Why I don’t believe Intelligent Design

I’ve been speaking very broadly in my previous posts. In this, I want to hone in on a single issue to clear up some misunderstandings. I want to talk about Intelligent Design.

There are many reasons why I do not believe in capital-I, capital-D Intelligent Design (ID), and this is only one of them. But what is ID? I contrast ID with the notion that God designed the universe intelligently, because these are different sorts of things. ID is a specific set of claims, not the notion that the universe has an intelligent designer. It states that God guided evolution in such a way so as to overcome problems with the complexity of organisms. Their claim is that some evolutionary developments are so complex as to require an outside influence (God). This they call irreducible complexity.

My position, which is a far more broad position of theistic naturalism, is such that I believe God exists and that he created the universe such that evolution would occur.

As a short aside, I want to clarify that calling this “theistic evolution” is not a very good term, even though many say they ascribe to something by this name. Evolution is a part of a naturalistic worldview, but there are other fields of study: abiogenesis, cosmology, astronomy, etc. “Theistic naturalism” is a better term for a Christian view which encompasses all of these.

The difference between ID and theistic naturalism is tremendous. ID would have God making constant adjustments, pushing organisms to higher and higher levels of complexity. In my position, which is surely not unique to me, God has arranged the universe such that it does its work with a relative degree of autonomy outside of that first step. These are very different levels of involvement. What are the implications of these differences?

A short maxim captures the essence of these differences: “perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery). That is, perfection is a sort of efficiency, not merely a result.

My studies in computer science focused intensely on efficiency. In fact, one could consider this one of the chief aims of advancement in the field: do the same thing with fewer resources and less time spent processing. If you can make a program that runs in a fraction of the time of another and achieves the same result, the faster program is better than the second.

But this is not merely an issue for computer programmers, though it happens to be a very specific focus for them. Every discipline I can imagine would rather do more with less than less (or the same) with more. This is a sort of criterion which I think we can safely apply to God, as well. If God can accomplish the same result with a smaller degree of effort than an alternative, we should call this smaller move a better move.

It might seem presumptuous to try to apply this to God, but consider a first alternative: we would call a greater expenditure for the same result a better move. This does not seem right. The other alternative is to remove value judgments from God’s actions, wherein we lose the ability to call them “good.” This seems even less likely. It stands to reason that we should call the minimal effort expended for the same result to be the best course of action.

Now bear in mind that I am not saying that some of God’s actual actions are not the best actions; I am saying that potential actions that God could take are up for evaluation against one another. This difference exemplifies itself in the very way by which Christ appeared to the world. The Jews wished for a military Messiah who would ride in triumphantly on a horse wielding a sword; instead, they received an unarmed wanderer who rode to his death on a donkey. Granted, God could have conquered death any way he chose, but he did so in the most humble of ways.

So now let us turn back to the question of ID versus theistic naturalism. God according to ID is one who must constantly intervene in the processes which he set up. He is constantly working to make the earth and the rest of the universe the exact way he desires it to be. Theistic naturalism, though, is very much the opposite, and it achieves the same result.

Honestly, God according to ID doesn’t sound a lot like God. He sounds like a bad engineer who has to get out and push the car he designed every once in awhile, because it doesn’t do what he wants it to do. God according to theistic naturalism sounds like the brilliant designer which we presently understand God to be. That is not to say that God does not preside over his creation, but he doesn’t need to give it a constant push; he’s smarter than that.

If offered the choice between these alternatives, I would very much choose the God of theistic naturalism, because he sounds like the far more powerful and intelligent God. The God of ID, on the other hand, does not sound very intelligent by comparison.

Final note: the theologians are going to tell me after reading this that we can’t directly attribute human characteristics to God. I am aware of this. It would be tedious to specify every time that I called God “intelligent” or a “designer” that I mean this mostly by analogy based on revelation.


About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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21 Responses to Why I don’t believe Intelligent Design

  1. Dan Elb says:

    “It states that God guided evolution in such a way so as to overcome problems with the complexity of organisms. ”

    That’s not my impression of IDers, at all. I thought that they denied evolution COMPLETELY. The Bible doesn’t say anything about God creating a “process” that would create creatures, much less about occasionally interfering in that process. The Bible says that God created creatures from scratch, eg, Adam from dust and Eve from Adam’s rib. I thought this was the ID position.

    • No, ID is a variety of complexity theory which states that only God could have induced certain claimed jumps in complexity. The problem is that all of the supposed irreducibly complex jumps which they have posited (wherein God would have had to “push,” so to speak) have turned out to be false on closer examination.

      • Not in any way Arthur says:

        Yes and no. Intelligent Design says both when different people invoke the term. The Dover court case is an example of creationists using the term for cover.

      • Not-Arthur, even in the Dover case, ID was a variation of evolution. The issue is that ID used to call itself Creationism prior to the court case in either the late 80’s or early 90’s. It’s possible not everyone who supported the ID textbook was aware of this, but that has always been the case with ID.

  2. Chase says:

    I’m not so sure we need to apply the “more for less” principle to an omnipotent being, but pointing to God’s humble nature does make me pause.
    If we remove value judgments from God’s actions in a quantitative sense pertaining to the amount of “power” so to speak his actions require in his acting, then I fail to see how we would lose our ability to say in a qualitative sense that some act of God was good.

  3. Not in any way Arthur says:

    “But this is not merely an issue for computer programmers, though it happens to be a very specific focus for them. Every discipline I can imagine would rather do more with less than less (or the same) with more. This is a sort of criterion which I think we can safely apply to God, as well. If God can accomplish the same result with a smaller degree of effort than an alternative, we should call this smaller move a better move.”

    Does God really need to care about efficiency? Imagine computer science with an unlimitedly fast and powerful computer that didn’t have to worry about electricity.

    Computer science wouldn’t give a darn about efficiency (except maybe for the programs readability’s sake, but God would be the bestest programmer ever as well). We even see this in experience. If we were ONLY worried about efficiency we would all program in binary or assembly, but our tech is good enough now that we don’t have to worry about stray bits overloading our computer’s ability to function. Similarly, C++ is much more efficient than Java, but people use Java sometimes anyway, for completely other reasons, because the efficiency difference only matters on big huge programs or bad computers.

    Does effort even mean anything to someone who is omnipotent?

    I will concede that the God you’re talking about seems to need to be a better planner than the ID God, unless of course it’s somehow more efficient for him to tinker every so often then cover every conceivable base at moment one.

  4. I would argue that your presupposition is flawed. You speak of God as “engineer” and “programmer.” The ancient church didn’t speak of him as builder and designer, but rather as speaker and author of existence. Your writing betrays Enlightenment sensibilities which don’t suit the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    • Well, I would first point out that, if what you are saying is true, then we can just scrap ID altogether and we don’t need this blog post to do it. This post is not so much to advocate theistic naturalism as it is to clarify a few things about Intelligent Design.

      That said, we have something like teleological arguments both in Romans 1 and in the writings of such people of Augustine. These connotate the same sort of thing implied by “designer” or “engineer.” I don’t really believe either of those titles fit with God’s character perfectly. As my post previous to this argues, most theology exists as analogy.

      And while I know you disagree with comparing the Enuma Elish to Genesis 1, for those of us who do see the comparison as valid, the differences between the stories highlight God planning and ordering his creation instead of creation being the accident of his violent, capricious tendencies.

  5. Human Ape says:

    God = magic = bullshit.

    I might be wrong but I think you love censorship.

    • I just today saw your comments sitting in the spam folder of my blog comments. It seems WordPress realizes you have nothing to say. I’ve allowed only this one comment to serve as an example of the type of conduct I will NOT allow on this blog. Ad hominem and unnecessarily angry replies will sit in my spam folder unapproved.

      I have no problem with disagreement, as any of my numerous atheist friends will tell you. Two of them commented on here already.

      Anyhow, contribute to discussion or go away.

    • For your reading pleasure, recent research indicates that the tone of comments is an important factor in how people will read an article. The research focuses primarily on science news articles but very easily applies here.


      Call it censorship if you want, but you’re not welcome to say just anything here. Respectful disagreement, sure, and you can say whatever the hell you want on your own blog. I’ll even approve pingbacks. As concerns comments, you are currently under moderation. I would welcome helpful critique, even from you, but I will have to look at it before it goes on here.

  6. Alex says:

    You have made it clear that a hinge point in your argument is that a more efficient design of the universe is the sign of a more intelligent kind of design than the standard proponent of I.D has to offer. That is, you claim a theistic naturalism accounts better for the intelligence of a perfect God because it claims God created the universe in a much more efficient way than did the God of the ID’ers. Bare with me, for I have no truck in supporting ID, but I do have a stake it questioning arguments on either side when I see potential problems. A mistake I see on your side, is a lack of foundation for your guarantee that a more efficient procedure is better than a less efficient one.

    You state: “If God can accomplish the same result with a smaller degree of effort than an alternative, we should call this smaller move a better move”

    On my initial read, I emphatically agree with this statement. There are so many analogies for this kernel of truth: If one microwave can heat my food with the exact amount of quality as another microwave, in a shorter amount of time, than that microwave is better. Unless I have some kind of masochistic desire for waiting for my food, it is clear that the faster microwave is better. However, notice that your claim puts all its emphasis on only to factors: The efficiency of the process, and the quality of the result. If the the same result is produced, than the the more efficient move is “a better move”. I know you see this coming by now, but I still must say it, it seems that the ends are justifying the value of the means for you. You are deriving that the mode of creation is better if it is (a) faster/more efficient, and (b) produces the same or better result. I believe this is a mistake.

    Here is another variable that must be introduced into the equation: Variable (c), the process that leads to the result (the means), does nothing to deter from the “betterness” of the process given that it also is, (a) faster/more efficient, and (b) produces the same or better result.

    Here is a clear example in which (a) and (b) is present and not (c): The microwave which I mentioned earlier happens to be more efficient while producing the exact same result. It owes its efficiency to the fact that instead of using electricity like the less efficient microwave, its uses a unique energy source extracted from human brain matter that invariably cause permanent damage to the living person it is extracted from.

    You see the problem: If (c) is not present, then even if (a) and (b) are true, your earlier quoted statement is problematic at face value. The problem is that better efficiency is an insufficient quality to found the value judgement that it is better than a less efficient process. The microwave that uses electricity, and not human brains, is better than the microwave that is faster/more efficient and and produces the same result. You likely recognize the standard critique of utilitarian ethics in this argument.

    Now, I smell your counter-argument in this, and that is that by your statement that “if God” can do something more efficient by the same result, it should be assumed that God will not overlook (c), that His process will be perfectly good and therefore not liable to the critique that (c) may not be present. In other words, it is always assumed about God’s actions are perfectly good, therefore it is not possible for him to not have (c) along with (a) and (b). I of course agree on this point, but its recognition means we need to address the crucial question of whether your version of ‘theistic naturalism” is representative of God’s process of creation as having (c). In other worlds, though you make a good argument that ‘theistic naturalism’ is more efficient that ID (it has (a) and (b) ), you have the burden of proving whether it does justice to the other ‘constraints of perfection’ that preside over God actions, including (c) that His process of creation are as true, ‘just’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘good” as the results of His creation in such a way that is better than ID.

    As far as I understand, it is precisely because of the significance of this area, (c) that many do not agree with a “hands-off” process in regards to God’s creation. Yes, there is something divinely beautiful to evolution even it was an unguided-process, but the problem is that it fails to accounts for other good and beautiful aspects of God’s relationship to His creation. Sure, a God who simply tipped over the first domino in the evolutionary process is something pretty amazing, especially in regards to efficiency. But is this process as reflective of God’s good nature as is a belief in both, that something like evolution is true, and that God is intimately involved with His creating and His creation at all times?

    You have mentioned that you believe God made creation with ‘a relative degree of autonomy” outside the first step. I wonder whether accepting this even allows you to keep your critique against the ID’ers. As you mention, not all ID’ers are even claiming that something like evolution is not real, only that God intervenes and has somehow ‘guided’ the evolutionary process, and that His guidance is especially evident in cases where creation shows signs of what they call ‘irreducible complexity’. I assume that when you say ‘relative degree of autonomy” you are saying that you believe God does in fact intervene sometimes? So are you saying that God does not intervene with creation in cases that involve biological evolution, but only in other ways? What are those ways if so? If you are not, then aren’t ID’ers claiming something you can agree with? That even if there is some autonomy to the evolutionary process, it is not plausible that all creation is the result of internal,prebuilt-in, biological processes which God did not intervene with after the initial creation of life.

    Anyhow my friend, those are some critical thoughts. What say you?

    • Alex says:

      So I just discovered that I can not correct any errors I made after posting. Safe to say that I want you to “bear” with me and not “bare” with me.

    • Okay, there are some misunderstandings about the thrust of this argument that would have me reformulate it at some point to be more clear. My point is that God according to ID doesn’t look like God’s character, whereas God according to theistic naturalism does. God has a tendency of using small things to accomplish big tasks: David kills Goliath, pots and trumpets bring down the city of Jericho, God’s death absolves all sin, etc.

      Assuming that you are making a choice between naturalism and Intelligent Design, this is when the argument holds sway. There are many more reasons I don’t believe ID; however, this one hold a lot of force for me. I don’t think anyone will prove anything with any argument either for or against it. ID doesn’t sound like a good designer, and naturalism sounds much more like God’s character.

      • Alex says:

        But my argument was precisely that someone has good reason to believe that God’s character is more accurately represented in other cases than He is in your case of ‘theistic naturalism”. One variable, the intelligence of His efficiency, you have argued well is a better character trait. Then I set about to show you that is was indeed only one variable, and that other variables trumped the value of efficiency such that if they were not present with even with the most efficient God, that God would be shown to be ‘less great’. So we both agree that the the force of the argument involve God’s character, although now I believe I have at least given you good reason to agree that efficiency will not be a sufficient trait to ground theistic naturalism as ‘better’.

        I see that you have slightly broadened your claim to be that “God has a tendency of using small things to accomplish big tasks”

        This is certainly true as a tendency, but it is not logical to claim that because God has a tendency to use small things to accomplish big tasks, it follows that God has created world according to quasi(?)-deistic principles of creation. You can see that is certainly a non sequitur, in which you use a very vague and general claim to support a highly specific claim about how God created the world. Besides, the fact that you report only a “tendency” of God makes the claim especially spurious. God may have used pots and trumpets to destroy Jericho, but he used fire and brimstone to abolish Sodom and Gomorrah. The point is not to say that because there are cases where God uses big things instead of small things that ‘big things’ are a better way to understand how he created the universe, only that either fact is basically useless in answering highly specified questions about the actions of God.

        You wrote: “I don’t think anyone will prove anything with any argument either for or against it. ID doesn’t sound like a good designer, and naturalism sounds much more like God’s character”

        I hope you will be more agnostic about it than you are implying. Because as it stands, I don’t think you have introduced a specific good quality about God’s character that is perfectly and only consistent with a naturalistic worldview over another view (One of which is ID). As I have pointed pointed out, efficiency will not be sufficient to ground that naturalism is better, just as it wasn’t sufficient show that a more efficient microwave was better.

        Here is one quick argument for which a ‘good designer’ is more consistent with ID than it is with naturalism.

        1.All best designers continually interact with their design. For example, the designers of human inventions continually elaborate upon their own and others designs when it becomes apparent that they can be be made better, or made more fitting for their environment). The advancement of human technology is due precisely to continually redesigning and interacting with older creations to make better ones.

        2.The naturalistic god does not continually interact with his design.
        Conclusion: Therefore he is not the best designer.

        The ID God does interact with his design…etc..etc

        You may claim that God is perfect, so He would never need to elaborate on His perfect design. One obstacle to this, is that if God created free will, it would seem very important that he would continually interact with His design. Dynamic creation requires dynamic interaction on the Creator’s part.

      • I don’t have time to write a long reply — and I hope you’re about to join me for church! — but allow me to frame the argument as such: if you are choosing between ID and theistic naturalism, with otherwise equal evidences for both, I believe theistic naturalism aligns better with God’s character.

        Now I don’t think they have equal evidences; rather, I think there is no evidence for ID at all. But even granting some kind of evidence, evolution looks more like God as I have come to understand him.

    • As for your point about consequentialism, this sort of critique has always bothered me. The problem with it is that while trying to disprove that the ends justify the means, you start introducing other ends. What justifies those? Anyhow, though it’s a little off-topic, the main problem with consequentialism is that it doesn’t give any means of distinguishing between who receives the benefits of the system: the good man and evil man have equal standing. But, that is all an aside. The main point is that (c) changes (b).

      • Alex says:

        That doesn’t seem right about (c) changing (b). In my microwave example, this wasn’t true. (b) , the result, remained exactly the same, while only (c) and (b) changed. Sure, this is only a thought project, but it shows that it is not logically inconsistent to believe there are such cases where (b), the results, are both the same for two processes, but (c) is different.

      • But (c) is another end — someone’s brains got fried. If we’re saying that the ends justify the means, then we have to consider all the ends. It has always bothered me when people object to consequentialism because of unjust means. “Unjust” implies bad ends come about in the process.

  7. Alex says:

    Yes, (c) is another end in the sense that all things are ends, but that is to miss the point of the critique. (C) is not introduced in our discussion as an end, but simply something added as a proof to show that efficiency was not sufficient to claim ‘betterness’.

    To leave aside ends and means talk: Efficiency does not justify the goodness of a process if in being efficient it loses other traits required for goodness, even if the results of the process are the same. In the same way, God would would not be shown to be better if by attempting to evidence His omnipotence, one made the claim that He absolutely willed all things that have ever occurred (including evil ). In this case, that God is omnipotent is not a actually a good thing if it is not checked by his other good and holy traits, such as His perfect wisdom and loving-kindness. In just the same way, showing God to be so ‘efficient’ is not actually indicative of His good character unless you can show how this efficiency is consistent with other good traits. You are saying much about God’s character a proof for ‘theistic naturalism’, but you can not support the character claim because you only offer one insufficient trait. If someone were to ask me “Is Chris a good man?” and I said to them “Why yes, he is very efficient” they would be rightfully unsatisfied and skeptical of my response.

    Anyhow, I know that efficiency is not the only reason you vouch for theistic naturalism, but since that is what you have provided as a main reason in this post, I was hoping I could lead you to rethink the the strength of the claim.

    • I think where we are differing is that I’m saying that, all other things being equal, ID has serious flaws for which theistic naturalism can account — namely, that it doesn’t resemble the God we know. When you introduce variable (c), you’re not performing the same experiment anymore, because not all other things are equal.

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