In the last decade or two we have witnessed a spirited revival of the rhetoric of design. Sometimes this translates into a modest case for a peaceful settlement of the science/religion skirmish. For the proponents of the modern Intelligent Design (I.D.) movement, however, a negotiated truce is not acceptable. Nothing short of a revolution will do. Science itself, I.D. advocates contend, must revolutionize its concept of the nature of the universe and of the action by which certain living things came to be assembled.
There is a short but growing list of biotic structures that today’s design theorists judge to be far too complex to have been formed by chance (their term for purely natural causes). Therefore, they argue, scientific considerations alone would lead any rational person to conclude that these things must have been formed by some non-natural means.
In By Design: Science and the Search for God, the journalist Larry Witham provides a concise overview of the history of the design argument as it has been variously employed over the last few centuries. Focusing our attention in this review on Witham’s engagement with I.D. rhetoric, I believe readers will find this overview helpful in placing the modern Intelligent Design movement in its historical context and in identifying the character of its claims.
One important feature of design arguments that Witham brings to light is the ambiguity and/or inconsistency with which the key term design has been used by diverse families of proponents. If I had my preferences, the rhetorical role of this ambiguity would have received even more attention, especially as it has been strategically employed by some of today’s Intelligent Design advocates. Equivocation on the meaning of key terms might function successfully in marketing a movement like I.D., but it cannot advance understanding.
Taking the book’s title at face value, to what question is by design offered as the answer? A question about purpose and intention? Or one about the kind of action needed to assemble some particular structure? In modern usage, to say that something occurred by design is to say that it occurred, not by accident or happenstance, but as the outcome of intention and planning. The action of designing is the creative, purposeful action of a mind. Hence we speak of cars and clothing as having been designedmindfully conceptualized for a purpose. Of course, the cars and clothing we see were also manufacturedassembled from parts or materials formed by hands and/or machines. But we know well the difference between the designing (purposeful conceptualizing) of things and the making (constructing or assembling) of things. One act is done with one’s mind, the other with one’s hands.
Two centuries ago William Paley spoke eloquently of what he saw as evidence for design in features exhibited by organisms or parts of organisms. Paley often called attention to the noteworthy combination of qualities exhibited by some creature that was exquisitely adapted to its environment, then proceeded to the conclusion that such a matching of creaturely qualities to environmental demands could be comprehended only as the outcome of intentional planning by a Designer. Questions about how these creatures may have been assembled were not particularly relevant. After all, special creation (the idea that each species was individually actualized by the Creator) could be offered as the way to account for the formation of any kind of creature. Design, in Paley’s natural theology, accounted not for the process of assembling something, but for the presence of creaturely qualities that gave testimony to purposeful planning.
Witham is correct to note that the agenda of today’s I.D. movement is substantially different. Going beyond mere criticism of features of evolutionary theorizing that they consider to be problematic, I.D. theorists argue that the detection of intelligent design (now with a new meaning) is itself a wholly scientific enterprise. As Witham rightly comments, however, It is for the most part a negative argument: random chance cannot explain such a world as this.
My own study of works by the I.D. theorist William Dembski affirms this judgment. When Dembski says that some biotic structure could not have come about by chance, he ordinarily means that he knows of no combination of natural causes by which that structure could have been first assembled. And if some structure could not be the outcome of known natural causes, then, the argument goes, it must be the outcome of intelligent design. To put Dembski’s rhetoric into compact form, to say that some biotic structure X was intelligently designed is to say that X was assembled in a way that required one or more instances of non-natural, non-miraculous, non-energetic, form-conferring action performed by some unidentified, unembodied, choice-making agent. In the rhetoric of the modern I.D. movement, by design is the answer to a question about the kind of action by which some particular biotic structure came to be assembled. The I.D. movement is not primarily about intention or purposeful planning; it is about how things got constructed.
In keeping with the subtitle of his book, Science and the Search for God, Witham does a commendable job illustrating the diverse ways in which that search has been conducted. To maximize the benefits of Witham’s historical overview, readers would do well to keep in mind this question: for which God is the search being conducted? God the Architect-Mind who purposefully conceptualized the universe to which being would be given? Paley’s God, the Artisan-Watchmaker who both conceptualized the world-machine and specially created its component systems? Or I.D.’s God, the demiurge-craftsman who occasionally intervened to assemble some creatures from raw materials ill equipped for self-assembling into the desired forms?
As Witham’s work illustrates, all three God-concepts have been the object of search, but it is essential for searchers to be candid about which portrait of God inspires their exploration.