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Bad News for the “Theist on the Street”

Photo: Bald eagle, by Carl Chapman, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Is mainstream evolutionary theory compatible with a biology-based argument for intelligent design? That’s the argument of theologian Rope Kojonen’s book, The Compatibility of Evolution and Design (CED). Kojonen contends that evolution (and biology) rightly understood actually point to design. His book is perhaps the best treatment available of design and evolution from a theistic evolutionary point of view. But does it succeed?

Casey Luskin, Brian Miller, Emily Reeves, and I have published a peer-reviewed article that analyzes Kojonen’s proposal. Here I will provide an epistemological critique. We’ll see that Kojonen’s model undermines itself by raising obstacles to design detection — including the very design detection that he uses to undergird his own design argument. 

Kojonen defends the perspective of what he calls the “theist on the street” — an everyday believer in God who accepts design based on direct perception or intuition rather than a rigorous design argument. Yet it turns out that his model actually undermines such a person’s design beliefs.

The Model

We summarize his model as follows:

The details of his proposal are manyfold, but the basic idea is straightforward: the locus of design is at the origin of the cosmos (or the laws of nature) (CED, pp. 164–67). God acts at the beginning of the universe, granting to it all that is necessary for biological complexity to eventually unfold. The deity creates the laws of physics and chemistry, which then give rise to preconditions — including “the library of forms” — that enable evolution to produce complex entities. Random mutations and natural selection alone are insufficient for the emergence of biological complexity; preconditions are required, and God ultimately stands behind these preconditions (CED, pp. 97–143).1

So God designed the laws of nature, which then give rise to laws of form and other processes, which eventually produce all flora and fauna. Thus, a person who sees, say, a hummingbird for the first time can rightly intuit (or infer) that it was designed. It’s just that the locus of its design was billions of years earlier and that natural processes transmitted and unfolded this design over time.

The Problem: Part 1

What’s wrong with this picture is that it harms humans’ ability to detect design in the first place. This is for two primary reasons, which build on each other. The first is that it damages a human’s “direct design” beliefs. A “direct design” belief is a belief that a certain type of thing, like a hummingbird, was created by the immediate action of a designer rather than by mediated or secondary causes. As we explain:

In our lived experience, humans readily attribute direct design to various types of biological phenomena. (This is not only true of “theists on the street”, for example, but also of some other people as well.) For example, consider a person who sees a hummingbird for the first time. A natural reaction is to think that this type of bird was directly designed. (“Wow! That’s spectacular. Somebody made that!”) In fact, humans often experience things like hummingbirds as distinct entities — what Axe (2016, pp. 65–86, esp. 71) calls “busy wholes” or what one might call “natural kinds”. That is, humans often experience an entity like a hummingbird as a certain type of thing, and they naturally believe that this type is the result of direct design. By contrast, it is rarely the case that, upon seeing a hummingbird for the first time, a typical person would say, “Wow! That’s specular. Somebody indirectly created that by a process of secondary causes over millions of years”. Instead, many people believe that a designer directly crafted the first instance of a given specimen or feature. (“God made the first hummingbirds, then they reproduced”.) Whether rightly or wrongly, human beings routinely apprehend (or infer) direct design when they encounter the power, beauty, and complexity of organisms or organs.2

So how does Kojonen’s model affect this type of experience? Here’s how:

Yet in Kojonen’s model, these beliefs in direct design are uniformly false. In his view, there is no direct design of biological phenomena. All biological diversity and complexity are the result of indirect design. The locus of design was billions of years prior to the advent of life on Earth. (Indeed, even if Kojonen were to locate direct design at the origin of life, all subsequent flora and fauna would still be the result of indirect design.) This simply follows from Kojonen’s understanding of design (and of evolution). So, if Kojonen’s proposal were true, human beings who accepted his view would have a serious defeater for their ‘direct design’ beliefs about biological organisms and features. They would realize that they have little or no grounds to trust their minds in this context.3

So, in this model, a person would have lots of defeaters for her “direct design” beliefs about biological phenomena. 

But on what basis does Kojonen know that the laws of physics are directly designed? After all, “direct design” beliefs in biology are unreliable and, on his model, biology (alone) has sufficient evidence for design. As we explain:

[H]ow would a person in this general situation know that the laws of physics and chemistry were directlydesigned, as Kojonen believes them to be? Recall that his argument for design is supposed to be based on biological phenomena. But if his model were correct, humans would have no cases of biological things that seemed to be directly designed actually turning out to be directly designed. So, if there are no such cases — and these cases are the basis for believing that the laws of nature are directly designed — then the ground for believing that the laws are directly designed is very poor indeed. If a baseball player strikes out in his first 23 plate appearances, what basis does he have to believe that he will get a hit at his next at-bat?4

The bottom line is that Kojonen undermines his own basis for saying that the laws of physics are directly designed. If so, then he has lost his case for design. The whole point of his model is that biology provides good evidence of design even if evolutionary theory is true. But his view of biology actually undermines his view of design. Whether a person is an expert or an everyday “theist on the street,” anyone who accepts Kojonen’s model can no longer locate design where Kojonen needs it to be.

The Problem: Part 2

 A second problem, building on the first, likewise damages a human’s ability to detect design. A person who accepts Kojonen’s proposal would have significantly less ground for saying that biological phenomena provide evidence of design. This is because his model, to bring about all the flora and fauna in our world, relies on non-agent causessubsequent to the Big Bang. A non-agent cause is any cause that does not include the direct action of an agent. Most non-agent causes are physical in nature. They include, but are not limited to, evolutionary causes. Practically speaking, what does this mean?

For example, if Kojonen’s model were true, a person who accepted the model would believe that, despite her ostensible prima facie belief that, say, a designer directly crafted an eagle’s eye or the first hummingbirds, it is actually the case that each of these phenomena are proximately explained by non-agent causes. For each biological organism or feature, there would be continuity of non-agent causes from before that entity’s existence that led up to (and through) the advent of that entity. Indeed, this continuity would extend all the way back in time. (In fact, there might not be any particular reason, based in biology, to think there was a big bang.) A person who accepted this model would believe that non-agent causes gave (proximate) rise to case after case of biological complexity. The same would be true for human beings, too. An unbroken chain of non-agent causes from the ancient past would extend up to (and through) the rise of the first humans, whoever they happened to be.5

The problem is that “continuity” attenuates (or erases) evidence of design in biology. Given the continuity of non-agent causes to produce all biological phenomena, what basis is there in Kojonen’s model to say that any particular biological entity was designed? Recourse to fine-tuning in astrophysics or the Big Bang in cosmology is no help: the whole point of Kojonen’s model is that biological phenomena point to design. But if every biological entity arose from prior material causes (or non-agent) causes, on what grounds can one say that a mind was needed? Kojonen’s model destroys the detectability of design. There might still be ultimate design (at the beginning of the universe) but the evidence of design — based on biological phenomena — has been obscured.

Arguably, “mainstream” evolutionary theory — which rejects appeals to God in biology — expects strong continuity of natural causes in organic history: there’s no need to invoke God to account for the rise of any particular “kind” because natural causes are held to be sufficient. “Continuity” is just what one would expect if a non-theistic version of evolution were true — namely, that direct design beliefs are uniformly false and that, instead, natural processes appear to be capable of morphing one “kind” into another “kind” over time. Such a view is decidedly unexpected on the pre-theoretic lay theist’s default disposition toward direct design of biological kinds. Mainstream evolutionary theory pushes the theist on the street in precisely the wrong direction. Accordingly, it obscures the detectability of design for such a person. Insofar as Kojonen’s model accepts “mainstream” evolution (as he says it does), his model faces this significant epistemological difficulty.

An Eagle’s Eye

This means that Kojonen’s own biology-based design argument no longer works. After all, such an argument requires that biological design be detectable. If design cannot be detected, it cannot be parlayed into a rigorous argument. This same line of reasoning also undermines the ability of a “theist on the street” to detect design. Insofar as she accepts Kojonen’s model, she would have to regard her initial impression of direct design — of, say, an eagle’s eye — as mistaken. She’d now believe that God didn’t create the first instance directly; instead, it came about by an unbroken chain of material causes (or non-agent causes) throughout the entirety of organic history. For all that she can tell (based on biology), there is no need for recourse to a Mind. Thus, she no longer has grounds to trust her common-sense intuition of the design of the eagle’s eye — or for that matter of any other flora or fauna.     

So much for the design intuitions of everyday theists. For more on Kojonen’s book, see here.


  1. Dilley et al., p. 4. References to endnotes removed.
  2. Dilley et al., pp. 27-28. The reference to Axe 2016 is: Douglas Axe, 2016. Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. New York: HarperOne.
  3. Dilley et al., p. 28, original emphasis.
  4. Dilley et al., p. 28, original emphasis. Endnote removed. Wording slightly altered to match final version (pending).
  5. Dilley et al., p. 29, original emphasis.