May 03, 2015

Should Christians Accept Intelligent Design?

Dr. Craig,

First of all, I appreciate all you have done for the Kingdom of God. I pray you keep up the good work. You are someone I look up to.

I'm taking a philosophy of religion course right now, and it is very fascinating to me. I'm taking the course because I am interested in Christian Apologetics. One aspect of Christian Apologetics is to argue for intelligent design. To my surprise, my professor, who is a Christian, does not believe in intelligent design (ID). I also wanted to point out the fact that in an astronomy class my girlfriend is taking, the professor lectured on how most Christians do not believe in ID.

As I'm pondering on why my Christian professor doesn't believe in ID and how an astronomy professor lectures on how most Christians don't believe in ID, I start to question if I even know what ID really is.

I thought that God was the intelligent designer that we are arguing for in Christian Apologetics.

So my questions for you are:

1) What is your definition of intelligent design?

2) Is intelligent design something that Christians should believe in?

3) If Christians should believe in intelligent design, then why do some people not believe in it? Are they just confused on the meaning of intelligent design?

I appreciate your time.


United States

I understand your bewilderment, Drew. In one sense every Christian believes in intelligent design, since the God of the Bible is an intelligent Creator of the world who had certain ends in mind which He intended to realize. So of course the world is the product of intelligent design!

So if we are to understand the professors’ statements, we must be careful to define our terms. Whenever anyone engages you on the topic of intelligent design, immediately ask him to define his terms, or you may be lost in ambiguity and confusion.

I think it advisable to capitalize “Intelligent Design" (ID) in order to signal that we are using the words in a technical sense, rather than in the sense accepted by every Christian. Broadly speaking, we may say that ID is a theory of justifiable design inferences. That is to say, it’s a theory which seeks to answer the question: what justifies us in inferring that design is the best explanation of some phenomenon? It is obvious that we make such design inferences all the time. A teacher who finds that a student’s term paper reproduces sections from Wikipedia realizes that this is not the result of chance but of deliberate plagiarism. Archaeologists excavating a site readily discern the difference between the products of sedimentation and metamorphosis and human artifacts. A beachcomber who comes upon a sandcastle recognizes that it’s not the result of the action of the waves and the wind but of intelligent design.

Some of these inferences are so obvious that it never even occurs to us to ask why we are justified in making such inferences to design. But philosophically, it’s no trivial matter to provide a theory of what makes a design inference justified. The theory of Intelligent Design seeks to provide just such an account. As an account of justified design inferences, Intelligent Design theory is of interest to a wide variety of fields: for example, to cryptographers who are trying to discern whether a sequence of letters is just meaningless jibberish or an encoded message; to crime scene investigators who want to determine whether the fire was a result of natural causes or of arson; to searchers for extra-terrestrial intelligence who are trying to make out whether the signal they’re receiving is just random noise or a message from an extra-terrestrial intelligence, and so on and so forth.

ID theorists have offered a number of accounts of what justifies a design inference. Undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated which has been offered comes from the mathematician William Dembski in his book The Design Inference, which appeared in Cambridge University Press’s monograph series on Probability, Induction, and Decision Theory. Dembski argues that a design inference is justified when two conditions are met: first, the event to be explained is extraordinarily improbable and, second, the event corresponds to an independently given pattern.

In its most fundamental sense, then, Intelligent Design is a theory of design inferences which is applicable to a number of diverse fields. While disagreement may exist over which theory of design inference is correct, this is hardly the point at which Intelligent Design encounters heated opposition. Rather controversy arises when the theory of Intelligent Design is applied to the field of biology. For Dembski and other ID theorists have made the controversial claim that biological organisms exhibit just that combination of high improbability and conformity to an independently given pattern that justifies an inference to intelligent design. Accordingly, they maintain that we are justified scientifically in inferring that biological complexity is best explained by Intelligent Design.

This claim has drawn down upon ID theorists the wrath of the scientific establishment. Some, like Richard Dawkins, reject Intelligent Design out of anti-metaphysical or, rather, anti-religious motives. They believe that ID is just religion masquerading as science. But ID theorists have repeatedly insisted that the design inference is not an inference to theism but merely to some sort of intelligent agency. This disclaimer is not, I think, disingenuous, since they do not claim to be able to infer such qualities as the designer’s goodness or eternality, which leaves the door open for other intelligent agents as responsible for biological design. Ironically, Dawkins actually agrees with the most fundamental tenets of Intelligent Design theory: (i) that Intelligent Design is a scientific hypothesis which should be assessed as such, (ii) that it is illegitimate to exclude a priori from the pool of explanatory options hypotheses which appeal to final causes or even supernatural beings, and (iii) that the design inference is not to be equated with an inference to theism. It is remarkable that someone who is so dogmatically committed to Darwinism and so derisive with respect to religious belief should nonetheless find himself so supportive of some of the central tenets of ID. If you saw the movie “Expelled,” you may recall the interview in which Dawkins shows himself willing, if necessary, to countenance an inference to Intelligent Design, just so long as the designers are extra-terrestrial creatures who are themselves the product of an undesigned, evolutionary process. What he will not countenance, on philosophical grounds, is any kind of supernatural intelligence. That remains an inference to Intelligent Design. What follows is that ID is not religious creationism masquerading as science.

Obviously, theists, who believe in an intelligent designer of the universe, may not be on board with all the tenets of ID. My greatest reservation, for example, is the claim that the inference to a designer is supposed to constitute a scientific theory. As a philosopher, I tend to think that such an inference is philosophical or metaphysical in character rather than part of a new, rival scientific theory. I agree with the philosopher Brad Monton, when he writes,

one of the main lines of attack against intelligent design is to argue that intelligent design isn’t science. Even though I’m an atheist, I wanted to defend intelligent design by taking issue with this line of attack. Ultimately, what we really want to know isn’t whether intelligent design is science – what we really want to know is whether intelligent design is true. We could, if we wanted, agree with . . . Judge Jones that intelligent design is not science. But if it turns out that intelligent design is true, would the fact that it’s not science really matter. . .? (Brad Monton, Seeking God in Science, p. 53-4)

For my part, it’s a matter of relative indifference whether you class a design inference in biology as science or philosophy. The important question is whether such an inference is justified. That can’t be decided by mere labels.

So in response to your questions:

1) What is your definition of intelligent design? This is not the right question. We need to let ID theorists speak for themselves and not impose our meanings on their statements. That’s part of the problem! I’ve tried to explain above what they mean by Intelligent Design.

2) Is intelligent design something that Christians should believe in? Certainly, Christians must believe in (lower-case) intelligent design, since we believe in a provident God who has a plan for this world He has created. But belief in ID as a theory is not obligatory. One must assess the case ID theorists make and then decide whether to adopt all, some, or none of the tenets of ID, especially in application to biology.

3) If Christians should believe in intelligent design, then why do some people not believe in it? Are they just confused on the meaning of intelligent design? Of course, there is great confusion about ID. Some people wrongly take it to be religion or some form of creationism. On the other hand, as explained above, one may be an enthusiastic proponent of design arguments from nature without embracing all the tenets of ID. So you need to ask people who decry ID, “Exactly which tenets of ID do you reject?” That will tell you right away whether they understand what they are talking about!