Review: a Critique of Intelligent Design Theory by Lawrence M. Krauss


Peter S. Williams (MA, MPhil)

Theoretical physicist Professor Lawrence M. Krauss[1] critiques Intelligent Design Theory (ID) in an article published in the April/May edition of Free Inquiry entitled: ‘Science vs. Religion in the ID Debate’.[2]

Religion vs. Science?

Krauss begins with the Taliban blowing up a statue of the Buddha in Afganistan in 2001 on religious grounds. He describes this act as ‘a clear example of religion attacking science - in this case, archaeology...’ He also asserts that the Taliban’s actions were motivated by ‘fear’ (although other possible motivations suggest themselves, and Krauss does nothing to provide evidential support for this claim). However, describing the Taliban’s actions as an attack on science, rather than an attack on a statue, or an attack on one religious practice by another, seems to be tendentious. Should every disaffected Western youth who throws a brick through the window of a McDonald’s during an ‘anti-capitalism’ rally be described as attacking science - the science of architecture, or plate-glass manufacture? Surely they would describe their actions as an attack on ‘capitalism’, or ‘corporatism’, but not science. I do not endorse the actions of either the Taliban or anti-capitalism protesters who destroy objects that represent, to their minds, something evil. However, my point is that for Krauss to describe the actions of the Taliban as an attack on science is for him to (implausibly) read his own agenda onto events by ignoring the intention of the actors involved.

That agenda comes into focus with his second paragraph, where he tells us that ‘Similar collisions between science and religion, based on fear, have taken place in the United States.’ He references former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, ‘who has, amazingly, a degree in biology’, and who ‘once argued that the Columbine school shootings happened " because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of the primordial mud."’ At the risk of joining what Krauss clearly considers bad company, it does seem possible that there might be something in DeLay’s analysis (even if some of his terminology is not in the dictionary). Krauss’ implication is that DeLay’s comments about Columbine are a fear-fuelled attack upon science that parallels the Taliban’s allegedly fear-fuelled attack upon archaeology (which was clearly not intended as an attack upon archaeology, even if that was one of its effects). However, it is apparent from our knowledge of English grammar that DeLay’s comment is an attack upon a metaphysically naturalistic interpretation of the scientific theory of evolution, rather than an attack on science. The crucial words in DeLay’s comments are the words ‘nothing but’. To attack the scientific theory of evolution, DeLay would have had to leave out the words ‘nothing but’.

Debate, What Debate?

Krauss complains that public policy regarding ID (getting its first mention in paragraph three of Krauss’ article so that it has some rhetorical context, e.g. ‘religion’, ‘fear’, ‘collisions between science and religion based on fear’) has been defined by people like President George W. Bush, who declared: ‘Both sides ought to be properly taught so people can understand what the debate is about.’ Since ID theorists put their theory forward as a scientific theory - with no stake in any religious texts, no religious assumptions, and no religious conclusions (although many argue for religious implications) - the President’s words have a certain wisdom to them. Krauss, however, being determined to stick with his ‘science vs. religion’ trope, complains that Bush’s statement: ‘represents a clear misunderstanding, because it assumes that there are two "sides" and that there is a debate.’ In defence of the President, may I call attention to the title of Krauss’ article, which closes with the phrase ‘the ID Debate’. Perhaps Krauss means that the ID side of the debate is very small compared to the opposition; which is true enough but largely irrelevant. Perhaps he means that the ID side of the debate is not a scientific side, and hence that there is no other (scientific) side to the ID debate. Of course, the other side of the debate disputes the allegation that it is not scientific.[3] There is, then, clearly a debate (with two sides): about whether or not ID is science. There are even critics of ID who admit that it is science.[4]

Does ID flunk the scientific method test?

Krauss quotes some pro-ID literature from Science Excellence for All Ohioans: ‘Science standards use a little-known rule to censor the evidence of design. The rule, which is usually unstated, is often referred to as methodological naturalism.’ Krauss responds:

‘We have a different name for it where I come from. It’s called the scientific method. Advocates of creationism and Intelligent Design ultimately stand opposed to the scientific method, because the scientific method is based on the assumption that natural effects have natural causes and that human beings can try to understand those causes. Obviously, that’s incompatible with their particular theological view of reality - and that is the heart of the problem.’

This is a fascinating response. It is true that the assumption that all natural effects have natural causes is incompatible with the beliefs of theists. It is not necessarily true to say this of all ID theorists, since not all ID theorists are theists. However, given that theism is incompatible with the assumption that all natural effects have natural causes (the assumption that naturalism is true), what follows? Either that theism is false or that naturalism is false. Krauss is obviously of the opinion that theism is false and naturalism true. Many would disagree. Anyone who disagrees with Krauss on this score will of course see ‘the problem’ as being quite the reverse of the one that Krauss places at ‘the heart of the problem’.

Krauss substitutes the label ‘the scientific method’ for the label ‘methodological naturalism’, but this substitution has a purely rhetorical value, implying that anyone who disagrees with methodological naturalism is thereby disagreeing with Science (with a captial S). Of course, those who disagree with methodological naturalism do not see themselves as disagreeing with Science, but rather with a specific and highly questionable philosophy of science.

Note that Krauss does not disagree with the Science Excellence for all Ohioans definition of methodological naturalism. Krauss believes that methodological naturalism is indeed a good rule, and that this rule defines the very essence of Science: ‘the scientific method’. He gives no indication of the precarious status of this claim among professional philosophers of science.

However, here is a dilemma for Krauss. What exactly does he mean when he says that the scientific method assumes that ‘natural effects have natural causes’ (my italics)? Would he say that his own article was a natural effect? If not, then Krauss must say that science cannot say anything about the causes of his article. In which case, either nothing can be said about the cause of his article, or something can be said - but by a subject other than science (in which case, scientism is finished). If, on the other hand, he would say that his article is a natural effect, then Krauss has to say that it has a natural cause. Is the obvious fact that his article is the result of intelligent design - in this case the designer is a human (Krauss) – therefore to count as a ‘natural’ cause? If it is, then clearly ‘intelligent design’ must count as a scientifically legitimate explanation, according to Krauss! If it is not, then Krauss’ definition of science unfortunately means that science is forever barred from knowing the true cause of his article, or any other example of intelligent design. In this case, science must excommunicate SETI and forensic science and a host of other sciences that regularly appeal to intelligence in the course of explaining things. Moreover, science is not, according to this interpretation of Krauss’ definition, a search for true explanations. Rather, is a search for explanations compatible with a particular interpretation of the ‘methodological naturalism’ rule!

One can distinguish between hard and soft versions of methodological naturalism. Hard methodological naturalism (HMN) excludes all intelligent causation from scientific explanations - thereby exiling from science many fields of study currently considered scientific and ceding epistemological competency from science to philosophy. After all, an argument and conclusion can be rational, sound and true without being scientific. Anyone arguing to the contrary would be contradicting themselves. On the other hand, soft methodological naturalism (SMN) excludes supernatural causation from science, but does permit explanation in terms of intelligence. SMN has none of the above problems associated with HMN, but of course, SMN permits ID to count as science just as effectively as the outright rejection of ‘methodological naturalism’.

We could ditch ‘methodological naturalism’ per se, go back to thinking in terms of ‘natural philosophy’, transfer funds from science to philosophy, and admit that ‘Science’ is an exercise in counterfactual research (asking ‘What explanations of the world would be true if the rule of methodological naturalism did not risk subverting the truth seeking function of the quest to understand material reality?’). However, I think the better part of wisdom is to adopt SMN and to use this as an agreed line of demarcation between science and philosophy. Hence, even if the best philosophical interpretation of ID is ultimately supernatural, this should not detract from the scientific status of ID, since ‘intelligence’ per se is the proximate explanation which enters into science.

I am not arguing that SMN is a necessary and/or sufficient condition of ‘Science’ with a capital S. I am proposing that there are good practical reasons for agreeing to accept SMN. Accepting SMN allows science to continue as a ‘big tent’ for people of widely differing worldviews. Rather than theists doing ‘theistic science’ and atheists doing ‘science’ (HMN definition), we can all co-operate in doing science (SMN definition). SMN allows Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, New Agers, Platonists and Raelians to all do science together – which is a good thing. Furthermore, SMN does not risk subverting the truth-seeking intent of science, although it does limit its epistemological competency. Whether an intelligent cause is supernatural or not (and whether intelligent causes are supernatural by definition is a discussion that SMN leaves to philosophers), it is still an intelligent cause, and hence still true to note it as such within scientific theory making, even if we disagree philosophically as to whether or not it is in fact a supernatural intelligence. That debate, if we adopt SMN, is left for philosophy.

I agree with Krauss when he writes that ‘the essence of open-mindedness is forcing your beliefs to conform to the evidence of observations, not forcing observations to conform to your beliefs.’ By depending upon the ‘its not science’ response to ID, Krauss commits himself to a definition of science that forces him to make observation conform to his philosophical assumption that all natural effects have natural (i.e. non-intelligent) causes. Only by ditching HMN, and either adopting SMN or rejecting any form of ‘methodological naturalism’, is it possible to make science an open-minded search for truth that forces our beliefs to conform to the evidence of observation.

What Does it Mean to ‘Teach the Controversy’?

Krauss takes issue with the ‘teach the controversy’[5] approach of the Discovery Institute, which he misrepresents as a rhetorically subtle way to say ‘we want ID to be taught in schools’. However, Discovery Institute do not want ID taught in schools - at least not yet. Instead, they want teachers to ‘teach the controversy’, that is the controversy about evolutionary theory as it appears in the scientific literature.[6] Of course, as we have seen, Krauss denies that any controversy exists; in which case any education establishment that set up a requirement to ‘teach the controversy’ will obviously have nothing to teach and Krauss can stop worrying!

I agree with Krauss that rather than singling out evolution for special treatment it would be better to frame all science education with the statement that: ‘Students should learn how scientists are continuing to investigate and critically analyze all scientific theories.’ Of course, that has the same result with respect to teaching evolution. Hence, in that sense, Krauss apparently agrees with ID theorists about how evolution should be taught.

Krauss complains: ‘Intelligent Design advocates want to skip all the intermediate steps [to textbook science]. They want to take their theory straight into high school textbooks. And that’s not fair.’ ‘ID advocates’ is a broad term and some people who would call themselves ID advocates might well take this approach; so let’s phrase an answer in these terms: Discovery Institute, the main centre of the ID movement, does not advocate skipping steps and taking the theory into high school science lessons or textbooks. Discovery Institute advocate ‘teaching the controversy’ about evolution, but not teaching ID:

‘As a matter of public policy, Discovery Institute opposes any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education. Attempts to mandate teaching about intelligent design only politicize the theory and will hinder fair and open discussion of the merits of the theory among scholars and within the scientific community. Furthermore, most teachers at the present time do not know enough about intelligent design to teach about it accurately and objectively. Instead of mandating intelligent design, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in textbooks. It believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned. Discovery Institute believes that a curriculum that aims to provide students with an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories (rather than teaching an alternative theory, such as intelligent design) represents a common ground approach that all reasonable citizens can agree on.’[7]

The Extent of the Controversy

Krauss relies upon some information from a friend of his who did a search on the key words ‘intelligent design’ and found 88 articles, of which 3 supported ID but were in conference proceedings and not peer reviewed research journals. Kraus concludes from this that: ‘that’s the extent of the "controversy" in the scientific literature. There is none.’ This conclusion is both hasty and erroneous.

First of all, are we to disregard all scientific writing outside of journals (like Darwin’s’ Origin), even if they are peer-reviewed (like Dembski’s book with Cambridge University Press, The Design Inference)?! Secondly, it is not the case that controversy over evolution comes only from a pro ID position. Third, even pro-ID articles may not mention the words ‘intelligent design’ (chances of publication are probably better if they do not). Fourth, some explicitly pro-ID articles do in fact exist in peer-reviewed science journals (consider Meyer’s article on the Cambrian Explosion in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, for example). Fifth, the ID movement is quite young and comparatively small, but a steady drip of articles has appeared over the last five years or so, and will continue to appear.[8] Sixth, a search for ‘intelligent design’ via Google Scholar throws up 525,000 hits.

Krauss searches www.amazon.com with the following results:

Of course, some books are debates that present both sides of the supposedly non-existent ID debate. Moreover, some books that are pro ID will not show up in this search. For example, my own book I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilsim (Authentic/Damaris, 2004) contains several chapters advocating ID – but does not appear in the amazon list for intelligent design. I repeated Krauss’ search with the following results:

Either way, the results do show that ID is, as everyone admits, a minority view. But then truth in science isn’t decided by majority vote - it is decided by empirical data and strength of argumentation. Every new theory starts out as a minority view.

Is ID Opposed to Evolution?

Krauss opines: ‘What is Intelligent Design anyway? Examined closely; it doesn’t amount to much more than simply being opposed to evolution.’ I would surmise from this statement that Krauss hasn’t examined ID closely.

First of all, ‘evolution’ is such an equivocal term that we should distinguish several senses of the term in order to point out, for example, that ID is not opposed to evolution in the sense of ‘change over time’. Nor is ID opposed to ‘micro-evolution’. Nor is ID opposed to evolution in the sense of ‘modification with descent’. Some design theorists are opposed to the thesis of ‘universal common ancestry’, but others are not and this is not definitive of ID theory per se.

What ID is opposed to (in the biotic realm of application) is evolution in the sense of ‘the blind watchmaker thesis,’ the hypothesis that the undirected capacities of nature (whether or not those capacities are themselves created and sustained by God) can account for all aspects of biotic reality. The facets in question are those aspects of nature which - it is claimed - exhibit specified (and/or irreducible) complexity. Hence, ID is only opposed to evolution in its grandest explanatory sense.

Moreover, ID has application outside the field of biology - for example, ID includes arguments from both cosmic and local examples of ‘fine tuning’, of the sort discussed by cosmologists and astrobiologists.[9] Indeed, ID has application in any scientific field which seeks to make design inferences from empirical evidence.

This last point shows that Krauss ignores one half of ID in his statement; for ID does not simply mean being opposed to the grander explanatory claims of evolutionary theory. It also means favouring an evidentially motivated appeal to intelligence as the only cause known to be capable of explaining precisely those example of specified and irreducible complexity for which evolution fails to account. ID means being in favour of evolution when it is an adequate explanation and being in favour of intelligent design when that is the best explanation.

Does ID Paint Science as the Villain?

Krauss complains about the Discovery Institute’s "Wedge Strategy" document[10]:

‘The "Wedge Strategy" criticizes evolution as being scientifically suspect, but moves quickly to a deeper preconception: "The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. This cardinal idea came under wholesale attack, drawing on the discoveries of modern science." So, science is the villain."

First, the statement quoted about a belief in the doctrine of creation (not ‘creationism’) being a cardinal principle of western civilization is in fact true. Second, Krauss fails to notice the words ‘drawing on’ (just as he ignored DeLay’s ‘nothing but’). According to the statement quoted, the villain of the piece is not science - as Krauss interprets it - but the assumption that materialism is true. The villain of the piece is not science at all, but naturalism ‘drawing on’ the discoveries of modern science.

The trouble, as ID supporting theists see it, is that many scholars assume the truth of naturalism and then define science in such a way that it ceases being a quest for truth impelled by empirical evidence and becomes narrow-minded, an exercise in applied materialist philosophy.

Does ID Presume that Science is Immoral?

According to Krauss: ‘ID is based on the presumptions that science is immoral because it doesn’t make reference to God; therefore, evolution is immoral, because it doesn’t explicitly mention God either; therefore, evolution must be wrong.’

This is an attack on the presumed motivations of ID theorists, rather than a response to their arguments. This is also an attack which erroneously assumes that all ID theorists believe in God. The terms theorists and theists are rather similar; but they are not the same.

As an ID theorist who is also a theist, I can only put it on the record that I for one do not presume that either science or evolutionary theory is immoral because they don’t make reference to God. If I thought that, I’d have to think that Intelligent Design theory is immoral, because it doesn’t make reference to God.

The Purpose of Education

Finally, having noted that only 50 percent of American adults know that the earth orbits the sun (which is astonishing!), Krauss asserts: ‘The point that seems lost on many people - and the point that ID advocates hope will stay lost - is that the purpose of education is not to validate ignorance; it’s to overcome it.’

Well, that’s open to interpretation. If Krauss means that the purpose of education is not to validate ignorance but to teach people to engage critically with reality and to competently search for truth, then I agree. If what he really means is that the purpose of education is not to validate any worldview with which a 21st century materialist disagrees, and/or that the purpose of education is to indoctrinate people into believing what a 21st century materialist believes, then I do not agree. I trust and hope that he means the former and not the latter. In which case, here’s one ID advocate who hopes that this point will not be lost on anyone.

Recommended Resources

Discovery Institute’s Science Education Policy @
www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=3164&program=CSC%20-%20Science%20and%20Education%20Policy%20-%20School%20District%20Policy%20-%20MainPage

Discovery Institute List of Peer Reviewed Material @
www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=2640&program=CSC%20-%20Scientific%20Research%20and%20Scholarship%20-%20Science

David K. DeWolf, Stephen C. Meyer & Mark Edward DeForrest, ‘Teaching the Origins Controversy: Science, Or Religion, Or Speech?’ @
www.arn.org/docs/dewolf/utah.pdf


[1] cf. www.phys.cwru.edu/~krauss/

[2] cf. Lawrence M. Krauss, ‘Science vs. Religion in the ID Debate’ @
http://genesis1.phys.cwru.edu/~krauss/freeinqart.html

[3] cf. William A. Dembski, ‘In Defence of Intelligent Design’ @
www.designinference.com/documents/2005.06.Defense_of_ID.pdf;

Stephen C. Meyer, ‘The Scientific Status of Intelligent Design’ @
www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=2834&program=CSC%20-%20Scientific%20Research%20and%20Scholarship%20-%20History%20and%20Philosophy%20of%20Science;

Peter S. Williams, ‘If SETI Is Science and UFOlogy Is Not, Which Is Intelligent Design Theory?’ @
www.arn.org/docs/williams/pw_setivsufology.htm;

Peter S. Williams, ‘The Definitional Critique: Lessons from the Demise of Logical Positivism’ @
www.arn.org/docs/williams/pw_definitionalcritique.htm

[4] cf. Bradley Monton, ‘Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision’ @
http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/archive/00002583/01/Methodological_Naturalism_2.pdf

[5] cf. Stephen C. Meyer, ‘Teach the Controversy’ @
  www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=1134

[6] cf. Stephen C. Meyer & John Angus Campbell, ‘Evolution: Debate It’ (USA Today) @
www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=2786

[7] cf. Discovery Institute’s Science Education Policy

[8] cf. Discovery Institute List of Peer Reviewed Material

[9] cf. Robert C. Koons, ‘Post Agnostic Science: How Physics is Reviving the Argument from Design’ @
www.arn.org/docs/koons/rk_postagnosticscience.htm

[10] cf. www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=2101