Objections to Intelligent Design

We have already considered a few objections to specific design arguments. In this section, we’ll examine several objections to design hypotheses in general and to the ID movement as a whole. Some of the most common objections, unfortunately, arise from misunderstandings or mischaracterizations of the ID movement, so let’s dispense with those common mistakes before moving on to more interesting objections.

Creationism in Disguise

One common objection alleges that ID is merely “creationism in disguise” or, condescendingly, “creationism in a cheap tuxedo.”To my knowledge, the latter epithet originated with paleontologist Leonard Krishtalka, quoted by reporter Peter Slevin in his Washington Post article “Teachers, Scientists Vow to Fight Challenge to Evolution” (May 5, 2005). This popular myth depicts the ID movement as a disingenuous attempt to rebrand religious creationism in an alleged ploy to circumvent legal prohibitions against teaching creationism in public schools. The myth apparently originated with a highly-publicized court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, where the ACLU sued a public school district for making ID-promoting literature available to students in the library (and for advertising those resources with a brief disclaimer in evolutionary biology class). Although the plaintiffs succeeding in convincing a federal district judge that ID is creationism masquerading in non-religious language, the ruling was so fraught with factual errors and misrepresentations that even an atheist philosopher of science wrote a scathing rebuttal to the judge’s opinion.Bradley Monton, “Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision,” (Preprint, 2006), available here.

Even if it were true that creationist literature was surreptitiously smuggled into a public school library, moreover, that would cast no aspersion on the ID movement. The movement originated with a small group of scientists years before the Dover incident, in response to discoveries and theoretical developments in cosmology and biology.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 The Dover Area School District acted independently of any major ID organizations, and none of the leading exponents of ID were involved in the school’s decisions. The charge that ID is a disingenuous political gambit is itself a baseless accusation, bordering on defamation.

God of the Gaps

Another misconceived objection alleges that the ID movement commits a so-called God of the gaps fallacy—the mistake of attributing natural phenomena to divine action wherever there are “gaps” in our current scientific understanding.See this BioLogos article for further discussion and examples of “God of the gaps” fallacies. The historical accuracy of the article’s central example (involving Isaac Newton) is debated, however. For a challenge to the historicity of that example, see Stephen C. Meyer, Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe (New York: HarperOne, 2021), 469-471; also his footnote 32. This is similar to the “argument from ignorance” accusation leveled against Behe’s argument from irreducible complexity, which we examined previously. By now, it should be obvious that these objections misrepresent the ID movement. We have already seen that arguments for design are not mere arguments from ignorance, nor are design hypotheses simple stopgaps for unanswered scientific questions. They are serious-minded attempts to understand the world in light of the evidence we have, using careful reasoning and empirical methods like those employed in other areas of scientific inquiry.

Commendably, some critics of ID are more scrupulous in formulating their objections. Evolutionary creationist Deborah Haarsma is careful not to accuse ID theorists of fallacious reasoning. Nevertheless, she contends, the ID movement “shares the risks of ‘god of the gaps’ arguments: If scientists discover a natural explanation for the phenomenon attributed to design, then the ID argument fails.”Deborah B. Haarsma, “Response from Evolutionary Creation,” in J.B. Stump and Stanley N. Gundry (eds.), Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 223. What “risks” does Haarsma have in mind, besides the mere failure of an ID argument? Although she does not explicitly identify the risks in this context, I suspect she is referring to the impact of such a failure on the Christian community. As renowned geneticist and evolutionary creationist Francis Collins warns: “Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps.”Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), 93. So, if I understand Haarsma correctly, her worry is that the ID movement is setting up its adherents for a crisis of faith if its arguments fail. Even granting that the arguments are based on today’s best scientific evidence (rather than resting on ignorance or “gaps” in our understanding), they are liable to failure as new evidence accumulates.

Haarsma is right, of course, that new discoveries might falsify certain design hypotheses or show the premises of a design argument to be incorrect. Fair enough. Christians ought to be cautious about basing our faith on philosophical arguments, especially arguments whose premises rest on our current scientific understanding of the world. But similar objections can be raised against any argument (whether it is an argument for God’s existence, or for any other conclusion) whose premises are based on contemporary science. All such arguments are at risk of refutation when new discoveries are made. As the history of science betrays, scientific consensus often shifts dramatically, rendering old science-based arguments obsolete. This is hardly a reason for thinking that arguments for design are riskier than arguments for evolutionary creationism, or for any other view.

Suppose the entire church embraced evolutionary creationism (Haarsma’s own view) as the only credible Christian perspective, but then the theory of evolution was challenged by new discoveries (e.g., by the exhumation of a Precambrian rabbit fossil, to use a hackneyed illustration).When asked whether any new discoveries could possibly refute the theory of evolution, biologist J. B. S. Haldane famously quipped that “a Precambrian rabbit” would do the trick. This might very well lead to a crisis of faith in just the same way. The prudent thing to do, if we want to avoid needless crises, is to remain open-minded about scientific evidence and the many possible ways in which God may have accomplished His creative work.