Design is not a “science-stopper”

May 1, 2006 at 10:57 pm Leave a comment

Last week in a conversation I had with one of my professors, our discussion somehow moved onto the topic of Intelligent Design. My professor conveyed his (rather strong) dislike for ID theory, so I asked him why he didn’t approve of the movement.

“Because,” he responded, “it’s silly to posit God as an explanation for whatever we can’t currently explain through science.”

The implication: the Designer (read: God) of ID theory merely fills in whatever holes we can’t explain naturalistically, and this recourse to God is a cheap faith-saver for those unwilling to step to the plate and keep searching for scientific explanations.

This criticism is a regular complaint about ID theory. As Nancy Pearcey explains in her book, Total Truth, critics perceive that the idea of design “is a ‘science-stopper’ that puts an end to scientific investigation.” The appeal to design, in other words, is an indicator that people are throwing in the towel and invoking God to account for whatever they don’t understand. This automatic explanation is reminiscent of tribal cultures in which God is the end-all explanation for all natural phenomena including rain patterns, flooding, and any natural disasters.

But as Pearcey elaborates, that is hardly a fair characterization of design theory. In fact, the process of detecting design is an empirical process that is already a part of many sciences.

For example, the search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is predicated on the belief that we can distinguish an intelligent message from natural phenomena. Similarly, detectives who distinguish a murder from an accidental death, archaeologists who distinguish a mere weathered stone from a primitive tool, and insurance companies who distinguish between arson and an accidental fire all operate on the assumption that it is possible to differentiate between design and natural causes.

Pearcey concludes, “It should be possible to formalize the thinking process used in all these examples, which is exactly what design theory does. Its central tenet is that the characteristic marks of design can be empirically detected”—and moreover, that they actually have been detected.

I share the skeptics’ fears that ID is a threat to science; I am well aware that Christians have a tendency to appeal to God at the least provocation, and at times when it really isn’t appropriate to do so.

At the same time, however, that does not make ID invalid on principle. Design theory is not so unscientific as its detractors claim, nor is it merely a cop out.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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