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The Philosophy of Intelligent Design, part 3

Why it is Unreasonable to Exclude ID from Institutional Science

  • 22 December 2015
  • Author: Scott Cherry
  • Number of views: 7201

© by Scott Cherry, December 2015

Part 3

Throughout this discussion I’ve been emphasizing institutional science and evolution over one’s personal views on these subjects.  The latter allows for theistic and hybrid positions, of course, but the former does not.  Institutional science rests on the starting assumption that there is no designer, or certainly that it must be disregarded.  In contrast Intelligent Design…

depends on the assumption that the hypothesis of a designer makes sense and cannot be ruled out as impossible or assigned a vanishingly small probability in advance. (p. 197)

Dr. Michael Behe is one among other eminent scientists who has been a strong proponent of ID and puts forth what many consider to be compelling arguments for the design argument.  In his book, Darwin’s Black Box he makes an especially strong case for irreducible complexity.  This concept is a very interesting test case that we will consider which is written about by both sides of the debate. It is countered by Niall Shanks and Karl H. Joplin in their journal article “Redundant Complexity: A Critical Analysis of Intelligent Design in Biochemistry” in which Behe’s work is named.  In the remaining section of this paper we will do a comparative analysis.

The argument of Behe’s book is not a new one in general, the argument from design, which was commonplace in the world up until the time of Darwin.  Other scholars have written extensively on this as well, such as William Paley in Natural Theology.  Behe argues that there are remarkable examples of things with the appearance of design observable in the natural world. There is not much debate about this simple point, even atheist Richard Dawkins has famously acknowledged it.  Further Behe contends that the defining attributes of design can best be explained by an intelligent designer and which have not been explained by unguided evolution.  Indeed, they cannot be.  If the ‘psychological’ explanation (i.e. intelligent, purposeful) is not philosophically precluded a priori (cf. Allen and Bekoff) and “admitted as evidence”, the design inference is the most cogent one.  (Note: Either way the appearance of design is observed and ascribed to a largely inexplicable “force” that has the “appearance of intelligence”).   In part it is an argument from analogy which he believes is sound unless we dismiss all arguments from analogy.  For example, we observe in Mt. Rushmore the unmistakable faces of four identifiable presidents and we immediately infer design because, again, it is part of our intelligence to recognize design and because we know that the attributes observable in that structure can have no reasonable explanation by unguided natural forces. 

Other examples abound.  The scientific part of Behe’s argument is a unique one based on what he calls “irreducible complexity”.  This is the idea that in many spheres of science such as the biochemical one—especially on the molecular level—there are intricately complex systems that could not possibly have developed gradually.  As examples he discusses the eye, the blood clotting system, and the cell, with much scientific detail that was generally over my head.  He goes on to argue that the components of such systems are so sophisticated and interconnected that the unguided evolutionary notion of gradualism could never produce one.  The absence, misplacement or under-development of any one of the components of such a system would result in the utter failure of the system to function as such.  This is where Paley’s watch-maker analogy is helpful, which Behe believes has never been properly refuted in its own right.  A watch is a complex system from which we rightly infer design, in which if any one of the inter-related parts is absent, misplaced or underdeveloped it cannot function.  All of the parts must be present and mutually operational all at once, otherwise the system would actually be a disadvantage for the organism.  This seems like good logic to me. 

The crux of my argument is that Intelligent Design is both philosophically and scientifically reasonable enough to be considered alongside evolution in science and academic institutions, rather than excluded for philosophical biases against the notion of purpose.  Here I will deal with one philosophical objection to Behe’s argument put forth by Maarten Boudry and Bert Leuridan in their article entitled, “Where the Design Argument Goes Wrong: Auxiliary Assumptions and Unification”.  Their essential argument is captured in this statement:

“We cannot simply attribute intentions and motives to a designer if we do not have any independent justification for doing so [“auxiliary assumptions”].  For example, from the fact that humans have eyes, we cannot conclude the intelligent designer, if such a being exists, must have had the intention for equipping humans with eyes: “What is needed is evidence about what God would have wanted the human eye to be like, where the evidence does not require a prior commitment to the assumption that there is a God and also does not depend on looking at the eye to determine its features. …[Ergo] the design argument remains untestable.  It follows that the design argument, framed as a likelihood argument, is officially dead.”  (p. 4)

This seems very weak to me, philosophically.  First, it is beside the point.  As Behe has stated, we do not need to know anything about the designer in order to infer design. When we examine the eyes of humans and of many other creatures, on the principle of irreducible complexity, we have every reason to infer design whether or not we know anything about the designer.  Second, we when we examine the eye, there is a very strong reason to infer its remarkable function (and it is unreasonable to dismiss the notion of function simply because it implies purpose).  The eye is very specifically assembled to see, and not for any other primary function.  As we do with a great many machines and systems, we can often or usually infer their primary function and their purpose.  Other parts of the body also have their specific functions for which their components are assembled as well.  This is the nature of body parts and even of the whole body, and even evolutionary theory ascribes function in terms of survival.  Third, there is a correspondence between the function of things and the order of reality, including the eye.  Fourth, if the design hypothesis is untestable, so also is the evolution hypothesis, which can be added to my list of commonalities between the two. What is testable is function and irreducible complexity, and by sheer force of analogy (which, again, is not to be dismissed) function points to purpose, which points to design.  For these reasons and others Intelligent Design should be given the weight of attention at least equal to that of unguided evolution.  I conclude with this quote from Behe:

Molecular evolution is not based on scientific authority.  There is no publication in the scientific literature—in prestigious journals, specialty journals, or books—that describes how molecular evolution of any real, complex, biochemical system either did occur or even might have occurred.  There are assertions that such evolution occurred, but absolutely none are supported by pertinent experiments or calculations. 

Therefore, Intelligent Design should be afforded equal plausibility with evolution. 






1. Nagel, Thomas (2008). “Public Education and Intelligent Design.”  Philosophy & Public Affairs, 36, No. 2 (Spring): 187-205

2. Behe, Michael (1996). Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: The Free Press (Simon and Schuster)    


3. Swinburne, R.G. (1968). “The Argument from Design.”  Philosophy, 43, No. 165 (July): 199-212

4. Godfrey-Smith, Peter (2012). Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

4. Shanks, Niall; Joplin, Karl H. (1999) “Redundant Complexity: A Critical Analysis of Intelligent Design in Biochemistry.” Philosophy of Science, 66, No. 2 (June): 268-282

5. Boudry, Maarten; Leuridan, Bert (2011). “Where the Design Argument Goes Wrong: Auxiliary Assumptions and Unification.”  Philosophy of Science, 78, No. 4 (October): 558-578

6. Weisberg, Jonathan (2005). “Firing Squads and Fine-Tuning: Sober on the Design Argument.”  The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 56, No. 4 (December): 809-821

7. Allen, Colin; Bekoff, Marc (1995). “Biological Function, Adaptation, and Natural Design.” Philosophy of Science, Vol. 62, No. 4  (December): 609-622

8. Stanley, H.M. (1885). “Is the Design Argument Scientific?”  Mind, 10, No. 39 (July), 420-425.   

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