Intelligent or Divine Design?

The appearance of design suggests a designer. But how can we define the appearance of design? William Dembski, one of the founders of the Intelligent Design movement (ID), has subjected this question to some rigorous statistical treatment, with the intention of showing that biological creatures fit the definition of designed objects and therefore were specifically designed.

I don’t think there can be much argument with the idea that biological entities show evidence of design. Darwinian theory of natural selection agrees that all living creatures appear to be designed, and provides a mechanism for how this design appearance came to be.

The ID argument goes that if the probability of such characteristics arising without any intentional (or intelligent) input is sufficiently low, then it will have been proven that some form of design that does not use chance processes must have been involved. If you find a sandcastle on a beach, it is safe to presume that the structure was designed and built by some form of intelligence, simply because the alternative, that the windblown sand formed what we recognize as a sandcastle by chance, seems to be impossible. (Now we know that in fact it isn’t impossible, but the probability of this happening is extremely small, and therefore it is as good as impossible.)


The difference between the sandcastle example (and its relatives, like the famous tornado blowing through the junk yard and building a 747 airplane) and Darwinian evolution is that with evolution, chance is only involved in the first step, the production of genetic variation. The enormous power of natural selection (as described by Dawkins in Climbing Mount Improbable) can indeed allow unexpected, very low-probability events to happen. But ID does have a valid point in focusing on the genetic variation part. Selection needs to have something to select. And it is not always clear how some biological structures or functions arose from previous forms simply by blind mutational chance. Some of the newer ideas in evolutionary theory (see previous posts on the EES) might go a long way to explaining this. In fact, the ID proponent Michael Denton acknowledges this in his latest book (see previous post on my review of the book at Biologos). So some parts of the ID worldview are not without merit.

In fact, and I don’t know if ID folks have used this argument, there is no question that ID exists in the world and has played a role in evolution. Nobody argues with this, and Darwin used it as the basis of his theory. Yes, I am talking about selective breeding for a purpose, and the intelligent agent in this case is us. We deliberately designed wine grapes, seedless watermelons, tasty tomatoes, faithful dogs, docile cattle, and so on. We haven’t created new species this way, nor whole new body plans, but we haven’t really tried to do that. With new genetic engineering techniques, we might get there. And of course, if we are believers, we know that whatever we can do, God can certainly do. But did He?

I think the real problem with ID is theological. It makes two assumptions about the nature of God that I believe are contrary to Christian (and other religious) thought. The first is that the existence and majesty of God as creator of everything is subject to scientific proof. I think that is a theological and scientific fallacy. The fact that ID has failed to convince most scientists that it has proven the existence of God is therefore beside the point, because such proof should in fact be impossible.

The second theological quarrel is with the nature of God as pictured by ID. If you found a complex watch, you could assume that the maker and designer of the watch was an intelligent human being, and you would be right. But suppose what you found was a rabbit. Paley didn’t know much about biology, not even a fraction of what we know today. But even in his day it was known that rabbits reproduce themselves, react to their environment, grow, consume food, and undergo very complex metabolic chemical reactions.

A rabbit makes a watch look pretty simple. Certainly no human, no matter how intelligent, could design a rabbit. I agree that life is designed. But by calling this design “intelligent”, the way a human designer of watches or computers or aircraft is intelligent, we demean its nature. The more we learn about life, the more we understand that the design of life is far more than that. Life was designed by the creator. It is divine design, not intelligent design, and the mechanisms by which life was designed and created are not currently within our ability to understand.

I don’t know if we will ever get there, but I do think it is worth trying to find pointers to the actions of the living God, because doing so will help us reconcile our faith with the truths that we learn about the universe using scientific tools. But not to prove the existence or creativity of God. That is not provable, and needs no proof. We start with the premise that God exists and created the universe, and that His presence is real in the world and in our lives.


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5 Responses to Intelligent or Divine Design?

  1. Jon Garvey says:


    It’s worth pointing out that “Intelligent Design” as a term did not arise in a vacuum, in order to address the mental nature of God. To quote William Dembski in a recent interview:

    The reason we put the adjective “intelligent” in front of the noun “design” is not to stress that the design we find in nature is optimal or good or morally acceptable. Rather, it is to underscore that the design we find in biology and in the universe more generally is actual. Richard Dawkins opens his book The Blind Watchmaker by stating “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”

    For Darwinian biologists, all such design is merely an appearance. The “intelligent” in “intelligent design” underscores that we’re not just dealing with an appearance of design, but rather with actual design.

    In fact, the contrast between specifically unintelligent processes and intelligent direction goes back at least as far as Alfred Russell Wallace, who wrote:

    “I cannot comprehend how any just and unprejudiced mind, fully aware of this amazing activity, can persuade itself to believe that the whole thing is a blind and unintelligent accident. It may not be possible for us to say how the guidance is exercised, and by exactly what powers; but for those who have eyes to see and minds accustomed to reflect, in the minutest cells, in the blood, in the whole earth, and throughout the stellar universe–our own little universe, as one may call it–there is intelligent and conscious direction; in a word, there is Mind.”

    When those like Dawkins have hi-jacked the word “design” (as in “design without a designer”), what qualifying adjective would be better? Do we really have so little intuition about the purposeful teleology in nature that we can’t recognise it as “designed with wisdom” rather than “designed only in appearance”?

  2. Jon, Yes, I understand the original purpose of using intelligent to suggest actual design, and I agree that there is real teleology in evolution. (I am trying, not very successfully, to get something about that published). My preference for the use of “divine” instead of “intelligent” in no way detracts from the idea that the design is real and not only apparent, in fact I believe it is more specific in labeling what we all actually believe the Designer to be – a divinity. The problem with the use of “intelligent” (and I believe with the entire ID strategy) is that it brings the concept of teleological evolution down to a material naturalist perspective, and away from the mysteries of divine providence. And in that realm of current scientific activity, it fails, as it is bound to. The whole idea of “proving” that evolution cannot account for any part of life’s ultimate design, (which is the position of what I believe is a steadily decreasing percentage of ID folks) is simply counter productive. Behe, Denton, and a few others, I think have taken a different path, and started to look for teleology within the evolutionary framework, something firmly rejected by Dawkins, but which I believe is the truth.

    I know that there are some ECs, (over at our favorite EC site) who strongly resist even the notion of real design or providential evolution (the title of my next post) including as applied to origin of life issues. (see the discussion on Dennis Venema’s recent post with Dennis, Paul Nelson and Jeff Schloss and myself). I am not in that camp, as you know. I think that some shifting of positions is going on, certainly in ID, and perhaps also in EC, although we probably need to push a bit more in the latter case.

  3. camelhump says:


    I think the real target of ID has always been “undirected” evolution, rather than evolution itself, though the situation is complicated by the fact that that camp includes YECs and OECs as well as those like Behe whom we would call (if speaking accurately) theistic evolutionists.

    Dembski is an OEC (he says his friends consider him more conservative theologically and politically than Attila the Hun!), but in the interview I cited (or another recent one – I looked at two today) he was saying that he found himself ostracised by the Fundamentalists because he wrote on how his views would be applicable in a theistic evolution setting. Dembski has been hammered by the secularists, the Fundamentalists AND the TEs (and been effectively fired by Christian academic institutions both for and against evolution). I like him.

    I left another quote for you on “our favourite EC site”, since Paul Nelson hasn’t turned up to reply, showing that Demsbki, at least, has always been clear that “design” cuts right across the materialistic naturalism paradigm and is equally relevant to internal teleology and external. Needless to say, my post was infested with fruit flies when I returned to it this evening…

    By the way, if this comment is even less lucid than usual my excuse is that I had a gruelling band rehearsal this afternoon (first gig on 23rd!) and have had a pint of excellent Devon cider to recuperate!

  4. I think it would take a great deal more than a mere pint to reduce your level of lucidity to the point where I could even begin to recognize any change. I will bring myself to check out the fruit flies (and your comment) as soon as I feel sufficiently steeled (without any help from beverages, Im afraid) to do so.

  5. Jon Garvey says:

    Will reduce a bottle of Dabinett single variety to an info stream an e-mail it to you…

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