As some naturalistic biologists, and naturalists in other disciplines, have started to move away from the neo-Darwinian evolutionary view, and towards self-organization theory in biology as well as other alternatives, I thought I would just remind everybody that Intelligent Design is not inherently Theistic. Indeed, Intelligent Design has been defended by some Atheists, like Bradley Monton, as a plausible scientific hypothesis (though, of course, he defends it on the grounds that it is a legitimate scientific hypothesis and not, necessarily, a correct one). As Nagel calls for the laying to rest of Neo-Darwinian evolutionary naturalism as an utter and catastrophic failure with no promise for the future, I do not want to recommend that intelligent design be treated as the preferred theory (I do not believe in intelligent design, at least at the level of biological organization), but that it be treated as a theory.
What is it that Intelligent Design stipulates? It stipulates simply that when one observes specified complexity of a certain sort, the best empirical explanation of it is the intelligent implementation of some design. Say that the bacterial flagellum appears irreducibly complex (not, of course, because it is either logically or physically impossible to arise as a product of evolution, but because it is astronomically unlikely that it arise thus). Say that it is an example of specified complexity. Now, ID theory stipulates that the best explanation for the bacterial flagellum is intelligent design. Perhaps in the future ID won’t or wouldn’t be the best explanation (that is, after all, always how scientific hypotheses work), but the contention of the ID theorist need not be that ID theory will always henceforth be the preferred scientific theory, but only that it is the preferred one in light of the evidence available at present.
People will often say clumsy things at this point, such as that if we posit ID as an explanation, then we need some explanation of the designer. This is obviously wrong, though. First, as William Lane Craig has rightly pointed out, when putting forth a scientific hypothesis as an explanation, one doesn’t need to have an explanation of the explanation. Indeed, if one did, then one would be immediately caught in an infinite regress of explanations and no scientific hypothesis would be legitimate. However, to drive the point home, I suspect that we can show naturalists who object thus that they are being childish. They would, presumably, have no cause for quibble if the agency responsible for the intelligent designing were itself a naturalistic entity, which itself could be explained by appealing to naturalistic hypotheses, with absolutely no whiff of an appeal to any supernatural causal agency. Consider, then, the following account:
A universe is born. A few billion years down the road, life appears on a planet, having arisen by evolutionary means alone. Maybe a few million years later the life on that planet is intelligent and, inspired by a technological imperative and an ideal of scientific progress, becomes technologically advanced. Maybe another half a million years goes by before life on this planet begins colonizing other planets and exploring the galaxy in which it resides. At some point, once the novelty of claiming a planet as private property wears off, perhaps the interstellar society of biologists chooses to claim a number of planets for scientific experimentation and scientific advancement. Perhaps they aim to create life on these planets, or on at least one of them. Perhaps they decide to speed the process of evolution by implementing certain designs in nature using extremely advanced remote technology. Perhaps on this planet of theirs, life appears, and, in time develops it’s own scientific investigation into nature. Perhaps these somewhat artificially engineered lifeforms come to believe in the theory of evolution, but something looks rather funny – there seem to be signs of irreducible complexity which are difficult at best to explain. Some on that planet propose that perhaps the best explanation for any observation of specified complexity exemplified by supposedly irreducibly complex biological organisms is that they have been intelligently designed. Argument ensues.
In our cute counterfactual hypothetical we see that not only would the intelligent design theorists be correct, but there would be a perfectly acceptable naturalistic explanation of intelligent design (or at least, if it is not perfectly acceptable, it’s lack of acceptability has nothing to do with naturalism in particular). If somebody argues that this implies that a species more advanced than us evolved before us by natural evolutionary pathways, and that there wouldn’t be enough time for this, we can just help ourselves to other hypotheticals, like that the interstellar society of biologists have access to time machines, and come from a far distant future time. Note again that it doesn’t matter what the explanation of intelligent design actually is; the point is merely to obviate that intelligent design does not posit anything supernatural. It posits only that the best empirical explanation for specified complexity is intelligent design. One could accept that in principle without any trouble if they were, say, scientific anti-realists and naturalists. In order to give an explanation in science, one does not need an explanation of the explanation. So, the question should be, is intelligent design a good scientific hypothesis – it cannot be indicted as a non-scientific hypothesis on the grounds that it posits a supernatural explanation. It doesn’t. It only posits that some things are best explained by appealing to intelligent design, and says absolutely nothing about what kind of designer implemented this design, or, indeed, whether there even is a designer (if one is far-gone enough an anti-realist there seems nothing absurd in holding ID theory in tandem with holding that there is no intelligent designer, and indeed perhaps some naturalists could just maintain that ID is a brute fact without a cause – or even argue that the cause cannot be found in science and since science is either omniscient or at least covers the whole of what one can have any justified belief in, no intelligent designer need be invoked). Maybe this naturalistic version of intelligent design looks watered down, reduced and depressing, but that’s just because, on naturalism, everything looks watered down, reduced and depressing!
If we are today faced with a case of specified complexity, and we recognize that it is mathematically much more likely that the specimen under observation has been intelligently designed than not, then perhaps we should hypothesize Intelligent Design, even while being content to say that we know absolutely nothing about the cause of the intelligent design. For all we know it could be human beings from the future causing the appearance of intelligent design! It doesn’t matter, and that’s the point – intelligent design cannot be anathematized on the grounds that it violates the principle of methodological naturalism.
[Edit: In the first book to which I have linked above, on self-organization theory, it says in the preface that “we wish to emphasize one more important idea at the start of this book: Much of the complexity of self-organized structures seen in biology arises because the rules governing the interactions among the components of biological systems have evolved through natural selection.” Perhaps this source here would have been a better reference.]