker, so a universe has a universe-maker. Intelligent Design differs from this in that it is an argument from what is actually there in nature, such as specified functional complexity and genetic information. ID argues from actuality, not analogy.

The simplest definition of Intelligent Design is that certain features of the natural and living worlds show evidence of design and not an unguided process such as random mutation and natural selection. It is therefore not a position based on religious or philosophical assumptions, but is, at base, a minimal commitment to intelligent causation.

The logic by which intelligent design is proposed is the accepted method of ‘inference to the best explanation’. This is an appropriate approach to historical science and is, in fact, the basis on which Charles Darwin arrived at his theory of evolution. Events far in the past cannot be reconstructed and an inference to the best explanation requires that the cause proposed for any given effect has to be known to operate and produce the kind of effect which is observed.

In his ground-breaking book Signature in the Cell, Stephen Meyer argues that specified information, such as exists in DNA, is known to arise only from the activity of intelligent mind. To make the inference that this genetic information has its source also in intelligent mind is to make a logical and thoroughly scientific deduction from the available data. This is the nub of his argument for intelligent design.

And there are other kinds of evidence that point to intelligent design, such as:

  • the fine tuning of universal forces and constants;
  • the ‘irreducible complexity’ of living systems; and
  • the improbability of bio-molecules arising in a random or chance process

In addition, the obvious existence of mind and consciousness, dismissed in neo-Darwinism as a mere accident of physics and chemistry, demands an explanation which deals more satisfactorily with its complexity and sophistication.

The scientific case for Intelligent Design is extensive, detailed and compelling and has been elaborated in a range of books and publications. It should be explored by all serious students of the science of origins.

Intelligent Design, therefore, promotes the case for design in nature. It cannot be dismissed by the scientific community just because it has defined its method in terms of a prior commitment to the consideration of only undirected naturalistic processes.

Supporting Theism

Much of the controversy about ID lies in the connection that is immediately perceived with religious belief. Indeed, the dismissal of ID as religiously motivated idea is a convenient strategy for its critics as it relieves them of having to actually deal with the scientific case for design. Equally cowardly in debate is the tactic of deliberately equating ID with Biblical creationism, as erroneously defined in popular media, and thereby avoiding the legitimate scientific discussion of the evidence for intelligent causation.

The deliberate misrepresentation of ID by its critics is a powerful demonstration of the paucity of their arguments. Thomas Nagel, an academic lawyer, philosopher and atheist, makes a telling point when he writes:

Even if one is not drawn to …the explanation of … a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts (ie Behe, Meyer, Berlinski) pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.

Nonetheless, there is a religious dimension to be faced. If ID is a correct inference from the scientific data, it has profound metaphysical implications.

Strictly speaking, ID does not define the nature of the designer, but it leaves open the possibility of a supreme intelligence. It is noteworthy that the arch-atheist Richard Dawkins, in a most revealing interview in the film Expelled, conceded that the intricacies of cellular biology could be interpreted as pointing to a ‘designer’ or ‘a higher intelligence’ (his words) and spoke of the possibility of a more-developed civilisation beyond our own which may have seeded life on this planet. He described it as ‘an intriguing possibility’. Apart from being an astonishing endorsement of the core argument of ID, it represents essentially an ‘alien’ solution to the intractable problem of where life came from? It is, in fact, the position of panspermia, that life arrived here from another planet. Michael Denton’s comment on this is devastating:

Nothing illustrates more clearly just how intractable a problem the origin of life has become than the fact that world authorities can seriously toy with the idea of panspermia.

Modern science arose in an era in the West when the dominant worldview was Christian Theism. Indeed, that was view which provided the impetus for scientific investigation in the first place. It is clearly the case that ID is supportive of that position. It does not compel theism, but it is entirely consistent with it and lends weight to it. There is simply no point in dodging that issue. If the scientific facts point unequivocally to design, the implication is that a higher intelligence exists. For those who, for a variety of reasons, are committed to Theism, ID becomes a further basis for their belief.

In his most recent and explosive book, Darwin’s Doubt, Stephen Meyer describes the relationship between ID and Theism as follows:

The theory of intelligent design is not based on religious belief, nor does it provide a proof for the existence of God. But it does have faith affirming implications precisely because it suggests that the design we observe in the natural world is real, just as a traditional theistic view of the world would lead us to expect. Of course, that by itself is not a reason to accept the theory. But having accepted it for other reasons, it may be a reason to find it important.

Without question, Intelligent Design supports theism.

Objectivity about Origins

Modern science consistently claims objectivity in its method of study. But Richard Lewontin, Professor of Biology at Harvard, has given the game away in a breathtakingly honest admission of bias in the scientific method. Here is his assessment of the position:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfil many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.

It is a bit rich to have to listen to scientists of that persuasion accuse the proponents of ID of having a religious bias!

In his book, God’s Undertaker, Has Science buried God? John Lennox, Professor of mathematics at Oxford and a world-class Christian Apologist, makes this telling comment,

Either human intelligence ultimately owes its origin to mindless matter; or there is a Creator. It is strange that some people claim that it is their intelligence that leads them to prefer the first to the second.

And that raises a perplexing question. If human mind and rationality are merely the product of blind and unplanned natural forces, how can we possibly trust anything we think or say, or regard it in any sense as ‘truth’? Indeed, rationality and truth become absurd illusions. There is no reason to trust scientific or any other pronouncements. If neo-Darwinism is correct, we are at the mercy of relentless chemical processes over which we have no control. Our experience suggests that view of life is highly deficient.

It may take a long time before Intelligent Design is recognised for the coherent scientific position it is and its philosophical and religious implications are explored fairly and objectively. What is for sure, though, is that we are beginning to see the long, slow death of Darwinism which is simply unequal to the task of explaining the complexity and sheer beauty of the universe we inhabit.

Nagel makes this comment:

Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine – that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present form has involved nothing but the operation of physical law – cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.

It is clear that naturalism is no more than a dogmatic assumption which obscures rather than elucidates scientific reality.

Image credit:
Thumbnail - own image of Dr Noble; cloud background from Cool Wallpapers under the terms of their users' rights and duties.


Alastair Noble, 27/02/2017