Intelligent design theory is often dismissed as nonscientific. Is this true?
If intelligent design (ID) can be successfully defined as “religion,” then it can be—and indeed has been—banned from the classroom and often from public discourse.1 However, if ID is defined as “science,” then it opens the door to consider evidence that God exists.2
Since science is synonymous with objective truth, in the minds of most people, labeling ID as “nonscientific” is tantamount to saying it is false. But before we label ID as nonscientific, let’s consider a few things in order to answer our question: 1) how those in the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM) define intelligent design, 2) how science has been defined historically, and 3) how science has been redefined more recently.
Defining Intelligent Design and Science
The Intelligent Design Movement, headquartered at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, defines ID as follows: “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process.”3
Look up the term “science” in any one of several dictionaries and you will find a definition that reads something like this: “Knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.”4 This is the traditional definition of science, one that is both broad and noncontroversial. This is the definition under which the founders of the sciences operated.
However, a philosophical shift has occurred in recent years. Now much of the academic world insists that the definition of science must not only include, but underscore, its commitment to the philosophy of materialism. Materialism is the belief that there is no supernatural reality, only the natural world. Everything—including our thoughts and consciousness—can be reduced to particles in motion.
Eugenia Scott, longtime president of the National Center for Science Education and committed atheist, wrote:
"[Science] must be limited to using just natural forces in its explanations. This is sometimes referred to as the principle of methodological materialism in science: we explain the natural world using only matter, energy, and their interactions (materialism). Scientists use only methodological materialism because it is logical, but primarily because it works. We don’t need to use supernatural forces to explain nature, and we get farther in our understanding of nature by relying on natural causes.”5
If this commitment to using only natural, unintelligent forces is accepted without question, then ID is automatically eliminated from the scientific enterprise. In other words, if certain evidence is ruled inadmissible because it suggests a supernatural Cause, then the case is closed—and for theists, lost—in the debate over origins, purpose, and ultimate meaning.
Origins of Modern Science
To understand the irony inherent in questioning whether ID is science, let’s briefly look at how modern science developed. Most historians of science, including many not friendly to Christianity, agree that it was the Christian worldview that gave rise to modern science.
Many go even further and say that no other culture or worldview was even capable of providing the context for experimental science to originate and flourish. In tracing the origins of science, Loren Eisely, a science historian, acknowledges, “It is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear articulate fashion to the experimental method of science itself.”6
The famous philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that the Christian worldview “midwifed” science. “Faith in the possibility of science,” he wrote, “came before the practice of science.” Whitehead maintained that certain habits of thought, such as the lawfulness of nature, which arise from the doctrine of divine creation, are critical even just to considering experimentation and gathering facts.7
To put it another way: where there are laws that govern nature, there must be a Lawgiver.
In fact, many early scientists regarded their scientific experimentations as acts of worship. In one of his notebooks, the astronomer Johannes Kepler interrupted his calculations to break out in this prayer of thanks for being “called” to the work of science: “I give you thanks, Creator and God, that you have given me this joy in thy creation, and I rejoice in the works of thy hands.”8
Given this background, it is no surprise that the great founders of the various sciences were Christians. These include not just Kepler, but his predecessor Nicholas Copernicus and Kepler’s contemporary in astronomy, Galileo Galilei. Sir Francis Bacon, who is often credited with establishing the scientific method of inquiry, was a believer, as were Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, and Robert Boyle.
To these we can add Gregor Mendel, William Thompson Kelvin, and Max Planck. Even Albert Einstein, though not a Christian, believed in a Deity and rejected the strict materialism that modern academia wants to impose.9
The Secularist Response
Secularists respond to the observation that science has its roots in European Christianity by saying essentially, “That was then. As a result of progress we have now cast aside superstitions such as a belief in spirits and the supernatural.”
To be clear, the IDM is not proposing a return to viewing science an act of worship. In fact, their books and website carefully avoid mention of biblical passages or even the word “God.” However, they are opposed to defining science in such a way that automatically excludes the possibility of an Intelligent Designer despite what evidence suggests. This, they say, limits the scope of inquiry. Proponents of intelligent design argue for the acceptance of a type of scientific reasoning that is widely accepted in other fields—forensics and abductive reasoning.
Forensic Science Using Abductive Reasoning
In fact, ID is a form of science akin to crime scene forensics, archeology, and cosmology. In all these fields, one is trying to determine systematically the best explanation for what happened in the past (and cannot be reproduced in a laboratory) using abductive reasoning.10
ID theorists often compare their work to that of the originally government-funded Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, which began in the 1960s and continues through the present.11 SETI researchers use radio telescopes to search for electromagnetic signals that would indicate intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos. Similarly, ID theorists look for examples in nature of systems that are best explained by an intelligent source. For example, ID theorists look at the complex molecular machines found in cells and the digital information in DNA and argue that whenever we see such complex systems and the purposeful arrangement of parts in our experience, they are the product of intelligent sources, not random forces.
As in other abductive reasoning–based sciences (e.g., archeologists determining if possible artifacts have a natural cause or were the product of intelligent design), ID theorists are PhD-level investigators who apply the scientific method (observation, hypothesis, and testing) and publish in peer-reviewed journals.12
Famed atheist Antony Flew considered the claims of ID, particularly as they regard the fine-tuning of the universe, and ultimately renounced his atheism. He advised that science is best served by following the evidence wherever it leads, even if it contradicts materialism.13
It is this that the IDM desires. A return to the root of science—the pursuit of knowledge about our natural world—and a commitment to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Intelligent design is science, in the truest sense of the word.