1. Cards on the Table
In the movie Dream Team starring Michael Keaton, Keaton plays a psychiatric patient who must feign sanity to save his psychiatrist from being murdered. In protesting his sanity, Keaton informs two New York City policemen that he doesn’t wear women’s clothing, that he’s never danced around Times Square naked, and that he doesn’t talk to Elvis. The two police officers are much relieved. Likewise, I hope with this essay to reassure our culture’s guardians of scientific correctness that they have nothing to fear from intelligent design. I expect to be just as successful as Keaton.
First off, let me come clean about my own views on intelligent design. Am I a creationist? As a Christian, I am a theist and believe that God created the world. For hardcore atheists this is enough to classify me as a creationist. Yet for most people, creationism is not identical with the Christian doctrine of creation, or for that matter with the doctrine of creation as understood by Judaism or Islam. By creationism one typically understands what is also called “young earth creationism,” and what advocates of that position refer to alternately as “creation science” or “scientific creationism.” According to this view the opening chapters of Genesis are to be read literally as a scientifically accurate account of the world’s origin and subsequent formation. What’s more, it is the creation scientist’s task to harmonize science with Scripture.
Given this account of creationism, am I a creationist? No. I do not regard Genesis as a scientific text. I have no vested theological interest in the age of the earth or the universe. I find the arguments of geologists persuasive when they argue for an earth that is 4.5 billion years old. What’s more, I find the arguments of astrophysicists persuasive when they argue for a universe that is approximately 14 billion years old. I believe they got it right. Even so, I refuse to be dogmatic here. I’m willing to listen to arguments to the contrary. Yet to date I’ve found none of the arguments for a young earth or a young universe convincing. Nature, as far as I’m concerned, has an integrity that enables it to be understood without recourse to revelatory texts. That said, I believe that nature points beyond itself to a transcendent reality, and that that reality is simultaneously reflected in a different idiom by the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
So far I’m not saying anything different from standard complementarianism, the view that science and Scripture point to the same reality, albeit from different vantages. Where I part company with complementarianism is in arguing that when science points to a transcendent reality, it can do so as science and not merely as religion. In particular, I argue that design in nature is empirically detectable and that the claim that natural systems exhibit design can have empirical content.
I’ll come back to what it means for design in nature to have empirical content, but I want for the moment to stay with the worry that intelligent design is but a disguised form of creationism. Ask any leader in the design movement whether intelligent design is stealth creationism, and they’ll deny it. All of us agree that intelligent design is a much broader scientific program and intellectual project. Theists of all stripes are to be sure welcome. But the boundaries of intelligent design are not limited to theism. I personally have found an enthusiastic reception for my ideas not only among traditional theists like Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but also among pantheists, New-Agers, and agnostics who don’t hold their agnosticism dogmatically. Indeed, proponents of intelligent design are willing to sit across the table from anyone willing to have us.
That willingness, however, means that some of the people at the table with us will also be young earth creationists. Throughout my brief tenure as director of Baylor’s Michael Polanyi Center, adversaries as well as supporters of my work constantly pointed to my unsavory associates. I was treated like a political figure who is unwilling to renounce ties to organized crime. It was often put to me: “Dembski, you’ve done some respectable work, but look at the disreputable company you keep.” Repeatedly I’ve been asked to distance myself not only from the obstreperous likes of Phillip Johnson but especially from the even more scandalous young earth creationists.
I’m prepared to do neither. That said, let me stress that loyalty and friendship are not principally what’s keeping me from dumping my unsavory associates. Actually, I rather like having unsavory associates, regardless of friendship or loyalty. The advantage of unsavory associates is that they tend to be cultural pariahs (Phillip Johnson is a notable exception, who has managed to upset countless people and still move freely among the culture’s elite). Cultural pariahs can keep you honest in ways that the respectable elements of society never do (John Stuart Mill would no doubt have approved). Or as it’s been put, “You’re never so free as when you have nothing to lose.” Cultural pariahs have nothing to lose.
Even so, there’s a deeper issue underlying my unwillingness to renounce unsavory associates, and that concerns how one chooses conversation partners and rejects others as cranks. Throughout my last ten years as a public advocate for intelligent design, I’ve encountered a pervasive dogmatism in the academy. In my case, this dogmatism has led fellow academicians (I hesitate to call them “colleagues” since they’ve made it clear that I’m no colleague of theirs) to trash my entire academic record and accomplishments simply because I have doubts about Darwinism, because I don’t think the rules of science are inviolable, and because I think that there can be good scientific reasons for thinking that certain natural systems are designed. These are my academic sins, no more and no less. And the academy has been merciless in punishing me for these sins.
Now, I resolutely refuse to engage in this same form of dogmatism (or any other form of dogmatism, God willing). To be sure, I think I am right about the weaknesses of Darwinism, the provisional nature of the rules of science, and the detectability of design in nature. But I’m also willing to acknowledge that I may be wrong. Yet precisely because I’m willing to acknowledge that I might be wrong, I also want to give other people who I think are wrong, and thus with whom I disagree, a fair chance — something I’ve too often been denied. What’s more, just because people are wrong about some things doesn’t mean they are wrong about other things. Granted, a valid argument from true premises leads to a true conclusion. But a valid argument from false premises can also lead to a true conclusion. Just because people have false beliefs is no reason to dismiss their work.
One of the most insightful philosophers of science I know as well as one of my best conversation partners over the last decade is Paul Nelson, whose book On Common Descent is now in press with the University of Chicago’s Evolutionary Monographs Series. Nelson’s young earth creationism has been a matter of public record since the mid eighties. I disagree with Nelson about his views on a young earth. But I refuse to let that disagreement cast a pall over his scholarly work. A person’s presuppositions are far less important than what he or she does with them. Indeed, a person is not a crank for holding crazy ideas (I suspect all of us hold crazy ideas), but because his or her best scholarly efforts are themselves crazy.
If someone can prove the Goldbach conjecture (i.e., that every even number greater than two is the sum of two primes), then it doesn’t matter how many crazy ideas and hair-brained schemes he or she entertains — that person will win a Fields Medal, the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize. On the other hand, if someone claims to have proven that pi is a rational number (it’s been known for over a century that pi is not only an irrational number but also a transcendental number, thus satisfying no polynomial equation with integer coefficients), then that person is a crank regardless how mainstream he or she is otherwise. Kepler had a lot of crazy ideas about embedding the solar system within nested regular geometric solids. A full half of Newton’s writings were devoted to theology and alchemy. Yesterday’s geniuses in almost every instance become today’s cranks if we refuse to separate their best work from their presuppositions.
I challenge anyone to read Paul Nelson’s On Common Descent, which critiques Darwin’s idea of common descent from the vantage of developmental biology, and show why it alone among all the volumes in the University of Chicago’s Evolutionary Monographs Series does not belong there (of course I’m refusing here to countenance an ad hominem argument, which rejects the book simply because of Nelson’s creationist views). I don’t distance myself from creationists because I’ve learned much from them. So too, I don’t distance myself from Darwinists because I’ve learned much from them as well. I commend Darwinists like Michael Ruse, Will Provine, and Elliott Sober for their willingness to engage the intelligent design community and challenge us to make our arguments better.
Unlike Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA (“Non-Overlapping Magisteria”) principle, which separates science and religion into tight compartments and which Todd Moody has rightly called a gag-order masquerading as a principle of tolerance, intelligent design theorists desire genuine tolerance. Now the problem with genuine tolerance is that it requires being willing to engage the views of people with whom we disagree and whom in some cases we find repugnant. Unfortunately, the only alternative to the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mill, which advocates genuine tolerance, is the hypocritical liberalism of today’s political correctness.
In place of Gould’s NOMA, design theorists advocate a very different principle of interdisciplinary dialogue, namely, COMA: Completely Open Magisteria. It is not the business of magisteria to assert authority by drawing disciplinary boundaries. Rather, it is their business to open up inquiry so that knowledge may grow and life may be enriched (which, by the way, is the motto of the University of Chicago). Within the culture of rational discourse, authority derives from one source and one source alone — excellence. Within the culture of rational discourse, authority never needs to be asserted, much less legislated.
But is intelligent design properly part of the culture of rational discourse? At every turn opponents of design want to deny its place at the table. For instance, Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, claims intelligent design is even less reputable than young earth creationism because at least the creationists are up front about who the designer is and what they are trying to accomplish. Howard Van Till for the last several years has been claiming that design theorists have not defined what they mean by design with sufficient clarity so that their views can be properly critiqued. And most recently Larry Arnhart, writing in the current issue of First Things (Nov. 2000, p. 31), complains: “Do they [i.e., design theorists] believe that the ‘intelligent designer’ must miraculously intervene to separately create every species of life and every ‘irreducibly complex’ mechanism in the living world? If so, exactly when and how does that happen? By what observable causal mechanisms does the ‘intelligent designer’ execute these miraculous acts? How would one formulate falsifiable tests for such a theory? Proponents of ‘intelligent design theory’ refuse to answer such questions, because it is rhetorically advantageous for them to take a purely negative position in which they criticize Darwinian theory without defending a positive theory of their own. That is why they are not taken seriously in the scientific community.”
2. Situating Intelligent Design in the Contemporary Debate
Let me now respond to these concerns. I’ll start with Eugenie Scott. Design theorists have hardly been reticent about their program. I’ve certainly laid it out as I see it both in the introduction to Mere Creation and in chapter four of Intelligent Design. What Scott is complaining about has less to do with the forthrightness of design theorists about their intellectual program than with the increased challenge that intelligent design presents to defenders of Darwinism as compared with creationism. Creationism offers critics like Eugenie Scott a huge fixed target. Creationism takes the Bible literally and makes the debate over Darwinism into a Bible-science controversy. In a culture where the Bible has been almost universally rejected by the cultural elite, creationism is therefore a non-starter.
But isn’t it true that design theorists are largely Bible-believers and that their reason for not casting intelligent design as a Bible-science controversy is pure expedience and not principle? In other words, isn’t it just the case that we realize creationism hasn’t been working, and so we decided to recast it and salvage as much of it as we can? This criticism seems to me completely backwards. For one thing, most of the leaders in the intelligent design movement did not start out as creationists and then turn to design. Rather, we started squarely in the Darwinian camp and then had to work our way out of it. The intellectual journey of most design theorists is therefore quite different from the intellectual journey of many erstwhile creationists, who in getting educated renounced their creationism (cf. Ron Number’s The Creationists in which Numbers argues that the correlation between increased education and loss of confidence in creationism is near perfect).
In my own case, I was raised in a home where my father had a D.Sc. in biology (from the University of Erlangen in Germany), taught evolutionary biology at the college level, and never questioned Darwinian orthodoxy during my years growing up. My story is not atypical. Biologists Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, and Dean Kenyon all started out adhering to Darwinism and felt no religious pull to renounce it. In Behe’s case, as a Roman Catholic, there was simply no religious reason to question Darwin. In so many of our cases, what led us out of Darwinism was its inadequacies as a scientific theory as well as the prospect of making design scientifically tractable.
It’s worth noting that the effort to make the design of natural systems scientifically tractable has at best been a peripheral concern of young earth creationists historically. There have been exceptions, like A. E. Wilder-Smith, who sought to identify the information in biological systems and connect it with a designer/creator. But the principal texts of the Institute for Creation Research, for instance, typically took a very different line from trying to make design a program of scientific research. Instead of admitting that Darwinian theory properly belonged to science and then trying to formulate design as a replacement theory, young earth creationists typically claimed that neither Darwinism nor design could properly be regarded as scientific (after all, so the argument went, no one was there to observe what either natural selection or a designer did in natural history).
Intelligent design’s historical roots do not ramify through young earth creationism. Rather, our roots go back to the tradition of British natural theology (which took design to have actual scientific content), to the tradition of Scottish common sense realism (notably the work of Thomas Reid), and to the informed critiques of Darwinism that have consistently appeared ever since Darwin published his Origin (e.g., Louis Agassiz, St. George Mivart, Richard Goldschmidt, Pierre Grassé, Gerald Kerkut, Michael Polanyi, Marcel Schützenberger, and Michael Denton).
Why then are so many of us in the intelligent design movement Christians? I don’t think it is because intelligent design is intrinsically Christian or even theistic. Rather, I think it has to do with the Christian evangelical community for now providing the safest haven for intelligent design — which is not to say that the haven is particularly safe by any absolute standard. Anyone who has followed the recent events of Baylor’s Michael Polanyi Center, the first intelligent design think-tank at a research university, will realize just how intense the opposition to intelligent design is even among Christians. Baylor is a Baptist institution that prides itself as being the flagship of evangelical colleges and universities (which includes schools like Wheaton College and Valparaiso University). Although an independent peer review committee validated intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry, the committee changed the center’s name and took the center’s focus off intelligent design. What’s more, after months of censorship by the Baylor administration and vilification by Baylor faculty, I was finally removed as director of the center.
Now my treatment at Baylor is hardly unique among my compatriots in the design movement. Dean Kenyon, despite being a world leader in the study of chemical evolution, was barred by the biology department at San Francisco State University from critiquing the very ideas that earlier he had formulated and that subsequently he found defective. Refusing to have his academic freedom abridged, he was then removed from teaching introductory biology courses, despite being a very senior and well-published member of the department. Only after the Wall Street Journal exposed San Francisco State University’s blatant violation of Kenyon’s academic freedom was the biology department forced to back down. I am frequently asked what is the latest research that supports intelligent design, and I find myself having to be reticent about who is doing what precisely because of enormous pressure that opponents of design employ to discredit these researchers, undermine their position, and cause them to lose their funding (upon request, I’m willing to name names of people and groups that engage in these tactics — though not the names of researchers likely to be on the receiving end of these tactics).
To sum up, intelligent design faces tremendous opposition from our culture’s elite, who in many instances are desperate to discredit it. What’s more, within the United States the Christian evangelical world has thusfar been the most hospitable place for intelligent design (and this despite opposition like at Baylor). Also relevant is that Christianity remains the majority worldview for Americans. Thus on purely statistical grounds one would expect most proponents of intelligent design to be Christians. But not all of them. David Berlinski is a notable counterexample. I could name other counterexamples, but to spare them from harassment by opponents of design, I won’t. (By the way, if you think I’m being paranoid, please pick up a copy of the November issue of the American Spectator, which has an article about Baylor’s Michael Polanyi Center and my then imminent removal as its director; I think you’ll find that my suspicions are justified and that it’s the dogmatic opponents of design who are paranoid.)
Well, what then is this intelligent design research program that Eugenie Scott regards as even more disreputable than that of the young earth creationists? Because intelligent design is a fledgling science, it is still growing and developing and thus cannot be characterized in complete detail. Nonetheless, its broad outlines are clear enough. I place the start of the intelligent design movement with the publication in 1984 of The Mystery of Life’s Origin by Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen. The volume is significant in two ways. First, though written by three Christians and critiquing origin-of-life scenarios, it focused purely on the scientific case for and against abiogenesis. Thus it consciously avoided casting its critique as part of a Bible-science controversy. Second, though highly critical of non-telic naturalistic origin-of-life scenarios and thus a ready target for anti-creationists, the book managed to get published with a secular publisher. It took well over 100 manuscript submissions to get it published. MIT Press, for instance, had accepted it, subsequently went through a shake-up of its editorial board, and then turned it down. The book was finally published by Philosophical Library, which had published books by eight Nobel laureates.
The next key texts in the design movement were Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Dean Kenyon and Percival Davis’s Of Pandas and People, and Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, which appeared over the next seven years. Like The Mystery of Life’s Origin, these were principally critiques of naturalistic evolutionary theories, though each of them also raised the possibility of intelligent design. The critiques took two forms, one a scientific critique focusing on weaknesses of naturalistic theories, the other a philosophical critique examining the role of naturalism as both a metaphysical and methodological principle in propping up the naturalistic theories, and especially neo-Darwinism.
Except for The Mystery of Life’s Origin, which in some ways was a research monograph, the strength of these texts lay not in their novelty. Many of the criticisms had been raised before. A. E. Wilder-Smith had raised such criticisms within the creationist context, though in a correspondence I had with him in the late 80s he lamented that the Institute for Creation Research would no longer publish his works. Michael Polanyi had raised questions about the sufficiency of natural laws to account for biological complexity in the late 60s, and I know from conversations with Charles Thaxton that this work greatly influenced his thinking and made its way into The Mystery of Life’s Origin. Gerald Kerkut about a decade earlier had asked one of his students in England for the evidence in favor of Darwinian evolution and received a ready answer; but when he asked for the evidence against Darwinian evolution, all he met was silence. This exchange prompted his 1960 text Implications of Evolution, whose criticisms also influenced the early design theorists.
Nonetheless, compared to previous critics of Darwinism, the early design theorists had a significant advantage: Unlike previous critics, who were either isolated (cf. Marcel Schützenberger, who although a world-class mathematician, was ostracized in the European community for his anti-Darwinian views) or confined to a ghetto subculture (cf. the young earth creationists with their in-house publishing companies), the early design theorists were united, organized, and fully cognizant of the necessary means for engaging both mass and high culture. As a consequence, criticism of Darwinism and scientific naturalism could at last reach a critical mass. In the past, criticism had been too sporadic and isolated, and thus could readily be ignored. Not any longer.
3. Intelligent Design as a Positive Research Program
Criticism, however, is never enough. I’m fond of quoting the statement by Napoleon III that one never destroys a thing until one has replaced it. Although it is not a requirement of logic that scientific theories can only be rejected once a better alternative has been found, this does seem to be a fact about the sociology of science — to wit, scientific theories give way not to criticism but to new, improved theories. Concerted criticism of Darwinism within the growing community of design theorists was therefore only the first step. To be sure, it was a necessary first step since confidence in Darwinism and especially the power of natural selection needed first to be undermined before people could take seriously the need for an alternative theory (this is entirely in line with Thomas Kuhn’s stages in a scientific revolution). Once that confidence was undermined, the next step was to develop a positive scientific research program as an alternative to Darwinism and more generally to naturalistic approaches to the origin and subsequent development of life.
In broad strokes, the positive research program of the intelligent design movement looks as follows (here I’m going to do a conceptual rather than a historical reconstruction):
(1) Much as Darwin began with the commonsense recognition that artificial selection in animal and plant breeding experiments is capable of directing organismal variation (which he then bootstrapped into a general mechanism to account for all organismal variation), so too the intelligent design research program begins with the commonsense recognition that humans draw design inferences routinely in ordinary life, explaining some things in terms of purely natural causes and other things in terms of intelligence or design (cf. archeologists attributing rock formations in one case to erosion and in another to design — as with the megaliths at Stonehenge).
(2) Just as Darwin formalized and extended our commonsense understanding of artificial selection to natural selection, the intelligent design research program next attempts to formalize and extend our commonsense understanding of design inferences so that they can be rigorously applied in scientific investigation. At present, my codification of design inferences as an extension of Fisherian hypothesis testing has attracted the most attention. It is now being vigorously debated whether my approach is valid and sustainable (the only alternative on the table at this point is a likelihood approach, which in forthcoming publications I have argued is utterly inadequate). Interestingly, my most severe critics have been philosophers (e.g., Elliott Sober and Robin Collins). Mathematicians and statisticians have been far more receptive to my codification of design inferences (cf. the positive notice of my book The Design Inference in the May 1999 issue of the American Mathematical Monthly as well as mathematician Keith Devlin’s appreciative remarks about my work in the July/August 2000 issue of The Scientist: “Dembski’s theory has made an important contribution to the understanding of randomness — if only by highlighting how hard it can be to differentiate the fingerprints of design from the whorls of chance”). My most obnoxious critics have been Internet stalkers (e.g., Wesley Elsberry and Richard Wein), who seem to monitor my every move and as a service to the Internet community make sure that every aspect of my work receives their bad housekeeping seal of disapproval. As a rule I don’t respond to them over the Internet since it seems to me that the Internet is an unreliable forum for settling technical issues in statistics and the philosophy of science. Consequently, I have now responded to critics in the following three forums: Philosophy of Science (under submission), Christian Scholar’s Review (accepted for publication), and Books & Culture (accepted for publication). I shall also be responding to critics at length in my forthcoming book No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence (Rowman & Littlefield) as well as offering there a simplification of my concept of specification. Yet regardless how things fall out with my codification of design inferences, the question whether design is discernible in nature is now squarely on the table for discussion. This itself is significant progress.
(3) At the heart of my codification of design inferences is the notion of specified complexity, which is a statistical and complexity-theoretic concept. Provided this concept is well-defined and can effectively be applied in practice, the next question is whether specified complexity is exhibited in actual physical systems where no evolved, reified, or embodied intelligence was involved. In other words, the next step is to apply the codification of design inferences in (2) to natural systems and see whether it properly leads us to infer design. The most exciting area of application is of course biology, with Michael Behe’s irreducibly complex biochemical systems, like the bacterial flagellum, having thus far attracted the most attention. In my view, however, the most promising research in this area is now being done at the level of individual proteins (i.e., certain enzymes) to determine just how sparsely populated island(s) of a given functional enzyme type are within the greater sea of non-functional polypeptides. Preliminary indications are that they are very sparsely populated indeed, making them an instance of specified complexity. I expect this work to be published in the next two years. I am withholding name(s) of the researcher(s) for their own protection.
(4) Once it is settled that certain biological systems are designed, the door is open to a new set of research problems. Here are some of the key problems:
- Detectability Problem — Is an object designed? An affirmative answer to this question is needed before we can answer the remaining questions. The whole point of (2) and (3) was to make an affirmative answer possible.
- Functionality Problem — What is the designed object’s function? This problem is separate from the detectability problem. For instance, archeologists have discovered many tools which they recognize as tools but don’t understand what their function is.
- Transmission Problem — What is the causal history of a designed object? Just as with Darwinism, intelligent design seeks historical narratives (though not the just-so stories of Darwinists).
- Construction Problem — How was the designed object constructed? Given enough information about the causal history of an object, this question may admit an answer.
- Reverse-Engineering Problem — In the absence of a reasonably detailed causal history, how could the object have come about?
- Constraints Problem — What are the constraints within which the designed object functions optimally?
- Perturbation Problem — How has the original design been modified and what factors have modified it? This requires an account of both the natural and the intelligent causes that have modified the object over its causal history.
- Variability Problem — What degree of perturbation allows continued functioning? Alternatively, what is the range of variability within which the designed object functions and outside of which it breaks down?
- Restoration Problem — Once perturbed, how can the original design be recovered? Art restorers, textual critics, and archeologists know all about this.
- Optimality Problem — In what sense is the designed object optimal?
- Separation of Causes Problem — How does one tease apart the effects of intelligent causes from natural causes, both of which could have affected the object in question? For instance, a rusted old Cadillac exhibits the effects of both design and weathering?
- Ethical Problem — Is the design morally right?
- Aesthetics Problem — Is the design beautiful?
- Intentionality Problem — What was the intention of the designer in producing a given designed object?
- Identity Problem — Who is the designer?
To be sure, the last four questions are not questions of science, but they arise very quickly once design is back on the table for serious discussion. As for the other questions, they are strictly scientific (indeed, many special sciences, like archeology or SETI, already raise them). Now it’s true that some of these questions have analogues within a naturalistic framework (e.g., the functionality problem). But others clearly do not. For instance, in the separation of causes problem, teasing apart the effects of intelligent causes from natural causes has no analogue within a naturalistic framework.
4. Nature’s Formational Economy
Now from the design theorist’s perspective, there is plenty here to work on, and certainly enough to turn intelligent design into a fruitful and exciting scientific research program. Even so, many disagree. I want next to address some of their worries. Let me begin with the concerns of Howard Van Till. Van Till and I have known each other since the mid 90s, and have been corresponding about the coherence of intelligent design as an intellectual project for about the last three years. Van Till’s unchanging refrain has been to ask for clarification about what design theorists mean by the term “design.”
The point at issue for him is this: Design is unproblematic when it refers to something being conceptualization by a mind to accomplish a purpose; but when one attempts to attribute design to natural objects that could not have been formed by an embodied intelligence, design must imply not just conceptualization but also extra-natural assembly. It’s the possibility that intelligent design requires extra-natural assembly that Van Till regards as especially problematic (most recently he has even turned the tables on design theorists, charging them with “punctuated naturalism” — the idea being that for the most part natural processes rule the day, but then intermittently need to be “punctuated” by interventions from a designing intelligence). Van Till likes to put his concern to the intelligent design community this way: Design can have two senses, a “mind-like” sense (referring merely to conceptualization) and a “hand-like” sense (referring also to the mode of assembly); is intelligent design using design strictly in the mind-like sense or also in the hand-like sense? And if the latter, are design theorists willing to come clean and openly admit that their position commits them to extra-natural assembly?
Although Van Till purports to ask these questions simply as an aid to clarity, it is important to understand how Van Till’s own theological and philosophical presuppositions condition the way he poses these questions. Indeed, these presuppositions must themselves be clarified. For instance, what is “extra-natural assembly” (the term is Van Till’s)? It is not what is customarily meant by miracle or supernatural intervention. Miracles typically connote a violation or suspension or overriding of natural laws. To attribute a miracle is to say that a natural cause was all set to make X happen, but instead Y happened. As I’ve argued throughout my work, design doesn’t require this sort of counterfactual substitution (cf. chapters 2 and 3 of my book Intelligent Design). When humans, for instance, act as intelligent agents, there is no reason to think that any natural law is broken. Likewise, should a designer, who for both Van Till and me is God, act to bring about a bacterial flagellum, there is no reason prima facie to suppose that this designer did not act consistently with natural laws. It is, for instance, a logical possibility that the design in the bacterial flagellum was front-loaded into the universe at the Big Bang and subsequently expressed itself in the course of natural history as a miniature outboard motor on the back of E. Coli. Whether this is what actually happened is another question (more on this later), but it is certainly a live possibility and one that gets around the usual charge of miracles.
Nonetheless, even though intelligent design requires no contradiction of natural laws, it does impose a limitation on natural laws, namely, it purports that they are incomplete. Think of it this way. There are lots and lots of things that happen in the world. For many of these things we can find causal antecedents that account for them in terms of natural laws. Specifically, the account can be given in the form of a set of natural laws (typically supplemented by some auxiliary hypotheses) that relates causal antecedents to some consequent (i.e., the thing we’re trying to explain). Now why should it be that everything that happens in the world should submit to this sort of causal analysis? It’s certainly a logical possibility that we live in such a world. But it’s hardly self-evident that we do. For instance, we have no evidence whatsoever that there is a set of natural laws, auxiliary hypotheses, and antecedent conditions that account for the writing of this essay. If we did have such an account, we would be well on the way to reducing mind to body. But no such reduction is in the offing, and cognitive science is to this day treading water when it comes to the really big question of how brain enables mind.
Intelligent design regards intelligence as an irreducible feature of reality. Consequently it regards any attempt to subsume intelligent agency within natural causes as fundamentally misguided and regards the natural laws that characterize natural causes as fundamentally incomplete. This is not to deny derived intentionality, in which artifacts, though functioning according to natural laws and operating by natural causes, nonetheless accomplish the aims of their designers and thus exhibit design. Yet whenever anything exhibits design in this way, the chain of natural causes leading up to it is incomplete and must presuppose the activity of a designing intelligence.
I’ll come back to what it means for a designing intelligence to act in the physical world, but for now I want to focus on the claim by design theorists that natural causes and the natural laws that characterize them are incomplete. It’s precisely here that Van Till objects most strenuously to intelligent design and that his own theological and philosophical interests come to light. “Extra-natural assembly” for Howard Van Till does not mean a miracle in the customary sense, but rather that natural causes were insufficient to account for the assembly in question. Van Till holds to what he calls a Robust Formational Economy Principle (RFEP — “formational economy” refers to the capacities or causal powers in nature for bringing about the events that occur in nature). This is a theological and metaphysical principle. According to this principle God endowed nature with all the (natural) causal powers it ever needs to accomplish all the things that happen in nature. Thus in Van Till’s manner of speaking, it is within nature’s formational economy for water to freeze when its temperature is lowered sufficiently. Natural causal powers are completely sufficient to account for liquid water turning to ice. What makes Van Till’s formational economy robust is that everything that happens in nature is like this — even the origin and subsequent history of life. In other words, the formational economy is complete.
But how does Van Till know that the formational economy is complete? Van Till was kind enough to speak at a seminar I conducted this summer (2000) at Calvin College in which he made clear that he holds this principle for theological reasons. According to him, for natural causes to lack the power to effect some aspect of nature would mean that the creator had not fully gifted the creation. Conversely, a creator or designer who must act in addition to natural causes to produce certain effects has denied the creation benefits it might otherwise possess. Van Till portrays his God as supremely generous whereas the God of the design theorists comes off looking like a miser. Van Till even refers to intelligent design as a “celebration of gifts withheld.”
Though rhetorically shrewd, Van Till’s criticism is hardly the only way to spin intelligent design theologically. Granted, if the universe is like a clockwork (cf. the design arguments of the British natural theologians), then it would be inappropriate for God, who presumably is a consummate designer, to intervene periodically to adjust the clock. Instead of periodically giving the universe the gift of “clock-winding and clock-setting,” God should simply have created a universe that never needed winding or setting. But what if instead the universe is like a musical instrument (cf. the design arguments of the Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nazianzus, who compared the universe to a lute — in this respect I much prefer the design arguments of the early Church to the design arguments of the British natural theologians)? Then it is entirely appropriate for God to interact with the universe by introducing design (or in this analogy, by skillfully playing a musical instrument). Change the metaphor from a clockwork to a musical instrument, and the charge of “withholding gifts” dissolves. So long as there are consummate pianists and composers, player-pianos will always remain inferior to real pianos. The incompleteness of the real piano taken by itself is therefore irrelevant here. Musical instruments require a musician to complete them. Thus, if the universe is more like a musical instrument than a clock, it is appropriate for a designer to interact with it in ways that affect its physical state.
Leaving aside which metaphor best captures our universe (a clockwork mechanism or a musical instrument), I want next to examine Van Till’s charge that intelligent design commits one to a designer who withholds gifts. This charge is itself highly problematic. Consider, for instance, what it would mean for me to withhold gifts from my baby daughter. Now it’s certainly true that I withhold things from my baby daughter, but when I do it is for her benefit because at this stage in her life she is unable to appreciate them and might actually come to harm if I gave them to her now. The things I am withholding from her are not properly even called gifts at this time. They become gifts when it is appropriate to give them. Nor is it the case that if I am a good father, I must have all the gifts I might ever give my daughter potentially available or in some sense in reserve now (thus making the economy of my gift giving robust in Van Till’s sense). It’s not yet clear what gifts are going to be appropriate for my daughter — indeed, deciding what are the appropriate gifts to give my daughter will be situation-specific. So too, Judeo-Christian theism has traditionally regarded many of God’s actions in the world (though certainly not all — there’s also general providence) as carefully adapted to specific situations at particular times and places.
Van Till’s Robust Formational Economy Principle is entirely consistent with the methodological naturalism embraced by most scientists (the view that the natural sciences must limit themselves to naturalistic explanations and must scrupulously avoid assigning any scientific meaning to intelligence, teleology, or actual design). What is unclear is whether Van Till’s Robust Formational Economy Principle is consistent with traditional Christian views of divine providence, especially in regard to salvation history. Van Till claims to hold to the RFEP on theological grounds, thinking it theologically preferable for God to endow creation with natural causal powers fully sufficient to account for every occurrence in the natural world. Let’s therefore grant that it’s an open question for generic theism whether for God to deliver gifts all at once is in some way preferable to God delivering them over time. The question remains whether this is an open question for specifically Christian theism. Van Till after all is not merely a generic theist but, at least until his recent retirement from Calvin College, was required to belong to the Christian Reformed Church (or some other denomination squarely in the Reformed tradition). Consequently, Van Till was required to subscribe to confessional standards that reflect a traditional Christian view of divine providence.
Now it’s not at all clear how the RFEP can be squared with traditional Christian theology. Please understand that I’m not saying it can’t. But it seems that Van Till needs to be more forthcoming about how it can. In his older writings (those from the mid 80s where he attempted to defend the integrity of science against attacks by young earth creationists — unfortunately, Van Till was himself brutally attacked by creationists for his efforts), Van Till seemed content to distinguish between natural history and salvation history. Within salvation history God could act miraculously to procure humanity’s redemption. On the other, within natural history God acted only through natural causes. I no longer see this distinction in Van Till’s writings and I would like to know why. Does Van Till still subscribe to this distinction? If so, it severely undercuts his RFEP.
The RFEP casts God as the supreme gift giver who never withholds from nature any capacity it might eventually need. According to Van Till, nature has all the causal powers it needs to account for the events, objects, and structures scientists confront in their investigations. Why shouldn’t God also endow nature with sufficient causal powers to accomplish humanity’s redemption? Human beings after all belong to nature. Throughout the Scriptures we find God answering specific prayers of individuals, performing miracles like the resurrection of Jesus, and speaking directly to individuals about their specific situations. These are all instances of what theologians call particular providence. The problem with the RFEP from the vantage of Christian theology is that it seems to allow no room whatsoever for particular providence. Yes, it can account for God sending the rain on the just and the unjust, or what is known as general providence. But the RFEP carried to its logical conclusion ends in a thorough-going Pelagianism in which redemption is built directly into nature, in which Jesus is but an exemplar, and in which humans have a natural capacity to procure their own salvation. I’m not saying that Van Till has taken the RFEP to this conclusion, but if not, Van Till needs to make clear why he stops short of assimilating the redemption in Jesus Christ to his robust formational economy.
Van Till’s Robust Formational Economy Principle provides a theological justification for science to stay committed to naturalism. Indeed, the RFEP encourages science to continue business as usual by restricting itself solely to natural causes and the natural laws that describe them. But this immediately raises the question why we should want science to continue business as usual. Indeed, how do we know that the formational economy of the world is robust in Van Till’s sense? How do we know that natural causes (whether instituted by God as Van Till holds or self-subsistent as the atheist holds) can account for everything that happens in nature? Clearly the only way to answer this question scientifically is to go to nature and see whether nature exhibits things that natural causes could not have produced.
5. Can Specified Complexity Even Have a Mechanism?
What are the candidates here for something in nature that is nonetheless beyond nature? In my view the most promising candidate is specified complexity. The term “specified complexity” has been in use for about 30 years. The first reference to it with which I’m familiar is from Leslie Orgel’s 1973 book The Origins of Life, where specified complexity is treated as a feature of biological systems distinct from inorganic systems. Richard Dawkins also employs the notion in The Blind Watchmaker, though he doesn’t use the actual term (he refers to complex systems that are independently specified). In his most recent book, The Fifth Miracle, Paul Davies (p. 112) claims that life isn’t mysterious because of its complexity per se but because of its “tightly specified complexity.” Stuart Kauffman in his just published Investigations (October 2000) proposes a “fourth law” of thermodynamics to account for specified complexity. Specified complexity is a form of information, though one richer than Shannon information, which focuses exclusively on the complexity of information without reference to its specification. A repetitive sequence of bits is specified without being complex. A random sequence of bits is complex without being specified. A sequence of bits representing, say, a progression of prime numbers will be both complex and specified. In The Design Inference I show how inferring design is equivalent to identifying specified complexity (significantly, this means that intelligent design can be conceived as a branch of information theory).
Most scientists familiar with specified complexity think that the Darwinian mechanism is adequate to account for it once one has differential reproduction and survival (in No Free Lunch I’ll show that the Darwinian mechanism has no such power, though for now let’s let it ride). But outside a context that includes replicators, no one has a clue how specified complexity occurs by naturalistic means. This is not to say there hasn’t been plenty of speculation (e.g., clay templates, hydrothermic vents, and hypercycles), but none of this speculation has come close to solving the problem. Unfortunately for naturalistic origin-of-life researchers, this problem seems not to be eliminable since the simplest replicators we know require specified complexity. Consequently Paul Davies suggests that the explanation of specified complexity will require some fundamentally new kinds of natural laws. But so far these laws are completely unknown. Kauffman’s reference to a “fourth law,” for instance, merely cloaks the scientific community’s ignorance about the naturalistic mechanisms supposedly responsible for the specified complexity in nature.
Van Till agrees that specified complexity is an open problem for science. At a recent symposium on intelligent design at the University of New Brunswick sponsored by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (15-16 September 2000), Van Till and I took part in a panel discussion. When I asked him how he accounts for specified complexity in nature, he called it a mystery that he hopes further scientific inquiry will resolve. But resolve in what sense? On Van Till’s Robust Formation Economy Principle, there must be some causal mechanism in nature that accounts for any instance of specified complexity. We may not know it and we may never know it, but surely it is there. For the design theorist to invoke a non-natural intelligence is therefore out of bounds. But what happens once some causal mechanism is found that accounts for a given instance of specified complexity? Something that’s specified and complex is by definition highly improbable with respect to all causal mechanisms currently known. Consequently, for a causal mechanism to come along and explain something that previously was regarded as specified and complex means that the item in question is in fact no longer specified and complex with respect to the newly found causal mechanism. The task of causal mechanisms is to render probable what otherwise seems highly improbable. Consequently, the way naturalism explains specified complexity is by dissolving it. Intelligent design makes specified complexity a starting point for inquiry. Naturalism regards it as a problem to be eliminated. (That’s why, for instance, Richard Dawkins wrote Climbing Mount Improbable. To climb Mount Improbable one needs to find a gradual route that breaks a horrendous improbability into a sequence manageable probabilities each one of which is easily bridged by a natural mechanism.)
Lord Kelvin once remarked, “If I can make a mechanical model, then I can understand; if I cannot make one, I do not understand.” Repeatedly, critics of design have asked design theorists to provide a causal mechanism whereby a non-natural designer inputs specified complexity into the world. This question presupposes a self-defeating conception of design and tries to force design onto a Procrustean bed sure to kill it. Intelligent design is not a mechanistic theory! Intelligent design regards Lord Kelvin’s dictum about mechanical models not as a sound regulative principle for science but as a straitjacket that artificially constricts science. SETI researchers are not invoking a mechanism when they explain a radio transmission from outer space as the result of an extraterrestrial intelligence. To ask for a mechanism to explain the effect of an intelligence (leaving aside derived intentionality) is like Aristotelians asking Newton what it is that keeps bodies in rectilinear motion at a constant velocity (for Aristotle the crucial distinction was between motion and rest; for Newton it was between accelerated and unaccelerated motion). This is simply not a question that arises within Newtonian mechanics. Newtonian mechanics proposes an entirely different problematic from Aristotelian physics. Similarly, intelligent design proposes a far richer problematic than science committed to naturalism. Intelligent design is fully capable of accommodating mechanistic explanations. Intelligent design has no interest in dismissing mechanistic explanations. Such explanations are wonderful as far as they go. But they only go so far, and they are incapable of accounting for specified complexity.
In rejecting mechanical accounts of specified complexity, design theorists are not arguing from ignorance. Arguments from ignorance have the form “Not X, therefore Y.” Design theorists are not saying that for a given natural object exhibiting specified complexity, all the natural causal mechanisms so far considered have failed to account for it and therefore it had to be designed. Rather they are saying that the specified complexity exhibited by a natural object can be such that there are compelling reasons to think that no natural causal mechanism is capable of producing it. Usually these “compelling reasons” take the form of an argument from contingency in which the object exhibiting specified complexity is compatible with but in no way determined by the natural laws relevant to its occurrence. For instance, for polynucleotides and polypeptides there are no physical laws that account for why one nucleotide base is next to another or one amino acid is next to another. The laws of chemistry allow any possible sequence of nucleotide bases (joined along a sugar-phosphate backbone) as well as any possible sequence of L-amino acids (joined by peptide bonds).
Design theorists are attempting to make the same sort of argument against mechanistic accounts of specified complexity that modern chemistry makes against alchemy. Alchemy sought to transform base into precious metals using very limited means like furnaces and potions (though not particle accelerators). Now we rightly do not regard the contemporary rejection of alchemy as an argument from ignorance. For instance, we don’t charge the National Science Foundation with committing an argument from ignorance for refusing to fund alchemical research. Now it’s evident that not every combination of furnaces and potions has been tried to transform lead into gold. But that’s no reason to think that some combination of furnaces and potions might still constitute a promising avenue for effecting the desired transformation. We now know enough about atomic physics to preclude this transformation. So too, we are fast approaching the place where the transformation of a biological system that doesn’t exhibit an instance of specified complexity (say a bacterium without a flagellum) to one that does (say a bacterium with a flagellum) cannot be accomplished by purely natural means but also requires intelligence.
There are a lot of details to be filled in, and design theorists are working overtime to fill them in. What I’m offering here is not the details but an overview of the design research program as it tries to justify the inability of natural mechanisms to account for specified complexity. This part of its program is properly viewed as belonging to science. Science is in the business of establishing not only the causal mechanisms capable of accounting for an object having certain characteristics but also the inability of causal mechanisms to account for such an object, or what Stephen Meyer calls “proscriptive generalizations.” There are no causal mechanisms that can account for perpetual motion machines. This is a proscriptive generalization. Perpetual motion machines violate the second law of thermodynamics and can thus on theoretical grounds be eliminated. Design theorists are likewise offering in principle theoretical objections for why the specified complexity in biological systems cannot be accounted for in terms of purely natural causal mechanisms. They are seeking to establish proscriptive generalizations. Proscriptive generalizations are not arguments from ignorance.
Assuming such an in-principle argument can be made (and for the sequel I will assume it can), the design theorist’s inference to design can no longer be considered an argument from ignorance. With such an in-principle argument in hand, not only has the design theorist excluded all natural causal mechanisms that might account for the specified complexity of a natural object, but the design theorist has also excluded all explanations that might in turn exclude design. The design inference is therefore not purely an eliminative argument, as is so frequently charged. Specified complexity presupposes that the entire set of relevant chance hypotheses has first been identified. This takes considerable background knowledge. What’s more, it takes considerable background knowledge to come up with the right pattern (i.e., specification) for eliminating all those chance hypotheses and thus for inferring design. Design inferences that infer design by identifying specified complexity are therefore not purely eliminative. They do not merely exclude, but they exclude from an exhaustive set of hypotheses in which design is all that remains once the inference has done its work (this is not to say that the set is logically exhaustive; rather it is exhaustive with respect to the inquiry in question — that’s all we can ever do in science).
It follows that contrary to the frequently-leveled charge that design is untestable, design is in fact eminently testable. Indeed, specified complexity tests for design. Specified complexity is a well-defined statistical notion. The only question is whether an object in the real world exhibits specified complexity. Does it correspond to an independently given pattern and is the event delimited by that pattern highly improbable (i.e., complex)? These questions admit a rigorous mathematical formulation and are readily applicable in practice. Not only is design eminently testable, but to deny that design is testable commits the fallacy of petitio principii, that is, begging the question or arguing in a circle (Robert Larmer developed this criticism effectively at the New Brunswick symposium adverted to earlier). It may well be that the evidence to justify that a designer acted to bring about a given natural structure may be insufficient. But to claim that there could never be enough evidence to justify that a designer acted to bring about a given natural structure is insupportable. The only way to justify the latter claim is by imposing on science a methodological principle that deliberately excludes design from natural systems, to wit, methodological naturalism. But to say that design is not testable because we’ve defined it out of existence is hardly satisfying or legitimate. Darwin claimed to have tested for design in biology and found it wanting. Design theorists are now testing for design in biology afresh and finding that biology is chock-full of design.
Specified complexity is only a mystery so long as it must be explained mechanistically. But the fact is that we attribute specified complexity to intelligences (and therefore to entities that are not mechanisms) all the time. The reason that attributing specified complexity to intelligence for biological systems is regarded as problematic is because such an intelligence would in all likelihood have to be unembodied (though strictly speaking this is not required of intelligent design — the designer could in principle be an embodied intelligence, as with the panspermia theories). But how does an unembodied intelligence interact with natural objects and get them to exhibit specified complexity. We are back to Van Till’s problem of extra-natural assembly.
6. How Can an Unembodied Intelligence Interact with the Natural World?
There is in fact no conceptual difficulty for an unembodied intelligence to interact coherently with the natural world. We are not in the situation of Descartes seeking a point of contact between the material and the spiritual at the pineal gland. For Descartes the physical world consisted of extended bodies that interacted only via direct contact. Thus for a spiritual dimension to interact with the physical world could only mean that the spiritual caused the physical to move. In arguing for a substance dualism in which human beings consist of both spirit and matter, Descartes therefore had to argue for a point of contact between spirit and matter. He settled on the pineal gland because it was the one place in the brain where symmetry was broken and where everything seemed to converge (most parts of the brain have right and left counterparts).
Although Descartes’s argument doesn’t work, the problem it tries to solve is still with us. When I attended a Santa Fe symposium sponsored by the Templeton Foundation in October 1999, Paul Davies expressed his doubts about intelligent design this way: “At some point God has to move the particles.” The physical world consists of physical stuff, and for a designer to influence the arrangement of physical stuff seems to require that the designer intervene in, meddle with, or in some way coerce this physical stuff. What’s wrong with this picture of supernatural action by a designer? The problem is not a flat contradiction with the results of modern science. Take for instance the law of conservation of energy. Although the law is often stated in the form “energy can neither be created nor destroyed,” in fact all we have empirical evidence for is the much weaker claim that “in an isolated system energy remains constant.” Thus a supernatural action that moves particles or creates new ones is beyond the power of science to disprove because one can always claim that the system under consideration was not isolated.
There is no logical contradiction here. Nor is there necessarily a god-of-the-gaps problem here. It’s certainly conceivable that a supernatural agent could act in the world by moving particles so that the resulting discontinuity in the chain of physical causality could never be removed by appealing to purely physical forces. The “gaps” in the god-of-the-gaps objection are meant to denote gaps of ignorance about underlying physical mechanisms. But there’s no reason to think that all gaps must give way to ordinary physical explanations once we know enough about the underlying physical mechanisms. The mechanisms may simply not exist. Some gaps might constitute ontic discontinuities in the chain of physical causes and thus remain forever beyond the capacity of physical mechanisms.
Although a non-physical designer who “moves particles” is not logically incoherent, such a designer nonetheless remains problematic for science. The problem is that natural causes are fully capable of moving particles. Thus for a designer also to move particles can only seem like an arbitrary intrusion. The designer is merely doing something that nature is already doing, and even if the designer is doing it better, why didn’t the designer make nature better in the first place so that it can move the particles better? We are back to Van Till’s Robust Formational Economy Principle.
But what if the designer is not in the business of moving particles but of imparting information? In that case nature moves its own particles, but an intelligence nonetheless guides the arrangement which those particles take. A designer in the business of moving particles accords with the following world picture: The world is a giant billiard table with balls in motion, and the designer arbitrarily alters the motion of those balls, or even creates new balls and then interposes them among the balls already present. On the other hand, a designer in the business of imparting information accords with a very different world picture: In that case the world becomes an information processing system that is responsive to novel information. Now the interesting thing about information is that it can lead to massive effects even though the energy needed to represent and impart the information can become infinitesimal (Frank Tipler and Freeman Dyson have made precisely such arguments, namely, that arbitrarily small amounts of energy are capable of information processing — in fact capable of sustaining information processing indefinitely). For instance, the energy requirements to store and transmit a launch code are minuscule, though getting the right code can make the difference between starting World War III and maintaining peace.
When a system is responsive to information, the dynamics of that system will vary sharply with the information imparted and will largely be immune to purely physical factors (e.g., mass, charge, or kinetic energy). A medical doctor who utters the words “Your son is going to die” might trigger a heart attack in a troubled father whereas uttering the words “Your son is going to live” might prevent it. Moreover, it doesn’t much matter how loudly the doctor utters one sentence or the other or what bodily gestures accompany the utterance. Such physical factors are largely irrelevant. Consider another example. After killing the Minotaur on Crete and setting sail back for Athens, Theseus forgot to substitute a white flag for a black flag. Theseus and his father Aegeus had agreed that a black flag would signify that Theseus had been killed by the Minotaur whereas a white flag would signify his success in destroying it. Seeing the black flag hoisted on the ship at a distance, Aegeus committed suicide. Or consider yet another nautical example, in this case a steersman who guides a ship by controlling its rudder. The energy imparted to the rudder is minuscule compared to the energy inherent in the ship’s motion, and yet the rudder guides its motion. It was this analogy that prompted Norbert Wiener to introduce the term “cybernetics,” which is derived etymologically from the Greek and means steersman. It is no coincidence that in his text on cybernetics, Wiener writes about information as follows (Cybernetics, 2nd ed., p. 132): “Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day.”
How much energy is required to impart information? We have sensors that can detect quantum events and amplify them to the macroscopic level. What’s more, the energy in quantum events is proportional to frequency or inversely proportional to wavelength. And since there is no upper limit to the wavelength of, for instance, electromagnetic radiation, there is no lower limit to the energy required to impart information. In the limit, a designer could therefore impart information into the universe without inputting any energy at all. Whether the designer works through quantum mechanical effects is not ultimately the issue here. Certainly quantum mechanics is much more hospitable to an information processing view of the universe than the older mechanical models. All that’s needed, however, is a universe whose constitution and dynamics are not reducible to deterministic natural laws. Such a universe will produce random events and thus have the possibility of producing events that exhibit specified complexity (i.e., events that stand out against the backdrop of randomness). Now as I’ve already noted, specified complexity is a form of information, albeit a richer form than Shannon information, which trades purely in complexity (cf. chapter 6 of my book Intelligent Design as well as my forthcoming No Free Lunch). What’s more, as I’ve argued in The Design Inference, specified complexity (or specified improbability as I call it there — the concepts are the same) is a reliable empirical marker of actual design. Now the beauty is that we live in a non-deterministic universe that is open to novel information, that exhibits specified complexity, and that therefore gives clear evidence of a designer who has imparted it with information.
It’s at this point that critics of design throw up their hands in disgust and charge that design theorists are merely evading the issue of how a designer introduces design into the world. From the design theorists perspective, however, there is no evasion here. Rather there is a failure of imagination on the part of the critic (and this is not meant as a compliment). In asking for a mechanistic account of how the designer imparts information and thereby introduces design, the critic of design is like a physicist trained only in Newtonian mechanics and desperately looking for a mechanical account of how a single particle like an electron can go through two slits simultaneously to produce a diffraction pattern on a screen (cf. the famous double-slit experiment). On a classical Newtonian view of physics, only a mechanical account in terms of sharply localized and individuated particles makes sense. And yet nature is unwilling to oblige any such mechanical account of the double slit experiment (note that the Bohmian approach to quantum mechanics merely shifts what’s problematic in the classical view to Bohm’s quantum potential). Richard Feynman was right when he remarked that no one understands quantum mechanics. The “mechanics” in “quantum mechanics” is nothing like the “mechanics” in “Newtonian mechanics.” There are no analogies that carry over from the dynamics of macroscopic objects to the quantum level. In place of understanding we must content ourselves with knowledge. We don’t understand how quantum mechanics works, but we know that it works. So too, we don’t understand how a designer imparts information into the world, but we know that a designer imparts information.
It follows that Howard Van Till’s riddle to design theorists is ill-posed. Van Till asks whether the design that design theorists claim to find in natural systems is strictly mind-like (i.e., conceptualized by a mind to accomplish a purpose) or also hand-like (i.e., involving a coercive extra-natural mode of assembly). As with many forced choices Van Till has ignored a tertium quid, namely, that design can also be word-like (i.e., imparting information to a receptive medium). In the liturgies of most Christian churches, the faithful pray that God keep them from sinning in “thought, word, and deed.” Each element of this tripartite distinction is significant. Thoughts left to themselves are inert and never accomplish anything outside the mind of the individual who thinks them. Deeds, on the other hand, are coercive, forcing physical stuff to move now this way and now that way (it’s no accident that the concept of force plays such a crucial role in the rise of modern science). But between thoughts and deeds are words. Words mediate between thoughts and deeds. Words give expression to thoughts and thus bring the self in contact with the other. On the other hand, words by themselves are never coercive (without deeds to back up words, words lose their power to threaten). Nonetheless, words have the power to engender deeds not by coercion but by persuasion. Process and openness-of-God theologians will no doubt find these observations congenial. Nonetheless, Christian theologians of a more traditional bent can readily sign off on them as well.
7. Must All the Design in the Natural World Be Front-Loaded?
But simply to allow that a designer has imparted information into the natural world is not enough. There are many thinkers who are sympathetic to design but who prefer that all the design in the world be front-loaded. The advantage of putting all the design in the world at, say, the initial moment of the Big Bang is that it minimizes the conflict between design and science as currently practiced. A designer who front-loads the design of the world imparts all the world’s information before natural causes become operational and express that information in the course of natural history. In effect, there’s no need to think of the world as an informationally open system. Rather, we can still think of it mechanistically — like the outworking of a complicated differential equation, albeit with the initial and boundary conditions designed. The impulse to front-load design is deistic, and I expect any theories about front-loaded design to be just as successful as deism was historically, which always served as an unsatisfactory halfway house between theism (with its informationally open universe) and naturalism (which insists the universe remain informationally closed).
There are no good reasons to require that the design of the universe must be front-loaded. Certainly maintaining peace with an outdated mechanistic view of science is not a good reason. Nor is the theological preference for a hands-off designer, even if it is couched as a Robust Formational Economy Principle. To be sure, front-loaded design is a logical possibility. But so is interactive design (i.e., the design that a designer introduces by imparting information over the course of natural history). The only legitimate reason to limit all design to front-loaded design is if there could be no empirical grounds for preferring interactive design to front-loaded design. Michael Murray in his recent paper “Natural Providence” for the Wheaton Philosophy Conference (October 2000, www.wheaton.edu/philosophy/conference.html) attempts to make such an argument. Accordingly, he argues that for a non-natural designer front-loaded design and interactive design will be empirically equivalent. Murray’s argument hinges on a toy example in which a deck of cards has been stacked by the manufacturer before it gets wrapped in cellophane and distributed to card-players. Should a card-player now insist on using the deck as it left the manufacturer and repeatedly win outstanding hands at poker, even if there were no evidence whatsoever of cheating, then the arrangement of the deck by the manufacturer would have to be attributed to design. Murray implies that all non-natural design is like this, requiring no novel design in the course of natural history but only at the very beginning when the deck was stacked. But can all non-natural design be dismissed in this way?
Take the Cambrian explosion in biology, for instance. David Jablonsky, James Valentine, and even Stephen Jay Gould (when he’s not fending off the charge of aiding creationists) admit that the basic metazoan body-plans arose in a remarkably short span of geological time (5 to 10 million years) and for the most part without any evident precursors (there are some annelid tracks as well as evidence of sponges leading up to the Cambrian, but that’s about it with regard to metazoans; single-celled organisms abound in the Precambrian). Assuming that the animals fossilized in the Cambrian exhibit design, where did that design come from? To be committed to front-loaded design means that all these body-plans that first appeared in the Cambrian were in fact already built in at the Big Bang (or whenever that information was front-loaded), that the information for these body-plans was expressed in the subsequent history of the universe, and that if we could but uncover enough about the history of life, we would see how the information expressed in the Cambrian fossils merely exploits information that was already in the world prior to the Cambrian period. Now that may be, but there is no evidence for it. All we know is that information needed to build the animals of the Cambrian period was suddenly expressed at that time and with no evident informational precursors.
To see what’s at stake here, consider the transmission of a manuscript by an anonymous author, say the New Testament book of Hebrews. There’s a manuscript tradition that allows us to trace this book (and specifically the information in it) back to at least the second century A.D. More conservative scholars think the book was written sometime in the first century by a colleague of the Apostle Paul. One way or another we cannot be certain of the author’s identity. What’s more, the manuscript trail goes dead in the first century A.D. Consequently, it makes no sense to talk about the information in this book being in some sense front-loaded at any time prior to the first century A.D. (much less at the Big Bang).
Now Murray would certainly agree (for instance, he cites the design of the pyramids as not being front-loaded). In the case of the transmission of biblical texts, we are dealing with human agents whose actions in history are reasonably well understood. But the distinction he would draw between this example, involving the transmission of texts, and the previous biological example, involving the origin of body-plans, cannot be sustained. Just because we don’t have direct experience of how non-natural designers impart information into the world does not mean we can’t say where that information was initially imparted and where the information trail goes dead. The key evidential question is not whether a certain type of designer (mundane or transcendent) produced the information in question, but how far that information can be traced back. With the Cambrian explosion the information trail goes dead in the Cambrian. So too with the book of Hebrews it goes dead in the first century A.D. Now it might be that with the Cambrian explosion, science may progress to the point where it can trace the information back even further — say to the Precambrian or possibly even to the Big Bang. But there’s no evidence for it and there’s no reason — other than a commitment to methodological naturalism — to think that all naturally occurring information must be traceable back in this way. What’s more, as a general rule, information tends to appear discretely at particular times and places. To require that the information in natural systems (and throughout this discussion the type of information I have in mind is specified complexity) must in principle be traceable back to some repository of front-loaded information is, in the absence of evidence, an entirely ad hoc restriction.
It’s also important to see that there’s more to theory choice in science than empirical equivalence. The ancient Greeks knew all about the need for a scientific theory to “save the phenomena” (Pierre Duhem even wrote a delightful book about it with that title). A scientific theory must save or be faithful to the phenomena it is trying to characterize. That is certainly a necessary condition for an empirically adequate scientific theory. What’s more, scientific theories that save the phenomena equally well are by definition empirically equivalent. But there are broader coherence issues that always arise in theory choice so that merely saving phenomena is not sufficient for choosing one theory over another. Empirically equivalent to the theory that the universe is 14 billion years old is the theory that it is only five minutes old and that it was created with all the marks of being 14 billion years old. Nonetheless, no one takes seriously a five minute old universe. Also empirically equivalent to a 14 billion year old universe is a 6,000 year old universe in which the speed of light has been slowing down and enough ad hoc assumptions are introduced to account for the evidence from geology and archeology that is normally interpreted as indicating a much older earth. In fact, the scientific community takes young earth creationists to task precisely for making too many ad hoc assumptions that favor a young earth. Provided that there are good reasons to think that novel design was introduced into the world subsequent to its origin (as for instance with the Cambrian explosion, where all information trails go dead in the Precambrian), it would be entirely artificial to require that science nonetheless treat all design in the world as front-loaded just because methodological naturalism requires it or because it remains a bare possibility that the design was front-loaded after all.
Please note that I’m not offering a theory about the frequency or intermittency with which a non-natural designer imparts information into the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the information imparted by such a designer will elude us, not conforming to any patterns that might enable us to detect it (just as we might right now be living in a swirl of radio transmissions by extraterrestrial intelligences, though for lack of being able to interpret these transmissions we lack any evidence that embodied intelligences on other planets exist at this time). The proper question for science is not the schedule according to which a non-natural designer imparts information into the world, but the evidence for that information in the world, and the times and locations where that information first becomes evident. That’s all empirical investigation can reveal to us. What’s more, short of tracing the information back to the Big Bang (or wherever else we may want to locate the origin of the universe), we have no good reason to think that the information exhibited in some physical system was in fact front-loaded.
8. The Distinction Between Natural and Non-Natural Designers
But isn’t there an evidentially significant difference between natural and non-natural designers? It seems that this worry is really what’s behind the desire to front-load all the design in nature. We all have experience with designers that are embodied in physical stuff, notably other human beings. But what experience do we have of non-natural designers? With respect to intelligent design in biology, for instance, Elliott Sober wants to know what sorts of biological systems should be expected from a non-natural designer. What’s more, Sober claims that if the design theorist cannot answer this question (i.e., cannot predict the sorts of biological systems that might be expected on a design hypothesis), then intelligent design is untestable and therefore unfruitful for science.
Yet to place this demand on design hypotheses is ill-conceived. We infer design regularly and reliably without knowing characteristics of the designer or being able to assess what the designer is likely to do. In his 1999 presidential address for the American Philosophical Association Sober himself admits as much in a footnote that deserves to be part of his main text (“Testability,” Proceedings and Addresses of the APA, 1999, p. 73, n. 20): “To infer watchmaker from watch, you needn’t know exactly what the watchmaker had in mind; indeed, you don’t even have to know that the watch is a device for measuring time. Archaeologists sometimes unearth tools of unknown function, but still reasonably draw the inference that these things are, in fact, tools.”
Sober is wedded to a Humean inductive tradition in which all our knowledge of the world is an extrapolation from past experience. Thus for design to be explanatory, it must fit our preconceptions, and if it doesn’t, it must lack epistemic value. For Sober, to predict what a designer would do requires first looking to past experience and determining what designers in the past have actually done. A little thought, however, should convince us that any such requirement fundamentally misconstrues design. Sober’s inductive approach puts designers in the same boat as natural laws, locating their explanatory power in an extrapolation from past experience. To be sure, designers, like natural laws, can behave predictably. Yet unlike natural laws, which are universal and uniform, designers are also innovators. Innovation, the emergence of true novelty, eschews predictability. It follows that design cannot be subsumed under a Humean inductive framework. Designers are inventors. We cannot predict what an inventor would do short of becoming that inventor.
But the problem goes deeper. Not only can’t Humean induction tame the unpredictability inherent in design; it can’t account for how we recognize design in the first place. Sober, for instance, regards the intelligent design hypothesis as fruitless and untestable for biology because it fails to confer sufficient probability on biologically interesting propositions. But take a different example, say from archeology, in which a design hypothesis about certain aborigines confers a large probability on certain artifacts, say arrowheads. Such a design hypothesis would on Sober’s account be testable and thus acceptable to science. But what sort of archeological background knowledge had to go into that design hypothesis for Sober’s inductive analysis to be successful? At the very least, we would have had to have past experience with arrowheads. But how did we recognize that the arrowheads in our past experience were designed? Did we see humans actually manufacture those arrowheads? If so, how did we recognize that these humans were acting deliberately as designing agents and not just randomly chipping away at random chunks of rock (carpentry and sculpting entail design; but whittling and chipping, though performed by intelligent agents, do not). As is evident from this line of reasoning, the induction needed to recognize design can never get started.
My argument then is this: Design is always inferred, never a direct intuition. We don’t get into the mind of designers and thereby attribute design. Rather we look at effects in the physical world that exhibit the features of design and from those features infer to a designing intelligence. The philosopher Thomas Reid made this same argument over 200 years ago (Lectures on Natural Theology, 1780): “No man ever saw wisdom [read “design”], and if he does not [infer wisdom] from the marks of it, he can form no conclusions respecting anything of his fellow creatures…. But says Hume, unless you know it by experience, you know nothing of it. If this is the case, I never could know it at all. Hence it appears that whoever maintains that there is no force in the [general rule that from marks of intelligence and wisdom in effects a wise and intelligent cause may be inferred], denies the existence of any intelligent being but himself.” The virtue of my work is to formalize and make precise those features that reliably signal design, casting them in the idiom of modern information theory.
Larry Arnhart remains unconvinced. In the most recent issue of First Things (November 2000) he claims that our knowledge of design arises not from any inference but from introspection of our own human intelligence; thus we have no empirical basis for inferring design whose source is non-natural. Though at first blush plausible, this argument collapses quickly when probed. Piaget, for instance, would have rejected it on developmental grounds: Babies do not make sense of intelligence by introspecting their own intelligence but by coming to terms with the effects of intelligence in their external environment. For example, they see the ball in front of them and then taken away, and learn that Daddy is moving the ball — thus reasoning directly from effect to intelligence. Introspection (always a questionable psychological category) plays at best a secondary role in how initially we make sense of intelligence.
Even later in life, however, when we’ve attained full self-consciousness and when introspection can be performed with varying degrees of reliability, I would argue that even then intelligence is inferred. Indeed, introspection must always remain inadequate for assessing intelligence (by intelligence I mean the power and facility to choose between options — this coincides with the Latin etymology of “intelligence,” namely, “to choose between”). For instance, I cannot by introspection assess my intelligence at proving theorems in differential geometry, choosing the right sequence of steps, say, in the proof of the Nash embedding theorem. It’s been over a decade since I’ve proven any theorems in differential geometry. I need to get out paper and pencil and actually try to prove some theorems in that field. Depending on how I do — and not my memory of how well I did in the past — will determine whether and to what degree intelligence can be attributed to my theorem proving.
I therefore continue to maintain that intelligence is always inferred, that we infer it through well-established methods, and that there is no principled way to distinguish natural and non-natural design so that the one is empirically accessible but the other is empirically inaccessible. This is the rub. And this is why intelligent design is such an intriguing intellectual possibility — it threatens to make the ultimate questions real. Convinced Darwinists like Arnhart therefore need to block the design inference whenever it threatens to implicate a non-natural designer. Once this line of defense is breached, Darwinism quickly becomes indefensible.
9. The Question of Motives
Actually, there is still one remaining line of defense, and that is to question the motives of design theorists. According to Larry Arnhart (First Things, November 2000), “Most of the opposition to Darwinian theory … is motivated not by a purely intellectual concern for the truth or falsity of the theory, but by a deep fear that Darwinism denies the foundations of traditional morality by denying any appeal to the transcendent norms of God’s moral law.” In a forthcoming response to an article of mine in American Outlook (November 2000), Michael Shermer takes an identical line: “It is no coincidence that almost all of the evolution deniers are Christians who believe that if God did not personally intervene in the development of life on earth, then they have no basis for their belief; indeed, that there can be no basis to any morality or meaning of life.”
For critics of intelligent design like Arnhart and Shermer, it is inconceivable that someone once properly exposed to Darwin’s theory could doubt it. It is as though Darwin’s theory were one of Descartes’s clear and distinct ideas that immediately impels assent. Thus for design theorists to oppose Darwin’s theory requires some hidden motivation, like wanting to shore up traditional morality or being a closet fundamentalist. For the record, therefore, let me reassert that our opposition to Darwinism rests in the first instance on scientific grounds. Yes, my colleagues and I are interested in and frequently write about the cultural and theological implications of intelligent design. But let’s be clear that the only reason we take seriously such implications is because we are convinced that Darwinism is on its own terms an oversold and overreached scientific theory and that even at this early stage in the game intelligent design excels it.
Critics who think they can defeat intelligent design merely by assigning disreputable motives to its proponents need to examine their own motives. Consider Shermer’s motives for taking such a hard line against intelligent design. Shermer, trained in psychology and the social sciences, endlessly psychologizes those who challenge his naturalistic worldview. But is he willing to psychologize himself? Look at his popular books (e.g., Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Believe), and you’ll notice on the inside dustjacket a smiling Shermer with a bust of Darwin behind him as well as several books by and about Darwin. Shermer’s devotion to Darwin and naturalism is no less fervent than mine is to Christianity. If there is a difference in our devotion, it is this: Shermer is a dogmatist and I am not. I am willing to admit that intelligent design might be wrong (despite significant progress I believe design theorists still have their work cut out for them). Also, I am eager to examine and take seriously any arguments and evidence favorable to Darwinism. But Shermer cannot make similar concessions. He can’t admit that Darwinism might be wrong. He is unwilling to take seriously any positive evidence for intelligent design. But this is hardly surprising. Shermer has a vested interest in taking a hard line against intelligent design. Indeed, his base of support among fellow skeptics (who rank among the most authoritarian and dogmatic people in contemporary culture) would vanish the moment he allows intelligent design as a live possibility.
The success of intelligent design neither stands nor falls with the motives of its practitioners but with the quality of the research it inspires. That said, design theorists do have an extra-scientific motive for wanting to see intelligent design succeed. This motive derives not from a religious agenda but from a very human impulse, namely the desire to overcome artificial, tyrannical, or self-imposed limitations and thereby to open oneself and others to new possibilities — in a word, freedom. This desire was beautifully expressed in Bernard Malamud’s novel The Fixer (Penguin, 1966). Yakov Bok, a handyman in pre-revolutionary Russia, leaves his small town and heads off to the big city (Kiev). As it turns out, misfortune upon misfortune awaits him there. Why does he go? He senses the risks. But he asks himself, “What choice has a man who doesn’t know what his choices are?” (pp. 33-34) The desire to open himself to new possibilities impels him to go to the big city. Later in the novel, when he has been imprisoned and humiliated, so that choice after choice has been removed and his one remaining choice is to maintain his integrity, refuse to confess a crime he did not commit, and thereby prevent a pogrom; after all this, he is reminded that “the purpose of freedom is to create it for others.” (p. 286)
Design theorists want to free science from arbitrary constraints that stifle inquiry, undermine education, turn scientists into a secular priesthood, and in the end prevent intelligent design from receiving a fair hearing. The subtitle of Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker reads Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Dawkins may be right that design is absent from the universe. But design theorists insist that science address not only the evidence that reveals the universe to be without design but also the evidence that reveals the universe to be with design. Evidence is a two-edged sword: Claims capable of being refuted by evidence are also capable of being supported by evidence. Even if design ends up being rejected as an unfruitful explanation in science, such a negative outcome for design needs to result from the evidence for and against design being fairly considered. On the other hand, the rejection of design must not result from imposing regulative principles like methodological naturalism that rule out design prior to any consideration of evidence. Whether design is ultimately rejected or accepted must be the conclusion of a scientific argument, not a deduction from an arbitrary regulative principle.
What choice does science have if it doesn’t know what its choices are? It can choose to stop arbitrarily limiting its choices.