Intelligent Design Isn’t ‘Stealth Creationism’

William Dembski ID relies not on Genesis but on reliable scientific methods for discriminating designed from undesigned structures. Reprinted from The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design.

Intelligent design needs to be distinguished from creation science, or scientific creationism. The most obvious difference is that scientific creationism has prior religious commitments whereas intelligent design does not. Scientific creationism is committed to two religious presuppositions and interprets the data of science to fit those presuppositions. Intelligent design, by contrast, has no prior religious commitments and interprets the data of science on generally accepted scientific principles. In particular, intelligent design does not depend on the biblical account of creation. The two presuppositions of scientific creationism are as follows:

* There exists a supernatural agent who creates and orders the world.
* The biblical account of creation recorded in Genesis is scientifically accurate.

The supernatural agent presupposed by scientific creationism is usually understood as the transcendent, personal God of the well-known monotheistic religions, specifically Christianity. This God is said to create the world out of nothing (i.e., without the use of preexisting materials). Moreover, the sequence of events by which this God creates is said to parallel the biblical record. By contrast, intelligent design nowhere attempts to identify the intelligent cause responsible for the design in nature, nor does it prescribe in advance the sequence of events by which this intelligent cause had to act.

Besides differing in their presuppositions, intelligent design and scientific creationism differ in their propositional content and method of inquiry. Intelligent design begins with data that scientists observe in the laboratory and nature, identifies in them patterns known to signal intelligent causes and thereby ascertains whether a phenomenon was designed. For design theorists, the conclusion of design constitutes an inference from data, not a deduction from religious authority. In addition, the propositional content of intelligent design differs significantly from that of scientific creationism. Scientific creationism is committed to the following propositions:

SC1: There was a sudden creation of the universe, energy and life from nothing.
SC2: Mutations and natural selection are insufficient to bring about the development of all living kinds from a single organism.
SC3: Changes of the originally created kinds of plants and animals occur only within fixed limits.
SC4: There is a separate ancestry for humans and apes.
SC5: The earth’s geology can be explained via catastrophism, primarily by the occurrence of a worldwide flood.
SC6: The earth and living kinds had a relatively recent inception (on the order of thousands or tens of thousands of years).

Intelligent design, on the other hand, is committed to the following propositions:

ID1: Specified complexity and irreducible complexity are reliable indicators or hallmarks of design.
ID2: Biological systems exhibit specified complexity and employ irreducibly complex subsystems.
ID3: Naturalistic mechanisms or undirected causes do not suffice to explain the origin of specified complexity or irreducible complexity.
ID4: Therefore, intelligent design constitutes the best explanation for the origin of specified complexity and irreducible complexity in biological systems.

A comparison of these two lists shows that intelligent design and scientific creationism differ markedly in content.

Intelligent design is modest in what it attributes to the designing intelligence responsible for the specified complexity in nature. For instance, design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the competence of science and must be left to religion and philosophy. Intelligent design, as a scientific theory, is distinct from a theological doctrine of creation. Creation presupposes a creator who originates the world and all its materials. Intelligent design only attempts to explain the arrangement of materials within an already given world. Design theorists argue that certain arrangements of matter, especially in biological systems, clearly signal a designing intelligence.

Besides presupposing a supernatural agent, scientific creationism also presupposes the scientific accuracy of the biblical account of creation. Proponents of scientific creationism treat the opening chapters of Genesis as a scientific text and thus argue for a literal six-day creation, the existence of a historical Adam and Eve, a literal Garden of Eden, a catastrophic worldwide flood and so on. Scientific creationism takes the biblical account of creation in Genesis as its starting point and then attempts to match the data of nature to the biblical account.

Intelligent design, by contrast, starts with the data of nature and from there argues that an intelligent cause is responsible for the specified complexity in nature. Moreover, in making such an argument, intelligent design relies not on narrowly held prior assumptions but on reliable methods developed within the scientific community for discriminating designed from undesigned structures. Scientific creationism’s reliance on narrowly held prior assumptions undercuts its status as a scientific theory. Intelligent design’s reliance on widely accepted scientific principles, on the other hand, ensures its legitimacy as a scientific theory.

These differences between intelligent design and scientific creationism have significant legal implications for advancing intelligent design in the public square. In formulating its position on scientific creationism in Edwards v Aguillard, the Supreme Court cited the District Court in McLean v. Arkansas Beard of Education. According to the Supreme Court, scientific creationism is not just similar to the Genesis account of creation but is in fact identical to it and is parallel to no other creation story. Because scientific creationism corresponds point for point with the creation and flood narratives in Genesis, the Supreme Court found scientific creationism to be a religious doctrine and not a scientific theory.

Intelligent design, by contrast, is free from such charges of religious entanglement. Intelligent design is not scientific creationism cloaked in newer and more sophisticated terminology. Intelligent design shares none of scientific creationism’s religious commitments. Scientific creationism describes the origin of the universe, its duration, the mechanisms responsible for geological formations, the limits to evolutionary change and the beginnings of humanity, all the while conforming its account of creation to the first chapters of Genesis. In contrast, intelligent design makes no claims about the origin or duration of the universe, is not committed to flood geology, can accommodate any degree of evolutionary change, does not prejudge how human beings arose and does not specify in advance how a designing intelligence brought the first organisms into being.

Consequently, it is mistaken and unfair to confuse intelligent design with scientific creationism. Whereas the creator underlying scientific creationism conforms to a strict, literalist interpretation of the Bible, the designer underlying intelligent design need not even be a deity. To be sure, the designer is compatible with the creator-God of the world’s major monotheistic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But the designer is also compatible with the watchmaker-God of the deists, the Demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus and the divine reason (i.e., logos spermatikos) of the ancient Stoics. One can even take an agnostic view about the designer, treating specified complexity as a brute fact inherently unexplainable in terms of chance and necessity. Unlike scientific creationism, intelligent design does not prejudge such questions as Who is the designer? or How does the designer go about designing and building things?


1 thought on “Intelligent Design Isn’t ‘Stealth Creationism’

  1. SC1: There was a sudden creation of the universe, energy and life from nothing.
    SC2: Mutations and natural selection are insufficient to bring about the development of all living kinds from a single organism.

    SC2 does not seem inconsistent with Intelligent Design beliefs.

    While ID does not comment on the creation of the universe or energy, ID proponents do not believe that living creatures evolved from other living creatures, so it’s not a stretch to say they believe that life was “created.”

    Would it be correct to say that, based on this essay, Intelligent Design consists of a set of propositions which are a part of, but not the entirety of, beliefs held by scientific creationists? They are not the same thing because ID only deals with a portion of the propositions put forth by scientific creationism?

    None of the ID propositions presented in this article contradict the SC beliefs. They just don’t contain statements about geology, the age of the earth, or the nature of the Creator.

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