Undesigned? September 2, 2013

VinnyJH asked in a recent comment a question that I too have often asked:

I’ve often wondered how someone who believes that God designed everything goes about distinguishing the characteristics of a thing that is designed from those of a thing that isn’t. If there are no undesigned things, how do you determine that any criteria can successfully make the distinction?

Proponents of Intelligent Design argue that, in the genome, we see evidence of a Designer who created complex specified information. But most of them claim to be theists, and even Christians. Yet the God who is spoken of as Creator in the Bible is responsible for the making of mountains and seas, and not just life forms.

Here is what I wrote in a post about Michael Behe back in 2007:

I still remain persuaded that the mainstream of Intelligent Design (there may be exceptions) is incompatible with the Christian faith. For instance, Michael Behe in his recent book compared Mount Rushmore to another mountain and said that the difference is that the former is designed but the latter is not. This, it seems to me, shows precisely the problem with the typical ID argument. According to Psalm 95:4-5 God is the one whose “hand holds the depths of the earth; who owns the tops of the mountains. The sea and dry land belong to God, who made them, formed them by hand.” According to this psalm, the mountains are a divine creation, and not just the parts of biological organisms that seem to some to defy explanation. To put it another way, Intelligent Design doesn’t seem able to do justice to the Bible’s viewpoint that God’s creation looks like Mount Everest rather than like the sculpted Mount Rushmore.

I followed up with another post on the topic the following month.

What do you think? Is the  argument of Intelligent Design, which treats some subset of creation as the work of a Designer, incompatible with Christian theism?


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  • I think Christian evolution deniers believe God made everything, but seem to view certain life forms or structures as more obviously displaying his hand than others. I reject this view on theological grounds because I don’t believe God hid little, irrefutable clues to his existence throughout creation. I think it would defeat the purpose of faith if someone could simply point to something like DNA and every objective person would be forced to admit that there’s a God. Then again, there are verses like Romans 1:20 that could be reasonably understood to support the opposite view.

    However, I think you touch on an important point. One line of argument advanced by the anti-evolutionists that frustrates me to no end is the idea of “common design.” Essentially, if you ever try to explain something like homologous structures to them, they will say that things just look similar because they have a common designer.

    The problem with this “theory” is that unlike evolution, it utterly fails to explain why certain things are more similar (like humans and chimps) and certain things are less similar (like humans and starfish). You simply cannot use similarity as evidence of a common designer, and also say the same designer made everything in the physical world. It is like saying the similarities between the “Mona Lisa” and the “Madonna of the Rocks” indicate they are the work of the same artist, and then saying that the same artist also painted every other painting that’s ever been painted. It’s a meaningless non-explanation.

    The same God may indeed be responsible for both the hippopotamus and the quasar (it’s what I believe), but if so, similarity is clearly not a hallmark of his design.

  • I can see how ID might be consistent with some deistic notion of a God who designs some things but lets others occur randomly, but not with the Christian notion of a God who is responsible for everything.

    • arcseconds

      Well, there’s a spectrum here, isn’t there? At the one end, you’ve got a deistic God who in some sense produced the fundamental structure of the universe, but apart from that just let it play out, almost exactly in the position of a programmer who creates an artificial life simulation.

      At the other end, you’ve got a God who is pretty much responsible for absolutely everything. Perhaps the occasionalist God is the most extreme version of this: God is personally responsible for moving the state of the Universe on from one instant to another.

      But I don’t think there are very many occasionalist Christians, and, I think, most Christians don’t think God personally arranges the weather these days, so at least the day-to-day happenings are results of the laws of physics, not God’s immediate handiwork.

      So most Christians, I reckon, do think God lets at least some things play out.

      Moreover, there are plenty of Christians who aren’t ID supporters (e.g. James, but plenty others who have more traditional notions of God, too). These people, at least, think God pretty much lets natural evolution have its way.

      • You are correct. I was thinking of a particular flavor of the Christian God.

  • Ian

    Bit of devils advocate here, because this isn’t my position.

    But if I were into ID, I’d say that the comparison isn’t between things that are designed and things that aren’t. Everything is designed by God. Some things (like mountains) don’t need to be complex, so God would have designed them to be simple. Other things (like people) are more complex, so needed more sophisticated designs.

    The real difference is in trying to exclude design from the picture. It might be possible to argue that a mountain is the way it is just by the unguided outcome of natural processes. But that isn’t surprising, because it only needed to be simple, so God didn’t need to put a lot of complexity into the design. But there are things that God designed that couldn’t possibly have come from natural causes. And by understanding that design is real, and is cruical for understanding those systems, one can establish design as a useful way of understanding all kinds of things. Including mountains.

    Or something…

    • Yes, there certainly are responses to what I wrote. But I think they are telling. Presumably a clever enough Designer could make not only organisms which then replicate without the need for repeated interventions, but a universe that can bring such organisms into existence; and a somewhat inept but powerful designer could presumably make a cosmos which brings such organisms into existence as an unforeseen result. It becomes clear that “design” is compatible with any and all evidence and so has no explanatory value.

      • Ian

        Indeed, I think the ‘who designed malaria’ is pretty much the defeater for me. Because the fundie argument for ‘why is there malaria’ is a variant of ‘evil came into the world through people’s sin’, so whence the adaptive perfection of parasites and diseases?

        But then again, in the Ray Comfort vid, he seemed to suggest that bacteria are all one thing and it is no surprise that different bacteria evolved from one another. Similarly with different fish. So as we’ve said before, if creationism allows all bacteria to evolve from the same thing, then it isn’t clear what their argument actually is. Other than human beings = special.

        • Paul D.

          “whence the adaptive perfection of parasites and diseases?”

          If pressed hard on this question, most Creationists I know would resort to saying that the Devil designed germs, parasites, and carnivores to be the way they are. (The same holds for any other “evil” phenomenon that cannot be explained by human free will and would not have existed before the Fall, like earthquakes and tornadoes.) Without realizing it, their logic forces them to adopt a Gnostic view of the world — that in its present form, our world is the work of a fallen demiurge and is not the design of God.

  • arcseconds

    It’s an interesting point, and I’ll certainly be stowing it away for some time in which I’m in discussion with an ID person.

    But like Ian, I don’t think an ID person needs to be troubled by this particularly. As I alluded to in my comment to Vinny, there’s a spectrum of positions of God’s involvement with the universe, and ID people don’t need to take the position that everything in the universe is designed. God doesn’t arrange the position of every rock in a landslide, so we do have undesigned things to look at — heaps of rocks, at the very least.

    Also, God doesn’t govern human design, presumably, so we have examples of bad design to look at (if you use a computer or look at websites, you know this).

    Moreover, isn’t one of the interesting things about ID that it can help itself to as much natural selection as it wants? Fundamentally all the position seems to assert is that some things about creatures are designed (bacterium flagella, the first lifeform, whatever…) whereas others may well have come about through natural selection.

  • arcseconds

    The point I’ve tried to make for a while about ID has some similarities with Vinny’s point.

    This is that (as far as I know, which isn’t much, feel free to correct me if you know any better) there isn’t a lot that ID commits itself to when it comes to what principles the designer is following. As a result, very little is ruled out. Even something like junk DNA, which the mayan at least seems to be treating as a potential serious challenge to ID which has been VICTORIOUSLY THWARTED (* blare trumpets*), could be explained by saying “well, you know, God has his postmodern periods, where he produces things that question our whole notion of design”.

    • And let’s not forget the Designer’s creation of malaria, an intelligently-designed killer. There are creations which would challenge the Designer’s competence, benevolence, and much else that theists have tended to want to say. It is as though none of them has ever bothered to read Hume…

      • Bradley Robert Compton

        Nobody ever reads Hume because there are already good rebuttals on the internet 😉

        • To the point about the potential impiety of design arguments?

          • Bradley Robert Compton

            The wink was meant to imply sarcasm. I think Hume deserves way more credit than evangelicals give him credit for. While I was a fundamentalist, I read plenty of “rebuttals” of Hume’s arguments. Reading his actual works was one of the things that prompted my shift in worldview.

            Edit: It might be apocryphal, but I heard at one point a friend asked Hume what he thought about all of the rebuttals floating around in regards to his work, and he replied that if they were any good there wouldn’t need to be so many of them.

          • I hoped that might be what the wink meant! 😉

      • arcseconds

        Yes, that’s a problem for a traditional YECer, but an IDer can just say “oh, yes, well, obviously impersonal natural selection has resulted in lifeforms doing nasty things to others. We don’t differ from you guys on that front. All we’re saying is that obvious not everything about the malaria plasmodium is the result of blind selection.”

        can’t they?

        • Ian

          I’m sure they could, but it would be another internal inconsistency in the story.

          The ID idea, as I understand it, is that each ‘kind’ is designed and created with a full compliment of genetic information. As time goes on, this compliment is lost, and different patterns of such loss can lead to apparently different ‘species’ or ‘breeds’. So the ancestral dog had genes for greyhound legs, and pug faces and so on, but in different subgroups different genes were lost. These loses happen regularly, so we can see that all animals are genetic timebombs, degrading from their original design.

          So malaria in that model. Either its highly specialised functioning and highly adaptive behavior is a ‘loss’ of some genetic information (which contradicts their claim that such loss is always harmful), or God put the genes required to support its lifecycle in from the start.

          Of course, to a real IDer, this wouldn’t be a problem, since actual reasons aren’t a problem when “Just because” is available as an answer. But still.

          • arcseconds

            hmm… this doesn’t really sound like what I associate with ID, but rather the more worked-up versions of YEC.

            I had the distinct impression that ID proponents commit themselves to nothing more than ‘sure, natural selection results in adaptation, but that doesn’t account for everything. Some things are clearly designed! They’re irreducibly complex, man!’.

            Which makes it a rather difficult position to counter, because they can always agree with a non-designist about any specific case.

            But perhaps I’m wrong. I must admit I haven’t really paid much attention to ID — there’s not enough hours in the day to pursue mainstream consensus views, let alone follow up fringe ideologies with all gusto.

          • Ian

            Fair enough. I wonder how many actual IDers there are.

          • arcseconds

            It’s an interesting question, especially as there’s some evidence that at least some ID people are closet full-blown creationists who are pursuing ID as part of a disingenuous subterfuge.

            On the other hand, there are an awful lot of people, many of whom are scientifically well-informed and not especially religious, and who aren’t really antipathetic toward evolution, but maintain some incredulity about whether blind processes really could come up with something like the eye.

            (Or lots of variants on ‘there has to be something more’)

  • Paul D.

    Indeed, I always thought the argument about finding a watch and inferring design from its attributes actually refuted ID, since the comparison implies that nature itself clearly does not look designed.

  • TrevorN

    You can’t determine any criteria.
    Design is a “heads they win, tails we lose” argument.
    They show us impressive examples of apparent design to appeal to our intelligence and sense of wonder, demanding we recognise the Hand of a Supreme Designer. Heads they win.
    We show them examples of apparent absent, haphazard or sub-optimal design and they insist that we simply aren’t in a position to judge, our minds being so inferior to the Mind of the Supreme Designer. Tails we lose.

  • TomS

    As I see it, the problem is that there is no description of what “design” means in the context of “Intelligent Design”. Are we supposed to identify design with creation? Or with manufacture? Is it the activity of demiurges or of a deist’s clockmaker? Does it produce some Platonic forms or things in the material world? Does design start with some prior material and reshape it to fit the purposes of the designer(s)? For an omnipotent Creator, why resort to design?

  • Hello James, you point out a real danger of intelligent design which can lead people to quite naturally rule out the possibility that God mostly works through natural processes.
    You might be interested on what I think is an insurmountable obstacle to use the design inference to prove God’s existence:

    On the other hand, I believe that due to the scarcity of data for such a long process, intelligent design proponents are quite right to point out that many conclusions of Darwinists are tentative and uncertain and that quite a few data can also be interpreted under the assumption of intelligent design.
    I find it hard to believe that God was supernaturally involved in evolution due to the evidence of BAD and poor design which cannot be explained away by ID creationists.

    But this raises a true challenge for all Christian theists: why did God create all biological life forms through such a gruesome, inefficient and cruel process?
    How do you personally deal with the theodicy question?

    I’m personally also far from being convinced it is an easier task for creationists believing God cursed everything after two persons ate the wrong fruit to reconcile the existence of evil with the goodness of God.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son