In the comments of several recent posts PvM has brought up the question of vacuity. The issues he raises are important ones. Is ID simply a theory which labels whatever is currently unexplained by evolution "unexplained by evolution"? Has it any substance? Can there ever be such a thing as a serious "intelligent design research program"?
To me ID is not just an eliminative game, a theory of "detecting design" in molecular machines by ruling out chance and necessity. It’s a far greater study of design– in engineered systems, in nature, in our universe. It’s a heuristic which can help us in future discoveries. And it’s a field in which very little research has been done, and so it’s wide open to advances from the next generation of researchers.
It was a milestone in scientific thinking when Newton showed that the laws of the heavens and the laws of the earth were the same; the forces we were accustomed to in our own limited experience were the same as those making the planets turn. ID makes an equally bold step in another direction, suggesting that hypothetical design in nature can be studied in the same way as the design we are familiar with in art, architecture and technology.
Think of it this way. One piece of the ID research program– intelligent design theory at it’s most basic– is the science of detecting design. We study things which we know are designed, those which we know weren’t, and we look for "hallmarks" of one versus the other– attempting to come to a rigorous way of differentiating the two. This can then be brought to bear on the thing we don’t know about, such as the machinery in living cells or life itself.
But that’s not all ID is; and the "design paradigm" has far wider reach. Suppose we come to the conclusion that certain aspects of the universe were designed, or suppose, for heuristical purposes, we decide to assume that. What then?
PvM makes the point that those who used the "design paradigm" in their scientific research most productively– Newton and Kepler, for instance– were working with much that is not available to us as scientists today. Kepler had no problem starting from the idea of a perfect God who wanted the best for his creatures. Such a notion has far more room for prediction then the puny "designed, all else unknown" we get from basic IDT today.
So are we stuck between a rock and a hard place? Must we choose between unwarranted assumptions on the nature of a designer, based perhaps on religious thought, or a theory that has so little predictive power it could almost just as well be ignored?
I don’t think so. In the basic, first step of ID we’ve stripped design down to it’s most basic components, searching for hallmarks of design that are independent of the nature or motivation of a designer. This is important for detecting design. But when we’re working forward in the rest of ID’s research program we have a universe full of other data open to us. We don’t need to bring in religious assumptions on the designer, giving up the chance of rigorous science; rather, we can use the basic knowledge of design from our detection program to build up a full-scale model of design. A model weighty enough that it can make predictions.
We’ve a long way to go, but I’m optimistic about the future. To me, ID is what happens when a student looks at that famous sentence of Dawkins’, "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed." and says: Well, maybe it has only the appearance of design– but then again, maybe it is something more. Why decide a priori that your senses are decieving themselves? Let’s leave out the assumption for a moment, shall we, and see what we get then?
And there are enough students tired of the unjustified assumption that we ought to be able to make a difference.