Nathan H. Lents and S. Joshua Swamidass: The lesson of Kitzmiller: Science bridges divides

The expanded version is out now.

“Of course, when science conflicts with particular religious claims, we must not remain silent. Whether God exists or not, intelligent design has failed as a scientific argument and being honest about that serves the public good. By the same logic, however, when scientific evidence is silent on religious beliefs, we should simply admit that, rather than sow harmful conflict.”

@NLENTS and @swamidass

1 Like

What is the particular religious claim that ID makes?

1 Like

Theologian John F. Haught, an expert witness in the Dover case, covered the question of whether ID is religion in his expert report.

Here are some relevant highlights:

Second, ID functions religiously as an inaccessible mystery rather than an empirically specifiable cause. Referring to ID, the authors of Of Pandas and People ask: What kind of intelligent agent was it? On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy.” (p. 7) Indisputably, then, even ID proponents cannot help thinking of ID in religious terms, regardless of what they may say to the contrary.

Third, ID explicitly endows its ultimate explanation of life with the attribute of supreme intelligence—a quality characteristic of the personal God of classical theism, a point that I shall develop more fully below.

b. Historically, it is impossible to separate ID from the religious and theological tradition in which it was born and nurtured over the course of centuries. For example, the famous theologian Thomas Aquinas (13" Century) argued that the design in nature points toward a supreme intelligence. And this, he said, “everyone understands to be God.” In the late 18" and early 19" centuries the Anglican cleric William Paley famously set forth a version of the argument from design, reasoning that the orderly arrangements of living complexity in nature point logically to the existence of a benign and intelligent God. The contemporary notion of ID is historically unintelligible apart from the religious agendas of Paley and Aquinas. When ID advocates today seek an “intelligent design” explanation for irreducible complexity in subcellular mechanisms, or when they emphasize the “specified informational complexity”in cellular DNA, no amount of explicit denial can disguise the fact that they are working in direct continuity with the tradition of “natural theology,” a religiously inspired method of argumentation that attempts to affirm the existence of God by way of interpreting the design in the “book of nature.”

Historically, the notion of intelligent design has persistently been taken to mean the Creator God of theistic faith. One is always free to redefine terms according to one’s preferences, of course, but the weight of traditional meanings is witnessed to by the very fact that ID proponents choose the expression “intelligent design,” rather than a less provocative label, for what they take to be the best alternative to evolutionary accounts.

(This is an OCR of the pdf, so my apologies for any uncaught inaccuracies.)


I agree with what you wrote, but I think that critics of ID try to have their cake and eat it too and to me it looks as self-defeating as ID.

If ID is a religious notion and has a “particular religious claim” that God intervened in nature such that complexity points to an intelligent designer, how can the scientific evidence conflict with or refute that? Evolutionary science cannot say that complexity could not have been designed/created de novo in some way in the process rather than evolved because we were not there.

I do not understand how ID critics aren’t sowing harmful conflict if they don’t acknowledge this, if they believe it is a religious argument.

IMO, the criticism of the current theory of evolution that ID proponents make should not be confused with arguments FOR intelligent design, or ID does become a scientific argument and not a religious one and ID critics have just handed ID their argument.

But I think it’s too late for that - it has already been and is being responded to as science. If so, drop the “religious claim.”

1 Like

I don’t think science can disprove divine design.

I totally agree. Though they often do seem to confuse the two.

As you may recall from my interview with Barbara Forrest, I do think there are purely scientific ID arguments, even if they are made within a religious context.

I would agree.

I think you may be being too generous there. The intentional conflation of the two would appear to be integral to the DI’s strategy.

ID would not be the first movement to invoke science in order to promote a religious agenda. And I do not believe that making these arguments in any way disconnects ID from its religious roots. Nor do I believe that it is easy to disconnect these “purely scientific” claims from its pervasive “religious context”. When an argument receives so little scientific support, but so much religious support, it is hard to see it as being “purely scientific” in any meaningful way.

Also, the fact that ID is fundamentally a religious idea neither can, nor should in my opinion, immunise its scientific claims from scientific criticism. This is as much true for Irreducible Complexity, and Specified Complex Information as it has been for YEC’s (likewise religiously motivated) claims of Canopy Theory, Bending of Space Theory, dinosaur and human fossils being found together, floating continents, compressed ice ages, Altruistic Genetic Elements, etc – that have been criticised by the scientific community for the last 60 years and more.


It depends on the specific claim. Some ID proponents argue that “gain of function” mutations and “irreducible complexity” cannot arise except thru design, which points to God. Those claims can be, and have been, refuted scientifically. In fact, @swamidass has done so himself.

OTOH, Joshua also makes claim about divine intervention that cannot be tested scientifically, at least for the moment


Because mere “complexity” doesn’t suggest design. The nature of biological complexity strongly indicates that it arose from a long, iterative process, not intelligent design.

The data, which you eschew in favor of hearsay, indicate that the complexity arose from an iterative process. It’s interesting that you run away from basic scientific terminology.

That’s what one can learn from the evidence, if one dives deep.

You’re trying to misrepresent science as an evidence-free rhetorical argument in the humanities.


The article gives the impression that it does.

I only watched about 5-10 minutes of that, so I missed it.

It is meant to explain that the specific scientific arguments made by ID were not accepted by the vast majority of scientists. That is what it states. That doesn’t mean divine design has been disproven by science.

1 Like

That’s the impression I got from these two sentences being next to each other. Maybe others read them a different way.

There is an important distinction between someone holding the view that life is designed and holding the view that the evidence necessitates the conclusion that life was designed. ID promotes the latter position, while the former can be consistent with all modern science. I can think of no mechanism that could be discovered about the emergence of life to which the committed theist would not respond ‘So that’s how God did it!’.


I can see that that’s possible, though personally I think that’s a distinction without difference. I don’t think we can rationally hold the view life is designed unless we conclude it from the evidence.

But neither of those things was my point.

1 Like

Sure, but that doesn’t mean you need to conclude it from the evidence of life, now does it? If you’ve already concluded that a god exists, then why not see divine design in life? But that still leaves the evidence from life as compatible with purely natural methods, which is the important distinction between someone who believes in theistic evolution and someone who promotes ID.


Glad you asked so I could clarify!

1 Like

Some more parts from Haught’s expert report would seem relevant to this further discussion:

Reflecting in one’s private moments on the results of scientific inquiry, of course, one might conclude that something analogous to our own intelligence is the ultimate cause of natural phenomena,but that would be a metaphysical or theological claim, not a scientific inference or explanation. Contrariwise, a scientist may conclude in his or her private moments that the universe is grounded ultimately in dumb matter and utter unintelligence. But that too would be a nonscientific, metaphysical interpretation of nature, not a scientific idea strictly speaking. In my opinion, that kind of belief (identifiable as “religion” in sense # 1 as discussed above) should also be kept out of the classroom.
Let me add that many philosophers and theologians have concluded that a divine intelligence is the deepest explanation of a universe in which there are instances of informational or biological complexity. But when they have done so it is not as scientists, but as persons who in addition to being scientifically curious are also philosophically and theologically inquisitive. Most scientists who are religiously committed to theistic belief are able to make the distinction between science and religion and are willing to let science be neutral on the question of ultimate explanation. For that reason most scientists who believe in God reject the proposition that ID is a scientific idea.
1 Like

16 posts were split to a new topic: Jeffb and beneficial mutations

This topic was automatically closed 7 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.