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Can We Detect Design Without Knowing the Identity of the Designer?


Recently an atheist student emailed me to ask how it's reasonable to claim that an "unobserved designer" is responsible for complex features of nature, like high CSI (complex specified information) and irreducibly complex structures. In reply, I explained that first we must ask the question "What does it mean to 'observe' or 'detect' something?" Here's a start:

  • Our eyes can help us observe objects in nature by seeing light reflected from those objects.
  • Our ears can help us detect objects in nature by receiving sound emitted from them.
  • Our nose can help us detect objects in nature by receiving emitted chemicals which we register as a "smell."
  • Our skin can help us detect objects in nature by receiving signals that tell us about shape, texture, and even temperature.
So when we see a campfire, how do we "observe" it? Our sense organs receive patterns of light, sound, smell, and heat, which our brains recognize and match to fires we've seen in the past. Our brain thinks, in effect, "Okay, as in the past, when the eyes receive a particular pattern of yellow and red light, the ears hear a crackling sound, the nose receives the smell of smoke, and the skin feels heat, that's a campfire." So we recognize and observe something by receiving a pattern of information through our sense organs and then matching it to a pattern we've seen in the past.

Our senses also make another set of observations about a campfire: the morning after a campfire, we observe that there's a bunch of blackened and charred wood, ash and soot, and smoke rising from within a circle of blackened stones. We smell the smoke and ash, and it might be slightly warm from remaining embers from the night before.

So let's say now that we're taking a morning stroll and come upon a circle of blackened stones, charred wood, ash, and soot. There's a little smoke rising from the center, and it's slightly warm. We didn't see a fire directly with our eyes. But our senses tell us that there is evidence that a fire was there. In this case, the most reasonable inference to make is that there was a campfire, even though we can't directly observe it.

Thus, just because something is "unobservable" by our eyes at this exact moment, doesn't mean we can't find compelling evidence that it exists, or that it was present. We must not toss out the word "unobservable" as if it somehow blocks the design inference. We regularly make inferences to unobserved objects and events (like a campfire) by using our senses to detect evidence that reliably indicates that a particular object or event was present (like finding a circle of blackened stones, charred wood, soot, and smoke).

We can use exactly the same method of reasoning to detect design at the heart of biology. In all of our experience, high CSI and irreducible complexity ONLY come from intelligent agents. Thus, based upon our experience of the cause-and-effect structure of the world we observe around us, we are justified in inferring that a mind was at work. As Stephen Meyer writes:

[W]e have repeated experience of rational and conscious agents -- in particular ourselves -- generating or causing increases in complex specified information, both in the form of sequence-specific lines of code and in the form of hierarchically arranged systems of parts. ... Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source -- from a mind or personal agent.

(Stephen C. Meyer, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117(2):213-239 (2004).)

Likewise, in our experience, irreducibly complex structures always come from an intelligent source. As Meyer writes with microbiologist Scott Minnich:
Molecular machines display a key signature or hallmark of design, namely, irreducible complexity. In all irreducibly complex systems in which the cause of the system is known by experience or observation, intelligent design or engineering played a role in the origin of the system. ... Indeed, in any other context we would immediately recognize such systems as the product of very intelligent engineering. Although some may argue this is a merely an argument from ignorance, we regard it as an inference to the best explanation, given what we know about the powers of intelligent as opposed to strictly natural or material causes.

(Scott A. Minnich & Stephen C. Meyer, "Genetic analysis of coordinate flagellar and type III regulatory circuits in pathogenic bacteria," in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Design & Nature, Rhodes Greece, p. 8 (M.W. Collins & C.A. Brebbia eds., 2004).)

Thus, when we find high CSI entities like language-based digital codes or irreducibly complex molecular machines, we are justified in inferring that an intelligent agent was at work. Why? Because, in our experience, these things always trace back to a mind. We might not directly see that mind, but we can infer that a mind was present to create the known observed effects.

This is the positive argument for intelligent design, and it is just like inferring that a campfire was present based on remaining physical evidence. One need not directly see the fire, or know who tended it, or why he or she or they did so, to draw a reasonable inference that a fire was present. Michael Behe put it well:

The conclusion that something was designed can be made quite independently of knowledge of the designer. As a matter of procedure, the design must first be apprehended before there can be any further question about the designer. The inference to design can be held with all the firmness that is possible in this world, without knowing anything about the designer.

(Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box, p. 197 (Free Press, 1996).)

Image source: Ocean Biology Processing Group at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.