[asa] Reflections on "Design"

From: Christine Smith <christine_mb_smith@yahoo.com>
Date: Sun Oct 07 2007 - 01:05:55 EDT

Hello everyone,

A little while back, I had an interesting exchange
about the concept of design with a Theist (who at the
time, I was under the mistaken impression he was an
Atheist) on the Yahoo!Answers (Religion &
Spirituality) forum. Let me list my questions upfront,
and then follow-up with some background/discussion:

1) Does the term "design" imply intelligence?
2) Does holding an Atheistic philosophy mandate that
    a) Design is a meaningless concept OR
    b) Validate the ID movement's contention that
design can be determined scientifically.
3) If 2 is "b", then how to do this?

Okay, on to the background...here was the poster's
question (with his responses to other answerers), my
initial response, his response to me, and then a 2nd
response I sent him:

Poster abc:
Where do we draw the line between design and non
design in nature?
Apparently, "intelligent design" is an alternative
name for creationism. However, in this question, the
term "design" corresponds to the general concept of
design, and no connection with creationism is

Our thoughts are the result of the laws of nature,
with a lot of randomness being evolved, etc., as are
any other complex processes in nature. Therefore, as
scientists, we must either admit that there is no
design in processes that are controlled by human
beings or else we must admit that there is a design in
other natural processes as well. There is a question
of degree because of evolution, but why should we draw
a line just when human or other evolved life forms are
involved? Where should we draw the line anyway?

Isn't it the entire universe a complex process. On
which side of the line this global process should be
and why? Is it an arbitrary convention that an
"advanced" life form must be involved? Is it because
of the time scale? Why should the time scale matters?

    * 2 weeks ago

Additional Details

2 weeks ago
April: I bought the more recent "God the failed
hypothesis" of Victor J. Stenger. I also read a lot of
Dawkins's. So, what? I want to know your answer.

2 weeks ago
I'm an Atheist: I expected this kind of answers. It is
implicit in your answer that you adopted the
convention that a design involves an advanced life
form, and this is what you reject in the case of the
universe. Had you understood my question, you would
have first acknowledged that you have adopted this
arbitrary convention. Moreover, even then, the
question still remains. Where do you draw the line?
What is an advanced life form?

2 weeks ago
After 6 answers, nobody answered the question. Where
do we draw the line? Some say "there is no evidence
for design". What? Are you saying that when you wrote
your answer there was no design? In the case, of a dog
is there a design? In the case of a cell is there a
design? In the case of a complex molecules? In the
case of the entire creation? Where do you draw the

2 weeks ago
An easy answer would be to define a design as an
artifact separated from the actual creation, like a
plan on a separate piece of paper. Only human beings
(to my knowledge) make this kind of design, but this
is an easy answer.

2 weeks ago
salient2: This sounds like a variant on the Anthropic
principle, which is as much disliked by the scientific
community as the Intelligent Design principle.

1 week ago
salient2: No It is disliked. It is seen as a way to
avoid doing true science.

1 week ago
It is seen as a weak substitute for a more fundamental
explanation that science should try to discover.
Explaining complexity in nature simply by saying that
it is needed for life is like explaining the different
masses and coupling constants with the same argument.

1 week ago
I recommend "The trouble with physics" of Lee Smolin.
He explains the problem with the anthropic principle.
In particular, he points out that the argument in
support of that principle can be turned into an
argument to support an intelligent designer. It is too
easy to replace an intelligent designer by using the
anthropic principle. It becomes a question of taste
and opinion. Science must look for a better

1 week ago
There is weak and a strong anthropic principle. The
weak anthropic principle is accepted. An example of
the weak anthropic principle is that we should not be
surprised to live on the planet earth where life is
possible. This weak anthropic principle requires that
we have already explained through a fundamental theory
that the probability that such planets exist
approaches one. In other words, the weak anthropic
principle cannot be used to explain why the conditions
for life are satisfied by the universe globally, but
only to explain that, given that these conditions will
be met at different locations in the universe, we
should expect that these conditions will be satisfied

1 week ago
Questioner: We cannot deny that the current attempt to
introduce intelligent design in schools through
politics and laws is from creationists who wants to
teach that the creation came in 6 days few thousand
years ago. I am not supporting that.

On the other hand, what is thought in schools is
regularly revised. One idea is to give some insights
on the most important theories and questions in
science (not just on evolution) to young students.
However, I would leave up to scientists to determine
what are these questions and theories. Also, I am not
against lessons on religion Vs science, economy Vs
science, etc. if we can agree on the content, because
science is an open system.

The counter argument is that students will not
understand and be confused. I disagree. I think it
will make it more interesting and will raise the
interest of the students for science."

My (faithcmbs9) initial post:
Interesting question (made me think--not a lot of
Yahoo! questions do that!). If I'm understanding it
correctly, you're basically asking (from an Atheist
perspective) that since our thoughts are controlled by
the laws of nature, than either nothing is really
"designed" in the sense that we typically speak of it,
or else anything and everything in nature could be
termed "designed" (aka: the "designer" is the laws of
nature)--and then from this, can you draw a line
between what is "designed" and not "designed"?

After pondering for a bit, I think the question is
rather self-defeating. If you say that the the laws of
nature are the "designer" (and I presume, from an
Atheistic perspective, that "nature" is all that there
is) then the concept of "design" is really
meaningless. The laws of nature permeate everything,
so therefore everything could be "designed" in this
sense, but then if everything is "designed" then there
is nothing that isn't "designed" to reference it
against--it's tantamount to trying to explain what is
"blue" if no other colors existed in the world. I
think the term "design" implies a certain level of
intelligence (whether that be animals, human, God,
etc.--I don't think it really matters to what level of
evolution we're speaking of) capable of controlling
nature in a way contrary to what otherwise would have
happened if the laws of nature had been left
uninterrupted (i.e. free will). For example, we
typically think of a building as being designed. Why?
Because the laws of nature do not generate a typical
city skyscraper--we as human beings have used our
intelligence in order to alter (control) what would
otherwise have happened naturally. It is true that we
employ the laws of nature to do so, but if we
ourselves are merely an expression of natural laws
rather than a controlling influence then we are right
back to the problem of either everything or nothing is
"designed". In this scenario, I don't think there is
any room for a gray area--it really is either all
"designed" or all "not designed" with the concept of
"design" itself being meaningless.

From a Christian perspective, I think this scenario is
a good illustration of the philosophical challenges of
atheism. To say that humans do not "design" anything
strikes me as totally absurd and unrealistic because
intuitively we seem to make this distinction between
"design" and "non-design". To say that everything is
"designed" by an unintelligent force (the laws of
nature) seems to contradict the very meaning of the
term itself. Therefore, from a Christian perspective,
I would say that design is a characteristic of an
action taken by a being with free will, and that God
"designed" all of nature by (among other things)
creating the laws of nature, and that we and other
sentient creatures, also having free will, can
"design" things within this framework. As an analogy,
I might say that my computer manufacturer "designed"
my computer, and that I, the user, subsequently worked
within this "designed" framework to "design" other
things (i.e. a drawing, an essay, etc.). "Non-design"
then, from a human perspective, is anything which from
within our framework, does not appear to be "designed"
(but nevertheless from God's point of view, is
"designed). Thus, within our framework, we are able to
rationally make the distinction between "design" and
"non-design" in nature.

Hope this provides some insight.
In Christ,

PS--Since you seem scientifically inclined, I would
encourage you to check out the website for the
American Scientific Affiliation (www.asa3.org)--it is
a fellowship of scientists who are Christians to
discuss issues where science & faith intersect. Design
(usually specific to the intelligent design vs.
theistic evolution debate) is often a topic of

abc's response to my posting:
"faithcmbs9: At the least the Christians have on their
side that the first intelligent answer that I received
came from a Christian. This does not mean that I
cannot discuss your answer. I could, but this is not
the way it work on Y!A. Now, I am hoping that some
atheists or perhaps some theists non Christian would
provide another intelligent answer.

Actually, we only need to accept a concept of design
at different scales. Also, there is no need for a
separate designer beyond the laws of nature. Even for
objects created by men, the true designers are the
laws of nature."

My follow-up response--I can't find it unfortunately,
but to paraphrase what I said:
1) Judging by the definitions of the word "design" on
dictionary.com (see:
http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/design), one
cannot use the word "design" without implying
2) From an Atheistic viewpoint, the only way I could
conceive of distinguishing between "design" and
"non-design" would be either to use a classification
system based on the primary natural law at work
(designed by gravity, designed by evolution, etc), or
by mathematically determining the entropy of various
things and specifying an arbitrary entropy value which
distinguished something from "designed" vs.

In the exchange, I concluded that the term "design"
implied intelligence, and that therefore anything that
was "designed" had to indicate the existence of an
intelligence (thus, natural laws, being unintelligent,
cannot "design" anything) In essence, my definition of
"design" came to mean "intended order"--"intent"
relating to the free will of the being, and "order"
relating to a change of the physical characteristics
of the system or item in question. To define "design"
any differently I think, would really be to destroy
the concept behind the word as used in language.

If this is the case, then does this force the Atheist
to concede that nothing is in fact designed and that
the term is meaningless; or, if they argue that the
term does have meaning, then does this force them to
concede that in some way, shape, or form, you have to
be able to determine what is "designed" using science
(which is conceptually what ID is trying to do).

If we all agree that the "term" design is not
meaningless and can be determined scientifically, then
regardless of your religious convictions, the next
question would be how to show something is "ordered"
and "intended". The first concept I would think you
could show or at least address using the scientific
concept of entropy; but as to "intent", how do you
look at an object and determine "intent"? I would
think you could only do this by using first-person
experience to draw inferences--but then, does this
lend evidence to the notion of qualia--the validity of
a subjective view to determine an objective truth?

Well, such are my reflections on this intriguing
philosophical debate...what are your thoughts on what
we might term the Atheist's "Unintelligent Design"? :)

In Christ,

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Received on Sat, 6 Oct 2007 22:05:55 -0700 (PDT)

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