Design as Concept, Sign, and Production

Howard J. Van Till (
Wed, 7 Apr 1999 09:15:10 -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 actualization.

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
>"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,
>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

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 drift."

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
>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
>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