Like Clockwork: Seeking Intent and Intelligence in Design and Adaptation
Proponents of intelligent design assert that life is far too variegated and complex to have evolved without the presence of an overarching, creative intelligence. In this essay, I will argue that intelligent design need not, ipso facto, proceed from a fundamentally creationist perspective any more than must Darwinian theory and that both can be put forth as scientific theory. The presence of coherent and purposeful information within nature serves as evidence of intelligence and, as such, precludes the possibility that happenstance, or “accident,” alone is at work in nature. I will conclude that evolution and the adaptability of species, and the existence of symmetrical, symbiotic and cooperative systems within nature, confirm that Darwinism and intelligent design are testable scientific theories.
Having stated that intelligent design is “scientific,” I will base my argument on the precepts put forth by theorists such as the American mathematician and philosopher William A. Dembski, whose concept of specified complexity posits that the existence of a sequence of short elucidations in nature is an overt expression of coherency and is, thus, intelligent (Pennock, 2001, p. 559). In his essay “Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information,” Dembski notes that those who seek an algorithmic explanation for design and the origins of life see only part of the picture, though he concedes that “To determine how life began it is indeed necessary to understand the origin of information” (Pennock, 2001, p. 553). One must see the purpose implied in the algorithm itself, specifically, that when nature inserts a marker, or signal, it is for some express purpose that excludes other purposes (Ibid). This is a sequence leading to some given result that works within the larger framework of nature.
Dembski argues in favor of a formula describing how specified complexity exists as a scientific construct. His is a three-pronged model that explains the existence of intelligence in natural design. Dembski posits that actualization shows that intelligence occurs; exclusion makes clear that a particular instance of intelligence rules out all other contingencies in running its due course; and specification reveals that the enacted expression of intelligence follows a specific course that exists independent of actualization (Pennock, 2001, p. 566). Actualization-exclusion-specification, Dembski assures, is not only how one can distinguish choice from chance but direction from chance and, thereby, identify the presence of intelligence (Ibid).
Dembski makes a compelling argument, one may well claim, from a metaphysical point of view that does not necessarily offer a satisfactory approach at an infinitesimal level, where the microbiology of life itself may be said to originate. As we will see, there are those who have constructed a rationale for the presence of intelligent design among the smallest of organisms. Irreducible complexity is the term biochemist Michael J. Behe gave to an argument made by many for the theory that biological processes are too intricate and complicated to have evolved haphazardly. Behe maintains that separate, interacting parts and processes that take interact at the molecular level cannot function properly if only one should be removed. “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 nonfunctional” (Behe, 1998, p. 39).
As previously noted, there is a strong metaphysical component to intelligent design and the several theories that seek to draw from its precepts. This, however, is not necessarily incompatible with testability. As Dembski notes in his essay “Is Intelligent Design Testable?,” the information that is transmitted during natural processes, which is at the heart of the intelligent design argument, establishes sufficient groundwork for developing other theories that may prove or disprove this theory. “Intelligent design’s claims about specified and irreducible complexity are in close contact with the data of biology and open to refutation as well as confirmation” (Dembski, 2001). The claim that intelligent design can stand up to what may be the supreme test - namely, that the efficacy and adaptability of natural systems allows for species to exist and survive - is proof that intelligent design is eminently testable.
In his argument for the testability of intelligent design, Dembski does not try to devalue or disprove Darwinism. Quite the contrary, he confirms that one cannot make a viable claim against evolution, that “falsifying Darwinism seems effectively impossible. To do so one must show that no conceivable Darwinian pathway could have led to a given biological structure” (Dembski, 2001). To arrive at such a conclusion, Dembski concedes, is virtually tantamount to willful ignorance, to ignoring that which cannot be ignored. Evolution remains a controversial theory in some quarters, but it is a scientific theory that eminent voices in the field of science, even skeptical ones, have come to agree is a compendium of hypotheses that can be tested.
One such skeptic, scientific philosopher Karl Popper, long contended that Darwin’s theory was useful as a “metaphysical research programme,” a pseudo-theory that had scientific aspects but that could not be tested (Popper, 1992, p. 195). Nevertheless, there are a number of standards, or tests, that can be applied to natural selection, one such being the demonstrable change in traits that occur over time within a specific population. For instance, directional selection exhibits a gradual alternation in the value of a given physical characteristic. Popper came to accept such measurable, tangible results as proof and recanted his previous position, refuting his charge that natural selection failed to transcend the realm of the purely metaphysical (Ibid).
The naturalist T.H. Huxley said there is one inescapable criterion that must be applied in determining the scientific worthiness and credibility of a theory, namely, that “only natural causes (be used) to explain phenomena in nature,” a standard that Darwin had undoubtedly satisfied (Larson, 2004). If one accepts Huxley’s measuring stick as indispensable to assessing scientific theory, and that Darwin’s famous theory clears this hurdle, then intelligent design must also be taken on scientific terms, utilizing as it does purely natural phenomena to illustrate that lucid information and processes that exist and unfold within phenomena are the result of a coherent, expressive and purposeful creativity.
If intelligent design and natural selection, then, can be gauged according to purely natural processes, one may readily consider them to be viable scientific theories. As has been discussed previously, intelligent design may be tested based on the fact that subtracting just one element or function from a naturally occurring sequence of events renders it dysfunctional and obliterates its intended outcome. As well, design can be detected in the concept of actualization, exclusion and specification, which illustrates that a given natural process will serve one purpose to the specific exclusion of all others. Darwin’s theory of natural selection may be tested, for example, by measuring the gradual adaptive change in physical traits that occur over time in a specific population of species. Furthermore, it can be argued that intelligent design and natural selection need not be mutually exclusive, that one can detect the presence of intelligence in the workings of adaptation and evolution, which are, at their base, the outcome of imperceptible yet persistently complex processes. William Dembski argues that the eminence of evolution must precede other scientific theories because change and adaptation are woven into the fabric of life itself and that adaptability among biological structures has been proven and acknowledged even by ardent skeptics.
Behe, M.J., 1998. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York:
Dembski, W., 2001. “Is Intelligent Design Testable?” Access Research Network, [online]
Available at http://www.arn.org/docs/dembski/wd_isidtestable.htm.
Larson, E., 2004. Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. New York: Modern
Pennock, R.T., ed., 2001. Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics: Philosophical,
Theological and Critical Perspectives. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Popper, K.R., 1992. Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography. New York: Routledge