The Discovery Institute, Intelligent Design and the Designer

One of the things that continuously annoys me about the Discovery Institute (DI) and their representatives is the dishonesty when it comes to the designer in Intelligent Design (ID). The strategy of the DI is to maintain that the designer does not have to be the Christian God, nor does the designer even have to be supernatural. Case in point is William Dembski. Dembski argues that the designer does not have to be God,

In September, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show devoted several programs to the topic of evolution (â€Evolution, Schmevolution — Who’s Right, Who’s Full of Itâ€). What’s more, I appeared on one of those programs (go here and here).

In those programs, Stewart & Co. had some lines that were not only funny but also memorable. The one that sticks out poked fun at ID: “We’re not saying that the designer is God, just someone with the same skill-set.†That line is now being reused on the debate circuit, with Eugenie Scott, for instance, deploying it this November at a debate at Boston University (go here).

Although the line is funny, it is not accurate. God’s skill-set includes not just ordering matter to display certain patterns but also creating matter in the first place. God, as understood by the world’s great monotheistic faiths, is an infinite personal transcendent creator. The designer responsible for biological complexity, by contrast, need only be a being capable of arranging finite material objects to display certain patterns. Accordingly, this designer need not even be infinite. Likewise, that designer need not be personal or transcendent (cf. the “designer†in Stoic philosophy).

This is completely dishonest given Dembski’s previous work, writings and speeches. One need look no further than Dembski’s Law of Conservation of Information. The bottomline of the Law of Conservation of Information (a new law of thermodynamics “discovered” by Dembski) is,

“In this section I will present an in-principle mathematical argument for why natural causes are incapable of generating complex specified information.†[No Free Lunch, p. 150]

So, if nature cannot create complex specified information, then what can? The designer, who by the above quote must be outside of nature, or supernatural. At this point one might be tempted to argue for aliens, but this is not allowed by Law of Conservation of Information. If the aliens are also “complex specified information” then they too cannot arise naturally and must have their source outside of nature.

The reader might not be persuaded by the above reasoning in that one could argue that the aliens don’t have to be complex and specified. However, lets look at another article written by Dembski, Searching Large Spaces: Displacement and the No Free Lunch Regress. In this article, Dembski argues that something as simple as a protein comprised of 100 amino acids is impossible to form naturally without the aid of an intelligent designer. Yet at the same time we are to believe that intelligent aliens formed naturally, developed some means to travel to our planet and start life here. Any reasonable person’s Woo-Woo meter should be just about ready to break.

We can also turn to the Discovery Institute itself and look at their explanation of what ID is,

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

Then there is this article from the DI website by Benjamin Wiker that argues that the universe itself was created for humans,

Since human beings arrive at the result of a long conspiracy of fine-tuning—not only in regard to the fundamental forces and laws, but also because of the elegant and precise fitness for life of the chemical elements such as carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen—cosmology is becoming not just biocentric but anthropic (from the Greek anthropos, human being). In contrast to Weinberg’s dismal assessment, then, purpose is written into every part. The vast spaces above him are not hostile and pointless but point to the ground teeming with every manner of living thing below. And again, we human beings seem to be built in from the very beginning.


We have seen, then, that insofar as the latest, most comprehensive physics goes, the universe is far from pointless. As it turns out, it is biocentric, even anthropic—that is, it points directly to the realm of purpose. Far from biology being swallowed up by a reductionist physics, it appears that physics can only be properly understood in light of biology because the material parts studied by physics and chemistry can only be properly understood in light of the complex, biological wholes for which they are so supremely well-fitted

In short, saying that the designer “has the same skill set as God” is pretty much accurate. The designer isn’t somebody who just tweaks the flagellum, the blood clotting cascade and a few other biological systems and then fades into the background. No, the designer is somebody who has to be able to create an entire universe (presumably from nothing) that is specially designed not even for life, but for human life. Sounds pretty much like some sort of divine being to me.

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Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. anjin-san says:

    The entire universe designed for human life?

    Checked out the environment on any other planets recently?

    To say nothing of the myriad other life forms right here on Earth which we cheerfully slaughter, mindless of their part in the great plan, a plan which we don’t even begin to comprehend.

  2. Anderson says:

    That’s always been the problem with the Design Argument—what does it get you?

    Some reader may not’ve seen Hume’s magisterial demolition of the argument’s core hopes:

    In a word, CLEANTHES, a man who follows your hypothesis is able perhaps to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance; and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology by the utmost license of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him. You justly give signs of horror, DEMEA, at these strange suppositions; but these, and a thousand more of the same kind, are CLEANTHES’s suppositions, not mine. From the moment the attributes of the Deity are supposed finite, all these have place. And I cannot, for my part, think that so wild and unsettled a system of theology is, in any respect, preferable to none at all.

    (emphasis added).

  3. Tim Makinson says:

    It is trivial to prove that, from their own basic thesis, the designer must be supernatural:

    1) Intelligent Design states, as its central hypothesis, that life is too complex to have evolved spontaneously, and so must have had a designer.

    2) This designer can conceivably have been either natural (aliens, etc), or supernatural (God, etc).

    3) But, under Intelligent Design’s own argument, any natural designer is likewise too complex to have evolved spontaneously (and even assuming that some other natural designer designed our first one still leaves us with an unexplainable designer).

    4) We are thus left with only the supernatural designer.

  4. floyd says:

    mr.anderson; no matrix reference intended, the science fiction authors of the 40’s and 50’s explored all of mr. hume’s “demolition” lines exhaustively.they were then warmed over on such television greats as “the outer limits” and “the twilight zone” . although imaginative, they are hardly intellectually deeper than the “dust on the policeman’s uniform” episode, circa 1963. if mr. hume would like even more profound material, he should read early asimov,clark or bradbury.they were all great “fiction scientists” who knew the difference [for the most part].

  5. floyd says:

    it is in fact a trivial comprehension,linguistically, that the designer of the “natural” must be above the natural thus “supernatural”. so does the question really come down to whether we believe the designer of the natural is either subnatural or supernatural?

  6. RJN says:

    Scott: Here we go again.

    I don’t see a problem with having more than one source of DNA design. Suppose that God the Creator created the universe, as we know it, with its built in propensity for organic life.

    Then He, when all of the commotion of the Big Bang was over, and stars formed and reformed, and all of the elements were made, and suitable earthly environments became available, made the first DNA, through the Holy Spirit, the same way that the Holy Spirit “Hovered over Mary” and presumably crafted the DNA of Christ.

    Thereafter Gods creations – folks like us, or how we may become – spread forth into the rest of the still growing universe. They, in the fullness of time, became as gods and were expected to design, as required, for a flourishing and growing House of God with many Mansions.

    None of this is excessively fabulous, considering the topic. God may not have needed to do too much jigging,of the DNA, himself because He wanted to see what would flow out of mutation and natural selection. Nonetheless, He has the ability to reach in and do some jigging when He wishes. You, or I, can go into the HTML of our sites and cause an effect, why can’t God on his site?

  7. Kazmer Ujvarosy says:

    Trust me, I have no illusions about the Discovery Institute, nevertheless I have to admit they are correct in maintaining that the intelligence they label “designer” does not have to be an intelligence which is not available for scientific study.

    The findings of astrophysics that the parameters of our universe are exquisitely fine-tuned for the production of human life — similarly as the parameters of a mighty oak are precisely fine-tuned for the production of acorns — allow us to infer that human intelligence generated the universe for the production of human intelligence in its own image, similarly as a seed creates a tree for the purpose of self-reproduction.

    Put simply, if we propose that human intelligence constitutes the tentative seed of the universe, the universal common ancestor, or the cosmic system’s input and output, then we have a scientific theory which is based solidly on the existence of human intelligence.

    Naturally it may be argued that human life is not the highest and most complex form of life in the universe. Whether it is true or not, we do not know. What we do know beyond any reasonable doubt is that there is absolutely no confirmable evidence in favor of the belief that a life form superior to human life exists. But if anyone keeps insisting that human life is not the highest form of life in existence, where is the evidence that a life form superior to human life exists, or can come into existence? The person, who argues that a life form superior to human life exists, or can come into existence, has the burden to deliver the tangible evidence.

    So the proposal that human life constitutes the cosmic system’s tentative and tangible output remains valid. Only the discovery of an even more superior output can falsify that theory, or the demonstration that the principle of causality, stating that no cause can produce an effect superior to itself, or give more than what it has, is invalid. Those who intend to make that demonstration have no small task because this principle has never been falsified.

    Since we identify human life or intelligence as the seed of the universe, or its input and output, those who allege that there is no scientific theory of creation have no case. Human intelligence, just as the human genome, is indubitably available for scientific study. So the argument that ID is religion, not science, is rendered invalid.

    Because descent from one universal common ancestor is the essence of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the theory that human intelligence is the universal common ancestor of the entire universe actually reinforces Darwin’s main contribution to science.

    Thus the conflict is not about descent from one universal common ancestor, but about the properties of the common ancestor. Whereas Darwin proposed descent from a simple beginning, the scientific theory of creation proposes descent from the existing highest form of intelligence, which universal common ancestor is human life, pending the discovery of an even higher form of non-human life.

    To conclude, Darwin correctly posits universal common descent, but incorrectly derives the richness of life from a simple beginning or common ancestor. That major defect renders his otherwise sound theory irrational and therefore vulnerable to challenges.

  8. Jon Henke says:

    I’m curious about something, Steve. If ID isn’t science because it’s not testable — and I agree that it’s not — then why is string theory given such wide approval and serious consideration? Is it testable? How does it differ in a scientifically verifiable way from ID?

  9. Anderson says:

    Floyd, if you’re actually curious, David Hume died in 1776. He’s the greatest philosopher to write in English, so a passing familiarity with his existence wouldn’t hurt.

  10. Anderson says:

    Then He, when all of the commotion of the Big Bang was over, and stars formed and reformed, and all of the elements were made, and suitable earthly environments became available, made the first DNA, through the Holy Spirit, the same way that the Holy Spirit “Hovered over Mary” and presumably crafted the DNA of Christ.

    Not unlike how God caused a few million Jews to vanish from Europe in a twinkling of an eye, leaving the poor innocent Germans pegged for the “so-called Holocaust“?

    Anyway, for all we know, God created the universe 30 minutes ago, including our memories, the fossil record, etc. He may do this every hour on the hour. Can I prove that he doesn’t? Nope. Can I prove that he does? Nope.

  11. Tom Keel says:

    Kazmer Ujvarosy starts by asking us to trust him, a sure sign that we probably shouldn’t, and then goes on to claim,

    Put simply, if we propose that human intelligence constitutes the tentative seed of the universe, the universal common ancestor, or the cosmic system’s input and output, then we have a scientific theory which is based solidly on the existence of human intelligence.

    Let me see if I understand that. If we propose X, then we have a scientific theory which is based solidly upon the existence of X. Isn’t that called “begging the question”?

  12. Steve Verdon says:


    Let me start with saying I know damn little about string theory. I know it is someting in physics and I’ve heard there is some hopes of it being the the “unifying theory of phsyics”. Beyond that my knowledge ends.

    However, one thing about testability is that there is a possibility of testing the theory. For example, if IDists said, “Venusians made us, and as soon as we can send some sort of probe to Venus all will become clear.” while still a bit whacky, at least has the prospect of being testable in that we could send a probe to Venus someday.

    However, having a divine designer renders ID untestable. That, is not having a current test does not necessarily making something untestable, but being untestable means you’ll never have a test.

    Maybe somebody who knows something about string theory will see this thread and comment.

  13. Anderson says:

    Alas, my knowledge of string theory is about the size of one of those not-quite-infinitesimal strings, but I think Steve is right to distinguish “terribly difficult to test” from “untestable.”

    Still, Jon’s argument is quite plausible, as an argument against string theory.

    I would suggest that string theory at least has its origins in relatively rigorous disciplines (math, physics). For comparison, black holes, IIRC, were predicted by mathematical physics long before they were discovered, if indeed one’s been “discovered” to everyone’s satisfaction.

    So I think that one reason to pursue string theory is that, if it’s developed enough, it’ll be found to impinge on Testable Reality enough to generate a possible experiment.

    The same cannot be said of ID, which originates in wishful thinking, willful ignorance, and an utter lack of any prospect of testability.

  14. Jon Henke says:

    As far as the divine putting ID out of the realm of science….I agree. But how is that different than the “multiple universes” that cannot be tested short of “a particle accelerator the size of the Milky Way”? Seems to me that both “theories” are positing an invisible dragon in their garage.

    Still, I’m curious how ST advocates would differentiate themselves from ID. “We can test string theory….just as soon as we get ‘a particle accelerator the size of the Milky Way'” seems unsatisfying to me as a defense of testability.

  15. anjin-san says:

    Physicists who don’t like string theory use the “we can’t test it, so its philosophy, not science”, argument.

    If you want to learn more about string theory (time well spent), check out “The Elegant Universe” available on DVD from your friends at Netflix. Its about science, so many Bushites won’t like it.

    I also caught a string theory program on the science channel which had some really remarkable discussion about the big bang. Can’t recall the title.

  16. “Maybe somebody who knows something about string theory will see this thread and comment.”

    Although I’m a physics grad student, I’d be hard pressed to say that I know much about string theory.

    Part of the comments here have been correct as far as what the term “untestable” means.

    If a theory is untestable, it’s not “hard to test” it is hypothetically impossible to invent a test and a result that would prove it wrong.

    Gravity, for a crude example, is testable because if I drop my pencil, and it doesn’t fall, then it would be wrong. It is both testable and falsifiable.

    String theory, from what I’ve read, is fundamentally testable, and it looks like CERN’s newest accelerator will be able to test one of the predictions of ST.

    In any case, that hopefully helps clear things up.

  17. Anderson says:

    Still, I’m curious how ST advocates would differentiate themselves from ID. “We can test string theory….just as soon as we get ‘a particle accelerator the size of the Milky Way’” seems unsatisfying to me as a defense of testability.

    If it never gets farther than that, it’ll remain a fringe discipline.

    What string theorists are presumably looking for is to push their theory in every direction they can think of, in hopes that it will somehow, somewhere turn out to predict a testable consequence different from that to be expected under non-string principles. Possibly some subatomic particle will be found to have zigged 0.00000047% more than it zagged. Or there may be some more elegant, currently unimagined test.

  18. floyd says:

    mr. anderson; pardon my manners, i suppose it is bad form to take issue with someone who is not even around to defend himself. like several billion others, i have not been exposed to the works of david hume [damn those public schools anyway].you have piqued what little curiosity my feeble mind could muster, so i will now seek a passing familiarity with his work in the hope that he wrote something more profound than that which you quoted. i am, however, saddened to find that asimov,clark, & bradbury were plageristic frauds.BTW did mr.hume have a philosophical position on condescension? seriously, thanks for the info. mea culpa

  19. Anon says:

    I think the August 2005 issue of “Discover” magazine has an article of possible tests for string theory, such as the Laser Interferometry Space Antenna, as well as CERN’s new particle accelerator.