About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Isn't 'Intelligent Design' just a theory?

Whenever I'm confronted by a creationist, sooner or later I face the question: evolution is 'just' a theory, and it shouldn't be taught as fact in public schools. To do otherwise is to be intellectually dishonest, and it clearly leads us to the road of perdition and to the collapse of our country.

Patiently, I try to explain that evolution is both a fact and a theory (or, rather, a body of facts and theories). Just like there is a fact of, say, gravity, as well as a scientific explanation for that fact, so there is a fact of evolution (living beings really have changed and continue to change through time) and a theory of how this happens (by natural selection and other processes).

But the thought recently occurred to me, partly because all of the clamour about Bush and Intelligent Design: isn't it fair to ask the same question about ID? Isn't ID 'just' a theory? In fact, it is worse: intelligent design is not even a (scientific) theory, it's a generic idea that used to have some philosophical valence in pre-scientific times (let's say from Plato in the 4th century BCE to William Paley in the 19th century CE), but is clearly dead now (as science, regardless of how many Americans may think otherwise -- let's not forget that a sizable percentage of Americans believes in haunted houses, but that doesn't make ghosts a serious possibility...).

So, ironically, ID is 'just' a theory precisely in the derogative sense typically reserved by creationists for evolution: not only it's not a fact, not only it isn't a scientific theory, it's just the unsubstantiated hunch of irreducibly superstitious and insecure people who really can't stand the thought of a universe where they are not the center of all the attention.


  1. Pragmatics: On how we process ideas and theories related to them

    In addressing the origin of life from the viewpoint of “information science” and creation, interestingly enough the pragmatic application of this particular intended message will seem the quite identical to you whether someone brings up "creation" from the Genesis account or “intelligent design”.

    On this matter of information theories and the Bible, a gentleman by the name of Werner Gitt suggests that: "If the recipient (man) breaks off the message received from the sender (God) at the semantic level, then the purpose intended by God will be missed. The goal of the information in the Bible is that man should be moved to action.” … I.E. “When deeds are not forthcoming, the Word becomes a judgment.”

    (“In the Beginning was Information” p.145 Werner Gitt)

    This may be your singular problem with ID. Both 'creation science' or ID seem to judge the intent of our hearts in some way or another.


  2. I'm really skeptical about applications of information science to read the Bible, and especially to understand God's thinking. Then again, I don't really think God had anything to do with the Bible...

  3. Yes, ID is just a 'theory'. And God is just a theory too. (Let's ignore the fact that almost all ID
    ers really believe God is the designer.) Let's not teach either as if they were scientific concepts.

    It's fun to turn the creationists' arguments against them, especially when the arguments are so bad.

  4. Another thing people seem not to understand (as can be seen in the comment by "anonymous" up there) is that the origin of life is not the realm of evolutionary theory, strictly speaking, right?

    I mean, defining life is no easy trick, but you can only have evolutionary forces acting on living things, things that "reproduce differentially" and leave "descent with modification". Before that, it's not evolution's problem, really.


  5. Hey...
    I'm a physicist and have been a Christian since 1982. I have never, however, believed in creationist "theory" nor do I believe that a "literal" interpretation of the Bible is a meaningful idea in many instances.

    That aside, I am content to view Evolution as "merely" a theory, but as I often point out, the actual "reality" is irrelevant. Science is a process performed by scientists, and it is both that process as well as what the practicing scientific community currently believes that should be taught in schools. In other words, this leaves zero room for something as silly as "creationism".

    I've got a blogpost on this and related arguments here http://themagiclantern.blogspot.com/2005/08/attack-upon-creationdom.html
    and here:

  6. I enjoyed your critique of Intelligent Design and just wanted to say that your important statement:

    'and therefore to survive and reproduce-the only "goals" of every living being'

    needs to be qualified by 'every living being's physical body' or 'every living being's genetic material' in order to remain true.

  7. Yes, of course, that was the intended meaning. Thanks for the clarification.

  8. What if an optometrist looked into a woman's eyes. What would he see? He would see observable scientific facts concering her eyes. And he would be correct.

    And what if the woman's lover looked into her eyes? Would he see something different? He certainly lacks the scientific knowledge of the optometrist, but are you saying that he would not see the woman? Which view sees more?


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