Can Intelligent Design Be Empirically Detected?

To say that the battle between creation and evolution rages today would be, as the proverbial saying goes, an understatement. Why has this topic become such a point of contention since the publishing of Darwin’s The Origin of Species? Is the main reason a simple disagreement about what the empirical data represents or is there something more going on? The short answer is yes and yes. The two sides are coming away with completely different conclusions about what the data tells us and something much deeper is at the root of why such diametrically opposing views are held.

There are, of course, people who stake their claim along all points of the creation/evolution spectrum. The purpose of this paper is not to look at all possible positions one can hold but to look at two specific positions: the scientific naturalist position and the intelligent design position. Those who hold to scientific naturalism believe that true science can only be done if one start with the assumption that the natural world is all there is. They claim that if one does not start from that position then science itself is in danger of stopping. To invoke God as the reason something occurs is to be guilty of the “God of the gaps” and “science stopper” arguments. These arguments are often used against those who hold to a position called Intelligent Design (ID). Are these arguments valid or is there an empirical process through which design can be detected? And if it can, does that mean that science will stop as we know it? This paper will look at both the assumptions and arguments of scientific naturalists in an effort to discern whether their objections to intelligent design are warranted. To do this, however, we must first have a short history lesson in order to have a better understanding of scientific naturalism and its impact on modern culture as well as the role design theory has played throughout the history of science.

A sense that the universe was designed is an intuitive awareness found in virtually all cultures from the beginning of time. One of the most popular arguments for God’s existence throughout history has been the design argument, also called the teleological argument. This argument was introduced in ancient Greece and was also employed by medieval philosophers, among them Thomas Aquinas. In fact, design is such a defining feature of living things that biologist Richard Dawkins begins one of his books with this startling sentence: “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose. 1 He then goes on to explain in the rest of the book how this “appearance of having been designed” is false and misleading.

Dawkin’s book plays off a famous metaphor formulated two hundred years ago by a British clergyman named William Paley (1743–1805). His argument for design was presented in Natural Theology, and the opening passage begins like this:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. 2

Further down Paley continues: “Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.” 3 Paley’s work was one of the seminal works on design theory and helped to fuel the fire for a flourishing design argument, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And why not-design was obvious to anyone who took the time to observe.

George Gaylord Simpson sounds much like Paley in describing the “appearance purposefulness” we find around us. “Appearance” is the key word for Simpson. He readily admits that living things remind us forcefully of machines:

A telescope, a telephone, or a typewriter is a complex mechanism serving a particular function. Obviously, its manufacturer had a purpose in mind, and the machine was designed and built in order to serve that purpose. An eye, an ear, or a hand is also a complex mechanism serving a particular function. It, too, looks as if it had been made for a purpose. The appearance of purposefulness is pervading in nature. 4

Accounting for this “appearance of purposefulness,” Simpson says, is a central problem for biology. But not to worry, he hastens to conclude, because Darwin has already solved it. Natural selection “achieves the aspect of purpose without the intervention of a purposer, and it has produced a vast plan without the concurrent action of a planner.” 5

It is interesting to note, however, that it was not the precise formulation of Darwin’s theory that in the end was responsible for his fame. Indeed, it was roundly rejected by Darwin’s contemporaries from the 1890s to the 1930s on the grounds that it was too simple a view of matter. The power of Darwin’s argument was the fact that he was the first to offer a “complete theoretical account for effecting the transmutation of species.” 6 He had offered a theory that it could be done by purely naturalistic terms. By giving us a plausible picture of how mechanization could take command and make life submit to mechanistic explanation, he cleared the ground for the triumphant march of mechanistic explanations in biology. 7 The fact that his theory did not give us a true theory of life was inconsequential. What he had accomplished was to give those yearning for a naturalistic explanation of life a framework in which to base all other assumptions about reality as well as making it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. 8

It seems unconscionable to define out of existence alternative explanations that attempt to account for life, yet this is exactly what Darwin and his circle did. 9 The turn to naturalism had been made. Science had been redefined in a way that completely excluded any explanation for what we find in the universe that is not naturalistic in its origin. Today we call this most virulent form of naturalism, “scientific naturalism,” 10 which states that only what can be known by science or quantified and empirically tested is rational and true.

Can this new definition of understanding ultimate reality stand? J.P. Moreland makes the case that it cannot and is in fact self-refuting.

“This statement itself is not a statement of science. It is a philosophical statement about science. How could the statement itself be quantified and empirically tested? And if it cannot, then by a statement’s own standards, it cannot itself be true or rationally held. Another way of putting this is to say that the aims, methodologies, and presuppositions of science cannot be validated by science. One cannot turn to science to justify science anymore than one can pull oneself up by his own bootstraps. The validation of science is a philosophical issue, not a scientific one, and any claim to the contrary will be a self-refuting philosophical claim.” 11

The fact that our new understanding of science is self-refuting has had no bearing whatsoever on its overwhelming acceptance throughout the world. As Phillip Johnson notes, “The most influential intellectuals in America and around the world are mostly naturalists, who assume that God exists only as an idea in the minds of religious believers. In our greatest universities, naturalism – the doctrine that nature is “all there is” — is the virtually unquestioned assumption that underlies not only natural science but intellectual work of all kinds.” 12 Herbert Schlossberg makes the point that:

“We have come full circle. Natural science, which seemed to have credentials of objectivity and reliability that other forms of learning did not, gained credibility that the others lost. It took over the consideration of questions that formerly were reserved for philosophy, and metaphysics fell by the wayside as a serious means of ascertaining the nature of reality. Now science, too, has been found to have some of the same disabilities as its rivals: reliance on unproved assumptions, subjectivity, and the propensity to make pronouncements on questions that lie outside its field of competence.” 13

Ignoring arguments from design is becoming more difficult as technology improves. While many of William Paley’s examples did not support his argument very well and in fact his theories were discounted for many years, the core of his reasoning continues to have great validity and is enjoying a resurgence. As Nancy Pearcey points out, “Darwin thought the living cell was extremely simple-nothing but a bubble of jelly (protoplasm). Over the past few decades, however, new technologies like the electron microscope have produced a revolution in molecular machinery far more complex than anything devised by humans.” 14

In Darwin’s day, scientists knew next to nothing about biochemistry. Living things were “black boxes,” their inside workings a mystery. In Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe reveals to us what has been discovered through the power of the electron microscope. In the days of Darwin it was fairly easy to imagine how a pair of legs could become fins or vice-versa but now that we have become intimately knowledgeable about the inner workings of the cell those simplistic explanations will no longer work. Darwin understood the precariousness of his position, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” 15

If Darwin were alive today he would probably concede that his theory has indeed broken down. Michael Behe has coined the term irreducible complexity to refer to the minimum level of complexity that must be present before tightly integrated systems can function at all. Behe illustrates his point with the example of a mouse trap. All of the parts of a mouse trap must be in place and functioning correctly for the trap to perform its function-kill mice. According to Darwin, natural selection works on tiny, random improvements in function-which means that natural selection does not start working until there is some function. This is where the major problem comes in for those who adhere to gradual and slight modification over time. An irreducibly complex system has no function whatsoever until all the parts are in place. If you were to take one part away from the mouse trap it would no longer function.

Another example of irreducible complexity is the bacterial flagellum that is attached like a tail to some bacteria. As the bacterium swims around the flagellum whips around exactly like a propeller. If you were to look at a diagram of a flagellum you would be convinced that you are looking at a diagram of a tiny motorized machine. It is a microscopic outboard rotary motor that comes equipped with a hook joint, a drive shaft, O-rings, a stator, and a bi-directional acid-powered motor that can hum along at up to 100,000 revolutions per minute. 16 Because the bacterial flagellum is necessarily composed of three parts — a paddle, a rotor, and a motor — it is irreducibly complex. There are no naturalistic explanations as to how organisms like the flagellum could have gradually evolved. We’re talking about a minimum number of interacting pieces that must be present before natural selection even begins to operate. A design theorist would look at something like the flagellum and conclude that it must have been designed.

This brings us to the first criticism leveled at those who adhere to Intelligent Design — the “God of the gaps” argument. We will look at this argument in two ways, the theological and the empirically testable. First, critics of intelligent design say that science studies natural causes, and to introduce design is to invoke supernatural causes. According to Dembski, the contrast is wrong: “The proper contrast is between undirected natural causes on the one hand and intelligent causes on the other. Whether an intelligent cause is located within or outside nature is a separate question from whether an intelligent cause has acted within nature. Design has no prior commitment to supernaturalism.” 17 Nancy Pearcey agrees: “We should avoid the misleading dichotomy that says evolution is science, while design is religious. Darwinism and design theory are not about different subjects — science versus religion. Instead they are competing answers to the same questions: How did life arise in the universe? Both theories appeal to scientific data, while at the same time both have broader philosophical and religious implications.” 18

Indeed, many critics charge that ID is just another form of creationism. There are many reasons critics would want to characterize design as a religious-based, primarily to create a caricature that is easily marginalized. According to Phillip Johnson: “Classifying a viewpoint or theory as “religious” may have the effect of marginalizing it. A viewpoint or theory is marginalized when, without being refuted, it is categorized in such a way that it can be excluded from serious consideration.” 19 So while critics may try and characterize design as religious it is instead an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins — one that challenges strictly materialistic views on evolution. The theory of intelligent design holds that there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause. The theory does not challenge the idea of evolution defined as change over time, or even common ancestry, but it does dispute Darwin’s idea that the cause of biological change is wholly blind and undirected.

That being said, Intelligent Design may very well provide support for theistic belief. Scientist were uncomfortable with the Big Bang because it seemed to challenge their idea of an eternally self-existent universe, but it was not dismissed because of the apparent unpleasant ramifications. In the same way, intelligent design should not be dismissed because of its apparent implications. It should be evaluated on the basis of the evidence, not our philosophical preferences or concerns about its possible religious implications. As Antony Flew, a long-time atheistic philosopher who has come to accept the case for design, insists, we must “follow the evidence wherever it leads.” 20

This brings us to the second part of the “God of the gaps” problem; is design empirically testable or is it an easy way out when an apparent explanation alludes us? Design does not belong in science because, critics argue, it is a “science stopper” that puts an end to scientific investigation. The head of an evolution advocacy group recently told CNN that design theory is “not a very good science, because it’s basically giving up and saying: We can’t explain this; therefore, God did it.” 21 We will look at the “science stopper” accusation more closely a little later but let’s first look at the question of empirical verifiability.

The process of detecting design is thoroughly empirical. There are many programs, such as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and disciplines that have developed extensive criteria for distinguishing between products of design and products of natural causes. Other areas that do this on a daily basis are forensic scientists, homicide detectives, insurance investigators, all of which have stringent test to determine if an event was an accident or intentional.

In his book, The Design Inference, Dembski introduces the notion of intelligent design with the example of Nicholas Caputo, the “man with the golden arm.” For decades Caputo, a Democrat, was county clerk of Essex County, N.J. In county elections, part of his job was to determine the order in which candidates would appear on the ballot. Although the order of the candidate’s names was supposed to be determined randomly, Democratic candidates took the top spot on the ballot 40 out of 41 times. 22

Did these results just happen or do they show evidence of design? Most of us would instantly assign design to the situation. Similarly, we would have no problem in detecting design in letters written in the sand or initials carved into a tree. The theory of design takes this notion and applies it to the living world. It looks at an organism or biological system and asks: Is this the result of undirected natural process, or is it the result of design?

In years past detecting design to the level we can now was hard, if not impossible. However, over the last few decades, advances in biology, mathematics, and information theory have made it possible to nail down what we mean when we say an object or organism is designed. In particular, design theorists look for the presence of specified complexity. Wherever we have found this, they say, we have found design. 23 So what is specified complexity? Here is an example. Imagine a friend hands you a sheet of paper and these words were written down:


Your friend then tells you he got this sequence of letters by putting the letters from his Scrabble game in a bag, shaking it up, and then taking out letters one at a time until he came up with the above sequence of letters. You would have a hard time believing your friend and for good reason; the odds against it are just too high. We all know that some things just don’t happen by chance. But what if your friend came to you with the below sequence of letters?


You would have a much easier time believing that he randomly picked Scrabble letters from a bag. But why? Because the second string of letters does not fit a pattern like the first string of letters. This simple example will hopefully help in understanding specified complexity. As Mark Hartwig explains: “When a design theorist says that an object is specified, he’s saying that it fits a recognizable pattern. And when he says it’s complex, he’s saying that there are so many different ways the object could have turned out that the probability of getting any particular outcome by chance is vanishingly small.” 24

Our first string of letters is both specified and complex whereas our second string of letters is complex but not specified. It’s just a string of letters without any discernable meaning. At the same time, if our friend shows us a sequence of letters that spell SIX we would conclude that it is specified but not complex. However, if the same friend showed us a string of letters that said ONETHOUSANDSIXHUNDREDTHIRTYEIGHT, we would conclude that this sequence is both specified and complex.

You may be asking, “Ok, but how does this relate to design in say, microbiology?” Good question. William Dembski has developed a rigorous mathematical method for determining design which he calls the Explanatory Filter. If we believe something was designed we run it through the three-stage filter. If it successfully passes all three stages of the filter, then we are reasonable in asserting it is designed. In simplified language the filter asks three questions in the following order: (1) Does a law explain it? (2) Does chance explain it? (3) Does design explain it?

At the first level, the filter determines if a law can explain the thing in question. Laws will yield the same result whenever the same antecedent conditions are fulfilled. If something can be explained by a law then it should not move any further through the filter. It has been eliminated in step one.

If something cannot be explain by a law it moves on to step two of the filter. This stage determines if something might be reasonably explained to have occurred by chance. What we do is posit a probability distribution, and then find out if our observations can reasonably be expected on the basis of that probability distribution. Accordingly, we are warranted attributing the thing in question to chance. Things explainable by chance are therefore eliminated at the second stage of the Explanatory Filter.

The third stage of the filter presents us with two options: attribute the thing in question to design if it is specified; otherwise, attribute it to chance. In the first case, the thing we are trying to explain not only has small probability, but it is also specified; for example the ONETHOUSANDSIXHUNDREDTHIRTYEIGHT sequence of letters mentioned earlier. In the other, it has small probability, but is unspecified such as the sequence of letters that spell out SIX. It is this category of specified things having small probability that reliably signals design. Unspecified things having small probability, on the other hand, are properly attributed to chance. 25

Notice that a design theorist is not saying, “We don’t know the cause of certain phenomenon so let’s just chalk it up to God and move on.” The argument is based on what we do know about the kinds of structures produced by chance, law, and design. Pearcey explains that when we are “faced with any phenomenon, a scientist can run it through the Explanatory Filter: is it a random event? Then all we need to invoke is chance. Does it occur in a regular, repeated pattern? Then it is an instance of some natural law. Is it a complex, specified pattern? Then it exhibits design, and was produced by intelligence.” 26

This takes us to the second part of the argument against design theorists: Is it fair to call intelligent design a “science stopper”? The answer to this question is both yes and no. Yes in the sense that the whole purpose of scientific investigation is to obtain knowledge-once an answer has been found the scientific inquiry in that particular area can stop and turn its attention to other questions of interest. Or, once the sought after knowledge has been obtained the questions can then change. We can then start asking how it was produced, to what extent the design is optimal and what is its purpose. 27

However, intelligent design is not a “science stopper” in that once intelligent design is accepted as a viable alternative to scientific naturalism new tools can be added to the scientist’s explanatory tool chest. Therefore, instead of stopping science, intelligent design actually propels it forward. ID theory should be seen as invigorating, not stifling, scientific investigation. As William Harris and John Calvert explain:

If ID theory is true and life and its diversity did arise by the action of an unknown intelligent agent, then the only “intelligent” response is to take it as a given (like gravity), stop trying to prove the counter argument, and intensify research efforts into the discovery of how life works, not where it came from. In the area of genetics, for example, let us try to determine just how “plastic” the genome is. What are the natural limits of variability, and how far can those limits be extended by intelligent manipulation of genes? Can we turn a squirrel into a chipmunk by gene insertion/deletion? Can we cure genetic diseases?It is questions like these that will lead to fruitful discoveries and thus deserve our full attention. 28

A scientist working under the assumptions of naturalism will see things such as “junk” DNA or vestigial organs as the necessary by-products of an undirected evolutionary process and therefore unworthy of scientific investigation. We now know that “junk” DNA does have a purpose and the appendix, once thought of as a vestigial organ, is now known to be a functioning part of the immune system. 29 Because of its basic assumption of design and not chance, intelligent design encourages scientists to look for function where evolution discourages it.

In an age of molecular biology and rapidly advancing technologies that aid in scientific inquiry the constraints that science has worked under for the several hundred years are now intolerable and the naturalistic paradigm must change. We know that naturalism cannot account for the irreducibly complex design we find throughout nature. We now have ways of empirically testing for design that were not available to us in the not too distant past. This paper has demonstrated that Intelligent Design is not based on religious presuppositions nor is it a “science stopper” but can, instead, propel science forward. Science faces a crisis of basic concepts and the only way out of this crisis is to surrender to the reality of the situation and let science lead where it may.


  1. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1986), 1, emphasis added.
  2. William Paley, Natural Theology: Evidences for the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. (Cambridge, Hillard and Brown, 1830), Google Books. 9.
  3. Ibid., 10.
  4. Cited in, Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2004), 184, emphasis added.
  5. Cited in ibid., 184.
  6. David Hull, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 26.
  7. William Dembski, Intelligent Design, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 84.
  8. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, (New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986), 6.
  9. Dembski, Intelligent Design, 85.
  10. Ibid., 103.
  11. J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1986), 197.
  12. Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance, (Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 1995), 8.
  13. Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1990), 146.
  14. Pearcey, Total Truth, 185.
  15. Cited in Pearcey, Total Truth, 187.
  16. Ibid., 186.
  17. Fred Heeren, “The Lynching of Bill Dembski“, The American Spectator, November 15, 2000.
  18. Pearcey, Total Truth, 201.
  19. Johnson, Reason in the Balance, 21.
  20. Peter S. Williams, “A Change of Mind for Antony Flew,” accessed 07/10/2007.
  21. Pearcey, Total Truth, 181.
  22. William Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 48.
  23. Mark Hartwig,, accessed 07/01/2007.
  24. Ibid.
  25. William Dembski, “The Explanatory Filter: A Three-part Filter for Understanding How to Separate and Identify Cause from Intelligent Design,” accessed 07/05/2007.
  26. Pearcey, Total Truth, 199, 200.
  27. Dembski, Intelligent Design, 151.
  28. William S. Harris and John H. Calvert, “Intelligent Design: The Scientific Alternative to Evolution“, The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Autumn 2003), 556.
  29. Dembski, Intelligent Design, 150.