Is it possible to define the source of intelligent causes, which provides the foundation for the Intelligent Design theory, from a purely scientific perspective? Is yes, How? If not, why not?

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    Like a fish needs a bicycle. (No, not really.)
    – vanden
    Jun 26, 2011 at 22:32
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    what if the universe was an intelligently designed simulation that internally used natural selection? Jun 27, 2011 at 18:06
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    @Joe: You've fallen into the classic trap, thinking that a "theory" means the same thing in science as it does in colloquial speech. In fact, in the scientific community, a theory is something that is almost universally accepted and as close to "universal truth" as we're going to get. Remember that gravity is "merely" a theory. There's no truth to the claim that micro-evolution is an "established scientific fact" while macro-evolution is "merely a theory". Jul 1, 2011 at 8:56
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    The standard of "disputability" is quite a slippery one. I've heard plenty of people dispute "microevolution", though I agree the evidence seems indisputable to me. Contrary to the oft-touted belief among objectors, the evolution of various life forms beyond the species level (which is what I think we're calling "macro-evolution") has indeed been observed in the laboratory and in nature. That obviously doesn't mean that one is unable to dispute the interpretation of that evidence, but my point is that micro/macro evolution are not generally perceived as separate by the scientific community. Jul 6, 2011 at 0:08
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    Most of your comments about evolution seem off-topic here. Theories stand or fall on their own. Please define Intelligent Design theory. The definition must include a model and make predictions. If not, you don't have a theory.
    – user179700
    Aug 3, 2011 at 10:49

6 Answers 6


I think it will be easier to determine the answer to your question, if we make the question a bit clearer. It seems that your question can be more simply reformulated as:

You have defined intelligent design as a property of a universe in a state that was caused by a directed process. You used the term "intelligent cause", which is a bit redundant, but the contrast to "an undirected process, such as natural selection" elucidates the definition. So, we can again reformulate the question as:

  • Is belief in religious dogma a necessary consequence of belief that the state of the universe was caused by a directed process?

I think we can summarize the belief in religiously-dogmatic cosmology, as a "belief that the state of the universe was caused by God". So, our next reformulation is:

  • Is a belief that the state of the universe was caused by God a necessary consequence of a belief that the state of the universe was caused by a directed process?

If God is the only possible directed process, then the answer to the question is Yes. If God is not the only possible directed process, then the directed process that caused the state of the universe could be God or it could be the other thing(s), so the answer to the question is No. So, you're question can be further reduced to:

  • Is God the only possible directed process that could cause the state of the universe?

I can conceive of directed processes that could cause the state of the universe, that are as plausible as a dogmatic, religious God, so I tend to think the answer to your question is that Intelligent design does not require religion.

Consider a computer chess game. It executes particular processes (moves) in a directed manner (directed towards winning the chess game). I don't think that the computer game is a God, (nor the computer programmer), but it is certainly creating a directed process. This occurs in the physical world, due to a specific configuration of matter that forces electric signals to execute within the parameters of a defined algorithm.

Given that if there is something, it must be somewhere, it is certainly conceivable that when whatever was here before what is here now was here, it was aligned in such a way that some impulse could cause it to emit a "directed process". This is analogous to a mouse click in the universe of the computer running the chess program. This vague example at least gives an example of what a "non-religious" explanation for intelligent design would look like.

One potential counterargument that I anticipate, would be the contention, that any such impulse or configuration of matter is itself God. But, in order for that argument to hold, the objector would have to start a religion that defines God as such and cultivate a following that accepts it as religious dogma.



Intelligent design does not need religion.

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    There's a lot that I like about this answer. However, were I inclined to think that there was "a directed process" that "caused the state of the universe" I'd call that---whatever it might be---'God.'
    – vanden
    Jun 26, 2011 at 22:26
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    @vanden, my last paragraph specifically addressed that contention. There is nothing wrong with calling that "directed process" God (I might do the same). However, we can probably both agree that 'a directed process that caused the state of the universe' is not a definition of 'God', that would be accepted by proponents of any of the religions to which @Joe was referring in his question. Jun 26, 2011 at 22:31
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    Lets see if I got this: Intelligent design doesn't need religion as long as the intelligence is not defined as part of a pre-existing religion, but defining that intelligence (and having people believe it) would form a new religion?
    – Dale
    Jun 26, 2011 at 22:33
  • @smartcaveman: I ought to have been more explicit; apologies. I don't think the rejoinder is especially helpful. Deistic views are clearly views in which there is a God. I don't see why, were I an ID Deist, I'd have to found a movement to count as having my ID intertwined with religion.
    – vanden
    Jun 26, 2011 at 22:37
  • @Joe, Close. Defining that intelligence as God (and having people believe it) would form a new religion. All that defining that intelligence does, in-itself, is create a possible alternative explanation for intelligent design. Jun 26, 2011 at 23:05

Consider this: evolutionary algorithms are a field of artificial intelligence. Thus, it is not unreasonable to argue that the "original evolutionary algorithm" (assuming that we're not in a simulation) is also an intelligent cause. The question then becomes, given that our presence is the result of "intelligent" causes, are those causes conscious? I would posit that question is a much harder one to answer.

Any theory that tries to address the source of the intelligent cause must be falsifiable, à la Karl Popper. I would say that, yes, it is possible to create such a theory, but that so far all attempts to do so have failed, either because they were not falsifiable, or because they were, and were shown to be wrong (consider the most recent apocalypse predictions, which were falsifiable).

Edit to add some shameless self-promotion for my Genetic Algorithm and Neural Network repositories. This code is still "research grade" meaning it'll require a few tweaks to run on your system, but anyone with a half-decent knowledge of Java and C++ should have no problems with those tweaks.

  • The idea of evolutionary algorithms directly attacks a central tenant of intelligent design: irreducible complexity. A logarithm could theoretically overcome an obstacle such as five (otherwise harmful) genes working together to produce an advantageous trait. However, there is no scientific evidence of an algorithm. In fact, the theory of natural selection says that there isn't an algorithm (beyond survival of the fittest). Evolution in its accepted form contains no logarithm that can overcome the issue of irreducible complexity.
    – Dale
    Jun 30, 2011 at 7:46
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    @JoeHobbit: I work extensively with evolutionary algorithms, and I've seen several examples of five (otherwise harmful) pseudo-genes working together to produce an advantageous trait. I'm lucky because I'm able to work on clusters of high-performance computers allowing me to run tens of thousands of simulations a day. It's much easier to imagine even wilder cases in a universe running billions of billions of such simulations every day. (P.S. you're using logarithm in some places where you mean algorithm. Very different things.) Jun 30, 2011 at 10:27
  • Could you supply more information about the pseudo-genes working together to produce an advantageous trait please? (Was an algorithm used, what feature was produced, did this arise naturally or in response to scientific prodding, etc.)
    – Dale
    Jun 30, 2011 at 16:57
  • The details are in the open source code posted above, but a short overview is that there are four parameters governing an Izhikevich neuron and three controlling different types of feedback (resting-shunting, feed-forward, and feed-back), and proper neural network activity requires that these parameters be compatible with each other. The genetic algorithm meanwhile employs a continuous interval mutation with multi-point cross-over in a manner that is completely unrelated to the problem being solved (i.e., it's not tuned for it). The fitness fn is multi-objective and complicated. Jun 30, 2011 at 22:10
  • Those seven parameters I mentioned are out of 20 total free parameters, each governed by a pseudo-gene residing on the [0, 1) interval. The complicated fitness function (which is detailed in the code) relies on average activity, the standard deviation of activity and performance on a task. Jun 30, 2011 at 22:13

Too long for a comment:

I think at the heart of this question is the common belief that religion and science are diametrically opposed. But I would also say this is a misnomer - the real key is that they do not cover the same material. It is possible for the concept usually described by the vastly unspecific and overgeneralized word "science" to address religious issues - though it's unlikely. In particular, if a god or gods were to appear, demonstrate their powers, and the like, then it is not the case that the scientific community would still refute this.

In some freshman physics class I took in college, I remember there being a student who had a really hard time separating the concept of theory and fact. Really, he had a hard time acknowledging that 'science' was not based on facts, but on approximated theories founded upon approximate observations - they can compete, multiple theories can both be brought forward, etc.

What I'm getting at is that the idea of a 'scientific perspective' seems poorly defined. If you mean from the perspective of coming up with ideas and subjecting them to the test of being compared with observation and logic, then that's one thing. If you mean describe the sort of deity-like perhaps-sentient Designer(s) with a set of rules governing behavior, or to mathematically demonstrate sort of property, or to see what would happen if we shot two of such creators at each other (as I continue to poke at my physics buddies) - that's another thing.

Further, it's not so clear what you mean by intelligent design, or even intelligence? Could you clarify, especially on what sort of characterization of this 'intelligence' that you mean?

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    @mixedmath, Look at the comments under the question for the OP's definition of intelligence/intelligent design. Jun 26, 2011 at 21:58
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    @smart: this is one of those cases where it took me far longer to write this than it took to comment on it - but I still have no idea that "intelligence" is intended to describe or what sort of description he is looking for Jun 26, 2011 at 21:59
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    @mixedmath, I took "intelligent" to mean "able to emit a directed process". (Check out my post for the explanation). Also, take a look at the wikipedia page for intelligent agent. Jun 26, 2011 at 22:03
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    @smart: thank you for that distinction, +1 on your answer. Jun 26, 2011 at 22:08
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    Science may be based on approximated theories founded upon approximate observations, but it is science that put a man on the moon and that is a FACT. They didn't get their because of diligent praying. Jun 27, 2011 at 13:30

I can imagine a scenario where a single all powerful god create the universe that we know of. That god does not seek to be venerated, nor that we follow any moral principles he has set out. The universe was created and designed intelligently. This was prior to any religion being created.

In addition I can concieve of a scenerio where the god does seek to be venerated but his creations choose to use that veneration as a means to manipulate and gain wealth and power themselves.

In both of these scenerios Intelligent design happens but religion is not necessitated.

  • Right. Assuming ID is factually correct, it doesn't need religion. But as long as it isn't proven to be factually correct, it does require faith/religion to be believed in. So this is only half an answer. :) Jun 28, 2011 at 16:52
  • Actually belief is irrelivant. If the world is flat and I believe it is round when i fall off the of the edge gravity doesnt care that I do not believe it.
    – Chad
    Jun 28, 2011 at 17:01
  • Yes. Which means that gravity and a round world will not need belief because it is how things are. A Flat Earth needs belief, because it's wrong. See? An incorrect belief needs religion (of course depending on definition), while the correct one does not. Jun 28, 2011 at 18:38
  • What if it is not wrong? What if, while we percieve it as a sphere, it is actually as flat as it appears to be while standing on it? If this is the case our not believing it does not make it a less of a fact. If everyone believes in an all powerful god that created and designed the universe as we know it that does not make it real. Just as not believing does not make it fake. If you are the only one who can see the asteroid hurtling toward earth. Not believign you does not save the planet from a firey death.
    – Chad
    Jun 28, 2011 at 18:49
  • I never said that belief make it more or less a fact, quite the opposite. Jun 29, 2011 at 4:48

It is ultimately a question of definitions.

Intelligent design claims that life is created by some sort of intelligence. Most people would call an intelligence that has the capacity to do something like that a "God", but that is a question of definition. You could reasonably say that "God" would only apply to the creator of the universe, and the intelligence that designed life does not need to be the same. God could for example delegate it to a sub-god, what in Christianity is called "Angels". But then it still needs God.

A God would only not be needed if there is no God that created the universe, but life then was created by some non-supernatural, but non-living being. This is nearly impossible to imagine, and I would think most people would agree to call an non-living (possibly eternal) and powerful intelligence a "God", even if it isn't a God over all of creation.

Does then God need religion? Well, depends on your definition of religion. Many would say that any belief in a God constitutes a religion. But if God was proven to exist, we wouldn't believe, we would know, and it would not be religion, but as long as God was unproven, it would be religion. I'm in the camp of "religion" meaning that you rely on faith even when faith contradicts logic and/or facts.

Does then Intelligent Design need religion?

Well, it needs religion as long as God hasn't been shown to exist, as it then relies entirely on faith, in the face of facts and better explanations (evolution). But if God does exist, it doesn't need religion, it only needs somebody to prove God (good luck!)

Basically you can say that Intelligent Design stops needing religion once it's proven that God exists and designed life. Up until then, it needs it.

So Yes, Intelligent Design needs religion with common definitions of the words. It needs it to be believed in, to exist if you want. But there are no generally accepted definition of religion/God so it all depends. :-)

(Update: Note that having believers to not mean it becomes more correct. This is self-evident, but Chad has now several times accused me of saying this, which I of course do not say at all.)

  • @Lennart Regebro, I agree that the answer to this question is heavily dependent on definitions. However, you're argument begs the question, because you define "God" as "the creator of the universe". This effectively reformulates the question as "Does belief in God's creation of the universe need religion?" Do you see how this approach to answering the question becomes immediately problematic? Jun 27, 2011 at 14:07
  • So in order for a god to design and create the universe it needs to be worshipped?
    – Chad
    Jun 27, 2011 at 14:19
  • @smartcaveman: So you ran out of arguments, and decided to resort to personal attacks. Congratulations. Jun 29, 2011 at 4:50
  • @lennartregebro, My comment was not intended to be offensive, but constructive. It is generally accepted by the philosophical community that a petitio principii is a logical fallacy. I attempted to point this out and you stated that you did not see how exhibiting this logical fallacy in your argument made the argument problematic. On a separate post, you failed to acknowledge the material equivalence of two assertions that differ only by semantic formulation. If we cannot agree on the fundamental tenets of logic then we cannot reason with Jun 29, 2011 at 5:01
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    1. Calling it "petito principii" when there is the perfectly common English "begging the question" is yet another example of you trying to make yourself off as superior to others. You are failing, so stop it. 2. I didn't see you claiming I begged the question, I don't know if I missed it or that was a later edit to clarify. I do not agree I beg the question. Jun 29, 2011 at 5:10

No it does not need it.

It is the same idea as what Aristotle called the unmoved mover. Aristotle just like most ID proponents ascribe no cultist aspect to Intelligent Design. Most ID proponents just try to explain the irreducibly complex systems in nature and the apparent design that universe show and posit that the veracity of the claim that it could all arise from nothing than more random chance is unreasonable and that you need a intelligent designer as a cause.

As Occam's Razor suggest the simplest solution is often the best. Biological systems show design then it is probably designed.

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