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The Design Inference from Specified Complexity:
Defended by Scholars outside the Intelligent Design Movement - 1


Peter S. Williams (MA, MPhil)
Southampton, England
Assistant Professor in Communication and Worldviews, Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communication, NLA University College, Norway.


Part 1 - Introduction


Note:  This series of articles by Peter Williams was originally published as a single paper.  It appears here, for reasons of accessibility, in 3 parts.  The Introduction and Conclusions appear in Part 1

This article first appeared in Philosophia Christi Vol.9, No.2, 2007 and appears here by permission of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. Philosophia Christi ( is the journal of the Evangelical Philosophical Society ( It publishes scholarly articles discussing philosophy and philosophical issues in the fields of apologetics, ethics, theology, and religion.
To join the society, subscribe to Philosophia Christi and to take advantage of the first-time subscriber discount, visit their membership page (

A Critical Review

The quality of a scientific approach or opinion depends on the strength of its factual premises and on the depth and consistency of its reasoning, not on its appearance in a particular journal or on its popularity among other scientists.  Stephen Jay Gould, amici curiae, Daubert v Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals

According to mathematician and philosopher William A. Dembski, ‘given an event, object, or structure, to convince ourselves that it is designed we need to show that it is improbably (i.e. complex) and suitably patterned (i.e. specified).’[1]  Dembski has defended ‘specified complexity’ - or ‘complex specified information’ (CSI) - as a reliable design detection criterion in numerous writings,[2] including his peer-reviewed monograph The Design Inference.[3]   In simplified sum, a long string of random letters is complex without being specified (that is, without conforming to an independently given pattern that we have not simply read off the object or event in question). A short sequence of letters like ‘this’ or ‘that’ is specified without being sufficiently complex to outstrip the capacity of chance to explain this conformity (for example, letters drawn at random from a Scrabble bag will occasionally form a short word). Neither complexity without specificity nor specificity without complexity compels us to infer design. However, this paper is both specified (conforming to the functional requirements of grammatical English) and sufficiently complex (doing so at a level of complexity that makes it unreasonable to attribute this match to luck) to trigger a design inference on the grounds that ‘in all cases where we know the causal origin of . . . specified complexity, experience has shown that intelligent design played a causal role.’[4]  As J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig note, ‘The central aspect of ID theory is the idea that the designed-ness of some things that are designed can be identified as such in scientifically acceptable ways. . . . William Dembski has been the main figure in developing this aspect of ID theory.’[5] Hence the propositions that design can be detected via CSI, and that doing so can be legitimately described as a scientific activity, have become foundational principles of Intelligent Design (ID).
Leaving to one side the secondary question of whether inferring design can be legitimately described as a scientific activity,[6] this paper reviews the work of several scientists and philosophers outside the ID movement, in order to demonstrate that, explicitly and implicitly, they endorse CSI as a design detection criterion. This agreement is metaphysically bipartisan, coming from naturalists and theists alike. This agreement also comes from hostile witnesses, in that some of the scholars whose work I will review are actively opposed to ID.
Independent agreement among a diverse range of scholars with different worldviews as to the utility of CSI adds warrant to the premise that CSI is indeed a sound criterion of design detection. And since the question of whether the design hypothesis is true is more important than the question of whether it is scientific, such warrant therefore focuses attention on the disputed question of whether sufficient empirical evidence of CSI within nature exists to justify the design hypothesis.
ID is a theory advanced by a growing number of scientists and other academics (design theorists) who believe empirical evidence within the natural world justifies a design inference on the basis of reliable design detection criteria (such as CSI): ‘As a scientific theory, ID only claims that there is empirical evidence that key features of the universe . . . are the products of an intelligent cause.’[7]   Neither ‘creationism,’[8] nor natural theology,[9] ID simply holds that:

intelligent agency, as an aspect of scientific theory making, has more explanatory power in accounting for the specified, and sometimes irreducible complexity of some physical systems, including biological entities, and/or the existence of the universe as a whole, than the blind forces of . . . matter.[10]

As Marcus R. Ross explains, ‘ID is classified as a philosophically minimalistic position, asserting that real design exists in nature and is empirically detectable by the methods of science.’[11] Hence, abstracted from the debate about whether or not ID is science, ID can be advanced as a single, logically valid syllogism:

(Premise 1)    Specified complexity reliably points to intelligent design.
(Premise 2)    At least one aspect of nature exhibits specified complexity.
(Conclusion)Therefore, at least one aspect of nature reliably points to intelligent design.

Concerning premise 2, design theorists have proposed that intelligent design can be inferred from several facets of nature, including cosmic fine-tuning, the fine-tuning of our local cosmic habitat, the origin of life, irreducibly complex biomolecular systems, and the ‘Cambrian Explosion.’[12]  However, my concern here is with the first premise, without which the empirical data lacks evidential traction. Rather than drawing upon the work of its defenders within the ID movement, I will draw attention to the fact that scientists and philosophers outside the movement, including some who are opposed to the theory, use CSI as a design detection criterion. These scholars can be divided into two groups: atheists and theists. I will review each group in turn.

William A. Dembski claims to have formalized (one of) the intuitive design detection tools of humanity. Confidence in the truth of this claim, and in the claim that CSI is a reliable criterion of design detection, is bolstered by the fact that academics outside the ID movement (irrespective of their worldview, and sometimes despite their own negative assessment of ID) explicitly or implicitly employ (pre-theoretic versions of) the CSI criterion when arguing for (and against) design inferences.

Moreover, the greater the number of scholars who independently arrive at the same answer to a problem, the more confident we tend to be about the truth of their answer. Hence, discovering CSI used to solve the problem of justifying and repudiating design inferences in the work of a diverse group of scholars outside the ID movement (including several ‘hostile witnesses’ opposed to ID) justifies some confidence in the first premise of ID.

Since the conclusion of intelligent design follows logically if we add a premise affirming the existence of sufficient relevant empirical evidence (even if in only one field of inquiry), the truth of such a second premise would therefore seem to be the crucial issue between supporters and detractors of the claim that intelligent design theory can be advanced as a sound argument. And if ID is acknowledged to be advancing a sound argument, advocates of the definitional, ‘it's not science’ critique of ID will either have to eat their proverbial hats, or else endorse transferring assets from university science departments to philosophy departments in the interests of furthering our understanding of physical reality.

[1]. William A. Dembski, ‘Another Way to Detect Design?’
[2]. Cf. William A. Dembski, ‘The Logical Underpinnings of Intelligent Design,’ in Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 311-30; William A. Dembski, ‘Reinstating Design within Science,’ in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, ed. John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2003), 403-17; William A. Dembski, ‘Naturalism and Design,’ in Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, ed. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland (London: Routledge, 2000).
[3].  William A. Dembski, The Design Inference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Cf. Hugh Ross, review of The Design Inference, by William Dembski, Philosophia Christi 2 (2000): 142-4.
[4]. Stephen C. Meyer, ‘Teleological Evolution: The Difference It Doesn't Make,’
[5]. J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 356.
[6]. Richard Dawkins affirms the scientific status of ID in The God Delusion: ‘The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice-or not yet-a decided one. . . . The methods we should use to settle the matter . . . would be purely and entirely scientific methods’ ([London: Bantam, 2006], 59). Cf. Michael J. Behe, ‘The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis,’ Philosophia Christi 3 (2001): 165-79; 
Michael J. Behe, ‘Whether Intelligent Design Is Science,’;
William A. Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004);
William A. Dembski, ‘In Defence of Intelligent Design,’ in Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, ed. Philip Clayton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 715-31;
Stephen C. Meyer, ‘The Scientific Status of Intelligent Design: The Methodological Equivalence of Naturalistic and Non-Naturalistic Origins Theories,’ in Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, ed. Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski, and Stephen C. Meyer (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999), 151-211;
Bradley Monton, ‘Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision,’;
Alvin Plantinga, ‘Whether ID Is Science Isn't Semantics,’;
Alvin Plantinga, ‘Methodological Naturalism?’ Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (1997): 143-54;
Del Ratzsche, Science and Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective (Leicester: Apollos, 2000);
David Tyler, ‘Is Design Part of Science?’;
Peter S. Williams, ‘If SETI Is Science and UFOlogy Is Not, Which Is Intelligent Design Theory?’;
Peter S. Williams, ‘The Definitional Critique of Intelligent Design Theory: Lessons from the Demise of Logical Positivism,’
[7]. David K. DeWolf et al., Traipsing into Evolution: Intelligent Design and the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Decision (Seattle: Discovery Institute, 2006), 30.
[8]. Cf. Francis J. Beckwith, Law, Darwinism, And Public Education (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003); Dembski, ‘In Defence of Intelligent Design’; Dembski, The Design Revolution; DeWolf et al., Traipsing into Evolution; Marcus Ross and Paul Nelson, ‘A Taxonomy of Teleology: Philip Johnson, the Intelligent Design Community and Young-Earth Creationism,’ in Darwin's Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement, ed. William A. Dembski (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006).
[9]. Although natural theology can build upon ID. See Beckwith, Law, Darwinism, And Public Education; Michael J. Behe, ‘Whether Intelligent Design Is Science’; Dembski, ‘In Defence of Intelligent Design’; DeWolf et al., Traipsing into Evolution; Casey Luskin, ‘Is Intelligent Design Theory Really an Argument for God?’
[10]. Beckwith, Law, Darwinism, and Public Education, xiii.
[11]. Marcus R. Ross, ‘Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationism: Investigating Nested Hierarchies of Philosophy and Belief,’ That is, it is at least sometimes detectable.
[12]. On cosmic fine-tuning, see William Lane Craig, ‘Review: The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Possibilities,’;
William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, God? A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004);
Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview;
Robert C. Koons, ‘Post-Agnostic Science: How Physics Is Reviving the Argument from Design,’
On the fine-tuning of our local cosmic habitat, see Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004).
On the origin of life, see Dean Kenyon, The Origin of Life,;
Charles B. Thaxton, The Origin of Life 2,;
Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life's Origin: Reassessing Current Theories, 4th ed. (Addison, TX: Lewis and Stanley, 1992);
Stephen C. Meyer, ‘DNA and the Origin of Life: Information, Specification and Explanation,’ in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, 223-85;
Stephen C. Meyer, ‘DNA by Design: An Inference to the Best Explanation for the Origin of Biological Information,’ Rhetoric and Public Affairs 1 (1999): 519-55;
Stephen C. Meyer, ‘Teleological Evolution: The Difference It Doesn't Make,’ in Darwinism Defeated? The Johnson-Lamoureux Debate on Biological Origins, ed. Phillip E. Johnson, Denis O. Lamoureux et al. (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1999), 91-102;
Ø. A. Voie, ‘Biological Function and the Genetic Code Are Interdependent,’ Chaos, Solutions and Fractals 28 (2006): 1000-4.
On irreducibly complex biomolecular systems, see Michael J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box, rev. ed. (London: The Free Press, 2006);
Michael J. Behe, ‘Design in the Details: The Origin of Biomolecular Machines,’ in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, 287-302;
Behe, ‘The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis’;
Behe, ‘Darwinism Gone Wild: Neither Sequence Similarity Nor Common Descent Address a Claim of Intelligent Design,’;
Michael J. Behe and D. W. Snoke, ‘Simulating Evolution by Gene Duplication of Protein Features that Require Multiple Amino Acid Residues,’ Protein Science 13 (2004): 2651-64;
William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001);
Stephen Griffith, ‘Irreducible Complexity,’;
Scott Minnich and Stephen C. Meyer, ‘Genetic Analysis of Coordinate Flagellar and Type III Regulatory Circuits,’ Design and Nature 2: Comparing Design in Nature with Science and Engineering, ed. M. W. Collins and C. A. Brebbia (WIT Press, 2004), 395-304;
William A. Dembski, ‘Still Spinning Just Fine: A Response to Ken Miller',;
William A. Dembski, ‘Irreducible Complexity Revisited,’;
Mike Gene, ‘Evolving the Bacterial Flagellum Through Mutation and Co-option,’ pts. 1-6,
On the Cambrian Explosion, see Stephen C. Meyer, ‘The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,’ Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117  (2004): 213-39;
Stephen C. Meyer, Marcus Ross, Paul Nelson, and Paul Chien, ‘The Cambrian Explosion: Biology's Big Bang,’ in Darwinism, Design, And Public Education, 323-402.

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Peter S. Williams, 17/07/2017