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Undesirable Intelligent Design is Still Intelligent Design

I thought I would add a few thoughts to David Klinghoffer’s insightful comments on the “Centre for Unintelligent Design.” Its proprietor, Keith Gilmour, offers a list of features from life and nature that he says show “unintelligent design” but in fact are best classified as illustrating “undesirable design.” Looking at the website, I also noticed that Gilmour misunderstood and/or misrepresented an email exchange with University of Warwick sociologist Steve Fuller. Because this is a challenge that comes up often, it’s worth clarifying.

Fuller wrote, apparently in response to Gilmour’s sending him a link to the website:

Dear Keith,

Thanks for this. You might perhaps make more headway with ID people if you understood the position better. The problem of apparent “unintelligent design” in nature is one that people with ID sympathies have long tackled. Simply look up the literature on “theodicy.”

Steve Fuller

To which Gilmour replies:

Dear Prof Fuller,

I am immensely grateful to you for your “stunning” reply to my recent email. In just one line, you inadvertently “destroy” the notion that ID is science:

“The problem of apparent ‘unintelligent design’ in nature is one that people with ID sympathies have long tackled. Simply look up the literature on ‘theodicy.'”

By admitting that “unintelligent design” is a branch of theology, you necessarily admit that “Intelligent” Design is also a branch of theology.

Not quite what I was expecting, but absolutely priceless!

Many thanks again,

Keith Gilmour

The response from the “ID people” that Fuller mentioned is as follows: Those who cite alleged examples of undesirable design are making a theological argument, and since ID is a scientific argument, those theological arguments don’t refute ID. Contrary to Gilmour’s claims, “By admitting that ‘[undesirable] design’ is a branch of theology,” Fuller did NOT “admit that ‘Intelligent’ Design is also a branch of theology.”

That’s because, if you take the time to read ID responses on this topic, they point out that “undesirable design” arguments do not refute ID arguments precisely because “undesirable design” arguments are theologically based, whereas ID is NOT!

As a science, ID doesn’t address theological questions about whether the design is “desirable,” “undesirable,” “perfect,” or “imperfect.” Undesirable design is still design. Gilmour just doesn’t like it because (in his own subjective view) it’s undesirable. Here’s a quick illustration of what I mean:

I’m writing this on a PC using Windows; this PC has crashed probably a dozen times in the past two weeks. Right now, I hate my PC. I consider it poorly designed, full of imperfections, and very undesirable. Does that mean it wasn’t designed by intelligent agents? No. “Undesirable design” and “intelligent design” are two different things. “Undesirable,” “poor,” or “imperfect” design do not refute intelligent design.

In speaking of “unintelligent design,” Gilmour misuses the term “intelligent,” ignoring how ID proponents use it. By the word “intelligent,” ID proponents simply mean to indicate that a structure has features requiring a mind capable of forethought to design the blueprint. Thus, ID proponents test ID by looking for complex and specified information, which is an indicator that some goal-directed process, capable of acting with will, forethought, and intentionality, was involved in designing an object.

We do not test ID by looking for “perfect design” or “undesirable design,” because minds don’t always make things that are “perfect,” and sometimes they make things that are “undesirable” (to other minds, at least). Holding biological systems to some vague standard of “perfect design” where they are refuted by “undesirable design” is the wrong way to test ID. Examples like broken machinery, computer failures, and decaying buildings all show that a structure might be designed by an intelligent agent even if it subsequently breaks or shows flaws. Intelligent design does not necessarily mean “perfect design.” It doesn’t even require optimal design. Rather, “intelligent design” means exactly what it sounds like: design by an intelligent agent.

“Undesirable design” arguments share three general problems, some or all of which can be found in each of Gilmour’s 130 examples. Here are the three main problems:

  • (1) An object can have imperfections and be undesirable, but still be designed.

  • (2) Critics’ standards of perfection are often arbitrary.

  • (3) “Bad design” arguments don’t hold up under their own terms, as the objects often turn out to be well designed when we inspect them more closely.

Problem (1) applies to every single example Gilmour gives. Problems (2) and (3) apply to many, though not all, of his examples. In fact, some of them are legitimate examples of undesirable design. I mean, who likes “easily worn out knees” or hernias — both examples of how our bodies break down? Objectively speaking, those are flaws or imperfections. But as much as you might not like “undesirable design,” they don’t refute ID because ID is a scientific argument that isn’t concerned with the moral value, perfection, or desirable/undesirable quality of a structure. Computers break down but were still intelligently designed. In the same way, the fact that our bodies break down doesn’t mean they weren’t intelligently designed.

Gilmour’s website implies designers must always design things so they NEVER break down. But I’m not aware of a single example of human-designed technology that never breaks down. Undesirable qualities, breakdowns, and imperfections are a normal part of intelligently designed objects; they don’t refute intelligent design.

I would say to Keith Gilmour and the many others who adopt his approach: Stop playing games and just lay your cards on the table. You are arguing against the idea that an all-perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful God created everything, because you claim that if such a God existed then there would be no flaws in nature. In essence, you are raising the “problem of evil.” So you’re arguing against a different, much broader thesis than intelligent design. You are making a theological argument, not a scientific one.

For millennia, the Judeo-Christian theistic tradition has offered theological explanations for how a perfect God can exist, even as we observe undesirable and evil things in nature. But these issues are separate from ID. Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne wrote, “It seems to be generally agreed by atheists as well as theists that what is called ‘the logical problem of evil’ has been eliminated, and all that remains is ‘the evidential problem.'” Obviously, I don’t deny that evil can be hard to cope with, which is why I like C.S. Lewis’s words when he wrote in The Problem of Pain:

[T]he only purpose of the book is to solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering; for the far higher task of teaching forgiveness and patience I was never fool enough to suppose myself qualified, nor have I anything to offer my readers except my conviction that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.

So I think one can be a traditional theist and a scientific proponent of ID — I personally fit into this category. But again, these questions are separate questions from the science of ID, as ID doesn’t specify the “desirability” or “perfection” of the design. Familiarizing himself with ID arguments would help Keith Gilmour to better understand why Dr. Fuller was right to note that “You might perhaps make more headway with ID people if you understood the position better.” I hope Gilmour and other likeminded folks take that piece of good advice and come to understood the ID position a bit better.


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.



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