Boxing Pythagoras

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Is Intelligent Design faith-based? A response to Melissa Cain Travis

Many people are aware of the debate which has been ongoing between naturalists and theologians since Darwin first published on his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Unfortunately, however, since it’s always the squeaky wheel which gets the grease, most people only ever hear about this subject in terms of science-denying Young Earth Creationists standing opposed to godless heathen anti-theist scientists. The truth is that there exists quite a spectrum of middle ground, on the subject. There are theists who keep strict separation of their scientific peanut butter from their theological chocolate, and there are atheists who believe that there does exist some metaphysical design to the universe. One such middle premise which has been gaining immense public popularity, in the last few decades, is the Intelligent Design movement. Proponents of Intelligent Design say that it is an open and objective scientific study based on the hypothesis that at least some of the complexity of the cosmos is better explained by the intercession of an intelligent entity than by blind, natural processes. Opponents say that it is just faith-based Creationism cloaked in a pseudoscientific cowl.

In her blog– Science, Reason, & Faith— a Christian apologist named Melissa Cain Travis responds to some critics of ID. According to Ms. Travis, these sources (which apparently include the Huffington Post) jumped on the fact that an Intelligent Design presentation was hosted by a church in order to claim that ID is therefore religiously motivated. Ms. Travis rightly corrects some non sequitur argumentation which she has perceived in these sources. However, I will contend that even with such correction, Melissa Cain Travis is wrong to claim that Intelligent Design is not a faith-based movement.

Before I start into my argument, let’s take a look at the points which Ms. Travis specifically lists as correction to ID’s critics. Her first major point is that “There is a huge difference between an idea being inherently religious and an idea having positive implications for religion.” I absolutely agree with her, here. In the late 1920’s, when physicist Georges Lemaitre first began to speak to other scientists about his new idea– one which would eventually be called the “Big Bang”– a number of other men wrongly accused Lemaitre of incorporating his religious bias into his work in physics. You see, Lemaitre was a Jesuit priest as well as being a scientist, and prior to his work, the prevailing view was that the universe did not have an age, at all. The universe was static and eternal, and any intimation that it might have had a beginning must simply be this priest trying to shoehorn the cosmos into the first verses of Genesis and John’s Gospel. However, those early detractors were wrong. Lemaitre was not religiously motivated. He truly was just working from the data which already existed. As such, eventually, the scientific community revised its views on the subject, and Lemaitre’s theory was vindicated.

Her second point is that “ID theory does not constitute evolution denial.” While I cringe at her use of the word “theory” in this context, I will agree with her overarching statement. Intelligent Design models do not necessarily deny that evolution occurs. They don’t even necessarily deny that evolution specifically by natural selection occurs. They simply state that, for some specific processes, it is more likely that the process is the result of an intelligent intercessor than that it is the result of blind, natural laws. There are ID proponents, for example, who completely accept the vast majority of evolutionary biology, but hold that human rational consciousness must have been designed.

So, if I agree with Ms. Travis two main points, why is it that I disagree with her conclusion?

Intelligent Design proponents– including Ms. Travis– claim it to be a purely scientific, rational, and objective outlook on nature. And, once again, the primary claim of Intelligent Design is that there are certain occurrences in nature which are better explained by an intelligent intercessor than by natural processes. So, what scientific observations do ID researchers proffer in support of this claim? The Discovery Institute, one of the leading organizations in the ID movement, maintains a page which purports to list over 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers supporting Intelligent Design.  While there are a number of problems with many of the papers listed there, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that these are all legitimate scientific papers which yield uncontestable conclusions. How many of these papers give positive support to the claim that an intelligent intercessor could have produced any pattern found in either the laws of physics or in the complexity of life? How many hypothesize a mechanism by which an intelligent intercessor could even produce such design? How many show that intelligent intercession is at all possible in such processes, let alone a better explanation than blind physical law?

Not a single one.

For Intelligent Design to be at all reasonable, there must exist some intelligent intercessor which is not, itself, governed by the processes which are being hypothesized as having design. Proponents of Intelligent Design offer absolutely no observable evidence that such an intelligence can exist. Nor do they offer any mechanism by which such an intelligence could, say, fine-tune the gravitational constant of the universe or coerce genetic diversity into developing an eyeball over successive generations. If they cannot show that these things are even possible, how can they hope to show that such an intelligent intercessor is the better explanation of any given process?

Furthermore, the leading proponents of Intelligent Design often, themselves, link the movement to their religious views. The Discovery Institute’s own website says that the institution decries the denial of “the reality of God, the idea of the Imago Dei in man, and an objective moral order,” as well as the denying “the relevance of religion to public life and policy.” Dr. William Dembski, a PhD in mathematics and one of the senior fellows at the Discovery Institute, defends Intelligent Design against criticism from Biblical literalists by saying that “ID is part of God’s general revelation” and that “it opens the path for people to come to Christ.” Even the conference which Melissa Travis cites as having inspired her own post was called “REASONS: Conversations on Science and Faith.”

The simple truth of the matter is that proponents of Intelligent Design are presupposing, based on their particular faith, that a mechanism exists by which an intelligent agent can design nature. They give absolutely no scientific evidence that this is the case. Since Intelligent Design requires that both the intelligent agent and the mechanism by which it acts exist, and since the belief that such an agent and mechanism exist is not based upon any observable science, we must come to the conclusion that the belief is based upon faith. Despite Melissa Cain Travis’ protestations to the contrary, Intelligent Design is not simply an observable scientific model which happens to lend evidence to religious claims, similar to Lemaitre’s work. Intelligent Design is a movement which presents, as its central claim, an inherently faith-based assertion.

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9 thoughts on “Is Intelligent Design faith-based? A response to Melissa Cain Travis

  1. I appreciate the respectful tone of your article. I would like to respond in kind.

    In your critique of the peer-reviewed literature list, you ask: “How many of these papers give positive support to the claim that an intelligent intercessor could have produced any pattern found in either the laws of physics or in the complexity of life? How many hypothesize a mechanism by which an intelligent intercessor could even produce such design? How many show that intelligent intercession is at all possible in such processes, let alone a better explanation than blind physical law?”

    The fact of the matter is, while these questions may have some sort of relevance to a discussion about intelligent design, they really miss the point and do not endanger the theory at all. One doesn’t need to know the mechanism used in designing or the identity of the designer in order to be justified in concluding that something one observes is designed. We do this in everyday life. Many of the non-biological sciences do it. ID theorists simply apply the same reasoning to biology. Because we are rational creatures, we recognize products of rationality.

    I take issue with the accusation that ID must come from faith-based presuppositions. There are many ID sympathizers/allies who are theists, yes, but some are polytheists, some are agnostic, and some are even atheist. Dr. Bradley Monton (atheist), Dr. Thomas Nagel (atheist) and Dr. David Berlinski (agnostic) have written important pieces in defense of ID theory as a scientific project. Monton and Nagel do not believe ID to be true, but they do an excellent job of explaining why it is not religious and why it is a viable project deserving further investigation. Berlinski is highly supportive of ID, seems to believe that it may be true, yet he consistently describes himself as secular. I highly recommend Monton’s book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design.

    You assert that: “Proponents of Intelligent Design offer absolutely no observable evidence that such an intelligence can exist. ”

    Well, let’s consider this. A designing intelligence of the cosmos would have to be outside of, and independent of, the cosmos. As such, this entity would have to be immaterial, timeless, and transcendent. Science, by its very definition, cannot investigate such an entity, it can only consider the evidence our material universe contains and draw conclusions about whether or not there are signs of intelligence.

    At the end of the day, YES, ID theory and materialism BOTH indicate metaphysical preferences. ID is open to non-natural causation of the universe and life, and materialism is not. But just being open to non-natural causation doesn’t make one religious. It’s entirely possible that we’re living in a supercomputer simulation, and the software engineers have left little clues for us, like the incredible fine-tuning of our observable (illusory?) universe and the overwhelmingly complex and integrated coding in DNA and the epigenome. Recognizing such clues doesn’t require any kind of religion.

    Simply put, we shouldn’t confuse a philosophy of science (being open to intelligent causation in nature) with religion. ID is the former, not the latter.

    God bless,
    Melissa Cain Travis

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and reply, Melissa!

      The fact of the matter is, while these questions may have some sort of relevance to a discussion about intelligent design, they really miss the point and do not endanger the theory at all. One doesn’t need to know the mechanism used in designing or the identity of the designer in order to be justified in concluding that something one observes is designed. We do this in everyday life. Many of the non-biological sciences do it. ID theorists simply apply the same reasoning to biology. Because we are rational creatures, we recognize products of rationality.

      We are only able to discern things which are designed, in every day life, by comparing them to other things which are known to have been designed and contrasting them with things which (presumably) are not designed. For example, let’s pretend an archaeologist discovers a peculiar bit of rock while performing a dig. Our archaeologist hypothesizes that the rock she has found was actually the product of intelligent design, as opposed to a naturally formed shard. How does she go about supporting her proposition? Well, she might compare the artifact to other rocks and minerals in the surrounding area, to see whether the material was common here or whether it might have been carried in by some agency. She might examine the shape of the rock, guessing at some usefulness or intended purpose. She might look at the markings on the rock, to see whether it had been chipped at or polished in a manner not indicative of nature. She might note that there was a known population of tool-users which inhabited the area. She might compare it to other known artifacts from the area.

      Now, let’s say most of these tests fall short. Our archaeologist cannot conclude that the material is uncommon, that the shape served a definitive purpose, that any known population of intelligent agents inhabited the area, nor that the rock was similar to other known artifacts from the region. The only thing she can say for certain is that she is not aware of any natural process by which the rock may have been shaped. Is her hypothesis that this rock was intelligently designed a better explanation for its existence than that the rock was formed by a natural process unknown to her? Not at all! In fact, if she were to conclude that the rock must have been the product of intelligent design, since she knew of no other way that it could form, our archaeologist would be falling prey to an argumentum ad ignorantium fallacy.

      I agree that the same parameters which indicate design in other areas of science– such as forensics, archaeology, anthropology, et cetera– could be used to indicate design in biology. However, those parameters are heavily weighted towards knowledge of the agencies and mechanisms by which similar entities have already been designed.

      You assert that: “Proponents of Intelligent Design offer absolutely no observable evidence that such an intelligence can exist. ”

      Well, let’s consider this. A designing intelligence of the cosmos would have to be outside of, and independent of, the cosmos. As such, this entity would have to be immaterial, timeless, and transcendent. Science, by its very definition, cannot investigate such an entity, it can only consider the evidence our material universe contains and draw conclusions about whether or not there are signs of intelligence.

      There are two major problems with this assertion.

      Firstly, it is contradictory to claim that Intelligent Design is a purely scientific endeavor while also asserting that its primary subject cannot possibly be investigated by science. Unfalsifiable claims are antithetical to scientific pursuits. Either there must exist some naturally falsifiable aspect to claims of an Intelligent Designer, or else those claims cannot honestly be considered purely scientific.

      Secondly, even if this Intelligent Designer is immaterial, timeless, and transcendent, there must be some mechanism by which that Designer interacts with the physical universe. Obviously, if the Designer was so removed from the physical that it did not interact with the universe, then this agent could not possibly have designed anything in the cosmos. If there is some mechanism which interacts with the physical universe, that mechanism can be investigated by physical means. If that mechanism can be investigated, it gives us methods of producing falsifiable claims about our hypothesized Intelligent Designer.

      At the end of the day, YES, ID theory and materialism BOTH indicate metaphysical preferences. ID is open to non-natural causation of the universe and life, and materialism is not. But just being open to non-natural causation doesn’t make one religious. It’s entirely possible that we’re living in a supercomputer simulation, and the software engineers have left little clues for us, like the incredible fine-tuning of our observable (illusory?) universe and the overwhelmingly complex and integrated coding in DNA and the epigenome. Recognizing such clues doesn’t require any kind of religion.

      Simply put, we shouldn’t confuse a philosophy of science (being open to intelligent causation in nature) with religion. ID is the former, not the latter.

      I am absolutely open to the idea of intelligent causation in nature, and I agree that– in and of itself– this simple premise is not necessarily religious. However, the Intelligent Design movement does not simply research the possibility of intelligent causation; it asserts that intelligent causation is a demonstrably better explanation for certain aspects of the cosmos than unguided natural processes. However, it is absolutely untenable to claim (on the merits of science, alone) that this is the case, since we have no evidence that such an intelligent agency can exist or interact with the physical universe. There can be no real method of recognizing design in otherwise natural patterns without first finding evidence for the mechanism by which such design can be effected.

      The “fine-tuning” of the universe is only evidence of an intelligent designer if it can be demonstrated that there was some mechanism by which the universe was intentionally tuned. The “integrated coding” in DNA is only evidence of an intelligent designer if it can be demonstrated that there is some mechanism by which an intelligent agency can program genetic chemistry. Without such mechanisms, claiming that these things are clues pointing to the Intelligent Design model is not science. It is pareidolia.

      I am not opposed to Intelligent Design research. I absolutely agree that it should be freely pursued by those who support it. What I do oppose, however, is the pretense that ID is a wholly rational and scientific pursuit, when there remains absolutely no rational or scientific evidence for the primary subject of its essential claim.

      P.S. – Thanks for the Monton recommendation! I’ll add it to my reading queue!

  2. Chris on said:

    Hello,
    I am wondering why this statement does not commit the “genetic fallacy” and turns out as an attempt to “poison the well”:
    “The simple truth of the matter is that proponents of Intelligent Design are presupposing, based on their particular faith, that a mechanism exists by which an intelligent agent can design nature.”
    Just because the majority of ID proponents are theist, does not follow that they are biased. We all have biases. In the end it is best to interact directly the the arguments. I would expect that if you reject ID, you’d do so on the sole merits of the data and not because Demski is a theist.
    Have you read his papers and books yet?
    Best Regards!!

    • Great question!

      My statement was not a genetic fallacy for the simple reason that it says nothing about whether or not ID is a true proposition. It only asserts a perceived property of ID.

      If, instead, I had stated that ID’s presupposition of faith-based claims shows that ID is false, I would have committed the genetic fallacy. Intelligent Design may well be true, regardless of whether it depends on faith. I simply have not been provided the evidence to convince me that ID is true.

      As for Dr. Dembski’s work, I have read a few of his papers on information retention in computer search algorithms, and I listened to a presentation he gave a couple years ago at an Apologetics conference that a friend hosted, but I have not yet read his books.

  3. “Cosmology is faith based.” I don’t believe that, but lets see how that statement fits into your concluding paragraph. My additions in all capitals.

    “The simple truth of the matter is that proponents of Intelligent Design (COSOMOLOGY) are presupposing, based on their particular faith, that a mechanism exists by which an intelligent agent (UNKNOWN LAW OF PHYSICS) can design nature (AND CREATE THE UNIVERSE). They give absolutely no scientific evidence that this is the case. Since Intelligent Design (COSMOLOGY) requires that both the intelligent agent (LAW OF PHYSICS) and the mechanism by which it acts exist, and since the belief that such an agent and mechanism (LAW OF PHYSICS) exist is not based upon any observable science, we must come to the conclusion that the belief is based upon faith. Despite Melissa Cain Travis’ (THIS AUTHOR’S) protestations to the contrary, Intelligent Design (COSMOLOGY)is not simply an observable scientific model which happens to lend evidence to religious claims, similar to Lemaitre’s work. Intelligent Design (COSMOLOGY) is a movement which presents, as its central claim, an inherently faith-based assertion (THAT THE UNIVERSE BEGAN FROM A SINGULARITY THAT HAS NO SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION).”

    And paraphrasing an earlier paragraph: Although there are hundreds of peer reviewed articles explaining the expansion of the universe from a singularity, how many of them propose a mechanism of how the singularity came into existence and from what? If any do, how many of those can be scientifically tested?

    Not a single one.

    • Thanks for your reply, Bernie.

      Unfortunately, I think both of your analogies are a bit flawed. I’m going to quote you, below, but replacing the original phrases with your parenthetical suggestions, for clarity’s sake. If any of my replacements are not as you intended, please let me know.

      The simple truth of the matter is that proponents of COSOMOLOGY are presupposing, based on their particular faith, that a mechanism exists by which an UNKNOWN LAW OF PHYSICS can design nature AND CREATE THE UNIVERSE.

      This is incorrect. Cosmological physicists hypothesize mechanisms by which the universe came into existence. There are a few key differences between Mainstream Cosmology and Intelligent Design. Primarily, mainstream cosmologists do not propose that a model which is wholly devoid of any mechanistic descriptions should be accepted and taught by the scientific community. Let’s take String Theory, as an example. Firstly, String Theory researchers will be the first people to tell you that their work remains highly speculative and should not be thought of as the “correct” model, as of yet. They fully admit that the entire concept may be completely wrong. Contrast this with ID proponents, who argue that there is definite evidence of design in nature, and who rarely– if ever– admit that the entire concept of Intelligent Design rests upon assumptions for which neither data nor models exist, and therefore may be completely false.

      Furthermore, the research done by physicists never suggest that a particular mechanism should be preferred over others without first defining and modelling that mechanism. Even in the aforementioned, highly-speculative String Theory research, researchers attempt to model direct relations between superstrings and quantum objects. Again, contrast this with Intelligent Design proponents, whose research has yet to propose any actual model by which ID can be effected, and instead concentrates solely on perceived flaws in other models.

      Finally, when physicists propose a model, they also propose ways in which that model might be falsified. If we come to observe datum X, then hypothesis Y is shown to be false. Intelligent Design proponents do not offer any method of falsifying their claims, and often completely admit that their propositions are inherently unfalsifiable.

      And paraphrasing an earlier paragraph: Although there are hundreds of peer reviewed articles explaining the expansion of the universe from a singularity, how many of them propose a mechanism of how the singularity came into existence and from what? If any do, how many of those can be scientifically tested?

      Not a single one.

      This is a false analogy. I never said that ID is unscientific because it does not attempt to explain how the Intelligent Designer came into existence. I said that ID is unscientific because it does not attempt to explain how things are Intelligently Designed. All of those hundreds of papers you mentioned do explicitly propose models by which the universe expanded from a singularity. They propose and defend the mechanisms by which such expansion could occur and could result in the effects we currently observe in the universe. Intelligent Design does not propose any mechanism by which purported design could occur and could result in the effects we currently observe in the universe.

      • Perhaps I didn’t make my analogy clear.

        “All of those hundreds of papers you mentioned do explicitly propose models by which the universe expanded from a singularity. They propose and defend the mechanisms by which such expansion could occur and could result in the effects we currently observe in the universe”

        When I was referring to cosmology, I was talking about the very beginning of the Universe. The part of cosmology that states there was singularity, then all the rest. But where did the singularity come from? What law(s) of physics existed prior to the existence of the singularity? As far as I have ever read, we can not test any theories we might come up with. I am not a scientist of any kind. But I have done some reading on the Standard Model at a lay level. I am not aware of any paper that claims we can scientifically test how the singularity came into existence or what physics there were before it did. My point had nothing to do with string theory or any other theory that we can test based on laws now in operation. It is not even proper to speak of something “before” the singularity because there wasn’t time.

        • You are absolutely correct. We do not know if there is such a thing as “before” the Big Bang– and if there is, we have no way, currently, of possibly understanding it.

          However, that is in no way analogous to Intelligent Design. Cosmology does not make any definite claims about those things which exist beyond the data we have collected. Physicists do not attempt to say that they have any knowledge of whatever may exist outside of the physical cosmos. On the other hand, ID proponents quite often appeal to some entity which they assert must transcend the bounds of our physical universe, despite the fact that no observable data can demonstrate such a being’s existence.

  4. I think you already know that I don’t believe that ID is purely faith based or only used by faith based people. Alien folks use it but we might also use it ourselves as science does indeed use ID in certain biological sciences. Also not all theist appeal to an outside the universe force. I for instance don’t have a view of God that transcends time or possess powers that don’t actually exist. ID I think my be improperly coincided with religion as it is not always religion that motivates a person to believe in ID. Some scientists have made the observation that evolution does not always explain things well or as well as ID at times. The other problem with this debate is often I see the battle lines drawn to the point that it might be considered that both are possible. I know theistic evolution is not as popular as it once was but it does at least give us another option to consider. My point is there is simply too much we do not know to make a claim without reservation one way or the other.

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