Volume 15, Number 2

Towards a Theory of Intelligent Design

Among the many indictments entered against non-evolutionary theories for the origin and diversity of life, one of the longest standing holds that such theories lead nowhere. A theory of creation (or design), this objection maintains, never really engages the biological world, but merely drapes unsolved problems in the history of life with the past agency of a Creator. Why, asked Darwin, should some birds "which rarely or never go near the water" have feet as nicely webbed as some fully aquatic birds?

He who believes in separate and innumerable acts of creation will say, that in these cases it has pleased the Creator to cause a being of one type to take the place of one of another type; but this seems to me only restating the fact in dignified language.1

On this objection, design puts all the interesting questions behind the opaque screen of the Creator's sovereign will. Things are the way they are because God wanted them that way. The theory of design seems to make the world a static and inscrutable place, replete with unconnected phenomena, in which all scientific research runs straightaway into the brute fact of divine agency. The objection is grave. We can dispense however with one of its close relatives, which holds that scientific explanations necessarily refer only to "purely physical and material causes."2 Since an intelligent cause is not purely physical or material, it cannot be invoked in a scientific explanation. Consider the origin of the solar system. Newton argued that the solar system was created by God, but that just won't do:

As Lyttleton (1958, p. 5) points out, scientists "cannot really quite relax" until they are assured that "the laws of physics are sufficiently comprehensive to allow the solar system to happen" --we demand that the origin of the solar system be explained without invoking any supernatural events.3

But it is quite possible that the solar system was created, something we might discover by finding that the laws of physics are in fact insufficient "to allow the solar system to happen." Our methods of inference must allow us to consider that possibility -- and we should not think that the goal of science is to allow scientists to relax. Any science of the past, however, that excludes the possibility of design or creation a priori ceases to be a search for the truth, and becomes the servant (or slave) of a problematical philosophical doctrine, namely, naturalism. Of course we need never accede to the claim that scientific explanations refer only to physical or material causes. Actual scientific (and ordinary explanatory) practice tell otherwise.

But allowing for the possibility of design doesn't mean we have all the tools to make sense of the notion. Invoking design as a cause is a difficult business in which it is all too easy to end up with odd explanations that seem wrong to us -- although it is hard to say why. William Paley, for instance (who was awarded a high prize at Cambridge University for his mathematical abilities), marvelled at the design of the "very insipidity" of water, a wonderful "negative" quality which:

. . . renders it the best of all menstrua. Having no taste of its own, it becomes the sincere vehicle of every other. Had there been a taste in water, be it what it might, it would have infected every other thing we ate or drank, with an importunate repetition of the same flavor.4

William Whewell -- again, a very bright philosopher indeed -- argued that the diurnal rotation of the earth was designed for human sleep habits: if the earth took longer than it does to turn on its axis, we would doubtless sleep more than is healthy for us at night.

What is the difference between these explanations and Abraham Lincoln's quip that we ought to be amazed to find that our legs are just long enough to reach the ground? How can we employ design as an explanation without going off the tracks of genuine knowledge into absurdity or confusion?

In this issue of Origins Research we present the ideas of four design theorists (Bill Dembski, Mike Behe, Steve Meyer and Paul Nelson), originally delivered as symposium lectures at the 48th Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation in August 1993. These theorists, convinced that naturalism is false and stultifying to the growth of knowledge, are attempting to rebuild the theory of design on new foundations. In presenting their ideas we issue a plea to our readers -- whatever their own convictions -- to respond with critical insights. The guiding heuristic of scientific inquiry, physicist John Wheeler has argued, ought to be to make the inevitable mistakes as rapidly as possible. It is inevitable that flaws exist in the case for design sketched in this issue of OR. We would very much like to know where they are.

That design is tricky doesn't throw us back, however, into the arms of naturalism! Elsewhere in this issue we consider the current controversy at San Francisco State University (SFSU) surrounding Professor Dean Kenyon. As Steve Meyer reports, after many years of study of evolution and work on the naturalistic origin of life, Kenyon abandoned naturalism as an insufficient foundation, thereby incurring the censure of his academic superiors. The controversy came to a head recently when the SFSU Academic Senate voted 25 to 8 in support of Kenyon, holding that the Department of Biology unfairly removed him from teaching an introductory biology course. After restoring Kenyon to the course, biology chairman John Hafernik proposed a departmental resolution proclaiming "that we hold the intelligent design paradigm to be a non-scientific view." As this issue of OR goes to press, the resolution has been tabled awaiting further action. This dispute, which has deep philosophical roots, is far from ended.

Those who want to listen at length to Kenyon himself, in the interest of making their own judgments about his case, should order the Kenyon interview tapes (see video tapes information page), the newest in our ongoing series of discussion with leading critics of Darwinism and naturalism. The edited excerpts from our talk with molecular biologist Michael Denton, featured in this OR edition, give some of the flavor of the series (which begins with Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson). But take it from us: no transcript can compare to having these tapes to pop in your VCR. Michael Denton's wry smile, or Dean Kenyon's quiet certainty, don't come through on the printed page as they will on your TV screen.

As always, we encourage your correspondence, about the Kenyon case, the soundness of design, or any other origins-related issue that strikes your fancy. "I dogmatise and am contradicted," said Samuel Johnson (a defender of design, we take pride in noting), "and in this conflict of opinions and sentiments I find delight." Insofar as that conflict of opinions leads on towards truth we at OR also take delight.


1. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1st edition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press facsimile reprint, with an introduction by Ernst Mayr, 1964; pp. 185-186. return to text
2. Richard Dickerson, "The Game of Science: Reflections After Arguing With Some Rather Overwrought People," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44 (1992): 137-139; p. 137. return to text
3. Stephen Brush, "Theories of the origin of the solar system 1966-1985," Reviews of Modern Physics 62 (1990): 43-112. return to text
4. William Paley, Natural Theology, Houston, Texas: St. Thomas Press [1802] 1972, p. 283. return to text

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File Date: 7.20.95