The Design Inference from Specified Complexity Defended by Scholars Outside the Intelligent Design Movement

Mr. Peter Stephen Williams, MPhil

by Peter S. Williams (MA, MPhil)

Southampton, England

The quality of a scientific approach or opinion depends
on the strength of its factual premises and on the depth and consistency of its
reasoning, not on its appearance in a particular journal or on its popularity among
other scientists.

Stephen Jay Gould, amici curiae,
Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals

According to mathematician and philosopher William A. Dembski, “given an event,
object, or structure, to convince ourselves that it is designed we need to show
that it is improbably (i.e. complex) and suitably patterned (i.e. specified).”[1]
Dembski has defended “specified complexity”-or “complex specified information” (CSI)-as
a reliable design detection criterion in numerous writings,[2]
including his peer-reviewed monograph The Design Inference.[3]
In simplified sum, a long string of random letters is complex without being specified
(that is, without conforming to an independently given pattern that we have not
simply read off the object or event in question). A short sequence of letters like
“this” or “that” is specified without being sufficiently complex to outstrip the
capacity of chance to explain this conformity (for example, letters drawn at random
from a Scrabble bag will occasionally form a short word). Neither complexity without
specificity nor specificity without complexity compels us to infer design. However,
this paper is both specified (conforming to the functional requirements of grammatical
English) and sufficiently complex (doing so at a level of complexity that
makes it unreasonable to attribute this match to luck) to trigger a design inference
on the grounds that “in all cases where we know the causal origin of . . . specified
complexity, experience has shown that intelligent design played a causal role.”[4]

As J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig note, “The central aspect of ID theory
is the idea that the designedness of some things that are designed can be identified
as such in scientifically acceptable ways. . . . William Dembski has been the main
figure in developing this aspect of ID theory.”[5]
Hence the propositions that design can be detected via CSI, and that doing so can
be legitimately described as a scientific activity, have become foundational principles
of Intelligent Design (ID).

Leaving to one side the secondary question of whether inferring design can be
legitimately described as a scientific activity,[6]
this paper reviews the work of several scientists and philosophers outside the ID
movement, in order to demonstrate that, explicitly and implicitly, they endorse
CSI as a design detection criterion. This agreement is metaphysically bipartisan,
coming from naturalists and theists alike. This agreement also comes from hostile
witnesses, in that some of the scholars whose work I will review are actively opposed
to ID.

Independent agreement among a diverse range of scholars with different worldviews
as to the utility of CSI adds warrant to the premise that CSI is indeed a sound
criterion of design detection. And since the question of whether the design hypothesis
is true is more important than the question of whether it is scientific, such warrant
therefore focuses attention on the disputed question of whether sufficient empirical
evidence of CSI within nature exists to justify the design hypothesis.

ID is a theory advanced by a growing number of scientists and other academics
(design theorists) who believe empirical evidence within the natural world justifies
a design inference on the basis of reliable design detection criteria (such as CSI):
“As a scientific theory, ID only claims that there is empirical evidence that key
features of the universe . . . are the products of an intelligent cause.”[7]
Neither “creationism,”[8] nor natural
theology,[9] ID simply holds that

intelligent agency, as an aspect of scientific theory
making, has more explanatory power in accounting for the specified, and sometimes
irreducible complexity of some physical systems, including biological entities,
and/or the existence of the universe as a whole, than the blind forces of . . .

As Marcus R. Ross explains, “ID is classified as a philosophically minimalistic
position, asserting that real design exists in nature and is empirically detectable
by the methods of science.”[11] Hence, abstracted from the debate
about whether or not ID is science, ID can be advanced as a single, logically valid

  • (Premise 1)    Specified complexity reliably points to intelligent
  • (Premise 2)    At least one aspect of nature exhibits specified
  • (Conclusion)Therefore, at least one aspect of nature reliably points to
    intelligent design.

Concerning premise 2, design theorists have proposed that intelligent design
can be inferred from several facets of nature, including cosmic fine-tuning, the
fine-tuning of our local cosmic habitat, the origin of life, irreducibly complex
biomolecular systems, and the “Cambrian Explosion.”[12] However,
my concern here is with the first premise, without which the empirical data lacks
evidential traction. Rather than drawing upon the work of its defenders within the
ID movement, I will draw attention to the fact that scientists and philosophers
outside the movement, including some who are opposed to the theory, use CSI as a
design detection criterion. These scholars can be divided into two groups: atheists
and theists. I will review each group in turn.

Three Atheists Outside the ID Movement

Massimo Pigliucci: Cosmic Fine-Tuning
and Irreducible Complexity

Massimo Pigliucci is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee in
Knoxville, where he teaches ecology and evolutionary biology.  Pigliucci has
a PhD in botany from the University of Connecticut and a PhD in philosophy from
the University of Tennessee. A self-styled “skeptic,” Pigliucci’s articles have
appeared in such publications as The Skeptic and Free Inquiry.
According to Pigliucci,

Should we conclusively determine that the probability
of existence of our universe is infinitesimally small, and should we fail to explain
why physical constants have assumed the quantities that we observe, the possibility
of a designed universe would have to be considered seriously.[13]

In discussing the fine-tuning of the cosmos, Pigliucci lays down a pretheoretic
version of Dembski’s CSI criterion, which infers design, on the basis of experience,
whenever an independent specification (for example, the set of physical constants
required by a life sustaining universe) is exhibited at sufficiently low probability.
Pigliucci and design theorists differ on whether we can infer that our universe
is indeed the product of design, but there would appear to be at least an implicit
agreement on the criteria for making such a judgement.

Pigliucci explicitly affirms that “[Michael] Behe . . . does have a point concerning
irreducible complexity. . . . irreducible complexity is indeed a hallmark of intelligent
design.”[14] Behe’s most notable presentation of irreducible complexity
(IC) is Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, where
he defined his terms as follows:

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system
composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to basic function,
wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease
functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly . . . by
slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to
an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition non-functional.[15]

Dembski points out that IC systems are a concrete example of specified complexity:

The irreducibly complex systems Behe considers require
numerous components specifically adapted to each other and each necessary for function.
On any formal complexity-theoretic analysis, they are complex in the sense required
by the complexity-specification criterion. Moreover, in virtue of their function,
these systems embody patterns independent of the actual living systems. Hence these
systems are also specified in the sense required by the complexity-specification

Charles Darwin argued that the existence of a single IC system would falsify
his evolutionary hypothesis: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ
existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive modifications,
my theory would absolutely break down.”[17] Darwin made the universal
negative bet that no such system would be discovered and his contemporary followers,
like Pigliucci, make the same bet.[18] By definition, any system
that is IC cannot have evolved directly by a series of incremental evolutionary
improvements. Ruling out direct, incremental evolution does not exclude what Darwin
called “a sudden leap,” but as Richard Dawkins notes, “The larger the leap through
genetic space, the lower the probability that the resulting change will be viable,
let alone an improvement.”[19] Behe observes that

Even if a system is irreducibly complex (and thus cannot
have been produced directly) . . . one can not definitely rule out the possibility
of an indirect, circuitous route. As the complexity of an interacting system increases,
though, the likelihood of such an indirect route drops precipitously. . . .[20]

Behe argues that at the biomolecular level of life (an unknown “black box” in
Darwin’s day) there are several IC systems that are highly unlikely to have been
formed by numerous, successive (unguided) indirect modifications, “including aspects
of protein transport, blood clotting, closed circular DNA, electron transport, the
bacterial flagellum, telomeres, photosynthesis, transcription regulation, and much
more.”[21] Given that IC systems are resistant to evolutionary
explanation, and given our everyday experience that intelligent agents regularly
produce IC systems (and other systems exhibiting CSI), Behe argues that the best
explanation of such molecular machines is intelligent design:

the onus of proof is on the one who denies the plain evidence
of the eyes. For example, a person who conjectured that the statues on Easter Island
or the images on Mount Rushmore were actually the result of unintelligent forces
would bear the substantial burden of proof the claim demanded. In those examples,
the positive evidence for design would be there for all to see in the purposeful
arrangements of parts to produce the images. Any putative evidence for the claim
that the images were actually the result of unintelligent processes (perhaps erosion
by some vague, hypothesized chaotic forces) would have to clearly show that the
postulated unintelligent process could indeed do the job. In the absence of such
a clear demonstration, any person would be rationally justified to prefer the design

If there is irreducible complexity in living organisms, then Pigliucci would
agree with Behe and Dembski that it is evidence of intelligent design: “irreducible
complexity is indeed a valid criterion to distinguish between intelligent and nonintelligent
design.”[23] However, Pigliucci thinks that “there is no evidence
so far of irreducible complexity in living organisms.”[24]

Richard Dawkins

Presidents and Safe-Cracking. Zoologist Richard Dawkins is Oxford University’s
Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Dawkins is well-known as a vocal
atheist through his popular books and media appearances.[25] He
is also an outspoken critic of intelligent design theory.[26]

In Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins draws a distinction between objects
that are clearly designed and objects that are not clearly designed but superficially
look like they are-which he calls “designoid.”[27] Dawkins
illustrates the concept of being designoid with a hillside that suggests a human
profile: “Once you have been told, you can just see a slight resemblance to either
John or Robert Kennedy. But some don’t see it and it is certainly easy to believe
that the resemblance is accidental.”[28] Dawkins contrasts this
Kennedy-esque hillside with the four president’s heads carved into Mt. Rushmore
in America, which “are obviously not accidental: they have design written all over
them.”[29] Hence Dawkins admits intelligence is capable of outperforming
the design-producing resources of nature in such a way as to leave empirical indicators
of its activity.

Dawkins argues that, while “a rock can weather into the shape of a nose seen
from a certain vantage point,”[30] such a rock (for example, the
Kennedy-esque hillside) is designoid. Mt. Rushmore, on the other hand, is clearly
not designoid: “Its four heads are clearly designed.”[31]
The fact that Rushmore is designed is, according to Dawkins, empirically detectable:
“The sheer number of details [that is, the amount of complexity] in which the Mount
Rushmore faces resemble the real things [that is, the complexity fits four specifications]
is too great to have come about by chance.”[32] In terms of mere
possibility, says Dawkins: “The weather could have done the same job. .
. . But of all the possible ways of weathering a mountain, only a tiny minority
[complexity] would be speaking likenesses of four particular human beings [specification].”[33]
Hence, “Even if we didn’t know the history of Mount Rushmore, we’d estimate the
odds against its four heads [specification] being carved by accidental weathering
as astronomically high . . . [complexity].”[34]

Again, Dawkins argues that “Of all the unique and, with hindsight equally improbable,
positions of the combination lock [complexity], only one opens the lock [specification].
. . . The uniqueness of the arrangement . . . that opens the safe, [has] nothing
to do with hindsight. It is specified in advance.”[35]
According to Dawkins, the best explanation of an open safe is not that someone got
lucky, but that someone knew the specific and complex combination
required to open it.

Directed Panspermia and “God-Like
Crop circles are obviously the product of design because they exhibit
CSI. Some people suggest that the source of crop-circle design is extraterrestrial.
No matter how sceptical we are about extraterrestrials, it would be irrational to
argue that because extraterrestrials do not exist, crop circles are not the product
of design (since aliens are a sufficient but not a necessary condition for crop
circles). Likewise, however sceptical someone is about the existence of God, it
would be irrational to argue that since God does not exist, nothing in nature is
the product of design (since God is a sufficient but not a necessary condition of
intelligent design in nature). The scientific inference to design, whether in the
case of crop circles or not, is prior to the inference to a particular designer,
and it stands or falls on its own merits. Dawkins admits as much in an article that
appeared in the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry. In this editorial
opinion piece, Dawkins explicitly acknowledged that CSI is a valid criterion of
design detection:

“specified complexity” takes care of the sensible point
that any particular rubbish heap is improbable, with hindsight, in the unique disposition
of its parts. A pile of detached watch parts tossed in a box is, with hindsight,
as improbable as a fully functioning, genuinely complicated watch. What is specified
about a watch is that it is improbable in the specific direction of telling the
time. . . .[36]

Dawkins is clearly saying that it is the specified complexity of a watch
that warrants a design inference (mere complexity is not the issue). Dawkins admits
that “Behe and Dembski correctly pose the problem of specified complexity as something
that needs explaining,”[37] and he even allows that “Design is
the temporarily correct explanation for some particular manifestations of specified
complexity such as a car or a washing machine.”[38] Here we begin
to see Dawkins’s philosophical commitment to naturalism affecting his conclusions:
“sooner or later, in order to explain the illusion of design, we are going to have
to terminate the regress [of explanations] with something more explanatory than
design itself,”[39] says Dawkins, for “Design can never be an
ultimate explanation.”[40] Dawkins is happy to concede that intelligent
design is a legitimate and evidentially supported explanation for CSI, but his naturalistic
philosophy dictates that explaining anything in terms of intelligent design
is only ever a “temporarily correct”[41] placeholder for a nonteleological
explanation. This philosophical deduction from naturalism applies just as much to
watches and washing machines as to cosmic fine-tuning or bacterial flagella.

Of course, even in the case of design detected within the texture of nature itself
there are numerous explanatory options. Inferring intelligent design does not automatically
equate with inferring any particular designer(s). As Dawkins writes: “It could conceivably
turn out, as Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel . . . suggested, that evolution was
seeded by deliberate design, in the form of bacteria sent from a distant planet
in the nose cone of a spaceship.”[42]

Nobel laureate Francis Crick (credited as codiscoverer of the double helix structure
of DNA) and origin-of-life researcher Leslie Orgel first proposed the theory of
“directed panspermia” as a hypothesis worth considering in an article published
in Icarus.[43] Crick expanded upon the hypothesis in
his book Life Itself suggesting that an advanced alien species sent one
or more spacecraft to earth with the intent of peppering it with the necessary life
forms (or components of life) to generate a zoo of diverse species.[44]
The theory continues to attract a small number of supporters amongst origin-of-life
researchers. Dawkins’ philosophy dictates that such an explanation must ultimately
track back to a nonteleological explanation. Given the assumption that minds can
be explained naturalistically (an assumption Dawkins makes),[45]
metaphysical naturalism is logically compatible with inferring intelligent design
from nature. Perhaps, as members of the naturalistic, ID-endorsing Raelian UFO religion
believe, aliens are responsible for life on earth.[46] Perhaps
the big bang was fine-tuned to produce a life-sustaining universe by aliens in a
parallel universe. For Dawkins, the ultimate explanation of any and all CSI
be naturalistic:

It is easy to believe that the universe houses creatures
so far superior to us as to seem like gods. I believe it. But those godlike beings
must themselves have been lifted into existence by natural selection or some equivalent.
. . .[47]

As Dawkins says in response to the question “What do you believe is true even
though you cannot prove it?”[48]

. . . I believe that all intelligence, all creativity,
and all design anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian
natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period
of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie
the universe.[49]

Since Dawkins explicitly accepts CSI as a reliable criterion of design detection,
and since he already believes in the existence of “godlike” extraterrestrial beings,
one would predict that were he to concede the existence of empirical evidence within
the natural world that triggers a design inference, he would likely affirm that
the intelligence in question was extraterrestrial, thereby retaining his philosophical
assumption that design inferences can only be temporarily correct explanations that
must be susceptible to a reductive, naturalistic explanation in the final analysis.[50]
This thought experiment demonstrates that design theorists are right when they point
out that arguing for intelligent design does not necessarily equate with arguing
for supernatural, let alone divine design. As Michael J. Behe explains:

my argument is limited to design itself; I strongly emphasize
that it is not an argument for the existence of a benevolent God, as Paley’s was.
I hasten to add that I myself do believe in a benevolent God, and I recognize that
philosophy and theology may be able to extend the argument. But a scientific argument
for design in biology does not reach that far. Thus while I argue for design, the
question of the identity of the designer is left open . . . as regards the identity
of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase, hypothesis
non fingo

Potential philosophical and theological disputes about the nature of the designer(s)
aside, Richard Dawkins explicitly endorses the first premise of the argument for
intelligent design.

Carl Sagan: Presidential Eggplants
and the “Face” on Mars

Carl Sagan was an American astronomer, astrobiologist, and science popularizer.
Sagan was a pioneer in exobiology, promoting the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence
(SETI). A famous author of popular science books, Sagan also wrote the novel
, upon which the 1997 film of the same name was based. Considering that
the scientists in Contact infer the existence of extraterrestrials when
they detect a radio signal exhibiting specified complexity,[52]
it is unsurprising that Sagan implicitly endorses CSI as a design detection criterion
in his other writings.

In The Demon Haunted World, Sagan debunks a number of claims about purported
instances of design. For example:

There was a celebrated eggplant that closely resembled
Richard M. Nixon. What shall we deduce from this fact? Divine or extraterrestrial
intervention? Republican meddling in eggplant genetics? No. We recognize that there
are large numbers of eggplants in the world and that, given enough of them, sooner
or later we’ll come upon one that looks like a human face, even a very particular
human face.[53]

Notice that the suggestion of design here is based upon the fact that the eggplant
in question exhibits a specification. In this case, the specification is looking
like a human face, and more than that, looking like a particular human face (although
it is hard to believe that the resemblance can have been all that tight).
Sagan implicitly accepts that the eggplant exhibits a specification. So why does
Sagan reject the idea that the correspondence between the eggplant and the Nixon
specification is the result of design? Because the example lacks complexity. Given
the number of human faces and eggplants that have existed, Sagan argues that it
is not all that unlikely that we would come across an eggplant that bore a resemblance
to Nixon. Hence we do not have to deduce divine, or extraterrestrial, or Republican
design from the eggplant.

Sagan’s argument for rejecting a design inference from the eggplant implicitly
accepts that if the eggplant exhibited a specification at a sufficient level of
complexity, then a design inference would be justified. In other words, Sagan recognized
that a design inference is warranted when faced with an example of “specified complexity.”
This is why, in order to debunk a proposed instance of design which he admits exhibits
specification, Sagan argues that the proposed example lacks sufficient complexity.

Sagan implicitly endorses the point that while specified complexity warrants
an inference to “intelligent design,” it does not in and of itself warrant an inference
to any particular designer: “Divine or extraterrestrial intervention? Republican
meddling in eggplant genetics?”[54] All three explanations would
be possible candidates if a design inference in this case were justified.

Sagan goes on to discuss the infamous so-called face on Mars,[55]
first photographed by one of the Viking orbiters in 1976. Sagan argues against a
design inference in this instance by arguing that the “face” is neither very complex
nor tightly specified. (Pointing out that something does not exhibit CSI can only
justify the conclusion that it was not designed in concert with an application of
Ockham’s razor, since objects can be intelligently designed without exhibiting CSI.
“Specified complexity” is only a positive test for design. Arguing against a design
inference is not the same as arguing against design per se.) Sagan first
examines the complexity of the “face”:

Mars has a surface area of almost 150 million square kilometers.
Is it so astonishing that one (comparatively) postage-stamp-sized patch in 150 million
should look artificial-especially given our penchant, since infancy, for finding

In other words, it is not all that unlikely that a small area of Mars
should look sufficiently like a face under certain conditions to make it appear
face-like to casual observation. Then Sagan goes after specification:

If we study the original image more carefully, we find
that a strategically placed “nostril”-one that adds much to the impression of a
face-is in fact a black dot corresponding to lost data in the radio transmission
from Mars to Earth. The best picture of the Face shows one side lit by the Sun,
the other in deep shadow. Using the original digital data, we can severely enhance
the contrast in the shadows. When we do, we find something rather unfacelike there.
The Face is at best half a face. . . . the Martian sphinx looks natural-not
artificial, not a dead ringer for a human face

While at first glance the “face” seems to exhibit a specification, a closer look
shows that it does not. In Richard Dawkins’ terminology, the supposed face on Mars
is “designoid”; it gives a superficial impression of design at first glance, but
the more we investigate its salient features, the less designed it looks. Hence
Sagan concludes, “It was probably sculpted by slow geological processes over millions
of years.”[58] The important point here is that in order to justify
this conclusion Sagan seeks to undermine precisely those twin features that Dembski
argues are as jointly sufficient conditions for justifying a design inference, namely,
complexity and specification. If Sagan is right to argue that the “face” does not
justify a design inference because it fails to exhibit specified complexity (indeed,
because it is neither sufficiently complex nor tightly specified) then design theorists
must be right to argue that anything which doesexhibit specified complexity
be attributed to intelligent design. For example, Sagan would not argue
that slow geological processes sculpted the presidential faces on Mount Rushmore,
because unlike the “face” on Mars, Mount Rushmore does exhibit specified complexity.

Although he does not use the terminology of “specified complexity,” Sagan clearly
endorses specified complexity as an adequate criterion of design detection, because
he argues that design inferences cannot be supported if the putative designed object
lacks sufficient complexity, fails to exhibit a specification, or both. This negative
argument implies the positive argument that when a putative designed object does
exhibit CSI, a design inference is thereby warranted.

Four Theists Outside the ID Movement

Keith Ward: Abiogenesis and Improbable Processes Structured
to a Good End

Keith Ward is the Regius Professor of Divinity and head of the Faculty of Theology
at the University of Oxford, and is a fellow of the British Academy. Ward contributed
to the “Theistic Evolution” section of the Cambridge University volume Debating
Design: From Darwin to DNA
, which was coedited by Michael Ruse and William
A. Dembski.

In God, Faith, and The New Millennium, Ward takes stock of the implications
of the improbability of abiogenesis:

It seems hugely improbable that, in the primeval seas
of the planet earth, amino acids should meet and combine to form large molecular
structures capable of self-replication. . . . The motive for positing some sort
of intelligent design is almost overwhelming.[59]

Ward references a specification (being “capable of self-replication”) and argues
that the case for positing “intelligent design” is “almost overwhelming” because
the structures exhibiting this specification are complex (“hugely improbable”).
Ward goes on to argue that:

if one is asking . . . whether a very improbable process
is compatible with intelligent design, the answer is that if the process is elegantly
structured to a good end, then the more improbable the process, the more likely
it is to be the product of intelligent design.[60]

Ward is clearly not arguing for the mere compatibility of very improbable
processes with intelligent design; rather, he is arguing that very improbable processes
warrant explanation in terms of intelligent design when they are also specified.[61]

Ward does (unnecessarily in my view) restrict what ID theorists would term a
specification to the elegant achievement of a good end; but this is neither here
nor there with respect to the observation that Ward argues for intelligent design
by advancing the claim that nature exhibits non-ad hoc patterns at low
probability and that the combination of the right sort of pattern (specifications)
with sufficient improbability (complexity) warrants a design inference. That is,
although Ward does not argue that his design inference is scientific, he is otherwise
at least in the same ballpark as Dembski as regards the methodology of design detection.

Colin J. Humphreys: The “Guiding Hand” of Exodus

Colin Humphreys is the Goldsmiths’ Professor of Materials Science at Cambridge
University, and a vice president of Christians in Science. In The Miracles of
Exodus: A Scientist’s Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical
, Humphreys argues that the Exodus account in the Bible is factually
accurate “down to points of tiny detail”[62] and that modern science
can “explain every miracle in the Exodus story.”[63] However,
Humphreys concludes by asking:

Is there any evidence of a “guiding hand” in the events
of the Exodus? What I’ve found is that the Exodus story describes a series of natural
events like earthquakes, volcanoes, hail, and strong winds occurring time after
time at precisely the right moment for the deliverance of Moses and the Israelites.
Any one of these events occurring at the right time could be ascribed to lucky chance.
When a whole series of events happens at just the right moment, then it is either
incredibly lucky chance or else there is a God who works in, with, and through natural
events to guide the affairs and the destinies of individuals and of nations. Which
belief is correct: Chance or God? I’m not going to answer that question for you;
you must answer it yourself.[64]

It is clear that Humphrey’s himself would answer his question by saying that
there is indeed evidence of a “guiding hand” in the events of the Exodus, because
the specification of the Israelites being delivered from slavery in Egypt and into
the “promised land” was exhibited by a series of events with a very high level of
compound complexity.[65]

Denis Alexander: The Anthropic Teleological Argument

Denis Alexander is head of the T Cell Laboratory, the Babraham Institute, Cambridge.
He is also director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s
College, Cambridge, and editor of the journal Science and Christian Belief.
Dr. Alexander is a theistic evolutionist vigorously opposed to ID.[66]

In Rebuilding the Matrix, Alexander observes that the search for extraterrestrial
intelligence “is based on the assumption that a single message from space will reveal
the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.”[67]
He quotes Norman L. Geisler that “even if the object of pursuit is the reception
of only one message, nevertheless, the basis of knowing that it was produced by
intelligence is the regular conjunction of intelligent beings with this kind of
complex information.”[68] Although Alexander does not make it
explicit, the “kind of complex information” Geisler is talking about in this passage
is complex specified information.[69]

Alexander has earlier argued for design on the basis of the fine-tuning of cosmic

we have argued that the universe has some very unusual
properties that render conscious life possible-and that those properties are not
unusual because we observe them but because the physical constants that make them
unusual could, presumably, have been otherwise.[70]

Alexander’s anthropic-teleological argument is based upon the existence of “unusual
properties,” that is, an unlikely or complex set of physical properties, that are
specified as the set of properties (or one of a small number of such sets) “that
render conscious life possible.” While Alexander does not use the terminology
of CSI, his argument nevertheless uses CSI by appealing to the combination of complexity
(“unusual properties”) with a specification (“that render conscious life possible”).

Alexander’s reliance upon CSI is emphasized by the fact that he quotes design-theorist
William Lane Craig in defence of the argument from fine-tuning: “we should be surprised
that we do observe basic features of the universe which individually or collectively
are excessively improbable [complexity] and are necessary conditions of our own
existence [specification].”[71]

Alexander paints two scenarios to push home the point that one cannot sidestep
this argument by noting that we would not exist to be surprised by fine-tuning if
that tuning were not as fine as it is. The first story involves a kidnapped accountant
told that unless he wins the national lottery for ten consecutive weeks he will
be killed, who is surprised to survive (at odds of around 1 in 1060),
but who is told that “he should not be surprised that such an unlikely event happened
for, had it not, he would not have been alive to observe it.”[72]
Clearly, the accountant is right to be surprised and to suspect that there must
be an explanation for his survival. The second story concerns a gambler who will
be killed unless he gets ten coins flips in a row to show heads: “the fact of the
gambler still being alive does not explain why he got ten heads in a row-the probability
of this unlikely event remains at one in 1,024. What requires explanation is not
that the gambler is alive and therefore observing something but rather that he is
not dead.”[73] Indeed, what requires explanation, in both stories,
is the occurrence of unlikely (that is, complex) events that are specified as the
necessary conditions of our observers not being killed. Likewise, in the case of
the anthropic-teleological argument, what requires explanation is that “our finely
tuned universe is not just any old �something,’ but contains within it a planet
full of people who postulate theories about cosmology and the meaning of the universe.
. . .”[74] That is, an explanation of fine tuning, indeed
an explanation in terms of design
, is required not simply because the fine-tuning
represents an unlikely(complex) set of constants, but because the particular unlikely
constants that exist are specified as necessary preconditions for the existence
of complex life:

The data pointing to a series of remarkably finely tuned
constants [complexity] which have promoted the emergence of conscious life [specification]
sit more comfortably with the idea of a God with plans and purposes for the universe
than they do with the atheistic presupposition that “it just happened.”[75]

Alexander implicitly deploys CSI as an argument for the conclusion that the data
of cosmic fine-tuning does demand an explanation rather than an evasion. Alexander
also implicitly uses CSI as a basis for inferring that the best explanation of cosmic
fine-tuning is intelligent design; for the reason that the specified complexity
of cosmic fine-tuning “sits more comfortably with the idea of a God with plans and
purposes for the universe than they do with the atheistic presupposition that �it
just happened'”[76] is surely “the regular conjunction of intelligent
beings with this kind of complex information.”[77]

In a lecture presented by Christians in Science at Southampton University, Alexander
made it clear that he has “no problem with the language of design so long as it’s
kept to the big picture design which makes science possible [and which is seen in]
the anthropic structure of the universe.”[78] Just as Phillip
E. Johnson has asked Darwinists, “What should we do if empirical evidence and materialist
philosophy are going in different directions?”[79] so I would
ask Alexander what he would do if empirical evidence which triggers a design inference
according to the same criteria that he applies to “the big picture” of anthropic
fine-tuning were to be found within any of the smaller details of that picture?
Which should we deny, the empirical evidence, the design-detection criteria which
he applies to cosmic fine-tuning, or his objection to invoking the language of design
at that level?

Alexander’s objection to using “the language of design,” except in the case of
“the anthropic structure of the universe,” either rests upon the confusion of intelligent
design with supernatural design and the questionable assumption that the latter
cannot enter into scientific theorizing;[80] or else (if such
a confusion is not made) it implies either the excommunication from science of numerous
established scientific fields (for example, SETI, which Alexander himself references),
or an apparent double standard which admits the scientific validity of intelligent
design in some scientific fields (for example, cosmology) but not in others (for
example, molecular-biology).

Basil Mitchell: Telekinesis and Disembodied Agency

In the course of defending the coherence of talking about incorporeal agency
in The Justification of Religious Belief, Basil Mitchell (then Nolloth
Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion and Fellow of Oriel College
Oxford) has this to say on the subject of telekinesis (the alleged power to alter
events, such as the fall of dice, by simply “willing”):

Whether or not telekinesis actually occurs, it does not
seem difficult to specify the conditions under which we should be prepared to admit
its occurrence. If the dice were to fall with a certain number upwards whenever
a particular individual was asked to bring it about and not otherwise, we should
conclude that he had the power to cause physical changes without bodily movement.
Bodily movement on the part of the agent is normally a reliable guide as to whether
an occurrence is an action or not, and, if so, whose; but we could, in principle,
settle both questions without recourse to this criterion, if the other indications
were clear enough. What are these? A combination of the following: (i) The unlikelihood
of the event’s occurrence apart from the intervention of some agent. (ii) The event’s
contributing to some purpose. (iii) The agreement of that purpose with the independently
known character and purposes of the putative agent.[81]

(Note that Mitchell is arguing that intelligent design can in principle be detected
even if it is not implemented by bodily agency.) Mitchell’s design detection criterion
has more parts than Dembski’s, but then it attempts to do more, because it attempts
to provide a criterion whereby we can detect not only that “an occurrence is an
action” but also “whose” action it is. Mitchell’s criterion for detecting intelligent
design per se appears to be similar to Dembski’s.

Mitchell says that whether an occurrence such as the falling of dice is an action
(that is, is the result of intelligent design) can be answered positively if two
conditions are met-and those conditions are sufficient complexity (“The unlikelihood
of the event’s occurrence apart from the intervention of some agent”) combined with
an independent specification (“specify the conditions under which we should be prepared
to admit its occurrence”; “If the dice were to fall with a certain number upwards
whenever a particular individual was asked to bring it about and not otherwise”;
“The event’s contributing to some purpose”). Knowledge concerning “The agreement
of that purpose with the independently known character and purposes of the putative
agent,” while helpful in pinning a designed event on a specific agent, is clearly
not necessary for Mitchell’s design inference per se. This shows once again
that, as Dembski asserts, “detecting design . . . does not implicate any particular

Suppose paranormal investigators set up some rigorous scientific experiments
into telekinesis (would critics of ID condemn such experiments as nonscientific
in principle?[83]) and the dice do indeed “fall with a certain
number upwards whenever a particular individual was asked to bring it about and
not otherwise.” Suppose the specified complexity of this result exceeded Dembski’s
universal probability bound (something Mitchell does not bother calculating): While
we should conclude that the best explanation for this result is intelligent design,
we could not implicate our test subject on the basis of CSI alone. Any agent with
the requisite causal power might have caused the result we detected. To settle on
attributing the exercise of telekinetic powers in this instance to our test subject
(rather than to God, or a god, or a ghost, or a demon, or an angel, or another human
or alien with telekinetic powers who is trying to dupe our researchers into thinking
that their test subject has telekinetic powers when they do not) our scientists
must appeal to criteria beyond CSI. Mitchell’s “agreement of that purpose
with the independently known character and purposes of the putative agent” might
be useful here; but one imagines that Ockham’s razor should feature fairly heavily
in such deliberations.

Unlike contemporary ID theorists, Basil Mitchell did not clearly distinguish
between criteria for inferring design and criteria for inferring the responsibility
of putative designers. Mitchell also left his design detection criterion in a fairly
pretheoretic state (simply suggesting the combination of low probability with a
specification) without the context of information theory and universal probability
bounds deployed by Dembski; and perhaps for these reasons, Mitchell never made much
of his criterion. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Mitchell was thinking along
the same lines as Dembski.


William A. Dembski claims to have formalized (one of) the intuitive design detection
tools of humanity. Confidence in the truth of this claim, and in the claim that
CSI is a reliable criterion of design detection, is bolstered by the fact that academics
outside the ID movement (irrespective of their worldview, and sometimes despite
their own negative assessment of ID) explicitly or implicitly employ (pretheoretic
versions of) the CSI criterion when arguing for (and against) design inferences.

Moreover, the greater the number of scholars who independently arrive at the
same answer to a problem, the more confident we tend to be about the truth of their
answer. Hence, discovering CSI used to solve the problem of justifying and repudiating
design inferences in the work of a diverse group of scholars outside the ID movement
(including several “hostile witnesses” opposed to ID) justifies some confidence
in the first premise of ID.

Since the conclusion of intelligent design follows logically if we add a premise
affirming the existence of sufficient relevant empirical evidence (even if in only
one field of inquiry), the truth of such a second premise would therefore seem to
be the crucial issue between supporters and detractors of the claim that intelligent
design theory can be advanced as a sound argument. And if ID is acknowledged to
be advancing a sound argument, advocates of the definitional, “it’s not science”
critique of ID will either have to eat their proverbial hats, or else endorse transferring
assets from university science departments to philosophy departments in the interests
of furthering our understanding of physical reality.

For references to this article, click here.