“Intelligent Design” (ID) proposes that intelligence is necessary to explain the origins of life and Universe. Proponents claim that certain biological structures are “irreducibly complex”—that they had to be created all at once as functioning wholes, and could not have arisen by any possible evolutionary process from simpler structures.
Another angle on this is the concept of “specified complexity.” For example, if an astronomer receives a series of radio pulses that express the Fibonacci series, a list of the first 200 prime numbers, or pi calculated to a thousand digits coming from a star, the obvious conclusion would be that she is receiving a signal generated by an alien intelligence, rather than some odd natural radio source. This is because these numerical sequences can be “specified” in advance as an orderly pattern an intelligence would be inclined to send as an identifier, as opposed to “finding” a pattern after the fact, like the “scheme of Biblical prophecy” that was supposedly “encoded” in the chambers and corridors of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
ID proponents claim that both kinds of evidence for intelligent design can be found in nature, in complex structures like the flagella of bacteria or the intricate mechanisms of the cell. Evolutionists counter that all or most of these conundrums can be explained within current evolutionary theory. For a well-balanced presentation of both sides, click here.
Some of the largest—and least-discussed—problems with ID lie with its central explanatory mechanism: whatever intelligence(s) is/are responsible for the “design.”
In order for any explanatory mechanism to qualify as an answer to a question in science, it must at least be defined. For example, if a physicist wishes to propose an entity called the “electron” as the explanatory mechanism behind lightning bolts, static charges, and electrical current, he must, at the very least, be able to define what an electron is: what its properties are, including a mathematical description of how it fits with or supplants physics-as-known. Armed with this information, it becomes possible to devise experiments to detect “electrons” or falsify the claim of their existence.
What do ID theorists say about the source of design in Universe? If you read some of the articles on main ID websites, such as the Discovery Institute or the Intelligent Design Network it is clear that they propose “a non-physical intelligence” as their cause. Though they won’t come right out and say it, it’s fairly apparent from their literature Who they have in mind:
Here is where their problems begin. Even if we grant that the DNA molecule, bacterial flagella, eyes, etc. must have been designed, that in itself does nothing to prove that there is a single Designer, or that the Intelligence(s) responsible have any resemblance whatsoever to anything worshipped by any Earthy religion. Since most major design projects these days (such as a design for a new jet airliner) require a number of designers working together, it is as sensible—if not more so—to propose that there must be a pantheon of Designers responsible for life. An “Intelligent Design By Committee” theory could even be used to explain some of the flawed or useless “designs” found in nature, such as the vermiform appendix or a snake’s vestigial legs.
A little science estranges a man from God; a little more brings him back.
Francis Bacon (1561–1626)
Sooner or later everyone asks the question, “Where do we come from?” The answer carries profound, life-molding implications. Until this question is answered we cannot solve another fundamental question that is key to ethics, religion, and the meaning of life (if any): “Are we here for a purpose?”
There are two possible answers: the universe and life and its diversity—natural phenomena—are the product of 1) a combination of only natural laws and chance (the “naturalistic hypothesis)”; or 2) a combination of law, chance, and design—the activity of a mind or some form of intelligence that has the power to manipulate matter and energy (the “design hypothesis”). The latter produces purpose, the former does not.
The Designer(s) cannot be shown to be "non-physical" just by looking at the designs. The Designers could have been alien genetic engineers, or the perhaps evolutionary process itself could be found to be "intelligent." Even in the case of the "finely tuned" cosmological constants that make this universe seem to be especially formed so as to be habitable, it is possible to hypothesize that our Universe was created by an incredibly advanced, billion-year-old supercivilization with motives and technologies as inconcievable to us as ours are to bacteria.
Furthermore, the very concept of "non-physical" (or "spiritual," to use the religious term) is, as of yet, entirely undefined. We may know what it's not--not matter/energy or anything else man can know and detect scienfically--but we have no information on what it is. Therefore, in scientific terms, it is not even possible to discuss a "non-physical" entity as a causal explanation until the Intelligent Design theorists can explain what they're talking about.
ID theorists (as well as the older "Scientific Creationist" movement) will reply that this is a "materialist bias." While some scientists are no doubt "biased" against religion and the supernatural, others have no problem going to church on Sunday. Science itself is not "biased" against religion any more than music theory is biased against quarks and asteroids. Science is the systematic study of the natural world and natural processes. The non-detectable, non-quantifiable, and unknowable-to-humans is, by definition, outside of the purview of science.
ID theorists have no way of determining from any “evidence for design” that the Designer(s) created us “for a purpose.” He/She/They could have done it to relieve boredom, express Him/Her/Themselves artistically, or for some utterly alien reason we cannot begin to fathom. We simply cannot know any of this by looking at bacteria, DNA molecules, or “fine-tuned” cosmological constants.
Given the existence of Ebola and hurricanes (both of which are exquisitely “designed” to do what they do), we could read the tea leaves of the Universe and conclude that life is not merely “without purpose,” but governed by one or more brutally sadistic deities whose intended purpose for at least some of us is to derive pleasure from watching us suffer.
In order for ID theorists to accomplish their goal of providing scientific support for Western monotheism and a "purpose" for our lives as defined in the holy books of the Abrahamic religions, they must do more than establish that some particular feature of the natural world is "designed." They must demonstrate that the design emanates from their particular Designer of choice, and that the "purpose" they believe He has imbued us with is an accurate reflection of His intentions. In short, ID theory as a prop for religion--even if its every scientific propositon were validated incontrovertibly--is nothing more than a giant non-sequitor.
Does this mean we're trapped in a dismal "materialist" Universe governed by pointless, random chance, with no possibility of valid ethics or a purpose to life? Not necessarily. Stay tuned.