Dembski on Intelligence and Nature

In the next couple of chapters of Being as Communion William Dembski gives a fairly standard introduction to information theory, which is unremarkable but reminds me how many people who decry the relevance of information in life have failed to read anything about it. It’s as good a place to start as any. But he then goes on, in chapter 8, to a more individual discussion of the relationship of intelligence to nature.

He quotes information theorist Douglas Robertson who writes: “the defining characteristic of intelligent agents [ie teleological causes that act for an end or purpose] is their ability to create and communicate information.”

Building on this, Dembski goes on to suggest what follows from the creation of the cosmos by God:

If nature is the act of a creative intelligence [for example, if “God created the heavens and the earth”] then nature is a form of information and nature’s operations may be regarded as intelligent and teleological. Nature’s intelligence would in that case be a derived intelligence.

This would be comparable to our computers whose “intelligence” derives from our intelligent programming. He points for support to those theorists who literally regard the universe as a computer (including Roger Penrose). This idea is fundamentally different from a materialist view of nature, in which the primacy of matter makes intelligence (ie teleology) only a by-product, or even an epiphenomenon, of matter, thus minimising its role.

For the refutation of this, he says, the strategy of acting on the assumption that there are indeed only material causes and then showing their inadequacy for some phenomenon of nature is one way – perhaps the only way – of evidencing teleology empirically. He cites the use of this method by Robert Shapiro and Paul Davies on the origin of life, as well as Thomas Nagel’s use of it in philosophy, and Antony Flew’s persuasion of its force in his abandonment of atheism.

One reason he gives for the low acceptance of such arguments in academia generally is one close to my own theological heart – the distinction (which Dembski terms “pernicious”) between “nature” and “design”. But he approaches this metaphysically rather than theologically, by referring back to its origin in Aristotle.

Aristotle, as is well known, regarded all nature as teleological, the final cause being, logically, the first and most important cause of any change whatsoever. He distinguished “nature” from “design” as a way of differentiating the inherent teleology in nature from the external teleology imposed by human beings on nature. The classic example was the innate tendency of acorns to form oaks, contrasted with the lack of any tendency in wood to form ships apart from the boatbuilder’s art.

Redefined under materialism, though, this distinction becomes a contrast between design/teleology and nature/ateleology, thus eradicating the whole concept of information from nature definitionally, even though to Aristotle nature actually meant inherent teleology. Of course in the Christian Aristotelianism of the scholastic philosophers, that implied a teleology derived from its Creator – in biblical terms, the information was originally “spoken” into nature as nature itself was spoken into being by God.

Following the logic of materialism (as in Darwinism) there can be no inherent teleology in matter, for outcomes (information) arise de novo and ateleologically from matter, by chance. Teleology, then, is always external to entities – “accidents” in Aristotelian terms. The tendency of an acorn to become an oak is therefore imposed externally on its chemical components by evolution, as in Aristotle’s “design” category, rather than being inherent to its God-given nature. The difference from human design is only that the boat-builder (or watchmaker) is blind rather than intelligent.

It’s rather ironic to me, then, how often TEs (including some Aristotelians) will whistle up Aristotle’s distinction to accuse intelligent design of mechanistic thinking. But a couple of diagrams will show how I see the different arguments:

Dembski’s view of ID:

Intelligent Creator -> information rich creation (“derived intelligence”) -> inherently purposeful nature -> teleology inferred by investigation

Typical (free process) TE:

Intelligent Creator -> information-lite creation (ateological, stochastic, “free”) -> law- and chance-driven nature -> no teleology to find (God’s mysterious purpose fulfilled mysteriously)

The latter model is directly derived from the early modern science of those like Robert Boyle, who even called it “the mechanical philosophy”, though he exempted living things from it, recognising their teleological attributes as a direct work of God. As Dembski says, Boyle deliberately opted for such a system on religious grounds, not wishing to admit any idolatrous “creative” agents to nature apart from God himself. But to atheistic materialists now nature has become the only (if imbecilic) god, and to many theists it is no longer “God’s machine”, but has been given autonomy from God as a kind of Demiurge, though given its diverse forms by contingency rather than by intelligence.

Dembski points to the “textbook definition” of intelligent design from the book The Design of Life: “the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the product of intelligence,” intelligence being further defined as “any cause, agent, or process that achieves an end or goal by employing suitable means or instruments.” He draws attention to the compatibility of this with the derived intelligence of a creation having inherent teleology, and adds (in response to accusations of “engineering” thought by critics like Ed Feser or Stephen Talbott):

…intelligent design advocates, myself included, haven’t always been as clear as we might in our use of design terminology, not clearly distinguishing external design from intelligence or teleology more generally.

That, I think, is a significant clarifying (or refining) statement. At the same time, of course, the existence of natural teleology is, as it always has been, a strong pointer to considering an intelligent First Cause, so God can never be entirely out of the design question, though as atheist Thomas Nagel’s work shows, his existence isn’t necessarily entailed by it.

My own, theological, objection to separating “nature” and “design” is simply that Scripture does not consider nature as independent of God, but as his agent, intimately indwelt by him. Free process theologians, in contrast, regard the autonomy of nature from God to be a moral imperative, lest he be seen as “coercive”. You’ll perhaps agree with me that Dembski’s non-materialist vision of nature (as in my first diagram) is more conducive to my view: God’s information (his word of power) suffuses creation, which is imbued with his own (derived) intelligence and purpose. That seems to me more close to the biblical picture than “the mechanical philosophy.”


Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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6 Responses to Dembski on Intelligence and Nature

  1. GD GD says:


    Discussions in this area have been interesting for some time. I have considered the capacity for human beings to intelligently access and ‘probe’, or experiment, with natural objects, as perhaps the most important single aspect of science and reason. Most discussions have looked at induction and deduction, since logic is important in these matters. Having said that, it seems to me that a theological contemplation may be better served if it commenced with the ‘made in the image of God’ to explain such a human capacity. Scientifically, I am inclined to view language (especially mathematics) as the ‘medium’ that enables human intellect to investigate or interrogate nature.

    This approach does not require intelligence as either an agent, or derived from an agent (although it may be inferred as an attribute of a Creator). My reasoning has focussed on what we may mean by the term laws of science, or laws of nature, not so much as a discovery pe se by us of something out there, but a ‘something’ that we human beings come to believe our reason and intelligence has added to nature – this is purely because human activity is required before we can discuss these things. I will leave it at this, to emphasise the primacy of language and the importance of human intellect (which perhaps is better stated as the human spirit), rather than a belief that information is a something out there, and somehow we discover it in our search for design and purpose.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


      I don’t think there’s necessarily a big gulf between language (especially maths) as the human tool to investigate God’s creation (aka “nature”) and the concept of an information-based reality. In the broadest terms nature would be the (or one part of the) medium through which God speaks, and we hear.

      In scientific terms the idea of mathematics as God’s language is almost as old as science itself, but it’s not just at a scientific, nor mathematical level, that one could see this – nature as experienced by each person (and, following up some of these ideas, as experienced in a more limited way by other beings within nature) is also a communal communication from God’s “mind” (if that’s the term to use).

      So the information of “the world” would not be “out there” so much as being a message between God and us… or in my habitual biblical speech, the temple in which we commune with him… not negating of course the medium of revelation or spiritual encounter, but purely considering the nature of creation.

      I’ve just this afternoon started reading Arthur Eddington’s “The Nature of the Physical World”, because I see he concluded the world was mental, rather than material, way back in the 1920s, and I wondered how that might mesh with Dembski (who doesn’t mention him in the book) as well as Davies and so on.

      My first related insight came as Eddington describes the scientific version of his solid desk – all energy fields and empty space – and how in reductionist thought the “ordinary” table is “really” the electrons etc. Only he used the word “symbolic” of the table’s relationship to the “physics”.

      One could, I realised, reverse that and see the physics as the symbolic (or even semantic) language out of which daily reality is constructed, just as the reality behind all the symbols you see on your screen now is my thought, however sketchily and imperfectly conveyed informationally. You could analyse it exhaustively, explore it linguistically or even study the letters or the software – that would all tell you something, but the message itself would still be the primary level of reality.

      • GD GD says:


        I distinguish between language and human reason, and ‘the language of God’. You say, “….that would all tell you something, but the message itself would still be the primary level of reality”, but my response is that you must necessarily present the absolute when making such a statement.

        Btw, I am not aware of any physics or any branch of science that talks of spaces in matter – energy fields yes, but spaces may be confused with discreet energy levels.

        I always mean human language; to speak of God’s language in any meaningful sense would again evoke the absolute, and we humans would have a problem with absolute reality, or anything along those lines. Referring to reality as information in the sense that we now have gauged the absolute, even under the guise of the creation mediating between us and God is problematic.

        Language however, is only meaningful if it is communicable – thus when we ‘add’ to nature in terms of our understanding, I can accept the notion of communication as an imperfect way we may relate the creation to its creator. The rest comes from revelation, and meaning of anything absolute is the result of the Holy Spirit (which conforms to your mention of the Temple and communion).

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


          Eddington was making an introductory point to a lay audience in 1926 – he was simply stating the commonplace that what we experience daily is different from what physics reveals… the next chapter goes on to relativity and emphasises that contrast more.

          I certainly wasn’t suggesting that creation reveals God’s essence directly in any way, nor that it has a mediatorial role in the sense of bringing us to him. Merely that to the extent that God makes creation what it is for our blessing, and for our understanding, it is his communication to us. Ps 19 obviously speaks of what it communicates of his glory, but I was considering the more general level of what he makes it to us “as it is”. That doesn’t in the least suggest that it connects us to his absolute being – rather that one could say that just as he “lisps” (Calvin’s phrase) in common speech in the Scriptural revelation, in terms we can comprehend, so he does in creation.

          So the “reality” of creation is just as much the breeze on your face and the rustling leaves as it is the energy and matter that comprise it – perhaps more so as it is shared by all – which I compared to the medium through which those mundane experiences are channeled.

          Your last paragraph catches something of what I mean – subjectively, for us, the only existence nature has for us is in our understanding – or rather, in our entire perception of it. Even our science begins and ends in our physical perception and understanding: the only creation we know is “in here”, from which we can only deduce “out there” as a human activity.

          For a dog, the same is true – but its perception reveals a different creation – containing less understanding, more smells and so on – and so on down the scale of perception… in whatever sense God told the irrational creatures to “Be fruitful and multiply” and they responded.

          So just as giving is inevitably relational – without a giver and a receiver there is no gift, so creation is relational between God and his creation, and to us in a particluar and special way. And (in the terms we’re discussing) the relational term between the creator and the created is information.

          • GD GD says:

            I think we agree on most (if not all) matters. My short comments are aimed at some aspects of ID and the way information is sometimes discussed. In this context, I have tried to make a distinction between the absolute and the universal – this is a short statement without detail. Science and philosophy may aim at the universal – faith and theology should (and do in most cases) endeavour at comprehending the absolute. I see information theory (albeit somewhat dated and more in line with AI) in the former – so ID and related matters seem to me to be rather speculative, although this has created a stir and may be developed further, as a couple of papers on bio-information appear to indicate. The notion of information as the reality, a suggestion that may appear as underpinning matter and energy, is within a scientific context a radical and unusual one.

            • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

              Yes – “radical and unusual” is about right, but when I’ve seen similar thoughts in Paul Davies (and others in his symposium on information) I’ve been intrigued, and now find others like Eddington have been there before and am even more intrigued.

              The final trigger to “intriguedness” is the realisation that materialism is a relatively new metaphysics, with big holes, and the overlap of Dembski’s ideas with the Aristotelian ideas I’ve been playing with for awhile.

              FWIW Dembski regards God as not an “information source” in information science terms for the theological reasons you state, but of course to the extent that he creates information in the physical world information science is not irrelevant (it has applications well beyond computing).

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