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intelligent design

intelligent design, theory that some complex biological structures and other aspects of nature show evidence of having been designed by an intelligence. Such biological structures are said to have intricate components that are so highly interdependent and so essential to a particular function or process that the structures could not have developed through Darwinian evolution, and therefore must have been created or somehow guided in their development. Although intelligent design is distinguished from creationism by not relying on the biblical account of creation, it is compatible with a belief in God and is often explicitly linked with such a belief. Also, unlike creationists, its proponents do not challenge the idea that the earth is billions of years old and that life on earth has evolved to some degree. The theory does, however, necessarily reject standard science's reliance on explaining the natural world only through undirected natural causes, believing that any theory that relies on such causes alone is incapable of explaining how all biological structures and processes arose. Thus, despite claims by members of the intelligent-design movement that it is a scientific research program, the work of its adherents has been criticized as unscientific and speculative for inferring a pre-existing intelligence to explain the development of biological structures instead of attempting to develop adequate falsifiable mechanistic explanations. In addition, the theory has been attacked on the grounds that many aspects of nature fail to show any evidence of intelligent design, such as "junk" DNA (see nucleic acid) and the vestigial webbed feet of the frigate bird (which never lands on water).

The idea that nature shows signs of having been designed by an intelligent being dates back at least to ancient Greece. The English theologian William Paley gave the theory its classic formulation in his Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802), in which he argued that the eye and other biological features are perfectly suited for their purposes and that in this suitable design the hand of God can be discerned. The modern intelligent-design movement, however, has its origins in the 1980s with such works as The Mystery of Life's Origins (1984) by Charles Thaxton et al. and Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1986) by Michael Denton. Micheal Behe's Darwin's Black Box (1996) is perhaps the best-known statement of the movement's critique of Darwin and its argument for a role for God or some other intelligence in the design of biological entities. Advocates of intelligent design have campaigned to have it taught in U.S. public schools alongside the Darwinian theory of evolution. A requirement by the Dover, Pa., area school board that students be told that intelligent design represents an alternative explanation for the origin of life was challenged in federal court in 2005 and ruled unconstitutional.

See R. T. Pennock, ed., Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics (2002).

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Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design


Intelligent Design is the concept that some thingsespecially some life forms or parts of life formsmust have been assembled (at least for the first time) by the direct action of a non-natural agent. Proponents of Intelligent Design argue that there is empirical evidence that the universe's system of natural capabilities for forming things is inadequate for assembling certain information-rich biological structures. And if the system of natural capabilities is inadequate, then these biological structures must have been assembled by the action of some non-natural agent, usually taken to be divine.


See also Creation; Creationism; Creation Science; Design; Evolution; Scopes Trial.

howard j. van till

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intelligent design

intelligent design the theory that life, or the universe, cannot have arisen by chance and was designed and created by some intelligent entity.

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Intelligent Design

INTELLIGENT DESIGN

INTELLIGENT DESIGN studies features of objects that signal the action of an intelligent cause. Designed objects, like Mount Rushmore, exhibit characteristic features that point to an intelligence. Such features or patterns constitute signs of intelligence. Proponents of intelligent design, known as design theorists, purport to study such signs formally, rigorously, and scientifically. Intelligent design may therefore be defined as the science that studies signs of intelligence.

Intelligent design is controversial because it purports to find signs of intelligence in nature and specifically in biological systems. According to the evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala (2004), Charles Darwin's greatest achievement was to show how the organized complexity of organisms could be attained apart from a designing intelligence. Intelligent design therefore directly challenges Darwinism and other naturalistic approaches to the origin and evolution of life. Leading proponents of intelligent design include Michael Behe, Phillip Johnson, and William Dembski. Leading critics include Kenneth Miller, John Haught, and Michael Ruse.

Although intelligent design is incompatible with a naturalized, nonteleological understanding of evolution, it has no complaint against evolution per se. Intelligent design is compatible with common descent, the claim that all organisms trace their lineage to some last universal common ancestor. At the same time intelligent design is also compatible with special creation, the claim that organisms, except for small-scale evolutionary changes, were all separately created.

Given this flexibility, intelligent design is not readily shoehorned into the usual spectrum of explanations for evolutionary change, which places naturalistic evolution at one end, scientific creationism at the other, and theistic evolution somewhere in the middle. Intelligent design argues that intelligence played a discernible role in the history of life. Whether that intelligence acted through an evolutionary process or by special creations is a separate question, and proponents of intelligent design come down on both sides of this question. (Behe, for instance, accepts common descent.)

Defining Signs of Intelligence

The idea that an intrinsic intelligence or teleology inheres in and is expressed through nature has a long history and is embraced by many religious traditions. The main difficulty with this idea since Darwin's day, however, has been to discover a conceptually powerful formulation of design that can fruitfully advance science. What has kept design outside the scientific mainstream since the rise of Darwinism has been the lack of precise methods for distinguishing intelligently caused objects from unintelligently caused ones.

For design to be a fruitful scientific concept, scientists have to be sure they can reliably determine whether something is designed. Johannes Kepler, for instance, thought the craters on the moon were intelligently designed by moon dwellers. It is now known that the craters were formed by purely material factors (like meteor impacts). This fear of falsely attributing something to design only to have it overturned later has hindered design from entering the scientific mainstream. But design theorists argue that they now have formulated precise methods for discriminating designed from undesigned objects. These methods, they contend, enable them to avoid Kepler's mistake and reliably locate design in biological systems.

As a theory of biological origins and development, intelligent design's central claim is that only intelligent causes adequately explain the complex, information-rich structures of biology and that these causes are empirically detectable. To say intelligent causes are empirically detectable is to say there exist well-defined methods that, based on observable features of the world, can reliably distinguish intelligent causes from undirected natural causes. Many special sciences have already developed such methods for drawing this distinctionnotably forensic science, cryptography, archaeology, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Essential to all these methods is the ability to eliminate chance and necessity.

The astronomer Carl Sagan wrote a novel about SETI called Contact (1985) that was later made into a movie. Sagan based the SETI astronomers' methods of design detection squarely on scientific practice. Why do the radio astronomers in Contact draw such a design inference from the signals they monitored from distant space? SETI researchers run signals collected from space through computers programmed to recognize preset patterns. These patterns serve as a sieve. Signals that do not match any of the patterns pass through the sieve and are classified as random.

After years of receiving apparently meaningless, random signals, the Contact researchers discover a pattern of beats and pauses that corresponds to the sequence of all the prime numbers between 2 and 101. (Prime numbers are divisible only by themselves and by one.) That startles the astronomers, and they immediately infer an intelligent cause. When a sequence begins with 2 beats and then a pause, 3 beats and then a pause, and continues through each prime number all the way to 101 beats, researchers must infer the presence of an extraterrestrial intelligence.

The rationale for this inference is that nothing in the laws of physics requires radio signals to take one form or another. The prime sequence is therefore contingent rather than necessary. Also the prime sequence is long and hence complex. Note that if the sequence were extremely short and therefore lacked complexity, it could easily have happened by chance. Finally, the sequence is not merely complex but also exhibits an independently given pattern or specification (it is not just any sequence of numbers but a mathematically significant onethe prime numbers).

Intelligence leaves behind a characteristic trademark or signaturewhat within the intelligent design community is now called specified complexity. An event exhibits specified complexity if it is contingent and therefore not necessary, if it is complex and therefore not readily reproducible by chance, and if it is specified in the sense of exhibiting an independently given pattern. Note that a merely improbable event is not sufficient to eliminate chanceby flipping a coin long enough, one will witness a highly complex or improbable event. Even so, one will have no reason to attribute it to anything other than chance.

The important thing about specifications is that they be objectively given and not arbitrarily imposed on events after the fact. For instance, if an archer fires arrows at a wall and then paints bull's-eyes around them, the archer imposes a pattern after the fact. On the other hand, if the targets are set up in advance (specified) and then the archer hits them accurately, one legitimately concludes that it was by design.

The combination of complexity and specification convincingly points the radio astronomers in the movie Contact to an extraterrestrial intelligence. Note that the evidence is purely circumstantialthe radio astronomers know nothing about the aliens responsible for the signal or how they transmit it. Design theorists contend that specified complexity provides compelling circumstantial evidence for intelligence. Accordingly specified complexity is a reliable empirical marker of intelligence in the same way that fingerprints are a reliable empirical marker of an individual's presence. Moreover design theorists argue that purely material factors cannot adequately account for specified complexity.

Biological Design

In determining whether biological organisms exhibit specified complexity, design theorists focus on identifiable systems (e.g., individual enzymes, metabolic pathways, and molecular machines). These systems are not only specified by their independent functional requirements but also exhibit a high degree of complexity.

In Darwin's Black Box (1996) the biochemist Michael Behe connects specified complexity to biological design through his concept of irreducible complexity. Behe defines a system as irreducibly complex if it consists of several interrelated parts for which removing even one part renders the system's basic function unrecoverable. For Behe, irreducible complexity is a sure indicator of design. One irreducibly complex biochemical system that Behe considers is the bacterial flagellum. The flagellum is an acid-powered rotary motor with a whiplike tail that spins at twenty thousand revolutions per minute and whose rotating motion enables a bacterium to navigate through its watery environment.

Behe shows that the intricate machinery in this molecular motorincluding a rotor, a stator, O-rings, bushings, and a drive shaftrequires the coordinated interaction of approximately forty complex proteins and that the absence of any one of these proteins would result in the complete loss of motor function. Behe argues that the Darwinian mechanism faces grave obstacles in trying to account for such irreducibly complex systems. In No Free Lunch (2002) William Dembski shows how Behe's notion of irreducible complexity constitutes a particular instance of specified complexity.

Once an essential constituent of an organism exhibits specified complexity, any design attributable to that constituent carries over to the organism as a whole. To attribute design to an organism one need not demonstrate that every aspect of the organism was designed. Organisms, like all material objects, are products of history and thus subject to the buffeting of purely material factors. Automobiles, for instance, get old and exhibit the effects of corrosion, hail, and frictional forces. But that does not make them any less designed. Likewise design theorists argue that organisms, though exhibiting the effects of history (and that includes Darwinian factors such as genetic mutations and natural selection), also include an ineliminable core that is designed.

Intelligent Design and Religion

Intelligent design's main tie to religion is through the design argument, and perhaps the best-known design argument is William Paley's. Paley published his argument in 1802 in a book titled Natural Theology. The subtitle of that book is revealing: Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Paley's project was to examine features of the natural world (what he called "appearances of nature") and from there draw conclusions about the existence and attributes of a designing intelligence responsible for those features (whom Paley identified with the God of Christianity).

According to Paley, if one finds a watch in a field (and thus lacks all knowledge of how the watch arose), the adaptation of the watch's parts to telling time ensures that it is the product of an intelligence. So too, according to Paley, the marvelous adaptations of means to ends in organisms (like the intricacy of the human eye with its capacity for vision) ensure that organisms are the product of an intelligence. The theory of intelligent design updates Paley's watchmaker argument in light of contemporary information theory and molecular biology, purporting to bring this argument squarely within science.

In arguing for the design of natural systems, intelligent design is more modest than the design arguments of natural theology. For natural theologians like Paley, the validity of the design argument did not depend on the fruitfulness of design-theoretic ideas for science but on the metaphysical and theological mileage one could get out of design. A natural theologian might point to nature and say, "Clearly the designer of this ecosystem prized variety over neatness." A design theorist attempting to do actual design-theoretic research on that ecosystem might reply, "Although that is an intriguing theological possibility, as a design theorist I need to keep focused on the informational pathways capable of producing that variety."

In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Immanuel Kant claimed that the most the design argument can establish is "an architect of the world who is constrained by the adaptability of the material in which he works, not a creator of the world to whose idea everything is subject" (Kant, 1929, p. 522). Far from rejecting the design argument, Kant objected to overextending it. For Kant, the design argument legitimately establishes an architect (that is, an intelligent cause whose contrivances are constrained by the materials that make up the world), but it can never establish a creator who originates the very materials that the architect then fashions.

Intelligent design is entirely consonant with this observation by Kant. Creation is always about the source of being of the world. Intelligent design, as the science that studies signs of intelligence, is about arrangements of preexisting materials that point to a designing intelligence. Creation and intelligent design are therefore quite different. One can have creation without intelligent design and intelligent design without creation. For instance, one can have a doctrine of creation in which God creates the world in such a way that nothing about the world points to design. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a book titled The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (1996). Even if Dawkins is right about the universe revealing no evidence of design, it would not logically follow that it was not created. It is logically possible that God created a world that provides no evidence of design. On the other hand, it is logically possible that the world is full of signs of intelligence but was not created. This was the ancient Stoic view, in which the world was eternal and uncreated and yet a rational principle pervaded the world and produced marks of intelligence in it.

The implications of intelligent design for religious belief are profound. The rise of modern science led to a vigorous attack on all religions that treat purpose, intelligence, and wisdom as fundamental and irreducible features of reality. The high point of this attack came with Darwin's theory of evolution. The central claim of Darwin's theory is that an unguided material process (random variation and natural selection) could account for the emergence of all biological complexity and order. In other words, Darwin appeared to show that the design in biology (and by implication in nature generally) was dispensable. By showing that design is indispensable to the scientific understanding of the natural world, intelligent design is reinvigorating the design argument and at the same time overturning the widespread misconception that the only tenable form of religious belief is one that treats purpose, intelligence, and wisdom as by-products of unintelligent material processes.

Bibliography

Ayala, Francisco. "Design without Designer: Darwin's Greatest Discovery." In Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA, edited by William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse, pp. 5580. Cambridge, U.K., 2004.

Beckwith, Francis J. Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design. Lanham, Md., 2003. Examines whether intelligent design is inherently religious and thus, on account of church-state separation, must be barred from public school science curricula.

Behe, Michael J. Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York, 1996. An overview of intelligent design's scientific research program.

Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design. New York, 1996. An impassioned defense of Darwinism against any form of teleology or design.

Dembski, William A. No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence. Lanham, Md., 2002.

Dembski, William A. The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design. Downers Grove, Ill., 2004. These two Dembski works include overviews of intelligent design's scientific research program.

Dembski, William A., and Michael Ruse, eds. Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA. New York, 2004. This anthology places intelligent design in conversation with Darwinian, self-organizational, theistic approaches to evolution.

Forrest, Barbara. "The Wedge at Work: How Intelligent Design Creationism Is Wedging Its Way into the Cultural and Academic Mainstream." In Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives, edited by Robert T. Pennock, pp. 553, Cambridge, Mass., 2001. A history of the intelligent design movement by a critic of that movement.

Giberson, Karl W., and Donald A. Yerxa. Species of Origins: America's Search for a Creation Story. Lanham, Md., 2002. Discusses intelligent design's place in the science and religion dialogue.

Haught, John F. God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Boulder, Colo., 2000. A theological critique of intelligent design.

Hunter, Cornelius G. Darwin's God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2001. Provides an interesting analysis of how intelligent design and Darwinism play off the problem of evil.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by N. K. Smith. New York, 1929.

Manson, Neil A., ed. God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science. London, 2003. This anthology situates intelligent design within broader discussions about teleology.

Miller, Kenneth R. Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution. New York, 1999. A critique of intelligent design's scientific research program.

Paley, William. Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. London, 1809.

Peters, Ted, and Martinez Hewlett. Evolution from Creation to New Creation. Nashville, Tenn., 2003. Discusses intelligent design's place in the science and religion dialogue.

Rea, Michael C. World without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism. Oxford, 2002. Probes intelligent design's metaphysical underpinnings.

Sagan, Carl. Contact. New York, 1985.

Witham, Larry. By Design: Science and the Search for God. San Francisco, 2003. A good overview of intelligent design that evenhandedly treats its scientific, cultural, and religious dimensions by a journalist who has personally interviewed the main players in the debate over intelligent design and who allows them to tell their story.

Woodward, Thomas. Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2003. A history of the intelligent design movement by a supporter.

William A. Dembski (2005)

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