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Why Can’t Intelligent Design Critics in Synthese Accurately Represent Their Opponents?

Casey Luskin

The most recent issue of Synthese contains a variety of condescending articles against intelligent design (ID). But a few articles do attempt to make actual critiques of ID. The problem is that they don’t accurately represent the actual arguments of ID proponents. Can’t these top-rate philosophers rebut ID without misrepresenting the arguments?

The article by Niall Shanks and Keith Green repeatedly misrepresent intelligent design as appealing to “divine agency.” It’s all based on a commonly used misquote of Bill Dembski’s that many ID critics, especially Barbara Forrest, love to use.

Speaking of Barbara Forrest, she has a condescendingly titled paper in the issue called, “The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy.” From the very first sentence, her paper openly and unashamedly misrepresents intelligent design, stating:

Intelligent design creationism (ID) is a religious belief requiring a supernatural creator’s interventions in the natural order.

It goes downhill from there, which is what you’d expect if your definition of ID misrepresents what ID proponents actually say. She also can’t help but pull out the “theocracy” card: “Such sentiments reflect the alliance of some ID proponents with Christian Reconstructionism (CR), also called ‘Theocratic Dominionism,’ a far-right form of Christianity with repressive public policy goals.” What else did you expect from Barbara Forrest, who ironically is herself an activist for atheism?

Finally, Sahotra Sarkar’s article misrepresents intelligent design. Like Forrest, Shanks, and Green, he also misrepresents how ID theory interacts with the identity of the designer, stating: “ID proponents are usually–though not always–quite clear that the designer is not supposed to be a physical entity.” While many ID proponents do believe that the designer is God, they make it clear that this is not a conclusion of the theory of ID itself, which respects the limits of scientific inquiry and does not try to identify the designer. Numerous ID proponents have explained this point, some of which I review at “ID Does Not Address Religious Claims About the Supernatural.”

Apparently neither Sarkar, nor Forrest, nor Shanks nor Green have read the preeminent book by a pro-ID philosopher, Signature in the Cell, which explains this point:

The theory of intelligent design does not claim to detect a supernatural intelligence possessing unlimited powers. Though the designing agent responsible for life may well have been an omnipotent deity, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine that. Because the inference to design depends upon our uniform experience of cause and effect in this world, the theory cannot determine whether or not the designing intelligence putatively responsible for life has powers beyond those on display in our experience. Nor can the theory of intelligent design determine whether the intelligent agent responsible for information life acted from the natural or the “supernatural” realm. Instead, the theory of intelligent design merely claims to detect the action of some intelligent cause (with power, at least, equivalent to those we know from experience) and affirms this because we know from experience that only conscious, intelligent agents produce large amounts of specified information.

(Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, pp. 428-429 (HarperOne, 2009).)

Another inaccurate statement by Sarkar hits at the fundamental basis of his thesis. He argues that ID is “incoherent” and “not intelligible” and therefore supposedly cannot be judged at all as to whether it is science or nonscience. As seems to be the theme in this issue of Synthese, Sarkar attacks ID without regard for what ID proponents say. He states that “In the voluminous corpus of its proponents, there seems to be no attempt to define ‘intelligence’ in any way whatsoever. Except in analogy to intelligent human agents, we are not told what it means.”

Apparently Sarkar is not familiar with the many ID publications that have defined intelligence and evaluated its capabilities. He dismisses this quote from Dembski as an “analogy to human design” when in fact it provides exactly what he claims doesn’t exist:

(1) A designer conceives a purpose. (2) To accomplish that purpose, the designer forms a plan. (3) To execute the plan, the designer specifies building materials and assembly instructions. (4) Finally, the designer or some surrogate applies the assembly instructions to the building materials. (No Free Lunch, p. xi)

Dembski’s statement observes that the actions intelligent agents are comprehensible, and alludes to the fact that we know they act with forethought, will, and intentionality to solve some complex problem. It’s this precise ability that gives intelligent agents their unique ability to generate high levels of specified complexity. Stephen Meyer explains how our ability to study and understand the actions of intelligent agents allows us to construct a positive case for design:

As Berlinski (2000) has argued, genetic algorithms need something akin to a “forward looking memory” in order to succeed. Yet such foresighted selection has no analogue in nature. In biology, where differential survival depends upon maintaining function, selection cannot occur before new functional sequences arise. Natural selection lacks foresight. What natural selection lacks, intelligent selection — purposive or goal-directed design — provides. Rational agents can arrange both matter and symbols with distant goals in mind. In using language, the human mind routinely “finds” or generates highly improbable linguistic sequences to convey an intended or preconceived idea. … Analysis of the problem of the origin of biological information, therefore, exposes a deficiency in the causal powers of natural selection that corresponds precisely to powers that agents are uniquely known to possess. Intelligent agents have foresight. Such agents can select functional goals before they exist. They can devise or select material means to accomplish those ends from among an array of possibilities and then actualize those goals in accord with a preconceived design plan or set of functional requirements. Rational agents can constrain combinatorial space with distant outcomes in mind. The causal powers that natural selection lacks — almost by definition — are associated with the attributes of consciousness and rationality — with purposive intelligence. Thus, by invoking design to explain the origin of new biological information, contemporary design theorists are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence. Instead, they are positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation.

(Stephen C. Meyer, “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Vol. 117(2):213-239 (2004).)

Likewise, in Dembski’s recent book, Intelligent Design Uncensored he and Jonathan Witt explain how our understanding of the way intelligent agents act allows us to formulate a positive argument for design:

We know from experience that intelligent agents build intricate machines that need all their parts to function, things like mousetraps and motors. And we know how they do it — by looking to a future goal and then purposefully assembling a set of parts until they’re a working whole. Intelligent agents, in fact, are the one and only type of thing we have ever seen doing this sort of thing from scratch. In other words, our common experience provides positive evidence of only one kind of cause able to assemble such machines. It’s not electricity. It’s not magnetism. It’s not natural selection working on random variation. It’s not any purely mindless process. It’s intelligence — the one and only.

(William Dembski and Jonathan Witt, Intelligent Design Uncensored: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the Controversy, pp. 20-21 (InterVarsity Press, 2010).)

In the same book they show the comprehensibility of intelligent action by boiling the process of intelligent design research into three steps which provide a positive determination that intelligence is the best explanatory cause for observed data:

When we attribute intelligent design to complex biological machines that need all of their parts to work, we’re doing what historical scientists do generally. Think of it as a three-step process: (1) locate a type of cause active in the present that routinely produces the thing in question; (2) make a thorough search to determine if it is the only known cause of this type of thing; and (3) if it is, offer it as the best explanation for the thing in question.

(William Dembski and Jonathan Witt, Intelligent Design Uncensored: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the Controversy, p. 53 (InterVarsity Press, 2010).)

Thus, Meyer and Dembski agree that this sort of a positive account of design shows exactly why ID is a compelling explanation for the origin of features that require a goal-directed origin.

Dembski uses the same logic when he writes in The Design Inference that “[t]he principle characteristic of intelligent agency is directed contingency, or what we call choice.” (The Design Inference, p. 62.)

Likewise, in The Design of Life, the very definition Dembski and Jonathan Wells give for intelligence helps us to understand how intelligent agents operate:

A type of cause, process, or principle that is able to find, select, adapt, and implement the means necessary to effectively bring about ends (or achieve goals or realize purposes). Because intelligence is about matching means to ends, it is inherently teleological. (Dembski & Wells, The Design of Life, glossary.)

Dembski and Wells thus write that ID “holds that intelligence is fully capable of … interacting with and influencing the material world, and thereby guiding it into certain physical states to the exclusion of others … intelligence can itself be a source of biological novelties.” (The Design of Life, p. 109.) They make further observations about how intelligent agents operate:

We know from experience that when people design things (such as a car engine), they begin with a basic concept and adapt it to different ends. As much as possible, designers piggyback on existing patterns and concepts instead of starting from scratch. Our experience of how human intelligence works therefore provides insight into how a designing intelligence responsible for life might have worked. (The Design of Life, p. 140).

In Dembski’s book Understanding Intelligent Design, he and his co-author write that “[f]unctional information is regularly observed to result from an intelligent mind” (p. 128) and he writes, “When intelligent agents act, they leave behind a characteristic trademark or signature known as specified complexity. By recognizing this feature, we can distinguish intelligently designed objects from those that are the result of unintelligent natural forces.” (p. 102)

As a final example, my chapter in the book Intelligent Design 101 also explores the definition of intelligence:

An intelligent agent is any personal being with the ability to think with will, forethought, and intentionality in order to achieve some predetermined goal it has conceived.
As noted, the theory of intelligent design begins with observations about how intelligent agents act when they design objects. Scientists observe that when intelligent agents act, they are capable of using foresight, will, and intentionality to solve complex problems. Design theorist William Dembski has observed, “The principle characteristic of intelligent agency is directed contingency, or what we call choice.” By observing the sorts of choices that intelligent agents commonly make when designing systems, we can make a positive case for intelligent design, using predictable, reliable indicators of design.

For example, consider a hunter who sees that large bison live in herds in the middle of expansive, open plains. … There are innumerable things that the hunter could build, but in order to survive he must find a specific and complex solution that meets the design constraints. The hunter can solve this problem because he is an intelligent agent who can think with the end-goal in mind, and imagine ways to solve the problem that would be highly unlikely to arise via natural processes.

Design theorist Stephen C. Meyer explains that this is precisely how intelligent agents act. They think with the end goal in mind to produce unlikely configurations of matter to solve a problem: “Agents can arrange matter with distant goals in mind. In their use of language, they routinely ‘find’ highly isolated and improbable functional sequences amid vast spaces of combinatorial possibilities.”

Design theorists have thus observed that when intelligent agents act they produce high levels of complex and specified information. Something is complex if it is unlikely, and it is specified if it matches a preexisting pattern. Meyer explains that language, machines, and computer codes are prime examples of designed objects with large quantities of complex and specified information:

[W]e have repeated experience of rational and conscious agents–in particular ourselves–generating or causing increases in complex specified information, both in the form of sequence-specific lines of code and in the form of hierarchically arranged systems of parts. Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source from a mind or personal agent.

(Casey Luskin, “Finding Intelligent Design in Nature in Intelligent Design 101: Leading Experts Explain the Key Issues, pp. 69-73 (Kregel, 2008) (internal citations removed).)

It seems clear that not only have ID proponents spent much time defining intelligence and exploring the behavior of intelligent agents, but they have used such studies to formulate positive arguments for design.

Thus, because we observe that intelligent agents have the unique ability to employ will, forethought, and intentionality in order to achieve some pre-determined end-goal, when we find structures in nature that require such a goal-directed or teleological process, we can infer the prior action of an intelligence.

Intelligent agents seem to work in ways that we can understand, which allows us to make predictions about the types of unlikely patterns they will produce — informational patterns which require a goal-directed, purposive process to originate. Despite Sarkar’s claim that “there seems to be no attempt to define ‘intelligence’ in any way whatsoever” in anything written by ID proponents, the truth seems to show that ID theorists are constantly elucidating the capabilities of intelligent agents and using such studies to make predictions about what we should find if an object was designed.

Sarkar’s argument that ID is “not coherent” fails. On the plus side, Sarkar admits that “philosophically controversial demarcation criteria” are a bad way to rebut ID. Sarkar even turns his argument that demarcation objections are misplaced into a critique of Judge Jones’ ruling:

Nevertheless, if the argument of this paper is sound, Jones need not have entered this controversial territory even though the legal precedent he put in place–as he suspected–may turn out to be a commendable social service in the long run.

So we see Sarkar essentially acknowledging that Judge Jones’ ruling should “not have entered into this controversial territory,” but he’s glad he did because it rebutted ID. Apparently for anti-ID philosophers, ends justify the means–i.e. bad arguments are OK if they give you the result you want. My guess is that Sarkar is also a big fan of outcome based jurisprudence.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.