I have not written about intelligent design (ID) in a long while, in part due to having other things to write about and also in part due to the desire to get my own thoughts about ID organized. What better way, then, to return to the topic than to ask, “What is ID?” The following is a brief answer to this question. Any of the topics covered here could be expanded and discussed more deeply. This is merely an attempt to present a brief summary of where I think ID stands. Feel free to comment and elaborate on any point as you feel inclined.
To begin, I take the definition of intelligent design given at the intelligent design blog Uncommon Descent:
“The theory of intelligent design (ID) holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection.”
ID distinguishes between nature and artifice
ID thus begins by contrasting intelligent causes and undirected natural processes. To give some common examples, Mount Rushmore is identified as the product of an intelligent cause in distinction to a mountain shaped simply by geological processes; an archaeologist identifies artifacts in distinction to rocks or twigs and such formed by nature; and a scientist with SETI hopes to identify an artificial radio signal in distinction to the natural radio noise that comes from space. Similarly, ID thinkers argue, some aspects of nature, particularly in living organisms, cannot have come about by natural processes.
ID recognizes an analogy between artifacts and organisms
What distinguishes Mount Rushmore from other mountains, artifacts from pebbles, and signals from noise? Each of these things has a purposeful arrangement of parts. The parts of these things are arranged in a purposeful way in order to serve the whole. Natural things, on the other hand, have parts that are arranged accidentally, simply as a result of natural forces acting upon them.
Like each of these artifacts, organisms also have a purposeful arrangement of parts. The parts of an organism work together to serve the organism as a whole. Like artifacts, organisms are not accidental collections, but ordered towards unity.
Organisms are natural entities
This point is important to take a moment on, because it has been one of dispute between philosophers – Thomists in particular – and ID advocates. Some have seen in ID’s emphasis on this analogy an implication that ID argues that organisms are just artifacts or mechanisms, a view that has been widely emphasized in reductionist scientism. In reality, these critics rightly assert, organisms are not just artifacts. Artifacts have a unity, but it is accidental or artificial, imposed upon them by artificers. Organisms, on the other hand, are not accidental unities, but natural ones. They have a unity based in themselves, not an artificial one cobbled together by nature. In other words, we must recognize that organisms are real beings, not just collections of entities that happen to work together.
I think that some ID thinkers may make this mistake, but it is not clear to me that ID must make this mistake. The key point that ID emphasizes, it seems to me, is that there is an analogy between the purposeful and unlikely arrangement of parts in organisms and the purposeful and unlikely arrangement of parts in artifacts.
ID makes a distinction not found in traditional arguments for God
In distinguishing, then, between some aspects of nature and others, ID is taking a different tack than traditional philosophical arguments for a Creator. For Thomists, for instance, both Mount Rushmore and a generic mountain would be equally good arguments for an intelligent Creator. Both possess the features that, upon philosophical reflection, lead back to God. These arguments are described in detail elsewhere; I just want to point out here that general philosophical arguments to God from nature do not rely on the distinction that ID makes. Any aspect of nature is enough.
ID is an argument for intervention
ID, therefore, is focusing not on nature in general, but on one particular aspect of nature, namely, a particular purposeful order of parts. ID argues that the best explanation for this order of parts is intelligent agency.
However, even more distinction is necessary here. If ID was arguing only that the particular order found in organisms served as the basis for a particular argument towards intelligence, it would constitute merely a philosophical argument that had no bearing on the findings of science. It certainly wouldn’t have any problem with evolution, either. In practice, though, ID attempts to show that the kind of design it detects in nature is not able to come about through natural processes. (cf. the definition given above.) ID therefore is committed to not merely establishing that certain kinds of order are evidence of intelligence generally, but rather that certain kinds of order are evidence of intelligent intervention.
The key here is the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes. Traditional philosophical arguments for intelligence demonstrate the necessity of intelligence ultimately. Even when the proximate or immediate cause of something is natural and material, as for instance when geological forces carve up a mountain, intelligence can still be deduced from the ultimate causes of the mountain. For traditional philosophy, this teleology or evidence of intelligence is in every single aspect of nature, not just some of them.
ID, on the other hand, attempts to argue for the necessity of intelligent agency proximately, or as an immediate efficient cause of the order found in organisms. This can be seen in ID’s distinction between what nature can do and what intelligence can do. This distinction is not present in the arguments for intelligence as an ultimate cause. It is only useful if we are arguing that intelligent agency is an immediate cause of organisms.
If ID merely argued that the source of intelligence was ultimately intelligence, it would have no quarrels with evolution. It seems clear to me, then, that ID is arguing for intervention. Just to what extent such intervention occurred varies depending on whom you talk to, but if ID is claiming something that has a bearing on whether or not evolution is true, ID must be arguing for some degree of direct and immediate intelligent intervention.
Whether or not ID is correct in establishing that intervention occurred, it is a separate question from the question of whether intelligence is finally necessary. The debate about ID is not particularly a debate about whether or not there is intelligence behind nature; it is a debate about the methods used to develop nature.
ID begins by analogizing between artifacts and organisms, but precisely because artifacts are artifacts and organisms are not, this analogy can only go so far. ID depends on arguing that organisms possess a kind of order that is only found in the products of immediate intelligent agency, rather than in natural causes. It may be true that artifacts cannot come about except by intelligent intervention, but because organisms are natural, not artifacts, it isn’t enough just to establish that both artifacts and organisms possesses complex purposeful arrangements of parts. It also has to be shown that natural processes cannot have reasonably produced those arrangements of parts, which is exactly what evolution purports to do. If nature is incapable of producing this sort of order, the argument for intervention would be stronger. If, on the other hand, natural processes are capable of producing this order, it would be evidence against the hypothesis of intelligent intervention – however, it would not be evidence against the necessity for intelligence ultimately.