Intelligent Design Criminology

Since the issue of science and naturalism was brought up in connection with a recent post on intelligent design, I thought I would repost something I wrote a few years ago on the subject:

The question to ask proponents of intelligent design is this: At what point the police should stop investigating an unsolved murder and close the case, declaring that God must have simply wanted the victim dead? It is the same point at which it is appropriate to tell scientists to stop looking for explanations and simply conclude “God did it”.

Intelligent design isn’t just bad news for science. As an overarching approach to evidence and investigative reasoning, it can have a detrimental affect even on the safety of your neighborhood.

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  • Beau Quilter

    Very Good. Dembski, Behe, and the other ID proponents always begin their discussion of “ID science” by suggesting that it’s no different than archeology, SETI, or murder investigation, since these disciplines also search for signs of intelligence. 

    Ridiculous! These disciplines aren’t looking for “signs” of intelligence; they’re trying to identify the exact “intelligence” and know more about it. Archeologists want to know who made the arrowhead, why they made it, what their culture is like. SETI scientists would hardly stop after recieving a series of prime numbers – they assume that a prime number serious would only be a prelude to meaningful communication about the aliens, where they come from, what they’re like. Murder investigators are looking for specifics about the perpetrator, motive, opportunity, etc. 

    But ID Proponents use no scientific process to actually identify the “intelligence” in “intelligent design”. They simply use flawed premises to claim ID exists, then confirm to their Christian audiences that they think it is God who lives in the gaps.

  • hanery

    I think your analogy is flawed, while it strikes at the ‘god of the gaps’ argument, Intelligent design doesn’t necessarily presume the existence of transcendent God, the intelligence could front-load evolution to bring about creation (as seems to be the increasingly held view in I.D. camps). So in your analogy it would be like the Police finding someone had set up a machine, a bomb, an auto-mated gun (etc…), i.e. find the intelligent design behind the device that did the crime, and work backwards to find the creator.

    • Beau Quilter

      It’s not my analogy – ID proponents use all three of these examples; it is their analogy that is flawed.

      They claim that intelligent design doesn’t necessarily presume the existence of God, but it is a disingenuous claim. Every ID proponent … (I can say this with confidence) … every ID proponent believes that God is the intelligence behind the ID they claim to have “discovered”.

      Even in your version of the analogy, you suggest that we “work backwards to find the creator.” Not if you’re an “ID scientist”. They invest no science in deriving what their “intelligence” is or what tools/processes it uses to influence biology. Why? 

      If it really was possible that the intelligent designer was a race of advanced aliens (as William Dembski suggests), the ID scientist would work to find out more about these aliens and how they did it. ID proponents don’t pursue such research, because they’ve already filled that research gap with God. 

      “Intelligent Design” is simply undercover creationism.

  • Anonymous

    Prof. McGrath,

    Should this methodological naturalism apply to all areas of evidence-based human inquiry, e.g. science, history, etc.?


    • Beau Quilter


      I don’t want to answer for James, but can I make a comment here?

      ID proponents often say that contemporary scientists are bound by naturalism; but this is a misleading statement.

      Al that is really meant by naturalism is “that which can be observed and/or tested through experimentation.” 

      What can any evidence-based inquiry do with a notion that has no evidence?

      If there were a way to observe or detect and infer models of supernatural phenomena, then that phenomena would enter the purview of science and history.

      Of course, at that point, we would probably start calling it a natural phenomena. 

      • Anonymous


        Interesting idea.  I’m trying to think of objections that fundamentalists would have.

        Here’s one:  What’s your evidence that proves methodological naturalism?  

        Or: Well, you can’t test historical claims through experimentation, yet I’m sure you generally believe your history books!


        • Beau Quilter


          One way to define science: the process of finding explanatory models for the universe based on evidence and experimentation. 

          With this in mind, here’s the answer to your first question: most scientists don’t care about the words “methodological naturalism”. It’s a straw man. Scientists care about science (the simple definition above). 

          Google “naturalism” and what you’ll find is a lot of sites about philosophy or religion. “Naturalism” is really just a word that religion and philosophy use to define the things that science deals with. To say (as ID proponents do) that scientists are biased by naturalism, is really just to say that scientists are biased by evidence and experimentation. If you could demonstrate supernatural phenomena through scientific standards of evidence and experimentation, then the phenomena would no longer be supernatural – it would be natural.

          Accusing scientists of methodological naturalism is a nothing more than a semantic game. One is basically accusing scientists of doing science.

          In answer to your second question, science, again works through both evidence and experimentation. Some sciences (particularly those that deal with past events) weigh a little more heavily towards evidence than experimentation. (In fact, in your first comment, you described history as “evidence based inquiry”)

          But experimentation is still used to test whether historical models are possible. Particle accelerators are used by physicists to test whether their models of the historical big bang are possible at the quantum level. Archeologists often experiment with building materials to verify the way the ancient monuments such as the pyramids were constructed. Experimentation can’t always tell us exactly what happened in the past, but it often show what would have been physically possible.

          • Anonymous


            So, according to this reasoning, is an enduring, scientifically un-explainable anomaly the only candidate for a miracle, i.e. an event that breaks natural law?  I suppose even that would be argued for from ignorance, though.

            • Beau Quilter

              I think James gives a good reply to this in his reply to you.

  • Glenn

    I’m a little surprised by the crime analogy. I would have thought this is the sort of analogy a proponent of ID might appeal to, since criminal cases are ones where we say that it looks like somebody intended to do this, so a person probably did it.

    • Beau Quilter


      ID proponents DO appeal to the crime analogy. But where ID proponents only want to find out if “something intelligent did it”, in real crime investigations, the point is to find out exactly who did it, why they did it, how they did it, etc. 

  • James F. McGrath

    I think Geoff may have meant “metaphysical naturalism” which obviously cannot be proven because it is a statement that all causes and phenomena are natural whereas we cannot test such a claim in principle, much less with our limited perspective and current technology.

    Methodological naturalism is simply what I illustrated in my analogy. We don’t ask the police to leave room for the possible involvement of supernatural agents. We don’t ask engineers to design planes so that they will work in cases of demonic attack or divine suspension of laws of aerodynamics or gravity. These actions are not expressions of atheism but definitely involve a recognition that the world works for the most part according to “laws,” principles and regularities which can be explained naturally.

    • Beau Quilter

      It’s important to note, however, that ID proponents make arguments against both metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism.

      Here’s and example of the latter:

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your reply, Prof.

      How does this understanding of the world fit in with religious belief, e.g. faith in the resurrection of Jesus?  How is one to judge whether or not such a belief is based in reality?

  • Beau Quilter

    Thanks for the clarification, James. I found a useful historical distinction between these phrases on The Panda’s Thumb:

  • James F. McGrath

    @hanery, I do not have any problems with the idea of the universe being “front-loaded” with information. I have problems with the form of Intelligent Design that posits interventions at points in the evolutionary history of life on this planet simply because we do not currently (or allegedly do not or cannot) have a full explanation of the processes involved.

    There is in fact a new article in New Scientist on why there is a universe, which illustrates well that even if science could say that the universe came into existence because of some aspect of the laws of physics, it still would not be able to explain why those laws of physics were there in the first place. I have no problem whatsoever with the view that the existence of our universe points beyond itself to an ultimate Creator or Ground of Being. I only object to those who argue not from the limits of science to such a view, but against the legitimate conclusions and progress of our scientific understanding.

  • James F. McGrath

    @Geoff, that is a good question. I don’t see that religious believers are, in general, interested in providing an explanation for the resurrection in terms of scientific processes, so there is no inherent conflict. But where issues would arise is as a result of the fact that, because we understand so much more about the universe, and so much of its functioning now makes sense in terms of natural processes, it makes claims about divine interventions into the process seem at best rare exceptions to the way things normally work, and perhaps even things that do not seem to happen based on our experience. And so the issue is not that methodologically naturalistic science can exclude miracles, it is that the effectiveness of such science shapes our worldview and raises questions about whether we have reason to believe in miracles, and if so how that belief may have to differ from that of Christians 2,000 years ago and/or in other periods.