“The Truth Project”, Intelligent Design,  Complexity and Divine Action

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May 3, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by Kenneth Aring. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

“The Truth Project”, Intelligent Design,  Complexity and Divine Action

This essay is a companion piece to Kathryn Applegate’s recent post, entitled Understanding Randomness. Together these blogs address important questions about the emergence of complexity through God-ordained natural processes.

Recently my church’s Men’s Fellowship viewed "The Truth Project", a video series produced by Focus on the Family. These 12 hour-long lessons aim to develop a Christian worldview for all aspects of our lives. In the opening lessons I was favorably impressed by the clear distinction made between the physical and spiritual realms and by insightful discussions of various issues that have troubled philosophers since ancient times. All this was done in a way most people could understand.

However, as the topic moved to science, the message seemed to be that the scientific enterprise aims to dethrone God from His rightful position as Creator. While several sections were quite admirable—like the amazing graphics illustrating the enormous complexity of biochemical systems—the audience was left with the impression that life is so complex that science can never understand it, and the only option is to see it as the result of God’s miraculous intervention. One was forced to choose between science and God.

During our group’s discussion, I tried to present a view of God working through the natural laws He had created, but it was clear that most of our group preferred to discard science. Then one person spoke up and said, “I don’t know much about biology, but I have seen similar complex behavior in some of the computer programs I work with.” His comment was one of those “aha” moments for me as several ideas fell into place.

This comment reminded me of Melanie Mitchell’s stimulating book, Complexity: A Guided Tour. Mitchell is a computer scientist who works with the complexity group at the Santa Fe Institute. In the book, she discusses numerous examples like ant colonies, the immune system, and the genetic code, and she draws parallels with computer programs. In each of these systems, the individual units (ants, molecules, genes, etc) respond only to their immediate neighbors and environment, yet the entire system (colony or organism) acts together as a coordinated whole. In many cases we do not know how the coordinated behavior develops, yet we see similar behavior in very different systems. In order to understand living systems, Mitchell and others have turned to computer programs that behave in similar ways. This work has led to new ways of studying systems composed of large numbers of simple objects.

Scientists have become skilled at dealing with individual objects, what I call the lower level. But when we look at large collections of objects on a higher level, new properties emerge that (although they do not violate the laws for the individual objects) cannot be understood using the lower level exclusively. As Aristotle has said, “The whole is more than the sum of the parts.” When independent objects within the system begin to interact, an entirely new level of reality seems to arise with behaviors we never would have expected. We call these behaviors “emergent properties.” A reductionist view of life-forms (considering only the lower level) is not capable of fully describing or accounting for emergent complexities.

This was the dilemma that we saw in “The Truth Project” lessons on science. The presenters could not see how life could be explained by the basic laws of physics, chemistry and genetics (the lower level). They then concluded that science cannot explain life, so it must have been miraculously created by God. But they turn a blind eye on emergent complexity, not that they are ignorant of it, but because they do not want science to explain away their favored "miraculously created" conclusion.

It is important to note that this higher-level behavior does not violate the lower level. Emergent complexity does not violate the basic laws of science as we know them; it just opens up possibilities that we might never have imagined. But once we see this higher level of behavior, we often can go back to the lower level and see how it is possible that it could emerge. The standard example is the interpretation of the temperature of a gas as being a measure of the average kinetic energy of the molecules. A better understanding of the relationship between levels of description will be a major step in improving our understanding of the physical and biological processes necessary for life.

If I were to stop here, one could object that I have taken God out of the process, as even this higher level does not obviously involve God. But there are many basic questions that cannot be addressed by either reductionism or a systems-level understanding: Where did matter come from? Why do laws of nature exist in the first place? Why do these laws continue to work? What is the real purpose of life? What do "good" and "evil" mean? What happens to us after we die? These are non-scientific questions that science can never answer. Science can only describe how matter behaves, and its explanations must be stated in terms of the observed properties of matter.

A moment ago I said that a higher-level description does not necessarily discredit lower-level descriptions. But neither does the success of lower-level descriptions eliminate the need for higher-level descriptions. Materialists make this error when they claim that scientific explanations make God irrelevant. Their scientific reductionism misses the point. We need all the levels of description to fully understand the world around us.

“The Truth Project” adequately documents the error of scientific reductionism, but commits a similar error by limiting our understanding of the origin of life-forms to divine intervention. It is not an either/or choice. We need to give credence to all levels including those higher levels that emerge naturally from lower levels.

I believe there is an “Even-Higher” level that answers the ultimate questions in terms of God. And, like our previous higher level, this Even-Higher level does not necessarily violate the laws of the lower levels. The lower levels are still valid but do not easily lead us to a clear picture of the Even-Higher level. However, God, in other ways, has revealed Himself to humankind, and through this revelation we begin to gain knowledge of that which is ultimate in the universe.

The Intelligent Design supporters who helped to produce “The Truth Project” want to show that the failure of the lower level to explain life shows that God violated the basic laws to produce the observed complexity of life. They spend much of their effort looking for things that lower-level science appears unable to explain, believing that God has planted evidence in His creation which will prove His existence. I believe this search for gaps in the scientific economy is fruitless and may even be a damaging exercise. They will not, I believe, find real gaps in the laws of nature that God created, but only gaps in our understanding of those laws.

Let me be clear: I believe God is the Creator of the material universe. He is not just an emergent property, as pantheism and some versions of process theology would claim. And God is not limited to working through the laws He created. I believe He can and does at times work in ways that are not understandable in terms of natural laws. But to quickly conclude (as “The Truth Project” and the Intelligent Design Movement do) that life is too complex for science to explain without invoking supernatural intervention does not do justice to the intelligence God gave us. We do not need to choose between scientific description of the natural world and God’s activity. God is upholding the natural laws and God is ever-present in God’s universe. We need not look for a hidden God who can only be found in the deep calculations of the mysterious. God is omni-present. As the Psalmist says so eloquently:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.1

How does one “calculate” that which is ever-present and never absent? The universe, including the universe of life, is a series of ever-emerging complexities that reach higher and higher levels through time and space. Ultimately though, they all lead to Him—to Him who is before all things, and to Him in whom all things are held together.2

The purpose of this essay has been to call attention to some issues that have been around for a long time but are often forgotten. I have been reminded that a literature review would be helpful:

  • Many of us had our introduction to looking at things at various levels from Donald Mackay’s discussion of “nothing-buttery” in such books as The Clockwork Image.
  • Howard Van Till, in his The Fourth Day, reminded us that choosing our level of description is not simply an “either/or” choice.
  • I gained new insight into this problem from Mark Noll’s essay “Evangelicals, Creation, and Scripture: An Overview” posted in the Scholarly Essays section of the BioLogos website, especially his discussion of Ockham's "razor".
  • Nancey Murphy gives a philosophical discussion of a hierarchical structure of science and theology in several of her books (Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning and On the Moral Nature of the Universe [with George Ellis]).
  • For other discussions of emergence from a scientific and theological perspective, see books by Philip Clayton on emergence.
  • For those who desire a brief philosophical treatment, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on "Emergent Properties" which also has a useful bibliography.

Research into hierarchical descriptions and the related areas of complexity, emergence, self-organization, and chaos have received a great boost from the development of high-speed computers. Below are some resources that speak to this research:

  • For a quick introduction see the Wikipedia article on "Emergence" and two short video segments from Nova: “Emergence” parts 1 and 2. For some significant computer simulations see “John Conway Talks about the Game of Life” parts 1 and 2.
  • A very good general introduction to the basic concepts and terminology is James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science.
  • Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine’s Order out of Chaos is at a slightly higher level.
  • Stuart Kauffman has made major contributions as laid out in his tome The Origins of Order: Self-organization and Selection in Evolution. Kaufman’s popular At home in the Universe is more readable. (I believe his pantheistic leanings can be ignored.)
  • For a Christian application of these ideas to immunology, I recommend Craig Story’s article, "The God of Christianity and the G.O.D. of Immunology: Chance, Complexity, and God’s Action in Nature" in the December 2009 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 61, no. 4 (2009): 221-232, which eventually will be posted for general readers, but is currently available only to members of the ASA.


  1. Psalm 139:7,8
  2. Colossians 1:17

Kenneth Aring is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Point Loma Nazarene University, where he taught until 2006. He received his doctorate in physics from Cornell University. In 1993, he and Darrel Falk organized the Science/Theology Faculty Discussion Group at Point Loma, which still meets weekly to discuss books on the science/theology interface.

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Rich - #13320

May 12th 2010


I’ll clarify point 4 above.  In another column, “Would You Like Fries with That Theory?”, Karl Giberson has suggested that lay people should always defer to the consensus of experts, since the experts understand the subtleties of things far better than the lay person.  Thus, though writing as a physicist, he advises lay people who object to evolution to accept the verdict of most biologists, because they are the experts.  But how does Giberson know that the biological community does not hold to a deeply flawed theory, as the physics community has in the past (ether, etc.)?  Biology isn’t his field.  If he wants to lecture the lay public on why they should accept Newton, that’s fine.  But as he has no more qualifications to verify evolutionary theory than does a philosopher or theologian, he has no business telling intelligent lay people (who may have read more about evolutionary theory than he has) that they should simply acquiesce and drop all criticism.  It sounds too much like “I’ll defend your profession against the rubes, biologists, if you’ll defend mine”.  I’d rather Giberson spoke only of what he knows, and dropped his generic, class-motivated defense of science professors.

Gregory - #13358

May 12th 2010

Hi Rich,

I think we´re coming to see each others´ position more clearly now. No time to respond to each point.

When I look at the world, I see Creation, not ´design´. That ´d´-word is a tough one to swallow these days due to culture wars & even leftovers of the creation vs. evolution dichotomy of the 20century. I´d rather walk new paths.

You wrote:  “I base my thought about nature on rationality and empiricism, not on religion.”

I base my thoughts about nature & society on sciences, philosophy *and* religion.

TEs, ECs & IDists are busy challenging each other in several ways. It may be that BioLogos can help them to at least understand each others´ positions better, if not to encourage a kind of rapprochement, which is what you seek, Rich.

I think your ´expectations´ in #13268 stand on their own without my sanction needed.

To me, your ´class-motivated´ comment to Karl is out of place & impolite & you should either explain or excuse it.

Rich - #13361

May 12th 2010


I’m suggesting that you can know the world is “created” precisely because you can know it is designed.  And I don’t find “design” tough to swallow at all, nor should any Christian, since Genesis, Job, the Psalms, etc. all make it clear that the world was designed by God.  Prior to Darwin, no Christian ever protested the term.  It is only because Darwin has sold certain Christians on non-teleology that they now sneer at design.

In “class”, I chose an unfortunate word.  I didn’t mean “social class”, but “profession”.  I meant that professionals tend to look after their own.  Doctors tend to defend doctors, lawyers lawyers, etc.  Thus, a physicist who expects the masses to defer to him about the validity of Einstein might well defend a biologist’s neo-Darwinism against lay criticism, even though the physicist has no more authority in that area than any lay person.  Anyhow, we are having quite a good discussion on this in the aforementioned thread.  Gingoro and I have posed very polite responses to Dr. Giberson.  He has yet to reply.  If you’re interested in this subject, I suggest you reply over there rather than here, because I probably won’t be checking in on this thread any longer.

Gregory - #13365

May 12th 2010

Rich wrote: “I’m suggesting that you can know the world is “created” precisely because you can know it is designed.”

That´s your prerogative, of course, Rich, to prioritize grammar that way. But it is wrong to try to PUSH this grammar on others who simply don´t accept it. And why do you often say *should* & *must*? I´m not persuaded by this tactic.

But your insistence on ´designism´ or fetish with that one word made me do a Search that I found quite interesting, which others might appreciate too.

BibleGateway.com. Keyword Search for ´design´and ´creat´:

NIV (default version)  -  29 times ´design´ used, including designate and designers. *VAST MAJORITY* of times ´design´ in the Bible is for *human-made things*.

NIV - 192 times ´creat´ used, including, created, creating, creatures, Creator.

192-29 overall. 25-0 in the Psalms. 

And it is not *only because of Darwin.* You are simply exaggerating, Rich. There are *many* other factors, e.g. sociological, & scientific figures involved. But you likely won´t accept that either.

Gregory - #13366

May 12th 2010

In other words, Dr. Rich,

Genesis, Job, the Psalms, etc. all make it clear that the world was CREATED by God.

´Design´ is a contrived word in the vocabulary of moderns.

Rich - #13368

May 12th 2010


First, my argument has nothing to do with grammar, so I don’t know what you mean by prioritizing grammar. 

Second, you can’t understand the Bible from doing a quick internet search on a concordance.  You have to have read and studied the passages.  I didn’t say that the Bible used the *word* “design”.  I said the Bible makes it clear that the world is designed.  There’s a difference.  There are many descriptions indicating that God laid the world out in a certain way, with certain elements in a certain location, or serving certain purposes.  That’s design, whether the word is used or not.

Of course God is Creator in the Bible.  I never denied it.  And of course “Creator” is a richer and more religious word than “designer”.  I’m not objecting to saying the world is created.  But if we didn’t have the Bible, we could still infer the existence of a designer.  That’s what I meant.  Of course, as Aquinas points out, for those unable to reach God through reason, revelation can take us directly to “Creator” without a design inference.  I never denied that.

Gregory - #13371

May 12th 2010

Every type or spoken or written ´argument´ involves grammar. Please don´t downplay the significance of grammar in communication, Rich. In a post-Nietzschean world, that would be unwise.

“I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” - F. Nietzsche (Twilight of the Idols)

You wrote: “I’m suggesting that you can know the world is “created” precisely because you can know it is designed.”

You identified a causal link. So, in what sense are ´design´ & ´creation´ synonymous, Rich?

You may say, profess, insist, proclaim: ´That´s design.´ But I disagree. I think, along with most monotheists: ´That´s Creation.´

One question here is: what do you need that extra word for?

Clothes & shoes are ´designed´, bridges & buckets are ´designed´, computer programs are ´programmed´ (or ´designed´) , but the universe is *not* ´designed´. It is ´created,´ by a Creator.

Shrug your shoulders & say ´just semantics´; you trade away the power of ´design.´ Why, in your words *should* Christians ´swallow´ the special term ´design.´ Don´t you realize that in so doing the usage of ´creation´ is therefore lessened?

Gregory - #13372

May 12th 2010

“But if we didn’t have the Bible, we could still infer the existence of a designer.  That’s what I meant.” - Rich

If we didn´t have the Bible we could still believe in and accept the existence of or, to use ID family terms, ´infer´ a Creator, too. Or do you disagree, Rich?

Rich - #13379

May 12th 2010


You’re becoming incoherent.  Your discussion of “grammar” is way off base. I’ve taught the grammar of several languages, as well as essay-writing skills, and I know what grammar is.  Our dispute is not over grammar, but over the usage of words. 

I did not say that “designed” and “created” are synonymous.  “Creation” is more than “design”.  A Creator is more than a mere designer.  By calling God a designer I’m certainly not “lessening” God; otherwise the Bible lessens God in saying that he “formed” Adam like a potter, or in saying that he is a Father (conjuring up sexual generation).  All human language applied to God “limits” him in some way.  It doesn’t follow that the human language doesn’t indicate something true about God.  Are you unaware of the language of plumb lines and stretching out tents etc. that is used of Creation in the Bible?

If the universe were not first “designed”, it could not possibly have been “created”.  Unless you think that God creates blindly.  God plans what he wants.  Have you not read Genesis 1?

Rich - #13380

May 12th 2010


Re 13372, I’ve already answered that question.  But you’re not understanding the logical sequence of ideas.  You can’t infer a Creator unless you are inferring a combination of Mind and Maker.  And how did you get to Mind?  By spotting the design.  Your inference to the Creator implies a design inference.  Unless you mean by a Creator, just something that generated the sheer matter and energy of the universe, orderly or not.  But that’s not what’s normally meant by a Creator.  The notion of intelligence is implied in the term “Creator”.  And I don’t see how on earth you are going to be able to infer intelligence without some form of design argument.  If you can find another way, let me know.

You are like the TEs in that you are reading far too much into “design”.  It’s become some sort of taboo term for you.  Just take it in its common-sense, non-academic meaning.  In that sense, the God of the Bible and of all orthodox Christian theology is a designer.  More than a designer, certainly.  But a designer still.  The text and tradition are unambiguous.  Let’s move on to new threads.  Thanks for the discussion.

Gregory - #13393

May 12th 2010

Sorry, Rich, but I’m not gonna let you off the hook. I don’t think you do know much about the power of grammar wrt communicating about ‘intelligent + design’. Your impolite mockery doesn’t sway me.

You are one of few defending ‘design’ at BioLogos; face the music.

“how did you get to Mind?  By spotting the design.” - Rich

No, the Mind comes before/with the composing, creating, writing, or ‘designing.’ How do you ‘know,’ Rich that ‘design’ comes *first* before ‘creation,’ when speaking about divine action? Highly presumptuous (just as you accuse TEs)!

Have you studied ‘creativity’ in human beings and then by analogy (i.e. made imago Dei) refer creation to God?

“‘Creation’ is more than ‘design’.” - Rich


“By calling God a designer I’m certainly not “lessening” God” - Rich

Well, I say you are. What does *your* Pastor, Minister, Priest, Rabbi or Imam say?

“Your inference to the Creator implies a design inference.” - Rich

No, it doesn’t. I am not design-centric. I am not a design detective.

Gregory - #13395

May 12th 2010

In striving for as yet unreached clarity here, Rich, are you saying that an eye, a lung, and a whale (favorites in your anti-Darwinian evolution campaign) are *not* created, but that they *are* designed?

Whether or not they *are* designed, in your view, this question remains:
What are examples of things that *are* ‘designed’ but that are *not* ‘created’?
What are examples of things that *are* ‘created’ but that are *not* ‘designed’?

I.e. God ‘created’ something A, but didn’t design it and God designed something B, but didn’t create it.

Help me out please because I’ve not seen this question addressed by an IDist.

Again: what do you need that extra word (i.e. design in addition to creation) for?

“I did not say that “designed” and “created” are synonymous.” - Rich

You claim this is extremely simple & the two terms aren’t synonymous. Well, that’s what I’m asking. Speak to me as a simpleton (who has of course read Genesis 1).

Trevor K. - #13409

May 13th 2010

Somehow I’m confused about evolution: does the theory postulate that there was a single ancestor and hence try to prove that by looking for evidence or does it actually assume that there was one and hence it derives that all other forms of life descended from that one?

It’s not so clear to me anymore. Perhaps someone would like to help me out. Reading goggled websites doesn’t clarify that issue for me.

HornSpiel - #13590

May 14th 2010


I think the first is closer.  Evolution hypothesizes that there was one ancestor, otherwise known as common descent. Scientists looked for evidence to either prove or disprove that hypothesis.They found the evidence supported the hypothesis strongly and developed a theory of evolution that explains many things about biology: everything form the distribution of animals on the planet to the distribution of genes in the cells of those animals. It is a very useful and successful theory.

Hope this helps.

Gregory - #13683

May 14th 2010

Hi Hornspiel,

From the previous comments you made here to me, perhaps you might want to go a bit farther with your view that evolution “is a very useful and successful theory” viewpoint.

That is, you were arguing that “language evolves”, while I countered that this is not a necessary use of “evolution” as/in a “scientific paradigm” (only now I add the paradigm word).

In other words, you seem to think that not only *natural-physical* things can be said to “evolve”, but also human-made things, such as language, and then of course, technologies and social systems too. Or am I wrong in drawing this conclusion?

So, to answer Trevor´s question a bit more carefully, one might want to say that a “single ancestor” is merely one aspect of the/an evolutionary paradigm in the natural-physical sciences. It involves natural history, particularly the origins of life, which is a highly speculative “subfield”, much less “exact” than physics or mathematics. Darwin, at the end of first edition of OoS, suggested more than one “form” was “breathed into” by the Creator. Of course, in later editions he changed this position.

Rich - #13742

May 14th 2010

Hornspiel, Trevor, Gregory:

Two factual corrections:

1.  The “Creator” isn’t mentioned at the end of the first edition of the *Origin*.

2.  In both the first and the sixth (final) editions the text reads

“...originally breathed ... into a few forms or into one”

Also, it’s worth noting that while many later neo-Darwinians tended to argue for one evolutionary tree going back to a single first life-form, many evolutionary biologists (and not just ID proponents) now think that the “single tree of life” model is no longer credible.

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