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Bait-and-Switch -- A Response to Michael Shermer's LA Times Editorial

Casey Luskin

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: "For example, leading ID scholar William Dembski wrote in his 2003 book, 'The Design Revolution': 'Intelligent design is a strictly scientific theory devoid of religious commitments. Whereas the creator underlying scientific creationism conforms to a strict, literalist interpretation of the Bible, the designer underlying intelligent design need not even be a deity.'" (Shermer, "Not Intelligent, and Surely Not Science") Shermer claims that the proof that ID is not science is "in the pudding" because he quotes a quote a Christian professor who wrote in 1995 who was skeptical of ID: "I don't think intelligent design is very helpful because it does not provide things that are refutable -- there is no way in the world you can show it's not true. Drawing inferences about the deity does not seem to me to be the function of science because it's very subjective." (Dr. Anne Chaney, Shermer, "Not Intelligent, and Surely Not Science") Shermer's quotee wrote this before the publication of any major ID book--including Darwin's Black Box, The Design Inference, No Free Lunch, The Design Revolution, Signs of Intelligence, Mere Creation, or Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology. How could this quote be taken as an accurate critique of ID theory when it was written before all of the major works of Dembski and Behe were published? Furthermore, this quote assumes that ID theory is trying to tell you "about the deity" and that ID is "subjective." Had this biologist accounted for the position of the only major ID publication published before her quote was penned, she would have noted that ID does not try to argue about the existence (or lack thereof) of God: "If science is based upon experience, then science tells us the message encoded in DNA must have originated from an intelligent cause. But what kind of intelligent agent was it? On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy. But that should not prevent science from acknowledging evidences for an intelligent cause origin wherever they may exist. This is no different, really, than if we discovered life did result from natural causes. We still would not know, from science, if the natural cause was all that was involved, or if the ultimate explanation was beyond nature, and using the natural cause." (Of Pandas and People 2nd ed. 1993, pg. 7, emphasis added)

"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)
In each of these quotes it is clear that ID theory is not trying to talk "about the deity" because it does not purport to identify the designer. Furthermore, ID theory uses an empirical rationale for detecting design--which is simply "the development of methods for distinguishing the effects of natural and intelligent causes."

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: "Although intelligent design fits comfortably with a belief in God, it doesn't require it, because the scientific theory doesn't tell you who the designer is. While most people - including myself - will think the designer is God, some people might think that the designer was a space alien or something odd like that." (Michael Behe, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 02/08/01).

"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))
These quotes undermine Shermer's assertions that ID theory is an appeal to the supernatural because they make it clear that (1) ID theory does not attempt to identify the designer as supernatural or otherwise, and (2) there is a simple and clear rationale for why ID theory does not identify the designer: Science is limited in what it can investigate--it can identify the past action of an intelligent agent but it cannot tell you who the designer was or anything else about "metaphysical" nature of that designer. ID theory, being scientific, thus remains simply silent about the identity of the designer, for science simply cannot speak to that question.

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:

Shermer's Bait and Switch

Diagram 1: The Actual State of Things vs. How Shermer Paints the Picture. The actual nature of ID theory is that ID proponents simply promote the view that life was designed as a proposition of their theory. Many ID proponents have religious beliefs about the identity and nature of the designer, but they do not promote these as a part of ID theory. Michael Behe makes this point explicit in his writings (here, to a Christian audience) as Behe explains the distinction between his own religious and scientific beliefs: "The most important difference [between modern intelligent design theory and Paley's arguments] is that [intelligent design] is limited to design itself; I strongly emphasize that it is not an argument for the existence of a benevolent God, as Paley's was. I hasten to add that I myself do believe in a benevolent God, and I recognize that philosophy and theology may be able to extend the argument. But a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far. This while I argue for design, the question of the identity of the designer is left open. Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel--fallen or not; Plato's demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being. Of course, some of these possibilities may seem more plausible than others based on information from fields other than science. Nonetheless, as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton's phrase hypothesis non fingo. (Michael Behe, "The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis," Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), pg. 165) In the diagram above at the "***", I say "some ID proponents" have JudeoChristian beliefs because in fact not all ID proponents have a JudeoChristian background. To assume (as Shermer seems to) that all ID proponents worship Yahweh is to insult those ID proponents who have non-JudeoChristian religious beliefs about the identity of the designer.

I personally am a Christian, but I would like to note that in May, 2004, I attended a debate at UCLA where Shermer debated directly against the pro-ID UCLA neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz over intelligent design. That day I heard Dr. Schwartz, before Shermer and the rest of the audience, described his religious beliefs as Buddhist. Shermer seems to have slighted his former sparring partner by implying that all ID proponents are purely JudeoChristian Western theists. More importantly for our discussion, Shermer makes no mention of this diversity of religious beliefs among ID proponents. His omission is telling: Had Shermer recognized that some ID proponents have beliefs far removed from Genesis, it would have become unmistakably clear that ID proponents are not united around a theological viewpoint. This would have refuted Shermer's general thesis. In truth, ID is not about a theological viewpoint. Rather ID proponents are simply united upon the scientific claim that design is empirically detectable in the natural world: "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."(William Dembski, Commentary on Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch's "Guest Viewpoint: 'Intelligent design' Not Accepted by Most Scientists, emphasis added (2002)) Shermer might have us believe that Dembski is just bluffing and that there is no substance to back up Dembski's claim that ID rests upon a non-religious rationale. In truth, Dembski's statement here is more-than validated, for example, by his 1998 peer-reviewed Cambridge University Press book The Design Inference. In The Design Inference, Dembski lays out a detailed and wholly empirical argument for inferring design. This argument makes no reliance upon religion or faith nor appeals to supernatural actions but simply studies how intelligent agents in general operate such that we might presently detect their past action in the natural world. Dembski is thus not bluffing when he claims ID makes no reliance upon the Bible and is not a theological viewpoint. The proof of Dembski's statement here is "in the pudding." Yet Shermer makes no mention of The Design Inference because it refutes his thesis that ID has no empirical explanation for how design works.

Shermer is very correct to assert that beliefs about the identity of the designer are unscientific theological beliefs. But the problem is that Shermer portrays these beliefs as if they constitute ID theory. This bait-and-switch is seductive because Shermer has his categories straight. The only problem is that he has misrepresented the nature of ID theory so as to put it in the wrong category. In reality, ID has excised any untestable theological claims and retains solely that which is testable: the claim that "design in the world [is] empirically detectable."

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: "The term 'intelligent design' is nothing more than a linguistic place-filler for something unexplained by science. It is saying, in essence, that if there is no natural explanation for X, then the explanation must be a supernatural one. Proponents of intelligent design cannot imagine, for example, how the bacterial flagellum (such as the little tail that propels sperm cells) could have evolved; ergo, they conclude, it was intelligently designed. But saying 'intelligent design did it' does not explain anything. Scientists would want to know how and when ID did it, and what forces ID used." (Shermer, "Not Intelligent, and Surely Not Science") In reality, ID is much more than a mere negative argument against evolution. (We have already addressed Shermer's misconstrual of ID as proposing "supernatural" explanations.) The theory makes positive predictions which form the basis for inferring design. Intelligent design theory ONLY works because of its positive predictions, based upon our understanding of how intelligent agents act in the natural world. This allows us to construct predictions of what the "mechanism" of intelligent design might produce when it is at work, permitting us to recognize when it has been at work in the past. As William Dembski writes, “the defining feature of intelligent causes is their ability to create novel information and, in particular, specified complexity.” (William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch xiv (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)). In other words, we have observed that intelligent agents uniquely create specified complexity, so when we find it, we can detect their past action where they have designed objects in nature. To fail to find these expected features of designed objects prevents the inference to design. Intelligent design is thus eminently falsifiable and empirically testable.

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: "Experience teaches that information-rich systems … invariable result from intelligent causes, not naturalistic ones. Yet origin-of-life biology has artificially limited its explanatory search to the naturalistic nodes of causation … chance and necessity. Finding the best explanation, however, requires invoking causes that have the power to produce the effect in question. When it comes to information, we know of only one such cause. For this reason, the biology of the information age now requires a new science of design.
(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))
These quotes call into question Shermer's claim that "Intelligent-design theory lacks, for instance, a hypothesis of the mechanics of the design..." (Shermer, "Not Intelligent, and Surely Not Science") In reality, as discussed below in Table 1, we can use the scientific method to construct a positive case for intelligent design. In each of these (4) test situations below, intelligent design is testable based upon positive predictions which we can make based upon our empirically-based understanding of how intelligent agents operate:

Table 1: How intelligent design generally works according to the scientific method (Observation, Hypothesis, Experiment, and Conclusion). Keep the numbers constant in each chart to see the broad explanatory power of intelligent design theory.
Chart 1. Ways Designers Act When Designing (Observations): Intelligent agents…
(1) Take many parts and arrange them in highly specified and complex patterns which perform a specific function.
(2) Rapidly infuse large amounts of genetic information into the biosphere such that new morphologies could appear very rapidly on a geological timescale.
(3) 'Re-use parts' over-and-over in different types of organisms (design upon a common blueprint).
(4) Typically do not create completely functionless objects or parts.

Chart 2. Predictions of Design (Hypothesis): If natural objects were designed, we should find…
(1) High information content machine-like irreducibly complex structures.
(2) Forms in the fossil record that appear suddenly and without any precursors.
(3) Genes and functional parts re-used in different and unrelated organisms.
(4) A trend away from discarded genetic baggage code or functionless "junk DNA" in our genetic code.

Chart 3. How Intelligent Design Could be Disconfirmed? (Testing/Experimentation): Intelligent design could be disconfirmed if we found:
(1) No trace of the hallmark "specified complex information" which we know to be produced by intelligent agents.
(2) Forms appearing in the fossil record in a stepwise fashion which did not look like a sudden infusion of information from an intelligence.
(3) Genes and functional parts exist in a hierarchical pattern which is best explained via normal modes of inheritance.
(4) Non-functional parts (keep in mind that they may have been initially designed as functional, but we can infer that design is not responsible for their subsequent loss of function).

Chart 4. Examining the Evidence (Conclusion):
Line of Evidence
Data (Experiment)
Prediction of Design Met? (Conclusion)
(1) Biochemical complexity / Laws of the Universe. High information content machine-like irreducibly complex structures are commonly found. The bacterial flagellum is a prime example. Specified complexity found in the laws of the universe may be another.
(2) Fossil Record Biological complexity (i.e. new species) tend to appear in the fossil record suddenly and without any similar precursors. The Cambrian explosion is a prime example.
(3) Distribution of Molecular and Morphological Characteristics Similar parts found in different organisms. Many genes and functional parts not distributed in a manner predicted by ancestry, and are often found in clearly unrelated organisms. The "root" of the tree of life is a prime example.
(4) DNA Biochemical and Biological Functionality Increased knowledge of genetics has created a strong trend towards functionality for "junk-DNA." Examples include recently discovered functionality in some pseudogenes, microRNAs, introns, LINE and ALU elements. Examples of DNA of unknown function persist, but discovery of function may be expected (or lack of current function still explainable under a design paradigm).

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:

Table 2. How Intelligent Design Uses the Scientific Method to Study Biological Complexity:

i. Observation:
The ways that intelligent agents act can be observed in the natural world and described. When intelligent agents act, it is observed that they produce high levels of "complex-specified information" (CSI). CSI is basically a scenario which is unlikely to happen (making it complex), and conforms to a pattern (making it specified). Language and machines are good examples of things with much CSI. From our understanding of the world, high levels of CSI are always the product of intelligent design.

ii. Hypothesis:
If an object in the natural world was designed, then we should be able to examine that object and find the same high levels of CSI in the natural world as we find in human-designed objects.

iii. Experiment:
We can examine biological structures to test if high CSI exists. When we look at natural objects in biology, we find many machine-like structures which are specified, because they have a particular arrangement of parts which is necessary for them to function, and complex because they have an unlikely arrangement of many interacting parts. These biological machines are "irreducibly complex," for any change in the nature or arrangement of these parts would destroy their function. Experimental studies can modify these structures to determine if they are indeed irreducibly complex by knocking out genes or inducing mutations. The extent to which the structure continues to function after mutation correlates inversely with its level of irreducible complexity. Computer modeling can also do "reverse engineering" to determine if function is possible at lower levels of complexity.

iv. Conclusion:
Because they exhibit high levels of CSI, a quality known to be produced only by intelligent design we conclude that they were intelligently designed.

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: In a video distributed by the American Skeptics Society, Dr Michael Shermer says Charles Darwin contributed seven notable things to the world. ...

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)
In short, according to Shermer, his own personal worldview is based upon the validity of Darwin's theory. This brings to mind a quote by Darwinist Michael Ruse: [F]or many evolutionists, evolution has functioned as something with elements which are, let us say, akin to being a secular religion ... And it seems to me very clear that at some very basic level, evolution as a scientific theory makes a commitment to a kind of naturalism, namely, that at some level one is going to exclude miracles and these sorts of things come what may. (Ruse, M. (1993) “Nonliteralist Antievolution” AAAS Symposium: “The New Antievolutionism,” February 13, 1993, Boston, MA.) Intelligent design theory questions the validity of Darwin's theory. In Shermer's eyes, thus, intelligent design puts Shermer's entire belief system on the chopping block. Yet the debate over intelligent design probably does not necessarily have the same implications for Christians, because, as I noted, it seems clear that it is entirely possible to be a Christian and an evolutionist. Thus, according to Shermer it seems that there is only one party in this debate who is truly 100% theologically motivated and operating from sheer force of the fact that the outcome of this debate will determine the validity of their religion: atheist Darwinists like Michael Shermer.

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: "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." (Meyer, Stephen Meyer responds to Michael Shermer's falsehoods in the Los Angeles Times) Meyer did, however, state that his scientific explanation was consistent with theological views about "the Fall": "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." (Meyer, Stephen Meyer responds to Michael Shermer's falsehoods in the Los Angeles Times, emphasis added) Meyer's statements precisely confirmed my initial suspicions: Meyer was keeping his religious beliefs and scientific beliefs totally separate. What actually happened was that Meyer provided a scientific explanation for disease (he actually said that many diseases could be accounted for by evolutionary mechanisms, not necessarily ID) but then also noted that this view was not inconsistent with the traditional Judeo-Christian theological explanation of decay and death in the world. There is no evidence that Meyer was offering any theological views about "the Fall" as propositions of ID theory.

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: "Dembski has also told me privately that he believes the intelligent designer is the God of Abraham." (Shermer, "Not Intelligent, and Surely Not Science," emphasis added) This attempt to paint Dembski as covertly hiding his religious beliefs utterly fails because Dembski has publicly told all of us he's a Christian many times. To find that out, all you have to do is read some of his books! (For one large example, see Dembski's 1999 volume, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (InterVarsity Press, 1999), where Dembski discusses his Christian theological beliefs in great detail.) Perhaps doing that would have helped make Shermer's editorial more accurate.


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.