What is bigotry, really?

What is bigotry, really?

Recently, I was discussing Christianity with an atheist online, and homosexuality was raised (not by me). The traditional Christian view that homosexual activity is wrong was called a “horrible and oppressive teaching”, and I was labelled a bigot for holding this view.

No-one likes being called a bigot, including me (which is why some people use it as a debating tool), and I spent some time discussing their reasons in detail. In the process, I gradually began to build a picture of what they meant by the term.

Bigotry: the Internet definition

The first point made was that bigotry was when we didn’t treat people with respect. Apparently, “saying that someone’s sexual orientation is sinful or wrong is not treating people with dignity or respect”. I hadn’t actually said this, as I don’t believe an orientation is sinful, but rather certain behaviour. But it is fair to say that the traditional Christian view is that a homosexual orientation is not what God intended, and obviously behaviour is closely related to orientation.

Can you treat someone with dignity and respect without agreeing with or condoning their behaviour or sexual orientation? It seems obvious that this is possible. We can treat political opponents with respect despite strong disagreement. We can even treat criminals with dignity and respect despite their behaviour or their propensity to commit crimes. So we can criticise behaviour we disagree with without violating a person’s dignity.

The next claim was that “you’re only a bigot if your discrimination is based on certain categories, namely, categories about WHAT a person is”. This sounds reasonable, until the different possible categories a person can be classified as are explored. Then it gets problematic. Do we condemn the behaviour of those sexually involved with their siblings or parents? It quickly becomes apparent that what a person is does not seem to excuse certain behaviours such as incest.

When I pointed this out, they shifted their ground somewhat to claim that opposing incest was not bigotry because “the REASON for discriminating is the mitigation of harm”. So apparently the reasons for calling behaviour wrong are important, and if the behaviour leads to harm then calling it wrong is acceptable. Harm continued to be a key part of the argument, as they went on to say that “I have the right to force you to not harm gay people by not allowing them to marry. You do not have the right to harm gay people who want to marry, since that action has no tangible negative consequences”.

Basing an argument on harm is risky, of course. Since SSM is a relatively new phenomenon, we don’t know what harm might result to individuals or society in the future. Perhaps little or none. Perhaps harm might even be somewhat subjective when it comes to societal harm. But to assume that SSM has no “tangible negative consequences” is premature.

As Christians, we also must be wary of basing our arguments on harm. If we hold to the traditional Christian position of marriage as designed by God and between a man and a woman, we believe that ultimately this definition of marriage is good for the world. Conversely, we believe redefining marriage will prove harmful. But believing this does not mean it can be empirically demonstrated. Eventual harm may be many years in the future, or even unquantifiable. It might be that in the short-term, some research might indicate there are benefits to SSM. So it is unwise to base our argument on evidence of harm.

Bigotry: the dictionary definition

Rather than rely on the dubious musings of an Internet atheist determined to prove a point, I decided to examine the dictionary definition of bigotry.

The Oxford dictionary defines bigotry as “intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself”. Ironically, that describes my opponent rather well, but it is premature to call them a bigot.

The Cambridge dictionary’s definition is “a person who has strong, unreasonable beliefs and who does not like other people who have different beliefs or a different way of life”. Merriam-Webster defines a bigot as “a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc. : a bigoted person; especially: a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group)”.

These latter two definitions seem to capture an important point – bigotry is about dislike or hatred for those who hold different beliefs or different ways of life. Bigots hate, and hatred is wrong.

But is disagreement or disapproval about behaviour, opinions or lifestyle bigotry? No, not if no hatred accompanies these views. Of course, sometimes hatred does come with these views, and that is bigotry. But disapproval of behaviour doesn’t require hatred – ask any parent.

Philosopher Ed Feser makes this point stating that “disapproval of homosexual acts simply does not entail hatred of homosexuals themselves, any more than a vegetarian’s or vegan’s disapproval of eating meat entails hatred of meat-eaters”.

Redefining bigotry

Nonetheless, it is common to attempt to redefine bigotry as disapproval or disagreement on issues such as SSM that are supposedly “settled”.

This is a strategy whose aim is to shut down opponents and win debates, and it is an effective one. For example, Mark Joseph Stern states that a bigot is “anybody who opposes equal rights for gay people“, which implies anyone opposing SSM. Opposing views are automatically labelled as bigotry, and no further discussion is possible. What is there to discuss with a bigot?

The philosophical community has also moved in this direction, with many philosophers considering that the SSM debate is over, and discussion is no longer required or even legitimate. Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne felt the wrath of this view recently when he was invited to present a lecture on sexual morality at the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) meeting. His view that homosexual acts are immoral and that homosexuality is a disability that should be cured are widely known, and he was predictably criticised. However the President of the SCP felt compelled to apologise for “the hurt caused” by his lecture, despite Swinburne’s position being a commonly held view amongst Christian philosophers (and others) throughout history.

Feser’s discussion of this incident is instructive, particularly on the issue of hurtfulness. He points out that philosophers discuss all sorts of ideas that can cause offense, but that is no reason to end the discussion. Abortion is a prime example, where arguing that abortion is murder is likely to offend women who have had abortions – and yet it is very much a live topic in ethics. Citing hurt feelings should not be used as a tactic to shut down debate.

The question then is at what point is an argument “settled”? At what point should debate largely cease, and it be acknowledged that further argument is unproductive? There seems to be no easy way to determine this, but there is still widespread disagreement about SSM. We don’t seem to be at the point where we can declare it settled – except in the minds of those who want to declare victory for their view.

Christian hypocrisy

It is all very well to conclude that disapproving of certain behaviours is not bigotry, but the commonly cited adage of “hate the sin, love the sinner” seems trite given the apparent hate for gay people that some Christians have demonstrated. Often we have been and are bigoted, and the church has serious work to do in repairing relationships with the gay community.

We have also been hypocritical in condemning gay sex but tacitly or even blatantly condoning other damaging behaviour in our churches. As John Stonestreet and Sean McDowell note “it’s not lost on the gay community that the church held no (or at least very few) marches or rallies against no-fault divorce, adultery, or other things that have done even greater harm to marriage and families. There is a reason that the gay community feels singled out. Though we are often unfairly accused of bigotry and hate, we have been inconsistent”. I would add that at times we have been fairly accused of bigotry and hate.


Charles Taylor, in his opus A Secular Age, describes our current age as one of “expressive individualism”, and the prime value is personal choice, irrespective of the choices made. Consequently, the only virtue is tolerance of people’s choices, and “the.sin which is not tolerated is intolerance”. The result is the abuse of those who make the judgement that some behavioural choices are morally wrong.

Real bigotry, however,  involves hatred for others, not disagreement on controversial issues. Redefining bigotry to denigrate those who hold that certain behaviours are wrong is an attempt to shame and bully opponents into silence or reluctant agreement.

Christians are not bigoted in regarding homosexual behaviour as immoral, provided they are not disliking or hating those whose behaviour they are criticising.

A caution though: we need to carefully examine our hearts to discern whether we are truly loving those who we disagree with, and whether we are disproportionately highlighting one sin and treating it as somehow worse than others.







Are there objective moral values?

Are there objective moral values?

Objective moral values are moral values that are “independent of human desires, perceptions, beliefs and practices”. Those who hold that moral values are objective are known as moral realists, and they believe that statements such as “slavery is wrong” are true or false regardless of who says them, and where and when they were said.

Atheists such as Nietzsche, Hume and Mackie all agreed that there are no objective moral values in a godless universe. Although this is a common position, not all atheists hold to it, and a recent post concluded that it is possible to maintain that objective moral values could exist without God. This involves accepting that brute moral facts just happen to exist in our universe, and that they match our moral beliefs.

By contrast, theists explain moral facts by appealing to the necessary existence of God, which neatly explains moral obligation and why moral facts are correlated with our moral beliefs. The theistic view seems more persuasive, but of course the theistic worldview entails many other commitments which atheists find untenable.

Why do atheists like Wielenberg even think objective moral values exist? Given their commitment to an evolutionary account for our existence, it seems logical to attribute our moral beliefs and our intuitions about these beliefs to natural selection, at least indirectly. But doing so makes it difficult to be a realist about moral values, as it leads to Sharon Street’s “Darwinian dilemma” – either evolutionary forces have somehow conspired to produce moral beliefs that match these objective moral values, or our moral beliefs don’t coincide with whatever objective moral values exist at all. If objective moral values are jettisoned, the Darwinian dilemma dissolves, so why hold to this position?

Interestingly, it’s a very common position. In fact the majority of philosophers surveyed  are moral realists. Given that over two thirds have a preference for atheism, it seems moral realism is widespread even amongst atheists.


David Enoch contends that believing morality is objective has considerable appeal to us, and he gives three reasons why this is so.

Firstly, Enoch uses a joke to illustrate what he calls the spinach test. A child who hates spinach says “I’m glad I hate spinach, because otherwise I might have eaten it, and it’s yucky!”.  It’s funny because the only reason for not eating it is because of personal preference. If you did like it, it wouldn’t be yucky.

But it isn’t funny when it’s about a moral position. It seems quite reasonable to say, “I’m glad I wasn’t born in an era when slavery was acceptable, because I would have accepted it, and I think slavery is wrong”. This sentiment seems reasonable because we are thinking beyond our personal preferences. We think slavery is objectively wrong.

Enoch’s second test is about how moral disagreement feels – the phenomenology of disagreement. When we have an argument about a topic such as abortion, or some other issue we care deeply about, it doesn’t feel like an argument about personal preferences  such as the taste of chocolate.  It feels like an argument about something objective. Enoch compares it to a debate on global warming, which we know to be an objective matter irrespective of our position on it.

The third test is the “what if?” – or counterfactual – test for objectivity. If our beliefs or practices were very different, would it still be true that so-and-so? Enoch gives the example of smoking causing cancer. If we believed smoking was harmless, would it still be true that smoking causes cancer? Of course – it is an objective fact that smoking causes cancer, no matter what we believe. We can apply the same test to moral beliefs. If  we believed slavery is acceptable, would it still be wrong? It seems clear that the answer is yes, slavery would still be wrong. We would want a society that believes slavery is acceptable to change their views.

Enoch contends that these tests demonstrate that we very much want to regard morality as being objective. We want to be able to say that torturing babies for fun is objectively wrong no matter what some people may think.

But we are still left with the Darwinian dilemma and consequently have at least one good reason to think that morality is not objective. Of course, some sort of theistic evolution can counter this, but are there any good arguments for objective morality other than our intuitions?

Yes, and they will be explored in part two, coming soon!

Does it matter if ID isn’t science?

Does it matter if ID isn’t science?

The Philosophical Apologist (PA) recently published a series of essays arguing that Intelligent Design (ID) is a pseudoscience. A pseudoscience is a non-scientific field whose proponents deliberately try to create the impression that it is scientific.

The conclusion stated that ‘based on ID’s clear failure to satisfy the necessary criteria of testability and empirical adequacy, ID as a discipline cannot be considered to fall within the realm of science’.

Fundamentally, ID is not testable in its current state, and testability is a key criteria for scientific status. ID is not science.

What does this mean for ID? Does it matter if ID isn’t science?

Yes and no.

Yes, it matters, because ID proponents repeatedly claim that ID is science. It seems very important to them that ID has this status. Science has a privileged position in modern society, and ID proponents obviously desire the associated privileges (prestige, funding, educational influence) for their field. And yet almost every philosopher of science disagrees with them about ID’s status. By insisting that it is science, ID becomes a pseudoscience.

On the other hand, consider the consequences if the ID world freely admits ID is not science, and that they are not seeking it to be. Scientists and philosophers of science would probably respect ID more, and there would be far less negative press about ID. Importantly, ID would no longer be considered a pseudoscience, because it would not be claiming to be science.

Of course, ID would no longer be a viable candidate for inclusion in science curricula, but since the Discovery Institute (the main organization behind ID) opposes the mandated teaching of ID in schools that should not be a major issue. There would be fewer damaging lawsuits like Kitzmiller vs Dover.

Presumably, ID proponents are more concerned about how this approach would change the general public’s perception of ID – perhaps it would lose the mantle of authority that the label of science provides, and consequently seem a less respectable position to hold.

That need not be the case. If ID isn’t science, what is it? Philosophy, of course – philosophical argument that is informed by science. So the desired mantle of authority can still be indirectly utilized to marshal evidence for ID. Modern ID arguments draw on the latest scientific research from a wide variety of scientific fields.

It’s also worth stating that ID’s scientific status has no bearing on whether ID arguments are good arguments or not.

Finally, it should be noted that design arguments have a long and distinguished history in philosophy. ID proponents would do well to embrace ID as philosophy rather than science, and not worry that they are somehow acknowledging ID as inferior.


Is Intelligent Design science?

Is Intelligent Design science?

Previous posts have proposed a demarcation criteria for science, and evaluated ID in considerable detail against these criteria.

Based on ID’s clear failure to satisfy the necessary criteria of testability and empirical adequacy, ID as a discipline can not be considered to fall within the realm of science. This is further confirmed by its lack of progressiveness and explanatory power.

This does not mean that ID researchers are not at times satisfying some of the criteria for doing science, but this is not sufficient to rescue ID from being classified as pseudoscience, particularly given their repeated claims of scientific status.

Where can ID go from here? It is possible that ID is a proto-science, and that in time a comprehensive theory of ID will be developed that proposes certain capabilities and motives of an intelligent designer, and possibly a mechanism for the instantiation of design in living organisms. Certainly, for ID to progress and become testable, a radical change in approach from denying any knowledge of the designer is required. Given that most ID proponents are theists, this may be a difficult step for ID to take.

There is an alternative, which is to forsake ID’s quest for scientific legitimacy, and concede that its positive arguments for design are more suitably classified as philosophy of religion, being primarily scientifically sophisticated versions of the teleological argument for design. Of course, this casts aside the mantle of scientific authority that many ID proponents see as important for swaying opinion, and is probably unacceptable for most in the ID community.


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Boudry, M., Blancke, S. and Braeckman, J. 2012: Grist to the Mill of Anti-evolutionism: The Failed Strategy of Ruling the Supernatural Out of Science by Philosophical Fiat. Sci & Educ, 21(8), 1151-1165.

Cleland, C. 2011: Prediction and Explanation in Historical Natural Science. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 62(3), 551-582.

Cleland, C. 2013: Common cause explanation and the search for a smoking gun. In Baker, V. (ed.) 125th Anniversary Volume of the Geological Society of America: Rethinking the Fabric of Geology, Special Paper 502 (2013), 1-9.

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Dembski, William A. 1998: The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Fitelson, B., Stephens, C. and Sober, E., 1999: How Not to Detect Design:The Design Inference. William A. Dembski. Philosophy of Science, 66(3), 472.

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Luskin, C. 2011: How Do We Know Intelligent Design Is a Scientific “Theory”? [online] Evolution News & Views. Available at: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/10/how_do_we_know_intelligent_des051841.html [Accessed 6 Jan. 2016].

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Orr, H.A. 1996: Darwin v. Intelligent Design (Again). Boston Review, December 1996/January 1997, 28–31.

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Evaluating Intelligent Design 2

Evaluating Intelligent Design 2

Empirical adequacy

Empirical adequacy is determined by the results of testing, and in the historical sciences, by the acceptance of a hypothesis over its competitors because of its superior causal explanation of empirical observations. Given that ID has been assessed as untestable, it cannot even be properly evaluated for empirical adequacy.

It is worth noting here that ID’s paragon example of IC (and CSI), the bacterial flagellum, is strongly disputed to be IC by evolutionary biologists, again suggesting empirical inadequacy.


PMN requires that an assumption of methodological naturalism be adopted unless there is ‘extraordinary empirical evidence’ that indicates otherwise. This includes hypotheses advanced in the historical sciences.

As discussed earlier, ID is not inherently supernatural, and so satisfies the PMN requirement. However the now familiar lack of detail about the designer’s capabilities, motives and mechanism certainly casts a pall of suspicion on ID, and seems to be a strategy to avoid violating PMN.


Does ID demonstrate the progressiveness expected of scientific endeavours? Does it develop theories, solve problems, and discard or modify them as require?

During the almost thirty years since its inception, ID has produced ideas such as Behe’s IC and Dembski’s specified complexity – flawed concepts as discussed above, but which have generated considerable debate. ID has also produced more sophisticated criticisms of evolutionary theory than its creation science predecessor, such as those by Stephen Meyer.

The primary issue, however, is the failure to develop a comprehensive theory, a situation already highlighted, and also acknowledged by Paul Nelson, a current Fellow of the Discovery Institute, at a meeting at Biola College in 2004: ‘Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus’ (Nelson, 2004).

Donald Prothero agreed, stating that ‘they don’t offer any new scientific ideas or a true alternative theory competing with evolution. All they argue is that some parts of nature seem too complex for them to imagine an evolutionary explanation’ (Prothero, 2010, 418).

In the decade or more since Paul Nelson made the statement above, little seems to have changed. Dembski’s ideas have not been further developed, and he has recently announced that he is abandoning further research in ID. There is no evidence that a detailed theory of design has

been developed (Luskin, 2013), and so there seems little empirical content to progress with. As a result, the conclusion is that ID does not satisfy the progressiveness indicator.

Explanatory power

Meyer claims that ‘[ID] provides a better explanation than any competing chemical evolutionary model for the origin of biological information’ (Meyer, 2009, 347). Similarly, Luskin states that ‘[ID] is an explanation of many aspects of the natural world, especially many aspects of biological complexity’ (Luskin, 2011).

However we have already noted the lack of any detail regarding the designer’s capabilities, motives and mechanisms. Essentially, the designer is undefined, and provides no more explanation than positing a deity does. This indicator is also not satisfied.

Peer review

The Discovery Institute maintains a list of ID-related peer-reviewed articles (Discovery Institute, 2016b). Many are not genuine peer-reviewed journal articles, but are book chapters, conference papers, and peer-edited and editor-reviewed articles. Most peer-reviewed articles deal with evolutionary science, highlighting particular issues, but do not mention ID. Articles directly supportive of ID are published in the Discovery Institute-funded open access journal BIO-Complexity.

It seems clear that ID practitioners are engaging in the peer-review process, and are contributing to evolutionary science, even if in a critical way. ID has also succeeded in provoking widespread discussion amongst evolutionary scientists, and although most of this is negative, it is also a form of peer-review.

It is concluded that ID satisfies the peer-review indicator.

Borrows knowledge

Unlike the creation science movement, which borrows knowledge from science only when supportive of its views (e.g. ‘young earth’ creationism’s rejection of radiometric dating), the ID community demonstrates willingness to draw on research from a broad range of scientific fields, including areas within biology, physics and chemistry.

Of course, ID does dispute many of the contentions of evolutionary theory, but this is expected as ID represents an alternative hypothesis. Certainly no basic science is disputed.

Claims to be science

The practitioners of a pseudoscience ‘deliberately attempt to create the impression that it is scientific’ (Hansson, 1996), and this is certainly the case for ID. The Discovery Institute has published numerous articles defending this position, and Stephen Meyer advances a detailed case (Meyer, 2009).

 Part 6: Is Intelligent Design science?

Evaluating Intelligent Design 1

Evaluating Intelligent Design 1

Having allowed that ID is not necessarily religious in nature and is capable of transcending its creationist origins, the task is to evaluate ID according to the proposed strategy outlined earlier. The three necessary criteria will be examined in detail, followed by the four indicators.


ID’s historical claims will need to be evaluated for testability by examining their causal explanations. Its hypotheses about design detection must also be examined for testability.

Historical testability

The basic hypothesis of ID states that ‘certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause’. However this is a very general hypothesis too vague to generate meaningful causal explanations. According to Elliott Sober, ‘testing the design hypothesis requires that we have information about the goals and abilities the designer would have’ (Sober, 1999).

Yet ID proponents explicitly deny any knowledge of the designer. Michael Behe states that ‘the reasons that a designer would or would not do anything are virtually impossible to know unless the designer tells you specifically what those reasons are’ (Behe, 1996). Similarly, Stephen Meyer says ID ‘does not claim to be able to determine the identity or any other attributes of that intelligence’ (Meyer, 2009, 428). A corollary is that the designer’s mechanism for creation is also unknown.

This lack of knowledge is used as a defence by ID proponents against the existence of apparently sub-optimal designs in nature – how can we know that a designer would not create them when we know nothing about their intentions? This, however, highlights the difficulty of testing such a minimalist version of intelligent design – what empirical observations would we expect from a designer whose attributes are unknown?

According to Behe and Meyer, ‘the conclusion that something was designed can be made quite independently of knowledge of the designer’ (Behe, 1996, 197), as ‘we know from experience only conscious, intelligent agents produce large amounts of specified information’ (Meyer, 2009, 429).

In terms of historical testing, their basic claim is that intelligent design can be reliably detected, and this is empirical evidence of a design event some time in the past. No auxiliary assumptions about the designer are necessary, and this evidence of design is Cleland’s ‘smoking gun’ that selects the design hypothesis over evolution.

This is a dubious claim, as it is dependent on an unstated assumption that human intelligence acts in a way analogous to designer intelligence, despite the very significant differences in capabilities and the denial of any knowledge about the designer. It is also vague enough to deny that sub-optimal designs could not be the product of this intelligence, as well accommodating any other empirical evidence that might be available. There is no indication as to how or why the intelligent designer does what it is claimed to do, and so very little is explained – in fact it provides no more explanation than the claim ‘God did it’ does. It has to be concluded that without a more developed theory, ID is untestable as a historical science.

Testability of design detection using CSI

William Dembski’s complex specified information (CSI) is at the heart of ID’s design detection claims. In terms of testability, the claim is that a biological feature that exhibits CSI has been designed by an intelligent agent.

This use of CSI is undermined by a theoretical flaw that makes this claim difficult to substantiate. Both the explanatory filter and Dembski’s more recent simplified approach of ruling out chance hypotheses (which now include regularities) require that currently unknown natural laws are rejected to conclude design. According to Fitelson, rejecting all possible chance and regularity hypotheses requires ‘ kind of omniscience’ (Fitelson et al, 1999) – both in the estimation of probabilities that are poorly defined, and because of these unknown laws. Given PMN’s presumption of naturalistic explanations, it is hard to see how a conclusion of design could be arrived at unless extraordinary empirical evidence confirms it. ID is not necessarily supernatural as has been discussed, but it is potentially supernatural and so still requires such evidence.

Is the design claim testable, despite this flaw? In principle, a series of tests could be devised that calculate CSI for human-designed and natural artefacts to validate the Dembski formula for human intelligence. However the auxiliary assumption that a designer would act in a way analogous to human intelligence would be required, as with historical testing. It also does not solve Fitelson’s issue, and so it is difficult to see how any tests can validate CSI’s applicability to design in biological organisms.

Testability of irreducible complexity

The first issue regarding testability is that IC is primarily a test of evolution rather than ID. If a truly IC feature was found, evolution would be falsified – but this would not necessarily rule out an alternative natural mechanism.

A further problem is that without any details of the designer and the mechanism, we can’t know an intelligent designer would build IC structures. Similarly, IC cannot falsify ID. If an evolutionary explanation is later found for a feature claimed to be IC, ID proponents can claim that they were mistaken about this feature being IC.

In terms of historical testing, an IC feature would certainly favour the ID hypothesis instead of evolution, but again the PMN requirement means that an extraordinary level of evidence is required for a feature to be considered IC.

How is IC determined? Luskin states that IC ‘can be tested for by reverse-engineering biological structures through genetic knockout experiments to determine if they require all of their parts to function’ (Luskin, 2011). But does this mean a structure is IC? To be definitive would surely involve examining all conceivable evolutionary scenarios for constructing the feature rather than just determining if all parts are required. This would need to include the possibility of exaptation, where the function of a biological trait can change during its evolutionary history. H. Allen Orr complicates things further by suggesting ‘an irreducibly complex system can be built gradually by adding parts that, while initially just advantageous, become— because of later changes—essential’ (Orr, 1996).

Behe himself notes ‘an exhaustive consideration of all possible roles for a particular component can’t be done’ (Behe, 1996, 111). Behe rather is claiming that it is extremely unlikely that certain features he has identified as irreducibly complex could have evolved gradually, i.e. his is a probabilistic argument: ‘one can not definitively rule out the possibility of an indirect, circuitous route. As the complexity of an interacting system increases, though, the likelihood of such an indirect route drops precipitously’ (Behe, 1996, 40).

However Behe’s discussions of supposedly IC features such as blood clotting, the bacterial flagellum and the immune system do not perform any probabilistic calculations (Behe, 1996). They describe the systems in some detail and highlight their complexity, as well as the current lack of knowledge concerning their evolution. How the relevant probabilities could be calculated for an unknown process is not discussed, and it is difficult to see how a conclusive decision could be made. They primarily seem to be arguments from incredulity, and so IC’s testability is problematic.

Testability of evolution criticisms

ID’s various criticisms of evolutionary theory listed above also offer no direct positive evidence for ID, and are again tests of evolution rather than ID.

But when comparing historical hypotheses, criticisms of one hypothesis are indirect support for the other. According to Stephen Meyer, ‘since design hypotheses are often formulated as strong claims about intelligence as the best causal explanation of some particular phenomenon, these hypotheses entail counter-claims about the insufficiency of competing materialistic mechanisms’ (Meyer, 2009, 482). This seems reasonable – provided that ID is providing a causal explanation. But we have already concluded that ID provides little explanation at all, and so this claim seems very weak.

ID’s predictions

Stephen Meyer lists ‘a dozen ID-inspired predictions’ (Meyer, 2009, 482-483). Representative examples are briefly examined below.

One prediction is that instances of ‘bad design’ will eventually show evidence of degenerated original designs, or functional reasons for the supposedly bad design – for example, the backward wiring of the retina.

Another is that the fossil record should show evidence of sudden appearances of major forms of life, and limits to the amount of change organisms undergo discovered.

A final example is that ‘no undirected process will demonstrate the capacity to generate 500 bits of new information starting from a non-biological source’, which draws on Dembski’s CSI.

These predictions are not testable. Some predictions (e.g. ‘bad design’) are not falsifiable in that they predict an event vindicating ID at an unspecified future point. Other predictions of future events that would falsify ID (e.g. generating bits of information) cannot easily be tested. And finally some predictions (e.g. concerning the fossil record) are vague enough that in practice they are not falsifiable.


So is ID testable? Without any knowledge of the designer, there are no specific empirical predictions that can genuinely test the theory. Both CSI and IC have significant theoretical flaws that cast doubt on the veracity of design detection, which is the key claim in ID’s quiver. There is also little evidence to suggest that these concepts can be used in practice. Criticisms of evolution are tests of evolutionary theory, not ID. So ID’s key tenets are currently not testable, and we have also concluded that ID is not testable as a historical science. ID fails the stated criteria for science at the first hurdle.

 Part 5: Evaluating Intelligent Design – part 2

What is Intelligent Design?

What is Intelligent Design?

A brief history of Intelligent design

ID has its roots in the modern ‘creation science’ movement pioneered in the 1960s by Henry M. Morris and his influential book, The Genesis Flood. During the 1970s and 1980s, creationist organisations vigorously promoted ‘young earth’ creationism – a commitment to a literal interpretation of the six days of creation recorded in Genesis.

In 1987, Edwards v. Aguillard ruled that the teaching of creation science in schools was unconstitutional, as it was a religious doctrine. Subsequently, the ID movement was launched, largely as a result of lawyer Phillip E. Johnson’s leadership and publication of Darwin on Trial. It eloquently repeated popular creationist criticisms of Darwinian evolution, and was critical of what Johnson perceived as science’s presumption of naturalism. Crucially, Johnson chose to avoid contentious issues such as interpreting Genesis and the age of the earth, and focused on a more fundamental issue – is life intelligently designed or the result of blind, natural causes? The main intellectual centre of ID quickly became the non-profit think tank The Discovery Institute.

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District was another significant trial in which demarcation was a central issue, this time concerning the teaching of ID in schools. Judge John E. Jones III used methodological naturalism as a key demarcation criterion, and concluded that ID was a religious argument, not science. Despite this setback, ID’s influence continued to grow, aided by the popularity of books such as Signature in the Cell (Meyer, 2009) and Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013).

What is Intelligent design?

The Discovery Institute defines ID as a theory holding ‘that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection’ (Discovery Institute, 2016a). Implicit in this definition is the assumption that this intelligent cause is not biologically related to and is ultimately responsible for the existence of all living things.

More specifically, the Discovery Institute states that ID ‘is based on observations of nature which the theory attempts to explain based on what we know about the cause and effect structure of the world and the patterns that generally indicate intelligent causes. Intelligent design is an inference from empirical evidence’ (Meyer, 2008). They explicitly state that ID ‘is a scientific theory that employs the methods commonly used by other historical sciences’ (Discovery Institute, 2016c).

There are two important points worth noting about these definitions. Firstly, they are non-religious, and the intelligent cause is not specified. Secondly, ID purports to be based on empirical evidence, and is explicitly claimed to be scientific.

Key tenets

The vast majority of ID literature concerns three main areas: specified complexity, irreducible complexity, and various anti-evolution arguments.

Specified complexity

William Dembski’s The Design Inference (Dembski, 1998) attempted to place design arguments such as William Paley’s on a firmer footing by proposing a theoretical basis for detecting design. His ‘explanatory filter’ is a three-step procedure for deciding upon the best explanation for an observation (such as seeing Paley’s watch lying on a beach).

The filter first considers if a regularity (basically a deterministic consequence) is responsible for the observation. If this can be ruled out, chance is then considered, and if the probability of the observation being a chance occurrence is sufficiently low, design is concluded to be responsible. Dembski calls the probabilistic threshold for selecting design over chance the ‘universal probability bound’, calculating it to be 1 in 10150. This very large number is guesstimated as an upper bound on the number of physical events that could have occurred in the universe since the Big Bang. An observation classified as the result of design is said to have exhibited specified complexity, or complex specified information (CSI).

In more recent work (Dembski, 2005), the explanatory filter appears to have been largely discarded. Dembski collapses regularities and chance categories into one category, chance, and develops a formula for CSI, and a threshold for choosing design over chance.

Irreducible complexity

The concept of ‘irreducible complexity’ (IC) is the claim that evolution is incapable of producing certain complex biological structures. An IC structure is one form of CSI. In the Origin, Darwin wrote ‘if it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down’ (Darwin, 1859, 189). Michael Behe applied this idea to biochemical systems.

According to Behe, a system is IC if it is ‘a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning’ (Behe, 1996, 39). Behe claims that such a system cannot have been produced by evolution, as its evolutionary precursor, missing one or more of the parts, would be non-functional.

Behe has proposed numerous biochemical systems as IC, including cell cilia, the bacterial flagellum, and the process of blood clotting.

Criticisms of evolutionary theory

ID’s criticisms of evolutionary theory are widely discussed in ID literature, and are also heavily promoted in the creation science movement – often as fatal flaws that threaten to demolish Darwinism. They include familiar arguments about the lack of intermediate fossils in the fossil record, the rapid appearance of complex lifeforms during the Cambrian explosion, the failure to produce a workable theory for abiogenesis, and cellular complexity.

Is ID creation science or religious?

The close links between creation science and ID have been well documented (Matzke, 2009). The Kitzmiller judgement ruled that ‘ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents’ (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 2005, 136), reasoning that the designer must be supernatural. This was a major factor in concluding ID was not a science.

This approach seems a dubious basis for demarcation. There are non-supernatural alternatives such as intelligent aliens, or that we are part of a post-human computer simulation. Historically, many sciences have disentangled themselves from questionable origins, and ID proponents have made considerable efforts to do so.

Phillip E. Johnson, in founding ID, made clear the differences between ID and creationism. Stephen Meyer states that ID ‘does not offer an interpretation of the book of Genesis, nor does it posit a theory about the length of the Biblical days of creation or even the age of the earth’ and ‘unlike creationism, is not based upon the Bible ‘ (Meyer, 2008).

Creation science organisations clearly state that science is subservient to Biblical authority (Creation Ministries International, 2015). This is not the case for the Discovery Institute, and ID’s definition has no religious references – it is ‘not a deduction from religious authority’ (Meyer, 2008). It is true that most of its proponents have a belief in some form of supernatural creator, but this is not a fatal objection – after all, most Renaissance scientists shared this belief.

In the interests of an impartial evaluation, ID will be assumed to be non-religious as claimed. Its scientific status will be evaluated on its current characteristics rather than its origins.

Part 4: Evaluating Intelligent Design – part 1