FAQs: What Is Intelligent Design?

States are weighing whether public schools should teach intelligent design alongside Darwin's theories. What is ID all about?

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The argument from design, as it has been known for hundreds of years, was expounded most famously by William Paley, a 19th century British theologian. Using the analogy of the watchmaker, Paley argued that just as we infer a watchmaker from the complex workings of a pocket watch, we must infer a creator of the universe from the complex systems of the natural order.

Today's advocates of intelligent design maintain that while Paley's perspective was rooted in the idea of a benevolent Christian God, theirs is the outgrowth of scientific discovery, which has left some profound and fundamental phenomena, such as cell structure, unexplained. But the overwhelming majority of intelligent design advocates are Christians, and virtually all are theists.

Some critics equate intelligent design theory with the so-called "God of the gaps" fallacy—resorting to a divine intelligence to explain the existence of natural phenomena for which we have no scientific explanation. But proponents of intelligent design respond by arguing that their perspective is based upon the latest scientific inquiry into the complexity of the natural order and recognition that evolutionary and other more recent scientific theory is inadequate to explain many biological and physical phenomena.

What do scientists say about intelligent design?

Many scientists believe that ID proponents are abandoning scientific inquiry and the scientific method by invoking design.

However, some of the most vocal supporters of intelligent design have scientific backgrounds and credentials. Prominent among them is Michael J. Behe, a professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University. Behe stresses that he regards ID as a "minimalist position. It only requires that there be physical evidence of an intelligence behind creation of complex natural systems. Who did the creating, or why, comprise a separate set of questions."

Among ID proponents, there are distinctions between those who support the "old Earth position" as Behe does—he believes that the universe is 13 billion years old—and proponents of the "young Earth" position. They all share a set of assumptions about the "irreducible complexity" of some natural phenomena, if not the process of the design or the characteristics of the designer.

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