Is Life Designed or Designoid? Dawkins, Science and the Purpose of Life

Peter S. Williams

Richard Dawkins clearly sees that a universe lacking a creator is a universe ‘lacking all purpose.’[1] For Dawkins, there is no purpose behind life because the is no creator of life, and ‘the universe at large is a tale told by an idiot.’[2] In fact, the universe is precisely not a tale, because there is no storyteller.  According to Dawkins, we face a choice between accepting the nihilistic truth, or throwing our brains away in order to embrace the ‘warm comfortable lie’[3] that the cosmos is infused with purpose, as people once believed but Darwin supposedly disproved.

In Climbing Mount Improbable Richard Dawkins draws a distinction between objects that are clearly designed and objects that are not designed but superficially look a bit like they are – which he calls ‘designoid’.[4] Dawkins illustrates the concept of being designoid with a hillside that suggests a human profile: ‘Once you have been told, you can just see a slight resemblance to either John or Robert Kennedy.  But some don’t see it and it is certainly easy to believe that the resemblance is accidental.’[5] Dawkins contrasts this Kennedy-esque hillside with the four president’s heads carved into Mt. Rushmore in America which ‘are obviously not accidental: they have design written all over them.’[6] Although Dawkins defines biology as ‘the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose’,[7] he believes that appearances are deceiving.  Biological things are designoid: ‘Designoid objects look designed, so much so that some people – probably, alas, most people – think that they are designed.  These people are wrong. . .  the true explanation – Darwinian natural selection – is very different.’[8]

Ironically, Dawkins provides us with the very tools we need to prove his Darwinian nihilism false.  Dawkins’ original illustration of a designoid is of something with a superficial appearance of design.  People have to have the resemblance between the hillside and Kennedy pointed out to them, some people ‘don’t see it’[9], and ‘it is certainly easy to believe that the resemblance is accidental.’[10] Dawkins wants to convince us that although some biological objects give such a strong appearance of design that ‘most people’[11] intuitively think that they are designed, they are designoid.  However, on the face of things, Dawkins’ design/designoid distinction supports the majority opinion that life is the product of purpose.  Some natural objects are surely more analogous to Mt. Rushmore than they are to the Kenney-esque hillside.  In which case, how does Dawkins justify his confident, universal negative claim (the hardest sort of claim to prove) that no biological objects are designed, and that any biological object giving the appearance, however strong, of design, is actually designoid?  Indeed, if the paradigm ‘designoid’ object is the Kennedy-esque hillside, such a broad application of the term is inappropriate.  The meaning of Dawkins’ term shifts from ‘things that look a bit like they are designed, but on closer inspection obviously are not’, to ‘things that give every appearance of being designed, but are not’, thereby exhibiting the logical fallacy of ‘equivocation’.[12]

If Dawkins’ elaborately made hypothesis is simply, as Alan Keith suggests, that ‘some things that appear to be designed are not in fact designed’[13], what justification does he give for thinking that life only appears to be designed?  It’s easy enough to tell design and designoid apart as Dawkins’ introduces the distinction; but how are we to tell design from designoid given his implicit re-definition of these terms?  Dawkins applies the first distinction on the basis of observational features of the objects in question, but he applies the second distinction on the basis of his commitment to metaphysical naturalism.  A consistent understanding and application of Dawkins’ original design/designoid distinction (made on the basis of evidence) supports the conclusion that life is the product of design, and hence of purpose.

Dawkins argues that while ‘a rock can weather into the shape of a nose seen from a certain vantage point’,[14] such a rock is designoid.  Mt. Rushmore, on the other hand, is clearly not designoid: ‘Its four heads are clearly designed,’[15] argues Dawkins, because: ‘The sheer number of details [i.e. the amount of complexity] in which the Mount Rushmore faces resemble the real things [i.e. the complexity fits four specifications] is too great to have come about by chance.’[16] In terms of mere possibility, says Dawkins: ‘The weather could have done the same job. . .  But of all the possible ways of weathering a mountain, only a tiny minority would be speaking likenesses of four particular human beings.’[17] Hence: ‘Even if we didn’t know the history of Mount Rushmore, we’d estimate the odds against its four heads being carved by accidental weathering as astronomically high. . .’[18] When Dawkins doesn’t rule out design from the start, he deploys what is clearly a version of mathematician William A. Dembski’s ‘Explanatory Filter’ which posits intelligent design as the best explanation for examples of specified complexity.

The Filter

Dembski is ‘the leading intellectual theorist of Design. . .’[19] According to Edward Sission: ‘If Thomas Huxley was “Darwin’s Bulldog”, Dembski is the man with the leash and the obedience training technique to bring Darwinism into check.’[20] Dembski’s leash is an ‘Explanatory Filter’ that identifies intelligent causation by detecting what chance and natural law alone are extremely hard-pressed to produce, namely ‘specified complexity’ or ‘complex specified information’ (CSI): ‘the filter asks three questions in the following order: (1) Does a law explain it? (2) does chance explain it? (3) does design explain it?’[21] If something can reasonably be explained by chance and/or necessity, then (by Occam’s razor) it should be so explained (it is, at most, designoid); but if such an explanation is inadequate, then an inference to the more complex but more adequate hypothesis of design is warranted.  Intelligence easily accomplishes what unintelligent causes find all but impossible, the creation of specified complexity; hence the detection of specified complexity, while it does not prove design beyond all possibility of doubt, does prove design beyond all reasonable doubt.

A long string of random letters drawn from a scrabble bag is complex without being specified - that is, without conforming to a non ad hoc pattern that we haven’t simply read off the object or event in question.  A short sequence of letters like ‘this’ or ‘that’ is specified (it conforms to a non ad hoc, independent pattern) without being sufficiently complex to outstrip the capacity of chance to explain this conformity.  (letters drawn at random from the scrabble bag occasionally form a short word.)  A book by Dawkins is both specified (conforming to the independent functional requirements of grammatical English language use) and sufficiently complex (doing so at a level of complexity that makes it unreasonable to attribute this match to luck) to trigger a design inference.  It would be unreasonable to suggest that Dawkins’ produced his books by randomly drawing tiles from a scrabble bag!  Hence: ‘given an event, object, or structure, to convince ourselves that it is designed we need to show that it is improbably (i.e. complex) and suitably patterned (i.e. specified).’[22] Dembski explains that ‘once the improbabilities (i.e. complexities) become too vast and the specifications too tight, chance is eliminated and design is implicated.  Just where the probabilities cutoff is can be debated, but that there is a probabilistic cutoff beyond which chance becomes an unacceptable explanation is clear.’[23] As Dawkins says: ‘We can accept a certain amount of luck in our explanations, but not too much.’[24]

Limiting the explanatory capacity of ‘chance’ is crucial to the integrity of science: ‘If we allow ourselves too many “wildcard” bits of information. . . we can explain anything be reference to chance.’[25] Allowing ourselves too many ‘wildcard bits of information’ commits the inflationary fallacy: ‘the problem inherent in the inflationary fallacy is always that it multiplies probabilistic resources in the absence of independent evidence that such resources exist.’[26] Postulating unlimited probabilistic resources makes it impossible to warrant attributing anything to design.  Is Dawkins a good writer or does he simply move his hands over his computer keyboard in the right way by luck?  Dawkins’ books could happen by chance, if we assume the existence of sufficiently large probabilistic resources: ‘Unlimited probabilistic resources make bizarre possibilities unavoidable on a grand scale.’[27] Dembski calculates a stringent probability bound of 10-150 based on the number of elementary particles in the universe, the duration of the observable universe and the Plank time.  Even with this conservative criterion, Dembski calculates that nature contains numerous examples of specified complexity.

According to Dawkins: ‘Complicated [i.e. complex] things have some quality, specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone.  In the case of living things, the quality that is specified in advance is. . . the ability to propagate genes in reproduction.’[28] Dawkins thinks that random chance can produce CSI when combined with a non-random law of natural selection.  Dembski argues that natural causes are not up to the task of creating CSI.  First, he eliminates necessity: ‘Because information presupposes contingency, necessity is by definition incapable of producing information, much less complex specified information. . .’[29] Then he turns his attention to contingency: ‘Either the contingency is a blind, purposeless contingency – which is [random] chance, or it is a guided, purposeful contingency – which is intelligent causation. . .’[30] With Dawkins, Dembski argues that ‘pure [random] chance. . . is incapable of generating CSI.’[31] Whenever we know the causal history of an object or event exhibiting CSI, we know it was produced by intelligence.  Hence we can infer that all examples of CSI are probably produced by intelligence: ‘Chance can generate complex unspecified information [e.g. a random string of scrabble pieces], and chance can generate non-complex specified information [e.g. a short word in scrabble pieces].  What chance cannot generate is information that is jointly complex and specified. . . [e.g. a book by Dawkins]’[32] Dembski’s argument requires one more stage:

If chance and necessity left to themselves cannot generate CSI, is it possible that chance and necessity working together might generate CSI [as Dawkins believes]?  The answer is No.  Whenever chance and necessity work together, the respective contributions of chance and necessity can be arranged sequentially.  But by arranging the respective contributions of chance and necessity sequentially, it becomes clear that at no point in the sequence is CSI generated.[33]

By a process of elimination, and on the basis of experience, intelligent design is the best explanation for CSI: ‘Since chance, necessity, and their combination characterize natural causes, it now follows [contra Dawkins] that natural causes are incapable of generating CSI.’[34]

The ‘Filter’ is only a positive test for design.  Suppose a patient artist carefully sculpts a hillside by mimicking natural weathering so as to produce a profile vaguely like that of a Kennedy.  The Filter would not detect the activity of intelligence in that hillside.  As far as the filter is concerned, the hillside is, at most, designoid.  It might be the product of design, but the filter gives us no reason to think that it is the product of design.  On the other hand, if the hillside in question were carved into a detailed picture of four American presidents, the filter would detect design, because such a pattern is complex and specified.  The filter can’t rule design out - as Dawkins admits, ‘Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true)’[35] - but it can rule it in.

Dembski’s ‘Explanatory Filter’, which is an explicit formulation of the criteria for design detection that Dawkins uses to rule design in for Mt. Rushmore, naturally leads us to agree with Dawkins about Mt. Rushmore being designed.  However, it leads us to disagree with him about the absence of design in nature.  Philosopher Norman L. Geisler follows the evidence where Dawkins will not:

suppose I come upon a round stratisfied stone and were asked how it came to be such.  I might plausibly answer that it was once laid down by water in layers which later solidified by chemical action.  One day it broke from a larger section of rock and was subsequently rounded by the natural erosional processes of tumbling in water.  Suppose then. . . I come upon Mount Rushmore. . .  Even if I knew nothing about the origin of the faces, would I not come immediately to believe it was an intelligent production and not the result of natural processes of erosion?  Yet why should a natural cause serve for the stone but not for the faces?  For this reason, namely, that when we come to inspect the faces on the mountain we perceive – what we could not discover in the stone – that. . . they convey specifically complex information. . .  Suppose also that in studying the genetic structure of a living organism, we discover that its DNA has a highly complicated and unique information code, distinguished by its specified complexity. . . would we not conclude that it most probably took intelligence to produce a living organism?[36]

The faces on Mt. Rushmore are complex (not something generally to be expected from erosion!) and specific (they fit four independent patterns).  Applying the Explanatory Filter, as Dawkins does, clearly indicates design.  If we apply the same criteria to DNA as Dawkins applies to Mt. Rushmore, we get the same conclusion: Design.  To generate even a single functional protein of 150 amino acids exceeds ‘1 chance in 10180, well beyond the most conservative estimates for the small probability bound. . .’[37] To re-phrase Dawkins’ own argument: ‘undirected natural causes could have done the same job.  But of all the possible ways of arranging amino acids, only a tiny minority would match the biological specification for functionality.  Hence, even without knowing the history of DNA, we’d estimate the odds against its occurrence by natural processes as astronomically high.’  The evidence argues for design, but Dawkins allows the philosophical dogma of naturalism to trump the evidence and shoehorn it into the naturalistically acceptable category of ‘designoid’, even though doing so requires an ad hoc redefinition of his own term.

Cracking Fine-Tuning

It is not only within life’s beautifully intricate details that we can detect signs of purpose, but within the basic structure of the universe itself.  Once again Dawkins gives us the key to subverting his naturalistic nihilism, writing: ‘Of all the unique and, with hindsight equally improbable, positions of the combination lock, only one opens the lock. . .  The uniqueness of the arrangement. . . that opens the safe, [has] nothing to do with hindsight.  It is specified in advance.’[38] According to Dawkins, the best explanation of an open safe is not that someone got lucky, but that someone knew the specific and complex combination required to open it.  The ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe discovered by cosmologists is analogous to Dawkins’ example of a cracked combination lock.  The basic physical laws of nature are ‘finely tuned’, or specified, in the sense that if they were only a little different that they in fact are, then the existence of intelligent life would be impossible.  This is a fact that many scientists and philosophers take to indicate design - even if they feel uncomfortable with such an implication.  As Stephen Hawking once admitted: ‘The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the big bang are enormous. . .  I think clearly there are religious implications. . .  But I think most scientists prefer to shy away from the religious side of it.’[39] Shying away from a conclusion supported by evidence is hardly a scientific attitude to adopt.

In the case of Dawkins’ cracked combination lock what calls for explanation in terms of design is not merely that an event of small probability has taken place (other sequences of numbers are equally improbable), but the fact that this small probability event is specified (as the sequence necessary for opening the lock).  Likewise, in the case of cosmic fine-tuning, what calls out for explanation in terms of design is not merely that an event of small probability has taken place (the existence of a particular set of physical laws), but the fact that this event is specified (as the set necessary for a life sustaining universe).

Indeed, the fine-tuning of the universe is like cracking a safe with multiple combination locks, one lock for each cosmic parameter: The matter-anti-matter balance ‘had to be accurate to one part in ten billion for the universe to arise.’[40] The expansion rate of the universe from the big bang had to be accurate to one part in 1060, while the force of gravity itself required fine-tuning to one part in 1040.[41] If the strong nuclear force were 2 percent weaker protons and neutrons wouldn’t stick together.  If it were 0.3 percent stronger hydrogen (a crucial component of biological systems) could not exist.[42] Oxford physicist Roger Penrose calculated that the original phase-space volume required such exact fine-tuning that the ‘Creator’s aim must have been [precise] to an accuracy of one part in 1010(123).’[43] Penrose was only speaking poetically of the ‘Creator’s aim’, but this sort of data is in fact best explained by the existence of a real Creator.  Finely tuned improbabilities compound one another until the overall improbability of cosmic fine-tuning being a fluke becomes unimaginably high.  Don N. Page[44] of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., calculates the odds against the formation of our universe at one in 10,000,000,000124!  As Fred Hoyle complained: ‘A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics.’[45]

Some cosmologists attempt to avoid this conclusion by positing the existence of a large number of universes (perhaps an infinite number), each with a different set of laws.  This ‘many worlds hypothesis’ commits the inflationary fallacy on a grand scale.  The best explanation of cosmic fine-tuning is that an intelligence took careful aim with the purpose of producing a life-sustaining universe.

Designed for a Purpose

Physicist Paul Davies makes a link between the evidence for design and the existence of a cosmic purpose: ‘If physics is the product of design, the universe must have a purpose, and the evidence of modern physics suggests strongly to me that the purpose includes us.’[46]

L. Stafford Betty and Bruce Coredell, writing in International Philosophical Quarterly, postulate that ‘it is a universal law that the significantly greater cannot be generated by the significantly less’.[47] (Dembski’s argument against CSI originating from anything other than intelligence appears to be a specific example of this universal law.)  If such a law holds, argue Betty and Cordell:

it would follow that the [designer] must be superior to us, not only with respect to intelligence (which seems obvious), but in every other important way as well.  The mind must be characterized by knowledge, power, beauty, goodness, and love to a degree not known to us mortals. . .  it is clear that we are not too far away from a God whom we can at least admire.  And if admiration should grow to love – a not unnatural progression – then the God of the great theistic religions is not far away.  Religion and science will have joined hands.[48]

A consistent application of Richard Dawkins’ original design/designoid distinction, a distinction that relies upon attributing design on the basis of specified complexity (as is clear from Dawkins’ comments about Mt. Rushmore and the cracked combination lock), subverts his Darwinian view of life as the purposeless outcome of chance and necessity, and supports the tradition view that life is the product of purpose.

Philosopher Keith Ward argues that ‘if there is a vast intelligence behind the universe, it is reasonable to think that it has brought the universe into being for some purpose.’[49] And he suggests that ‘it will then be natural to try to find some evidence of what that purpose is.’[50] Knowing that life has a purpose because it has a Creator is a huge advance on Dawkins’ naturalistic nihilism, but such a conclusion leaves us with questions about the specific purpose of life, and how best to integrate our lives with that purpose.  As W. Gary Phillips and William E. Brown observe: ‘deciding that life does have meaning is not the end but the beginning of a quest.’[51] The evidence of cosmology and biology implies that the existence of organic life, including intelligent life, is one of the Creator’s goals.  Given that the most significant thing about intelligent life is its capacity to freely form relationships of understanding and love (with one-another and the world they inhabit), it seems reasonable to suggest that the purpose of human life has something to do with such relationships, and natural to wonder whether such a relationship could exist between us and our Creator.


[1] Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995), p. 296.

[2] Richard Dawkins, interviewed by Frank Miele, ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Disciple’, @ (05/04/2004)

[3] Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2003), p. 11.

[4] Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable, (TSP: Viking, 1996), p. 4

[5] ibid, p. 3.

[6] ibid.

[7] Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, op cit, Preface, p. x.

[8] ibid, p. 4-5.  This statement embodies the false dilemma that either design or evolution is true, when these options are in fact logically compatible. cf. Stephen’s Guide to the Logical Fallacies, ‘False Dilemma’ @ (05/04/2004)

[9] ibid, p. 3.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid, p. 4.

[12] cf. Stephen’s Guide to the Logical Fallacies, ‘Equivocation’ @ (06/04/2004)

[13] Alan Keith, Philosophy Now, Issue 45, March/April 2004, Letters, p. 42.

[14] Dawkins, op cit, p. 3.

[15] ibid.

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid, my italics.

[18] ibid.

[19] Thomas Woodward, Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), p. 24.

[20] ‘Endorsements for The Design Revolution’, Edward Sission @ (05/04/2004)

[21] William A. Dembski, ‘The Explanatory Filter’ @ (05/04/2004)

[22] William A. Dembski, ‘Another Way to Detect Design?’ @ (05/04/2004)

[23] William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), p. 166.

[24] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, (London: Penguin, 1988), p. 139.

[25] William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), p. 157.

[26] ibid, p. 86.

[27] ibid, p. 93.

[28] Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, op cit, p. 9.

[29] William A. Dembski, ‘Intelligent design as a Theory of Information’ @ (05/04/2004)

[30] ibid.

[31] ibid.

[32] ibid.

[33] ibid.

[34] Dembski, No Free Lunch, op cit, p. 158-159.

[35] Richard Dawkins, ‘The Great Convergence’, A Devil’s Chaplin, op cit, p. 149.

[36] Norman L. Geisler and J. Kerby Anderson, Origin Science, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), p. 159 -164.

[37] Stephen C. Meyer, ‘Evidence for design in Physics and Biology’, Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), p. 75.

[38] Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, op cit.

[39] Stephen Hawking, quoted by John Boslough, Masters of Time – Cosmology at the End of Innocence, (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1992), p. 55.

[40] J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987).

[41] cf. Stephen C. Meyer, ‘Evidence for Design in Physics and Biology’ in Michael Behe, William A. Dembski & Stephen C. Meyer, Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, (San Francisco, Ignatius, 2000), p. 60.

[42] cf. Jimmy H. Davies and Harry L. Poe, Designer Universe, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), p. 85.

[43] Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind, (New York, Oxford, 1989), p. 344.

[44] Page’s calculation is quoted by L. Stafford Betty and Bruce Cordell, ‘The Anthropic Teleological Argument’, International Philosophical Quarterly 27, no. 4., (December 1987).

[45] Fred Hoyle, as quoted in Fred Hereen, Show Me God, (Search Light Publishing, 1995), p. 179.

[46] Paul Davies, Superforce, (Now York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), p. 234.

[47] L. Stafford Betty and Bruce Coredell, ‘The Anthropic Teleological Argument’, Michael Peterson et al (ed.’s), Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 209.

[48] ibid, p. 209.

[49] Keith Ward, God, Faith & The New Millennium, (Oxford: OneWorld, 1999), p. 17.

[50] ibid.

[51] W. Gary Phillips & William E. Brown, Making Sense of Your World, (Salem: Sheffield Publishing Company, 1996), p. 21.

Copyright © 2004 Peter S. Williams. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 12.09.04