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

A Critical Review

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 . . . matter.[10]

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 syllogism:

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

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