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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Understanding Intelligent Design

One of the hot-button issues Christians face today is the conflict over evolution. Proponents of a naturalist/materialist worldview have sought to explain all of life's origin and complexity in purely mechanistic terms. Christians believe that life originates with God and the laws He put in place. Because of this, the argument has been framed as a one of science versus religion, but that dichotomy is a false one. Religion doesn't sit in contrast to science and evolution has many unexplained precepts that are assumed to be true.

There is another way of looking at the question, though. We can simply look at the data we do have and ask "is life more likely to be the result of only mechanistic processes, or does it show the earmarks of an intelligence?" This isn't a religious question; whenever forensic investigators discover a body, it is the question they ask. Does the evidence show that the person died of natural causes or was there an intelligence who set things in a certain order to cause the person's death? If the answer is there seems to be an intelligence at work, then the death is classified as a homicide, even if no one know who the killer was.

Similarly, if we look at the evidence for origin and complexity of life on earth and see signs of an intelligence, it makes sense to conclude that life was intelligently designed, even if that investigation doesn't identify who the designer is. This is the basis of intelligent design and it is what separates ID as a theory from a religious belief.

A couple of years ago, some students wished to interview me for a project they were working on concerning the theory of intelligent design. I thought they asked pretty good questions that help to clarify just what intelligent design is and why it is worthy of inclusion in science education, so I thought I'd share them here.

1. Do you consider intelligent design a scientific theory? Why or why not?

Yes, in a broad sense. Scientific theories try to discover and explain why we see the material world the way it is, how it functions and what predictions can be made based on that knowledge. Intelligent design wrestles with those same questions starting with the same evidence.

A very famous proponent of evolution, Dr. Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, had published his theory on how evolution is the driving force behind the complexity we see in living organisms today in a book called The Blind Watchmaker. Given the same initial starting point, intelligent design proponents argue that the blind watchmaker hypothesis has many problems and intelligent design offers better explanatory value and broader explanatory scope than Dawkins’ model.

Given that both theories are seeking to answer the same questions and they are looking at the same evidence, it stands to reason that both can be classified as the same field of study. If Dawkins’ evolutionary model is considered science, so should ID. ID does not need to identify what that intelligence is (e.g. a specific "god" of any faith), but much like forensic science, it simply posits that the evidence is best explained originating from an intelligence rather than random, purposeless mutations and natural selection.

A similar example would be the scientists who are involved with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence project. These scientists search the heavens looking for information rich, complex signals. If they were to hear such a signal, they would posit that it was generated from an intelligent mind. Similarly, ID scientist look at the information rich, complex structure of human DNA and draw the same conclusion. If the SETI researchers are considered scientists and their pursuits are science, then it follows that the ID scientists are similarly doing science.

2. What is your definition of intelligent design? In other words, what do you understand it to mean?

Intelligent design simply looks at the state of living organisms on our world today and, given the fact that life shows specified complexity, holds information-bearing DNA, and the improbability of life coming from non-living matter, concludes that an intelligence is the best explanation for the origin of that life.

The intelligent design movement may include young-earth proponents, old-earth proponents and theistic evolutionists, but it does not argue for any of these positions. It merely states that intelligence rather than randomness is the best explanation for the origin of the universe and complexity we see in life.

3. The Golden Ratio (Phi) has often been cited as evidence of intelligent design. Do you believe this is valid evidence? Why or why not?

No. It would not be uncommon to see certain mathematical ratios repeated throughout a three dimensional universe that share the same physical laws. This "evidence" is not associated with the intelligent design movement, but is offered by only one subset of creation proponents. It is therefore unfair to associate this line of argumentation with all of the ID movement.

4. Should intelligent design be integrated into biology curriculums at schools? Why or why not?

Part of the nature of science is to better our understanding of the world by examining currently held beliefs in the light of new evidence and new theories. We may hold to a theory that has widespread acceptance (such as the infinite age of the universe) until we uncover new evidence (such as Hubbell’s red-shift) which argues for the universe having a beginning. At that point, it is in the best interests of science to jettison the theory that provides less explanatory values and smaller explanatory scope for a more robust one.

The ONLY way science can advance is by examining competing theories in this way. Given that the blind watchmaker hypothesis has some clear problems explaining certain facets of biology, such as the specific nature of DNA, the creation of life from non-living matter and the observation of irreducibly complex mechanisms within living organisms, it cannot be considered a complete theory and other ideas should be sought out. We may find new evidence to further secure the current hypothesis OR we may find new evidence to disprove it and adopt a model such as intelligent design. However, to not teach the valid objections to evolution that ID proponents have raised does science no service and actually will hinder our growth in understanding of biology.

   4a. Is it supported by valid scientific evidence?

ID scientists are real scientists and their objections to the blind watchmaker hypothesis have been found through valid scientific research. Some examples are:
  • The fact that amino acids which make up the building blocks of life have chirality (handedness). Although they appear in nature in equal proportions, those found in life are left-handed. Random bonds in the "primordial soup" would not generate all bonds of a single handed set of amino acids.
  • Evolution argues that natural selection leaves only those changes that provide beneficial to the organism and these changes happen in small, successive steps. However, the recent recognition of irreducibly complex systems (such as the flagellum, of an e. Coli bacterium, which requires over seventy different molecular parts) that have to be present all at the same time argue against such small successive steps.

5. What are your views on evolution? Is it credible scientific theory?

It depends. The word has been over-used and normally is not clearly defined.  Micro-evolution, the idea that with a species adaptations occur within specific limitations (such as the length of finch beaks, the color of moths, or the height of dogs) is widely accepted and uncontroversial. That is credible. That makes sense.

Macro-evolution, however, doesn’t deal with the evolution of a species within itself, but rather the evolution of one family turning into another completely different family (i.e. a fish evolving into a reptile). The DNA required to produce a feather is different from the DNA required to produce a scale, and since DNA is a message system containing information, one should not assume that such information arose by chance. By its very nature, information is not random, but purposeful.

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