6. What is intelligent design?  Who proposes it?

    What are the four types of intelligent design? 
    Who is in the Big Tent of ID?  is it creationism?

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

A condensed version of this page is in my Overview-FAQ.
I recommend reading it first because it's shorter so you can get quick overview of the ideas, and because after initially writing both pages I've been more diligent in revising/supplementing the Overview-FAQ (especially in Sections 3-7) so it currently includes some ideas that are not in this page, but some other ideas are only in this page.



6A. What are the four types of intelligent design?

      • The properties of nature are "just right" for a wide variety of life-allowing phenomena.  For example, we have sunshine because natural processes produce a fine-tuned balance between opposing forces, in a cosmic tug-of-war lasting billions of years.  Does this "fine tuning of nature" indicate a divine design of nature?
      • Christians believe that God can change our situations and our thoughts and actions, and that He responds to prayer.  Usually, all of this happens in a way that appears normal and natural, yet God is actively involved in a divine guiding of natural process in our daily lives.  In the distant past, maybe God also used this natural guidance during the formative history of nature, to produce desired natural-appearing results instead of other natural-appearing results.
      •• God can also use miraculous-appearing action.  And humans can produce objects and events that would not occur if we just let nature "do what it does" with undirected natural process.  For example, if you receive a radio signal — 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17,... — and you think "this long string of prime numbers probably was not produced by undirected natural process," you are proposing a theory of Intelligent Design.

      The paragraphs above describe four types of design, as summarized below.

      When scientists study a feature of nature (a star, bacteria, whale, biochemical system,...) they can ask about its origin.  Was it produced by intelligent design, either by:
      • natural process because, before history began, the universe was designed so this would happen, or
      • natural process that, during history, was supernaturally guided in a natural-appearing way to produce a particular natural-appearing result that was desired, or
      detectable design-directed action during history by a supernatural agent (•) or a natural agent (•), which was necessary because undirected natural process would not produce the feature?
      Or was there no design of any type, as proposed by atheists, with everything produced by natural process that was not designed, was not guided (in an undetectable natural-appearing way), and was not directed (in a detectable miraculous-appearing way).

more about DESIGN IN SCIENCE to supplement 6A-6B and 7B-7D


6B. Who is in the Big Tent of Intelligent Design, and why?

      two types of Intelligent Design, not four?
      An atheist rejects the existence of God, and will therefore reject divine design-action in a design of nature, a guiding of natural process, or in detectable miracles.  They will affirm only design-action by a natural agent.  In fact, this type of design is accepted by everyone (when there is strong evidence for it) and it is obvious in everyday life when we wake up in a house, listen to a radio, read a newspaper, or drive a car.
      Based on the Bible, all Judeo-Christian theists should accept the possibility of all four types of design.  But there is disagreement about the reality when we ask whether one of these (divine detectable design-action) actually was used in the formative history of nature.
      For example, proponents of theistic evolution (who are evolutionary creationists) accept natural-appearing design — in a design of nature, and a supernatural guiding of natural events — but they think detectable design-action was not necessary, and did not occur, during formative history.  Even though they propose intelligent design (of two types) the "big tent of Intelligent Design" isn't big enough for them, since detectable design-action is the defining characteristic for what is commonly called Intelligent Design, according to those in the mainstream "intelligent design" community.
      In the rest of this page, "design" will refer to detectable design-directed action, by a natural agent or supernatural agent.  In most other pages this is the usual meaning of "design" but it could also refer to the other two types of design, or all four types, so you'll have to get the meaning from the context.  Unfortunately, much confusion occurs due to miscommunication between writers (who don't clarify their intended meaning, or don't distinguish between different meanings) and readers.
      We'll return to the Big Tent later in this section, after looking at relationships between design and creationism.

      Why is it controversial?
      Many theories about design-directed action (involving radio signals with prime numbers, faces on Mt Rushmore, murder investigations,...) are evaluated based on their scientific merit, using evidence and logic.  But other design theories are criticized for "not being scientific."  Why?
      Theories proposing Intelligent Design can be evaluated using the logical methods of science, are common in science.  But concerns about design arise when the design-action seems unfamiliar.  Sometimes the action and agent are familiar (as when humans make faces on Mount Rushmore using dynamite, chisels,...) and in these situations, if there is evidence for design this inference is accepted by everyone.  But in other cases the design-action is unfamiliar and it might be supernatural.  In these situations the main concerns are religious (but there are also questions about scientific methods for detecting design, as discussed in Section 7B), and a common claim is that a design theory is a creation theory.  Is this claim justified?

      Is intelligent design just camouflaged creationism?
      For any question about design in any area (radioastronomy, homicide, origins,...) we can view the scientific inquiry as a two-stage process:  first we ask "Was there design-directed action?", and then we investigate the details.  A basic design theory claims only that design-directed action did occur (the first stage) but does not try to explain the details (who, why, how,...) of design-and-production.  We should evaluate a design theory based on what it does claim (that design occurred) instead of what it does not claim (that it can explain the details).
      In origins, a design theory is not a creation theory.  A basic design theory can be supplemented with details (about the designer's identity and actions, about who, why, how,...) to form a variety of theories about supernatural creation (by God or...) or natural non-creation (as in a theory proposing that evolution on earth was intelligently designed and directed by space aliens who evolved before us).  A basic design theory — which does not propose divine action, but does acknowledge this as a possibility — does not try to distinguish between creation and non-creation.  Instead, it just claims that "design-directed action did occur."
      Michael Behe explains: "Most people (including myself) will attribute the design to God, based in part on other, non-scientific judgments they have made. ... From a scientific point of view, the question [who is the designer?] remains open. ... The biochemical evidence strongly indicates design, but does not show who the designer was."  As a person, Behe thinks the designer was God.  But as a scientist, he thinks "the biochemical evidence... does not show who the designer was."

      Two Perspectives — Logical and Sociological
      What are the similarities and differences between design and creation?  Logically, a design theory is not a creation theory, although there is significant overlap in their scientific claims and in the evidence-and-logic they claim as support.  Sociologically, there are important connections between design and creation.
      Along with Mike Behe, most advocates of Intelligent Design (ID) think the designer is God.  Almost all members of the ID community are mono-theists: mainly Christians, but also Jews and Moslems.  As explained earlier, evolutionary creationists are excluded — by their own choice, and by the ID community — from the "big tent" of ID, which includes mainly old-earth progressive creationists (OECs) and young-earth creationists (YECs).
      Most of the prominent ID leaders think the earth and universe are billions of years old.  But according to Del Ratzsch, "although not part of ‘official’ IDM doctrine, some among academic ID advocates, and the overwhelming bulk of lay ID advocates, accept a ‘young-earth’ version of creationism," and this is important in a sociological analysis.  Phillip Johnson and other ID leaders have adopted a "big tent" strategy that welcomes young-earth creationists into the community of ID.  Why?  OECs and YECs agree on the basic claim of ID, that "detectable design-directed action did occur," so they both criticize neo-Darwinist theories in biology;  in addition, OECs and YECs (along with evolutionary creationists who are outside the tent) both oppose an atheistic worldview.
      The most prominent leaders of YEC harshly criticize all old-earth views, and — because they acknowledge only two basic views, YEC and Evolution (which includes all other views) — they think OECs are deceived by unbiblical "evolutionary thinking."  But the YEC leaders agree with the anti-Darwinian aspect of ID, so they have formed an uneasy partial alliance with ID, despite its tolerance for old-earth views and its lack of emphasis on Genesis.
      Each side gains practical benefits from the alliance.  YEC gets a "free ride" from design theories that are more scientifically credible, and are less constitutionally questionable in American public education.  In return, ID can take advantage of YEC support, sociologically (in the Christian community), financially (in book sales and contributions), and politically (for questions about public education,...).
      But a scientific disadvantage for ID is described by William Grassie: "It is vital that we separate known natural history from the interpretation of that natural history. ...  Scientific evidence for a long and evolving natural history of life on this planet has grown dramatically and profoundly in last two centuries. ... [so] responsible Intelligent Design advocates admit to a long Earth history.  These ID advocates rarely talk about natural history, however, because they do not want to alienate the Young Earth Creationist who constitutes the base of their movement."  (11 k + 1k)

      How should we look at the logical and sociological aspects of Intelligent Design?  In my opinion,
      • in science every theory should be logically evaluated based on its scientific merit, not on the motives of its advocates;  a theory of evolution should not be rejected because some of its advocates are atheists, and a theory of design should not be rejected because most of its advocates are theists.  According to conventional scientific method, non-scientific motivations are acceptable when a theory is proposed, but "hoping a theory is true (or false)" should not be a factor when a theory is being evaluated.
      • sociological connections between ID and YEC are mostly irrelevant in scientific debates, because in their arguments all ID proponents assume a conventional old-earth history of nature;  some assume this because they think it's true, and others do it "for the sake of argument" so the focus will be on how rather than when.  There are many similarities in the scientific claims of ID and OEC (and YEC when the focus is on how, not when, and old-earth history is assumed) and in the evidence-and-logic that each claims as support.
      • sociological connections between ID and YEC are very relevant in education, because much of the enthusiasm (and political pressure) for allowing ID-ideas in public schools (*) comes from people with YEC views, and also because teaching about ID-ideas might invite "questions about religion" that could draw teachers into a climate of controversy that most teachers want to avoid;  in American education the situation is complex, with no easy answers, and is discussed in FAQ-8, What should public schools teach about origins?   (* Leaders in the ID community want this to be done indirectly, not by "teaching about ID" but by allowing criticism of neo-Darwinian theories.)
      • sociology of another type may be relevant for another question:  Proponents of ID rarely publish in science journals or get research funding, but is this because their work is worthless, or because the scientific community doesn't want to acknowledge anything worthy in it?  In journals, I favor a "free marketplace of ideas," but research funding is a more difficult question.   { Of course, similar why-questions, about publishing and funding, could be asked for young-universe science that I think is not scientifically worthy. }

a bonus question:
Why does a young-earth view increase the plausibility of evolution? 
      Prominent young-earth creationists propose a two-model view of origins, insisting on a choice between young-earth creation and all-natural evolution.  When we ask "did God design nature so it would be 100% self-assembling by a process of natural-appearing evolution, with no need for miraculous-appearing divine action?", a two-model view produces an increase in the perceived plausibility of all-natural evolution, which "wins points" simply because it proposes an old earth.  Why?  Because if miraculous-appearing old-earth creation is rejected, so we have only two choices, all evidence for an old earth (or old universe) becomes evidence for evolution, and evidence for WHEN has been converted into evidence for HOW.
      Ironically, young-earth views increase the plausibility of evolution in public school classrooms, because:   1) evidence for an old earth becomes evidence for evolution, if "the line is drawn" between an old earth (= evolution) and young earth (= non-evolution);   2) science teachers are less willing to criticize evolution based on scientific evidence and logical evaluation, since they don't want to give credibility to theories about a young-earth (and young-universe) that often have accompanied criticisms of evolution, or they assume that legal prohibitions against teaching young-earth creationism also prohibit any critical questioning of evolution.


This page is one part of
responses to Frequently
Asked Questions about
Creation, Evolution, 
and Intelligent Design,

written by Craig Rusbult,
with an ASA-disclaimer.
Home-Page for FAQ 
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8-Page Full FAQ: 
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4. Age–of–Earth Science 
5. Christians & Evolution   
6. Four Types of Design 
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8. Origins Education 


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