Is Design Science?

by Chris Swanson

The debate over evolution in schools has raged for decades. Since the Scopes trial, public educational policy has increasingly favored evolution to the point that now evolution is the explanation of origins taught in a vast majority of our schools. Recently, however, the tide has begun to shift ever so slightly away from a strictly evolutionary hegemony. In August, for example, President Bush stated he favored teaching evolution’s problems alongside the theory. His entry into the debate prompted three days of front-page coverage in the New York Times. We are clearly in the midst of a renewed debate over evolution.

The new rallying point of the anti-evolution camp is the theory of intelligent design (ID). The primary idea behind ID is that life on earth is too complex to be the result of random, impersonal natural processes. Instead, the most rational and scientific explanation of the presence of life and the diversity of species is the existence of an intelligent designer.

The majority of practicing scientists have vigorously rejected ID on the grounds that it is not scientific. Science, according to them, seeks only natural explanations; any non-naturalistic explanation of a natural phenomenon is by definition not science. Consequently, they have focused their argument against intelligent design on its nonscientific character rather than its specific claims.

One of the clearest public forums for this debate has occurred at the Kansas State Board of Education. The ruckus began in 1999 when the board decided to change the science-teaching standards to allow alternatives to evolution. The reaction against this move was so strong that at the next election the majority of the school-board seats went to evolution supporters; and again, evolution became the only biological theory taught. More recently, another election shifted the majority back to the conservative faction. As a result, the board began further hearings on science education, and another debate ensued.

This time around the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think-tank that promotes intelligent design, came to argue against evolution. They presented evidence from numerous credentialed scientists indicating that the theory of evolution has serious problems and that these problems are a matter of current scholarly research. Based on this evidence, Discovery Institute argued that the problems of evolutionary theory should be taught alongside its successes so that students would be better able to decide for themselves what is true and what is not.

So how did the evolutionary scientists respond to this evidence? They didn’t. They didn’t show up. The Kansas science community boycotted the event. The school board, wanting to hear both sides, went national by requesting a representative from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (publisher of the prestigious Science magazine) to give expert witness regarding evolution. But in a letter to the Kansas State Department of Education, AAAS chief executive officer Alan Leshner upheld the boycott, stating, “After much consideration, AAAS respectfully declines to participate in this hearing out of concern that rather than contribute to science education, it will most likely serve to confuse the public about the nature of the scientific enterprise.” He went on to say that the concept of evolution is so well established that no debate is called for and, furthermore, that the AAAS sees “no purpose in debating interpretations of Genesis and `intelligent design’ which are a matter of faith, not facts.”1 In effect, Leshner said that evolution is science and intelligent design is not. He affirmed this belief in another, widely quoted statement: “In order to live in this science-dominated world, you have to be able to discriminate between science and non-science. They want to rewrite the rules of science.”2 Therefore, not wanting to confuse the public into thinking that a debate about intelligent design is scientific, Leshner and the other scientists refused to participate in the Kansas State Board of Education hearings.

This sort of response by the scientists in the renewed debate over evolution has been most interesting—and most telling. Rather than show the superiority of their own position, scientists have simply demoted ID to non-science. Furthermore, they have questioned the motives and intellectual respectability of their adversaries. They have attacked their opponents by claiming both that ID is an attempt by the radical religious right to foist their religious beliefs on the public politically and that ID is unscientific and, by implication, intellectually untenable. The following two examples illustrate this response.

“The movement [ID] is a veneer over a certain theological message. Every one of these groups is now actively engaged in trying to undercut sound science education by criticizing evolution,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “It is all based on their religious ideology. Even the people who don’t specifically mention religion are hard-pressed with a straight face to say who the intelligent designer is if it’s not God.”3


According to [Eugenie] Scott [director of the Oakland, California-based National Center for Science Education], any scientific views presented by the intelligent-design community have the same chance as any other scientific idea of landing in the classroom, but they first must be accepted as viable by the scientific community. High school teachers, she said, are limited to teaching the consensus view of their subjects. “What you’ll find is ID [intelligent design] has not gone anywhere in the science community,” she said. “The scientists have looked at ID and said, Hmmm, not ready for prime time.”4

So what are we to make of these recent events and opinions? Why have scientists responded as they have? They have, I think, because they recognize that more is at stake than the conclusions of a school board. At stake is the definition of science and the authority of the scientific community. At stake, ultimately, is how we determine what is true.

Scientists would like to say that truth about the natural world can be found through science and only through science. They want to retain their authority in our culture as the keepers of knowledge. They believe that scientific truth is a completely separate kind of truth from religious truth. Not only do science and religion concern themselves with different subject matter, but also scientific knowledge is more reliable than other knowledge—although scientists are astute enough not to say this publicly. Given this perspective, the intelligent-design movement is a serious threat. For a group outside the mainstream scientific community to critique the firmly held beliefs within the community brings into question the reliability and authority of that community. Clearly, the scientific community recognizes this and has developed a strategy to fight the political battle.

Unfortunately for them, however, their approach of attacking intelligent design as religiously motivated non-science is deeply flawed. And though the flaw is painfully obvious to those who question evolutionary theory, it is invisible to the advocates of evolution themselves because it lies at the level of their philosophical presuppositions, or worldview—that is, their most basic, taken-for-granted assumptions. The scientific establishment’s critique against ID is based on assumptions about the nature of science that seem unassailable to them. Those who do not hold the same assumptions, however, are not predisposed to reject intelligent design out-of-hand; to them, the validity of intelligent design can be legitimately considered and debated.

What, then, are those assumptions? Let us look at the two most crucial to the issue at hand. First, the scientific establishment assumes the truth of naturalistic materialism—that is, the belief that the world is the result of purposeless, random events with no guidance or direction given by God. And second, the scientific establishment often equates “naturalistic materialism” with “science.” Thus, to advocates of evolution who assume naturalistic materialism, it is painfully obvious that intelligent design is not science because it calls for a non-natural explanation of our world. But to those who do not equate science with naturalistic materialism and for whom, therefore, the definition of science is an open question, it is equally obvious that the scientists are not entering the debate because they have assumed the answer.

I would maintain that “science” and “naturalistic materialism” are not synonymous. Naturalistic materialism is a worldview, an overarching perspective through which people interpret ideas and experiences. We can better see it as a worldview by comparing and contrasting it to the Christian worldview. Both perspectives provide answers to the most important of life’s questions. Both provide a framework whereby we understand our purpose, our ethics, and our place in the universe. In that sense they are the same. They are diametrically opposed, however, with regard to the answers they provide. So, the perspectives of naturalistic materialism and Christianity differ not in the questions, but in the answers.

Yet another insight into the role of naturalistic materialism can be found by examining its history. Science as it is practiced today was born during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through the efforts of such notables as Galileo and Newton. During the same period, skeptical thinkers leveled serious critiques at traditional “metaphysics”—that is, the study of things that are not known through sense experience. As a result, by the mid-nineteenth century, science had become intellectually respectable, while metaphysics had lost favor in many intellectual circles. In most disciplines, efforts were undertaken to remove any metaphysical grounding to knowledge.

Darwin’s theory of evolution came on the scene during this period and was greeted enthusiastically. Many saw God as the extreme metaphysical excess. A theory of origins from a strictly materialistic perspective fit beautifully into the spirit of the age. Christians who wished to be seen as intellectually respectable tended to separate their “personal faith” from the intellectual sphere. Although the anti-metaphysical bias has significantly lessened in our time, its legacy remains in the form of the worldview of naturalistic materialism.

Given their close connection over the last few hundred years, then, it is easy to understand why “naturalistic materialism” and “science” are often seen as synonymous. But though people can use science to support or refute various worldviews, science itself is not a worldview. Rather, science requires a worldview: scientific data must be interpreted, and it is interpreted through the “lens” of a worldview. In the case of the mainstream scientific establishment, that worldview is naturalistic materialism.

The flaw, then, in the scientific community’s approach to intelligent design—namely, arguing that ID is religiously motivated non-science—is that they are criticizing the philosophical assumptions of their opponents by trying to make the public take the scientific community’s own philosophical assumptions for granted. Having defined science based on the assumptions inherent in the worldview of naturalistic materialism, the scientific community is assuming (and inviting us to assume) the answer to the very question that needs to be resolved: What is science, and how do we come to true conclusions about the natural world? But this question about the nature and scope of science, which mankind has vigorously pursued for the past 2500 years, cannot be settled scientifically.

Furthermore, the scientific community’s criticism that adherents of ID are religiously motivated is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Most probably the scientific community is correct in its assessment of the motivations of those advocating intelligent design. But I think it fair to say that those who hold the materialistic view are also motivated by their commitments to convince the public that evolution is correct. An incident reported in the Wall Street Journal aptly illustrates this.5 The report describes how the publication of a scientific article on intelligent design in a peer-reviewed scientific journal resulted in the journal’s editor suffering a significant setback in his scientific career. The scientific establishment had little to say to the author of the article. Instead, scientists were upset at the journal’s editor, who was supposed to “know better” than to allow the publication of such nonscientific “garbage.” They did not reject the paper because it contained flawed arguments; they rejected it because it was on the wrong topic. The message was clear: editors should not accept nonscientific articles into a scientific journal.

The irony is palpable. Evolutionists had argued for years that ID was not scientific because no papers about ID had been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. But we see that the reason for this is that the presumably unbiased “peers” rule out ID on philosophical grounds. For them, the discussion is over before it has begun.

Most scientists are largely unaware of how deeply their philosophical commitments affect them, which is why they are so unable to see the flaw in their arguments. This is not true of all scientists, however; some more philosophically sophisticated proponents of evolution do understand. One such is Harvard professor Richard Lewontin, author of a number of books about evolution and genetics.

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.6

At first blush, Lewontin’s statement may seem outrageously pretentious and close-minded. Upon reflection, however, I think it shows a certain amount of intellectual integrity. We all hold our core assumptions dear. For instance, it would take very powerful and persuasive evidence to convince me that the Bible is not God’s true revelation of His purposes. Lewontin’s recognition that many of his conclusions stem from his core commitments is refreshingly honest. His error lies in an unwillingness to examine those commitments.

In the end, the scientific community is beginning to recognize the depth of the “threat” intelligent design presents. On the surface, it appears to threaten their belief in naturalistic materialism, but the convictions of most scientists are firmly established, so this threat is not very serious. The scientific community’s real concern regards the beliefs of the public at large. This is why school curriculums are so significant. Yes, scientists are concerned that students might reject the perspective of naturalistic materialism, but far more importantly, they are concerned that their authority as the keepers of the truth will be called into question in the public sphere. Such an event could have a paradigm-changing effect on the scientific establishment, and, significantly, their funding.

For us, the most important thing to keep in mind is that science, like other fields of knowledge, is built upon a framework of beliefs. In the debate between evolution and ID, we must examine that framework—as much as we examine the detailed arguments—in our attempts to understand which theory is more likely to be correct.


(Internet addresses were accurate in November 2005.)

(1) 11 April 2005.
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(2) Hanna, John. “Kansas debate focuses on defining science.” Associated Press 16 May 2005. /
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(3) Slevin, Peter. “Battle on Teaching Evolution Sharpens.” Washington Post, 14 March 2005. (Back to text)

(4) Roach, John. “Does `Intelligent Design’ Threaten the Definition of Science?” National Geographic News 27 April 2005. /
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(5) Klinghoffer, David. “The Branding of a Heretic: Are religious scientists unwelcome at the Smithsonian?” 28 January 2005. (Back to text)

(6). Lewontin, Richard. “Billions and Billions of Demons.” Rev. of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan. New York Review of Books 9 January 1997. (Back to text)

Copyright November 2005 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Chris Swanson