Intelligent Design – So what?

I remain as bemused as ever by Intelligent Design (ID). My problem with it is not in sifting through the empirical pros and cons but in understanding why anyone would offer such extraordinarily weak arguments for what they surely regard as an extraordinarily important issue.

To start with, I am not an atheist. I don’t have enough religious feeling to qualify as an atheist. I don’t believe in god in the same sense that I don’t believe in fairies, but no one would call me an ‘adaemonist’.

Yet I don’t find ID completely nonsensical. In fact many years ago it suddenly occurred to me that the universe is not the finished product, but only a succession of prototypes, with each successive tick of the cosmic clock adding a new version, each improving slightly on its predecessor. The final design, which would show the universe in its ultimate, perfect form, will emerge only at the end of time. The universe isn’t the design, it’s the designing.

It gave me quite a shiver. Such a model would explain the somewhat unsatisfactory nature of the universe as we human beings currently experience it, for example. Satisfyingly Hegelian too, which suited my temper in those days. However, almost immediately I realised that it didn’t really help, because there was no way to telling the difference between this and what nature seems to be doing under its own steam.

Unfortunately, ID doesn’t strike me as being half as plausible as my personal fantasy. In fact I could not initially think of any reason even to consider it as an alternative. But just to jump-start the argument, I have tried to identify a sequence of assumptions that would make it more plausible.

Firstly, let me assume there are certain key problems science really is unable to solve, such as the origin of the universe, the origin of life and the origin of consciousness. I know no reason at all to believe that science can’t solve these problems (though in the case of consciousness I am quite certain that contemporary science is going about it the wrong way), but without this assumption there doesn’t seem to be very much reason to turn to any non-scientific alternative.

Secondly, let me go beyond my first assumption and assume that we can prove that science can’t solve these problems. This is a much stronger assumption, since it puts explicit limits on the powers of our single most powerful mode of explanation even in areas to which it seems proper to apply it. This assumption makes a mockery of science’s performance to date – how often has someone (often an eminent scientist) pronounced the limits of science, only for them to be rolled back yet again within a few years? – but it seems essential to the ID case. Certainly ID’s own arguments for limiting science’s domain make little sense. But again just to get the ball rolling, I will make this assumption too.

So what follows from science being inherently unable to solve these central problems? That ID is correct? That ID is at least worth considering? No. Nothing follows from this. One might just as reasonably infer (as scientists and philosophers often do) that there are simply inherent limits to our ability to grasp the universe – that we are victims of ‘cognitive closure’.

Again I disagree with both the idea of cognitive closure and the usual grounds for asserting it, which is that there is no reason for evolution to have bestowed on us the ability to understand everything, so it didn’t. I think this argument is both logically fallacious, based on factually incorrect premises and fundamentally misunderstands the origins and nature of intelligence, but as an explanaiton for any limits to science it is at least as good an alternative as Intelligent Design.

Better, in fact. After all, neither pragmatic nor inherent limits to science make any other alternative explanation any more likely than before. As a positive explanation of the kind, both science and ID offer must stand on its own merits. Neither is made one jot more credible by the failure of other explanations. Given the possibility of cognitive closure, ID would not even be justified by the demonstrable failure of every possible alternative.

But let’s assume that the failure of science does imply that ID is correct. At this point in the argument, most proponents of Intelligent Design seem pretty keen (at the moment) to deny that they are using this idea to smuggle the concept of God into the argument (or, more precisely, into science lessons in schools), so let’s see if we can help them.

OK, so we assume that there must be an Intelligent Designer. Does that mean that this designer is God? No. It only suggests that it he/she is a designer. Even sticking within the limits of conventional Western thought, this entity could just as easily be thought of as a sort of cosmic engineer, for even an entity that is capable of operating on a literally universal scale isn’t necessarily divine. In his sci-fi novel Contact, Carl Sagan included a nice detail – that if you worked out the value of pi to millions and millions of places, you would eventually arrive at a string of 1’s and 0’s that, if printed out out in a rectangular matrix, displayed a perfect circle. Thus proving that the universe was indeed designed, and even that the designer could tinker with the laws of mathematics, which is a lot more profound than merely fixing the laws of physics. But it says nothing about the divine status of the universe’s maker. Certainly not that they are Our Maker.

But how about if we concede that our cosmic engineer is indeed divine? What does that get us? From the point of view of the usual ID enthusiast, not much. Let’s leave aside the problem of knowing the nature of an entity that inhabits a universe within which the whole of our universe is only a detail, and whose nature is, purely by virtue of its divinity, unknowable in any meaningful sense. Assuming we could penetrate such mysteries, which God is it? I’m damned if I know. As it were. It certainly does not follow from anything about the concept of divinity (especially not a deity of whose existence we know solely through their creation of the universe) that he, she or it is Christian, Jewish or of any other denomination, why they created the universe or what it all means. For all we know, it was Spargliqot, the Niddli God of Alpha Centauri, who did it for a lark.

On the other hand, unless you want to treat the whole of Genesis as a metaphor (and therefore just another inadequate pointer to the nature of our Intelligent Designer), I can’t for the life of me see how any of this process connects to the process of Creation described in the Old Testament.

So where does that leave Intelligent Design? Nowhere. It is a complete non sequitur, not only with regard to any alleged shortcomings of science but also (at least as far as the apologists of any particular religion are concerned) at every other step along the way. In fact it seems to me that the only way to validate the theory of Intelligent Design is by assuming that it is true!

So why do fundamentalists bother? Because they are making the same mistake that Christians have made ever since Copernicus, which is the desire to have it both ways. They want to believe in a deity of such unimaginable nature, character and intentions that they would be able to create the universe, but they want to justify their belief in their unimaginable deity by imagining them anyway.

For a religion that is supposedly based on faith, it’s an odd way to go about things.

More of RJ Robinson at

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