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Ep. 82 Why Intelligent Design Is a Scientific Theory

In the bitter debates over evolution, it is a common practice for the defenders of the orthodox Darwinian approach to argue that not only is Intelligent Design (ID) theory wrong, but it doesn’t even count as a scientific theory. After all, so the orthodox defenders argue, you can’t really test to see if an intelligent being created life on Earth, and so ID must be excluded from biology, period. Bob argues that this particular rhetorical move is obviously bogus, and gives two simple examples to show why.

Mentioned in the Episode and Other Links of Interest:

The audio production for this episode was provided by Podsworth Media.

About the author, Robert

Christian and economist, Research Assistant Professor with the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech, Senior Fellow with the Mises Institute, and co-host with Tom Woods of the podcast "Contra Krugman."


  1. Kevin on 12/04/2019 at 3:20 AM

    “A scientific theory is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can be repeatedly tested and verified in accordance with the scientific method, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation of results.”
    Does ID fit this description? How has it been tested and verified?

    There’s a difference between how we use the word theory colloquially and how it is actually used scientifically. Even something as proven and gravity, or the earth orbiting the sun, are theories.

    “Hypothesis: a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.”
    It seems to me that ID should be considered as a hypothesis.

  2. Tuppenceworth on 12/04/2019 at 1:12 PM

    This seems to be a misrepresentation of the argument being made that ID is not a “theory” in the scientific sense (although at the end you seem to concede that it’s not a theory and is only a hypothesis or conjecture which surely undermines your point).

    You are say in the episode the the very idea of invoking intelligence (or consciousness) is being dismissed as inherently invalid by the nature of science and automatically disqualifies anything as a theory. This is not the case — science has no preconceptions — it is only concerned with testing things against reality (as espoused by Francis Bacon). But the argument being put forward is that it does qualify under the *definition* of a theory: specifically that it is *non-falsifiable* i.e. makes no predictions that can be tested against reality that would prove it to be false. Not knowing anything about ID, I don’t know if this is fair, but nothing in this episode addresses that point.

    The alien examples would indeed be measured by the same yardstick.

  3. Martin N Brock on 12/04/2019 at 6:02 PM

    Intelligent Design is not unscientific on its face, but a scientific theory requires a precise notion of “intelligence”. Artificial Intelligence, for example, equates information processing (the formal operations of a Turing Machine for example) above some threshold of complexity with “intelligence”, but this “intelligence” does not rule out evolution by natural selection (ENS). ENS is not simply random, because progressively fitter mutations accumulate. The die is not cast anew with each generation. Mutations in one generation affect only forms selected in earlier generations. If life exhibits signs of intelligent design, why can evoluition by natural selection not account for this intelligence?

  4. Dustin on 12/06/2019 at 11:45 AM

    I agree with Martin. Whether ID is scientific depends on what it actually hypothesizes, which as it stands is not specific enough.

    What makes the common ID hypothesis unscientific is its supposition that the evolution of life was brought about by a directing force external to the laws of physics. (This statement is made explicitly by the Discovery Institute you link to) Unlike your Pluto and Alien examples, the truth of ID cannot be judged by appealing only to observed laws of the universe while assuming them to be consistent and reproducible, which is the fundamental way science operates.

  5. Marko on 12/06/2019 at 3:20 PM

    I am sorry, but the title remains formally incorrect. ID is not a scientific theory (yet). Before I dig into the whys, I would comment on Kevin’s comment first. Physical sciences can not prove anything. So gravity or any other theory is not more or less proven, it is not proven, full stop. Only in math we can prove anything, simply because it is fully created by us, people, so its full domain is known. Proving in physics or biology is impossible because we can not compare our knowledge with the exact fabric of nature that remains unknown and probably unknowable. So, what we do in physical sciences is we explain the observations with the theories. Explaining is not proving, it is a qualitatively inferior method.

    Why ID is not a theory? Because its proponents today are too fuzzy and too vague in defining it, to start with. Per analogy if Newton just said, gravity has to do, somehow, with matter and masses, it would be unfalsifiable, therefore not a theory and not even a hypothesis. The fact he defined the gravity with the verifiable law in form of the known formula, allowed the observers of the Mercury anomalies rotating around the Sun first, and Einstein later, to correct the formula with the relativistic one. ID proponents need to give some more detailed explanations on the mechanisms of this intelligence, what direct or indirect measurements we can make to verify it etc. For example they might say, we should look for the designer’s signature or, what is more realistic, there was not enough time in the total history of the Universe for probability to create what is needed. This especially because only an incredibly small subset of all the combinations of the matter is useful for the life, so to explain the shortcuts to what actually happened, there was necessary some non spontaneous intervention, hence intelligence.

    Therefore, ID is not (yet) even a scientific hypothesis, because this ‘not enough time’ argument is still debatable. And the multi-universe idea (not a theory and not a hypothesis, but just an idea) is one way to help out the probability. According to it, we happened to live in such a universe, where laws of physics are leaning towards the life creation, much quicker than in the other universes. And this is related to your metaphor of the imperfections on the Pluto soil, that helped the formation of the intelligible formation of the Help Me text. Now, this still would not require the ID, because given enough universes and the sets of laws, one will eventually be life compatible in short time.

    And, now let us step into the politics. Both sides, the multi-universe proponents and ID proponents have an agenda, either consciously or unconsciously. One would like to get rid of the god at any cost, and others think that life without god would leave the humans at the mammal level for ever. The first ones are mostly statists and they need to fight the god to the nails, the second ones are ignorant of the Argumentation Ethics or Molyneux’s Universally Preferable Behavior. Both claim the peaceful ethics is possible without the god. By the way, I listened to your debate with Kinsela, and may be I was tired, but I was not able to grasp your objection to Hoppe’s argument. I will probably have to listen to it again.

  6. The NAPster on 12/06/2019 at 3:20 PM

    The key question to ask about the rock configuration on that far-off planet is, why did they waste time and energy spelling out “SHIP CRASHED”? Wouldn’t “HELP” have sufficed? This would be a case of “inefficient design,” not “intelligent design.”

    On the subject of Darwinianism, there’s a great book attacking this theory from a philosophical perspective, at least as it relates to humans, called “Darwinian Fairytales” by David Stove.

  7. Scott on 12/09/2019 at 12:09 AM

    I think you’ve misunderstood the fundamental criticism of Intelligent Design, and why it does not qualify as science. The problem is not the notion that life was designed intelligently itself, it’s that Intelligent Design does not formulate a specific or rigorous enough account of what this intelligence was or what mechanisms it used. What makes it non-falsifiable is the very “I’m not saying it’s God, it could be aliens” argument that is used to try to make it more scientific. What makes it non-falsifiable is that it does not make any positive assertions that can be tested, only a negative one (That life is too complex to have evolved on its own), and it’s impossible to prove a negative.

    The very two examples you give show the difference: If I were to assert that an alien race seeded Earth with a super-cell that contained all the information it needed in order to evolve into the modern ecology, then there would be specific points on which my claim could be tested. We could look for samples of ancient, preserved DNA, for example, and analyze it to see whether or not it contains such information in the first place. We could look for mechanisms in the replication of DNA to see whether or not there is a process that seems to be deliberately inserting changes from some external source. We could take two samples of an identical bacteria, separate them, and see if they evolve along the exact same lines over time.

    LIkewise, if you asserted that a virus had been constructed by the Russians, you might be able to find that a complex sequence of DNA had been taken from a different virus and inserted into the engineered virus.

    But if I just say “Some intelligence somehow designed life on Earth” then any counter-claim against that statement can be dismissed out of hand by just saying “Well I didn’t say that it happened that specific way”. For example: One piece of evidence that would apparently go against the notion of an intelligent creator would be the weird accidents within our biology that appear to exist for no other reason than as artifacts of evolution. Richard Dawkins gives an excellent example of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in the giraffe, which completely unnecessarily runs up and down the entire neck of the giraffe. You wouldn’t design the giraffe this way if you were an engineer, certainly- but the proponent of Intelligent Design can just say that the designer liked it that way, that he was trying to fool human beings, or that he took a mostly hands-off approach and only intervened when he wanted some new complex biological construct to appear.

    In order to provide scientific evidence either for or against Intelligent Design, it would have to commit itself to a more detailed set of claims. If it asserted, for example, that we should see complex biological mechanisms arise entirely between generations (ie, a species goes from having no eyes to having eyes within a generation), then it would provide a clearly testable hypothesis. The existing evidence would certainly be against such a claim, but it would still make Intelligent Design into more of a scientific theory by at least providing a claim that evidence can be arrayed against.

    • Jacob on 12/11/2019 at 9:07 PM

      Good post. What positive claim does ID even make at this point? As far as I can tell it is something like, “evolution can account for different structures and organismal diversity, except for some small subset of structures that we claim are irreducibly complex.”

      Murphy is great at pointing out the ways in which economists make dishonest arguments, especially with the use of linking to sources that don’t prove the point at all. That Discovery Institute list of references is pure bluff. If you look at the biochemistry papers there, I doubt that you could find even one of them has anything to do with ID.

      Notice that the Discovery Institute doesn’t even bother trying to summarize why they think the listed papers support ID. Michael Behe’s papers don’t seem to be about ID at all, and I have never seen anything other than sheer assertion that any structure is irreducibly complex. That’s why we say that rather than being a hypothesis, irreducible complexity is a “God of the Gaps” argument. It seems to follow this cycle:

      1. Someone asserts the eye is irreducibly complex, with no evidence.

      2. Eyes from different species with different levels of complexity are studied, showing how they could evolve from a gradual process.

      3. Someone instead asserts the bacterial flagellum is irreducibly complex, with no evidence.

      4. Individual subunits of the bacterial flagellum are discovered, some with independent functions in different bacteria. This decisively goes against the definition of irreducibly complex.

      5. Some new thing is asserted as irreducibly complex in an endless loop of God of the Gaps arguments.

      6. Most biochemists, recognizing “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” move on to more productive endeavors than reading every new assertion that an ID proponent makes. I guess they’ll claim victory again.

  8. Clint on 12/09/2019 at 6:43 PM

    A good economist always asks “compared to what”.

    If the CDC wants to investigate if a strain of flu is engineered, they do so by comparing it with one that is natural. If we want to investigate if a rock formation is designed, we compare the formation with ones that we know are natural.

    But under creationism, there is no natural. All flu strains are designed. Every rock formation is designed. Creationism asserts that literally everything is designed, which leaves an investigator with no way to do any comparison.

    This is why it is an untestable assertion rather than a scientific theory.

  9. Donxon on 12/11/2019 at 9:48 AM

    The laws of physics make life inevitable. That’s the miracle.

  10. Verl Humpherys on 12/11/2019 at 4:44 PM

    I kept waiting to here why ID is a scientific theory. You even brought up the claim that ID is not a scientific theory because it is non-falsifiable. I was sure after that you would show how that claim was not true but you never did.

    You also brought up several other postulates that are also not scientific theories. If the Russians engineered a flu virus, how could we test it? If we looked at samples of the virus, could we legitimately test the claim that is was engineered by the Russians? We might be able to say that it appears or does not appear engineered. But if it appears not engineered, does that confirm it was not? Or was it engineered in such a way to appear natural?

    So how could we disprove ID? Irreducible complexity doesn’t prove ID, since we cannot prove irreducible complexity. Just because we cannot figure out how a complex structure might have formed, does not make it designed. Just look at the examples of so-called irreducibly complex systems. From the flagellum to the eye, these systems all turn out to have natural explanation to how they evolved and were not in fact irreducibly complex.

  11. Martin Brock on 12/15/2019 at 3:30 PM

    As Dustin suggests, panspermia is a scientific theory of life on Earth, but it’s not a theory of the origin of life generally. That self-replication or its constituents occurred away from the Earth doesn’t explain how it occurred, and an Intelligent Designer involved in the development of living forms similarly raises questions about this Designer. If something as complex as an intelligent designer of life needs no further explanation in terms of simpler processes, why bother with science at all? Why isn’t the Universe its own explanation?

  12. Samuel Manier on 12/16/2019 at 12:19 PM

    It depends on what you mean by Intelligent Design. If it’s that all life in the universe comes from an intelligent cause, this is not testable so not scientific, and your aliens hypothesis is not an Intelligent Design one because it does not explain the origin of aliens.
    But if the Intelligent Design hypothesis is just about life on Earth, ok, it’s scientific.

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