Intelligent design: Religion or science?


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 07 December 2005 Updated: A small revision, thanks to the suggestion of Rob Dale, about changing the value of pi.

As usual, this is my opinion. Comments and challenges will be presented herein as an Appendix (!) if the authors are willing to have them published. along with my reply. Otherwise, don't waste my time and yours. My email is

The theory of intelligent design (ID) holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection. ID is thus a scientific disagreement with the core claim of evolutionary theory that the apparent design of living systems is an illusion.

- from an Intelligent Design Website


"Intelligent design" (or ID) is not a scientific disagreement at all. It's yet another thinly-veiled attempt to inject religion into the science classroom. Must we constantly relive the Scopes Trial of 1925? ID has been described (by John Stewart) as the science of using the concepts central to science to discredit science - your basic logical contradiction.

But let's ignore that aspect of the issue for a moment and consider what this whole debate boils down to: disputing science when scientific investigation calls religious dogma into question. This has a long history and no doubt extends well into prehistory. When science and religion clash, religion is forced to respond. Typical religious responses in an earlier era included: excommunication, imprisonment, torture, and even death for someone advocating a point of view that disputed religious dogma. Hopefully, Western society has advanced beyond that, although some fundamentalists might be willing to reinstitute such methods if they could. Apparently, in fundamentalist Islam, calling their dogma into question can result in such extreme treatment (as in Salman Rushdie - to name but one example), so some of our home-grown fundamentalist Christians share that propensity with their Islamist counterparts. Imagine if scientific conflicts created calls for true believers to murder those who espoused opposing beliefs! That certainly would transform science!

The fundamental aspect of religious faith is that faith itself. Faith is basically the acceptance of something without question. You're expected to believe even when there's no evidence. In fact, you're asked to believe especially when evidence is lacking. Science, on the other hand, is the antithesis of faith. Everything in science is open to question, including fundamental assumptions. Evidence is at the heart of scientific investigation, so blindly accepting a concept is profoundly antiscientific. If you use your religious beliefs in the conduct of your investigations, then that investigation can't be a part of science but becomes an act of religious faith.  It's not just flawed science, then - it's outside of the domain of science. There are many who seek to reconcile this chasm that divides religion and science, but it just can't be bridged.

Thus, despite the bogus claims of the ID idiots, the issue isn't simply one of alternative interpretations of the evidence. It's fundamentally about whether or not religious dogma has a place in a scientific investigation and should be taught in science classrooms. The answer to that question is resoundingly negative. Intelligent design is another in an apparently unending series of attacks on evolutionary biology. The attacks will go on so long as religion sees science as offering questions to religious dogma, which it does in the case of evolutionary biology.

The scientific method

I've written elsewhere about how science really works.  It's a human endeavor, with all that that entails - its practitioners are humans, and humans have a number of shortcomings compared with the ideals of science.  In spite of religion and science being irreconcilably different, it's possible for someone of faith to be a successful scientist - provided they don't inject their religious beliefs into their scientific investigations.

How come there's no call for religious themes to be offered in meteorology classrooms? There's little reason for religious sects to confront meteorology with notions of supernatural control of the weather , because meteorological principles apparently don't clash directly with religious dogma in any way that bothers religious fanatics.  Evolutionary biology, on the other hand, directly contradicts Biblical descriptions of the way human beings were created.  Any attempt to incorporate the notion of a supernatural hand that guides the process of evolution into biology is simply a smokescreen to avoid the inevitable confrontation between science and religion on this topic.  If, in fact, there's a Creator's hand guiding evolution, that information would still be of no relevance in science.  It might be a nice way for a person of faith who's also an evolutionary biologist to reconcile the contradiction between her work and her religion, but the presence of that guiding hand cannot become part of her scientific investigations. It's simply not subject to the sort of questioning and evidentiary debate that characterizes true scientific investigation.  It would be equivalent of trying to "explain" meteorological events in terms of supernatural intervention in weather.  Such would be a transparent attempt to inject religion into meteorology and would be properly labeled as fundamentally unscientific.  And even if it's true, it offers no insight into atmospheric processes - it's simply a pat answer that is strictly a matter of personal belief. Religion is a valid way to view the world, but it offers no insight into the processes that science seeks to understand.  Science is built on skepticism whereas religion is built on faith.  Those are diametrically-opposed ways to view the world.  Whenever and wherever they confront one another, a scientist cannot use a religious belief in a scientific investigation.

There's no simple recipe that can describe "the scientific method" - any practicing scientist should understand this, although apparently some do not. The basic notion of skepticism regarding interpretations of the data allows any scientist to conduct a critical investigation of any existing consensus interpretation in science.  However, that skepticism doesn't and can't include the use of a supernatural "explanation" for the evidence.  To base the criticism of existing consensus on religious beliefs is not admissible in science - science seeks evidence and the consistency of any theoretical understanding with that evidence.  The notion that science is also based on faith is clearly a misinterpretation of how science works.  Logically, it might be considered an article of faith to believe in the use of evidence, but it seems to me that these two systems - religion and science - have this as their fundamental divide.  One side believes only in the evidence and considers all explanations provisional, the other has the prototypical deus ex machina by which all contradictions and interpretations of data are reconciled: "God works in mysterious ways."  This isn't an explanation at all, it's a facile way to answer all the mysteries of the world and the universe.  This issue is one reason I'm no longer a Christian (there are others) - my interest in asking questions was limited by those practicing Christianity.  I was told not to be a "Doubting Thomas" but simply to have faith.  As a budding scientist, this sounded like horseshit to me and it still does.

Some ID advocates use specious arguments about the Second Law of Thermodynamics to confront evolutionary theory.  They argue that it's just as impossible for a smashed watch to re-assemble itself as it is for nonliving elements to assemble themselves into living things.  Well, if you smash a living creature, no evolutionary biologist would argue that it's possible for it to re-assemble itself, either.  However, given that existing understanding does not allow us to re-create the effect of billions of years of time in the laboratory, the fact that we still don't know precisely how life was assembled from non-living elements, we have made considerable progress in learning how it might have happened.  We have used evolution to develop some basic notions about the means by which watchbuilders came into existence.  What value to science does incorporating a deus ex machina offer?  None whatsoever.  It sweeps away any thought of understanding a process with the pat explanation: "It was God who did it."  That leads nowhere, scientifically. .It's not an explanation - it's a dead end.

Perhaps it is arrogant for we mere mortals to believe we can understand such the mysteries of the world.  But if you look at how much progress science has made in the last few hundred years, is it not plausible to suggest that understanding is not completely beyond our grasp?  If we try and fail, that's one thing.  We can continue to try, of course.  But the injection of religious dogma into science removes any reason even to try.  Take it all on faith.  The Bible (or the Koran, or the Talmud, or whatever) contains all you need to know.  That's all the explanation you're going to get.  Don't continue to ask questions.  Don't doubt the literal truth of Holy Writ.  Don't ask for evidence, because it won't be forthcoming.

This is the antithesis of science and wherever it might belong - it isn't part of science and shouldn't be incorporated in science classrooms.  If state or national elected officials try to legislate what science is to scientists and in school classrooms, then that speaks more about how inadequate our science education really is than about the resolution of a the conflict between religion and science.  This makes as little sense as the apparently apocryphal story about a legislature passing a bill changing pi (the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter) from 3.14159 ... to 3.0.

How intelligent is this design, anyway?

If you look without the filter of religious dogma at life on this planet, you inevitably come up with a lot of things about the design of creatures that seem pretty ... well ...quite a bit less than ideal.  The appendix is frequently cited as an example of how evolution works.  We're born with an appendix that serves no useful purpose and, in fact, is prone to potentially fatal infections, as leftover baggage from an earlier time, when it perhaps did have some function to perform.  We walk on two legs and have our hands free to create, but wouldn't it make more sense to walk on three or four legs (more stable) and still have our two hands (with the opposable thumbs) free?  If I were designing humans, I wouldn't give us an appendix and I'd give us a more stable platform on which to operate our hands.  I'm sure evolutionary biologists could point to numerous other examples of how evolution has left us saddled with many deficiencies in our design that any omniscient Creator would snicker about.  The fact is that the structure of the world and the universe contains not only examples of exquisite functionality but also of profoundly dysfunctional elements.  The religious answer is inevitably "God works in mysterious ways," and invites dropping any discussion of those elements that contradict their dogma,  but science seeks to unite these apparently disparate elements with overarching understanding of the processes that can explain both the functional and the dysfunctional on the basis of whatever evidence we can muster.

Relevant to my previous example, I suppose an intelligent Creator would have used a value of 3 for pi, too!  There are many, many examples where reality is certainly inconvenient.  It would be a lot easier to understand the Universe if nonlinear differential equations had easy solutions.  Couldn't an omnipotent Creator have created a more sensible world by giving us mathematics that was a lot simpler, without all the messy stuff that's so hard to understand?

Furthermore, if God in fact gifted us (or at least some of us) with the intelligence to develop answers from observations, why discourage us from using it?  Or, more particularly, why discourage it primarily in the science of evolutionary biology and virtually none of the other sciences?  Most of the processes that science can now explain were once mysterious well beyond our understanding.  Carl Sagan pointed out that even as recently as two or three generations ago, stars were a profound mystery.  We didn't know what they were, we didn't know how far away they were, we didn't  have a clue what mechanism produced their light.  Now, all that has changed because scientists have pursued the dream of one day having such understanding.  To suggest that stars are simply decorations hung in the sky for mysterious reasons by some supernatural being, or whatever, is to discourage the process that gave us this understanding.  Whatever religion has to say about the internal workings of stars is apparently not of sufficient importance to support a movement to put religion into astrophysics courses.   Only in evolutionary biology.

Problems with evolutionary theory?

It's absurd for the advocates of ID to cite the inadequacies of existing understanding to argue that ID is a viable alternative as science to evolutionary biology.  That viewpoint betrays their stubborn and willful ignorance about how science works.  No science is complete and without gaps and flaws in the existing consensus.  Science is a human construct and it makes no pretense to supernatural superiority (unlike the advocates of religious dogma).  We argue constantly about what is the current consensus, but to offer religious teachings as the deus ex machina to solve all the problems is both scientifically impermissible and logically a cop-out.

The fact is that evolutionary biology has made considerable progress since Darwin first proposed the basic principles of evolution.  The explanatory capability of modern evolutionary theory is far greater than Darwin could have imagined.  His heirs have gone far.  If the existing understanding is less than comprehensively perfect in all aspects, this leaves evolutionary biology in precisely the same situation as all the other sciences - imperfect and incomplete, but capable of providing deep insights into how the world actually works.  Most of the consensus science in evolutionary biology, like that in other sciences, has been tested rigorously and found consistent with the data over and over.  Not only is the intrusion of religious beliefs into science unwelcome, but it's unnecessary.  For all the gaps and problems with existing consensus science, it has shown itself to be of value not only in terms of explanatory power, but in concrete practical applications that serve our society every day. Religious dogma gives us nothing of the sort. It simply provides an answer with no practical value.

Some ID advocates accept the reality of "microevolution" - at the viral and bacterial level, where the short interval between generations of those living things permits the acquisition of clear and convincing evidence of the basic correctness of evolutionary biological principles.  But they dispute that evolution works on the "macro" scale - most particularly on the scale of human beings.  This is logically absurd.   Why should evolution work only on the "micro" scale?   If it works there, it seems logical to me to assume that it works on all scales unless hard evidence shows otherwise. That hard evidence is lacking. 

That evolutionary biology can't provide all the answers is no reason to abandon it in favor of a deus ex machina. Although we can't forecast the weather perfectly, we're vastly better at it than even 50 years ago. Gaps in our scientific understanding of the weather are not being used to suggest we use supernatural explanations to fill those gaps. No one is advocating, on the basis of the incompleteness of our meteorological understanding, that we present as a viable scientific alternative to the governing equations in meteorology some vague and useless statement about how God controls the weather! Why should we do so in evolutionary biology? The obvious answer: We shouldn't.


ID is just another in a long series of attempts to discredit evolutionary biology in favor of religious dogma. It is not a scientifically valid alternative hypothesis, despite such claims by ID advocates. If someone wants to reject evolution as an explanation for how living creatures such as humans arose, that's up to them, but it's definitely and beyond question not a valid scientific interpretation of the existing evidence.