Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Defining Undesign in a Designed Universe

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Defining Undesign in a Designed Universe

Article excerpt

The argument from design, recast today in the Intelligent Design movement, relies critically on the contrast of designed things with undesigned things. This poses a problem for Christians, however, because they affirm that God designed the whole universe. How then can we call anything undesigned? I argue that this problem is equivalent to the problem of free will, or the problem of moral evil, and as such can be addressed by the same philosophical frameworks developed in the past for addressing those issues, in particular the notions of different levels of description and Augustine's different levels of giftedness.


The argument from design, associated with William Paley (1) but with roots in antiquity, (2) has long seemed persuasive to many people at a gut level--if something looks designed, then it is reasonable to conclude that it is designed. In Paley's famous analogy, if we are walking in the woods and find a watch, even without knowing the history of the watch at all, we conclude that there was a watchmaker. Or in a similar example, if we walk into a room and find a table with one hundred six-sided dice all with the number 1 facing up, we "know" that some person arranged them to be that way. We do not know how or when--perhaps the other person tediously turned them all that way by hand, or perhaps some other person manufactured them with weights on one side and then threw them--but either way, the pattern of the dice has attributes that seem to demand of our intuition that intelligence and planning were involved somewhere along the way.

Modern intelligent design (ID) proponents, such as Dembski (3) and Behe, (4) have essentially followed this same argument, but have tried to tighten up the definition of the attributes we look for when we say something looks designed. Humans seem to have a built-in sense of design just as we have built-in senses of other things, such as hot and cold temperatures and loud and soft sounds, or more subtle things such as beauty and guilt. These built-in senses make it easy to know it when you see it, but they can be a hindrance to conveying to others exactly what you mean--one person can say "that looks designed to me" while another says it does not, just as one person might say a painting is beautiful and another says it is not.

Yet modern science gives us hope that many things originally thought to be subjective impressions can be defined more rigorously. For example, a few hundred years ago, hot and cold were merely subjective impressions: one person might say a room was cold, and another person could disagree, saying it felt hot. With the advent of thermometers and the kinetic theory of heat, we can now talk much more rigorously about these previously only subjective impressions. In the same way, we can now quantify the loudness of sounds using decibel meters instead of just saying, "It sounds loud to me." It is therefore reasonable to hope that our sense of design need not remain forever in the category of the subjective and undefinable.

Intrinsic to this increase of rigor is the need to make distinctions. In both examples used above, the watch in the woods and the dice on the table, we identify the designed thing in contrast to other things which do not look designed. The watch stands out as designed precisely because it is not like a rock or other object which we would expect to find on a path in the woods. The dice stand out as having a pattern produced by a person because they do not look like the result of a random throw. Our intuition identifies designed things partly by detecting contrast with other things that are undesigned. ID proponents argue the same way. Some things, e.g., the mechanisms of living cells, are identified as designed in contrast to the products of random forces.

An intrinsic problem for Christians, however, is that we affirm that God designed the entire universe. …

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