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The False Dichotomy of Intelligent Design

Reading the blogs at the Discovery Institute is always an educational experience.  I’ve made it a point to regularly visit their “Evolution News & Views” blog.  Evolution News & Views features a group of authors who support the notion of Intelligent Design (ID).  It features op-eds and coverage of the latest happenings in the worlds of ID and evolution.  Among its authors is Dr. Michael Egnor, who has been discussed on the Skeptics’ Guide mainly regarding his ongoing debate with Dr. Novella regarding dualism/materialism.

I consider it an educational experience because I am, as most of you can probably guess, not a proponent of the notion of ID.  But I visit the blog to try to understand the “other side” of the debate.  I go to read up on what their current best arguments are for ID, to study their tactics, and to occasionally play “Name That Logical Fallacy”.

This week, a post on the blog by Jonathan Wells endeavors to define Intelligent Design.  It is a post adapted from his book, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design“.

He defines Intelligent Design as the following:

Intelligent design maintains that it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided natural processes. Since ID relies on evidence rather than on scripture or religious doctrines, it is not creationism or a form of religion.

I’ll be honest, when it comes to Intelligent Design, what I see is just a repackaged version of Creationism that attempts to keep the mention of religion or God out of the equation.   So what is this “empirical evidence” that Wells describes?  What empirical evidence suggests that Intelligent Design is a more viable notion than the theory of evolution?

When I do a quick search for the best lines of evidence for ID, all I come up with are counter-arguments to the theory of evolution such as irreducible complexity.  It occurs to me that ID proponents are committing the logical fallacy of the false dichotomy here.  If evolution is disproved, the only possible alternative is Intelligent Design.

Perhaps I’m not looking in the right places for the evidence for ID.  Can anyone point me in the right direction?

Wells continues:

ID does not deny the reality of variation and natural selection; it just denies that those phenomena can accomplish all that Darwinists claim they can accomplish.

“Darwinists” is what ID proponents call people who accept the theory of evolution,  It’s basically a propaganda tactic that attempts to paint evolution theory proponents as dogmatic and inflexible in their “beliefs”.

Alright, so according to ID proponents, I’m a Darwinist.  I’m also a Newtonist, an Einsteinist, a Keplerist, and the list goes on.

Finally, Wells writes:

ID does not maintain that all species were created in their present form; indeed, some ID advocates have no quarrel with the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor. ID challenges only the sufficiency of unguided natural processes and the Darwinian claim that design in living things is an illusion rather than a reality.

Again,  the same false dichotomy rears its ugly head.  ID challenges evolution, if evolution is proven wrong, ID wins.  But it seems that not everything is designed as intelligently as ID proponents would argue.  Take the eye for example.  I’ll refer you to a couple of excellent posts on Steve’s NeuroLogica Blog regarding the seemingly haphazard way that the eye is “designed”.  Here, and here.

ID proponents have argued that ID is a scientific theory.  To me, ID is simply Creationism wearing a shitty halloween costume.  In order for it to be a viable scientific theory, it has to at least be testable and falsifiable.  How can we test and falsify an all-powerful designer?

12 comments to The False Dichotomy of Intelligent Design

  • Yoo

    Until intelligent design proponents explain the hows (“how did the designer make the designs real?”, “how does the designer work?”, etc.), I wouldn’t give even a modicum of respect to their claims. Although I doubt the evidence would back up their hypotheses even if they came up with them.

  • To come at it from a different perspective, I often ask what is so intelligent about any perceived design of living things. Then go on to point out the many unintelligent aspects visible everywhere.
    A glaringly obvious example is the problem of having the waste organs so closely tied to the reproductive organs in many species. It causes many problems that could have been easily avoided with a bit of intelligent designing.
    Even your average intelligent town planner would not put a sewer through the middle of a play area.

  • False Dichotomy is right.

    I find that in order to pick out the fallacy in an argument, you need to tentatively accept the premise as true. For this case, let’s take the premise that Darwinian Evolution is wrong. If Darwinian Evolution is false, does that mean Intelligent Design is true? There could be other explanations, such as Lamarckian Evolution. Also, you could say that Darwinian Evolution (or some form of it) and Intelligent Design are not mutually exclusive, and therefore would make the argument invalid. If both can be true at the same time, then one being false would not automatically make the other true.

    What ID needs to do is offer up positive evidence, preferably something that is not an elaborate ‘argument from incredulity’.

  • Rob

    ID has two arguments and they are both pathetic. First is Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity”, which claims since he can’t figure out how something evolved by a natural process, then it must be magic. The lawyer in the Dover trial used his own quotes to cross examine him and made him look like a fool.

    The other argument is William Dembski’s “specified complexity”, which is a complicated mathematical formula using information theory which supposedly shows that a certain feature could not have evolved because of the low probability. Dembski’s idea is so mathematically opaque that a lay person would not be able to understand or refute his claim. The consensus among mathematicians is that his calculations are fatally flawed and his theory is garbage.

  • Sporkyy

    The piece of ID I’ve always wanted to see expounded upon was a time line of some sort.

    We can look at genetics and fossils to create an evolutionary time line. Surely ID proponents, who base their “theory” on that same evidence, can produce a time line of their own.

    I understand ID proponents wanting to avoid explaining who the intelligent designer is, because it’s obviously god. I can see them them avoiding explaining how the intelligent designs came to be implemented, because it’s obviously magic. ID proponents know better than to touch the question of why the intelligent designer designed what they claim, because that requires a religious answer.

    Really the only answer they offer is what they claim the intelligent designer did. And even that is defined as “some features of the natural world”. That is so vague, they may as well not say anything at all.

    That leaves two questions when and where. I’ll mostly given them a pass on the where question. Look at how anthropologists, real scientists, are still working on human evolution. Using that as the point of comparison, I think ID proponents should be able to narrow it down to a continent (hopefully other than Atlantis, Lemuria or Mu). That just leaves the question of when the intelligent designer designed something. I think some ID proponent should have some idea of when the first design event or the most recent design event occurred. Those are scientific questions that don’t require a religious answer.

  • Chris Noble

    Phillip Johnson spells out the false dichotomy so clearlt that even IDers have no excuse for being confused.


    Johnson: I’d like to start with the first question. It is sometimes said that the hypothesis that there is a designer is untestable. This is false. It is testable, and the test is Darwinian evolution. The claim of the evolutionary biologists is that unintelligent causes did the whole job. If they can prove it, then the counter-hypothesis that you need intelligence has been tested, and it has been shown to be false.

  • Torgo

    “When I do a quick search for the best lines of evidence for ID, all I come up with are counter-arguments to the theory of evolution such as irreducible complexity. It occurs to me that ID proponents are committing the logical fallacy of the false dichotomy here. If evolution is disproved, the only possible alternative is Intelligent Design.”

    I’m no fan of ID, but this seems like a common Straw Man. ID proponents don’t just claim that if evolution can’t explain something, the only option is an intelligent designer. Rather, the claim I’ve often heard is that it is reasonable to infer a Designer, since all the examples of irreducible complexity we know of have intelligent causes. If the flagellum–to use Behe’s tired example–can’t be explained naturally, and if such structures are always found to have intelligent causes, then it’s reasonable to conclude that an intelligence caused it.

    If ID is correct, though, it would seem that God–excuse me, the Designer, whoever it is–has some fondness for flagellums (flagella?) and the few other examples the IDers cite. Why not make more things irreducibly complex, and make the Designer’s existence more obvious?

    Anyway, just wanted to direct our attacks at the right argument. Can we show that this inference is a poor one?

  • Intelligent Design is also an assertion of the kind that invokes God’s Hand via a mechanism that religious philosophers call ‘The Argument From Miracles’ (even though Hume shows how that is flawed).

    In effect it says: “See: that cuttlefish is doing something SO AMAZING that it could never have happened by ‘accident’!! It must be a demonstration of The Hand of God at work!”

    What ID proponents fail absolutely to grasp is that things that look to us inconceivably complex, or astonishingly miraculous, appear like that only because we are viewing the very last event in an extraordinary chain of complex interactions that have happened over a vast amount of time the likes of which our brains are very poor at comprehending.

    It’s like walking out to the front of your house and noting the number plate of a passing car and saying “Crikey! What are the chances of that colour car, with that number plate, being driven by an old lady named Mavis right past my house on a Tuesday in December! The odds of that happening must be enormous!!”

    Well, of course, so they are, if you take into account all the possible events that might have happened but didn’t. You’re seeing an end consequence and imposing on it a set of conditions that plainly don’t apply. The fallacy of thinking like that is immediately obvious. And yet this is how Creationists, and in my opinion the proponents of ID, are being confused by evolution. They are simply unable to acknowledge that something as complex as a human being or a narwhal or an octopus or a fruitbat could possibly arise through a series of complicated yet unplanned events. They see an end result as the only possible result.

    The only difference between Creationists and IDers is that the former believe (quite to the contrary of all available evidence) that God made the world and everything in it in one magical swipe, just as it exists right now. They maintain this belief system illogically, and eschew any scientific or rational explanation as ‘the work of the Devil’. IDers are attempting to muddy the water by adopting some science and then pushing God backwards into the past to a time where the data is a little sketchier and the layman more easily confused, but the argument is essentially the same one.

    Unfortunately, it’s simply not possible to outwit the ID style of argument – even if someone came up with completely irrefutable proof of something the IDers hold as ‘irreducibly complex’, they would merely shift the goal posts somewhere else. It’s really difficult to do accurate science hundreds of billions of years in the past, as many of the ID ‘scientists’ must surely understand. So, where there is any uncertainty at all, they have the opportunity to quibble. And quibble they will, infinitely, because Intelligent Design, as much as the IDers protest the to contrary, IS NOT SCIENCE!

  • Oops – ‘hundreds of billions of years in the past’ should have read ‘millions’. Obviously.

  • Martinus

    Can we come up with a different term to IDers. It sounds too much like like ideas, certainly to these British ears.

  • Torgo


    I’ve heard the term IDiots used, but that of course sounds insulting–nothing wrong with that, but sometimes we need to play nice. I’m not sure what else to use, except something like “ID proponents” or “ID advocates,” but I just get lazy about typing out those phrases.

  • Oh Dear Oh Dearers?

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