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Is Intelligent Design Theory Really an Argument for "God"?

by Casey Luskin

Many critics of intelligent design (including various critics in the April, 28, 2005 Nature article on ID) have stated that intelligent design is an argument for the existence of God, or that it posits an explicitly supernatural creator. This, they might argue, is detrimental to intelligent design for 2 reasons:
  • Appealing to God or the supernatural makes intelligent design unscientific because the scientific method cannot detect the supernatural
  • Appealing to God or the supernatural guarantees that intelligent design cannot be taught in public schools since the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1987 that teaching a "supernatural creator" is religion, and unconstitutional. (see Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).)
  • Indeed, science can only study natural objects, and cannot make statements about the supernatural. IF these critics are indeed correct in their characterization of intelligent design theory, then intelligent design would not be scientific. However, the claim that intelligent design theory proposes a supernatural designer, or that it specifically appeals to God, is a mischaracterization of intelligent design theory, and the critics are not correct.

    The Actual Arguments of Leading ID Proponents
    An extensive look at the actual writings and arguments of those in the ID research community reveals that intelligent design is not an appeal to the supernatural, nor is it trying to "prove" the existence of God. The consensus of ID proponents is intelligent design theory does not allow one to identify the designer as natural or supernatural, because to do so would go beyond the limits of scientific inquiry.

    Here are some excerpts from ID literature making it clear that ID is not an appeal to God or the supernatural: "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, emphasis added)

    "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, emphasis added)

    "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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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)
    In each of these quotes, it seems clear that intelligent design proponents are stating that intelligent design theory tells us nothing about the nature of the designer, and cannot determine if the designer was natural or supernatural. If intelligent design is truly a scientific discipline, then this makes perfect sense, for there are limits on what science can tell us, and science is not capable of studying the evidence to tell us if the designer was supernatural or natural.

    Intelligent design theory begins and ends with observations of the natural world. It begins with observations of intelligent agents in the natural world, in order to quantify the sort of information they tend to emplace into their designed objects. It ends with observations as we study natural objects to determine if they contain that information which we know is a tell-tale sign that an intelligent agent played a hand in the origin of that object. True to the scientific method, throughout the entire process of testing for intelligent design, we are making observations of the observable natural world.

    Science, and thus intelligent design theory, can only discover what is found in the observable realm. We cannot access the supernatural. Thus intelligent design proponents make it clear that all their theory can do is tell if a natural object bears the hallmarks of having been designed--it cannot tell you anything about the designer, much less that it was a supernatural deity. If some supernatural agent took action in the natural world, we might be able to detect that action, but not detect whether the actor was supernatural or otherwise. As Eugenie Scott herself concedes "Science cannot tell you who done it, but how it happened."

    Science can indeed tell us if aspects of biology were designed, but it turns out to be silent on the question on the nature of the designer.

    Understanding the Identity of the Designer:
    The scientific theory of intelligent design cannot identify the designer, but only detects the past occurrence of intelligent design in the natural world. Intelligent design theory cannot name the designer because it works off the assumption that all intelligent agents would generally create certain types of informational patterns when they act. While we can detect that type of information in the natural world to infer intelligent design, finding that type of information does not give us any information about the nature or identity of the designer. All we can infer is that the object we are studying was designed. Consider the following diagram:

    The identity of the designer cannot be identified simply by detecting the telltale signs of general design, such as complex and specified information

    In this diagram, many types of intelligent agents could produce identical objects with high levels of complex and specified information (CSI). Intelligent design theory can only find the object containing high levels of CSI and works backwards to detect if an intelligent was at work. While it can detect that the object was designed, it cannot discriminate what kind of designer designed the object, nor determine any specific properties about the designer, other than that it was an intelligent agent. All intelligent design theory can infer is that the object was designed. Intelligent design, as a scientific theory cannot identify the identity of the designer.

    Not identifying the designer is not a cop-out nor does it stem from an unwillingness to be honest about motivations. It results solely from the pure empirical limitations of scientific investigation: [The] only commitment [of intelligent design theory] is that the design in the world be empirically detectable…This is not a matter of being vague but rather of not pretending to [have] knowledge that we don't have. The scientific method and empirical data are presently incapable of helping to understand the identity of the designer. Thus, the scientific theory of intelligent design simply cannot identity the designer because it is not a question which can be addressed through the methods of science. At this point, this question of the identity of the designer can only be answered via faith, or divine revelation, and other religious "ways of knowing."

    The fact that the identity of the designer is a religious question does not negate the purely scientific methods through which we can infer merely that an object was indeed designed. Indeed, when we find the type of information we know tends to be produced by intelligent agents, we have a valid scientific rationale for inferring intelligent design.