It’s not necessarily unscientific to infer design. Scientists infer things all the time – sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong. But to make any inference into a scientific issue it needs to be set up as a falsifiable hypothesis – that is, there must be a way to test it that would show that it was false (if it was indeed false). However, a supernatural designer is neither verifiable nor falsifiable.
People who support the concept of Intelligent Design often think that this is different from creationism. But people who support science see little difference between the two (except for the claim of the ID crowd that their designer need not be the Christian God).
The idea of design in nature can be appealing to some people, certainly for those that worry there’s no place left for God in the world. But don’t forget there are plenty of scientists who are highly religious who accept evolution, and who understand that such questions are philosophical or theological ones, not scientific ones. These scientists may have the private belief that somehow “God is behind it all”, but they don’t invoke the supernatural in their study of the natural world.
"I’ve always had some sympathy with the idea that God set the world in motion and he made the first cell – I’m not saying I believe it, but I can have some sympathy for that idea."
It can seem that science is dismissive of anything that we don’t have evidence for. The main problem with the notion of a supernatural designer is that you can’t test it. An all-powerful designer could do anything, and so there’s no way to frame that as a falsifiable hypothesis. Just because something looks designed it doesn’t mean to say that it is. The classic example is a snowflake. Snowflakes look highly designed, but we now understand how they are formed by natural processes.
I’ve always had some sympathy with the idea that God set the world in motion and he made the first cell – I’m not saying I believe it, but I can have some sympathy for that idea. But then what happens from there? Since then how has the designer been intervening in things? And that’s where you get into a lot of trouble.
The science writer Professor Paul Braterman makes a really good point when he says it’s not just about design; we have to take into consideration how something is manufactured. It’s a really good point, because you could say “Oh, everything is so complicated, so God must be behind everything”. But then how did he do it?
"You might think a hummingbird was designed because it does what it does so magnificently. But on that basis you wouldn’t expect a hummingbird to be more closely related to a penguin than to a bumblebee."
We don’t know everything – obviously we don’t. But one of the ways of testing the idea that things have been designed is to look at whether you can falsify that. So if organisms were designed then you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see the pattern of relationships that we see (relationships once proposed on the basis of anatomy, now backed up by molecular biology).
You might think a hummingbird was designed because it does what it does so magnificently. But on that basis you wouldn’t expect a hummingbird to be more closely related to a penguin than to a bumblebee; however, all of the evidence there would prove you wrong – a hummingbird is a bird that has evolved to have a similar lifestyle to a bee, pollinating flowers. If it had been specifically designed to have a lifestyle like that of a bee, why would it share anatomy and genetic heritage with a penguin? If you have the evolutionary view of common descent, which does seem to be well backed up by evidence, then where’s the place for a supernatural tinkerer? We can’t disprove the argument that God had a role in the origin of life, but there’s no evidence that there’s been supernatural intervention in the subsequent evolution of life.
Sure, things are complicated. Cells are complicated; DNA is complicated… but is there a point when scientists who are working on these topics throw their hands up and say they just can’t explain it? The answer is no. If things can’t be explained, people are working on explaining it. Science is a dynamic process, and that’s why it’s interesting, even fun. If at some point someone that was working on DNA said to me “I just can’t explain this, there must be some outside influence”, I might listen. But the molecular biologists aren’t saying that. It’s the creationists, who don’t do the science themselves, who are saying that.
Creationists like to pounce on areas of science that aren’t currently explained, and to claim evidence for God. People who disagree with this approach have termed this the “god of the gaps” argument – but those gaps are getting smaller and smaller as science progresses. People once thought that rainbows were the work of a designer god, while now we understand why the colours in a rainbow are arranged in such an orderly fashion. We may not understand everything about DNA today, but we understand a lot more than we did a few decades ago, or even a few weeks ago. Maybe we’ll never understand everything, but that doesn’t mean that supernatural design wins by default.
"I’m very careful to not use the word ‘design’ because I know that people will jump on it and say that I’m admitting that there’s some designer at work."
One of the problems with the term design is the way it’s used now, because it implies a supernatural designer. We used to use the term design all the time without implying any supernatural forces at work; one might say that a cheetah is “designed for fast running”, when what we mean is that it has evolved the adaptations for that mode of life. When I taught in America I used to say to my students that the term ‘design’ is the new ‘gay’. You can’t use the word gay now in terms of a merry person – the word has moved on from that. I’m very careful to not use the word ‘design’ because I know that people will jump on it and say that I’m admitting that there’s some designer at work.
So it’s not unscientific to infer design, but can you falsify that hypothesis? That’s the issue. Science isn’t about proving things true. It’s about saying, could this be falsified? You don’t need to actually falsify it, what you have to do is think of something that would show you were wrong.