Design with a Designer but without a definition

The third part of Robert Bishop’s critique of Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt on BioLogos begins:

All Christians agree that the universe is designed; otherwise, we would not be able to say that this is God’s creation. Where we may differ is on the nature of that design and the how as well as on expectations for detectability of design.

The first sentence of this seems to be as axiomatic as the Nicene Creed – God designed all things in heaven and on earth. I’m not thoroughly convinced it is meant that way, though. It would therefore be good, I feel, if before attacking Meyer’s approach to design, we could at least have an idea of what, positively, Bishop and/or BioLogos actually does understand by design, because there the theological controversy over theistic evolution more or less begins and ends.

For example, if nature, as described in more than one previous post on BioLogos, is its own co-creator, there would necessarily be a corresponding limitation to God’s own creative activity, and therefore to his design, which is rather significant in a monotheistic scheme. So the key issue of Bishop’s three differences from Meyer, to me, is “the nature of that design”, on which I’ll be concentrating here.

As far as I’m concerned the “detectability” is a secondary issue, and so is the “how” of design – though they both raise significant questions. For example, as I briefly mentioned in my recent series on cosmology, the Christian Dionysius (like his Platonic and Aristotelian Greek forbears) used design arguments to dismiss the atomist theories of Democritus and Epicurus. To him the random collisons of their atoms could not be expected to produce the order we see, and so in that situation it would be quite wrong to expect design to be undetectable, without abandoning the concept of design altogether. Similarly, given God as Creator, it would scarcely be rational to answer the “how” question by suggesting God brought Democritus’s atoms into being and waited until they randomly produced what he wanted. Means must match ends – at least, if one is talking about the All-wise God.

Which brings me to that core question of “the nature of design.” More or less any dictionary definition of design has as its central tenet the conceiving of some desired end, and the establishment of effective means to accomplish it. In more exact terminology, that means “final cause” as the intended end and “formal cause” as the structures and processes that achieve it.

That poses a slight problem in a science-faith setting, for since Francis Bacon science has either refused to deal with, or even to acknowledge the existence of, final and formal causes. Bacon himself, for example, though a religious man it seems, was amongst the first to take an entirely mechanistic view of nature:

When man contemplates nature working freely, he meets with different species of things, of animals, of plants, of minerals; whence he readily passes into the opinion that there are in nature certain primary forms which nature endeavors to educe. . . .[But in] nature nothing really exists besides individual bodies [true particles], performing pure individual acts according to law.(I.66,II.2, II.8) (Francis Bacon, New Organon).

He conceived of some kind of universal particles, constrained entirely by God-given laws, accounting for the whole of nature. “Law” presumably provided the teleology missing in Greek atomism. Some BioLogos statements like, “God governs the universe by natural law” seem directly derived from this, but there are a few problems. The first is that of the determinism that classical science came to embody during the Enlightenment: a universe entirely governed by natural law and boundary (initial) conditions is just a machine, and a pinball machine rather than an automaton at that.

The second problem is that, in quantum science, the mechanistic conception of nature simply doesn’t work, and so classical science is an incomplete explanation of reality. Individual quantum events (on which macro-events can turn) do not individually follow specific laws, and one must conclude either that they are acausal, or (necessarily to the theist who believes God designed the universe) that God governs nature in ways beyond natural law.

A third problem is this. As a Christian, Bacon rather shot himself in the foot when he said “[But in] nature nothing really exists besides individual bodies [true particles], performing pure individual acts according to law.” For natural laws, as they have been uncovered in the centuries since, are not rich in information: in themselves they embody only the simplest of teleologies by determining, for example, the quantitative attraction of massive bodies. Anything one can say about these interacting particles that is more interesting – for example, that they make up an animal motivated towards survival and procreation, or that they constitute a human mind that can will to write blog posts about Stephen Meyer – is due to some emergent property: some entity genuinely over and above the interaction of particles by natural law, as I covered in my post on George Ellis.

In commenting on that, someone  appeared to deny that these emergent properties constitute anything real at all, and are always completely reducible to the chance collisions of particles. Whether or not I’ve got him correct there, I’d say such a conclusion is the most logical one for atheistic materialism, for there is as much inherent implausibility in believing that, say, genuine free will can emerge from deterministic matter in motion (or even radically contingent events), as Dionysius concluded from the chaos-to-reason assumptions of atomism.

Nevertheless, many atheists – and presumably the great majority of theists – believe that emergent properties are real, not illusory. It follows that they are, to the Christian, part of God’s creation and therefore part of his design. But that of itself doesn’t distinguish between two alternatives suggested by philosopher Richard F Hassing eg here, who distinguishes emergent “laws” that, like the familiar physical laws are “species-neutral”, that is applicable across the whole realm of nature, from emergence that maybe is specific only to special conditions – such as rational consciousness in man.

Now, as a matter of fact any general laws of emergence have proved elusive – they appear more a case of wishful thinking than true science. But if they do exist, it would be necessary that they were somehow already inherent in the fabric of the universe and its primary laws (if God governs nature by natural laws). To put it another way, if “mind” or “life” are part of God’s design of the universe, they must be part of the inherent teleology of the laws that produce them. So if we imagine the fundamental laws in operation from the beginning of the cosmos, presumably quite few in number and simple in scope, we must be thinking not just of a law of gravity that attracts masses, but a law that in its “small print” also fulfils the will of God by determining the emergence of life, of mind and so on – maybe (if God’s purposes include you, or me, or both) even the emergence of individuals. It’s a big ask from a few simple differential equations.

There is a certain implausibility to this – not least because what we conceive of as a simple and general law would, in fact, turn out to be a highly specific algorithm. It would also have to be robust enough that God’s desired ends would emerge after billions of years despite the non-lawlike quantum events underpinning reality.

There is an alternative to this, which is that emergent properties are not general “species-neutral” rules woven into the simple laws that physics and chemistry describe, and instead are genuinely novel realities not implicit in those few fine-tuned fundamental values of the world. They emerge, in other words, because God implements his design at the point in space and time (and, therefore, in the specific forms in which they are seen) that they actually appear. In other words, a property like mind might be irreducible to “matter in motion” because matter in motion has no concept of mind inherent within it, which might emerge.

This seems no more inherently implausible than the materialist idea that all complexity arises de novo from simpler things by chance without any built-in propensity to do so.

The advantages of this alternative are several. Firstly, it means that such things as consciousness, volition or even animal goal-orientated behaviour are real, not illusory. Correspondingly, it means that we don’t have to take the giant step of claiming that the highest specific functions arise spontaneously from laws that, as far as experience shows, God set up to govern only the simple interactions of physical particles. Consequently we don’t have to envisage that the whole set of detailed deterministic divine goals were built into physics at the Big Bang (perhaps, as some of the old philosophers concluded, because God himself was bound to do it that way to conform to the highest possible rationality). In this understanding there is room in the Universe for genuine freedom of choice both for God as designer, and for us as his rational creation.

The cost is that one has to abandon the conception that God governs the natural world entirely through basic scientific laws – but that’s hardly a loss when quantum physics has been saying the same thing for a century.

But sadly, which of these lines of argument is relevant is not obvious, unless and until TEs tell us what they mean by “design”, when some of them are still saying that what can be shown to come from natural causes doesn’t arise from an intelligent cause.

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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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2 Responses to Design with a Designer but without a definition

  1. Hanan says:

    >All Christians agree that the universe is designed;

    >…..well as on expectations for detectability of design.

    These statements seem to contradict one another.

    If you believe God designed the universe than the “detectable” is the it in question, or how else can you say he designed it

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      A mystery to me. Dawkins said life is about things that give the appearance of being designed, but aren’t. TEs say life is about things that (by faith?) they believe are designed, but for the life of them they can’t see it. It reminds you of some traditionalist squinting as some avant garde pile of bricks and only knowing it’s art because the catalogue says so.

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