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The Design Inference from Specified Complexity:
Defended by Scholars outside the Intelligent Design Movement - 3


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


Part 3 - Four Theists outside the ID Movement:
Keith Ward, Colin J. Humphreys, Denis Alexander, Basil Mitchell


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 (

Keith Ward: Abiogenesis and Improbable Processes Structured to a Good End

Keith Ward is the Regius Professor of Divinity and head of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oxford, and is a fellow of the British Academy. Ward contributed to the ‘Theistic Evolution’ section of the Cambridge University volume Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA, which was coedited by Michael Ruse and William A. Dembski.

In God, Faith, and The New Millennium, Ward takes stock of the implications of the improbability of abiogenesis:

It seems hugely improbable that, in the primeval seas of the planet earth, amino acids should meet and combine to form large molecular structures capable of self-replication. . . The motive for positing some sort of intelligent design is almost overwhelming.[59]

Ward references a specification (being ‘capable of self-replication’) and argues that the case for positing ‘intelligent design’ is ‘almost overwhelming’ because the structures exhibiting this specification are complex (‘hugely improbable’). Ward goes on to argue that:

if one is asking . . . whether a very improbable process is compatible with intelligent design, the answer is that if the process is elegantly structured to a good end, then the more improbable the process, the more likely it is to be the product of intelligent design.[60]

Ward is clearly not arguing for the mere compatibility of very improbable processes with intelligent design; rather, he is arguing that very improbable processes warrant explanation in terms of intelligent design when they are also specified.[61]
Ward does (unnecessarily in my view) restrict what ID theorists would term a specification to the elegant achievement of a good end; but this is neither here nor there with respect to the observation that Ward argues for intelligent design by advancing the claim that nature exhibits non-ad hoc patterns at low probability and that the combination of the right sort of pattern (specifications) with sufficient improbability (complexity) warrants a design inference. That is, although Ward does not argue that his design inference is scientific, he is otherwise at least in the same ballpark as Dembski as regards the methodology of design detection.
Colin J. Humphreys: The ‘Guiding Hand’ of Exodus
Colin Humphreys is the Goldsmiths' Professor of Materials Science at Cambridge University, and a vice president of Christians in Science. In The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories, Humphreys argues that the Exodus account in the Bible is factually accurate ‘down to points of tiny detail’[62] and that modern science can ‘explain every miracle in the Exodus story.’[63] However, Humphreys concludes by asking:

Is there any evidence of a ‘guiding hand’ in the events of the Exodus? What I've found is that the Exodus story describes a series of natural events like earthquakes, volcanoes, hail, and strong winds occurring time after time at precisely the right moment for the deliverance of Moses and the Israelites. Any one of these events occurring at the right time could be ascribed to lucky chance. When a whole series of events happens at just the right moment, then it is either incredibly lucky chance or else there is a God who works in, with, and through natural events to guide the affairs and the destinies of individuals and of nations. Which belief is correct: Chance or God? I'm not going to answer that question for you; you must answer it yourself.[64]

It is clear that Humphrey's himself would answer his question by saying that there is indeed evidence of a ‘guiding hand’ in the events of the Exodus, because the specification of the Israelites being delivered from slavery in Egypt and into the ‘promised land’ was exhibited by a series of events with a very high level of compound complexity.[65]
Denis Alexander: The Anthropic Teleological Argument
Denis Alexander is head of the T Cell Laboratory, the Babraham Institute, Cambridge. He is also director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund's College, Cambridge, and editor of the journal Science and Christian Belief. Dr. Alexander is a theistic evolutionist vigorously opposed to ID.[66]
In Rebuilding the Matrix, Alexander observes that the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence ‘is based on the assumption that a single message from space will reveal the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.’[67] He quotes Norman L. Geisler that ‘even if the object of pursuit is the reception of only one message, nevertheless, the basis of knowing that it was produced by intelligence is the regular conjunction of intelligent beings with this kind of complex information.’[68] Although Alexander does not make it explicit, the ‘kind of complex information’ Geisler is talking about in this passage is complex specified information.[69]

Alexander has earlier argued for design on the basis of the fine-tuning of cosmic constants:
we have argued that the universe has some very unusual properties that render conscious life possible-and that those properties are not unusual because we observe them but because the physical constants that make them unusual could, presumably, have been otherwise.[70]

Alexander's anthropic-teleological argument is based upon the existence of ‘unusual properties,’ that is, an unlikely or complex set of physical properties, that are specified as the set of properties (or one of a small number of such sets) ‘that render conscious life possible.’ While Alexander does not use the terminology of CSI, his argument nevertheless uses CSI by appealing to the combination of complexity (‘unusual properties’) with a specification (‘that render conscious life possible’).
Alexander's reliance upon CSI is emphasized by the fact that he quotes design-theorist William Lane Craig in defence of the argument from fine-tuning: ‘we should be surprised that we do observe basic features of the universe which individually or collectively are excessively improbable [complexity] and are necessary conditions of our own existence [specification].’[71]
Alexander paints two scenarios to push home the point that one cannot sidestep this argument by noting that we would not exist to be surprised by fine-tuning if that tuning were not as fine as it is. The first story involves a kidnapped accountant told that unless he wins the national lottery for ten consecutive weeks he will be killed, who is surprised to survive (at odds of around 1 in 1060), but who is told that ‘he should not be surprised that such an unlikely event happened for, had it not, he would not have been alive to observe it.’[72] Clearly, the accountant is right to be surprised and to suspect that there must be an explanation for his survival. The second story concerns a gambler who will be killed unless he gets ten coins flips in a row to show heads: ‘the fact of the gambler still being alive does not explain why he got ten heads in a row-the probability of this unlikely event remains at one in 1,024. What requires explanation is not that the gambler is alive and therefore observing something but rather that he is not dead.’[73] Indeed, what requires explanation, in both stories, is the occurrence of unlikely (that is, complex) events that are specified as the necessary conditions of our observers not being killed. Likewise, in the case of the anthropic-teleological argument, what requires explanation is that ‘our finely tuned universe is not just any old something,' but contains within it a planet full of people who postulate theories about cosmology and the meaning of the universe. . . .’[74] That is, an explanation of fine tuning, indeed an explanation in terms of design, is required not simply because the fine-tuning represents an unlikely (complex) set of constants, but because the particular unlikely constants that exist are specified as necessary preconditions for the existence of complex life:

The data pointing to a series of remarkably finely tuned constants [complexity] which have promoted the emergence of conscious life [specification] sit more comfortably with the idea of a God with plans and purposes for the universe than they do with the atheistic presupposition that ‘it just happened.’[75]

Alexander implicitly deploys CSI as an argument for the conclusion that the data of cosmic fine-tuning does demand an explanation rather than an evasion. Alexander also implicitly uses CSI as a basis for inferring that the best explanation of cosmic fine-tuning is intelligent design; for the reason that the specified complexity of cosmic fine-tuning ‘sits more comfortably with the idea of a God with plans and purposes for the universe than they do with the atheistic presupposition that ?it just happened'‘[76] is surely ‘the regular conjunction of intelligent beings with this kind of complex information.’[77]
In a lecture presented by Christians in Science at Southampton University, Alexander made it clear that he has ‘no problem with the language of design so long as it's kept to the big picture design which makes science possible [and which is seen in] the anthropic structure of the universe.’[78] Just as Phillip E. Johnson has asked Darwinists, ‘What should we do if empirical evidence and materialist philosophy are going in different directions?’[79] so I would ask Alexander what he would do if empirical evidence which triggers a design inference according to the same criteria that he applies to ‘the big picture’ of anthropic fine-tuning were to be found within any of the smaller details of that picture? Which should we deny, the empirical evidence, the design-detection criteria which he applies to cosmic fine-tuning, or his objection to invoking the language of design at that level?
Alexander's objection to using ‘the language of design,’ except in the case of ‘the anthropic structure of the universe,’ either rests upon the confusion of intelligent design with supernatural design and the questionable assumption that the latter cannot enter into scientific theorizing;[80] or else (if such a confusion is not made) it implies either the excommunication from science of numerous established scientific fields (for example, SETI, which Alexander himself references), or an apparent double standard which admits the scientific validity of intelligent design in some scientific fields (for example, cosmology) but not in others (for example, molecular-biology).
Basil Mitchell: Telekinesis and Disembodied Agency
In the course of defending the coherence of talking about incorporeal agency in The Justification of Religious Belief, Basil Mitchell (then Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion and Fellow of Oriel College Oxford) has this to say on the subject of telekinesis (the alleged power to alter events, such as the fall of dice, by simply ‘willing’):

Whether or not telekinesis actually occurs, it does not seem difficult to specify the conditions under which we should be prepared to admit its occurrence. If the dice were to fall with a certain number upwards whenever a particular individual was asked to bring it about and not otherwise, we should conclude that he had the power to cause physical changes without bodily movement. Bodily movement on the part of the agent is normally a reliable guide as to whether an occurrence is an action or not, and, if so, whose; but we could, in principle, settle both questions without recourse to this criterion, if the other indications were clear enough. What are these? A combination of the following: (i) The unlikelihood of the event's occurrence apart from the intervention of some agent. (ii) The event's contributing to some purpose. (iii) The agreement of that purpose with the independently known character and purposes of the putative agent.[81]

(Note that Mitchell is arguing that intelligent design can in principle be detected even if it is not implemented by bodily agency.) Mitchell's design detection criterion has more parts than Dembski's, but then it attempts to do more, because it attempts to provide a criterion whereby we can detect not only that ‘an occurrence is an action’ but also ‘whose’ action it is. Mitchell's criterion for detecting intelligent design per se appears to be similar to Dembski's.
Mitchell says that whether an occurrence such as the falling of dice is an action (that is, is the result of intelligent design) can be answered positively if two conditions are met-and those conditions are sufficient complexity (‘The unlikelihood of the event's occurrence apart from the intervention of some agent’) combined with an independent specification (‘specify the conditions under which we should be prepared to admit its occurrence’; ‘If the dice were to fall with a certain number upwards whenever a particular individual was asked to bring it about and not otherwise’; ‘The event's contributing to some purpose’). Knowledge concerning ‘The agreement of that purpose with the independently known character and purposes of the putative agent,’ while helpful in pinning a designed event on a specific agent, is clearly not necessary for Mitchell's design inference per se. This shows once again that, as Dembski asserts, ‘detecting design . . . does not implicate any particular intelligence.’[82]
Suppose paranormal investigators set up some rigorous scientific experiments into telekinesis (would critics of ID condemn such experiments as non-scientific in principle?[83]) and the dice do indeed ‘fall with a certain number upwards whenever a particular individual was asked to bring it about and not otherwise.’ Suppose the specified complexity of this result exceeded Dembski's universal probability bound (something Mitchell does not bother calculating): While we should conclude that the best explanation for this result is intelligent design, we could not implicate our test subject on the basis of CSI alone. Any agent with the requisite causal power might have caused the result we detected. To settle on attributing the exercise of telekinetic powers in this instance to our test subject (rather than to God, or a god, or a ghost, or a demon, or an angel, or another human or alien with telekinetic powers who is trying to dupe our researchers into thinking that their test subject has telekinetic powers when they do not) our scientists must appeal to criteria beyond CSI. Mitchell's ‘agreement of that purpose with the independently known character and purposes of the putative agent’ might be useful here; but one imagines that Ockham's razor should feature fairly heavily in such deliberations.
Unlike contemporary ID theorists, Basil Mitchell did not clearly distinguish between criteria for inferring design and criteria for inferring the responsibility of putative designers. Mitchell also left his design detection criterion in a fairly pre-theoretic state (simply suggesting the combination of low probability with a specification) without the context of information theory and universal probability bounds deployed by Dembski; and perhaps for these reasons, Mitchell never made much of his criterion. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Mitchell was thinking along the same lines as Dembski.
[59]. Keith Ward, God, Faith, and The New Millennium (Oxford: OneWorld, 1999), 110.
[60]. Ibid, 118-19.
[61]. Ward advances the same sort of design argument in God, Chance and Necessity.
[62]. Colin J. Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories (London: Continuum, 2003), 339.
[63]. Ibid.
[64]. Ibid, 339-40.
[65]. This is an example of CSI being applied within the field of historical apologetics. Another example would be arguments from fulfilled biblical prophecy. Gregory Koukl draws this parallel in his article ‘Prophecy and People: Both Designed to Fit’, See also John A. Bloom, ‘Is Fulfilled Prophecy of Value for Scholarly Apologetics?’,;  Robert C. Newman, ‘Fulfilled Prophecy as Miracle,’ in In Defence of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God's Action in History, ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Leicester: Apollos, 1997); Robert C. Newman, ‘On Fulfilled Prophecy as Miracle’ Philosophia Christi 3 (2001): 63-7; Hugh Ross, ‘Fulfilled Prophecy: Evidence for the Reliability of the Bible’,
[66]. See Denis Alexander, ‘Creation and Evolution: Hot Issues for the Twenty-First Century’,
Peter S. Williams, ‘Theistic Evolution and Intelligent Design in Dialogue’,;
Denis Alexander, ‘Designs on Science’,;
Peter S. Williams, ‘Intelligent Designs on Science: A Surreply to Denis Alexander's Critique of Intelligent Design Theory’,
[67]. Denis Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix (Oxford: Lion, 2001), 448.
[68]. Norman L. Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), 79-80, quoted in Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix, 448.
[69]. See Norman Geisler and Peter Bocchino, Unshakable Foundations: Contemporary Answers to Crucial Questions about the Christian Faith (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2001), chapter 6, ‘Questions about the Origin of Life.’
[70]. Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix, 421-2.
[71]. William Lane Craig, ‘Barrow and Tipler on the Anthropic Principle vs Divine Design,’ British Journal of the Philosophy of Science 39 (1988): 389-95, quoted in Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix, 420.
[72]. Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix, 421.
[73]. Ibid.
[74]. Ibid., 422.
[75]. Ibid., 424.
[76]. Ibid.
[77]. Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind, 80, quoted in Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix, 448.
[78]. Denis Alexander, ‘Beyond Belief? Science and Religion in the 21st Century,’ Southampton University, May 8, 2006.
[79]. Phillip E. Johnson, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 114.
[80]. Cf. J. P. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989); J. P. Moreland, ‘Is Science a Threat or Help to Faith?’
[81]. Basil Mitchell, The Justification of Religious Belief (London: Macmillan, 1973), 8.
[82]. William A. Dembski, ‘Scepticism's Prospects for Unseating Intelligent Design’,
[83]. Cf. the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research group (PEAR),

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Peter S. Williams, 13/05/2017