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Must All the Design in the Natural World Be Front-Loaded?

But simply to allow that a designer has imparted information into the natural world is not enough. There are many thinkers who are sympathetic to design but who prefer that all the design in the world be front-loaded. The advantage of putting all the design in the world at, say, the initial moment of the Big Bang is that it minimizes the conflict between design and science as currently practiced. A designer who front-loads the design of the world imparts all the world's information before natural causes become operational and express that information in the course of natural history. In effect, there's no need to think of the world as an informationally open system. Rather, we can still think of it mechanistically -- like the outworking of a complicated differential equation, albeit with the initial and boundary conditions designed. The impulse to front-load design is deistic, and I expect any theories about front-loaded design to be just as successful as deism was historically, which always served as an unsatisfactory halfway house between theism (with its informationally open universe) and naturalism (which insists the universe remain informationally closed).

There are no good reasons to require that the design of the universe must be front-loaded. Certainly maintaining peace with an outdated mechanistic view of science is not a good reason. Nor is the theological preference for a hands-off designer, even if it is couched as a Robust Formational Economy Principle. To be sure, front-loaded design is a logical possibility. But so is interactive design (i.e., the design that a designer introduces by imparting information over the course of natural history). The only legitimate reason to limit all design to front-loaded design is if there could be no empirical grounds for preferring interactive design to front-loaded design. Michael Murray in his recent paper "Natural Providence" for the Wheaton Philosophy Conference (October 2000, www.wheaton.edu/philosophy/conference.html) attempts to make such an argument. Accordingly, he argues that for a non-natural designer front-loaded design and interactive design will be empirically equivalent. Murray's argument hinges on a toy example in which a deck of cards has been stacked by the manufacturer before it gets wrapped in cellophane and distributed to card-players. Should a card-player now insist on using the deck as it left the manufacturer and repeatedly win outstanding hands at poker, even if there were no evidence whatsoever of cheating, then the arrangement of the deck by the manufacturer would have to be attributed to design. Murray implies that all non-natural design is like this, requiring no novel design in the course of natural history but only at the very beginning when the deck was stacked. But can all non-natural design be dismissed in this way?

Take the Cambrian explosion in biology, for instance. David Jablonsky, James Valentine, and even Stephen Jay Gould (when he's not fending off the charge of aiding creationists) admit that the basic metazoan body-plans arose in a remarkably short span of geological time (5 to 10 million years) and for the most part without any evident precursors (there are some annelid tracks as well as evidence of sponges leading up to the Cambrian, but that's about it with regard to metazoans; single-celled organisms abound in the Precambrian). Assuming that the animals fossilized in the Cambrian exhibit design, where did that design come from? To be committed to front-loaded design means that all these body-plans that first appeared in the Cambrian were in fact already built in at the Big Bang (or whenever that information was front-loaded), that the information for these body-plans was expressed in the subsequent history of the universe, and that if we could but uncover enough about the history of life, we would see how the information expressed in the Cambrian fossils merely exploits information that was already in the world prior to the Cambrian period. Now that may be, but there is no evidence for it. All we know is that information needed to build the animals of the Cambrian period was suddenly expressed at that time and with no evident informational precursors.

To see what's at stake here, consider the transmission of a manuscript by an anonymous author, say the New Testament book of Hebrews. There's a manuscript tradition that allows us to trace this book (and specifically the information in it) back to at least the second century A.D. More conservative scholars think the book was written sometime in the first century by a colleague of the Apostle Paul. One way or another we cannot be certain of the author's identity. What's more, the manuscript trail goes dead in the first century A.D. Consequently, it makes no sense to talk about the information in this book being in some sense front-loaded at any time prior to the first century A.D. (much less at the Big Bang).

Now Murray would certainly agree (for instance, he cites the design of the pyramids as not being front-loaded). In the case of the transmission of biblical texts, we are dealing with human agents whose actions in history are reasonably well understood. But the distinction he would draw between this example, involving the transmission of texts, and the previous biological example, involving the origin of body-plans, cannot be sustained. Just because we don't have direct experience of how non-natural designers impart information into the world does not mean we can't say where that information was initially imparted and where the information trail goes dead. The key evidential question is not whether a certain type of designer (mundane or transcendent) produced the information in question, but how far that information can be traced back. With the Cambrian explosion the information trail goes dead in the Cambrian. So too with the book of Hebrews it goes dead in the first century A.D. Now it might be that with the Cambrian explosion, science may progress to the point where it can trace the information back even further -- say to the Precambrian or possibly even to the Big Bang. But there's no evidence for it and there's no reason -- other than a commitment to methodological naturalism -- to think that all naturally occurring information must be traceable back in this way. What's more, as a general rule, information tends to appear discretely at particular times and places. To require that the information in natural systems (and throughout this discussion the type of information I have in mind is specified complexity) must in principle be traceable back to some repository of front-loaded information is, in the absence of evidence, an entirely ad hoc restriction.

It's also important to see that there's more to theory choice in science than empirical equivalence. The ancient Greeks knew all about the need for a scientific theory to "save the phenomena" (Pierre Duhem even wrote a delightful book about it with that title). A scientific theory must save or be faithful to the phenomena it is trying to characterize. That is certainly a necessary condition for an empirically adequate scientific theory. What's more, scientific theories that save the phenomena equally well are by definition empirically equivalent. But there are broader coherence issues that always arise in theory choice so that merely saving phenomena is not sufficient for choosing one theory over another. Empirically equivalent to the theory that the universe is 14 billion years old is the theory that it is only five minutes old and that it was created with all the marks of being 14 billion years old. Nonetheless, no one takes seriously a five minute old universe. Also empirically equivalent to a 14 billion year old universe is a 6,000 year old universe in which the speed of light has been slowing down and enough ad hoc assumptions are introduced to account for the evidence from geology and archeology that is normally interpreted as indicating a much older earth. In fact, the scientific community takes young earth creationists to task precisely for making too many ad hoc assumptions that favor a young earth. Provided that there are good reasons to think that novel design was introduced into the world subsequent to its origin (as for instance with the Cambrian explosion, where all information trails go dead in the Precambrian), it would be entirely artificial to require that science nonetheless treat all design in the world as front-loaded just because methodological naturalism requires it or because it remains a bare possibility that the design was front-loaded after all.

Please note that I'm not offering a theory about the frequency or intermittency with which a non-natural designer imparts information into the world. I wouldn't be surprised if most of the information imparted by such a designer will elude us, not conforming to any patterns that might enable us to detect it (just as we might right now be living in a swirl of radio transmissions by extraterrestrial intelligences, though for lack of being able to interpret these transmissions we lack any evidence that embodied intelligences on other planets exist at this time). The proper question for science is not the schedule according to which a non-natural designer imparts information into the world, but the evidence for that information in the world, and the times and locations where that information first becomes evident. That's all empirical investigation can reveal to us. What's more, short of tracing the information back to the Big Bang (or wherever else we may want to locate the origin of the universe), we have no good reason to think that the information exhibited in some physical system was in fact front-loaded.

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Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Must All the Design in the Natural World Be Front-Loaded?

Cards on the Table
Situating Intelligent Design in the Contemporary Debate
Intelligent Design as a Positive Research Program
Nature's Formational Economy
Can Specified Complexity Even Have a Mechanism?
How Can an Unembodied Intelligence Interact with the Natural World?
The Distinction Between Natural and Non-Natural Designers
The Question of Motives


William A. Dembski
Dr. William Dembski

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See also:

Van Till: E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom...
Purpose and Design
Charles Darwin
Bacterial Flagellum
DNA Double-Helix
Books on Biology, Genetics and Theology