The term “Intelligent Design” (ID) refers to the scientific position that certain observable aspects of the natural world, especially (but not limited to) particular complex biological systems, are best explained as the result of an intelligent cause. Intelligent Design proponents reach this conclusion first by observing features in nature that bear the distinctive marks we know to be associated with intelligence (and with no other causes), and then by testing the adequacy of other possible explanations and demonstrating that unplanned, non-intelligent causes are implausible. Thus, the Intelligent Design position involves both a positive argument (there is evidence that purposeful intelligence is the cause) and a negative argument (there are good reasons to reject a blind, purposeless cause).
While many ID proponents personally believe that the intelligent cause behind these natural phenomena is God, they insist that such a conclusion cannot be reached based on the observable scientific data alone and that therefore the conclusion that God is the designer is not a part of the Intelligent Design position. ID proponents try to limit themselves, as much as is possible, to what can be inferred from scientific evidence alone apart from philosophical, historical, or theological considerations. Indeed, some ID proponents are agnostic and remain unconvinced that God exists, much less that ID necessarily implies His existence. Nevertheless, critics of Intelligent Design typically dismiss ID as “religion” and deny that it qualifies as a scientific hypothesis.
Biology and design
The idea that biological systems at least appear to have been designed for a purpose is not itself controversial. Even evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins famously wrote:
“Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”[fn]Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (W.W. Norton & Company, 1986) 1[/fn]
Of course, Dawkins goes on to argue that this appearance is deceiving. While such systems seem designed, mainstream Darwinian evolutionists argue that this appearance actually arises due to the blind, natural process of natural selection acting on random mutations. As Dawkins goes on to explain:
“Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the illusion of design and planning.”1
Even here, Dawkins freely admits that the impression of design and planning in biology is “overwhelming,” but contends that, in spite of this, the evidence points to an unplanned, accidental process that operates on natural law without any need for (or evidence of) purpose, intelligence, or foresight of any kind. Thus, he elsewhere writes:
“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”2
Many object to Dawkins’ conclusions and to his moral philosophy here. The Intelligent Design position, however, objects specifically to his handling of the scientific data. ID proponents contend that rigorous scientific analysis actually supports the idea that life is purposeful, that biology looks designed because it actually is designed, that ours is not the sort of world we would expect if there was no intelligent planning and purpose to it, and that there is scientific evidence of that.
Defining intelligent design
So what is the ID position? The New World Encyclopedia defines it as follows:
“Intelligent design (ID) is the view that it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection”3
Thus, it is not merely the belief that the natural world is designed, but rather the position that such design is detectable through the scientific process and empirical evidence. It is the hypothesis that an intelligent cause is the best explanation of the scientific data for at least certain aspects of life and the universe. As another encyclopedia explains:
“Intelligent Design studies features of objects that signal the action of an intelligent cause. Designed objects, like Mount Rushmore, exhibit characteristic features that point to an intelligence. Such features or patterns constitute signs of intelligence. Proponents of intelligent design, known as design theorists, purport to study such signs formally, rigorously, and scientifically. Intelligent design may therefore be defined as the science that studies signs of intelligence.”4
The Discovery Institute, the leading organization in Intelligent Design research, further explains:
“Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion”5
Intelligent Design is a scientific position that endeavors to limit itself to what can be said only from the empirical data. As biochemist Michael Behe notes:
“The conclusion of intelligent design flows naturally from the data itself – not from sacred books or sectarian beliefs. Inferring that biochemical systems were designed by an intelligent agent is a humdrum process that requires no new principles of logic or science. it comes simply from the hard work that biochemistry has done over the past forty years, combined with consideration of the way in which we reach conclusions of design every day.”6
While Christians (and various other religious groups, for that matter) certainly agree with the central premise that life is intelligently designed, the ID movement does not align in its methods nor in all of its specific conclusions with Christianity (or any other religion.) It is a strictly scientific project that does not view the scientific data through the lens of biblical revelation nor a Christian worldview. Thus, while Christians can appreciate a lot of what is found in ID research, and indeed some ID proponents are professing Christians, the ID movement as a whole does not always reflect a biblical Christian worldview and should not be seen by Christians (or outsiders, for that matter) as a form of Christian apologetics or a distinctly Christian project. Christians must be critical when evaluating the claims in ID literature and read them (as with anything else) in light of God’s perfect, infallible, and unchanging word.
Is Intelligent Design just religious creationism in disguise?
Despite the insistence by Intelligent Design proponents that their work is strictly scientific and not religious, secular opponents of ID often dismiss the movement as merely being “fundamentalist creationism” in disguise. This filters down to other claims about the movement as well.
For example, ID proponents are always very clear that they do not believe that their work demonstrates the existence of God. The ID movement includes agnostic scientists and even among those who do profess faith in God, they argue that God cannot be proven by science. Science can only tell us that the cause of certain features of life and the universe is intelligent and purposeful. According to the ID movement, who or what that intelligence is remains beyond the reach of science and must be answered, if at all, in some other way. Thus, while ID proponents acknowledge that Intelligent Design is consistent with the existence of God, design theorists insist that their research, but itself, does not prove or even necessarily imply God’s existence.
Despite such claims by all the prominent figures in the ID movement, critics remain unconvinced, and popular sources tend to reflect such criticism. The Wikipedia article on Intelligent Design, for example, opens:
“Intelligent design (ID) is a pseudoscientific argument for the existence of God”7
Similarly, many Intelligent Design proponents actually accept the Darwinian claim that all life evolved from a single common ancestor and claim only that natural processes alone are insufficient to explain that process and an intelligent cause must have been involved at key points (a point that rightly makes many traditional Christian readers of ID literature more than a bit uncomfortable). Yet, the Encyclopedia Britannica ignores this and claims that Intelligent Design is an “argument intended to demonstrate that living organisms were created in more or less their present forms by an ‘intelligent designer.’”8
Thus, secular critics of ID generally have to ignore not only what ID proponents say but even misrepresent the details of their position so as to claim that Intelligent Design is simply religious creationism in disguise. Ironically, actual creationists pay much more attention to the details of the Intelligent Design position and are quick to warn their readers not to uncritically accept ID literature as a biblical or Christian perspective. As one prominent creationist ministry writes regarding the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM):
“IDM is not a Christian movement, although there are many Christians within the movement. Recall that IDM exists primarily to refute Darwinian evolution. It does not exist to promote Christianity or biblical creation.”9
Creation Ministries International likewise warns its readers that “prominent figures in the IDM reject or are hostile to biblical creation.”10 and the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) similarly explains:
“IDM analyzes and describes the natural creation in a way that implies credit to an anonymous ‘someone.’ But a biblical creationist is quick to actually identify nature’s Designer as the God of the Bible. When He came to earth as a baby, His own creation, for the most part, refused to welcome Him–there was no room for Him in the inn. Today, although some individual adherents acknowledge Him, there is little room for Jesus in the Intelligent Design Movement as a whole, and there is certainly no room for His absolutely true and inspired book, the Holy Bible…If our scientific study of creation (or our teaching about that creation) only focuses on creation’s ‘intelligent design,’ without identifying who designed it, we are guilty of appreciating and glorifying the creation itself more than the Creator.”11
Answers in Genesis reminds its followers that Intelligent Design “cannot be used to prove the existence of the biblical God. However, evidence of design is certainly consistent with the biblical God. Design is what we would expect when we accept the Bible as our starting point.”12 Thus, they recognize that, in so far as Intelligent Design research points to an intelligent cause, creationists may find some value in ID research. Still, there is plainly a different “starting point,” and often a different set of conclusions between creationism and ID. One creationist ministry says with cautious optimism that:
“God, who used even the pagan king Cyrus for His purposes, may use the IDM.”13
But even here, ID is certainly not regarded as a kindred movement within creationism. It is viewed as something outside of biblical Christianity that, nevertheless, God may use for His good purposes.
Intelligent Design is not creationism.
Intelligent Design is a scientific movement that researches the kinds of effects that distinctively result from intelligent causes and then, finding those causes in nature, posits that those aspects of nature result from an intelligent cause. Though often labeled as a religious and creationist position, it is neither. Indeed, the movement sometimes draws conclusions and makes assertions contrary to a biblical worldview and certainly to a creationist perspective. Christians may benefit from some of the work coming out of the ID movement, but should also be critical and discerning when reading or listening to it (as they should with anything else). Still, with our guard up and biblical lenses firmly in place, there are valuable scientific facts that Christians can learn from ID researchers.
1↑ Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, (W.W. Norton & Company, 1986) 21.
2↑ Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: The Darwinian View of Life (Basic Books, 1995) 133.
3↑ https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Intelligent_design (Accessed 7/19/2022)
8↑ https://www.britannica.com/topic/intelligent-design (Accessed 7/19/2022)
10↑, 13↑ https://creation.com/cmis-views-on-the-intelligent-design-movement (Accessed 7/19/2022)
11↑ https://www.icr.org/article/intelligent-designer-movement (Accessed 7/19/2022)