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Unintelligent Design?

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Published: 8 March 2018 (GMT+10)

There are many people who oppose the idea of ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID). They recognize that it must mean that there is an intelligence behind the design, an intelligence outside and above the design itself; and in the context, the design of living things. The term is mocked at school (pupils who espouse it have been humiliated by teachers), it is dismissed in the media, and virtually outlawed in academia.

unintelligent-design

In fact, ID is not really a very intelligent term, because it is tautologous: design must by its very nature be intelligent. Perhaps this can be best explained by looking at the other side of the coin. Could there be such a thing as ‘Unintelligent Design’?1

A brief acquaintance with popular presentations of the natural world will soon provide many references to ‘design’. Many features are referred to as ‘a wonderful design’, or it is said that they are ‘designed to’ accomplish some specific end, such as keeping warm, attracting a mate, enabling flight, or whatever. For example, David Attenborough, who is utterly opposed to any idea of an outside intelligence, can often be heard using such language in his television broadcasts. The extraordinary way in which the various parts of a body interact shouts ‘design’! Even Richard Dawkins conceded, in The Blind Watchmaker, that there are many things in the natural world that give the appearance of having been designed.2 But who, or what, is responsible for that design?

If ID is not an acceptable concept, but the fact of design is acknowledged, then the only alternative is ‘Unintelligent Design’. Now this does not mean ‘bad’ design (good design and rubbish design both qualify as design), but the absence of any intelligence behind the design.1 Let us give a little thought to what this means.

‘Design’ carries with it the idea of purpose—indeed it is essential to the very concept of design, which must be a teleological act. If it isn’t purposeful, it is no longer design, but merely accident. Some modern ‘art’ is simply the result of random accidents—there is no way that such products can be said to be ‘designed’. If we acknowledge that something is designed, we recognise it has been fashioned with an end in view, with a purpose. That purpose might be practical, artistic, or nefarious. But an accident or random happening cannot, by definition, carry such a purpose. Thus ‘intelligent’ design is indeed tautological, simply a qualification of what the word design means using a different word. If something is designed it must be the product of intelligence, whether low or high-level intelligence.

Does evolution make any difference?

The answer, according to those who oppose ID, is simply that evolution does the design. There are numerous examples of this statement of belief (for such it is, and must be, as it can never be scientifically demonstrated), but one will suffice. In 2013, a Stanford University study examined the reactions of men and women to vaccination against flu. Commenting on the study report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was stated, “Scientists said they were left perplexed as to why evolution would design a hormone that enhances classic male sexual characteristics…”.3 Apparently, the alternative to design by an intelligent agent is design by evolution—which, one assumes, must be ‘Unintelligent Design’.

But we have already determined that design is not logically possible without intelligence, at some level. How are we to resolve the paradox? According to most dictionary definitions, evolution is a blind stochastic process, simply a description of what allegedly happened in the past without any intelligent input. A process cannot design anything, thus evolution cannot design! If it could, it would be equivalent to saying, “The journey to work designed my car”—an absurd and meaningless statement. So-called ‘design by evolution’ is just the same.

But perhaps evolution is more than a process? Although a non-material entity, maybe it has mysterious powers to direct and select. If so, the same powers that theists ascribe to a Creator God are simply being ascribed to evolution. This rather gives the game away. For its proponents, belief in evolution is a faith, a creed, just as surely as any other faith. We might even say that evolution has become ‘god’ as far as its adherents are concerned, able to do anything ascribed to it.

If this idea of evolution is unacceptable, there is only one resolution. If one is to dispense with an intelligent designer (which exists outside the material realm which it designs), one must believe that we exist and think as the consequence of a completely random set of totally unconnected, arbitrary events. Fred Hoyle described the sheer improbability of such a thing very well when he likened it to, “the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747.” In this ‘vision’, we are just the fleeting flotsam in the middle of an eternal cosmic accident.

In conclusion, if we refuse to accept the concept of Intelligent Design in the natural world, we have to conclude that our existence is merely the result of countless random events and is utterly meaningless. The presenters of popular science programmes need to take note: nothing is designed to work, and the fact that it does is just an accumulation of billions of accidents. There is one philosophical problem, however. We are creatures who design incessantly. Where did we get our concept of design if there was no such thing?

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

References and notes

  1. This concept may more accurately be expressed as ‘non-intelligent design’, as we use the word ‘intelligence’ in several different ways; but for our purposes, by ‘unintelligent’ we mean the absolute ‘lacking any conscious or rational ability’, and not the comparative ‘not very bright’. Return to text.
  2. Dawkins, R., The Blind Watchmaker, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, USA, p. 1, 1986. See also the articles under creation.com/dawk. Return to text.
  3. Anon, Men suffer more from flu symptoms than women, study suggests, nationalpost.com, 24 December 2013. Return to text.

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