Intelligent Design’s Major Criticism

I want to propose, before I get to the substance of today’s post, a model for understanding how scientific theories change. There is word on the street that scientists are always changing their minds, that their models shift paradigmatically, etc, so therefore their conclusions and knowledge are limited, slanted and even erroneous. That science changes is the name of the game. How it changes is part of the game, too. I propose this:

We have for years gone to a grocery store called Jewel-Osco. It served us well. But Mariano’s came to town, and we have made the shift. To be sure, it’s a different store, down the street and on the other side, and there are plenty of differences, not the least being the number of workers. But it’s a grocery store, after all. It carries food and the same kinds of food, some of it cheaper and some of it better… but the difference between the two, while quite apparent to the one buying and to the one receiving the funds, are miniscule in the larger scale of things. Science changes like this: Jewel-Osco was the best for awhile but now we have Mariano’s and in a decade or so someone else will come along and make grocery shopping better. It’s not chasmic or cosmic in leap, but instead a shift from within so that what is there all morphs into something different but the mostly the same.

Does this model work for explaining how science theories shift?

And here’s an example of scientific proposal and hypothesis and theory, and how something new will lead us forward but not with absolute certainty (from

While finding the Higgs boson won’t tell us everything we need to know about how the universe works, it will fill in a huge hole in the Standard Model that has existed for more than 50 years, according to experts.

“The Higgs boson is the last missing piece of our current understanding of the most fundamental nature of the universe,” Martin Archer, a physicist at Imperial College in London, told CNN.

“Only now with the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] are we able to really tick that box off and say ‘This is how the universe works, or at least we think it does’.”

“It’s not the be all and end all – but in terms of what can we say practically about the world and how the world is, it actually tells us a lot.”

Science inches forward, day by day, but Intelligent Design’s major criticism of mainline science is that it’s method rules out God. The method is therefore often called methodological naturalism, and the implication of the method for many scientists, and for nearly all ID folks, is that “methodological” slides into “ontological” — that is, one assumes no God and then one argues for no God. I like Jason Rosenhouse’s book, Among the Creationists, because Rosenhouse is intelligent, articulate and reasonable. He can be potent in critique and strong in judgment, but he is not belligerent.

He proposes that ID folks see the world as a fishtank. Every now and then God, like human owners of fishtanks, stick their hands in and move things about and sprinkle food on the surface … he then uses this as a model for investigating methodological naturalism. Before he gets to methodological naturalism (MN from now on), he sketches some more sessions he heard at the ID conference.

Is methodological naturalism exclusive of the existence of God? Is it a “convention” or is it more than a convention?

He takes aim at Lee Strobel, though I think he’s reasonable in his criticisms of Lee. Strobel is into William Lane Craig’s version of the Kalam version of the cosmological argument (from causes to the First Cause, i.e., to God) and “fine-tuning.” Rosenhouse will have neither, though on this one Rosenhouse asserted his disagreement with the Kalam argument by appealing to authorities instead of trotting out the essence of his argument. This is unlike Rosenhouse and I think it was a mistake … he moves on, we have to as well. The fine-tuning argument turns into the anthropic principle, which scientists butt against by contending for multiverses and this universe happens to be the one where conditions were such that human life as we know was possible.

He observes that ID folks often propose powerfully intuitive ideas: Complex machines need designers, natural forces break things down, everything has a cause, cosmic fine-tuning is like winning a lottery ticket. And there is plenty of God-of-the-gaps at work in the ID approach. Rosenhouse makes an important observation: where we do know things, ID folks tend to be cynical or accusatory; where we don’t know things as well (God, etc), they get more confident.

Rosenhouse points to an important irony in much of the ID debate: ID folks want their work to be credited as science because they think science finds facts and truths, and they want their stuff to be part of public education and it must be science to get there.

Which creates the irony: science is rooted in methodological naturalism and that root creates problems for ID because it wants to contend that there is an Intelligent Designer established by science, which creates breakdowns for what most mean by methodological naturalism, which is precisely where Rosenhouse has intellectual rigor and honesty. He pushes against the radical nature of how scientists define methodological naturalism and against the way they insert presuppositions or bias that makes naturalism seemingly ontological. I think I’m being fair to Rosenhouse here, though I may be extending him slightly. Here are his points:

Methodological naturalism is not an inviolable method; it can be improved.
MN is a convention of scientists, not an absolute law — not The Rule.
Too many want absolute demarcations between science and religion, and he thinks scientist push religion off the map at times, making their method biased (if God can be proven, God can be proven he would say — though he doesn’t think God can be proven).
MN is established because it works, it is a source of prediction, but it is provisory and not ontological.
The distinction is not natural/supernatural but testable/nontestable. [This is where I think his methodological rigor is laudable.]
Scientists need to respect the limits of MN.
ID folks will have to demonstrate God, not invade gaps with God.
He opposes the two domains approach because one must provide convincing evidence and arguments in order to use the religion-domain with explanatory power.

Put together: Darwin is Jewel-Osco; modern scientific theories on origins and development are Mariano’s; ID is not a grocery store. Is it fast food?

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  • This seems to verify what I have long believed: bad science (MN becoming ontological) and bad theology (trying to become improperly scientific through a god-of-the-gaps gambit) created what we know as the science-religion “war.” It is bogus, has always been bogus, and its only genuine value is to point away from itself to more authentic expressions of both science and theology and their relation.

  • Bev Mitchell


    “Does this model work for explaining how science theories shift?”
    It does, in part. Science is an enterprise of tiny advances built on a very big and firm foundation. Paradigm shifts are rare, but even then, much of the foundation remains intact. 

    An example of a mini-paradigm shift in the life sciences that was self-inflicted. Molecular biologists, like the rest of us, we’re cheering on the great advances in DNA analysis because we all wanted to have those base pairs lined up nicely for as many species as possible. Some who worked exclusively at the molecular level argued that this analytical ability would provide such a great understanding of how life works that we should all become DNA biologists and get on with the great task of deducing things from first principals – it was the proverbial blueprint delusion.

    Then, almost suddenly, we had the code for a large number of organisms. But, the organisms continued doing things in ways that made us scratch our heads. People began to lament that we were losing scientists (through severe lack of funding) who studied organisms as they are in real life. These were people who understood that  living creatures and their physiology and behaviours show “emergent properties” that cannot be deduced from even perfect knowledge of their DNA. These people had been saying this all along, but for a couple of decades their message was largely drowned out. Now, it would be hard to find a molecular biologist who doesn’t understand that Humpty Dumpty all together is very different from Humpty Dumpty all in pieces. And, it’s not just a matter of helping the king get more horses and more men.

    Then, even more recently, we have come to realize that not only must one have a fully functioning system to properly study that system (as important as the constituent parts are), things going on at higher levels can actually affect the way things work at lower levels – sometimes many levels below. Thus the huge field of epigenetics is born.

    We now have a much healthier way of looking at things. In fact, we are finally equipped to make much better use of the wonderful advances continually coming from the molecular biology labs. It’s a new point of view (paradigm?). No data were overthrown. One still has to do molecular biology the same way, physiologists, organismal biologists, ecologists and evolutionary biologists still work the same way. What has changed, to a large degree, is point of view, appreciation of complexity and, by natural consequence, many of the questions.

    Come to think of it, this is very similar to what has been going on in biblical theological circles. The ID folk really need something of a paradigm shift themselves. Things are really getting interesting out here in the real world!

    Good references to follow up:
    Richard C. Francis “Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance”
    Denis Noble “The Music of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome”
    Kenton L. Sparks “Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture”

  • Bev Mitchell

    You highlight an exceedingly important point that Rosenhouse makes:

    “……where we do know things, ID folks tend to be cynical or accusatory; where we don’t know things as well (God, etc), they get more confident.”

    He is especially on target with the “certainty thing”. It sometimes seems that evangelicals have cornered the market on being certain. As a lifelong evangelical, I could come up with a colloquial explanation of this debilitating mental state. However, it would be great to have a scholarly analysis of the “need for certainty” in Reformation thinking. It is more than mildly ironic that folks who depend entirely on the grace of God seem to need human certainty to make it all work. Is there a solid analysis of the history of this thinking?

    BTW, the more experienced folk should not be encouraging young people to be so very certain about things. Youth, thinking personally at least, need no encouragement at all along these lines. Senior folk telling them the can and should be certain only exacerbates the problem. Few seem to understand that certainty is quite unrelated to being right. 

  • Andy


    Do you believe that the existence of God can be proved? What are your thoughts on the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God ( as put forth by Kant, Van Til, Bahnsen, Frame and others)?

    It seems like this is a big point for scientist, ID as well as creationist…can the existence of God be proven?

  • JohnM

    The grocery store model works when the shift is from a less precise understanding to a more precise understanding, and hopefully that is usually the case. However, it seems to me that it is not always the case as sometimes the shift seems to be owing to a realization that the prior conclusion was just wrong. In that case the old grocery store did not serve us well at all and we’re not going from good to better but from not-good to hope-this-is-good.

    To use a different analogy, it can be kind of like buying supplements at a health and nutrition store for years, only to have the proprietors suddenly declare they were mistaken all along about the health benefits of the products they promoted, which they now admit never did you any good at all. If those same proprietors then tell you they’ve now discovered vitamin X and fu fu juice are THE answer to health and longevity some doubt on your part would be understandable.

  • Bev,

    I just want to say that I so appreciate your perspective on things.

    You mentioned this quote and it stood out to me as well. “……where we do know things, ID folks tend to be cynical or accusatory; where we don’t know things as well (God, etc), they get more confident.”

    I would add that this is when their confidence becomes “opportunistic”; because there is recognition that complex issues can be exploited as a propaganda opening for their particular reasoning. Any hint of uncertainty is pounced upon and often taken advantage of.

    I also agree with your analysis in which you stated … “Come to think of it, this is very similar to what has been going on in biblical theological circles.”

    Biblical Theology is such a broad and deep subject that even our best trained theologians become enmeshed in paradigm restrictions that slow the investigation down. Sometimes it just takes time for issues to be washed through in order to come out with better understandings. I think that in our day and age the sharing of information is so much deeper and broader that it’s almost like a large collective brain working and assimilating things. Things that never changed or took decades or centuries to change in the past can now change within a few years but even that isn’t fast enough for some of us 😉

  • scotmcknight

    Bev, thanks for that comment about development to epigenetics. On certainty, folks say things but it’s pretty hard to prove. A seminary prof of mine once told me he could predict his colleagues’ theory of women in the church by watching that man interact with his wife… yikes, this gets reduced to the psychological and we need to find a way out.

    Andy, I read a bit on those arguments but they don’t grab me much … that argument by Plantinga on knowledge of God as basic was the last time I seriously read on the topic. The issue is always what “proven” means… believing in God is reasonable but proof is another kettle of fish.

  • Rob

    To be absolutely sure about the beginning of the universe one would have to have been there to witness it, or at least receive witness from someone who was. The best we can hope for from science is to observe the effects or current conditions of the universe and then deduce reasonably. Theology and philosophy are in the same boat except for the additional (and we would say, foundational) witness of the Word of God. Therefore, when searching for a conclusion to the evidence, it’s only sensible to embrace the most logical conclusion given all the facts. In this case, the most logical conclusion is ID. Beyond that, however, the real issue comes down to whether we believe the Word of God or believe man’s conclusions without God. Both take faith, yet both have evidence to support that faith. I stand by the assertion that ID has much, much more logical evidence.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Thanks for the kind words. You observe, ” I think that in our day and age the sharing of information is so much deeper and broader that it’s almost like a large collective brain working and assimilating things.” Isn’t that the truth! Most on this blog like to be on the “bleeding edge” as they say. It seems we also understand this requires the acceptance of the certainty of being wrong some of the time, along with the ever present need for patience. 🙂

    The “collective brain” analogy both warms and chills, doesn’t it. I wonder if we will see more rapid consensus building around important topics than with the earlier (and maybe slower) methods?  A second question is perhaps more important.  If consensus is reached significantly more rapidly, where does that leave those who have not had the time or the inclination to keep up? If the new consensus really is better in some major way, how are the majority to be brought along, so to speak? What would a ministry of that sort look like? How does a pastor pastor a paradigm shift? In the past, such big changes took generations – awkward at times, but no big deal. How big a deal will it be over the next thirty years if big changes in thinking still seem to be taking generations?

  • Bev,

    Yes, I realized I passed into the Twilight Zone and assimilation into the “Collective Borg” via Star Trek fame:

    “It’s futile to resist the Borg”. 😉

    My personal observation is that it’s going to be increasingly difficult to keep the continual flow of knowledge infusing the broad spectrum of the cultural masses (there are certain individual human physical limits even though knowledge increases continually) We are already seeing the separation of the knowledgeable and the less knowledgeable in the workforce at large and how that is becoming a new class warfare possibility/reality. The answer for Theological issues perhaps is IMO a gradual cultural slow burn in which the deficient ideas gradually disperse over time to be replaced by better ideas that take root. As part of the root of the Tree of Knowledge the idea is that the unhelpful nature of some ideas slowly evolves out of our “collective thinking”. RJS and Scot are both good examples of attempting to move that “collective” wisdom forward in their work and dedication. I’m sure the Lord has untold thousands who are working toward that good. Perhaps the collective Body of Christ continues to grow into that Largest of Garden Trees. 🙂

  • Sean P. Nelson

    Maybe I’m over-simplistic in my understanding but from my perspective, evolution is/was intelligent design. Why does it have to be either or? Can it “intelligently” be both?

  • Bev Mitchell


    I’m not sure what you mean, but maybe this will help.

    Yes, God is behind everything in creation, it is his universe. Since God is, of course,  intelligent then there is intelligence behind what we see and experience as the universe. However, to consider the whole thing God’s idea, to believe that in him we live, move and have our being (along with everything else we know about) we don’t have to insist on knowing/understanding any particular direct designing act by God in any particular instance – such as an eye, a mitochondrion, or a complex cell that uses mitochondria for energy production, ancestors of which were free living bacteria. These complexities exist, they came about through an evolutionary process over a very long time, made possible by God.

    It is still God’s world. Human beings are the results of a process ordained by God – we are in his image because it was all his idea. It all holds together, because of his power exercised in love. The alternative is chaos, nothingness, negation, disorder, maximum entropy. Our God is victorious over all these dissipative possibilities. In short, God has made it all possible. This is far more exciting and biblically consistent than imagining a God who makes each thing in his universe as if he were putting together some sort of puzzle or acting like some great, overpowering regent of human imagination.  His creation actually has agency; to the full extent possible, each living thing has freedom. In a real sense, the universe was made possible by a loving Father- God and permitted to make itself, to be self- actualizing. This view of the matter elevates God to the exalted heights his divinity demands. It offers a view of God that is beyond our imagining – yet also allows  room for him to reveal himself to humanity  as a loving creator and sustainer truly worthy of our worship as Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and through him, our Father as well.

    We have to be very careful not to see God in our image, through our limited vision. Yes he is Sovereign, but in his own way of being Sovereign. God gets to be the kind of sovereign he wants to be. We don’t need to define this up front. Our view is far too limited, our understanding far too weak, to have any idea of how a sovereign God would/should act. We only know about human kings and tyrants, and their ways of exercising Sovereignty , even the best ones, we would not dare project onto God. It is only through his self-revelation that we have any hope of understanding what kind of sovereign God is. And, for Christians, the center of God’s self-revelation is Jesus Christ the incarnate Son of God and risen Lord.

  • scotmcknight

    Sean, ID proponents have made the claim that scientific facts are inexplicable without an “Intelligence” and the history of the ID movement traces it back firmly into the lap of disaffected creationists, though today’s proponents have moved beyond the earlier forms of ID. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong; but that’s my understanding. One of the common criticisms is that no one advocating ID has been published in a peer reviewed science journal. Some ID folks explain such as a bias on the part of the science journals but a sharper reading is that they are not mainstream scientists. Again, that’s my understanding. It is, in my estimation, fair to see a “God of the gaps” approach in ID — it is the scientifically inexplicable (to ID folks, but rarely to mainstream science folks) that leads to the theory of the Intelligence.

  • Sean P. Nelson

    Bev… Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate the well-thought response. It has given me a lot to chew on.

    Scot… I think I understand what you are saying. For instance, I do subscribe to evolution, but as “theistic evolution”. I guess my “God of the gaps” comes in to play where certain aspects of evolution just wouldn’t make (current) sense or sustain without the implication of intelligent / divine intervention. However, my atheistic friends would see these things as potentially scientifically explainable with further research and understanding.

    Am I on the right track?

  • scotmcknight

    Sean, yes, but “my atheistic friends” suggests only atheists pursue scientific understandings of the currently unknown, while plenty of theistic, Christian scientists do too.