Does Intelligent Design Entail the Supernatural?

In posting about Intelligent Design (ID), one of the fruquent objections to my posts is that is not religion. This assertion is usually simply made and with no argumentation or anything else to back it up. That is, the claims follow the usual form,

  • Claim: Intelligent Design is not religion.
  • Evidence: Nothing.

Personally I find such arguments to be less than satisfactory. In supporting my claims that ID is religion, I point out that ID neccessitates a designer and that the only option for the designer is a supernatural designer. The only thing missing at this point from the definition of religion is the lack of reverence. The theory of ID entails no form of worship, reverence, and so forth. But to me that is a mighty fine hair to split in that, AFAIK, the legal test doesn’t specify reverence.

Now, Elliot Sober, philosopher of science and professor at the University of Wisconson, Madison has a working paper (pdf) out that looks at precisely this question. First up Sober poses the following argument that any and all proponents of ID need to answer.

  1. If a system found in nature is irreducibly complex, then it was caused to exist by an intelligent designer.
  2. Some of the minds found in nature are irreducibly complex.
  3. Therefore some of the minds found in nature were caused to exist by an intelligent designer.
  4. Any mind in nature that designs and builds an irreducibly complex system is itself irreducibly complex.
  5. If the universe is finitely old and if cause precedes effect, then at least one of the minds found in nature was not created by any mind found in nature.
  6. The universe is finitely old.
  7. Causes precede their effects.
  8. Therefore, there exists a supernatural intelligent designer.

As Professor Sober notes, these premises lead to a conclusion that is very close to religious. From the notion that there is a supernatural entity that is the source of the first cause for the universe and the intelligent life in it to reverence strikes me as a very short step.

Further, the first claim is the central tenet of ID. This notion was first put forward by Behe in 1995, and was extended by Dembski in 1998. The only way out for the ID proponent is to get rid of one of the first seven premises. Which one is to be jettisoned is up the the IDists. Naturally I expect none of them to come up with any suggestions.

One possible way out is for the ID proponents to simply dodge the question. They could simply assert that the designer is a being that has no begining or end. However, this would violate one of the tenents of the strategy to get ID into public schools: don’t discuss aspects of the designer. Saying that the designer is and always will be, starts to get close to the R-word. So while this could be a way to dodge the question, it isn’t a particularly attractive one for the IDists. Another possibility is to argue that the designer is really actually a simple being. I see two problems with this approach. The first is that it again violates the prohibition on discussing aspects of the designer. The second is that it posits that humans are more complex than the designer…and from there some might be tempted to conclude that humans are better than the designer.

Another possible way out is for the IDist to accept the supernatural implications of their theory, but to deny that it has any implications in terms of reverence/worship. That is, “Sure there is this transcendent being that basically created us, but we shouldn’t worship this being nor revere this being.” The problem for IDists such as those at the Discovery Institute is that this would probably result in their funding drying up like a shallow puddle on a hot June day.

Dembski and others have tried to argue that the design inference is one that doesn’t have to address the natural vs. supernatural. The problem with this is that people make design inferences all the time. For example, is a guy who runs a gambling concern on a street cheating (design) or not (nature or random)? We make such inferences based on what we observe. For example, a long time observer might notice that one guy always shows up periodically and wins a nice amount of money, then followed by a number of people losing money. Many might infer that the winner is actually in on the scam with the guy running the shell game. That both are conmen and that the game is rigged (designed).

For Dembski the problem is that his design argument isn’t like the shell game example above. In the shell game above, there are possible designers (the guys who run the game). Based on our knowledge we know that humans design things all the time. Thus, the design inference is one that strikes many people as reasonable. Factor in that such games are designed to earn money and that people in general prefer more money to less, and the design inference becomes even more reasonable. All of this is missing from Dembski’s arguments. Who is the designer of the e. coli flagellum? Why would the designer put in flagella vs. little tiny propellers or even some sort of jet? We can’t say because Dembski leaves out all discussion of who the designer is, and what the motivations of the designer are.

The two design inferences are very different. The first one does not require an appeal to the supernatural becuase we have a designer that is already part of nature. In Dembski’s case we don’t have this.

The bottom line is that ID theory points very strongly to the supernatural. Further, that it is quite likely that this supernatural is indeed consistent with what we find in virtually all forms of religion. To argue otherwise really is misleading.

h/t Pandas Thumb.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.

Comments

  1. Moe Lane says:

    I’m a Darwinist myself, but what about the Von Daniken Chariots-of-the-Space-Aliens nonsense? Granted, that begs the question of how they came about, but one world at a time, sez I. 🙂

  2. Steve Verdon says:

    Moe,

    Sober’s paper addresses that. You get into infinite regress and since the universe is finite in terms of its existence that means your still stuck with the supernatural.

  3. ken says:

    Didn’t this all start with the ‘unmoved mover’ long, long ago?

    I don’t believe this was a religious concept on the part of Plato so much as a way out of beng logicaly trapped in an everlasting regression into the infinate past.

    If I am right I think it is possible for some to hold ID beliefs without it having a religious connotation.

    But just like Platos first principle of the unmoved mover ‘evolved’ over time into the concept of one god, so too I think trying to hold onto a secular concept of ID wouldn’t last either.

  4. Steve Verdon says:

    The unmoved mover has to be outside of nature because he isn’t a product of nature. Hence it is supernatural. Logically the conclusion is pretty much inescapable.

  5. RA says:

    The problem comes down to definitions of supernatural. Humanists have divided everything into natural and supernatural. If indeed God created the world as Genesis states then there is no such thing as the “supernatural”. Everything is covered by natural if that is the way it happened.

    Everything that has happened in the past is natural. If God created the universal by speaking it into existence then thet is not “religion” … that IS science.

    Supernatural is a term humanists use to describe all the natural things that have happened that they have no humanistic explanation for. It is this flawed, narrow, world view lacking plausable explanations that cause all the trouble.

  6. NoZe says:

    So, according to ID logic:

    1. Everything that exists must have been caused by something.

    2. Therefore, something that does or did exist (i.e., the Intelligent Designer) must have been caused by nothing.

    ?????

  7. Steve Verdon says:

    RA,

    Sorry that doesn’t fly. Sure if God created the universe then he is outside what we humans call nature, hence he is supernatural.

    Supernatural is a term humanists use to describe all the natural things that have happened that they have no humanistic explanation for. It is this flawed, narrow, world view lacking plausable explanations that cause all the trouble.

    Uhhhmmm no. Just because there isn’t an explanation for a phenomenon does not force me to conclude the supernatural. In fact, that is what many Creationists do. They point to gaps in the fossil record, a lack of a step-by-step description of evolution from one species to another, etc. and conclude the supernatural.

    You’ve just turned the definitions on their head.

  8. RJN says:

    IDer’s don’t need a Sober analysis anymore than “evolutionists” do.

    IDer’s don’t claim to know the designer they postulate must exist. Evolutionists don’t claim to know that a designer doesn’t exist.

    There is such a thing as cultivated objectivity. It is what scientists, and judges, and juries are supposed to practice. IDer’s can practice it too.

  9. floyd says:

    steve; eternity is not a long time. time is part of nature.to say that God always was and always will be, is technically inaccurate, since He is eternal.eventhough all natural things were made by that which is spirit,natural things are subject to natural law; therefore it is possible to understand natural science without spiritual understanding, although it will be a limited understanding. which is better than none i suppose. now it seems that many have abandoned the science of evolution in favor of the e-word[esoterica that is][lol]

  10. Steve Verdon says:

    RJN,

    Sorry that is just incoherent. Evolutionary theory and its adherents neither deny nor accept the existence of a supernatural being. IDists on the other hand are pretty much stuck with a supernatural being. Your Dembskiesequ answer makes no sense.

  11. Steve Verdon says:

    Floyd,

    Sorry, I couldn’t penetrate the new age mysticism there.

  12. DavidV says:

    If science is about the search for truth, then a truly objective searcher would consider ID on its merits, rather than its alleged religious context. Discounting ID out-of-hand, without considering its substance, betrays a closed-minded attitude at odds with true scientific inquiry.

    Many scientists have come to the conclusion that evolutionary theory is implausible. In the words of Anthony Flew, the renowned English atheist who recently concluded there must be a God and is now a professing Deist, “It seems to me that the case for an Aristotelian God who has the characteristics of power and also intelligence, is now much stronger than it ever was before… It seems to me that Richard Dawkins constantly overlooks the fact that Darwin himself, in the fourteenth chapter of The Origin of Species, pointed out that his whole argument began with a being which already possessed reproductive powers. This is the creature the evolution of which a truly comprehensive theory of evolution must give some account. Darwin himself was well aware that he had not produced such an account. It now seems to me that the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design.”

    Evolutionary theory is just as closely tied with the religion of athiesm as ID is tied to Christianity (and Judaism, Islam, etc.). Science should concern itself with want is true, instead of dithering over the source for that truth.

  13. Steve Verdon says:

    If science is about the search for truth, then a truly objective searcher would consider ID on its merits, rather than its alleged religious context.

    The cognitive dissonance is pretty high right now.

    Discounting ID out-of-hand, without considering its substance, betrays a closed-minded attitude at odds with true scientific inquiry.

    Right, which is why it is just closed-minded bigotry that people don’t consider poker a form of applied mathematics.

    Discounting ID as science is not the same as discounting in general.

    Many scientists have come to the conclusion that evolutionary theory is implausible.

    That depends on your definition of many. If you mean a few dozen, then you might be right. If you mean as a percentage of all scientists you are quite wrong.

    And why is you IDers must always drag in atheism? Did I say people must be athiests? Hmmmm…no I didn’t. Wow, I’d better go back and change that.

    And what is it with evolutionary theory being a component of the “religion of atheism”? Evolutionary theory is completely and totally silent on the notion of a divine creator. Saying that evolutionary theory says anything about evolutionary theory is like saying that English tells you something about the weather next Thrusday.

  14. RJN says:

    Steve:

    What is incoherent? I say: �Evolutionists don�t claim to know that a designer doesn�t exist.� Then you say: �Evolutionary theory and its adherents neither deny nor accept the existence of a supernatural being.� You back me up there.

    What is incoherent? I say: �IDer�s don�t claim to know the designer they postulate must exist.� Then you say; �IDists on the other hand are pretty much stuck with a supernatural being.� Your response is a quibble. The fact that you have a need to quibble backs me up again; not fully, but partially.

    It is clear that you consider �Evolutionary Theory� scientists a cleaner and purer breed than scientists who consider ID a valid scientific study. Is that why you thought I was incoherent when I said that IDers can practice a �cultivated� objectivity?

  15. DavidV says:

    As I lack the space to make a full defense of ID I will not venture into a scientific explanation of its strengths, which would fail to convince you anyway. My argument is with your assertion in this post that ID has a religious component and should therefore, ipso facto, be discounted as a valid explanation of origins.

    My position is simple: If ID is scientifically valid, it should be taught as an alternative to evolution. If not, then only evolution should be considered. Whether or not ID has a religious context should be irrelevant, if the goal is an objective search for truth.

    As far as the connection to atheism, the Godless origin posited by evolution is a necessary component of the atheistic religion. That is a connection at least as substantial as the one drawn between ID and… whatever religion you were referring to in the post above (since you did not specify).

  16. DavidV says:

    I should probably clarify: “My argument is with your assertion in this post that ID has a religious component and should therefore, ipso facto, be discounted as a valid [scientific] explanation of origins.”

  17. floyd says:

    steve; maybe because it’s just old age and mysticism[lol]

  18. Bithead says:

    DavidV; ALlow me…

    Steve;

    Let me see, here. How does that old saw go? Any technology sufficiently advanced, will appear to be magic.

    Certainly, any being or group of beings that could create a world or a universe, or for that matter, could plant life on this planet… even assuming that the planet itself existed previously, possesses superior technology to what we have, woldn’t you say?

    Now, I suppose that the argument could be made that such a being would be supernatural as we understand the term. After all, we as human beings still seem to be under the illusion that if the technology isn’t in our ability, it must be then a supernatural occurrence. (What wonderful arrogance!!)

    So regardless of whether you consider such a being to be a god , the question in reality comes down to whether or not you believe man to be the most powerful, the most intelligent, the PRI eminent existence in the universe.

    And I must tell you, in all honesty, that in my 50 years, I have not seen any evidence of that, whatever. Indeed, in my Blogging, and in my day to day life I find much in the way of evidence to the contrary. I look around me and some of the Pope that’s going on in our world today, and refuse to accept that we’re the best thing this universe has to offer.

    On the basis of all of that, I submit to you again, that ID, of itself, does not constitute religion, per se’. Rather, it is an admission that there are possibly being was more powerful more technologically advanced, than are we.

    And to be perfectly candid about the matter, that seems to me to be for you the hardest possible admission that you could make.

  19. Steve Verdon says:

    RJN,

    The problem is that evolutionists are silent on the concept of a designer from a scientific stand point. IDers are not. The IDers claim, explicitly, that the designer exists. A couple of other reasonable assumptions strongly imply that the only possible designer is supernatural. Then the IDers say that this isn’t true and the natural/supernatural aspect of ID is irrelevant. Such a view is incoherent.

    It is clear that you consider Evolutionary Theory scientists a cleaner and purer breed than scientists who consider ID a valid scientific study.

    Can you drop the scare quotes, they booger up the display for some strange reason and putting them on the term evolutionary theory is just silly. It would like be putting scare quotes on the general theory of relativity.

    And yes, I do. The problem is that ushering in the supernatural makes is very, very hard to do science. When you postulate a supernatural being that creates the entire universe and is not constrained by the laws of nature, then how do you refute hypotheses based on such an entity?

    Now if you were to do something like start to put restrictions on what the supernatural entity can do, then you might get somewhere. But then this raises the question…if the supernatural entity is constrained by nature, then is it really supernatural?

    As for cultivated objectivity, that strikes me as precisely the type of arguments Dembski and others have put forward. To try and skirt the issue instead of addressing it full on.

    DavidV,

    I think ID is religious. The supernatural being that is required by ID is not a ghost or some such entity. It is a transcendent being that created the entire universe as well as tiny flagella in bacteria.

    Bithead,

    Certainly, any being or group of beings that could create a world or a universe, or for that matter, could plant life on this planet� even assuming that the planet itself existed previously, possesses superior technology to what we have, woldn�t you say?

    Why are you even wasting your time here? The answer to the above is yes it would look suprenatural. But, such beings are not outside nature they part of nature. That is precisely Sober’s point. If you say, Oh there is this reality where these natural beings create our universe…., then all you’ve done is push back the problem one step. Well, where did those beings come from? If they are irreducible complex, then what made them. The problem goes back infinitely, but then eventually there has to be a starting point. Such a starting point neccessitates a designer that is outside all these laws of nature.

  20. RJN says:

    I now realize that we can’t import quote marks, or apostrohes from m/s Word. Sorry.

    Steve, you have to get your head around the fact that ID is a voyage of discovery. There are no claims of Supernatural involvement. There is no need to claim Surpernatural involvement. There is plenty of time to claim Supernatural involvement if results so justify. The inferences are all yours.

    Using your standards, one can claim that inferences require that evolutionary theory not be taught in public schools because the “inference” is clearly anti- religious. Not agnostic, but clearly, and strongly anti-religious, thus, unconstitutional.

  21. floyd says:

    steve; when addressed full on , you called it “new age mysticism”. there are clear constraints on the creator, none of which are “natural”. this does not make “doing” natural science difficult since it only provides a better point from which to gain an understanding of natural science and does not alter it or affect it in any way. the key lies in knowing the difference between the temporal and the eternal.

  22. DavidV says:

    Steve: Why does it matter if ID has religious elements? That is the basis of my argument. ID is either true or it isn’t. I propose an openminded approach whereby both evolution and ID are evaluated on their merits, while you appear to discount ID simply because you dislike the conclusions it leads to.

  23. Don Quixote says:

    Both sides have problems – no theory is perfect – Science is about looking for the most probable theory, not a perfect theory.

    The ID folks have the problem (or acceptance) of a supernatural entity doing the design. For some ID people, this is actually part of their theory – hopefully testable.

    The naturalist folks have the dual problems of how the universe was created (the big bang is still the most popular theory and it forces you to believe some unknown force caused an explosion that created order from nothing) and the problem with Darwinian evolution. The latter has become more of a faith than a science – Darwin predicted a fossil record showing every single stage of change from one animal to another. This was not found, so Gould didn’t dismiss the theory, he just said (macro)evolution works by explosions of new species triggered by an unknown cause. I’ve asked some advocates of (macro) evolution if there was any experiment that could falsify their theory (Popper’s old test of what is science and what is not) and these believers could not think of a single experiment or finding that could cause them to change their minds. This is why I consider Darwin’s theory of evolution (and its many variations) to be a religion that is based more on faith than objective science.

    If anyone had ever come up with a non-supernatural theory of how species evolved, Darwin and Gould’s theories would have been abandoned long ago. However, many scientists would rather believe in a completely natural theory, no matter how many unexplained problems it may have, than to consider a theory that directly or indirectly requires a supernatural cause.

  24. Steve Verdon says:

    RJN,

    Steve, you have to get your head around the fact that ID is a voyage of discovery.

    This is irrelevant, further, all science is a voyage of discovery in that science is an iterative process where learning takes place. Previous knowledge, successes and failures inform us about what to do next.

    There are no claims of Supernatural involvement.

    I didn’t say there was, my argument is that with reasonable assumptions the implication of the designer being supernatural is inescapable. In other words, the ID claims lead to the conclusion of the supernatural.

    Using your standards, one can claim that inferences require that evolutionary theory not be taught in public schools because the â??inferenceâ?? is clearly anti- religious.

    The only way to make this work is to take a literalist view of the bible. Taking a literalist view of the bible runs smack into simple common sense (i.e. what did Noah do with all that dino shit? What did Noah do to keep the T. rex from eating everything else? How did Noah get a siberian tiger?). So should we start teaching children to be irrational?

    Further, you claim of anti-religious is false if one is does not subscribe to the inerrancy of the bible. In this case evolutionary theory is agnostic to religion.

    Finally, this applies to any and all science, not just evolutionary theory.

    DavidV,

    Steve: Why does it matter if ID has religious elements? That is the basis of my argument. ID is either true or it isnâ??t.

    1. The law is pretty damn clear: religion doesn’t belond in public schools.

    2. Religion is not science. Whether it is true or not is beside the point.

    If we are talking science then religion is not part of the discussion as it is outside the purview of science. Funny how so many want religion to be part of science, but when science says that a specific religious belief is baloney then science has to conform to religion. And then I’m called closed minded. Damn…there goes another irony meter.

    I propose an openminded approach whereby both evolution and ID are evaluated on their merits, while you appear to discount ID simply because you dislike the conclusions it leads to.

    This is quite simply wrong. I dislike ID as science because the conclusions it leads to are not scientific. This is like using mathematics to figure out if you love somebody, then saying that love is a mathematical concept. If somebody else wants to look at these arguments and conclude that God exists fine. I think their faith is weak, but okay. Just don’t keep pretending it is something it isn’t.

    Don Q.,

    Both sides have problems – no theory is perfect – Science is about looking for the most probable theory, not a perfect theory.

    This is a strawman as it has never been asserted that any theory anywhere is perfect.

    The naturalist folks have the dual problems of how the universe was created (the big bang is still the most popular theory and it forces you to believe some unknown force caused an explosion that created order from nothing) and the problem with Darwinian evolution.

    However the universe was created is not a problem for evolutionary theory as evolutionary theory is not a theory about the origins of the universe. This is like saying mathematics is flawed since we don’t know how the universe was created and thus 2 + 2 = 9.

    The latter has become more of a faith than a science – Darwin predicted a fossil record showing every single stage of change from one animal to another.

    Uhhmmmm no. I’d like to see the quote from Darwin that supports this. In fact, I suggest you start with chapter 9 of The Origin of Species.

    This was not found, so Gould didnâ??t dismiss the theory, he just said (macro)evolution works by explosions of new species triggered by an unknown cause.

    Again no. If you are going to use Gould’s theories at least familiarize yourself with them. Punctuated equilibrium is not that there was sudden explosions of new species.

    Iâ??ve asked some advocates of (macro) evolution if there was any experiment that could falsify their theory (Popperâ??s old test of what is science and what is not) and these believers could not think of a single experiment or finding that could cause them to change their minds.

    Please. Finding the fossilized remains of a modern day rabbit in pre-cambrian rock would be a pretty devastating find for evolutionary theory.

    This is why I consider Darwinâ??s theory of evolution (and its many variations) to be a religion that is based more on faith than objective science.

    Your views are based on ignorance and false notions.

  25. Bithead says:

    Why are you even wasting your time here? The answer to the above is yes it would look suprenatural. But, such beings are not outside nature they part of nature

    Precisely. the problem is science is primitive enough that when things come along it doesn’t understand it simply denies their existence.

    Such a starting point neccessitates a designer that is outside all these laws of nature.

    This seems a bit of a contradiction. The starting point for that contradiction is not a admitting that science doesn’t have all the answers.

    Religion is not science. Whether it is true or not is beside the point.

    Perhaps not. Consider that your objection along has been what to teach. Are we or are we not to be teaching the truth?

  26. Steve Verdon says:

    Precisely. the problem is science is primitive enough that when things come along it doesnâ??t understand it simply denies their existence.

    No, it just doesn’t look at the lack of understanding/explanation and conclude pixies, fairies, or any other supernatural cause.

    This seems a bit of a contradiction. The starting point for that contradiction is not a admitting that science doesnâ??t have all the answers.

    There is no contradiction and that science doesn’t have all the answers isn’t an issue at all as nobody has even hinted that science has all the answers. Really now, why is it so many commenters feel this need to try and use strawman arguments?

    Perhaps not. Consider that your objection along has been what to teach. Are we or are we not to be teaching the truth?

    Whose truth? The Catholics? The Muslims? Vodoo? How about Hinduism? Buddhism? Exactly which one is true?

    I suspect this is why religion was kept out of our legal system/government from the start. It was realized that people get more than a bit aggitated by their beliefs and that it can have depressing consequences.

    So, until you can offer up some convincing support* for your TruthTM, why not stop it with this nonsense?

    *I’m not even asking for proof, merely something way out there and whacky like some experiments using the theory of ID to generate results that support ID.

  27. floyd says:

    our legal system and the laws that formed it were “intelligently designed” by our religious beliefs.

  28. Bithead says:

    No, it just doesn�t look at the lack of understanding/explanation and conclude pixies, fairies, or any other supernatural cause.

    It has developed a habit of not ignore alleging what it can understand, particularly when faced with a prospect that man might not know everything.

    Whose truth? The Catholics? The Muslims? Vodoo? How about Hinduism? Buddhism? Exactly which one is true?

    So, why teach anything if nothing can be held true that our lame demonstrably lame science can’t prove?

    There is no contradiction and that science doesn�t have all the answers isn�t an issue at all as nobody has even hinted that science has all the answers. Really now, why is it so many commenters feel this need to try and use strawman arguments?

    I suggest to you that it is not at all the straw man argument… rather it is central to your argument. You’re the one saying that if science cannot prove it, it shouldn’t be taught. Well explain to me then, how we’re to deal with things that science cannot explain in a classroom setting. Do we simply ignore it? Seems to me, that what you’re demanding for science is that we only discussed in a scientific way what makes science look good, and all knowing, and we ignore what Science cannot bring itself to explain by calling it ‘religion’. (Or, what’s the catch-phrase, today, Pixies?)

    More to the point, do we ignore it because we think it might lead us to acknowledge the possibility of a being or beings, more powerful and more intelligent than ourselves?

    That’s really what you’re proposing, Steve. Sticking your fingers in your ears and screaming “nananananananana I can’t hear you” doesn’t strike me as very scientific, And can bind no means been called “open minded” . I was given to believe all but mindedness was a virtue that scientists thought worthy.

    And, Floyd:

    our legal system and the laws that formed it were �intelligently designed� by our religious beliefs.

    To some extent. But I think it more correct to say that our legal system and our laws were created to support our cultural values as a people.. a part of which was the dominant religion.

    Though, I’m not quite sure how that interfaces with Steve’s argument.

  29. floyd says:

    bithead; i was responding to steve’s sentence; “i suspect this is why religion was kept out of our legal system/government from the start.”of course this is neither desirable nor possible.

  30. Bithead says:

    Ah.
    Yes, I see.
    Quite correct.