Intelligent design theory began with the publication of Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box in 1996. Since then a number of other books have been published both for and against intelligent design. Wikipedia is especially unreliable on this issue because accuracy requires reading the primary sources rather than secondary source commentaries. In fact, much of the secondary sources are polemical against intelligent design theory and are therefore unreliable when attempting to understand the theory. Complicating all of this, the proponents of intelligent design theory often disagree on the details – especially the philosophical details – of their theory. Intelligent design can be divided into two parts. The first part is a theory of history. The second part is a historical claim.
William (Bill) Dembski claims that intelligent design theory is a new program for scientific research. He also claims that we can empirically detect intelligent causes and reliably distinguish these from unintelligent causes. Finally, he claims that we have detected intelligent causes in biological systems (and possibly elsewhere). He supports these claims in a number of different ways. First, he points out that empirical detection of intelligent causes is already found in other sciences such as archeology, criminal forensics and cryptography. Each of these sciences must be able to distinguish between intelligent and natural causes without knowing the agent or the purpose of the agent. Second, he points out that some natural systems are similar (in some cases identical) to artifacts that we know are constructed by intelligent agents. It is for these reasons that intelligent design must be taken seriously. He offers further arguments for his specific theory of intelligent design detection along with specific natural features that are claimed to have intelligent causes.
The mistake that intelligent design advocates make is assuming that their program is a scientific one. It isn’t. Neither is evolutionary theory. Any theory dealing with the past or with individuals as such is a historical theory. Scientific theories deal with the essences of things and apply to all things sharing the same essence. Scientific theories deal with the capacities, powers, structure and dispositions of a particular kind of thing according to the kind of thing it is. For example, a scientific theory about dogs would determine how dogs work, how dogs grow and what kind of variation dogs have that still permits them to be dogs. Questions about the past of dogs are not scientific ones. Theories that all of our present dogs arose from another kind of mammal are not questions about the essence of dogs. They are questions about the current existence of dogs – historical questions. Similarly, the claim that a particular feature of nature arose from an intelligent cause in the past is not a scientific claim. It is a historical one.
When Dembski speaks of an intelligent cause he is not speaking in a scientific manner. If he were speaking in a scientific manner then he would mean that the present existence of that feature requires an intelligent cause in order to exist right now. We might claim, for instance, that certain artifacts require the present existence of humanity in order to be meaningful. So it is correct to speak of these artifacts as requiring an intelligent cause in a scientific sense. This is not Dembski’s claim. His claim is that the present existence of certain features required the past action of an intelligent agent in order to exist in the past. That is a historical claim.
Therefore, we can correctly understand (by rephrasing Demski) his program as follows: we can use empirical evidence to reliably detect some intelligent causes just as other historical disciplines do.