Stephen C. Meyer Author, Philosopher, and Director of the Center for Science and Culture

Is Intelligent Design Bad Theology? A Response to Mark Vernon’s “Review” of Signature in the Cell

Over the years, ID proponents have spent much of their time developing the theoretical tools for inferring design and developing the empirical case for design in fields such as cosmology, astronomy, origin of life studies, and molecular biology. In contrast, many critics have spent their time attacking the supposed theology behind ID.

In the last few weeks, The Guardian (in the UK) has been publishing responses to the following question: “Is Intelligent Design Bad Theology?” Philosophers Michael Ruse and Stephen Fuller have weighed in on the question. Recently, Mark Vernon responded to the question by “reviewing” Stephen Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell. Based on his interpretation of Meyer’s argument, Vernon concludes that ID is “bad science, bad theology, and blasphemy.” That puts it strongly. Unfortunately, Vernon’s strong language is not supported by strong arguments.

Surprisingly, Vernon’s brief summary of Meyer’s argument is actually pretty good; but then he quickly goes off the rails. His complaint, initially, is that Meyer’s argument leads to the conclusion that ID is the best explanation for the origin of life to date; but, “in truth, no one really knows what life is, let alone how it arose. The work in the last half century or so on DNA has only deepened the problem — vastly deepened it.”

The obvious response is, So what? As Meyer argues in his book, there is far more to life than the little bit we know at the moment. Meyer argues that there is far more information in a cell, for instance, than is present in the coding regions of DNA. But Meyer’s argument is based squarely on what we do know about life and its informational properties, not on what we don’t know. Vernon seems to think that if we don’t know everything about life, any argument based on what we do know will be an argument from ignorance. This is bizarre. Such curious “reasoning,” if applied consistently, would mean we could never make arguments or draw conclusions about anything, since there would always be something we don’t know. The only thing we could do is remain silent. Frankly, I don’t think Vernon means what he says here. If he did, he would be giving the same advice to everyone, and not just to ID proponents. 

As it is, everyone is in the same boat. Good arguments will be based on what we know at the moment. And that’s exactly what Steve Meyer does in Signature in the Cell.

“Religious” Explanations

Building on the argument described above, Vernon then proceeds to his theological complaint. Although his critique is directed officially to Signature in the Cell, it becomes clear that he intends his critique to apply to ID more generally. An early sign that his critique will misfire is his reference to “Newton’s view of the universe” as “a deistic belief in a divine architect.” Only problem: Newton was not a deist. Deism is the view that God starts the world on its course and then doesn’t interact any more with it. Newton, in contrast, thought God not only set up the world at the beginning, but also constantly upheld and interacted with it in a variety of ways. He was a harsh critic of Cartesians who seemed to consign God a place only at the cosmic beginning. Whatever one makes of Newton’s specific views, they were a far cry from deism.

Vernon faults ID with similar inaccuracy for “assuming that God could be a scientific explanation at all. To do so has long been observed to be ridiculous.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t cite any sources from the ID literature to substantiate his characterization of ID. That’s hardly surprising, since ID proponents have explained over and over and over again that ID per se isn’t committed to a specific mode of divine causality. ID is about detecting the effects of intelligent agency within nature (divine or otherwise). Either there is evidence for such effects within nature, or there is not. Detecting the effects of design is different from specifying how the design is implemented, or by whom.

Apparently oblivious to these distinctions, Vernon tries to seal ID off in a “religious” compartment. “Belief and science are two different kinds of explanation, one moral, the other material,” he explains. “Explanations based on ‘belief’ have to do with morals, not science.” To insert one type of explanation in place of the other, according to Vernon, is to make a category mistake.

Now let’s set aside the fact that he’s confusing an argument for agency in explaining something in nature with religious belief, and just focus on what he says about the nature of religious belief. It’s clearly false. Even the most superficial student of religion knows that various religions, such as Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, intend to explain all sorts of things about the world. No religion is obligated to restrict its explanations to morality, and few have done so. So as a description of what real religions actually do, Vernon’s assertion is baseless.


Based on his analysis of “scientific” and “religious” explanations, Vernon concludes that ID is bad theology. Indeed, he claims that it’s blasphemy, because it purportedly invokes God to explain something in the world:

God is something else again, which Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian, explored in the notion that creation is “out of nothing”. The “ex nihilo” is not supposed to be a demonstration of God as a scientific whizz-kid, so amazing that he doesn’t even need matter to make the cosmos. Rather, it’s to say that the universe was created with no instrumental cause. It is the original free lunch, offered purely out of God’s love. You can argue about whether you’d have picked what’s on the menu. But to insert God into the causal chain is a category mistake and, in fact, technically a blasphemy. It implies that God is one more thing along with all the other things in the universe. You’re not dealing with divinity there, but an idol.

So ID proponents are guilty of both blasphemy and idolatry.

What to say? Well, it’s clear that Vernon is confusing a cartoonish stereotype of ID for the real thing. No ID theorist has ever said: “Insert God here.” ID theorists offer detailed arguments for why intelligent agency is the best explanation for various features of the natural world—or of the natural world itself. For instance, Steve Meyer goes into extraordinary detail in Signature in the Cell explaining why chance, mere self-organization, or chance plus a blind selection mechanism are inadequate to explain biological information. He also provides detailed positive arguments for why we should attribute such information to intelligent design. His argument has clear theological implications, but it doesn’t rest on narrow theological premises. He simply asks that intelligent design be considered a possible explanation.

But let’s set the details about ID aside and consider Vernon’s theological assertion on its own terms.

Let’s imagine someone who does explicitly invoke God in explaining some feature of nature, someone like Thomas Aquinas. Does “inserting God into the [natural] causal chain” commit “a category mistake” and make one guilty of “blasphemy”? Would it imply that “God is one more thing along with all the other things in the universe”? Specifically, would such a claim contradict a fundamental principle of Christian theology? No, of course it wouldn’t. 

Christianity has traditionally taught that God is omnipotent, free and sovereign over his creation. God is qualitatively more powerful than mere human beings. He can do far more than human beings, not less. Since human beings, despite our limitations, can build 747s, there’s nothing preventing God from doing the same (though we have no reason to think he has done so).

Like Michael Tkacz, to whom I responded earlier, Vernon is trying to use the doctrine of creation ex nihilo as a catch-all, to suggest that the doctrine somehow bars God from acting in other ways within the universe. There’s no basis whatsoever for this move in Christian theology. It’s invented from whole cloth. The fact that God created the universe ex nihilo doesn’t mean that that’s his only way of acting. The only justification I can think of for limiting God’s freedom to act within the created order would be to square Christian theology with naturalism. But then it would cease to be Christian theology. 

In reality, Christianity is firmly committed to God doing all sorts of things within the created order. According to Christian theology (which is relevant since Vernon appeals to Thomas Aquinas), God creates the world from nothing, he raises people from the dead, he became incarnate as a human being, he caused Mary to become pregnant without the benefit of a human male, and so forth. If the latter claim is true, then the proper explanation for Mary becoming pregnant is the direct causality of God within the natural order. 

Every educated Westerner, whether believer or unbeliever, knows perfectly well that Christians believe that God is both the creator of everything that is, and that he acts within nature. In fact, it’s hard to think of a less controversial claim. Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury both know this. So it’s just silly for Vernon to assert that invoking God as a cause within nature is “blasphemous.”

What about his assertion that invoking divine causality within nature somehow makes God “one more thing along with other things in the universe”? 

Unfortunately, this is just an assertion. Vernon doesn’t provide even a pretense of an argument. And it’s hard to think of any argument in its favor. If God is free and sovereign over his creation, then he can do what he wants to do. He’s under no obligation to conform to Mark Vernon’s rules of tidiness and propriety. If he wants to act directly within the created order for his own purposes, he can certainly do that. And in so doing, God doesn’t become “one more thing along with all the other things in the universe.” He continues to be God. Vernon is confusing cause with effect. God may act directly in the created order, and the effect of his action would become part of that order. But that doesn’t mean that God therefore becomes merely one more member of the universe.

Of course, the claim that God acts directly in the created order might seem blasphemous to a theology that has fully capitulated to naturalism, such as the deism that Vernon falsely attributes to Newton. Vernon is free to defend such a theology, and to define everyone who claims that God can act within nature as a blasphemer. But in that case, he should explain that according to his view of God, every traditional theist on the planet is guilty of blasphemy. And he should distinguish such anti-deistic “blasphemy” from ID, which doesn’t entail a specific mode of divine causality.

Q: Which Steve said design is an excellent and irrefutable explanation?

Hint: He didn’t write Signature in the Cell.

This incredible interaction came at last Friday night’s presentation of Signature in the Cell by Stephen Meyer at Biola University in front of 1,400 attendees and hundreds more watching the event streamed live on the internet. In a panel discussion after his lecture, Meyer met two of his critics head-on, one of whom essentially conceded that intelligent design is a better explanation than an unguided process like Darwinian evolution. You can view a video of the Q&A and Debate here.

The critics were Steve Matheson, a theistic evolutionist from Calvin College, and Arthur Hunt, a Darwinist and biologist from the University of Kentucky. Both have written critically of SITC and intelligent design and were clearly not very enamored of the thesis of Meyer’s book, that the best explanation for the origins of biological information is that it comes from an intelligent source, a mind. 

At least they started out seemingly unimpressed. I am certain Hunt remained so, but I’m not so sure about Matheson. He was critical to be sure, but in an amazingly candid and very revealing moment, he exposed his own presupposition that keeps him from accepting intelligent design theory.

Matheson basically conceded that ID is the best explanation currently on the table, but not one that he likes. Yes, he agreed, codes are produced by minds. Yes, there is digital code in DNA. Yes, design is a good explanation for that code. So, Meyer responded, you are admitting that the explanation I’ve offered, intelligent design, is currently best? The point wasn’t lost on the audience, or on Matheson I suspect. Here’s a transcript of the amazing exchange (emphases added by me): 

Matheson: I don’t find the argument convincing, I really don’t, but I think I know why. And the reason why is, I just figured out tonight, you said that we reason backwards from what we know works, which is that intelligence makes codes. I’ll agree with that. Can I see the hands of people that don’t agree? Of course not. Okay, well we reason back and say, therefore, this is the one explanation we know that can do this. I buy that, I get it, it’s, it’s obvious. But I see the world differently than you do. And so here’s the thing. I haven’t yet [pause] well, you said intelligence always creates information. And my view is a little different. Everywhere I look, and every time I look, if I wait long enough, there is a natural and even materialistic explanation to things. Now, don’t I have the right to say, you know, I’m going to go ahead and extrapolate that back, like Steve’s book, not because I’m an obnoxious Calvinist—maybe that’s true—but because, well that’s just kinda my preference? And so what I want all of us to agree on is that it’s fruitless, it’s pointless to say, Steve, don’t be stupid, design doesn’t explain what you want it to. Well, of course it does—how could it not? But wouldn’t it be reasonable for some of the Christians in this room to say, You know—

Meyer: You’re comfortable waiting for another explanation.

Matheson: I am.

Meyer: Which, in a strict sense, concedes that the one I offer is currently best—[The audience erupts into applause. Unintelligible between Meyer and Matheson]—and we have a different philosophy of science, which is where the locus of our disagreement probably lies, and where we should continue to converse.

Matheson: I’ll offer the acknowledgment: [pause] Design will always be an excellent and irrefutable explanation. How can it [pause] I just don’t see how it couldn’t be. I’m just saying it doesn’t look designed to me. He’s right, and there’s some stuff that goes on in the cell, I don’t know how you get design into there. But it’s easy to simply say, Well, and maybe you [referring to Arthur Hunt] do say this, let’s wait, maybe there’s a good reason why the cell, those proteins, billions of day, go straight into the wood-chipper. Maybe there’s a good reason for that. You said that. There’s nothing wrong with talking like that. There’s also nothing wrong with saying, Wow, man, I don’t know.

Matheson can’t endorse intelligent design because he, like Hunt, is committed to waiting to see if there is ever a natural, materialistic answer for the origins of biological information. My hunch is that he’s going to be waiting an awfully long time indeed. 

View a video of the Q&A and Debate here.

Readers in Southern California should take note: Dr. Stephen Meyer is going to present his groundbreaking work, Signature in the Cell, at a free event at Biola University in less than two weeks.

This is the same book which garnered accolades (Times Literary Supplement and “Daniel of the Year“) and earned the ire of Meyer’s critics, some of whom will be on a panel responding to him at this event. Dr. Meyer has presented at Heritage Foundation, the Seattle Art Museum, at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and various other spots stateside — but this is his first time presenting SITC in SoCal. The details are below:

May 14, 2010 
Signature in the Cell Event hosted by Biola University
Time: 7 – 10 pm
Chase Gymnasium
Biola University, La Mirada, CA
Cost: FREE

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