In thinking recently about the intelligent design movement, I have realized that there is a diversity which I had not previously been attentive to, between various intelligent design hypotheses. For instance, Stephen C. Meyer generally proposes intelligent design as the best scientific explanation for how the information necessary for the very first living cell came together such as it did. The origin of life issue has teased scientists for decades now, and further research has, if anything, demoralized the scientific community, frustrating all its efforts to find some plausible naturalistic explanation. Notice that in this case the response to intelligent design cannot be mutation and natural selection according to a standard Darwinian model precisely because the model only works once one is already dealing with living things, and the model does not explain the origin of living things. On the other hand, intelligent design theorists such as Michael Behe go further in their proposals and suggest that certain observable evolutionary steps, such as those necessary for the Bacterial Flagellum are just not plausibly the result of random successive combinations, and he infers intelligence as the best scientific explanation of such ‘irreducibly complex’ machines. Finally, the most popular argument which technically falls under the same umbrella, is the Teleological argument from the fine tuning of the universe, where a number of Christians (scientists and philosophers) recognize a possible inference to design from the precise fine tuning of the initial physical constants and quantities at/from the big-bang episode. There may also be other areas where inference to intelligent design is possible, and obviously it isn’t very controversial when people infer design in cases of Anthropological studies, archaeological digs, computer programming, or others. In fact, as John Lennox of Oxford university has said, there is hardly any area where the intelligent design hypothesis is as divisive as in the field of Biology.
In thinking about these various ways in which an inference to intelligent design can be proposed, I think it may still be useful to make a distinction between, say, a teleological argument and an argument for irreducibly complex systems. A teleological argument presents a philosophical argument from what we know about science, but it isn’t a scientific suggestion. In other words, the suggestion is about the real world, and thus it is not as limited as science is, where science is restricted only to the empirically accessible world. However, when one argues for intelligent design as the best explanation for some series of evolutionary steps one is proposing that “intelligent design” is a scientific proposal. Of course, I am not going to say the very foolish thing, which some commonly say, that intelligent design is based on scientific ignorance rather than scientific knowledge, for certainly we do have scientific knowledge about intelligent design when it occurs anywhere else, and we feel scientifically justified in claiming that the best causal explanation for some observation is an intelligent causal agent imposing design. We know exactly what that looks like, and we have developed sure-fire ways of detecting it.
However, take the case of Michael Behe’s proposal, and one can see that proposing intelligent design acts by implication as a super-natural explanation. Of course, it is logically possible for an intelligent design inference to be a natural explanation (for instance by proposing something like directed panspermia). Here, one might think the question is pushed back, but that’s not necessarily the case, as it is logically possible for some evolutionary pathway to higher organisms to not include any steps which might produce composites which qualify as irreducibly complex. One can propose the intelligent design theory, therefore, scientifically, without committing oneself to what the ‘actual’ cause of the intelligent design is insofar as science is concerned (though they may be tempted, as they should, to suppose that God did it). Notice that Michael Behe’s proposal is empirically verifiable, which is to say falsifiable. One only has to posit a better explanation for how the apparently irreducibly complex machine could plausibly have evolved in a series of gradual successive steps. Some people recognize this falsifiability, and actually propose that it is theologically dangerous, since it represents a ‘God of the gaps’ fallacy (though that isn’t actually a fallacy) – opponents of intelligent design seem oblivious to the fact that they substitute a “Naturalism of the gaps” hypothesis, whereby they argue that even if they don’t have an explanation (meaning a naturalistic one) today, they will someday find it. That sounds very weak to me, and indeed is the kind of answer one often confronts in debates about the resurrection of Christ. Behe’s proposal is divisive not because it isn’t empirical, but because it tries to import God into science.
Stephen Meyer, on the other hand, though he does argue that intelligent design can be detected in evolutionary steps as Behe proposes (thus, for instance, his provocative essay on the Cambrian explosion published in Debating Design co-edited by Michael Ruse and William Dembski), his principle argument is actually situated at the very origin of life. In Behe’s case, there are dozens of proposals for the steps leading up to the bacterial flagellum, none of which happen to be plausible or convincing – or at least not as plausible or convincing as intelligent design. In Meyer’s case, there is actually no alternative hypothesis on the table at all, let alone a plausible one. It is more difficult to imagine this kind of intelligent design proposal being dissolved. However, Meyer’s case is qualitatively different from Behe’s, since Behe’s proposal is for intelligent design to act as part of the explanation for how things evolved, and Meyer’s case is about how life arose at all.
Considering that people do call things like the teleological argument an example of intelligent design theorizing, and that Meyer’s case differs significantly from Behe’s, I think it may be appropriate to speak about various kinds of intelligent design, or intelligent designs. This reflection, therefore, has led me to think that, just as these intelligent design theorists, when confrontationally asked whether they believe in evolution, often ask “what do you mean by evolution?” – so it is high time that intelligent design theorists, when confrontationally asked whether they believe in intelligent design, start asking “what do you mean by intelligent design?”