What does it mean to be intelligently designed?
Stated as succinctly as possible, the core
scientific claim of the ID movement is, in effect: We have firm empirical
evidence that some biotic system X could not possibly have been actualized (at
least not for the very first time) by purely natural processes; therefore X
must have been intelligently designed. In order
to evaluate that claim, two questions must be asked: (1) On what evidence and
reasoning do ID advocates base their claim that X could not have been
actualized by natural processes alone? (2) What does it mean to say that X was
intelligently designed? Question (1) will be dealt with in our analysis of
Dembskis claim that the bacterial flagellum (a specific example of an X) could
not have formed naturally. Question (2) will now be the focus of our attention.
What do ID advocates actually mean when they
say X was intelligently designed? Presuming that intelligent design is some
form of action, what kind of action? And,
action by what sort of agent?
We speak often today of things that have been
designed. Cars are designed; clothing is designed; buildings are designed.
Suppose, then, we were to walk into the headquarters of a major automobile
manufacturer and ask to observe the process of cars being designed. What kind
of activity would we be shown? Would we be taken to the assembly line to see
cars being put together by human hands and mechanical robots? No, we would be
taken to the design center where we would see people working with their minds
(augmented, of course, by computers and various means of modeling what their
minds conceive) to conceptualize new cars of various styles to achieve the
intentions of the manufacturer in the marketplace. In other words, to say that
a car was designed is to say that a car was thoughtfully conceptualized to
accomplish some well-defined purpose. In contemporary parlance, the action of design is performed by a mind, intentionally
conceptualizing something for the accomplishment of a purpose.
action of designing is clearly distinguishable
from the hand-like action of actualizing
(assembling, arranging, constructing) what had first been designed. On a tour
of an automobile manufacturing facility, for instance, we would have no
difficulty in distinguishing the mental work done at the design center from the
manual work done on the assembly line.
But in the history of thought about how
living things got to be the way they now are, the word design as the name of
an action has often had a different meaning. Two centuries ago William Paley,
for instance, spoke eloquently of things like the eye as having been designed,
much like he would say that a pocket-watch was designed. Clearly the several
parts of a watch work efficiently and harmoniously to accomplish the task of
keeping and displaying the time. Looking at a watch, we would say without
hesitation that such a timepiece had been designed by a watchmaker. Without
doubt, the watchmaker had used his mind to conceptualize the workings of the
watch for the purpose of keeping and displaying the time.
But mind-action alone does not produce a
working watch. The watch must also be actualized by
hand-action. As an artisan, the watchmaker must not only conceptualize the
configuration of gears and dials that comprise a watch; he must also form the various parts and assemble
them into an actual working mechanism. In the context of eighteenth century
natural theology, to say that something had been designed was to say that it
had been both purposefully conceptualized
(by mind-like action) and skillfully crafted (formed and/or assembled by hand-like action). This
traditional meaning of design action was based on the artisan metaphor. One
person, the artisan, performed two actions - mindfully conceptualizing
some artifact and manually crafting what
had first been planned.
What does it now
mean to be intelligently designed? Given IDs almost exclusive emphasis on
the question of how things came to be structured as they now are, and given
IDs repeated emphasis on the presumed inadequacy of natural processes to
actualize these structures, it is clear that the primary meaning of X was
intelligently designed is that X was actualized by the form-conferring action
of some non-natural agent called an intelligent designer.
As an action, intelligent design entails both the mind-action of
conceptualization and the hand-like action of constructing or assembling some
functional structure, with a very strong
emphasis on design as the means of actualization. Adding the
adjective intelligent sometimes functions (1) to call attention to the idea
that design is an action of an intelligent (choice making) agent, with no claim
made regarding the optimality of design, and sometimes (2) to ensure that
the design we are talking about is not merely apparent but also actual.
What sort of agents are capable of performing
the proposed action of intelligent design? First, of course, they must be intelligent, which in this context means capable of making intentional choices. Human agents are
certainly intelligent in this sense, but one could speak also of choice-making
by some animals as well. However, as noted above, the intelligent agents of
which ID speaks must also be able to effect what was
first chosen, or to actualize what
was first conceptualized.
When considering embodied
intelligent agents, such as humans or animals, we have no difficulty
envisioning how the dual action of conceptualizing and actualizing might be
carried out. Paleys artisan-watchmaker could both conceive of an appropriate
mechanical clockwork and then proceed to form the various parts and to assemble
them into a functional watch. However, when ID advocates speak of biotic
systems in nature as the products of intelligent design action they are
proposing action by an agent of an entirely different sort - an umembodied intelligent agent who can both purposefully
conceptualize something and actualize that conception in some material/physical
structure. For the moment, suppose we set aside the matter of how an unembodied
intelligent agent might engage in the mind-like action of conceptualizing
something, say a bacterial flagellum. Philosophers and theologians have long
presumed it reasonable to posit and reflect on such mind-like action.
The more difficult problem, it seems to me,
arises when ID advocates posit an unembodied intelligent agent acting in such a
way as to effect or modify some physical/material structure. How, for instance,
might an unembodied intelligent agent act on a bacterium with no flagellum to
actualize a flagellum where none had been before? How does intelligence
(now meaning the action of an unembodied, choice-making agent) accomplish that?
Does the unembodied agent somehow force the
various atomic and molecular components into their proper configuration? How
does a non-physical agent exert physical forces?
admits that he cannot offer any causally specific model for this action, but he
also argues that this should not be seen as a shortcoming of the ID proposal.
After all, Intelligent design is not a mechanistic theory.Yes, but earlier Dembski had suggested that a more substantial proposal
regarding a model for designer action might be forthcoming. A design inference
therefore does not avoid the problem of how a designing intelligence might have
produced an object, It simply makes it a separate problem.It seems, however, that this particular separate problem has been permanently
placed in the solution impossible file. Dembskis disclaimer that modeling
intelligent design action is both unnecessary and at the same time a separate
problem seems a bit thin and facile.
But Dembski makes
another disclaimer that seems even more difficult to maintain or defend: to posit intelligent design action is not the same as positing a
miracle. In his effort to get around the usual charge of miracles,
as Dembski aptly puts it, he defines a miracle in a way designed (in the sense
of mindfully intended)
to avoid the problem. Miracles typically connote a violation or suspension or
overriding of natural laws.That is, where a natural cause was set to make X happen, Y happened instead. A
miracle is a form of counterfactual substitution.
According to Dembski, however, intelligent
design action does not necessarily
entail a suspension or overriding of natural laws.
When humans, for instance, act as [embodied] intelligent agents, there
is no reason to think that any natural law is broken. Likewise, should an
unembodied designer act to bring about a bacterial flagellum, there is no
reason prima facie to suppose that this designer did not act consistently with
natural laws. It is, for instance, a logical possibility that the design in the
bacterial flagellum was front-loaded into the universe at the Big Bang and
subsequently expressed itself in the course of natural history as a miniature
outboard motor on the back of E. coli.
What does Dembski
here mean by the design of the bacterial flagellum that may have been
front-loaded into the universe at the Big Bang? In the larger context of
Dembskis argument, I am led to conclude that design, used as a noun in this
instance, here denotes both a plan and a provision - a plan for actualizing the
flagellum and a provision of all of the initial conditions and formational
capabilities needed to ensure that the plan would be carried out in detail.
Front-loading a universe for the actualization of some biotic structure appears
to be comparable to providing a computer with both a specific program and all
of the computational capabilities needed to ensure that some particular result
would be generated.
Elsewhere in No Free
Lunch, however, Dembski makes it abundantly clear that he is no
friend of this front-loading hypothesis. Dembskis Intelligent Designer is
one who interacts with the universe in the course of time. The design action posited to
actualize the bacterial flagellum, as we shall see, is an action that occurs
long after the Big Bang. Furthermore, since Dembski argues vigorously that the
assembling of E. colis flagellum could not have come about naturally, the
question is, How could the Intelligent Designer bring about a naturally impossible outcome by interacting with a bacterium
in the course of time without either a suspension or overriding of natural
laws?Natural laws (which entail the probabilities for various outcomes) would have
led to the outcome, no flagellum. Instead, a flagellum appeared as the outcome
of the Intelligent Designers action. Is that is not a miracle, what is? How
can this be anything other than a supernatural intervention?
attempt an answer to this question. The physical world consists of physical
stuff, and for a designer to influence the arrangement of physical stuff seems
to requirethat the designer intervene in, meddle
with, or in some way coerce this physical stuff.... But what if the designer is not in the business of moving particles but of
imparting information? In that case nature moves its own particles, but an
intelligence nonetheless guides the arrangement.In response to concerns that I have often raised about the character of design
as an action, Dembski says, Van Till asks whether the design that design
theorists claim to find in natural systems is strictly mind-like ... or also
hand-like.... But Van Till has omitted a
third option, namely, that design can also be word-like (i.e., imparting
information to a receptive medium).So, as we try to picture an unembodied intelligent designer adding a flagellum
to E. coli, we must envision the bacterial cell as a receptive medium to
which the designer, in word-like fashion, imparts
information concerning the process of assembling a rotary propulsion
system. Might we find it difficult to understand how this designer-speech works
without entailing a suspension or overriding of natural processes? Yes, of
course we would, but difficulty in understanding is not unusual in science,
suggests Dembski. We do not understand how
quantum mechanics works, but we know that it
works. So too, we may not understand how
an unembodied designer imparts specified complexity into the world, but we can know that such a designer imparts specified complexity into
the world.I must confess that I do not have such knowledge, but let us move on to
evaluate Dembskis claim that he does.
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| Contributed by: Dr. Howard Van