Science and the Bible: Intelligent Design, Part 2

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

William Blake, “The Ancient of Days” (1794), British Museum

Last time, I introduced the term Intelligent Design for this setting and began with the first Core Tenet of that perspective as it is commonly found today. In this post, we’ll identify the other Core Tenets.

(2) The whole universe itself, and some of the objects that compose it (both living and nonliving), exhibit abundant evidence of having been “designed” by an “intelligent designer”; they are NOT products of “blind chance.”

Keep in mind the basic idea of ID, “that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”Design theorists believe that, by analyzing the components of a system, they can determine “whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof.” Dembski has developed an “explanatory filter” for detecting “design” when we find “specified complexity,” enormously improbable events that fit a specific pattern. Such things cannot be accounted for by chance and law alone, or chance and law working together.




I lack sufficient expertise in both mathematics and philosophy to evaluate the finer points of Dembski’s scheme. Some critics dismiss him as a crank, but I dismiss that as ideological bias. Others have complained that Cambridge University Press should never have published his book, The Design Inference, despite the fact that it went successfully through peer review with one of the top academic presses. At the same time, I’m a bit skeptical toward those who think he has decisively demonstrated the validity of his “filter.” A leading Christian philosopher of science who is fully qualified to evaluate it, Robin Collins, stated his reservations in a review article he wrotefor Christian Scholar's Review in 2001. Dembski replied in the same issue.

Dembski’s filter exemplifies the general case for inferring design by identifying aspects of nature that exhibit what he calls “specified complexity,” patterns that contain specific information and are too complex to have been formed simply by accident. Specific instances of design have been proposed by others, starting with a book written several years before Dembski’s. I refer to what I regard as the first ID book, even though the ID movement per se did not yet exist: The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories, by Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olson (1984). (You can download the whole book here.)

Parts of The Mystery of Life’s Origin are highly technical, but the overall argument is clear from the concluding chapter and the very important “Epilogue” that follows, and which I invite readers to summarize in the comments if they wish. Basically, the authors argue that we just don’t know very much about the origin of life, that we need to reassess current ideas, and that a design principle might be needed if we want a better answer. The tone and content of this book elevate it over most other pro-ID works (or most anti-ID works, for that matter), in my opinion, but some critics still dismiss it as nothing more than religious propaganda—even though it was published by a respected secular press and the authors are respectful (while still critical) of philosophical approaches that differ from theirs. As I said, politics dogs this conversation at every turn.

Interestingly, the authors speak explicitly and often about “God” and “special creation” throughout the “Epilogue.” As I say, they were writing before Johnson’s strategy of avoiding all explicitly religious language was implemented. No less significant, they also appeal to the distinction between “operation science,” in which (they say) “the appeal to God is quite illegitimate,” and “origin science,” in which they clearly believe that “Special Creation [should not be] so summarily dismissed by nearly all writers.” (pp. 203 and 206) This is precisely the distinction invoked so often by advocates of the YEC view, who use it to keep Galileo out of the garden of Eden. Although I used different terminology in that earlier column, where I spoke about “the distinction between fields of science that are sometimes called ‘historical sciences,’ and other fields that are sometimes called ‘experimental sciences’,” I meant the very same thing. To the best of my knowledge, none of the three authors of this book is a YEC, but the fact that they draw this identical distinction only underscores my point (which I will develop further next time) that sometimes it can be awfully hard to separate ID from the YEC view—something that must happen, in my opinion, if ID really wants to distinguish itself from the kind of “creationism” that courts have kept out of public school science classes.

ID proponents also find evidence for design in the “fine tuning” of the whole universe— a concept whose main idea I explained in my column on John Polkinghorne and TE. For an accessible paper on this topic, see this by philosopher William Lane Craig. “Fine tuning” is a place where ID and TE come together, except that we must keep in mind the subtle differences in attitude that I’ve already pointed out: Polkinghorne and other advocates of TE tend to see design arguments as metaphysical, not scientific. I don’t think this is simply a distinction without a difference, and there are also discernible differences in tone. Nevertheless, the same evidence is used by TEs and IDs to draw a similar conclusion: our universe—the only one we can observe, the only one actually known to exist in reality rather than merely on paper—looks pretty special.

The bacterial flagellum as cellular machinery. (Source)

Perhaps the most famous specific instance of “design” offered by ID proponents is the complexity of the machinery found inside cells, especially the bacterial flagellum, the biological equivalent of an outboard motor. Biochemist Michael Behe made this wondrous little machine the poster child for ID in his first book, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. Behe claims that certain features of the flagellum exhibit what he calls “irreducible complexity,” meaning that they are just too complex to have been formed from simpler components by an unguided, unplanned process such as Darwinian evolution. Behe puts it this way:

“By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.” (p. 39)

This idea is no less controversial than Dembski’s. Anyone wanting to read a few opinions about it will find far more than they asked for by using a search engine. BioLogos Senior Fellow Dennis Venema has previously written a series on the concept for this site, and is now re-examining it in light of recent studies of bacterial evolution.

Underlying cellular complexity, of course, is information in the genome, and that is just where philosopher of science Stephen Meyer finds much evidence for “design.” His recent book, Signature in the Cell, argues the case at length and in detail. For an exchange between Meyer and Venema about this book, see here and here. Several years ago, Meyer advanced the idea that the “Cambrian explosion” was the “big bang of biology,” an event from which one could also draw a design inference. He did this in some articles and in a film called “Darwin’s Dilemma” that questions the ability of evolution to account for the geologically rather sudden appearance of many new animal phyla at the start of the Cambrian period.

(3) The age of the earth and the universe, the effects of the flood, whether the Bible rules out common ancestry of humans and other animals, whether there was animal death prior to the Fall—all of these are legitimate subjects to debate; but that conversation can happen later, after the existence of an “intelligent designer” has been more widely accepted in the academic establishment.

This isn’t really adding another tenet to the ID program, but I want to make sure we’re all on the same page. Because biblical and theological topics are officially outside of the scope of ID, all of the topics I just identified—which we discussed in earlier columns about the other views of science and the Bible—are not actually part of the ID view. In other words, several of the big questions that separate YECs from OECs and OECs from TEs are left open within ID. Like many other aspects of ID, this one is also “political,” but in the broader sense of balancing competing social and intellectual constituencies, rather than avoiding legal entanglements on account of the U.S. Constitution. ID is a “big tent” in which, at least in principle, proponents of YEC and OEC and TE can co-exist in a common front against doubters of design, while leaving divisive theological and biblical subjects for another time. Philosopher Paul Nelson, one of a few YECs with a highly visible role in the ID movement, offers an interesting insider’s view in “Life in the Big Tent: Traditional Creatonism and the Intelligent Design Community.”

I’ll have more to say about the “Big Tent” in a future column. For now, the first goal of ID is get the idea of transcendental design back on the table for serious discussion in academic circles. The rest can come later.

Looking Ahead

I’ll be back in about two weeks, to present one more Core Tenet of ID, dealing with the idea of “methodological naturalism,” the legitimacy of which is hotly contested by ID advocates, and to discuss some conclusions we might draw about ID.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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