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C4ID – Apologetic

December 24, 2010

I was going to do a few more serious posts over Christmas, but instead last night I got distracted by the hilarity that is creationism. And that led me to the Centre for Intelligent Design. Note that the home page says that “Intelligent Design is definitely NOT Creationism. That’s OK then.

Alas, this isn’t some America-based haven for ID. It’s based in Glasgow. The page is a treasure trove of bad arguments, but I was drawn to the article Intelligent Design is an explanation not an apologetic.

Intelligent Design is not a religious apologetic but a scientific explanation of the observed data.  It offers an explanation for the apparent design in nature.  And the explanation offered is really quite simple – the design is real, not imagined

The first question this raises is how C4ID define design. We can all say “that looks designed”, but what exactly do we mean? The closest I can find on their website is in the “Intro to ID”. Bear in mind that we are also told that “It is easier to detect design than to describe how we recognise it!”, itself a warning that we are entering the territory of the shifting definition.

Intelligent Design is an example of the science of design detection – how to identify patterns arranged by an intelligent cause for a purpose

Design is detectable when there is low probability and high specificity.

For a “science” that claims not to presuppose the existence of a god this seems odd. The rationale seems to me to be “god exists, how can we detect his handiwork?”. Why would we come up with a “design detection” science if we didn’t have religious grounds to doubt the alternative, evolution?

Anyway, the definition. “Low probability and high specificity” is essentially the definition (or a definition) given by Dembski. It says that we can infer design when the probability of a specific feature occurring by chance is very low and at the same time the feature shows some pattern and fulfils a purpose. The definition of “very low” has been changed (see link), but I think it is something like 1/(total number of possible bit operations in history of the universe).

However, ID advocates generally don’t understand the interplay of evolution, probability and randomness, more of which later.

Intelligent design begins with the empirical data and takes an inductive approach – how are the origin, development and operation of natural and living systems best explained?  The conclusion that they are designed and meant to be as they are is a much more convincing explanation of the data than the alternative proposition that they self-assembled randomly and developed without direction.

I can answer the question (apart from the abiogenesis bit…). Evolution! Sure, things look designed. That’s because evolution doesn’t work through random self-assembly. As people like Dawkins, Coyne et al repeatedly stress, evolution is the spread of random traits through a very non-random process. Mutations that are beneficial stay and get built on. IDists can’t get away from the scrapyard analogy. Evolution is like a tornado blowing through a scrapyard and assembling a 747. Wrong. Not how it works. It’s either a deliberate strawman or a stupid argument.

From the “Intro to ID”:

We know that information can only arise from prior intelligence and the clear implication of the information content of DNA is that it was assembled by a designing intelligence.

Doesn’t this presuppose that evolution can’t generate complex systems? And surely we know that simple rules can generate “information”. Consider something like the Mandlebrot set. It packs in a lot of information, and yet is generated by simple rules. Similar (but not quite fractal…) patterns are seen in nature. No need for a designer. But back to “ID isn’t an apologetic, honest”.

The information in living systems is real and raises, to an enquiring scientific mind, the question of its origin.  To make a valid inference about this we need to offer an explanation which is known to apply elsewhere and to operate in the way we propose.

When I read this I got a faint hint of Paley and his watch (ok, it was more than faint). Just because we know that one complicated thing has an actual designer doesn’t mean that another does. We infer a designer for a watch because we know such things have designers. We have no similar way of inferring a designer for nature – what we do have is a theory that explains how apparent design arises.

Well it’s not hard to see what it is.  The only known source of specified functional information is intelligent mind and to infer that the information in living systems has a similar source is entirely consistent with scientific deductions.  To propose the alternative that this all somehow self-assembled, which curiously almost everybody accepts without question, is contrary to all human experience and reason.  It is about as unscientific as you can be.

Facts and Implications

So what is important in this debate is to get the science straight before you begin to draw philosophical or theological conclusions.  In this area Bob Carling is hopelessly confused and has the argument the wrong way round.  It is certainly the case that if ID is correct it gives support to theistic belief.  But in no way does it depend on it.  And because of that ID is not offered as a religious apologetic.

This is where I think ID really breaks down, even more than it already has. If we attribute the “design” in nature to an intelligent designer, are we not saying that as a prior hypothesis we accept the existence of at least one such designer? If we do not establish this existence prior to attributing some design to him (in a non-gender-specific way…), what is that content of the theory? I think there are two options.

  1. ID is saying “here is some cool feature in nature that looks designed. Isn’t it complicated!”. Now we have to find an explanation for it. Evolution works, the alternative is to say “it’s a mystery, a designer did it”. Or
  2. ID is saying “a designer exists. Can we find evidence of his existence? Look at this feature in nature. Isn’t it complicated! It must have been built by the designer!”.

The first is just what scientists do all the time with an option to play the mystery card of the “god of the gaps”. The second is just an apologetic. But:

ID theorists are not dealing with gaps – the biological complexity is real, the information content of living things is massive and the ID explanation is consistent with all human experience and reason.

It’s only consistent if you ignore science since the 1850s. Which I prefer not to do.

The only gap fillers I see are ‘evolution of the gaps’ or the ‘science of the gaps’ which are regularly applied, with billions of years adduced as the great enabler.  This Darwinian approach really amounts to, ‘we don’t have an explanation, but give us time and we’ll find an evolutionary one because it must be the correct one’.

I tried not to laugh at this. But it was hard. If evolution wasn’t one of the best-tested and most supported scientific theories in existence he might have a point. But he doesn’t.

I think what is really unacceptable to the establishment about ID is that it departs from the philosophy of materialism which now dominates the pursuit of science.  This philosophy says, essentially, that only physical or material processes can be considered as valid explanations.  Any other explanation, such as an intelligent cause of the universe, must be ruled out before you begin to assess the evidence.  ID, on the other hand, prefers to go where the evidence leads.

This “philosophy” says, along with Laplace, that “I have no need of that hypothesis”. We can explain things without the supernatural. If the supernatural turned out to exist, scientists would be fascinated by it, try to work out how it works, what it does, why it does it. But there is no need to invoke supernatural deities to explain evolution. It goes where the evidence leads.

What should science do?

…it might be better to do the honourable thing and leave the field because its tools are clearly inadequate to the task of assessing the actual evidence.

Does the author of this piece have another, more accurate method for assessing the truth of claims about the world that the scientific method? I’d love to know what it is. Hopefully it’s better than the special pleading on offer so far.

…that’s what ID is – a fresh way of looking at the natural world.  It is an approach that is attuned to the information technology of the 21st century, and not just the natural history of the 19th.  Just as physics moved from Newtonian laws to quantum mechanics, so biology needs to embrace what is now known about the genetic software which runs all living processes.  In another sense, of course, ID is not new at all and is the view of the universe which gave rise to the scientific revolution in the first place.

C4ID want to take us back to 1802 and Paley’s Natural Theology. The scientific revolution left that behind. Just because ID has embraced modern ways of talking about “design” doesn’t mean that the idea has moved on. It’s still just a desperate attempt by religious apologists to use are natural tendency to see design and purpose in things that are built on randomness. Personally I like the idea that we’re here as the result of billions of years of evolution. It makes the fact that I can sit here typing all the more incredible.

So there we go. The modern face of creationism. Assume a designer and go look for evidence of his existence that sounds scientifically credible. Unless you know science, history, philosophy or any other branch of knowledge that involve logic.

If you’ve made it this far… Happy Christmas!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 25, 2010 5:26 AM

    Nice article. The BCSE have some background on the main figures behind the C4ID (, and I’ve blogged about many of C4ID’s activities at including a look at C4ID’s ‘Introduction to Intelligent Design’ (

  2. December 25, 2010 11:44 AM

    Thanks for the links, well done for ploughing through the “Intro to ID”. I’m planning on taking a closer look at that sometime.

    C4ID are certainly worth keeping an eye on. If they are in fact aiming to get ID into classrooms as the BCSE say then it would be deplorable to let them get away with it on the quiet without anyone noticing.

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