Intelligent Design & The Supernatural

The Supernatural… It’s a word that gets tossed around a lot and gets used in a many different ways. Given my philosophical/scientific fixation, what I’m going to concern myself with here is the idea of the “supernatural realm”. So when I say “supernatural”, I’m using it in the same context as that most of the Western religions. Just so that we can all have the same mental imagery here, let’s try to visualize this as Heaven (and Hell, if you believe in that as well). God’s house, basically. It is that realm, completely distinct from our physical world, where any spiritual entities may reside, whether they be God, angels, demons, or  disembodied human souls. Also, let it be understood that I’m operating on the assumption that we live in the “natural realm”, where science operates to explain things in terms of mechanistic processes. 


William Paley, in 1802,  put forth perhaps the most famous version of the ‘Argument from Design’ (though he was certainly not the first to do so). It has come to be called the ‘Design Inference’ among today’s Intelligent Design advocates. The basic idea behind the argument is that in the same way that we can examine old artifacts from ancient cultures and conclude that they (the artifacts) had certain functions and were created by an intelligent agent, we can also note how much more incredibly complex the human body is, and how much more intelligent the designer of these (our bodies) must be. Upon examination of the impressive complexity of the human body (or perhaps life in general), we should infer the existence of a designer, or so the argument goes.

My question about the Design Inference is this: what kind of designer are we supposed to be inferring exactly? The Intelligent Design argument doesn’t describe anything specifically (and for good reason, since that mistake is the main reason why the creationists were destroyed in court). For all their “theory” cares, the intelligent designer could have been a super-advanced alien species from a galaxy far, far away…. But if you look at the members of the think tank behind Intelligent Design, it is pretty obvious which designer they have in mind: the God of Christianity. So although this argument could be used to argue for a non-supernatural designer, I shall only be concerned with those religious believers who reject “macro-evolution” and insist that a supernatural designer is required to explain the multitude of species. 

Now that we have an idea of what designer we are supposed to infer, we can focus my main question a bit more: how is it that we are supposed to infer something supernatural from artifacts in the  natural realm? The supernatural is by definition separate and distinct from the natural realm. But if this is the case, then how could the supernatural possibly interact with the natural? Once “something supernatural” enters the natural realm (say, to create new species), doesn’t that make it “something natural”? Science, by definition, operates and explains only in the natural realm. If science can be used to explain something, then that thing must be purely natural. So if the ID theorists want to use science to back up their claims, they have to accept that they are no longer arguing for a supernatural creator (who could arguably need no explanation of  his/her/it’s own existence), but they are now arguing for a natural creator who cries out for even more explanation than our own existence does. 

This question, it appears is hard for me to articulate in these terms, so allow me to pose an analogous question. Descartes is famous for his mind/body problem. He proposed that the mind was a separate thing from the body, and it was nonmaterial, whereas the body was purely material. The question then arose: how does the mind interact with the body, if the mind is, in fact, nonphysical? How does something that does not exist in space and time interact with something that does exist in space and time? In the same way, how can the supernatural, nonphysical and outside of space and time, make changes on the natural, physical and within space and time? 

Superstition and magic and conjuring was a major part of human life in our pre-scientific days. We would perform dances in hopes of inducing nature to grant us rain. This was due to a lack of scientific knowledge, knowledge that actually does some explaining. At that point in time, functionally speaking, there was no difference at all between complete ignorance of what was going on in the phenomenon of rain and proposing that it was the rain gods. Either situation has the same exact level of explanatory power: none. The choice is either recognizing our ignorance, or putting a cheap tuxedo on our ignorance, dressing it up as an explanation, and saying the supernatural gods did it. The major consequence of the former is a motivation to scientific understanding, or contentment without actually knowing anything in the latter. 

This is exactly what I say is happening when people, like the ID theorists, hijack science and try to use it to validate their own previously held religious beliefs. That’s just bad science, first of all, and also they are trying to make an inference that cannot possibly be made. You can’t speak about a realm or a god that is mysterious and separate from ours and then turn around and try to prove it via empirical means. They are arguing in a circle that destroys itself on the first rotation.

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