The natural sciences may be the most powerful achievement of the human mind. The eradication of polio, the feats of biotechnology, astronomy’s insights into the gaping universe, all of these modern wonders and a host of others are the fruit of scientific research.
We are all beneficiaries of this remarkable gift, we rely on medicine, we drive cars, we consult daily weather reports. Like it or not—after all, science is a mixed bag—it is the world in which we live, move, and have our being. Perhaps we should not be surprised that “science” itself is aLike it or not—after all, science is a mixed bag—it is the world in which we live, move, and have our being. contested concept, a set of practices so central to the habits and self-conception of the modern world that it inevitably invites conflicting interpretations.
A focal point of debate involves the intellectual legacy of Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution made it possible to think that God was unnecessary to the origin and development of life—undirected natural causes can explain everything. As Richard Dawkins once remarked, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1996), 7. Of course, premodern thinkers would have been shocked. “Throughout the Christian era,” points out William Dembski, “theologians have argued that nature exhibits features which nature itself cannot explain but which instead require an intelligence beyond nature.”William Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 66.
In the eighteenth century, William Paley formalized this intuition with the watchmaker analogy. If you stumbled upon a watch lying in a field, you would rightly conclude that it had been purposefully designed by someone. Only a fool would think that natural causes would be sufficient to engineer something so intricate. So too with the universe—it has an intelligent designer. At least that was the conclusion drawn by Paley, that “every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature.”William Paley, Natural Theology (London: William and Robert Chambers, 1837), 3.
The spirit of Paley was given new life in the Intelligent Design movement, headquartered at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Beginning with groundbreaking works like Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olson’s The Mystery of Life’s Origin, Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, and Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, these intrepid thinkers set out to dethrone the scientific naturalism so dominant in academia and the wider culture.Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin (Dallas: Lewis and Stanley, 1984); Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda: Adler & Adler, 1985); Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993). In time, this movement has grown into a positive research program built on the premise that intelligent causes are empirically detectable in nature, indeed that such intelligence is central to understanding the very meaning of biological life.
Not everyone is convinced, to put it mildly. Secular scientists are largely dismissive, but even fellow Christians strongly contest the scientific legitimacy of Intelligent Design. Mind you, they are skeptical not because they reject God as the Creator, the maker of heaven and earth. No, the issue is a theological disagreement, at least in part, specifically that divine providence should not—and in fact cannot—be submitted to a scientific test. The signs of creation and providence pervade all of nature, the critics say, and should thereforeOur goal is for these authoritative reflections to help the rest of us gain clarity on the issues—more light, less heat! not be narrowed down to alleged instances of “specified” or “irreducible” complexity. Beyond theology, the debate over “methodological naturalism” is only one of several philosophical questions about what should and should not count as legitimate science.
Hopefully this superficial overview is enough to indicate the significance of these debates and how the core issues are still very much with us. I’m therefore honored to roll out a new feature from the Creation Project—our “Areopagite” series. This fresh series aims to facilitate greater clarity on difficult or contentious areas of debate; each installment of the Areopagite will pose a controversial question and we will then invite a handful of respected scholars, from different perspectives, to respond. Our goal is for these authoritative reflections to help the rest of us gain clarity on the issues—more light, less heat!
Welcome, then, to our first installment with this question on the table: Is purposive, intelligent design detectable by the scientific investigation of nature?
Here are the scholars we have gathered together for responses to the question:
Michael Ruse (PhD University of Bristol) is the Lucyle T. Wekmeister Professor and Director of the History and Philosophy of Science Program at Florida State University. He is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Canada and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has published widely in philosophy of biology and the history of science. His recent publications include On Faith and Science (Yale University Press, 2017), coauthored with Edward J. Larson, and Science, Evolution, and Religion: A Debate about Atheism and Theism (Oxford University Press, 2016), co-authored with Michael Peterson.
Ben McFarland (PhD University of Washington) is Professor of Biochemistry at Seattle Pacific University. His publications include A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life (Oxford University Press, 2016), a chapter in Faith Seeking Understanding: Essays in Memory of Paul Brand and Ralph Winter (William Carey, 2012), and the 2010 Weter Award Lecture at SPU. He has also published peer-reviewed biochemistry research in protein design and structural immunology.
Tony Jelsma (PhD McMaster University) has been a biology professor at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, for 17 years, teaching various courses in anatomy, physiology, genetics, developmental biology, and one that addresses the creation-evolution debate. He has had a longstanding interest in origins but is yet to find resolution on this topic. He obtained his PhD in biochemistry from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and spent eight years in cancer and nerve regeneration research before becoming a college professor. He is also an elder in his local (PCA) church.
Deborah Haarsma (PhD Massachusetts Institute of Technology) serves as the President of BioLogos, a position she has held since January 2013. Previously, she served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is author (along with her husband Loren Haarsma) of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Faith Alive, 2011), and co-editor with Scott Hoezee of Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church (Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2012).
Stephen C. Meyer (PhD University of Cambridge) directs Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle, Washington. He earned his PhD in the philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2010), a London Times Literary Supplement book of the year and New York Times bestseller, and Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2014).
Enough with the introductions, we’re ready to begin. I hope you will find these upcoming reflections at once intellectually stimulating and spiritually invigorating.
Areopagite: Is Intelligent Design Detectable by Science?