Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology

By William A. Dembski

InterVarsity Press, 1999 | ISBN 0-8308-1581-3

Reviewed by Merle Harton, Jr.

A woman in China receives a letter in the mail. After opening it, she simply stares, bewildered and unknowing, at the combination of characters on the page. She asks her friend, an American, to look at it. When the American looks at the page, she recoils in horror. "This is a letter from abroad!" she cries. "It says that your son is dead!"

What to one person was a mere concatenation of letters on a page was to another a message of great personal importance. Only one person was able to see the characters on the page as signs, as indicators of information, pointing to something beyond themselves. The first person saw only writing on a page. It is not merely the conveyance of information here that ought to capture our attention, but also the second woman's presumption and conviction that the letter was from another intelligent being.

Intelligence, information, signs—these are all elements of the complex issue surrounding design as a concept in common sense, in science, and in theology. Common sense has never had a problem with these things at all. Theologians have been inclined to accept some form of the design argument, arguing from features of the natural world to their author. Even Paul used a form of it, telling us in Romans that God is known to anyone who would simply look to the natural world:

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. [Romans 1:20]

Where design has been problematic is in efforts to keep it within an explanatory science. Historically that failed and along with it went a world view that could accommodate an interested creator, leaving us instead with a naturalistic science that wants to explain the world's events using some genuinely meager tools—natural laws, chance, and particulate stuff. If we tend to yawn at this kind of positivism as it has appeared in the math-driven sciences, we are otherwise horrified when evolutionary biologists, for example, try stuffing our more personal perceptions into Darwinism. Other sciences (especially forensic science, paleontology, history), which look backward and not forward, seem genuinely unable to function properly with just these assumptions.

In biology, where the Darwinian methodological battle is still being fought, there is a move now to reintroduce design as a bona fide scientific explanation. Dembski, a leader in this renewal movement, has argued for "intelligent design" as a robust program within scientific research and continues that argument in a more accessible presentation in this book.

Dembski's book is an important document. It looks thoughtfully at the assumptions of modern scientific method and argues vigorously for the uselessness of naturalism, whether as a methodological or a metaphysical presupposition. The result is that supervenience—the claim that a reduction to natural causes exists in principle—becomes an empty promissory note, a wind egg, a Cracker-Jacks badge, a dribble cup.... Under scrutiny, Darwinism, too, becomes a genuinely failed research program, not a well-supported scientific theory, severely lacking in explanatory power.

Deeply appreciative of the 18th-century philosopher of common sense, Thomas Reid, Dembski accepts that design—like intelligence—is empirically detectable in nature. Commonsensically, we do this all of the time: whenever we attribute an event to human agency, anytime we admire instances of human wisdom. For Dembski, this is after all how intelligent design is connected with the logic of signs and why detecting design in the universe can turn out to follow a well-defined methodology within a scientific theory of information.

This is not "scientific creationism," which is actually at a distance from Dembski's intelligent design. Intelligent design is the systematic study of intelligent causes and the effects they leave behind. Naturalism, which pervades our academic discourse, leaves no room for a designing intelligence that does not conform to natural laws. On the contrary, argues Dembski, design can be effectively used in the explanatory sciences. For Dembski, the design theorist is actually a reverse engineer: Given that some objects are designed, the theory asks how they were produced, or could have been produced.

Dembski, a Christian, brings this all together into a lively, palpable, contemporary debate on scientific methodology, metaphysics, and the poverty of a naturalistic world view. He weaves these themes together into a well-written, popularly presented platform for intellectual reform. It is refreshing to read this tightly reasoned work by a Christian philosopher writing in the analytical tradition.

Alas! One would really like it to be the last word. Dembski wants us to accept, first, that design is a perfectly acceptable contrivance within the explanatory sciences; second, that design is also a splendid bridge between these sciences and our best theological sentiments. As we see him commence his program, though, we immediately catch him taking the "design" of common sense, which both scientist and theologian can understand, and turning it into a technical term within a scientific method, leaving no one with any assurance that the theologian can also use the term intelligibly. Here is a rule of bridge-building: If two bridge builders each start at opposite ends of a chasm and plan to connect the two structures, each should make sure to have an appointment with the other to meet somewhere in the middle.

This is an ambitious book, a brilliant book, packed with awesome insights. Christians who are not afraid of rigorous debate need to read it.

Copyright © 2000 by Merle Harton, Jr.

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