Intelligent Design Movement Struggles with Identity Crisis

Bruce Gordon

Interim director of The Baylor Science and Religion Project
Baylor University
Waco, TX

Used by permission:  Research News & Opportunities in Science and Theology. January 2001, p. 9

Design theory has had considerable difficulty gaining a hearing in academic contexts, as evidenced most recently by the the Polanyi Center affair at Baylor University. One of the principle reasons for this resistance and controversy is not far to seek: design-theoretic research has been hijacked as part of a larger cultural and political movement. In particular, the theory has been prematurely drawn into discussions of public science education where it has no business making an appearance without broad recognition from the scientific community that it is making a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the natural world.

   A small but significant step forward was made when design research was recognized as a legitimate form of academic inquiry, with a rightful place on the university campus, by the external review committee's report on the Polanyi Center. But inclusion of design theory as part of the standard discourse of the scientific community, if it ever happens, will be the result of a long and difficult process of quality research and publication. It also will be the result of overcoming the stigma that has become attached to design research because of the anti-evolutionary diatribes of some of its proponents on the one hand and its appropriation for the purpose of Christian apologetics on the other. In these latter regards, the odds are stacked against it from the start.

   Having said this much, let me make it clear that for those of us with a commitment to the Christian faith, the questions that design theory addresses are in a certain sense natural, and recognition of this might even motivate its pursuit. Insofar as the results of such research have a place in broader scientific discussion, though, they must be presented and defended on the basis of reasons that are accessible to all. If design theory is to make a contribution to science, it must be worth pursuing on the basis of its own merits, not as an exercise in Christian 'cultural renewal,' the weight of which it cannot bear. And the reason it cannot bear this weight is that the technical work of design theory neither entails nor is entailed by a broadly theistic conception of the world, even though it does add some interesting wrinkles to a discussion of the relationship between science and religion. Let me explain.

First of all, what has come to be called 'design theory' is at best a means for mathematically describing, empirically detecting, and then quantifying teleology (goal-directedness) in nature, without prejudging where or whether it will be found. Secondly, if it is granted that teleology might be an objective part of nature, then it also has to be acknowledged that design research can be carried out in a manner that does not violate methodological naturalism as a philosophical constraint on science. I have no attachment one way or the other to methodological naturalism as a metascientific principle, but honesty demands the recognition that design-theoretic research does not logically entail its denial. Thirdly, design research is compatible with a realistic teleology like that of the vitalism espoused by thinkers such as Henri Bergson and Hans Driesch. It is compatible with the suggestion that life on earth was purposely seeded from elsewhere in the cosmos (though this leaves another rather pressing question unanswered). It is compatible with a theistic- evolutionary perspective of continuous development in which the unfolding of the universe and of life was implicit in finely-tuned. initial conditions. On a less sanguine note, it is logically compatible with "creationism' in, a variety of forms, though many of these can readily be dismissed on well-established scientific grounds. And there may be other metaphysical possibilities. Beyond this, adjudicating among these various metaphysical interpretations is a task that falls to philosophers and theologians and forms no part of any contribution to science that design theory might make.

   In conclusion, it is crucial to note that design theory is at best a supplementary consideration introduced along- side (or perhaps into, by way of modification) neo-Darwinian biology and self- organizational complexity theory. It does not mandate the replacement of these highly fruitful research paradigms, and to suggest that it does is just so much overblown, unwarranted, and ideologically driven rhetoric. Intellectual honesty demands that the wide-range of flexibility as regards the interpretation and significance of design theory be made abundantly clear. The dutiful avoidance of dogmatism, an irenic attitude, and a healthy dose of humility will by themselves, I think, do much to dispel the controversy at Baylor and help open the doors for the acceptance of design theorists as dialogue partners in the wider academic community.