Although the teleological argument, or ‘argument from design’, for the existence of a Creator has a long history, going back at least as far as William Paley, the ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID) movement is of much more recent development.
In contrast to young-earth creationism, which is willing to privilege the (supposed) teachings of the Bible in questions of origin over against the (supposed) teachings of modern science, ID proponents accept the conventional scientific view on the age and origin of the cosmos, and on evolutionary processes generally, but postulate that direct divine intervention is required not only at the beginning of the process but at particular points during it as well.
Proponents of ID include Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Philip Johnson. They focus on the notion of ‘irredicible complexity’. The argument is that evolutionary processes on their own cannot explain complex, multi-component organs such as the eye, or organelles such as the bacterial flagellum. Each of these structures consists (just as a mouse-trap does) of a number of components which, on their own would serve no purpose and therefore could not have appeared by evolutionary development. They cannot be explained apart from reference to a superintending intelligence.
Opponents of ID (and these include many Christian thinkers) respond by saying that it is essentially a ‘God of the gaps’ argument. That is to say, ID accepts evolutionary theory where the underlying stages of development can be mapped out, but where the mechanisms are unknown then direct divine intervention is invoked. Moreover (say critics of ID), underlying mechanisms and incremental developments can, in fact, often be postulated for structures previously thought to be ‘irreducibly complex’, and so the ‘gaps’ which God himself is supposed to have filled himself gradually become smaller. None of us can fail to be impressed by the complexity of the eye, for example, and yet it seems clear that (a) several evolutionary stages for the eye can be detected, from a primitive light-sensitive pit right through to the fully-developed eye of a mammal or bird; and (b) that the eye has developed completely independently in a number of different species: the eye of the squid, for example, appears to have a completely different evolutionary history from the human eye. These criticisms seem to me to be rather serious.
One aspect of ID theory, however, strikes me as being of particular interest. Dembski has argued that as organisms become increasingly complex they require the input of information. But the source of information must be intelligent, for non-intelligent processes can transmit information (via DNA, for example), but cannot create it.
John Lennox has taken up this theme in his recent book God’s Undertaker. Focussing on the origin of life itself, he suggests that
if chance and necessity, either separately or together, are not capable of biogenesis, then we must consider the possibility othat a third factor was involved. That third possibility is the input of information.
Lennox anticipates the ‘God of the gaps’ objection by conceding that it is perfectly possible for a theist to be intellectually lazy and say, “I can’t explain it, therefore God did it’. But, he adds,
it is important to say that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It is also very easy to say “evolution did it” when one has not got the faintest idea how, or has simply cobbled up a speculative just-so story with no evidential basis.
Richard Dawkins, in Climbing Mount Improbable, seeks to ease the difficulty of the origin of complex systems by breaking the big task into innumerable small steps. This is the evolutionary equivalent of going round the back of a steep mountain so that it can be ascended by its longer, gentler slopes. In The Blind Watchmaker, he considered the continuous evolutionary path that would have to lead from the origin of life to man, each step of which would have to be favoured by natural selection, and each small enough to have happened by chance. Dawkins uses the analogy of monkeys typing out an 18-character target phrase from Hamlet. Relying only on pure chance, Dawkins concedes that the possibility of his group of 18 monkeys getting the target phrase is vanishingly small.
But Dawkins proposes a mechanism whereby the target phrase could be achieved in only 43 steps. According to this mechanism, each time a monkey hits a letter, the letter it types is compared with its target letter, that target letter would be stored in the system and that monkey would stop typing. But this itself on some highly non-random processes. The comparison itself would have to be done by some non-random process (a Head Monkey?). But, further, if the monkey has typed its target letter that letter is retained, and that monkey stops typing – and this is another highly non-random process.
In other words, concludes Lennox,
Dawkins has solved his problem, only by introducing the two very things he explicitly wishes at all costs to avoid…He tells us that evolution is blind, and without a goal. What, then, does he mean by introducing a target phrase?…[And] what does he mean by introducing two mechanisms, each of which bears every evidence of the input of an intelligent mind – a mechanism that compares each attempt with the target phrase, and a mechanism which preserves a successful attempt? And, strangest of all, the very information already contained somewhere within the organism, whose genesis he claims to be stimulating by his process. The argument is entirely circular.
Lennox quotes mathematician David Berlinski as commenting that
the entire exercise is…an achievement in self-deception. A target phrase? Iterations which rsemble the target? A computer of Head Monkey that measures the distance between failure and success? If things are sightless how is the target represented, and how is the distance between randomly generated phrases and the targets assessed? And by whom? And the Head Monkey? What if him? The mechanism of deliberate design, purged by Darwinian theory on the level of the organism, has reappeard in the description of natural selection itself, a vivid example of what Freud meant by the return of the oppressed.
Well, I’m not competent to adjudicate on the details of this argument. And I haven’t found it possible to buy into to whole ‘Intelligent Design’ thing. But I am convinced that the universe is designed, and that its Designer is intelligent. And that’s a bit different. And I do think that the argument that unguided natural forces cannot generate information is quite a powerful one. I shall look forward to seeing if it can be, or has been, refuted.
Lennox, God’s Undertaker, 139-175
Burke art. ‘Information Theory’ in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics