Part I: Introduction
On March 30, 2005, Michael Shermer published an editorial in the Los Angeles Times (Michael Shermer, "Not Intelligent, and Surely Not Science," LA Times, March 30, 2005) alleging that ID proponents are promoting their unfalsifiable theological beliefs as science. Shermer would have us believe that ID theorists are covertly promoting their "subjective" belief in God as if it were science, when ID is really just pure religion. Shermer's mistake is to fail to recognize that ID proponents are perfectly capable of having theological beliefs about the identity of the designer, but then simultaneously keep those theological beliefs separate from their scientific arguments of ID theory which allow them to detect if an object was designed. The actual scientific beliefs of ID proponents (that some natural objects were intelligently designed) are eminently testable and therefore scientific. Shermer is correct that the religious beliefs are not testable via the means of science and are not scientific. But only by pulling a bait-and-switch--by claiming the religious beliefs of ID proponents are actually their scientific claims--can Shermer claim that ID is untestable. Shermer's article incorrectly represents the actual nature of ID theory to the public.
Part II: Using an Out-Dated Critique to Mischaracterize ID as an Appeal to the Supernatural
Firstly, Shermer concedes at the outset that ID proponents state their theory is devoid of religious commitments:
"Surely the intelligent design explanation has unanswered questions of its own. But unanswered questions, which exist on both sides, are an essential part of healthy science; they define the areas of needed research. Questions often expose hidden errors that have impeded the progress of science. For example, the place of intelligent design in science has been troubling for more than a century. That is because on the whole, scientists from within Western culture failed to distinguish between intelligence, which can be recognized by uniform sensory experience, and the supernatural, which cannot. Today we recognize that appeals to intelligent design may be considered in science, as illustrated by current NASA search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Archaeology has pioneered the development of methods for distinguishing the effects of natural and intelligent causes. We should recognize, however, that if we go further, and conclude that the intelligence responsible for biological origins is outside the universe (supernatural) or within it, we do so without the help of science." (Of Pandas and People 2nd ed. 1993, pg. 126-127, emphasis added)
"The idea that life had an intelligent source is hardly unique to Christian fundamentalism. Advocates of design have included not only Christians and other religious theists, but pantheists, Greek and Enlightenment philosophers and now include many modern scientists who describe themselves as religiously agnostic. Moreover, the concept of design implies absolutely nothing about beliefs and normally associated with Christian fundamentalism, such as a young earth, a global flood, or even the existence of the Christian God. All it implies is that life had an intelligent source." (Of Pandas and People 2nd ed. 1993, pg. 161)
Additionally, a look at the later writings of ID scientists (virtually all of which were published after Shermer's quotee wrote her article) reveals that ID theory is NOT trying to "dra[w] inferences about the deity" nor is it unfalsifiable. Regarding the identity of the designer, consider these quotes from ID proponents:
"One of the worries about intelligent design is that it will jettison much of what is accepted in science, and that an “ID-based curriculum” will look very different from current science curricula. Although intelligent design has radical implications for science, I submit that it does not have nearly as radical implications for science education. First off, intelligent design is not a form of anti-evolutionism. Intelligent design does not claim that living things came together suddenly in their present form through the efforts of a supernatural creator. Intelligent design is not and never will be a doctrine of creation." (William Dembski, No Free Lunch (2001), pg. 314, emphasis added)
"The conclusion that something was designed can be made quite independently of knowledge of the designer. As a matter of procedure, the design must first be apprehended before there can be any further question about the designer. The inference to design can be held with all the firmness that is possible in this world, without knowing anything about the designer." (Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box (1996), pg. 197)
"Intelligent design is modest in what it attributes to the designing intelligence responsible for the specified complexity in nature. For instance, design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the competence of science and must be left to religion and philosophy." (William Dembski, The Design Revolution (2004), pg. 42)
"The most obvious difference is that scientific creationism has prior religious commitments whereas intelligent design does not. ... Intelligent design ... has no prior religious commitments and interprets the data of science on generally accepted scientific principles. In particular, intelligent design does not depend on the biblical account of creation." (William Dembski, The Design Revolution (2004), pg. 40)
"Intelligent design begins with data that scientists observe in the laboratory and nature, identifies in them patterns known to signal intelligent causes and thereby ascertains whether a phenomenon was designed. For design theorists, the conclusion of design constitutes an inference from data, not a deduction from religious authority." (William Dembski, The Design Revolution (2004), pg. 42-43)
"Natural causes are too stupid to keep pace with intelligent causes. Intelligent design theory provides a rigorous scientific demonstration of this long-standing intuition. Let me stress, the complexity-specification criterion is not a principle that comes to us demanding our unexamined acceptance--it is not an article of faith. Rather it is the outcome of a careful and sustained argument about the precise interrelationships between necessity, chance and design." (William Dembski, No Free Lunch (2001), pg. 223)
"ID is not an interventionist theory. Its only commitment is that the design in the world be empirically detectable. All the design could therefore have emerged through a cosmic evolutionary process that started with the Big Bang. What's more, the designer need not be a deity. It could be an extraterrestrial or a telic process inherent in the universe. ID has no doctrine of creation. Scott and Branch at best could argue that many of the ID proponents are religious believers in a deity, but that has no bearing on the content of the theory. As for being “vague” about what happened and when, that is utterly misleading. ID claims that many naturalistic evolutionary scenarios (like the origin of life) are unsupported by evidence and that we simply do not know the answer at this time to what happened. This is not a matter of being vague but rather of not pretending to knowledge that we don't have."(William Dembski, Commentary on Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch's "Guest Viewpoint: 'Intelligent design' Not Accepted by Most Scientists, emphasis added (2002))
Shermer is correct that science cannot speak about or study the supernatural. Such claims would be untestable (i.e. unfalsifiable) and therefore unscientific. But this is precisely why ID lacks such claims: ID is a theory which respects the empirical and epistemological boundaries of science and does not make unscientific claims which might establish religion. ID is a genuinely scientific approach to investigating the origin of some objects in nature, and it lacks such supernatural explanations because it is faithful to a scientific approach. ID proponents are not trying to be covert about their beliefs--as Dembski explains, the lack of an explanation regarding details about the designer "is not a matter of being vague but rather of not pretending to knowledge that we don't have."
Additionally, ID theory is clearly not unfalsifiable. This will be discussed in Part IV.
Part III: The Bait and Switch
As seen in the diagram below, Shermer inappropriately claims that the religious beliefs of ID proponents are their scientific beliefs. This allows him to misconstrue ID theory:
Part IV: Falsifiability and Intelligent Design
Shermer wrongly claims that ID is merely a negative argument against evolution in favor of a supernatural explanation. Shermer writes:
Consider these other observations from ID theorists about what intelligent agents tend to do, and how they allow us to know what to expect to find had an intelligent agent been at work in the past:
(Stephen C. Meyer, Mere Creation, pg. 140).
"Indeed, in all cases where we know the causal origin of 'high information content,' experience has shown that intelligent design played a causal role."
(Stephen C. Meyer, DNA and Other Designs)
"Intelligent design provides a sufficient causal explanation for the origin of large amounts of information, since we have considerable experience of intelligent agents generating informational configurations of matter."
(Meyer S. C. et. al., "The Cambrian Explosion: Biology's Big Bang," in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, edited by J. A. Campbell and S. C. Meyer (Michigan State University Press, 2003)
“Agents can arrange matter with distant goals in mind. In their use of language, they routinely ‘find’ highly isolated and improbable functional sequences amid vast spaces of combinatorial possibilities. Analysis of the problem of the origin of biological information exposes a deficiency in the causal powers of natural selection that corresponds precisely to powers that agents are uniquely known to posses. Intelligent agents have foresight. Agents can select functional goals before they exist. They can devise or select material means to accomplish those ends from among an array of possibilities and then actualize those goals in accord with a preconceived design and/or independent set of functional requirements.”
(Stephen C. Meyer, The Cambrian Information Explosion, in Debating Design 388 (William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse eds., Cambridge University Press 2004))
“The principal characteristic of intelligent agency is choice. Even the etymology of the word “intelligent” makes this clear. ‘Intelligent’ derives from two Latin words, the preposition inter, meaning between, and the verb lego, meaning to choose or select. Thus, according to its etymology, intelligence consists in choosing between. For an intelligent agent to act is therefore to choose from a range of competing possibilities. This is true not just of humans but of animals as well as of extraterrestrial intelligences. A rat navigating a maze must choose whether to go right or left at various points in the maze. When SETI researchers attempt to discover intelligence in the extraterrestrial radio transmissions they are monitoring, they assume an extraterrestrial intelligence could have chosen any number of possible radio transmissions and then attempt to match the transmissions they observe with certain patterns as opposed to others. Whenever a human being utters meaningful speech, a choice is made from a range of possible sound-combinations that might have been uttered. Intelligent agency always entails discrimination, choosing certain things, ruling out others.”
(William Dembski, No Free Lunch, pg. 28 (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002))
In the above-chart, we can see that our observations about how intelligent agents act allows us to construct positive predictions from the theory which can be tested by looking at data in the natural world. To see specifically how one can test for intelligent design, consider the following discussion of example (1) above and how ID uses the scientific method to test for specified and complex information.
A Closer Look at Example (1): The Origin of Biological Complexity
In the chart above, example (1) deals with the origin of biological complexity. This is probably the best known aspect of intelligent design theory. In Table 2 below, we can see a sketch of how ID uses the scientific method to infer design of biological complexity:
Part V: Theological Motivations?
Shermer tries to paint intelligent design as a purely religious theory. But let's turn the table for a second here. There are many Christian theistic evolutionists out there so there is no doubt that Darwinism doesn't mandate that you must become an atheist. But Shermer is an atheist, and in fact, evolution is one of the foundational pillars of his belief system. One creationist organization has a critique of a video where Shermer gives his naturalistic testimony (see Darwin’s contribution? by Don Batten). The straightforward description of the video makes it clear that for Shermer, Darwin made most of his core philosophical beliefs possible:
1. Darwin 'changed the world from being seen as static to evolving' (changing). That is, microbes, over billions of years, changed into trees, animals and men. Living things do not reproduce true to their type after all, but change into different things, the evolutionist believes.
2. Darwin 'established the implausibility of creationism'. God did not create things; they arose through natural processes.
3. Darwin 'refuted cosmic teleology' (that is, that the universe has a purpose). The existence of the universe is just a giant accident; it has no purpose.
4. Darwin 'established materialistic/naturalistic philosophy'. That is, God is an unnecessary hypothesis.
5. Darwin 'ended Aristotelian essentialism' (that is, the belief that things live because of some vital essence, life force, or spirit, rather than because of mechanisms understandable to scientists).
7. Darwin 'ended absolute anthropocentrism'. That is, Shermer claims that Darwin established that man is just an animal; man is nothing special. He is just another accident of cosmic evolution, with no ultimate purpose.
(Darwin’s contribution? by Don Batten; various segments of this short article irrelevant to this discussion were omitted without ellipses ("...") for clarity)
Shermer wants God to be far off and must fight any semblance of ID lest his own worldview become threatened. Intelligent design does not, as Shermer writes, "result in the naturalization of the deity" (Shermer, "Not Intelligent, and Surely Not Science")--in fact intelligent design says nothing about why God created, or even whether it was God that created. All intelligent design says is that there was some intelligence involved in the origin of some natural objects. It doesn't tell you much about that intelligence and has no necessary theological implications about the identity of the designer. None of the floats in Shermer's parade of theological horribles actually exist.
One commentator noted “the distinction emphasized by ID is not natural causes versus supernatural causes, but rather intelligent causes versus undirected causes.” (Stephen L. Marshall, Note, When May a State Require Teaching Alternatives to the Theory of Evolution? Intelligent Design as a Test Case, 90 Ky. L.J. 743, 773 (2001/2002)). Thus, when Shermer criticizes intelligent design because it just makes God "another part of the natural world, and thereby loses the transcendent mystery and divinity that define the boundary between religion and science" he is bluffing. In reality, Shermer wants God to be so mysterious and far off that he has no reason to believe in Him. Intelligent design theory says that some mind planned the origin of various aspects of life on earth, which did not arise by purely undirected forces (like natural selection). This threatens to burst Shermer's materialist bubble, which he must defend at all costs.
Part VI: Go Read a Book
Finally, Shermer claims that ID proponent Stephen Meyer recently stated that "the Fall" as recorded in the book of Genesis is responsible for various diseases. I was not at the debate in March, 2005, but after I initially posted this response to Shermer, Meyer himself posted a clarification of what actually happened on the Discovery Institute Website. It is also posted below, and it has some startling claims.
According to Meyer's account of what happened, Meyer said nothing about "the Fall" while on stage, and in fact it was SHERMER alone who brought up "the Fall." Here is a brief recount of what Meyer says actually happened:
It is interesting to note that Meyer apparently didn't talk about these theological issues during his pre-planned speech during the actual scientific debate. When Meyer spoke as a scientist, he did not talk about Genesis because, simply put, such things are not a part of the scientific theory of ID. Rather, Meyer gave a scientific explanation for the origin of disease, and mentioned as a side-comment that these scientific explanations were not inconsistent with a Judeo-Christian view of disease and decay. Meyer in no way offered these views as propositions of ID theory. If Meyer is correct in his account of what happened on stage, then it would appear that Shermer has badly misrepresented Meyer's position and what Meyer actually said. We are trying to inquire about the possibility of getting a transcript or recording of the Q & A session from the actual debate so as to let readers see for themselves what actually happened.
Shermer may insinuate that Meyer's failure to mention such religious beliefs is the result of Meyer being covert but perhaps the better explanation is that Meyer is more than willing to acknowledge his religious beliefs--in fact Meyer apparently was apparently open about them during the Q & A session. The key difference between Shermer's account and Meyer's account is that Meyer did not offer any of his own religious beliefs about "the Fall" as the propositions of ID theory. Shermer also attempts to make Dembski look covert, as if Dembski is actually hiding his belief in God:
Stephen Meyer responds to Michael Shermer's falsehoods in the Los Angeles Times (From the Discovery Institute Website; Posted with Permission):
In an op-ed in the March 29 Los Angeles Times Michael Shermer claims that after a recent debate with him at Westminster College I admitted that "suboptimal designs and deadly disease are not examples of an unintelligent or malevolent designer, but instead were caused by "the Fall" in the "Garden of Eden."
Michael Shermer is misrepresenting my position and putting words in my mouth.
Here's what happened: at the very end of the question and answer time in the debate a student asked me a question about bad design in nature and whether or not such design showed that the designer of life is malevolent. I explained that there are two cases of alleged bad design that design theorists need to account for--suboptimal design and deadly disease--if they wish to deny the malevolence of the designer. In the first case, I disputed that supposed suboptimal designs were in fact suboptimal. For example, in the debate, Shermer had claimed that the vertebrate retina, with its supposed inverted photoreceptors, constitutes a clear case of suboptimal design. I disputed his argument by showing that there is a good reason for the placement of the photoreceptors in the back of the vertebrate retina. I argued further that the design of the vertebrate retina represented a case of well-optimized design in which an excellent tradeoff of many competing design parameters had been achieved. Thus, it is false to claim, as Shermer does, that I said that "suboptimal designs" were "caused by the fall in the Garden of Eden." In fact, I disputed his claim that these designs are even suboptimal.
In the second part of my answer I addressed the question of disease. I explained that part of the program of design research was to distinguish the evidence of aboriginal design from the evidence of subsequent decay in biological systems. I had earlier explained that design theorists think diseases arose as the result of the degradation of well-functioning original designs, not from actions that can be directly attributed to a designer. In my answer at the close of the question time, I cited an important biological case that clearly supports this view. I argued that genetic evidence shows that the virulence capacity of Yersinia Pestis, the bacterium responsible for the plague, had arisen from (1) a mutational insertion in a master control gene and (2) the expression of genetic information out of its original context as the result of mobile genetic units (plasmids) having entered the bacteria. In short, I gave a scientific answer that attributed deadly disease (in this case the plague) to evolutionary processes that degrade or alter an original design. I did note (correctly) in passing that this observation was consistent with the expectation of many theologians and religious believers who think, based on their understanding of Judeo-Christian doctrine and scripture, that the physical world should show evidence of both design and subsequent decay. But I did not say disease was caused by "the Fall." I said disease was caused by evolutionary processes of decay such as mutation and the random transmission of mobile genetic units. Instead, it was Shermer who introduced the term "the Fall" into the debate as caricature of my answer to the student's question.
Indeed, after I had finished my answer to the student, Shermer responded with ridicule saying "that's it, the Fall, that's your explanation!" After that there was no further discussion of the concept, nor was there any discussion in any part of the debate about the Garden of Eden, contrary to the claim in Shermer's LA Times editorial. Indeed, after Shermer's statement about "the Fall" our hosts ended the debate, we walked across the stage and shook hands.