Design as Concept, Sign, and Production

William A. Dembski (
Tue, 6 Apr 1999 12:37:54 -0600

To the ASA listserv:

I've enjoyed the discussions about design and have found them helpful.
Despite exchanges with Howard Van Till on these topics over the years, it's
only now that I think we may finally be clarifying our differences, which
may not be as far reaching as they appear on the surface.

It seems that we are all agreed that design involves conceptualization. For
there to be design, there has to be a mind/intelligence that conceptualizes
some end/purpose/plan/blueprint ... design. Indeed, to deny this would mean
collapsing all design to apparent design, a move Dawkins and company are
glad to make, but one that traditional theism rejects ("By wisdom God
created the heavens and the earth ...").

The next question about design is whether it also constitutes a sign.
Design in this sense denotes what it is about intelligently produced
objects that enables us to tell that they actually are intelligently
produced. When intelligent agents act (and however they act, whether
through direct intervention or through a fully gifted creation), they leave
behind a characteristic trademark or signature. The scholastics used to
refer to the "vestiges in creation." The Latin vestigium means footprint.
It was thought that God, though not directly present to our senses, had
nonetheless left his "footprints" throughout creation. Hugh Ross has
referred to the "fingerprint of God." It is design in this sense--as a
trademark, signature, vestige, or fingerprint--that the various criteria
for identifying intelligently caused objects are meant to recognize (cf.
Behe's irreducible complexity, my specified complexity, Schützenberger's
functional complexity). I would say that if there is one defining feature
of the intelligent design movement, it is that it takes design as a sign.

The final question about design is its mode of production: how was a
designed object produced. Now on the surface it appears that design as a
sign does not address design as a mode of production. Nonetheless, if
design as a sign can be produced by what are typically called "natural
processes," it seems that design as a sign quickly becomes otiose, for if
we can explain something as the result of a natural process, why bother
invoking design?

It's with this question that I think my discussion with Howard has broken
down in the past. My own approach to design as a sign through specified
complexity includes an argument for why "natural processes" cannot
in-principle produce specified complexity. Howard, on the other hand,
wanting to maintain a fully-gifted creation thinks that this places undue
constraints on natural processes, and especially on God's creative activity
of fully gifting the creation from the start.

Although Howard and I have gone around on this in the past, I think there
is a way out of the impasse. I'm not sure Howard will agree with my
resolution, but it seems to me that the problem centers on what is meant by
"natural process." If by "natural process" one limits oneself to what the
scientific naturalist (e.g., Dawkins) means by this phrase, then I would
contend that the arguments of design theorists hold up, and that natural
processes are not capable of effecting specified complexity. But if by
"natural process" one has in mind a much richer conception of nature in
which divinely ordained events happen according to an outworking plan and
in which specified complexity can be built into nature from the start, then
inferring design is not tantamount to rejecting natural processes.

The problem, then, is over the nature of nature, and not over the inability
of natural processes to effect certain things in nature. Accordingly,
intelligent design becomes a critique of an impoverished view of nature
foisted on us by scientific naturalists, but leaves open a more robust view
of nature like the one Howard is advocating.

What I'm saying is that intelligent design seems to me compatible with a
fully-gifted creation so long as this fully-gifted creation does not reduce
nature to nature as conceived by the scientific naturalist. Intelligent
design's contribution to this richer conception of nature is then to
discover that nature is chocked-full of complex information-rich structures
that are not reducible natural processes as conceived by the scientific

In saying that intelligent design is compatible with a fully-gifted
creation, I'm not saying that intelligent design requires a fully-gifted
creation. A watch that never needs to be wound is a fully-gifted watch and
better than one that needs to be wound. But a musical instrument, like a
piano, does not become fully-gifted by being transformed into a
player-piano. Gregory of Nazianzus, a church father of the 4th century,
made a design argument in which God was compared to a lutemaker and the
world to a lute. Lutes by their constitution and structure show clear
evidence of design. But their design is not less perfect because they
require a luteplayer, who in Gregory's analogy is God. The question of
intervention vs. fully-gifted creation thus remains an open question within
the intelligent design movement.

Best wishes,
Bill Dembski