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God, Design, and Contingency in Nature

I recently received an email asking if the correspondent correctly understood my views about intelligent design and God. Since I sometimes get similar questions, I’m posting this correspondence for anyone who is interested.
Q: I understand your current position to be that design is detectable in nature, and that design detection is not merely a theological gloss upon the scientific facts, but is actually an activity appropriate for science. I further understand you to be saying that design detection in itself is neutral regarding the way that the design found its way into nature. Thus, if the bacterial flagellum is designed, it *could* be that God took a regular bacterium and miraculously “tweaked” it, or it *could* be that God “front-loaded” the evolutionary development of the bacterial flagellum, in a manner similar to that suggested by, say, Michael Denton. Design detection as a science cannot rule on these things; all that it can show is that Darwinian mechanisms, all by themselves, could not have produced integrated structures such as the flagellum. If there was not direct intervention (tweaking, guiding, steering, etc.) or advance planning (“front-loading”), neo-Darwinian processes would never have been able to produce all the complex varieties of living things that we see today. Have I got your current position correct?
Me: Yes, that’s exactly right.
Q: Then there is the question whether your views have changed over the years. Someone I know claims that in your early writings and early conference appearances, you said directly, or gave the strong impression, that some things (A, B, C …) were brought about by wholly natural processes, whereas other things (X, Y, Z …) were brought about by design (the implication being that “designed” in your early thought was opposed to “natural”). My acquaintance’s picture of Behean evolution would then be something like this: evolution in the early oceans chugs along on its own, via neo-Darwinian and other stochastic processes, as various sorts of marine worms and sponges and so on develop. But then, during the Cambrian Explosion, God takes a direct hand and literally reshapes marine worms into 30 or so new phyla, after which things go on by natural means again, until the next limit is reached, and God has to disrupt the normal flow of nature again (maybe to create land animals, or mammals, or birds, or man). Thus, there would be a jerky, stop-and-start sort of evolution, with chance/natural law causes alternating with fits of miracles. So, looking at any given creature, science would have to say things like: “Human lungs — evolved by blind mechanisms from primitive air bladder; human camera eye — required special intervention from intelligent designer; bacterial cell walls — evolved by blind chemical mechanisms; bacterial flagellum — was made by a bolt of divine lightning.” Etc. Given this understanding of your views, one can see why my acquaintance or other TEs would characterize ID as “God of the gaps” reasoning. My question is: Was it *ever* your view that ID *required* such a jerky view of evolution, and more generally that it required miraculous intervention (breaking the causal nexus, violating the laws of nature)? Or was it always the case that your view *allowed for* jerky, stop-and-start evolution, and *allowed for* miraculous intervention, but did not *require* these things?

Me: My views have not changed over the years but, as I think for most people, the more you chew over a topic, and the more you discuss it with other folks, the more one realizes there can be depths of nuance that one might not at first blush have realized. In the scenario you discuss above I think a couple issues get conflated, chiefly the question of whether some biological features were or were not intended by God, versus the question of whether science, given the underlying laws of nature, can or cannot determine they required design. Clearly God could intend specific things to happen that science cannot determine with its methods were the result of design. As a cartoon example, suppose God intended a pattern of leaves to fall on my lawn this autumn. However, the pattern had no discernible special feature as far as science could tell. It looked like the result of happenstance. In that case God specifically intended the particular arrangement of leaves, but science cannot detect the design. On the other hand, if God intended a pattern of leaves on my lawn that spelled out the words “Lay off the beer, buster!”, then of course science — that is, the consideration of empirical evidence — could detect the design. Both patterns in reality were the result of God’s will, but empirical methods can only detect one of them. As Bill Dembski pointed out a while ago, one needs both improbability and specification to conclude design from physical evidence.
I think the word “jerky” above tends to bias discussion, guiding readers toward the conclusion that things that can happen by natural law must be punctuated (thanks, Stephen Jay Gould) with designed or guided events. Yet even if one thought that all events fell into either of the two categories “lawful” or “guided,” there is no need for any observable history of the world to reflect that. The two categories could be so intimately intertwined that no observation could disentangle the two. Nonetheless, I don’t think one has to view events falling into two discrete categories, designed versus not designed. There are some Christians (the über-philosopher Alvin Plantinga is one, I think) who view *everything* as intended. As far as design theory goes, they may well be right. That is, God may indeed have intended each and every event that ever occurred in our universe. However, the question for science is, what events can we from the empirical evidence conclude were designed? That is what ID theory is concerned with.
My own view is that there is real design in the universe and also real contingency. That is, there are events whose outcome, although permitted, was not specifically intended for themselves by God. (Harkening back to the cartoon example above, God may in fact not have intended that specific, apparently random pattern of leaves on my lawn, and I see no particular reason to think that He did.) There are also events that were specifically intended by God, in my view. As I try to explain in The Edge of Evolution, the more we know about nature, the more deeply into life specific design is seen to extend. It may go even more deeply than we can conclude from today’s empirical evidence (and I think it very likely does) but I don’t think there’s any need to conclude that specific design is required to explain the difference between dogs and wolves, or between the different varieties of finches on the Galapagos, let alone the pattern of leaves on my lawn.

Michael J. Behe

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael J. Behe is Professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978. Behe's current research involves delineation of design and natural selection in protein structures. In his career he has authored over 40 technical papers and three books, Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA that Challenges Evolution, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, and The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, which argue that living system at the molecular level are best explained as being the result of deliberate intelligent design.