Intelligent Design, Irreducible Complexity

Darwin unleashed a new kind of science, if I may call it that; his theories have been taken up, expanded, proven to be true, adjusted, refashioned, etc, over time to the kind of science we have today. Intelligent Design folks, led by people like Michael Behe, contend Darwinian science is lacking and, in fact, they are proposing a different kind of science.

Their science contends that some elements of nature — like the vertebrate immune system, blood-clotting cascade, and the flagellum of certain bacteria — provide a “loud, clear, piercing cry of ‘design!’ … [and] This discovery rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrödinger, Pasteur and Darwin.” This quotation is from Behe in Jason Rodenhouse, Among the Creationists, p. 126.

At the heart, then, of ID is what is called “irreducible complexity,” and Darwin himself admitted if such elements were discovered it would disprove his theory of evolution (or parts of his theory).  What Behe means is “a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning” (125). The logic is clear and compelling; the science, Rodenhouse argues, lacking.

There are some analogies, Rodenhouse contends, like how telephones and automobiles were formerly only for the wealthy or an arch was incapable of self-support until all the pieces were available and assembled. Essentially, though, any use of such analogies will break down and it comes to science, and Rodenhouse cites — and does not discuss at length (or satisfactorily, and I think he could have helped his argument had he) — the various scholarly, evolutionary approaches to the elements Behe thinks are irreducibly complex: for the Krebs cycle, the vertebrate immune system, the blood clotting cascade, the wings of birds, and the bacterial flagellum. In other words, mainstream evolutionary science has explanations for such elements.

For me, the problem here is that this a God of the gaps approach, which does not so much prove but asserts “design” where some science does not yet have adequate evidence or proof.

But let’s clarify what is at work here: (1) it has been shown in this series on Rodenhouse’s book that some in ID were creationists by another name; (2) ID is more scientific than some forms of creationism but it is not part of mainstream science at all — many scientists would even say it is not science at all … but this is more important:

(3) arguing that ID is inadequate as science or that the irreducibly complex is capable of being proven not so irreducible  does not mean that there is no Designer. It means only that ID is not good enough science.

Science does not and cannot — on its own terms — speak of purpose, or design, or a teleology because that is not what it does. Believing that there is a God enables a believer to explain some things as part of God’s design for this good world of ours, but proving God through science is a hard game to play — since, by its nature, science sticks to the empirical and seeks empirical (non-supernatural) explanations.

Back to Rodenhouse: he engaged Behe and reports on it (I don’t know Behe’s side of this story). One point in Rodenhouse’s presentation of that encounter is important to me: he asked Behe what difference his view of science would make, and Behe’s explanation is not sufficient because Rodenhouse reports that Behe says mainstream scientists can simply continue with what they do. Rodenhouse thinks there’s practically little difference in such a scientific approach. I’d like to hear if Behe actually has more to say on that topic.

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  • Matt Gray

    Part of the issue here seems to be that many people on the other side of the fence here – secularist/atheist scientists – seem to use their “science” to do the very thing you’re (quite rightly) accusing young-earth creationists of doing. They tie scientific discovery to their own positions about design and purpose (even where their position is that there ISN’T a design and purpose!). Carl Sagan would be a classic example.

    It seems to me that, the problem is that young earth creationists are actually agreeing with such secularists. They’re actually playing a game by the rules made by their opponents. They think they’re disagreeing, but they’ve already conceded the precise falsity you’ve described. They say “science proves design and purpose”, while secularists say “science disproves design and purpose”, when the real thing we should be saying is what you’re saying “science isn’t trying to prove anything about design and purpose!

    I’m not a young earth creationist, or a secularist, because I refuse to make science into something it isn’t.

  • James Rednour

    You’re right about ID being a “god of the gaps” approach. These types of arguments do more damage to Christianity than evolution, IMO. When a gap is filled, the opponents of evolution just get backed into a smaller and smaller corner. Take the wing, for example. The best book I’ve read on evolution (and I’ve read many) is Donald Prothero’s “Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters”. ID proponents are either unaware or ignore the vast number of transitional forms that have been discovered ni just the last twenty years that trace fish to amphibians, dinosaurs to birds, reptiles to mammals and many other examples. In the case of a wing, ID is not needed at all. The transition from arms in dinosaurs to wings is clear. Half a wing is certainly beneficial to tree-climbers. It can slow down an otherwise lethal fall or allow an animal to glide from tree to tree.

    When a paleontologist finds fossils that imply transition from a fish to amphibians to reptiles in strata that goes from old to young, what other conclusion can possibly be drawn other than that evolution occurred? And I’m not even mentioning the genetic evidence of evolution which in many ways is even stronger than the fossil record. The two actually have been used to strengthen each other. Scientists can predict how long two species have split on the tree of life by the number of mutations separating them given that mutations occur on a fairly regular basis. Fossils of likely common ancestors have been found in strata that correspond almost precisely with these predictions. As Prothero says in his book: evolution happened. Deal with it.

    I wish evangelical Christians would just stop fighting this fight. Many other Christian sects have accepted that evolution is a fact that is better understood than almost any other scientific field. History will show that this fight is a replay of the battle over astronomy in the 17th century which Christians eventually lost.

  • James Rednour

    One other thing about Behe of which most of his advocates are ignorant: he accepts the basic tenets of modern evolutionary theory (common descent including man descending from primates). The difference is that he believes some biological structures are not a result of natural selection. I think he’s wrong, but he is not a creationist.

  • scotmcknight

    Hey, Matt, approved!

  • Norman

    I would venture that science (observation) does point toward intelligence. Take as an example Simon Conway Morris book (Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe) detailing the intricate nature of biological convergence. It seems one would have to turn a blind eye to not recognize intelligent design in our physical universe including material and biological observations.

    However this scrutiny doesn’t necessarily provide details of the nature or origin of that intelligence but simply illuminates that it’s revealing itself through our inquiry.

    I believe that this recognition is obvious to even a cursory unsophisticated observation of nature and is likely why humans have historically entertained a propensity toward the idea of a supreme being.

    The challenge for Christians is to make the connection with the origins of our ancient faith and demonstrate why our model centered on YHWH of the OT and Jesus is the correct view. I believe that is what many are presently doing such as Scot, RJS, Pete Enns, Biologos and one of my favorite discoveries lately: Bev Mitchell. 🙂

  • AHH

    James R. @3 says
    One other thing about Behe of which most of his advocates are ignorant: he accepts the basic tenets of modern evolutionary theory (common descent including man descending from primates). The difference is that he believes some biological structures are not a result of natural selection. I think he’s wrong, but he is not a creationist.

    Well, Behe is a “creationist” in the sense all Christians are — “I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
    But James’ main point is an important one — Behe (who I think represents the best of the ID movement although I disagree with him) is accepting of the general picture of evolution; he just thinks there was some active intervention by a “designer” getting life started and maybe helping it along at various points. This means that those whose theology is threatened by things like common ancestry and death before the Fall get no comfort from Behe (although many mistakenly appeal to this theistic evolutionist as though he were “anti-evolution”).

  • James Rednour

    AHH @6:
    Well, Behe is a “creationist” in the sense all Christians are — “I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”

    Yes, of course. When I say creationist though, it means that which is generally assumed by the majority of readers: a person who believes in direct special creation without common descent and the denial of macroevolution. That is certainly not Behe’s position.

  • Louise

    You might want to correct the name of the author of “Among the Creationists” to Jason Rosenhouse not Rodenhouse.

  • John Inglis

    I take issue with the statement that ID is “proposing a different kind of science”. Given that philosophers of science acknowledge that there is no one single definition of science, and that it is impossible to create a unified definition that covers all of what is referred to as science, it is inaccurate to state that ID is proposing a different kind of science. This is especially so because ID scientists use the same tools of math, logic, experimental science, etc. as do other scientists.

    ID is also not a god of the gaps argument, and can only be described as such if one fails to understand the ID science as it is practiced.

    Furthermore, conventional science does not, in fact, have any explanations for the phenomenae critiqued by ID. Speculations, yes, but not supported by historical or experimental evidence. Of course, this depends on what one means by “explanation” and “evidence”, but there certainly are no stepwise solutions–not even theoretically.

    Whether or not ID is correct, I find it quite odd that Christians should so heavily attack it rather than exploring it as a possibility. Smacks to me of wanting the respect of the secular world. If God is omnipotent and could have used undirected evolution that relies only on initial conditions, he could also have used ID, or he could have let Satan plant fake fossils for that matter. If God could use any method, then the question is what method and ID certainly seems like a valid path to explore.

  • Norman

    James #7,

    You said … “Yes, of course. When I say creationist though, it means that which is generally assumed by the majority of readers: a person who believes in direct special creation without common descent and the denial of macroevolution.”

    I think that is part of the problem with the idea that the “majority” have dominion over the definition of what describes a creationist. It seems a theistic evolutionist is a creationist as defined by the materialistic atheist from their perspective.

    I consider myself a creationist but I refute the classical Old Earth ID ideal of the God of the Gaps mentality except at the beginning of creation of which I have no clue how to get there and explain such and I suspect no one ever will.

    The difference between an Old Earth ID Creationist and a Young Earth Creationist is not much. The reason is, because if God chooses to intervene to perform some unnatural genetic application upon hominoids somewhere down the line then the YEC premise of divine intervention in the process cannot be logically refuted by the God of the Gaps Old earth ID creationist. He could have done the same thing on a grander scale using the six day model if desired.

  • John Inglis

    Re post #2, “Scientists can predict how long two species have split on the tree of life by the number of mutations separating them given that mutations occur on a fairly regular basis. ”

    Nope. Even secular scientists are all over the map on that assertion and write papers disproving each others’ theories of mutation timelines.

  • Cameron M

    Agree with Matt. Both parties (creationist/secularist) turn methodological naturalism into metaphysical naturalism. The creationist assumes that the apparent design in nature leads logically to a micromanager designer; the secularist makes the (equally faulty) logical conclusion that since evolution explains complexity and (what appears to be) design, God is not needed, and thus does not exist. One cannot (and should not) draw such metaphysical assumptions about the universe from scientific methodology. I agree with John Walton here when he says to keep the classroom free of anything other than methodological naturalism – including ID as well as secularism/materialism.

  • James Rednour

    John #12

    While that’s probably true, this method has been used to make predictions about the dates intermediate forms between two species on a branch would have lived and then later confirmed by fossil findings in a stratrum that corresponds to that time period. This has happened many times.

  • Nate

    Dr. Mcknight,

    I love your blog! Thanks so much for frequently updating so that we readers can always have something to chew on.

    I’ve heard the argument that science doesn’t address teleology and the supernatural before from people like John Walton in ‘The Lost World of Genesis One’ (great book btw) and other Biologos folk. I’m not necessarily defending Behe here, but isn’t this a very narrow view of science? Unless one wants to embrace a science with the consequence of reductionism where everything is just the atoms and the void, one has to posit a distinction between things like atoms, quarks, etc and things like human beings, animals, and systems. The latter are all cases of teleological significance (they exhibit a process toward an end) and they are a part of almost every scientists pre-scientific (and post-scientific) investigations. Methodological naturalism (not to be confused with metaphysical naturalism, I know that’s not what you believe) is comparably weaker than other methods as a result of the constraints it places on itself! There are many perspectives on how “normative science,” if you will, or proper scientific methodology is to proceed. It might be acceptable because its common to uphold metaphysical naturalism in today’s world, but people are rational to disagree and opt for a purely abductive or bayesian approach, which may or may not rule out non-natural explanation. Stipulating a definition for the word “science” doesn’t resolve this debate. Rather, people interested should study the philosophy of science.

  • John Inglis

    Why the assumption that methodological naturalism is the default, and best, method for conducting science? The lack of such an outlook when conducting science did not hamper the efforts or discoveries of early scientists, so why should it be necessary now? The modern western science is essentially a christian enterprise built upon largely christian beliefs about the universe anyway, and dropping the assumption would not hamper research. To assume that research and discovery would stop with claims of “God did it” is not only illogical, but also betrays an ignorance of the history of science, of history generally, and also of philosophy.

  • Furthermore, conventional science does not, in fact, have any explanations for the phenomenae critiqued by ID. Speculations, yes, but not supported by historical or experimental evidence. Of course, this depends on what one means by “explanation” and “evidence”, but there certainly are no stepwise solutions–not even theoretically.

    Well, three examples are given above. The vertebrate immune system – see here. The blood-clotting cascade – see here. And the flagellum of certain bacteria – see here.

    I make no pronouncements about theology here. But I do wish to make sure science is accurately represented.

  • Sean P. Nelson

    Mr. Ingles… Thanks for sharing the links! The study of the flagellum was not only insightful but amazingly in-depth. Much appreciated!

    On a tangent… Does anyone else think of “What About Bob?” when looking at the cover photo of the book this post is referencing? 🙂

  • Andy

    One problem i have with theistic evolution is that if you don’t have a literal adam as the first man, and him sinning as our federal representative, how do we go about explaining original sin coming from one man (Romans 5:12-21)?
    Do we throw all supernatural events from the bible under the bus as science wont accept them as well?

  • AHH

    Andy @18, your first question is a serious issue that has come up here many times before. Which is not to say there is a definitive answer that satisfies all. But a good place to start is Pete Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam.
    This article by Daniel Harlow at Calvin College is also worth reading:

    Your ungracious and fallacious second question does not deserve a response.

  • Andy

    AHH @19.
    Thanks for the link. Will have a read.

    My second question was wondering how far we decide to move the allegorical reading of the bible if we choose to read what appears to be reasonably literal in the way it was written. the only reason that this is an issue is that science doesn’t like our origins narrative, probably largely driven by an antithesis to the supernatural.
    the only reason it isn’t an issue that gets debated with science is that they think anything in the bible that has even a hint of the supernatural is pure myth on par with the norse, greek or roman mythologies. it is only where the world views intersect regarding origins that there is presently a collision.

  • RJS

    Andy (#20)

    Many Christians use the argument about the supernatural to quash any discussion off the get-go. There is certainly a prejudice against anything supernatural in much of our modern culture – and it comes from scientists, non-scientists, and occasionally biblical scholars as well. But the question about throwing everything under the bus is also an issue that has been dealt with many times in discussions here as well. While I see you didn’t mean your comment as ungracious – it is often used in a less than gracious manner.

    I can point to several posts I’ve written around this issue, but there are more.

    The Miracles of Creation

    Did Jesus Really Walk on Water?

    Science and Christianity … Why Resurrection?

    If you look at the Science and Faith Archive you will find links to a number of posts – especially under the topics Old Earth, Young Earth, and Questions for Faith, Miracles, and Naturalism and the Christian Faith.

  • CGC

    Hi Andy and all,
    The Bible is multi-layer from literal to metaphorical. The spiritual meaning is the deepest meaning of all (seek that out). The Bible has also multi-fulfillments and progression (revelation) to it. Seek Christ in all that you do (Heb.1:1-2).

  • Phil W

    For those of you who believe that irreducible complexity is a “god of the gaps” argument: Do you believe that it is even possible for a design argument to not be the result of a “gap”?

    Let’s say that an Intelligent Design theorist and a Darwinist discover a monolith on the Moon, like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The ID proponent says, “This shows signs of having been designed.”

    The Darwinist replies, “We just haven’t yet discovered how this came about naturally. You cannot propose design until all natural methods have been ruled out. Besides, you cannot infer design unless you can tell me who designed it, when they designed it, and how they designed it.”

    Is the accusation of ID arguments being based on “gaps” a tacit admission that the evidence currently favors ID? Something like, “Sure, the evidence as it now stands makes it look like ID is correct. But future generations will make discoveries that show that ID is unnecessary. And those generations will mock us. Therefore, it is wiser to reject ID.”

    For all Christians reading this: Is there any evidence for any miracle that is not based on a “god of the gaps” argument? Think about it.

    Regarding the relationship between ID and creationism: From at least the Mere Creation conference (1996) to present, ID proponents have been pretty clear and open about the fact that many ID proponents are creationists. They have also made it clear that ID is not creationism. It would be accurate to say that creationism is ID. (Logically, that is; not necessarily “politically” or “socially.”)

    In a chapter of Darwin’s Nemesis entitled “A Taxonomy of Teleology”, Marcus Ross and Paul Nelson list six teleological positions that are types of ID: corporeal design, intrinsic design, “strong” deistic evolution, “strong” theistic evolution, old-earth creation, young-earth creation.

    The non-ID positions are: materialist evolution, “weak” deistic evolution, “weak” theistic evolution. What distinguishes “strong” theistic evolution from “weak” theistic evolution is the belief that design is empirically detectable.

    Not long ago, some stats were posted about American views on evolution and creation. In the survey, only three options were given:

    (1) God created humans in present form within last 10,000 years.

    (2) Humans evolved, God guided process.

    (3) Humans evolved, God had no part in the process.

    Certainly, some ID proponents would choose (1), but many would choose (2).

    The biggest question for me is: Which option would (“weak”) theistic evolutionists (aka evolutionary creationists) choose? It probably depends on what they assume the options mean. They could choose (2) if they believed that it means: “Humans evolved, God guided the process. (But God’s guidance is not empirically detectable; it can only be discerned through the eyes of faith.)”

    However, it seems that option (3) would be most appropriate for the people at Biologos, assuming that it means: “Humans evolved, God had not part in the process. (Evolution was accomplished by purely natural means; the process was exactly as atheistic evolutionists believe. But God created and sustains the universe and its laws.)”

    Option (3) or its equivalent was chosen by just 25% of Americans with graduate degrees, 28% of American high school biology teachers, and 38% of American physicians. On the other hand, 60 to 71% of people in these groups chose options (1) or (2) (i.e., the ID options).

  • CGC

    Hi Phil,
    I like that you are proposing something different here than what has been said by others. After saying that, I am not sure what your suggesting? Are you saying that the ‘god of the gaps’ argument is a good or strong argument whether people want to admit it or not? It seems like ‘gaps’ arguments can cut both ways just like silence arguments or lack of evidence means “x.” I for one simply find this kind of argument problematic no matter who is using it. But maybe I missed something bigger you are aiming for?

  • If “there’s little practical difference” then there’s no incompatibility problem, isn’t it? So that would be a good thing. And I think it’s right, God is the God of Nature as well as the God of Theology, so two paths, one mountain. As we used to say.

    As for irreducible complexity, it isn’t enough to say the whatnot requires all it’s parts – that’s complexity – you also have to show that nothing simpler will be useful. That is, a 42″ monitor with 1080 dpi resolution is complex, but it’s just a development from a 12″ VGA monitor which is a lot less complex, rinse and repeat. You also have to show that the parts aren’t useful for anything else when they aren’t assembled into the complex thing.

    Indeed there are a lot of complex things we don’t understand how came to be; human cooperative societies prominent among them. But it’s foolish to leap from “I can’t imagine…” to “It isn’t possible…”. That is to say (people like us can say), God is much cleverer than people today. So much smarter in every way.

    And scientists should keep doing what they are doing.

  • gingoro

    I much prefer the term Evolutionary Creationist rather than Theistic Evolutionist. EC captures the fact that people can accept common descent and hold that God created all that exists in the universe or multiverse whatever.

    A few years back an ID supporter joined the old ASA (American Scientific Affiliation) email discussion list. After quite a bit of discussion he asked if any of us believed that the natural world we see now came into existence based solely on the laws of nature, their constants and the initial values set at the instant of creation
    . Everybody agreed that God had intervened at least once and probably more than once during the history of life to produce the world we now see and mankind as we see him. No one was referring to Jesus Christ’s life and death or other similar supernatural occurrences but just to the beginning and development of life as we know it. In fact Ted Davis said that he considered himself a supporter of ID except that he did not think that design and ID could be proven scientifically. Ted was either the president of the ASA at the time or soon would be. However, the ID folks only consider one a true supporter of ID if one believes that ID can be proven scientifically. I have been called an atheist on one of the major ID sites since I hold an EC position and Dembski did not challenge his protege who called me that and in fact agreed with her.
    Dave W

  • Phil W

    Dave W (gingoro) wrote statements that I have labelled (A) and (B):

    A: “Everybody agreed that God had intervened at least once and probably more than once during the history of life to produce the world we now see and mankind as we see him. … the beginning and development of life as we know it.”

    B: “… he did not think that design and ID could be proven scientifically.”

    This position can be summed up as follows:

    A: real design exists in the universe, specifically in the origin of life and the origin of humans

    B: there is no empirical evidence in support of statement (A); (A) is a statement of faith alone

    Is this a correct restatement of your position?

  • gingoro

    In answer to A
    not necessarily to have design or intervention in the two items you mentioned but those are good candidates although some respondents felt that there was a continuous stream of change from say the Lucy as found in the Afar or whatever to modern man. Some felt that when God first began to revel himself to man that there was the possibility or even necessity of some change eg image Deo…
    Answer to B
    I would say that there is no conclusive motivation to accept design in the areas you mention or to reject it.

    Remember that these folks accept methodological naturalism but reject ontological naturalism. The universe is open to God’s intervening, the question is what did God do. Further the ASA members who accept common descent etc are probably the outstanding advocates for evolution with in the Protestant church but certainly within (old style) evangelicalism along with BioLogos.

    In summary no one thought that there was any theological reason that the laws of physics, their form, constants and initial condition necessarily had to be sufficient and complete to produce the world as we see it.

    Everyone or most everyone thought that it might be possible that science would fill in all the gaps in current knowledge and that would not affect their faith in any way.

    PS the above is my best reconstruction of the conversation and members of the email list may differ in their opinion from how I summarized it.