Intelligent Design or Natural Design
I’m going to begin by taking you on a personal tour of my own
thinking about intelligent design over the past 60 years.
It began in 1945 when I was a 14 year old at Mt Albert Grammar.
Our Fourth Form English teacher decided we should learn the skills of
debating. The topic chosen was “Creation versus Evolution”. And I, as an
ardent young Baptist, volunteered, along with a Seventh Day Adventist,
to take up the cudgels on behalf of Creation.
But even before the debate began, I found myself cast in the role of
While preparing, it dawned on me that the case against evolution
foundered on an ambiguity between two meanings of the simple word
“creation”: the concept of general creation, and the concept of special
To believe in the theological doctrine of general creation is merely
to believe in a God who created the universe. Clearly, I could, without
inconsistency, believe in general creation and also believe in the Theory
of Evolution. I simply had to regard Darwinian natural selection as one of
the laws of nature that God built into his creation.
To believe in special creation is to believe in addition that God, in
a series of subsequent acts, created the first living organisms and then, at
different times, each of the different species.
The God of special creation is an intervener in the operations of
nature. The creator in whom I came to believe – for a while – is not.
Making this simple distinction gave me temporary respite from the
intellectual conflict in my mind at that time. I’d already become skeptical
about the Genesis story of God’s recent rapid-fire creation. Like fifth
century St. Augustine I concluded that these biblical literalists deserved
to be “laughed to scorn” for their “utterly foolish and obviously untrue
Adopting Augustine’s more figurative interpretation, I was able to
reconcile my belief in intelligent design with belief in evolution.
Renouncing the beliefs of theistic anti-evolutionists I adopted those of
So far, so good. But other questions soon arose.
How about the doctrine of revelation, belief in which is a defining
condition of being a theist? Could I really accept the Christian view that
God had revealed himself in the words of the Old Testament prophets and
the New Testament “Son of God”? Most of the stories had the quality of
myth, not history. And many portrayed God as worse than Satan
himself, his Son’s doctrine of hell-fire being most repugnant. Besides,
why should I believe in this version of revelation rather than some other?
There were numerous sacred texts, all claiming divine inspiration. If a
supreme being existed and wanted to reveal himself to us, why didn’t he
do so in an indisputably authoritative way? No rational answer being
available to this or other questions I was asking, I soon came to abandon
belief in all forms of revealed religion.
Yet I still wasn’t ready to abandon the gods altogether. For a time I
sought intellectual comfort in the best arguments of natural religion: the
First Cause and Design arguments. Both have appeal to those who don’t
believe in revelation but still believe there must be some sort of Supreme
Being or Higher Power who made the universe the way it is.
Without being aware of the fact, I was embracing the position of
the deists – thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and
David Hume – none of whose writings I’d yet read.
But that embrace was brief. It didn’t take long to see that both their
arguments faced the horns of a dilemma. Either the universe itself could
exist without being designed or created, or the designing and creating
deity must himself have been designed and created. So either we were left
with the universe where we started or we launched ourselves on the path
of an infinite regress.
My mother, when I was but six years old, was flummoxed by my
question, “Who made God?” Not surprising! You can’t explain why
something exists rather than nothing by postulating the existence of
something else as well. For then you’ve got two things whose existence
demands to be explained. And appeal to a third, then a fourth, and so on,
only increases the burden. Asking for explanations within the universe is profitable. But asking for explanations of the universe launches you on a quest for a cause that eludes you forever.
The last residuum of my supernaturalistic beliefs eroded away
about the same time. Having rejected the gods and devils of religion, I
soon rejected all other beliefs in the paranormal: those countenanced by
the Psychical Research Society – disembodied spirits, and the rest.
Free at last, I embraced a wholly naturalistic ontology – a worldview
that accepted the universe, it contents, and the laws of nature, as
brute facts neither needing, nor capable of, further explanation. I had
become an unabashed atheist (though a closet one while still living with
That all occurred before my eighteenth birthday.
Disenchanted with religion, I turned my interests to science and
then to philosophy.
I would happily have followed a career in science – especially
Biology – had not the appeal of Philosophy been still stronger.
The greatest philosophers in the analytic tradition (Aristotle, for
example) aspired to the kind of wisdom that would enable them to put the
competing demands of all belief-systems into some sort of perspective
with a view to adjudicating between them. I shared their aspirations, and
during my subsequent career as an academic philosopher developed some
of the skills required for their achievement.
Science, I came to realize, doesn’t rule out the possible existence of
a supernatural world. It isn’t logically committed to metaphysical
naturalism. But it is committed to methodological naturalism, the view
that, in our attempts to understand how the world works, we should look
for naturalistic explanations rather than taking easy recourse to
supernatural ones. The successes of science in bridging the gaps that used
to be plugged by the gods creates a strong presumption in favour of the
idea that gods not only aren’t needed but don’t exist. It doesn’t prove, but
it does probabilify to a high degree, the truth of metaphysical naturalism.
And by the same token, it makes all supernatural beliefs highly
In my own mind the battle over design had been fought and won. I
subsequently looked on in dismay as the intellectual troglodytes of
creationism – referred to as “Scientific Creationism” since the 60s – tried
to resuscitate their old arguments, singling out remaining gaps in our
understanding of biological phenomena as suitable places for inserting
the hand of God. Why pick on the unknowns of evolution, I wondered?
Why not invoke the almighty to explain what yet remained for science to
discover about the precise mechanisms behind the occurrence of
earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes? Or diseases, for that matter? The
Old Testament made God the direct cause of all such dread occurrences.
Yet Creationists were silent on the issue.
Over the years, I have increasingly come to appreciate the extent to
which science gives evolutionary theory credentials as good as any other
scientific theory. It rests on mutually supporting and interlocking
empirical evidence drawn from a host of sciences: not just natural history,
but cosmology, astronomy, physics, biochemistry, geology, plate
tectonics, palaeontology, population genetics, ecology, anthropology,
comparative anatomy, etc. Even Newton’s theory of gravitation and
Einstein’s theory of relativity can’t claim such a broad interdisciplinary
Evolutionary theory itself doesn’t pretend to explain biogenesis,
how the first forms of life began. That is the province of other areas of
science: organic chemistry and molecular biology among them. So far as
I know scientists haven’t yet reached a consensus on which account will
stand the test of scientific scrutiny. But there’s no good reason to suppose
that present gaps in our understanding can’t be filled in future.
Fast forward to the 1990s, and the latest kind of talk about
intelligent design, sometimes referred to as “Intelligent Design Theory”
(as if it were on a par with the grand theories of science) but nowadays
more simply as “ID”.
Contrary to many critics, the new ID movement isn’t merely a
rehash of the earlier Scientific Creationism of Henry Morris and Duane
Gish. ID’s high priests – the likes of lawyer Philip Johnson, biochemist
Michael Behe, and philosopher William Dembski – have introduced new
elements into the old debate.
First, they have introduced an alleged criterion for determining just
which phenomena call most loudly for the agency of intelligence.
According to them the hand of an intelligent designer is needed to explain
what they call the “irreducible complexity” of some organisms – those
whose simpler parts, in their view, would not have had survival value and
hence could not have been put together by the mechanisms of evolution.
Alleged examples include biogenesis, the flagella of E. coli, and the
human immune system.
Second, the new ID “theory” has introduced – perhaps unwittingly –
the possibility of a third theistic position between that of theistic
antievolutionists who reject evolution in its entirety and theistic
evolutionists who accept it in its entirety.
Behe, for example, accepts the broad outline of evolutionary
theory. He accepts the idea “that all organisms share a common ancestor”,
for instance. But he insists that irreducible complexity can only be
explained by the intervention of an intelligent designer. Behe accepts
evolution so long as it is punctuated with acts of creation. His position
can be described as that of a theistic quasi-evolutionist.
The chattering classes seldom explore the details of Behe’s
position. What matters to them is that here we have a biochemist
proclaiming that no-one working in his discipline has managed to
understand how life works at the molecular level. The result of their
cumulative failure, Behe claims, “is a loud, clear, piercing cry of
‘Design’.” Continuing, he writes: “the result is so unambiguous and so
significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements of
the history of science.”
As for just who did the designing, Behe is deliberately vague. His
own candidate for that role is the God of evangelicals. But his highly
generalized talk of a “designer” leaves it open as to which particular god
or gods did the designing. Like his fellow ID proponents, he casts the net
of verbal entrapment wide enough to snare the sentiments of anyone who
merely thinks some “higher power” did it.
Little wonder that ID has beguiled many who should know better.
A case in point is that of Antony Flew, one of the icons of
twentieth century atheism, a fellow-philosopher and – along with me and
Richard Dawkins, Richard Leakey, and others – an Honorary Associate of
the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists.
To my dismay, Flew recently announced that he now believes in
some sort of God. Why? Mainly because the claims of ID had convinced
him that “It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about
constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing
organism.” His conclusion was that “intelligence must have been
As for which intelligence did the designing, Flew has vacillated. He
has flirted with a number of different candidates, the gods of pantheists,
of deists, of theistic evolutionists, and of theistic quasi-evolutionists. He
has even given hints of believing in the God of theistic anti-evolutionists
by saying that the book of Genesis “might be scientifically accurate.”
It seemed to me that Flew had lost his bearings. So, as an old
acquaintance from the 1960s, I decided to tell him so. Hence my “Open
Letter to Professor Antony Flew” now available on the Secular Web and
about to be printed in the journal of the NZ Rationalists and Humanists.
I mailed Flew an advance copy of my Open Letter, together with a
covering note. I reminded him that famed Oxford philosopher Gilbert
Ryle had been mentor to both of us and that Ryle used to talk of
Philosophy as an exercise in “conceptual geography”, the exploration of
the “logical liaisons” of various concepts, doctrines and theories. I
therefore enclosed a copy of a logical map which I said “should enable
you to keep clearly in view the way I see the conceptual terrain into
which you have ventured (a terrain in which, I submit, you have lost your
CONCEPTS OF DESIGN AND THEIR LOGICAL LIAISONS
My map doesn’t tell you what positions on the terrain you should
choose as the habitation for your beliefs. But it does tell you, once you
have found your home, what you are committed to accepting and
rejecting as a matter of logic and probability theory.
Let’s begin with the position at the top left-hand corner of my map.
Labelled “Natural design” this represents the set of beliefs of those
who, like Richard Dawkins, believe that the natural world comprises all
that exists and that the laws of nature that describe its operations suffice,
by themselves, to design and produce all its complexities, from the first
living creatures to its most complex structures like the human brain.
Eighteenth century William Paley had argued that these could only have
been produced by a Great Watchmaker. Dawkins argues to the contrary,
that the laws of nature themselves – including those of evolution – have
worked by themselves to produce all the wonders of nature before which
we stand in awe. Nature is the designer: it is a “Blind Watchmaker” that
has no prevision of its final product.
Now let’s look at some of the logical liaisons between natural
design and other theories.
Note, first, that it is inconsistent (as shown by the crossed line)
with all versions of intelligent design, such as those described in the
rounded boxes to its right, plus a host of others that don’t usually feature
in the current debate so are not depicted here.
Note, too, that each of these different concepts of intelligent design
is a logical contrary of each of the others. Hence all could be false.
Obviously enough, belief in natural design implies (see the arrow)
belief in metaphysical naturalism, a world view whose ontology
comprises all and only the set of natural (physical/material) objects, their
simple and emergent properties and relations. Naturalism has no room,
for instance, for the idea that our minds could survive our bodily deaths.
To suppose the contrary would be to commit what I call the “Cheshire
Cat” fallacy, as depicted in Lewis Carroll’s story of the cat that faded
away until only its grin remained. As if a grin could have substantial
existence independent of the physical face of which it was a property!
Although naturalism is incompatible with belief in supernatural
gods it isn’t incompatible with a certain kind of “god”-talk, e.g., the so-called
“God” of pantheists such as the seventeenth century philosopher
Spinoza and latter-day physicists Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.
They, however use the term in a semantically deviant way. For them God
is identical with nature. Thus, when asked whether he believed in God,
Hawking answered: “Yes, if by God is meant the embodiment of the laws
of the universe.” The kind of design that pantheists admit, and before
which they stand in awe, is precisely that of naturalist design. Hence,
pantheists are metaphysical naturalists.
Now let’s turn to Methodological Naturalism, i.e., the scientific
method of searching for natural causes. Philosopher of science, Karl
Popper, called it the process of conjecture and refutation. Likewise,
immunologist and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar described it as “the
invention of a possible world, or of a tiny fraction of that world. The
conjecture is then exposed to criticism to find out whether that imagined
world is anything like the real one.”
Religionists frequently object to the fact that science restricts itself
to the search for natural causes only. Why, they ask, do scientists close
their minds to the possibility of supernatural ones?
There’s a very good reason. There are too many possible deities
whose agency can be invoked. Infinitely many, in fact. Just think of the
range of possibilities embraced within theism. Judaism, Christianity and
Islam are just the start of it. Each has its own sects and offshoots. And
more are in the making every day.
Mind you, there are infinitely many possible natural agents that can
also be imagined. So the difference doesn’t lie in mere numbers. It lies,
rather, in the fact that naturalistic explanations are answerable to the
tribunal of experience and that this tribunal eliminates any that don’t pass
its tests. Supernaturalistic hypotheses, by way of contrast, simply don’t
admit any evidence to count against them. But a hypothesis that’s
compatible with anything and everything that might occur can’t explain
why in fact this occurs rather than that. In order to be a candidate for scientific status, a hypothesis must be falsifiable. That is to say, it must be possibly false. Only then can the screening practices of science get rid of those hypotheses that are actually false, and thus bring us closer to the truth. There aren’t any such practices for the evaluation of
Methodological naturalism has produced the whole panoply of
empirically established facts and theories that we now draw upon to
explain why the world works as it does. Supernaturalistic explanations
have fallen by the way. The graveyard of the gods isn’t yet full. But gone
are the deities of the ancient Egyptians, Vikings, Aztecs, and the like, all
of whom once played a role in filling the gaps in human understanding of
how nature works. Relatively few of those gaps are left. And filling them
with any surviving gods won’t help.
Like other scientific theories, evolutionary theory is falsifiable.
Likewise, with prototype biogenetic theories. Both would be shown false,
for example, if there were conclusive evidence of the universe having
been created, as Lord Kelvin thought, somewhere between 20 and 400
million years ago (about 98 million, he finally thought). For then there
would not have been enough time for nature to do its work.
That the universe has been in existence for probably 12-15 billion
years, and the earth for about 4.5 billion years is now well attested.
Hence the logical conflict between science and all those creation
myths, including those of Maori and Aborigine, which commit
themselves to more recent beginnings.
Consider the creation myth of Scientific Creationists. By adding up
all the “begats” in the Old Testament adherents of that myth calculate the
beginnings of the universe at 4,000 BC, and that of Noah’s Flood at about
What can they say when confronted by evidence of the age of the
cosmos and our planet? Or evidence that life began on earth over 4 billion
years ago, that dinosaurs became extinct some 63 million years ago, and
that fossils of our hominid ancestors have been shown by potassiumargon
dating to be well over 3 million years old?
They could, perhaps, say that all this evidence shows their beliefs
to be false, hence falsifiable, and that it therefore qualifies on this score at
least for the description “scientific”.
But, of course, they don’t say this. Rather, they tack on an ancillary
hypothesis that “saves” their story by making it unfalsifiable.
They adopt the ploy of nineteenth century Philip Gosse and say
that God created the universe with all this contrary evidence – all the
accoutrements of grand deception – built into it. They can then say that
God put the fossils, for example, in place so as to “test our faith”. It
seems not to bother them that this hypothesis makes God the perpetrator
of an enormous hoax as well. A great deceiver, not just a great designer.
Of course, a God who would play that sort of mind-game could also have
created the universe just two minutes ago, replete with all evidence to the
contrary including our pseudo-memories of having been alive well before
that. There’s no way to disprove that creation story either.
Passing from such absurdities, let’s move on to the kind of
intelligent design promoted by those I’ve called theistic quasievolutionists.
How scientific is it? Although scientists can literally see
complexity in the biological world, especially at the molecular level, they
can’t, even metaphorically, see the irreducibility of any complex organs
or organisms. Behe can’t produce empirical evidence of irreducibility. He
therefore argues for it using linguistic legislation. So you don’t know how
nature could have been assembled the parts of an organism exhibiting
complexity? Label the complexity “irreducible” and attribute it to an
His argument is a bad one, a form of the Argument from Ignorance
– a rehash of the “God of the Gaps” fallacy. Faith-based. Not evidence-based. In any case, the new ID “theory” doesn’t pinpoint the identity of the
supposed designer. It could perhaps, as Dembski admits, be a space alien.
Or, we might add, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The vague postulate that
the designer is some intelligent being or other isn’t falsifiable. So ID
theory doesn’t even meet this requirement for scientific status.
This brings us the position of those I’ve called theistic
evolutionists. They don’t have a problem about accepting the findings of
science in general or of evolution in particular. And they don’t lay claim
to scientific status for the articles of their faith.
But their position is still fraught with problems, especially that of
competing revelations. Like all theists, they believe in an intelligent
designer who reveals himself in some sacred text or other. But which
text? The Bible? The Koran? The Book of Mormon? So many
alternatives. And the choice between them is usually settled by unchosen
circumstances of birth and upbringing.
And there’s another problem. Suppose you’ve settled on the text
favoured by most ID supporters: the Bible. Then, whether you’re a
biblical literalist or figurativist, you’re faced with a dilemma. Either God
doesn’t mean what he says in his texts, or he doesn’t know how to say
what he does mean. So either his word can’t be relied on, or he’s
linguistically incompetent. Neither quite fits with the theistic concept of a
Retreat from revelation, then, and opt for the simplest form of
intelligent design, that of the deists.
Two insurmountable problems remain.
If you think an intelligent designer designed the universe, then how
about the unsavoury aspects of his design? Disasters like earthquakes,
tsunamis, and hurricanes. Distress, devastation and death caused by
diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, and the ID theorists’ favourite: the E.
coli bacterium. If complexity of design demonstrates supreme
intelligence, then by the same token the “god-awful” nature of much of
that design demonstrates supremely malevolent intelligence. Is that the
concept of a designer that you want to subscribe to?
And finally, there remains the design dilemma I talked about
earlier. If you feel that rationality requires you to look for an explanation
of the universe in a realm beyond it, then you’ll have to find an
explanation of that other world as well. Or do you think you can stop just
one tier up? We know that the spatio-temporal world exists. Why not stop
there and accept it as a brute fact? Why postulate a creator and then –
refusing to set foot on the infinite regress of explanations – take his
existence, instead, as a brute fact? Isn’t it more comforting, as well as
more rational, to believe in design by impersonal forces of nature rather
than design by a personal deity who’s guilty of wanting it that way?
Raymond Bradley is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy in New Zealand.