Stephen Meyer, long known to those who follow the Intelligent Design issue, has published a short review of the ID arguments in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and a lot of scientists are mad. I've tried to stay away from this general area too much, mostly because I don't know what I think about some key issues in the area. Still, I do have some thoughts on this, and I'll probably offend most everybody by the time I'm done, but I'm going to say what's on my mind anyway.
The scientific community seems to be scared. They're all upset that a peer-reviewed journal would publish a piece on Intelligent Design. I say it this way because that's what I think is going on. The statements quoted in the article don't seem to me to be the kind of statement you would make if you happen to think the paper that got published is merely not well-argued. They're the kind of statement you'd make if you think the paper that got published shouldn't have been published because you don't like the conclusion. That's not my main beef here, though.
One person quoted in the article calls ID "an evolved form of creationism that resulted from legal decisions in the 1980s ruling that creationism can't be taught in schools." This is complete ignorance. The term 'creationism' as it is normally used nowadays refers to a particular viewpoint that arose in the 20th century (or perhaps you could argue that it finds its initial stages in the late 19th), claiming in response to neo-Darwinian theories that science proves evolution to be fiction and instantaneous acts of God to be scientifically established fact. The argument form used in what they're now calling Intelligent Design goes back millenia, though, so this statement is just ignorant (or perhaps maliciously deceptive, but I'll be nice).
Intelligent Design arguments are philosophy. I think that's absolutely obvious to anyone familiar with the history of philosophy. ID theorists claim to be doing science. Their opponents claim that they're simply spouting off religious dogma. Both claims are false, but the second is worse. The reason the first isn't as bad a mislabeling is because ID theorists really are doing science when they list (some of?) the premises of their argument. The argument that leads to the conclusion they draw is philosophy, though. It's a long-standing argument in the history of philosophy, versions of which go back at least to Aristotle and probably Plato. I taught a philosophy class for three years that dealt with this argument as a classic philosophical staple, and we looked at a number of different versions of it. Aristotle claimed that there was built-in directedness to all living things, and there was no way that sort of thing could come from something that didn't have directedness. Modern science tries to get rid of this directedness through providing natural explanations for things that appear directed. A plant simply grows better in places where there's light, and therefore it seems to move toward the light, but it's not purposeful). Most of the cases Aristotle gave were disproved similarly. The chances of life itself arising out of nonliving matter are so small that many people have thought it would have to be at least encouraged by a designer. Some people who still think this today believe aliens did it, but that just takes the process back a step. Who did it with the aliens (and if they're silicon-based aliens, as scifi writers like to include in their accounts of this, that seems even less likely to arise on its own)? Most people familiar with the issues today believe that really long periods of time and random chance would be enough to explain the existence of life at all. That's scientific orthodoxy. It's a philosophical issue, though.
The origin of the universe itself is another place where this comes up, and it's one of the main Intelligent Design arguments. Some cosmological constants that form part of the natural laws of this universe are required to be within a very narrow range for life even to be possible, and that unlikelihood leads a number of philosophers (and scientists and others when doing philosophy, regardless of what they call it) to conclude that a designer must have designed the universe with life in mind. Peter van Inwagen frames it as being about the universe being designed with rational life in mind. With one assumption, I think this is an excellent argument. The assumption is that the constants could have been all over the map but would have to have fallen within the tiny range they did by either random chance or design. Once you grant that, I think all the other objections are really misguided. The one that stands a chance is the multiple universe conjecture, which could serve as an explanation of why the universe has the constants it has simply because all the possibilities exist somewhere. The problem here is that you don't conclude that there are billions of firing squads shooting at people, with one happeneing to fail in killing you at point blank range. You conclude that it was rigged. So I don't think the multiple universes hypothesis is a rational conclusion to draw from this argument. Whatever you think of the argument, though, it's a philosophical argument. It's not science, and it's certainly not religious dogma taught without any scientific support. The premises involve claims discoverable by science.
The most common forms of ID are about the development of life. For instance, no explanation exists at the moment of how the living cell could have come together in all its parts. There's an explanation of how the parts could come together if they already existed and had purposes apart from the purposes they serve in the cell. The problem is that there's no reason to think they could have existed apart from the cell. Most (or at least some; I'm not familiar enough with the work of people like Behe on this to know what their exact claim is) of those structures don't seem to have any plausible origin account except if they were guided along by someone who intended a cell to come into existence. I don't really know much biology except what I learned in 9th grade and have picked up since outside the classroom (though I do have a much better memory for this sort of thing than most do) , so I don't know how to evaluate this sort of argument, simply because the premises rely on biological claims which may or may not be true, as far as I can tell. I know that people like Behe have admitted things about the argument that I find suspicious, because once you admit those things the argument loses a lot of force. I wish I could remember the site that had published once such admission.
Anyway, my point is that ID is fully in the same tradition of argument as all these design arguments. There is at least one premise claimed to have been discovered by science. The conclusion is based on an inductive philosophical argument, claiming that because we have something that appears to be designed and not a good enough explanation of how it could come to appear to be designed, we should probably conclude that it was designed. This is a philosophical argument standing in a very long tradition of philosophical arguments. It's not a scientific argument, though it is a style of argument that scientists use all the time in concluding things about their work, just as people all the time use such arguments to conclude things about their lives without realizing that they're doing philosophy. Those who claim it to be mere religious dogma are trying to get out of arguing against it. They're trying to make it sound as if it's merely the work of stupid people who don't to go to any work to support their outrageous claims. The reality is that people who claim it to be mere religious dogma are the ones who won't support their claims. That's why I think the critics of ID are the ones who make the worse mistake when it comes to mislabeling this sort of argument. Both are inaccurate labels, but those who call it religious dogma are denigrating something without giving any reason why they should denigrate it and are thus doing something very much like what they say the people they're criticizing are doing.
I got into a debate on Panda's Thumb over this very issue, and the people there showed a complete inability to pay attention to what their interlocutor was saying. That's why I won't bother to go there anymore. When I first found out about the site, I had planned to link it. I went there, and it looked like an interesting site, where people on both sides of the issue could discuss the issues. In reality, it's a fanboy site for one side of the argument, and the only difference between it and something like Atrios, Democratic Underground, or sites run by Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly is that most of these people have a Ph.D. in a relevant field. It's pretty much the same sort of thing, though. They don't think there is an issue to be discussed. They say as much. Therefore, the only thing they can do when you challenge them on a claim, even one that doesn't threaten anything about evolutionary theory, is name-calling, jumping on people to criticize them for things they obviously didn't say, and straw men. In my case, I wasn't challenging any scientific point about contemporary evolutionary theory. I was simply saying that ID is philosophy and not science or religious dogma. A couple people saw this but insisted that since some ID people consider it science they would have to keep calling it creationism. There are probably good people doing good work there, but I was fairly overwhelmed by the signs that being in the scientific orthodoxy had led to an inability to think very clearly about anyone outside that orthodoxy. Telling someone that he doesn't understand the ID argument because he believes it to be philosophy and not religious dogma and then telling him that he really believes it to be science isn't exactly a good debating tactic. So they didn't get a link in my academic blogs section, even though what they claim to be about is the sort of thing I very much wanted to link to in that section.
I think ID should be taught in high schools, because it stems a classic philosophical argument with a few different contemporary versions. I think this should be done in the philosophy classes that should be required for a high school diploma. This should include ethical theory, applied ethics, metaphysical and epistemological issues that people think about in everyday life such as the existence of God, the problem of evil, and the nature of knowledge raised by movies like The Matrix, and some basic critical thinking skills. There's no such requirement now, but if I get to explain how I think high school should be taught then I should explain how I think things should be changed in that more general way.
This kind of argument shouldn't therefore be put up against evolution, as some people want to think of it. It should be put against the thesis that there's no designer behind the universe. ID theorists seem to get this point. They don't claim to be arguing against evolution. They claim to be arguing against the absence of a designer. I think that's right. That is what the argument is doing. I think the people who realize this (and it's their main leaders who do) must have an expanded notion of science that includes philosophical arguments based on scientific premises. Well, scientists do things like that all the time, particularly when they object to scientific orthodoxy. Einstein, Newton, Galileo, and others who are credited with advancing science greatly were often doing what we call philosophy when they argued for their conclusions. Newton knew this, and I think Einstein did too. Newton called what he did natural philosophy. Eventually parts of natural philosophy became relegated to science, and parts stayed with philosophy. Those who criticize ID arguments had better learn this, or they're going to continue to fail to speak to ID proponents. When you say something so obviously false about the reasons why you think a scientist's work is not scientific, of course they're not going to follow the rest of your argumentation. In this context, rhetoric from the orthodoxy based on false assumptions about your heterodox opponents isn't usually viewed as anything but rhetoric based on being trapped in a failing orthodoxy. In this case, I think there's something to that perception, simply because the orthodoxy has been trying to maintain its orthodoxy on such a faulty claim that this is mere religious dogma. Of course it isn't.
Another problem I see in the ID debates is that some of the ID proponents don't have anything to say against evolution. They just think evolution alone isn't a good enough explanation, but if evolution is guided by a designer then it is good enough. Enough of them think this that it's pretty stupid to call ID creationism. Creationism, as the term is normally used, means opposition to evolution. Some people see a split in the ranks of creationists. There are those who believe in a 6-day creation along the lines of those who read Genesis 1:1-2:3 as a historical account of God's diary with complete chronological ordering. It gives a detailed account of what happened when, according to this view. Others take each day in the first creation account to refer to a much longer period of time. I think both views miss the point of genre of the passage. If you read it in light of ancient near-eastern creation poetry, as making theological points, as distinguishing between how God created compared to how the surrounding nations told their creation myths, as indicating an ordering of separating and binding rather than a when, then there's no reason to see each day as a chronological ordering of details as a scientist or historian would want to see. It's not even a narrative passage, as the second creation account is. It's poetic, and the very structure of the passage conveys some key theological differences with the surrounding nations. Now I don't want to assume that because something has a theological point that it must not also have a historical point. So much bad scholarship on the book of Acts or on the historical books of the Old Testament assume that. Still, the fact that there is a theological point, together with the fact that it's a poetic passage, gives some reason to wonder whether the passage as it stands assumes every aspect to be a historical chronicle, a sort of blow-by-blow. The six-day creationists insist that it must be, but the same kind of exegesis as applied to other poetic passages requires believing God to have nostrils that flare up when Israel goes into battle. Some groups really believe this, but I think that just shows insensitivity to genre. All the best commentaries on Genesis (and I mean best on issues independent of this issue) seem aware of this, but much creationist literature is ignorant enough of the literary issues that I don't think they can claim to be exegetically sound. After they do all that literary and exegetical research, if they still hold that conclusion, then that's one thing. Some people do, including at least one of the elders in my own congregation, but that's rare in creationist circles.
My point here wasn't to argue for my view but to point out the varieties of creationism if you take the term to refer more expansively. In my observation of those who use the term disparagingly, the term in their mouths means 6-day creationists, and this includes those at Panda's Thumb, those who interact on blogs by Rusty Lopez, David Heddle, and Joe Carter on this issue, and philosophers I know of who write on the topic (e.g. Brian Leiter, Daniel Dennett). Maybe I've misunderstood their statements, but that's what they seem to think a creationist is. They might include the second and third views I gave above, but both of those are consistent with evolutionary theory as it stands today except on the issue of a creator. When they then call someone a creationist for using an ID argument, they're risking a radical mislabeling, because people have held ID arguments to be good arguments while fully accepting current evolutionary theory in all claims except in its assumption (for at least methodological purposes) that there's no God guiding the process. That's why I think those who call ID theorists creationists are not worthy of the title 'scholar', even if they have a Ph.D. in a relevant subject. It's rhetoric, psychologically moving for some people but lacking in substance. It's intellectually empty. It's the kind of thing you see in junior high debate forums and major political party conventions, but it shouldn't crop up in a site dedicated to discussing the real issues about evolutionary theory. I tried to make this point on Panda's Thumb, and the only response I got was to call me names, address arguments I didn't give, refute claims I didn't make, etc. No one addressed what I actually said, which is a sign that they really aren't thinking as critically as they think they are.
On the other hand, people on the ID side aren't exactly at a point where they can fully claim a lot of things they claim. Aside from the science issue, they don't necessarily address all the objections. It's a classic philosophical argument, but it also has classic objections. I'm not sure most of the people who claim it to be pure science realize that they need to meet those philosophical objections, because they don't realize that what they're presenting is a philosophical argument. Some of them, contrary to their critics' contentions, do understand contemporary evolutionary theory. Yet the objections they need to respond to are not about the factual claims of evolutionary theory. They're about its philosophical foundations. Those who are more aware of that do a better job of explaining how the argument is supposed to work, but those are also the ones who are more aware of the problems with the ID arguments. Peter van Inwagen, for instance, has a great chapter in his Metaphysics (Dimensions of Philosophy) on the cosmological constant issue. He doesn't think the argument succeeds in convincing people, but only because he can see a rational person thinking the multiple universe model is more likely than the designer model. He thinks you need to think one of those explanations or something like them has got to be true, though, and he thinks the designer hypothesis is the more likely of the two. I've already given an argument above why I think it's more rational to believe that than the other.
ID theorists will brag about how now they've finally gotten a peer-reviewed publication. This isn't exactly one of the top journals, but it was peer-reviewed, and that does show some merit to the argument, especially if what the quotes in the article I linked say are accurate about what the reviewers thought. They really did think these were genuine arguments that evolutionary theory needs to respond to. The reason scientists are so mad is they don't want to admit such a thing. They don't think there are even arguments to respond to. But if the philosophical foundations of some of the claims of evolutionary theory are questioned, that shouldn't be threatening to scientists who think there are good foundations there. Instead of calling Meyer names and dismissing his argument as creationism, they need to admit that there are philosophical arguments to address here, and philosophers of science particularly need to enter the debate and show the problems with those philosophical points of Meyer's argument. I'm not convinced anyone has really done that yet. What I've seen so far in Dennett's book on evolution (which I have and have not read cover-to-cover but have read significant chunks of) and at sites like Panda's Thumb (which I admit I have rarely read since my bad experience with unthinking people there) is not that.