In search of an arsonist: On testing for intelligent design
Ryan asks: “What sort of experiment would you run to test for intelligent design?”
That’s a nice, simple question. And to answer it, we need not draw upon any high falutin’ concepts. We can keep things nice and simple.
Consider the devastating May 2011 fire in Slave Lake, Alberta. It was a fire that burned nearly 1/3 of a town of 7000, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Immediately after the fire was put out the investigators went in. Just this week they released a shocking conclusion: the fire at Slave Lake was the result of arson.
Now you might ask yourself: how did the investigators conclude that the fire was the product of arson? The answer, of course, is really quite simple: they eliminated all the other explanations.
And there you have it: a straightforward answer to your question of how one tests for intelligent design. One does so by eliminating all non-intelligent causal explanations so that the only plausible causal explanation that remains is an intelligent one.
Now this brings us to the depth of irony of those who critique intelligent design. You know what they commonly say? “Appealing to intelligence is a science stopper!” Oh really? Try telling that to the investigators of the Slave Lake fire. Do you think that once they’ve identified intelligence as the cause of the fire that they are going to call off their investigation? On the contrary, it is at this point that the investigation kicks into high gear as the RCMP (Canada’s national police service) are called in. Having concluded that the fire is the result of intelligence, the investigators are now even more interested to understand who started the fire and how.
In closing, note one more point: it is still possible that the fire could turn out to be the result of non-intelligent causes. Perhaps it is not arson after all. Perhaps the investigators missed something and that will come to light in the days to come. So we recognize that for now the inference to an intelligent cause is a provisional one. But we also recognize that in light of all the data it is the best causal explanation available.
And that’s how it is for intelligent design inferences generally. If you’ve exhausted known non-intelligent causes then the best provisional judgment is that the cause was an intelligent one. It may turn out that the cause was non-intelligent after all, but that doesn’t change the fact that at present the best explanation is an intelligent one. And once we make that inference to intelligence we can expect the investigation not to stall but rather to intensify.
Now how can it be that some people think this logic, which is wholly legitimate in the investigation of a fire, is somehow illegitimate when it comes to the investigation of a cellular structure or the origin of the universe? To be frank, I have never heard a plausible explanation for how and where this line is drawn.