101 Intelligent Design

  During the past decade, a committed corps of brilliant scholars has launched a powerful attack upon philosophical naturalism, “the intellectual pathology of our age” (p. 120) shaped by the reductionistic rationalism of Enlightenment which has dominated the West for more than a century. One of the brightest of them, William A. Dembski, presents his perspective in Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1999), a popularization of his more demanding, scholarly treatise, The Design Inference, published by Cambridge University Press in 1998. Dembski has earned degrees in psychology and theology as well as a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois. Even when simplifying his case, for general readers, he stretches our minds!

Trying to understand the world, he says, we have only “two options: Either the world derives its order form a source outside itself (a la creation) or it possesses whatever order it has intrinsically, that is, without the order being imparted from outside” (p. 99). Asking “Whence cometh the order of the world? is one of the most important questions we can ever ask” (p. 99). Naturalism denies any non-natural reason for the world’s order. If there’s a God, He’s uninvolved with the ordering of the cosmos. This naturalism, theoretically shaped by philosophers such as Spinoza, then embraced by theologians such as Schleiermacher, finally triumphed, Dembski says, when Darwin effectively discarded “design” as intrinsic to biology. Yet his heirs, such as Richard Dawkins, admit that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose'” (p. 125), and Francis Crick warns: “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved'” (p. 125).

Naturalism will collapse, however, because we now understand what Darwin never imagined: information structures everything, especially living creatures, and “the only coherent account of information is design” (p. 15). Information simply cannot arise from brute atoms-in-motion. In fact, as he explains with his “Law of the Conservation of Information,” we find more, not less, information, as we retrace the history of various organisms. Consequently, as we study the complexity of living creatures, “the aboiotic infusion of exogenous information,” amply evident in the DNA and intricate workings of tiny cells, “is the great mystery confronting modern evolutionary biology” (p. 179). Given this impasse, there’s a good answer, for “design” and “information theory” easily link up, for “To infer design by means of the complexity- specification criteria … is equivalent to detecting complex specified information” (p. 160).

Ironically, what Darwin and “modern” thinkers ignored had been carefully delineated by “premodern” scholars. “Unlike modernity, premodernity never embraced a world where everything proceeds by natural laws. Premodernity always maintained that the natural causes described by natural laws were fundamentally incomplete and that intelligent causes had free play in the world as well. Aristotle referred to intelligent causes as ‘final causes,’ Augustine as ‘voluntary causes,’ Moses Maimonides as just that (i.e., ‘intelligent causes’), and twentieth century theologians like Austin Farrer as ‘intentional causes.’ Within the premodern worldview, natural and intelligent causes operate in tandem, with neither reducible to the other” (p. 46).

What premoderns understood was the “logic of signs,” a logic Dembski intends to make “rigorous” with the assistance of prescient philosophers such as Charles Saunders Peirce. Such a “reformulation of the premodern logic of signs is precisely what intelligent design is all about. Intelligent design is the systematic study of intelligent causes and specifically of the effects they leave behind” (p. 47). We intuitively know that something which is both “complex and specified” is designed. A great poems, unlike a pile of scrabble letters tossed on the floor, is both complex and specified, bearing witness to its author. Probability theory makes it clear that “the universe will experience heat death before random typing at a keyboard produces a Shakespearean sonnet” (p. 166). Various sciences, such as cryptanalysis (breaking down “secret codes”) and archeology and forensics, draw similarly clear distinctions between accidents and design.

Reviving this way of thinking “promises to reinvigorate that ethical stream running from Aristotle through Aquinas known as natural law” (p. 151). Reductionistic thinking, “eschewing design, science has for too long operated with an inadequate set of conceptual categories. This has led to a constricted vision of reality, skewing how science understands not just the world but also ourselves. Evolutionary psychology, which justifies everything from infanticide to adultery, is just one symptom of this inadequate conception of science. Barring design from science distorts science, making it a mouthpiece of materialism instead of a search for truth” (p. 151).

More theologically, Dembski proposes a Christological vision integrating all that is. The Christian understanding of the Eternal Word who created all things, designing a world we can understand, provides a “mutual support theory” which provides a bridge between science and theology. Communication theory, especially, helps us here, for it studies “the information that passes between entities. Information in turn is just another name for logos” (p. 233). “Human language,” consequently, “is a divine gift for helping us to understand that world and by understanding the world to understand God himself” (p. 230). “We are creatures made in the divine image. Human language is therefore a divine gift that mirrors the divine Logos” (p. 230).

Intelligent Design develops a powerful case in a readable manner. Few recent treatises more clearly demonstrate the need for a more coherent worldview and then provides one!


Michael J. Denton, Senior Research Fellow in Human Molecular Genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, has published a fascinating work, Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe (New York: The Free Press, c. 1998). “The aim of this book is,” he says, “first, to present the scientific evidence for believing that the cosmos is uniquely fit for life as it exists on earth and for organisms of design and biology very similar to our own species, Homo sapiens and second, to argue that this ‘unique fitness of the laws of nature for life is entirely consistent with the older teleological religious concept of the cosmos as a specially designed whole, with life and mankind as its primary goal and purpose” (p. xi).

To accomplish his aim, Denton amasses an enormous amount of evidence, from the composition of water and light and carbon to the suitability of the atmosphere’s gasses, to the biocentric dimensions of the periodic table, to the rate of radioactive decay deep in the heart of the earth, to the cycles of techtonic plates, to the intricacy of photosynthesis and oxidation and cells and eyes. Fortuitous “coincidences” making life possible abound–coincidence within coincidence upon coincidence. As the noted physicist Freeman Dyson said: “As we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together for our benefit, it almost seems as if the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming” (p. 103). More reasonably, with Denton, one ventures to conclude that purpose and design make more sense than multiplied millions of “just right” coincidences! While I laud the scientific precision and documentation of this treatise, my deepest reaction while reading the book was simple wonder! How wonderful is our world! How unimaginably well-ordered, how simply beautiful is all of creation! So, though Denton focuses on the intricacies of science, he moved me to worship. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth His handiwork!”

As Denton explains it, most everything in the cosmos is “just right.” From its inception, with the “Big Bang” most cosmologists now accept as demonstrable, the universe has unfolded according to clearly defined principles. And it all seems designed to bring forth living creatures on planet earth! The “anthropic vision” now embraced by many physicists, of course, runs counter to the Darwinian dogma of chance-driven “natural selection.” Something must give, and Denton believes the Darwinian dogma cannot long endure. “The evidence provided by modern cosmology and physics,” ironically, “is exactly the kind of evidence that the natural theologians were looking for in the seventeenth century but failed to find in the science of their day” (p. 15).

Today’s science, however, provides such evidence. Looking at such things as “the regeneration of a protozoan through a microscope,” Denton says, evokes “an almost metaphysical awe at the wonder of the process” (p. 148). Everywhere we turn we find marvels within marvels. The designing capacity of DNA, to give one example, would make it possible for all the “information necessary to specify the design of all the organisms which have ever existed on the planet,” something in the neighborhood of 1 billion, to “easily be compacted into an object the size of a grain of salt!” (p. 154). With clarity and precision, Denton helps readers understand how genes structure living creatures, how “information” is transmitted and shapes the living world.

Denton further examines the “nanomanipulators”–the proteins (whose chemical bonds are sustained by the weak and strong atomic forces) which resemble complex factories, tiny “microminiaturized machines” (p. 184). Even more impressive are cells! “Even the smallest, simplest cells dazzle us with their abilities” (p. 226). Their various components and properties are powerfully evident in our brains, leading some scholars to suggest that “each neuron” in the brain resembles “a minicomputer with computing power equivalent to that of an IBM desktop computer” (p. 229). Far more mysterious than the cell, or even the brain, of course, is man. Denton examines such unique human attributes as high intelligence, language, vision, the hand, the ability to use fire, intricate nerve-guided muscles, etc. We are, truth to tell, wonders to behold! To conclude we are what we are by design, not as a result of a series of unlikely “coincidences,” simply makes good sense.

To explain how all this came about, Denton espouses a version of “directed evolution,” rejecting the “natural selection” hypothesis which dominates modern biological studies. He argues that there is purpose, teleology, shaping the development of life on earth. Thus he freely embraces the concept of “evolution,” but he sees it as a result of established natural laws which guide the emergence of all that is, “a perfectly natural phenomenon; the inevitable unfolding of a preordained pattern, written into the laws of nature from the beginning” (p. 282). While he supports “natural theology,” he appears to be much more of a Deist than a Theist. Natural laws, imprinted at the beginning, adequately explain the cosmos.

Concluding his presentation, Denton says: “As the eerie illumination of science penetrates ever more deeply into the order of nature, the cosmos appears increasingly to be a vast system finely tuned to generate life and organism of biology very similar, perhaps identical, to ourselves. All the evidence available in the biological sciences supports the core proposition of traditional natural theology–that the cosmos is a specially designed whole with life and mankind as its fundamental goal and purpose, a whole in which all facets of reality, from the size of galaxies to the thermal capacity of water, have their meaning and explanation in this central fact” (p. 389). Still more: “As I hope the evidence of this book has shown, science, which as been for centuries the great ally of atheism and skepticism, has become at last, in these final days of the second millennium, what Newton and many of its early advocates had so fervently wished–the ‘defender of the anthropocentric faith'” (p. 389).


Adding another dimension to the “design” discussion, two University of Washington scientists, Peter D. Ward, a professor of geological sciences, and Donald Brownlee, a professor of astronomy, have published Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (New York: Copernicus, c. 2000). Drawing upon findings from a relatively new scientific discipline, Astrobiology, they formulate their “rare earth hypothesis,” arguing ” that not only intelligent life, but even the simplest of animal life, is exceedingly rare in our galaxy and in the Universe. We are not saying that life is rare–only that animal life is” (p. xiv).

Animal life, importantly, appeared suddenly, not as a result of the gradual, incremental steps Darwinians favor. Such life, the best data indicate, “does not progress toward complexity in a linear fashion but does so in jumps, or as a series of thresholds” (p. xx). Through “fits and starts, experiments and failures” life has prevailed. Such events, apparently, can occur only within narrow limits. So, as in real estate markets, “location” proves decisive. Earth is blessed by a unique “habitable zone,” evident in such facts as this: “Earth would have experienced runaway glaciation if it had formed 1 % farther from the sun and would have experienced runaway greenhouse heating if it had formed 5 % closer to the sun” (p. 18). As it is, it’s just right! So too our sun, which happens to be in a nicely “habitable zone” of the galaxy. The sun also, strangely enough, has “about 25 % more heavy elements than typical nearby stars of similar mass” (p. 42). This has provided earth with the elements (nitrogen, carbon, etc.) necessary for a living planet.

On earth, life first appeared, the authors insist, as “extremophile” microbes deep in lightless ocean depths, near volcanic vents. This position, contradicting the long-held notion that early cells developed in shallow, sun-lit tidewater regions, has gained increased acceptance in the 1990s. The oft-printed “tree of life” has been substantially revised! Indeed, the authors suggest, it may very well have been uprooted and burned by new studies! For two billion years or so, nothing but microbes lived on earth. Then, very rapidly, other living creatures “evolved.” The chasm separating simple bacteria and complex animals such as flatworms “is immense. The number of genes in a bacterium can be measured in the thousands, whereas the genes in a large animal number in the millions” (p. 84). It’s akin to the size and organization which differentiate a “toy wooden sailboat” from a large ocean liner.

The sudden appearance of animals, of course, took place during a few million years of the Cambrian Era. Here all of the animal phyla, with their unique designs, “either evolved or first appear in the fossil record” (p. 125), and no new phyla have appeared since that incredibly brief slice of time. Some think it all happened in 5-10 million explosive years! “Suddenly, as though by magic, an abundance” of living creatures proliferated. The oldest fossils, the trilobites, rest “atop thick sequences of strata apparently devoid of fossils. This observation suggests that animals of staggering complexity appeared on Earth without evolutionary precursors” (p. 128). Consequently: “If the Cambrian Explosion was necessary for animals to become so diverse on the planet, and if the inertial interchange event occurred as postulated, and if the Cambrian IIE event contributed to the Cambrian Explosion or even somehow was required for the Cambrian Explosion to take place, then Earth as a habitat for diverse animal life is rare indeed” (p. 147).

Earth’s habitat, the authors show, has been shaped by a marvelous mix of factors. They celebrate the marvels of water, of plate techtonics (one of the most important factors sustaining life), of the delicate way whereby earth’s “thermostat” regulates her temperatures, of the magnetic field which repels harmful cosmic rays. The moon, most unusual in many ways, sustains earth’s unusual tilt, rotation, and ocean tides. “Without the moon,” we learn, “it is also likely that no birds, redwoods, whales, trilobites, or other advanced life would ever have graced Earth” (p. 222). Then there’s Jupiter, another unique factor in our planetary system–a giant asteroid “catcher” which protects us from the continuous stream of deadly objects drifting through the cosmos. Everywhere we look, we find reasons to belief our earth is really rare!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *