Shortly after the publication of my last column, “Evolution Sunday not so benign” (Jan. 24), I received an e-mail from a gentleman at the Discovery Institute. This Seattle-based think-tank seeks “to defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.” Apparently, my column manifested scientific materialism and, true to form, this man targeted it for defeat. In particular, he argued that I had not adequately treated the theory of biological origins called Intelligent Design, or ID.

I agree. But I’m not alone. Few scientists or philosophers from respectable academic institutions have given serious consideration to ID. This theory — which asserts that some forms of biological life are irreducibly complex, and thus could not have been put together by the step-by-step process of evolution — is usually dismissed off-hand as pseudoscientific nonsense or countered by emphasizing the “overwhelming evidence” for evolution. Neither approach deals effectively with the complaints of ID supporters. The former only inflames IDers’ sentiments and inspires more vigorous campaigning against the theory of evolution. The latter ignores the fact that ID is just as concerned with philosophy as it is with empirical evidence. Thus, though I will argue in this column that the theory of Intelligent Design itself lacks intelligent design, I will do so on both philosophical and empirical grounds.

So first, is ID “pseudoscientific nonsense”? I’d rather avoid the pejorative label “nonsense,” but I certainly think “pseudoscientific” is apt. Modern science is characterized by what philosophers call “methodological naturalism” — the pragmatic assumption that every physical phenomenon has a natural, versus a supernatural, explanation. This is to be distinguished from “metaphysical naturalism” — the ontological assumption that physical reality is all that exists. When IDers use the term “scientific materialism,” they effectively refer to the latter assumption.

Since ID invokes a supernatural being to explain the formation of “irreducibly complex” physical structures, it does not employ methodological naturalism. Thus, by modern standards, it cannot be called “science.”

Here IDers rightfully object: Just because modern science is characterized by methodological naturalism, that does not mean that it should be. The above characterization of science is descriptive, not normative. Fair enough. Perhaps “science” should be re-defined, allowing the explanation of natural phenomena by both natural and supernatural means. Indeed, if God exists and created the universe, why shouldn’t we look for God’s supernatural intervention in natural affairs?

Two responses can be given to this argument. First, defining science by methodological naturalism does not mean we shouldn’t look for supernatural intervention. It just prevents science from relying on that possibility to explain physical events. Second, methodological naturalism is a good thing for science. Imagine what would happen if it were abandoned. If the problem is difficult or the mechanism “irreducibly complex,” divine intervention could be invoked, allowing the scientist to effectively give up and move on. If this approach were taken, even if God did occasionally intervene, many problems with naturalistic solutions would never be solved, being mistakenly categorized as cases of ID.

In response, the IDer might object that their “scientists” can identify an instance of ID without ceasing to search for a naturalistic explanation. This may be true in principle, but has certainly not been true in practice. In the face of “irreducibly complex” biochemical structures, most scientists have rolled up their sleeves and worked to demystify the complexity; IDers, in contrast, have plugged in their Intelligent Designer and derided further inquiry as “scientific materialism.” Even if IDers give up this strategy, a major question remains: Why continue searching for a naturalistic explanation if you believe there isn’t one?

In addressing anomalies in the theory of evolution, IDers have made an audacious assertion: We cannot now resolve these anomalies and we will never be able to resolve them. In light of the history of science, this assertion is audacious indeed — the vast majority of gaps filled with God, including many proposed by IDer Michael Behe in “Darwin’s Black Box,” have been subsequently filled with naturalistic explanations.

Perhaps it’s little wonder that the main dissemination of ID theory has occurred not through peer-reviewed journals, but through Web sites and popular-release books.

If those at the Discovery Institute truly want to “defeat scientific materialism,” perhaps they would be better served taking a cue from evangelical Christians doing respectable science. Francis Collins GRD ’74, ex-director of the Human Genome Project, might be a good place to start. Those at the Discovery Institute could join Collins in emphasizing why evolutionary theory is not incompatible with belief in the supernatural. Yet they have persisted in a strategy that manifestly lacks an intelligent design: advancing a pseudoscientific theory through non-academic publications, suggesting a redefinition of science that would dramatically hinder scientific progress, making indefensible claims about the future and, in the process, supporting scientific materialism by diminishing the credibility of those who believe in the supernatural.

Jonathan Dudley is a student at the Divinity School and a molecular oncology researcher at Yale School of Medicine.