Can We Detect Evidence of Purpose Scientifically?

This week Baylor University hosted a major conference on a profound subject. Organized by the new Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor and entitled The Nature of Nature, the conference will entertain weighty questions: Is nature all there is, or does it point beyond itself? Does the world exhibit signs of purpose, and if so, might we be able to detect evidence of purpose scientifically?

These are contemporary versions of questions that have occupied the greatest minds for thousands of years. In the year 2000, they are still interesting enough to draw a diverse array of prominent scientists and other scholars to Waco from around the world.

Unfortunately, fundamental questions elicit controversy. In this case a few critics have claimed that the conference is somehow out of bounds because the organizers are among a growing group of intellectuals who argue that there is evidence of purpose and design in nature.

Critics have even accused the organizers of being a part of a “creationist” conspiracy. Such accusations are both untrue and unfair, and perpetuate a stereotype not befitting an academic discussion.

For good or ill, Americans are heir to the account of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” immortalized in the 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind.” According to the movie script, there are only two possible views of the origin of life and the universe: a grand evolutionary story animated exclusively by chance and impersonal laws, supposedly based on scientific evidence, and a universe created by God in six twenty-four hour days between six and ten thousand years ago, based literally on biblical texts.

What this script leaves out is the possibility that there could be scientific evidence of design or purpose in nature that is detectable quite apart from questions of the age of the earth, the extent of common ancestry, the identity of the “designer,” or the meaning of Genesis 1. So why the simplistic stereotype?

Birth of a stereotype

Enter Charles Darwin. Before Darwin, most scientists argued that living things display the hallmarks of intelligent design. In 1859 Darwin offered what many claim is the decisive refutation of design arguments in biology. Moreover, to prevent a counteroffensive, Darwin’s followers shrewdly redefined “science” to purge explanations that appeal to design, since they knew that design was the most likely alternative to Darwin’s theory.

More recently, this definition game has been disguised by assigning all arguments for design to the pejorative category of “creationism.”

Thus, many contemporary scientists and scholars insist that while there are “scientific” arguments against design, such as Neo-Darwinism, there can be no scientific evidence for design. Unfortunately, this assertion rests on a discredited view of science, a fact well known to philosophers of science. After all, if there are scientific arguments against design, then — at least in principle — there can be scientific arguments for design. They could be false, but they can’t be ruled out by definition.

And in recent years a growing number of scientists and other scholars have begun pointing to evidence and arguments for design in the universe. Prominent among these “design theorists” is mathematician and philosopher William Dembski, the director of the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor. In his profound book, The Design Inference (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Dembski offers scientists a rigorous way to distinguish and detect design. But, instead of grappling with his arguments, some critics have sought arbitrarily to define the discussion out of existence.

Obviously, arguments for design in nature have religious implications, as do all theories of origin, including neo-Darwinism. But design theory is based on contemporary scientific discoveries, not religious authority or biblical texts. For that reason, it should interest everyone, religious and non-religious alike. Baylor University should be commended for hosting what will likely be a historic event, as well as for its commitment to the free and open exchange of ideas.

Jay Richards is a senior fellow and program director of Seattle-based Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. The institute was a co-sponsor with the John Templeton Foundation for this week’s Baylor University conference, “The Nature of Nature”

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow at Discovery, Senior Research Fellow at Heritage Foundation
Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the Executive Editor of The Stream. Richards is author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013) and Indivisible (2012); The Human Advantage; Money, Greed, and God, winner of a 2010 Templeton Enterprise Award; The Hobbit Party with Jonathan Witt; and Eat, Fast, Feast. His most recent book, with Douglas Axe and William Briggs, is The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe.