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January 17, 2006


Dear Editor,

I am grateful for all those who have responded to Dr. Craig E. Tenke’s comments regarding the Intelligent Design controversy (and to Dr. Tenke himself) for keeping this thread [see here] going long enough for me to get my thoughts together and chime in. I believe Dr. Tenke is wrong to dismiss Intelligent Design as unscientific and that his reasons for doing so are unfounded.

At the heart of Dr. Tenke’s dismissal of Intelligent Design (as a scientific theory) lies the concept of parsimony. Dr. Tenke writes, “ is not merely a series of facts or theories, but rather a comprehensive process of testing and reevaluation. This process requires a rule called parsimony: whenever two or more alternative interpretations exist, you must choose the least complicated one.” (emphasis added). Dr. Tenke later writes, “...God is the single most complex and universal mechanism that can be envisioned. God is the very antithesis of parsimony. Consequently, any ‘theory’ based on the purposiveness of creation cannot be science at all.”

I believe Dr. Tenke makes a mistake here. When he writes, “whenever two or more alternative interpretations exist, you must choose the least complicated one.” he leaves out something crucial. What he should have written was something to the effect of, “whenever two or more alternative interpretations exist which are equal in their explanatory power or in their ability to account for the data, you should choose the least complicated one.” Science is not the search for the least complicated explanation, it is the search for the one that best accounts for the observed phenomena. When two or more alternative theories are equal in this regard, parsimony may then be called upon to act as arbiter. Dr. Tenke has the cart before the horse. He wants us to dismiss Intelligent Design theory because, in his view, it fails the parsimony test without first considering whether intelligent design best accounts for the data.

Dr. Tenke’s attempt to dismiss Intelligent Design theory in reference to parsimony is novel to me. More commonly we are told that Intelligent Design is not science because the nature and purpose of a designer are beyond the purview of science, but this is simply not true. There is nothing unusual about scientists using the scientific method to detect intelligent design and to draw inferences about both the nature and purpose of the designer. Consider:

If two scientists were to come upon a flooded meadow, with a jam of branches and twigs blocking the outflow of water and a large pile of branches and twigs rising out of the water in the middle of the pond, one of them might hypothesize that the observed phenomena had been created by the forces of nature acting upon available materials. The other might hypothesize that an intelligence was behind the observed phenomena, in this case, beaver intelligence. Both hypotheses are scientific in that they can be investigated scientifically. Research finds: 1) the pile of twigs and branches in the middle of the pond has an entrance which originates below the water line and has a sizable dry space inside and above the water line; 2) hair within the dry space contains the DNA of both male and female beavers, and 3) the majority of twigs and branches have been gnawed on. Conclusion: The scientific data support the theory that the blockage and lodge-like structure are not the product of the forces of nature acting on available material but rather that an intelligence designed and constructed them. Notice that the scientific data 1) support the inference of intelligent design; 2) identify the nature of the designer (a beaver), and 3) suggest a purpose for the design (a safe abode).

Now consider a couple walking along the beach at sunset. They come upon Dr. Tenke’s toaster half buried in the sand. One of them marvels that the forces of surf and wind could produce such an object. The other speculates that Dr. Tenke’s toaster is intelligently designed for a purpose. Is the question beyond the purview of science or can the scientific method detect intelligent design? If science cannot detect intelligent design, why have scientists invested millions of taxpayer dollars in the SETI project? SETI, that would be the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. It seems that some scientists at least think that an intelligently designed signal could be recognized against the background noise of the universe. Curious, isn’t it? Scientists using science to detect intelligent design.

A minority in the scientific community believe that certain features of the natural order can best be explained as the product of intelligent design, that certain biological structures, for instance, are irreducibly complex and cannot be produced by Darwinian mechanisms. Their hypothesis is scientific in nature and can be investigated scientifically. Their theory may be wrong, but it is a scientific theory, and its rightness or wrongness should be determined in reference to the scientific evidence, not by defining it out of consideration.

Certain features of the natural order are permitted to be scientifically examined for signs of intelligent design without raising any consternation. A mass of twigs and branches in the middle of a pond? No problem. Signals from space? No problem. Structures in biology? Hold it. Suddenly everyone’s a little nervous. The fine tuning of the basic forces of nature? Uh oh. People might draw theological conclusions about a universal designer. Suddenly intelligent design is unscientific, all of a sudden issues of design are outside the bounds of scientific inquiry. Yet it’s only when the detection of intelligent design might imply a supernatural designer that the guardian’s of naturalism cry foul.

In conclusion, I’d like to note that much of what is reported in the popular press about Intelligent Design theory is simply wrong. Many critics of the theory appear to me to be reacting to a media caricature as opposed to the theory as it is articulated by its principle theorists. Of course not everyone has the time or the inclination to follow this controversy closely, but for those who’d like unfiltered access to the principle theorists let me suggest the web site of the Discovery Institute ( Click on “Top Questions” and/or “Essential Readings”. That should get you started.

Bruce Byrne
John Knox Presbyterian Church
Dublin, California

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