Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology

Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology

by William A. Dembski

Intelligent Design is a pivotal, synthesizing work from a thinker whom Phillip Johnson calls "one of the most important of the design theorists who are sparking a scientific revolution by legitimating the concept of intelligent design in science." See more details below


Intelligent Design is a pivotal, synthesizing work from a thinker whom Phillip Johnson calls "one of the most important of the design theorists who are sparking a scientific revolution by legitimating the concept of intelligent design in science."

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Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Until recently, the argument for design--that nature (especially living organisms) shows the hand of an intelligent artificer--was generally viewed as an abandoned relic of the pre-Darwinian past. Dembski and his colleagues at the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture have worked over the past decade to rehabilitate the concept of "intelligent design" not only as a plank of natural theology but as a theoretical resource within science. This collection of essays represents Dembski's efforts to remedy the conceptual fuzziness and lack of empirical content that plagued older versions of the design argument. Dembski recasts design as a problem in information theory, of empirically detecting the "complex specified information" that we attribute to intelligent causes. Although design inferences in biology or cosmology are obviously controversial, Dembski aims to normalize them by comparison to similar inferences routinely made in cryptography, forensic science and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)--the latter being an especially effective counterexample to the claim that detecting unknown intelligences is impermissible as a scientific project. The book also presents more theologically oriented essays, including an especially astute analysis of the demise of British natural theology and an evocative (if unsympathetic) description of what Dembski sees as the "religious" character of scientific naturalism. Other material interspersed throughout the collection is less clearly related to intelligent design but gives a sense of Dembski's overall theological perspective. Readers who are principally interested in intelligent design itself, or who do not share the authors' theological interests, may find this distracting. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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Chapter One

Recognizing the Divine

1.1 Homer Simpson's Prayer

In an episode of the animated television series The Simpsons, Marge triesto tell her husband Homer that she is pregnant with their third child."Can't talk now—praying," he interrupts.

Dear Lord, the gods have been good to me and I am thankful. For the first time in my life everything is absolutely perfect the way it is. So here's the deal: you freeze everything as it is and I won't ask for anything more. If that is okay, please give me absolutely no sign. [pause] Okay, deal. In gratitude, I present to you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, please give me no sign. [pause] Thy will be done.

    What's wrong with Homer's prayer? Assuming God is the sovereignruler of the universe, what is to prevent God from answering Homer'sprayer by providing no sign? Granted, usually when we want God toconfirm something, we look for something extraordinary, some sign thatleaves no doubt about God's will. But presumably God could have madeit thunder when Homer asked God to freeze everything and God couldhave made the earth to quake when Homer asked to eat those cookiesand milk. Presumably it is just as easy for God to confirm Homer's prayerwith no sign as to disconfirm it with a sign. What then is wrong withHomer's prayer?

    Certainly Homer's prayer is self-serving. He clearly wants his life tostay the same, and he also wants to consume those cookies and milk.Since signs are by definition rare, by asking for no sign Homer isvirtuallyguaranteeing that the cookies and milk will be his to consume. As for hislife staying unchanged, that's a different matter. Homer's wife Marge isafter all pregnant with their third child, a fact that in short order willdestroy the "absolute perfection" of Homer's life. Nonetheless if we omitHomer's self-interest, it's not immediately evident what's wrong with hisprayer. In the case of the cookies and milk, Homer wants God to confirma course of action by the absence of a sign. Logically this is equivalent toGod confirming the opposite course of action with a sign. "If you wantme to eat these cookies and milk, give me no sign" is logically equivalentto "If you give me a sign, then you don't want me to eat these cookies andmilk."

    There is, however, an asymmetry between tying a course of action to asign and tying it to no sign. To see this, consider what would have happenedif Homer's prayer had gone something like this:

I present to you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, please give me no sign. [loud thunder] Since it's raining outside, I expected the thunder. Thank you for giving me no sign. [powerful earthquake] Since we live on a geological fault, mild tremors aren't out of the ordinary. Thanks for giving me no sign. [radio comes on unexpectedly and the announcer describes the carcinogenic effects of cookies and milk] This part of the country is known for weird atmospheric disturbances, so thanks for giving me no sign. [loud voice exclaims, "Homer, you big dummy, this is God—don't eat those cookies and milk!"] Whoa. Back in my teenage years I used to drop acid. I've had flashbacks and weird mystical experiences ever since. So, God, thank you for giving me no sign. Amen.

The prayer being ended and no sign being given, Homer consumes thecookies and milk.

    What's wrong with this prayer? Certainly it seems that Homer is rationalizingaway a whole series of signs. By asking for the absence of a signto confirm eating the cookies and milk, Homer is equivalently asking fora sign to disconfirm eating the cookies and milk. Such signs seem to havebeen given to him in abundance, and yet Homer rationalizes each ofthem. Here then is the problem in seeking confirmation through theabsence of a sign. By praying for the absence of a sign, Homer fails tospecify a sign. Thus any putative sign that comes along is easily rationalized—"that'snot the sort of sign I was looking for."

    Likewise, praying for a sign to confirm something is useless unless thesign is specified. Only if a sign is specified can we avoid rationalizing itonce it occurs. So long as no sign is specified, the instruction give me nosign to confirm eating these cookies and milk is not only logically but alsofunctionally equivalent to give me a sign to disconfirm eating these cookiesand milk. So long as no sign is specified, it won't be clear whether an eventactually does constitute a sign or is merely a coincidence. Indeed a sign isnot properly a sign unless it is specified.

    To see this, consider the sign that would have convinced the atheistphilosopher Norwood Russell Hanson to become a theist:

I'm not a stubborn guy. I would be a theist under some conditions. I'm open-minded.... Okay. Okay. The conditions are these: Suppose, next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world are knocked to our knees by a percussive and ear-shattering thunderclap. Snow swirls, leaves drop from trees, the earth heaves and buckles, buildings topple and towers tumble. The sky is ablaze with an eerie silvery light, and just then, as all of the people of this world look up, the heavens open, and the clouds pull apart, revealing an unbelievably radiant and immense Zeus-like figure towering over us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lightning plays over the features of his Michelangeloid face, and then he points down, at me, and explains for every man, woman and child to hear: "I've had quite enough of your too-clever logic chopping and word-watching in matters of theology. Be assured Norwood Russell Hanson, that I do most certainly exist!"

    Hanson has here specified a sign and connected it to personal faith inGod. If that sign were to happen, Hanson would be obligated to become atheist. Contrast this with Homer Simpson. Homer connects eating cookiesand milk to an unspecified sign. Because Homer specifies no sign, anythingthat happens can be rationalized to permit eating the cookies andmilk.

    Although Hanson was clearly having a bit of fun, his challenge illustratesseveral important truths about signs in guiding human decision-making.First, a sign must be clearly specified—otherwise it can berationalized away. Second, the sign must be extraordinary. That's not tosay it need constitute a miracle. But it must depart from the ordinarycourse of events. Third, the sign must be clearly tied to some decision.Thus if the sign happens, it must be clear what is to be done or believed.In Hanson's case he would be obliged to believe in God if the sign herequested came to pass. Finally, signs are contingent. In other words, theycan happen but don't have to happen. Free agents produce signs and arejust as capable of granting them as withholding them. It follows that theabsence of a sign provides no guide to decision-making. Thus if the signHanson requested does not come to pass, its absence justifies neitherbelief nor unbelief in God. In chapter five we shall see how these truthsabout signs, provide the basis for how to detect intelligent causes andtherefore design. The search for signs is the search for an intelligent agent.

1.2 Signs in Decision-Making

Let us now examine these truths about signs more closely. We will call theagent who looks for a sign the sign-seeker. Moreover, we will call the agentfrom whom the sign is sought the sign-giver. The sign-seeker looks for asign from the sign-giver in order to reach a decision. To leave no doubtabout which sign corresponds to which decision, the sign-seeker specifiesa sign. In specifying a sign the sign-seeker makes clear which events conformto the sign and which don't. For instance, if the sign specified by thesign-seeker is obtaining a million dollars, then winning a million dollarsat a lottery or inheriting a million dollars would both be instances of thesign. On the other hand, going bankrupt would contradict the sign. Notethat signs can have time limits. Thus if the sign does not happen withinthe specified time limit, the sign becomes null and void.

    Having specified a sign, the sign-seeker needs to connect that sign to adecision. The sign and the decision will therefore be connected in the followingsort of conditional, what I call a test-conditional:

If the sign happens, then I will decide such-and-such.

Deciding such-and-such may mean committing an act, uttering a statement,embracing a belief or forming a desire. Alternatively it may meanrefraining from an act, keeping silence, chucking a belief or quashing adesire. Just as the sign needs to be specified, so does the decision. In specifyingthe decision the sign-seeker must be clear which courses of actionor beliefs conform to the decision and which do not. For instance, if thedecision specifies donating a million dollars to education, then giving themillion to either one's high school or one's college would both count.Blowing the million gambling in Las Vegas, on the other hand, would not.

    Both the sign and the decision need to be precisely specified. If eitheror both are fuzzy; then decision-making based on signs becomes fuzzy aswell. Only by precisely specifying both the sign and the decision can thesign-seeker's decision-making remain unbiased and disciplined. To seethis, consider the following test-conditionals:

FF: If she resists my advances, then I won't bother her.

FC: If she resists my advances, then I'll immediately break off all contact with her.

CF: If tonight she refuses to let me touch her, then I won't bother her.

CC: If tonight she refuses to let me touch her, then I'll immediately break off all contact with her.

    The sign-seeker here is a Lothario, and the sign-giver is the woman hehopes to seduce. The "F" and "C" labeling these conditionals stand for"fuzzy" and "clear" respectively. In the conditional labeled FF both thesign and the decision are fuzzy. Indeed a self-absorbed male convinced ofhis prowess is unlikely to interpret any act as resisting his advances (shortof, perhaps, a knee to the groin). And how could such a self-absorbedmale interpret any attention he devotes to a woman as bothering her? Theconditional labeled FF is so fuzzy that it permits the Lothario to doexactly as he pleases. Contrast this with the conditional labeled CC. Inthis conditional both the sign and the decision are clear. The woman'ssteadfast refusal to let him touch her tonight will be clear. So, too, will hisdecision to immediately break off all contact with her.

    Interestingly the conditionals labeled FC and CF, though containing aclear element, are just as fuzzy as the conditional labeled FF. Indeed thefuzziness in the sign of FC and in the decision of CF destroys any residualclarity. Consider the conditional labeled FC. Since the Lothario interpretsvirtually all genuine resistance as "playing hard to get," the decision toimmediately break off all contact with her can be deferred indefinitely.Fuzziness in the antecedent of FC subverts the clarity in the consequent.Similarly fuzziness in the consequent of CF subverts the clarity in theantecedent. The sign in this conditional is clear enough. But the Lothariowill construe his decision not to bother her so broadly that any attempt atseduction will be considered fair game. FF, FC and CF are equally useless.Only CC provides an effective guide to decision-making.

    To recap, the sign-seeker specifies a sign and a decision and then connectsthe two in a test-conditional: If sign, then decision. If the sign actuallydoes happen, the sign-seeker is then committed to carrying out the decision.Consequently everything hinges on the sign. Let us therefore turn tothe agent capable of giving the sign, namely, the sign-giver. If the sign-givergives the requested sign, everything proceeds straightforwardly.This is simply a matter of logic. The sign-seeker accepts the conditional ifsign, then decision. If the sign-giver gives the sign, the sign-seeker is thenobligated to follow through with the decision.

    By giving the sign, the sign-giver presumably endorses the sign-seeker'sdecision. But what if the sign-giver refuses to give the sign? Does thatmean the sign-giver endorses the opposite decision? Consider, for instance,the medieval practice of trial by ordeal. The sign-seeker here is the courtand the sign-giver is God. The court takes someone accused of a crime andinflicts on that person a wound. If the wound heals within an allotted time,then the accused is judged innocent (note the test-conditional: if the woundheals, then deem the accused innocent). Normally the wound would take along time to heal. But since God (= sign-giver) is capable of healing thewound much more quickly, swift healing is taken as a sign by the court(= sign-seeker) that the accused is innocent.

    But what if God refuses to perform the requested sign? Does that meanthe accused is guilty? Hardly. God is a free agent and under no obligation toact when a human court says to act. Indeed God may so despise trials byordeal that he refuses utterly to provide the signs they request. Trials byordeal attempt to force God's hand. A sign-giver, however, is always free notto give a sign. Moreover, that refusal to give a sign must properly be interpretedas silence and not as endorsing some course of action. If the sign-givergives the requested sign, the sign-seeker will not only reach a decision butwill also be justified thinking the sign-giver endorsed that decision. On theother hand, if the sign-giver does not give the requested sign, the sign-seekeris not therewith justified in forming a decision. Indeed any decisionmade in the absence of that sign lacks the endorsement of the sign-giver.

    This asymmetry between a sign and its absence is evident throughoutScripture. Gideon, for instance, asked a sign from God to confirm whetherhe should go to war with Midian. The condition Gideon put to God was ofthe form If you make the fleece in my barn on alternate nights wet and dry, thenI'll wage war against Midian. Because God performed the sign, Gideon wentto war with Midian. (Note that my intent with the Gideon story and theexamples that follow is not to argue for the historicity of such Scripturalnarratives but simply to show how they illustrate the use of signs andtherewith the detection of design.)


Excerpted from Intelligent Design by William A. Dembski. Copyright © 1999 by William A. Dembski. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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