welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


The Return of the Design Argument

Taner Edis reviews two books about evolution and design.

The intuition that complex objects must be the result of intelligent design remains a major motivation for thinking that our world was created by a divine intelligence. In scientific circles, however, design has become another unnecessary supernatural hypothesis. Philosophers and theologians have never lost interest in design arguments, but workaday science has ignored their debates as irrelevant to the real task of explaining the world.

Even the emergence of a sophisticated anti-evolutionary movement under the ‘intelligent design’ (ID) banner has not changed many scientists’ attitudes. Intelligent Design has had a negligible effect on mainstream science; it only attracts attention due to the unending creationist attempts to interfere with science education. Scientists would prefer philosophers to deal with ID, preferably by producing a conceptual argument to rule it out of scientific consideration. Call it unfalsifiable, a violation of methodological naturalism, whatever – anything to make ID go away. Philosophers are overrepresented among defenders of ID, so there is even more reason for scientists to hope that more mainstream philosophers can keep ID out of their hair.

William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse’s volume Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA suggests that such hopes might be misplaced. It gathers essays on evolution and design from philosophers, theologians, and theology-minded scientists. Some want to confine science and religion to separate spheres, others express discomfort both with the naturalism of today’s science and with opposition to evolution, and some – the ID proponents – claim a new scientific revolution. With few exceptions, the contributors focus on philosophical and theological questions rather than on scientific details. The book produces an overall impression that while the ID movement itself enjoys little support in intellectual circles, some remarkably ID-like intuitions have wide currency. Most of the writers are concerned to make room for God in the universe described by science, and keep suggesting that Darwinian evolution is inadequate, or that information is something mysterious. Similar themes are emphasized by ID proponents, only more explicitly. The question, then, becomes one of whether or not philosophers and liberal theologians can be counted on to oppose, not just ID, but any ‘ID-lite’ theories that may also come along.

There is much in the book that is good; for example, Michael Ruse contributes a very useful short history of the design argument, and for getting a taste of some of the current philosophical and quasi-scientific attempts to find a divine design behind the universe, this book is a must-read. Theologically conservative ideas such as ID, more liberal critiques of ID, and speculations about signs of a God who does not interfere with nature as obviously as in ID are all well-represented. Still, most contributions will leave the scientifically aware reader with the feeling that something is lacking.

Elliott Sober, one of the few included who do not just affirm evolution but also criticize the notion of divine design, makes some very good points, especially concerning the cosmological fine-tuning version of design arguments. However, he puts too much emphasis on the argument that we cannot infer divine design as we have no idea what the theistic God would design. For the generic, near-meaningless God of the Philosophers, Sober is correct, but religious traditions, including those currently enthusiastic about ID, do not propose a God whose ways are so completely mysterious. Even ID proponents, who can be infuriatingly vague about the identity and intent of their designer, imagine an at least somewhat anthropomorphic designer. William Dembski claims that he can make a ‘design inference’ based on ‘complex specified information’ being the signature of intelligence. He says that the only known sources of such information are personal agents, and claims that his methods successfully identify known instances of design. In any case, Dembski says that he has a way of detecting design even with no knowledge of the purposes of the designer. As it happens, Dembski’s methods are abject failures, but demonstrating their failure requires more than just a philosophical analysis.

Some of the contributions have little to do with design except for suggesting that Darwinian evolution somehow needs to be augmented, or engaging in a kind of mystification of physics to hint that the current biological picture of evolution is significantly incomplete. Stuart Kauffman, for example, provides a rambling essay full of characteristically over-ambitious speculations, and Paul Davies contributes an article attacking atheistic straw men. No doubt an enterprising philosopher could find room for their ideas in a design argument, but the connection seems forced. Other articles are worse: Bruce H. Weber and David J. Depew try to pose self-organization as an alternative to a caricaturized ‘hyperadaptationist’ Darwinism, ending up with a heady combination of bad biology and bad physics in service of their theology; James Barham toys with ID-like ideas, similarly wedding what seems to be a tedious kind of mysticism to nonlinear dynamics. This is the kind of physics-abuse that is more familiar from New Age writers than from old-fashioned theistic religion (though there is some value in seeing how well they go together).

Then there are the theologians. Normally, liberal theologians are allied to scientists in the fight against creationism but with ID, the alliance might become more shaky. The book’s section on theistic evolution includes essays by well-known figures such as John F. Haught, John Polkinghorne and Keith Ward. Haught appears concerned to salvage some sort of special metaphysical knowledge to add onto evolutionary science. Thus, every time science removes God from sight, theologians can now locate divinity at a ‘deeper’ level. All well and good, especially if it prevents religious people from objecting to science education, but this sounds an awful lot like seeking reassurance that Santa Claus is real. Fortunately, besides building castles on air, Haught also flirts with some claims with real-world consequences. However, he bizarrely asserts that ‘self-giving love’ drives evolution, and tries to flesh this idea out with some ID-lite intuitions about design mixed together with confusion about the role of chance in scientific explanations.

Polkinghorne reaches toward a more substantial anti-materialism. His essay is interesting not for its dubious approach to science, but for how close it comes to ID without actually moving into anti-evolutionary territory. Ward’s chapter does not add much; as with some other contributors, he seems to have trouble with the concept of randomness. In fact, all the theological excursions in this volume seem intellectually sterile. They only superficially engage science, yet continue to insist that God is still at play in the world without saying much about what the divine intelligence actually does. It is easy to understand why ID proponents are frustrated with liberal theology and want to make strong, science-related claims about divine design and action. Whatever value theological reflection might have within a community of believers, mainstream theology about evolution is completely useless for persuading outsiders that God had anything to do with the world.

ID, for all its gross scientific errors, at least attempts to construct a concrete claim for design. The book includes representative essays by Dembski, Michael J. Behe, and Stephen C. Meyer, which present outlines of all the standard ID arguments. Another chapter, by Walter L. Bradley, gets lost in a wrongheaded discussion of thermodynamics and attempts to elevate remaining scientific puzzles concerning the origin of life into a conceptual problem in evolutionary theory. Now, Dembski, Behe, and Meyer are also mistaken. Many scientists have examined their claims in detail and addressed how ID goes wrong. Nevertheless, when compared to all the ID-lite and metaphysical meandering in the rest of the book, ID-proper is refreshing. Indeed, there is something honorable about the way the ID movement does not evade questions about God and evolution, and gets its hands dirty in trying to make real scientific claims. ID proponents are wrong, but liberal theologians are all too often not even wrong.

Gerald Schroeder’s book The Hidden Face of God, on how science is supposed to reveal God, would be good comic relief after the more academic tedium in Dembski and Ruse. It would not be worth reviewing, though, if not for Antony Flew. Flew, an atheistic philosopher of some note, recently announced being persuaded by ideas similar to ID. Flew’s conversion to deism got some good press coverage, and praise by the ID movement. Interestingly, Flew stated that he was particularly impressed by Schroeder’s book.

Schroeder was already known for his popular books about how science has rediscovered a spiritual realm. He produces high-class crankery; for example, in previous books he equated the six days of Genesis to billions of years by using general relativity – God in a gravity well. The Hidden Face of God continues along the same lines. This time, though, the book has a more New Agey feel. It reads like inspirational literature peppered with scientific-sounding handwaving. Schroeder takes consciousness to be a physical fundamental, repeating many standard New Age misrepresentations of modern physics. Even the kabbalah makes an appearance – the New Age meets Jewish mysticism by way of ID.

Though Schroeder proudly claims to be a PhD physicist, he keeps making errors that should embarrass an undergraduate; for example, he throws out ‘hf = mc2’ in the context of de Broglie waves. He consistently tries to combine quantum mechanics and folk-physical intuitions, making a complete hash of modern physics (see Mark Perakh’s critique of Schroeder on talkreason.org). He also claims, in classic ID fashion, that information in the universe just appears as given, with no physical origin. This leads to a number of strange statements, such as his interpreting gauge particle exchange as a photon having the wisdom to find an electron. Being clueless about how life and evolution fit very nicely with the second law of thermodynamics, he speaks of life getting hold of the wisdom or information to ‘outwit’ the second law. Presumably without external infusions of information, entropy would swallow all. All of this is profoundly silly.

Besides needing a new physics education, Schroeder needs to learn more about evolution. Though he accepts the common ancestry of life forms, he thinks of evolution as a progressive unfolding, and fiercely denounces the Darwinian mechanism. He uses classic creationist rhetoric about the mathematical improbability of Darwinian evolution. But his main argument is similar to that of ID proponents. He spends many pages describing the intricate complexities of molecular biology, and simply declares all of this too complex to be assembled by naturalistic means. Unsurprisingly, he does the same with the complexities of the brain, brushing away any materialist approach to the mind as inherently impossible. No one should read this tiresome book for any serious purpose other than to find examples of popular science-abuse.

Flew’s being impressed not just with ID but the sort of cheap ID presented by Schroeder is, perhaps, a source of concern for philosophers. However, the popularity of books like Schroeder’s, and even the more serious ID movement in general, has to be an embarrassment for scientists. Clearly, the question of design remains of interest to philosophers, but any philosopher who wants to say something worthwhile on either design in general, or ID in particular, should pay closer attention to current science – certainly not, as Flew did, on popular science-inspired tripe. Moreover, scientists should do their own dirty work. It will not do to expect philosophers to deal with the threat the ID movement poses to science when the most solid arguments against ID come from within science. Theologians, in particular, promise to be of very little help, as too many seem to take an ID-lite approach in their own reflections on Darwinian evolution.

© Taner Edis 2005

Taner Edis is assistant professor of physics at Truman State University, and co-editor with Matt Young of Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism (Rutgers Univ. Press, 2004).

• William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse, eds., Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

• Gerald L. Schroeder, The Hidden Face of God: Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X