Chapter 12: Intelligent Design

The Intelligent Design Movement

The preceding chapter examined what the Bible reveals about creation, and we encountered three main varieties of biblical creationism that differ in their interpretations of scripture. Christians also hold widely varying opinions about the interpretation of scientific evidence, especially the evidence for biological evolution, as we saw previously. While the most salient differences between creationist perspectives concern scriptural exegesis and the evidence for evolution, however, these are not the only relevant issues. Some of the most fundamental disagreements concern the nature of science itself. Questions about scientific methodology and scientific explanation, especially, are at the center of disputes surrounding the increasingly popular intelligent design (ID) movement, which will be our focus in this chapter.

Unlike biblical creationism, the ID movement is not an exclusively Christian enterprise, though many of its leading advocates are Christians. Moreover, its central claim is not about the Bible or even about God, but about scientific explanation. As you may recall from the brief summary given earlier, advocates of ID hold that the best scientific explanation for some features of nature involves intelligent causation rather than unguided natural processes. To evaluate that claim, we need to consider not only the evidence from nature but also the nature of science itself. What counts as a scientific explanation, and what makes one scientific explanation better than another? These crucial questions about the nature of science will take us into the final chapter of this book. First, however, I want to introduce the ID movement more fully and clarify some of the main controversies between proponents of ID and their critics.

For discussion of the origin and history of the ID movement, see Stephen Meyer’s essay “A Scientific History and Philosophical Defense of the Theory of Intelligent Design

I refer to intelligent design as a movement rather than a theory, despite the fact that many of its key contributors call their position “the theory of intelligent design” or “intelligent design theory.”See, for instance, Stephen C. Meyer’s essay “A Scientific History and Philosophical Defense of the Theory of Intelligent Design,” available here. In avoiding the latter nomenclature, I do not mean to deny that ID involves genuine scientific theories; I merely wish to obviate a common confusion arising from the name. As I understand it, the ID movement does not advocate just one theory but rather a framework for constructing theories, a project that philosophers of science call a scientific paradigm or research program.Some advocates of ID explicitly characterize the movement as a scientific paradigm. For instance, geologist Casey Luskin sees it as “a heuristic—a paradigm that can inspire scientific research and help scientists make new discoveries.” - Luskin, “What Is the Positive Case for Design?” in William Dembski, Casey Luskin, and Joseph Holden (eds.), The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2021), 175. Similarly, philosopher J. P. Moreland writes: “The intelligent design movement is an entire approach to science.” - Moreland, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018). (These concepts will be further explained in chapter 13.) The specific theories or hypotheses generated by the ID movement are numerous and varied, as we’ll see. For this reason, it may be misleading to speak of “the” theory of intelligent design, just as it is misleading to speak of “the” theory of evolution, which really consists of numerous theories in a variety of scientific disciplines.See my Introduction to Chapter 10.

Philosopher of science Stephen Meyer, a preeminent champion of ID, adverts to the plurality of design hypotheses under exploration in the ID movement. In his 2009 book Signature in the Cell, Meyer writes:

Clearly, there are several possible hypotheses about how design played a role in the history of life. Since each of these hypotheses has different empirical consequences, design hypotheses can generate different and competing predictions about what different classes of evidence should show. There is nothing unusual about this, however. Philosophers of science have long recognized that hypotheses generate predictions when they are conjoined with so-called auxiliary hypotheses, that is, other claims or suppositions about the world. In this, design advocates are no different from advocates of other scientific theories. Some may conjoin the hypothesis of design with a monophyletic hypothesis about the history of life; some may conjoin it with a polyphyletic view or with other claims about the world or life (such as the constraints principle of engineering) in order to generate different though still specific and testable predictions.Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 490.

I agree with Meyer’s crucial point that design hypotheses vary in their empirical consequences and predictions. However, I prefer to characterize these hypotheses differently. In my opinion, it’s more illuminating to think of the various design hypotheses not as “auxiliary hypotheses” added to a single theory of ID, but rather as competing theories or hypotheses within a broader research program that is far from homogeneous. Nevertheless, just as the heterogeneity of evolutionary science unifies around a couple of central claims,Viz., the two central claims listed in the introduction to Chapter 10 the ID movement is similarly united by a central idea: namely, that scientific evidence points to mind-directed causation behind many features of the natural world.

We’ll encounter specific examples of design hypotheses later in this chapter, but I won’t survey the full range of such hypotheses here. Instead, I’ll concentrate on two categories of philosophical arguments at the core of ongoing debates about intelligent design: cosmological fine-tuning arguments and biological design arguments. These arguments themselves are not theories or hypotheses. Rather, they are scientifically-informed philosophical arguments intended to show that there is evidence of design in nature. If correct, such arguments may provide good reasons to develop and investigate theories of intelligent design—theories of when, how, or in what specific ways an intelligent designer may have produced certain phenomena we see in nature. After examining some of the main arguments for intelligent design, we’ll also consider several scientific, philosophical, and theological objections that critics have raised against the ID movement.

Cosmological fine-tuning arguments for design

As we saw in Chapter 8, many properties of the universe—including the fundamental laws and constants of physics, the properties of elementary particles, and the initial conditions of the cosmos—appear as though they have been precisely selected, or “finely tuned,” to permit the existence of biological life. The reality of this phenomenon, known as cosmological fine-tuning, is accepted by the majority of cosmologists, astronomers, physicists, and other scientists familiar with the issue. Its explanation, on the other hand, could hardly be more controversial. As cosmologist Luke Barnes and astrophysicist Geraint Lewis humorously observe in their thought-provoking book A Fortunate Universe, discussing the topic in an academic conference is tantamount to igniting a fireworks display:

The fine-tuning of the Universe for life is unique in our experience for the strength of the opinions expressed. In both popular and professional settings, disagreements often become noisy arguments. … Our neat question-and-answer session following a talk dissolves into a town hall meeting. Questions to the speaker are intercepted by the front row, defended on the left, heckled by the back row, and so on. We just light the fuse and enjoy the fireworks.Barnes and Lewis, A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely-Tuned Cosmos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 237.

Even Barnes and Lewis themselves do not agree on the explanation of fine-tuning. Barnes, a Christian, believes God is responsible; his coauthor, Lewis, is an atheist who explains fine-tuning by appeal to the multiverse hypothesis.

The multiverse hypothesis (or, rather, a panoply of multiverse hypotheses) has become the dominant explanation for fine-tuning in secular cosmology. Regardless of whether we take the multiverse explanation seriously, however, many Christians (myself included) think that cosmological fine-tuning constitutes evidence that the universe was designed. Moreover, some non-religious scientists and philosophers concede that fine-tuning is evidence for the existence of God—or, at least, for the idea that an intelligent, transcendent mind was involved in producing the physical world. As we saw in chapter 8, astronomer Fred Hoyle’s own fine-tuning discoveries eventually led him to abandon his atheism.As Hoyle wrote in 1981: “From 1953 onward, Fowler and I have been intrigued by the remarkable relation of the 7.65 MeV energy level in the nucleus of 12C to the 7.12 MeV level in 16O. If you wanted to produce carbon and oxygen in roughly equal quantities by stellar nucleosynthesis, these [resonances] are just the two levels you would have to fix, and your fixing would have to be just about where these levels are actually found to be. Is that another put-up, artificial job? Following the above argument, I am inclined to think so. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Engineering and Science (November 1981), 12. For context, see this page from chapter 8. More recently, in his book Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, Princeton-trained philosopher of science Bradley Monton acknowledges that fine-tuning does provide evidence for a cosmic designer, albeit not enough evidence to dissuade him from atheism.Bradley Monton, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2009), Chapter 3. In the preface, Monton summarizes his perspective on the intelligent design controversy: “Philosophers are trained to be dispassionate evaluators of arguments, so it’s especially unfortunate that so many of the objections that so many philosophers give against intelligent design arguments are unfair, emotionally driven, or not that well thought out. My goal is to do my best to look at matters more objectively. Ultimately, I hold that the intelligent design arguments do not provide that much evidence for the existence of God (or similar designer), but the arguments do have some force—they make me less certain of my atheism than I would be had I not heard the arguments.” (pp. 7-8)

Not all exponents of the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence are associated with the ID movement. Some distance themselves from design hypotheses in biology, and some also reject the ID movement’s central claim about scientific explanation.Although advocates of the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence may regard intelligent design as the best explanation for these features of the cosmos, not all of advocates of the argument regard this explanation as a scientific one. We’ll return to that issue later. Nevertheless, cosmological fine-tuning arguments, if successful, do lend credence to the idea that scientific evidence can, and sometimes does, point toward intelligent design.

In the decades since cosmological fine-tuning was first discovered, some eminent Christian scholars—including scientists like the late Cambridge physicist John Polkinghorne and philosophers like Oxford emeritus professor Richard Swinburne—have argued that the facts of fine-tuning furnish evidence for the existence of God.Polkinghorne gives an informal and accessible fine-tuning argument for God’s existence in Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding (New York: Random House, 1989). Swinburne provides a philosophically rigorous argument from fine-tuning in The Existence of God, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 172-188. Two of the most compelling arguments for an intelligently designed cosmos, in my opinion, have been developed by philosopher of physics Robin Collins. In addition to defending a sophisticated version of the argument for God’s existence based on evidence that the cosmos is fine-tuned for life,Robin Collins, “The Fine-Tuning Evidence is Convincing,” in Debating Christian Theism, Chad Meister, J. P. Moreland, and Khaldoun Sweis, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 35-46; also “The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds. (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 202–81. Collins has also identified numerous ways in which the universe is finely tuned to enable its inhabitants to make profound scientific discoveries. This “fine-tuning for discoverability,” as he calls it, accords beautifully with the theological convictions that engendered the scientific revolution. Unlike fine-tuning for life, moreover, fine-tuning for discoverability cannot be explained by invoking a multiverse.Robin Collins, “The Fine-tuning for Scientific Discovery,” in Robert Stewart, Ed., God and Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 141-168.

I won’t summarize Collins’ fine-tuning arguments here, as the brevity of a summary would require oversimplification that misconstrues the true strength of his arguments. Instead, I’ll briefly present my own simple fine-tuning argument, which—to my knowledge—has not been put forward in quite the same way by any other authors. Though its persuasive force may be less potent than the sophisticated fine-tuning arguments developed by Collins, Swinburne, and others, I hope that my simpler argument will help readers understand why fine-tuning constitutes evidence for a cosmic designer even when we recognize the possibility that our universe may be part of a multiverse.