Design as Concept, Sign, and Production

Howard J. Van Till (
Tue, 6 Apr 1999 20:45:08 -0400

To Bill Dembski and the ASA listserve:

Thanks, Bill, for the latest posting. I think it's a big step toward a more
fruitful exchange of ideas.

1. Yes, we agree that "design involves conceptualization." That's something
we have always agreed on, but it's good to say so. With you, I also presume
that the conceptualization of the Creation was done in accord with an
end/purpose in mind.

One question that deserves more thought by all concerned is on the matter of
contingency. How much authentic contingency was there in the Creation's
formational history? Not an easy question to answer. My inclination is to
posit a fair amount of contingency, consistent with broad purposes rather than
a highly pre-determined particular outcome. (Words like "blueprint strike me
as overly deterministic.)

2. What about your comments re the evidence for "design" functioning as a
"sign"? You say:

>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, Schutzenberger'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.

I'm not certain what you are here saying. We have long confessed that "The
heavens are telling the glory of God...." All of the Creation functions as a
sign of God's creativity, generosity,...glory. I don't see how irreducible,
specified, or functional complexity tell of that glory any more eloquently now
than "the heavens" did long ago. Perhaps I'm missing your point here. Or,
perhaps we need to read further and consider once again the manner of

3. On this matter of actualization you say:

>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?

Here is where we must agree to disagree. What I find most significant (in the
sense of functioning as a most lucid sign) about the Creation is its
remarkable menu of "natural" capabilities -- those "gifts of being" that I
keep talking about. I do not at all find reference to the Creation's
astounding formational or operational capabilities to be "otiose" (of no use,
ineffectual, futile). I see at least as much "design" (evidence of purposeful
conceptualization) in the Periodic Table as in the blood clotting system. How
could it be that the birth of a child would be less a sign of design than the
workings of a bacterial flagellum?

Question: When you speak of design as a sign, are you thinking of its
usefulness in some tightly argued apologetic function, something far more
specific and scientific in tone than "the heavens declare...."?

4. You say:

>My own approach to design as a sign through specified
>complexity includes an argument for why "natural processes" cannot
>in-principle produce specified complexity.

That is the most straightforward and candid statement on that matter I have
seen in the ID literature. Thank you for saying it so clearly here.

In my "fully gifted Creation perspective" I envision the Creatiion's "natural
processes" as being able to accomplish at least as much as the scientific
community now envisions; most likely it is capable of far more.

5. So, how do you and I deal with this seeming difference of perspective? You
propose the following resolution:

>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.

This deserves some careful thought. Yes, I do strive for a very rich view of
the formational and operational economies of the Creation. Is my view more
rich than the expectations of Dawkins and the other preachers of naturalism
(broad worldview sense)? I think not. As I see it, the preachers of
naturalism have exceedingly high expectations regarding what the universe is
capable of doing -- far higher than their metaphysics would warrant.

My criticism of the proponents of naturalism is not for holding a low view of
what the universe is capable of doing, but of having no basis whatsoever for
holding the high view that they do. The universe of naturalism has no source
for its being; it's just one of those things that happens to exist. The
universe of naturalism has no Source for its formational or operational
economies; the universe that just happens to exist also just happens to be in
possession of a formational economy that is sufficiently robust as to make
evolutionary development from quarks to humans possible. .... We could go on
with these lines, but as the stream said to the floating twig, "you get my

5. Can the "fully gifted Creation perspective" and the "intelligent design"
strategy coexist peacefully?

>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

I'm afraid we still disagree here. See my comments in #4.

>In saying that intelligent design is compatible with a fully-gifted
>creation, I'm not saying that intelligent design requires a fully-gifted

I knew I was expecting too much:)

>The question of intervention vs. fully-gifted creation thus remains an open
>question within the intelligent design movement.

I see this as a major breakthrough in the conversation between ID and those of
us who would favor a non-interventionist (or non-episodic) view of the way in
which God's creative work became manifest in the course of time. If this
message is clearly and candidly communicated by proponents of ID from here on,
our exchanges have a chance of being far more fruitful than they have been in
recent years.


Howard Van Till