In conversations between proponents and skeptics of Intelligent Design (ID,) there are two recurring themes. Skeptics will often accuse ID proponents of appealing to a “god-of-the-gaps” (GOTG) as an explanation for the phenomena in question. Likewise, examples of alleged bad design are offered as a rejoinder. While it may sometimes be the case that this is intellectually lazy hand-waving, it can also stem from unexamined presuppositions.
The idea of GOTG is that “we don’t understand how this could be, so God must have done it.” If this was the case, it would be a fallacious argument from ignorance. It isn’t very helpful, and when a natural explanation is discovered, it is often touted as evidence that God does not exist. However, when an ID proponent points to a feature of nature that appears designed, he does so because the feature has properties that are unique to designed things. The icon of the ID movement is the bacterial flagellum. It is a molecular motor that is made of proteins, and probably could not have developed in step-wise fashion. Skeptics point to structures like the Type 3 Secretory System as a possible precursor and declare the design hypothesis “defeated.” However, the real disagreement does not start with these particulars. It begins with the presuppositions.
While some ID proponents are non-theists, many are theists. As such, they do not assume, contrary to most skeptics of ID, that the only minds that exist are associated with, if not identical to, physical brains. As such, for these skeptics, there is no such thing as an unevolved mind. Given that, it is not possible, even in principle, for design to be a valid inference for anything that preceded the emergence of a mind capable of designing. Therefore, living systems that preceded humanity could not have been designed. Moreover, skeptics of ID always look at the data with a “bottom up” approach. This stems from the same methodological naturalism that informs their work. However, for the ID proponent who happens to be a theist, he is working top-down, with a background knowledge of a host of arguments for the existence of God. ID is simply offered as an example of evidence of God’s existence, not as an explanatory hypothesis.
Skeptics will also point to what they see as bad designs. This is thought to be a defeater of ID because if an all-powerful, all-knowing God designed these things, he would have done a better job. Examples would include the inverted retina, the proximity of the esophagus to the trachea, and the panda’s thumb. Others have given this a detailed response, but again they are operating from an unexpressed, if not unexamined, presupposition. They are assuming the purpose of the thing in question is to give maximal survival benefit. However, how do they come to this? I think it goes back to the evolutionary paradigm where natural selection is the name of the game. However, they are critiquing a design without examining the purpose for which it was designed. It seems to me you can’t draw valid inferences about the efficacy of a design if you don’t know the purpose. If you look at a hammer, you will thing it is very poorly designed if you think its purpose is to remove dust from glass.
To critique a worldview, you must start by examining it on its own terms. Too often the question of God’s existence and involvement in the world is viewed as if the world were a brute reality and, according to theists, God shows up one day and takes over. Or, if God made the world, he made it to be a place where we should have everything we want and live forever. Since it is obvious this is not the case, theism is silly. However, if God made the world, then like any other maker, he had a purpose in mind. If you want to know if a design is a good one, you must know that purpose. Likewise, if you remain ignorant of the arguments for God’s existence, you will continue to think ID proponents appeal to ignorance. How’s that for irony?