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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

The Nature of the Designer

Post of the Month: December 2002

by Mike Dunford

Subject:    Re: A Definitive explanation of why 
		secularists are wrong about Int...
Date:       December 5, 2002
Message-ID: Xns92DA9345A17C2mikedunford@ wrote in

> It seems to me that this tactic of not drawing the inference
> knowingly leads them to a conclusion of nothing new to say
> (about the designer). Did they make a disclaimer about this? If
> not, I think it's trickery too.

To my knowledge, they have not made any statements detailing why they believe their "theory" can say nothing about the nature of the designer. In general, their tactic has been to make that assertion loudly and frequently, and hope that it goes unquestioned.

Here's one example:

Within biology, intelligent design holds that a designing intelligence is indispensable for explaining the specified complexity of living systems. Nevertheless, taken strictly as a scientific theory, intelligent design refuses to speculate about the nature of this designing intelligence. Whereas optimal design demands a perfectionistic, anal-retentive designer who has to get everything just right, intelligent design fits our ordinary experience of design, which is always conditioned by the needs of a situation and therefore always falls short of some idealized global optimum. (Dembski, 2000)

Notice that while Dembski states that "intelligent design refuses to speculate about the nature of this designing intelligence", he provides no reason, no justification for this refusal. In every other science where we identify design, such "speculation" is a major, massive part of the effort. Scientists do not, for example, refuse to speculate about the nature of the "designer" when they find the ancient, well dressed remains of a dead girl preserved in an archaeological site high up an Andes Mountain. Instead, they "speculate" that she was probably sacrificed to the mountain gods of the Incan culture. (for more information on this, see If the designer that Dembski and others claim to see in biology is truly unknown, why shouldn't we use the very evidence (they claim) leads us to conclude that a designer is the cause to make conclusions regarding the nature of this "designer"? Dembski's answer is somewhat revealing.

Dembski continues:

The success of the suboptimality objection comes not from science at all, but from shifting the terms of the discussion from science to theology. In place of How specifically can an existing structure be improved? the question instead becomes What sort of God would create a structure like that?...The problem of suboptimal design is thus transformed into the problem of evil.... Critics who invoke the problem of evil against design have left science behind and entered the waters of philosophy and theology. A torture chamber replete with implements of torture is designed, and the evil of its designer does nothing to undercut the torture chamber's design. The existence of design is distinct from the morality, aesthetics, goodness, optimality, or perfection of design. Moreover, there are reliable indicators of design that work irrespective of whether design includes these additional features (cf. my previous posts to META).

Notice Dembski's tactic here. The problem of evil, he now claims, is a theological one, not a scientific one. But how does he know this? Dembski is one of the people in the ID movement who has been most vocal about claiming that "space aliens" could have been the designer, and that they are not making any assumptions about the designer (see, for example, Hall, 2002). If he is sincere about that, why would he call the question one of "philosophy or theology"? In principle, shouldn't we proceed from the identification of design in biology just as was done with the identification of design at the Incan sacrifice site I referred to above?

There is something that I should make explicitly clear at this point. Dembski's argument in the article I am quoting from is directed toward those who claim that the fact that the "design" is "evil" or "suboptimal" indicates that there is no actual design. That is not my argument here. In fact, at least to a limited extent, I agree with Dembski that the presence of "suboptimal" or "evil" design does not in and of itself argue against the presence of a designer (it does not necessarily argue for one, either, of course). My point is a bit more basic: if the advocates of "Intelligent Design" are sincere in their statements that they are not committed to any particular "designer", what possible scientific reason could there be for refusing to make inferences about the "designer" from the "designed"?

Reading the conclusion of Dembski's article, the answer becomes all too clear:

  One looks at some biological structure and remarks, "Gee, that sure looks evil." Did it start out evil? Was that its function when a good and all-powerful God created it? Objects invented for good purposes are regularly co-opted and used for evil purposes. Drugs that were meant to alleviate pain become sources of addiction. Knives that were meant to cut bread become implements for killing people. Political powers that were meant to maintain law and order become the means for enslaving citizens.
  This is a fallen world. The good that God initially intended is no longer fully in evidence. Much has been perverted. Dysteleology, the perversion of design in nature, is a reality. It is evident all around us. But how do we explain it? The scientific naturalist explains dysteleology by claiming that the design in nature is only apparent, that it arose through mutation and natural selection (or some other natural mechanism), and that imperfection, cruelty, and waste are fully to be expected from such mechanisms. But such mechanisms cannot explain the complex, information-rich structures in nature that signal actual and not merely apparent design--that is, intelligent design.
  The design in nature is actual. More often than we would like, that design has gotten perverted. But the perversion of design--dysteleology--is not explained by denying design, but by accepting it and meeting the problem of evil head on. The problem of evil is a theological problem. To force a resolution of the problem by reducing all design to apparent design is an evasion. It avoids both the scientific challenge posed by specified complexity, and it avoids the hard work of faith, whose job is to discern God's hand in creation despite the occlusions of evil.

Clearly, Dembski does have a firm commitment to a particular designer. He is so firmly committed, in fact, that he is refusing to consider the possibility that any other possible "designer" is involved, no matter what comments he might make in public about "space aliens". Unfortunately, he is so committed to his particular designer that he misses a massive, fundamental flaw in his claim that the "problem of evil" is a theological one.

The "problem of evil" is only a theological problem if you presume a priori the presence of a benevolent, all-powerful God. In fact, it is a theological problem because it appears to argue against the existence of such a benevolent deity. If we make no presumptions about the nature of the designer, then the presence of what Dembski calls "dysteleology" is not a "problem", nor is it evidence of a "perversion of design", nor of a "fallen world". Instead, it is simply one piece of evidence which could potentially help to identify the nature and motives of the designer. The only reason not to draw inferences is if you are attempting to insulate your own particular theological beliefs from the conclusions.

If we have no preconceived conclusions about who is responsible for the "intelligent designer", what would we conclude from our observations of nature? We observe, in nature, a great deal of activity that most of us find to be distasteful, repulsive, and cruel. If we conclude that living organisms are designed, and we know that some of these organisms reproduce by laying eggs within a living organism, so that their newly-hatched young can quite literally eat the helpless creature from the inside out, how can we infer that the designer of this system is a kind and benevolent one? That is the "problem of design" -- if you look at nature without faith that it is the product of an all-powerful and kind deity, it is difficult (perhaps impossible) to conclude that it is.

So, to (finally) answer your question, I think that their refusal to "speculate" or "draw inferences" about the nature of the designer is nothing more than trickery. It is a tactic that is clearly designed to insulate their Christian beliefs from the possible consequences of what they claim is a scientific investigation of design in nature. It makes a mockery out of both their claim to have no particular designer in mind and their claim that they are simply following the scientific evidence where it leads -- especially that second one.

> Their motives aside, is their intent then only to demonstrate
> intelligent design?

That depends, I suppose, on how you make the distinction between "motives" and "intent". In front of school boards, or in the media, you do tend to find the major proponents of "Intelligent Design" claiming essentially that their intent is only to demonstrate design (see, again, Hall, 2002). Dembski, for example, usually manages to leave out the stuff about "fallen world" and "perversion of design" when he is trying to get ID taught in the public schools. So do other major proponents of ID (see, for example, Chapman & Meyer, 2002), claiming instead that this is entirely a scientific debate.

All three of the authors I just cited are associated with the Discovery Institute (DI) and/or its Center for Science and Culture (CRSC). Chapman is the president of the DI, Meyer is the director of the CRSC, and Dembski is a "Senior Fellow". The currently available statement of the public purpose of the CRSC (see mirrors their statements to public audiences. Both an earlier version of their "about" page, ( and a widely circulated internal memo, known as the "Wedge Document" (CRSC, undated) provides a somewhat different view. (See Forrest, 2001, for a discussion of the authenticity of the document.)

From the Wedge Document:

"Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies." (An identical statement was a part of the 1997 version of their "About CRSC" page cited above.)

Is it their intent simply, as they claim, to follow the evidence where it leads (and if so, why stop short of looking at the intent of the designer), or is their "scientific" objection to evolution simply a tactic designed to aid their expressed intention of overthrowing "materialism"? Personally, I think that even a casual examination of what they have done and written seems to strongly favor the second. They say that they intend to overthrow materialism and replace it with something that is theistically based, and I see no reason to doubt them on that.

> And then would you say that they are correct or incorrect in
> their demonstration of that design being intelligent?

I think that they are incorrect in saying that they have demonstrated that design is present. Currently, the entire "scientific" portion of their "theory" seems to rest on the work of two people -- Michael Behe (see Behe, 1996), and William Dembski (see Dembski, 2002). Numerous authors have pointed out major flaws in the work of both, in fora ranging from internet websites and discussion forums to popular and scholarly works. (for example, see Miller, 1999, for a detailed criticism of Behe's work.) This post has run long enough already, and a detailed explanation of intelligent design's flaws would take up too much more time and space to go into now. For more information on those topics, you can go to,, or

--Mike Dunford
Behe, M.J., 1996, Darwin's Black Box. New York, The Free Press.

Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, "The Wedge Strategy," [online] Accessed on 26 Nov 2002 at

Chapman, B. & Meyer, S.C., 2002, Darwin Would Love This Debate. Seattle Times, 10 June 2002. Accessed online 4 Dec 2002 at id=1171.

Dembski, W.A., 2000, Intelligent Design is not Optimal Design [online]. Accessed 4 Dec 2002 at

Dembski, W.A., 2002, No Free Lunch -- Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence. Lanharn, Rowman & Littlefield.

Forrest, B., 2001, The Wedge at Work -- How Intelligent Design Creationism Is Wedging Its Way into the Cultural and Academic Mainstream, in Pennock, R.T (ed), Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics. Cambridge, MIT Press, p. 5-53.

Hall, Carl T., 2002, Nature's diversity beyond evolution -- Debate over intelligent design. San Francisco Chronicle, 2002 Mar 17, Page A-1.

Miller, K.R., 1999, Finding Darwin's God -- A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. New York, Harper Collins.

Do you know anyone who would wager a substantial sum, even on favorable odds, on the proposition that Homo sapiens will last longer than Brontosaurus? --Steven Jay Gould

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