William Dembski is one of the bright lights in the fledgling science of Intelligent Design — ID, for short. The theory of intelligent design offers a serious and direct challenge to the materialistic viewpoint that informs much of today's scientific establishment. According to the materialist view, to be scientific means to attribute the complexity of natural things to the mindless workings of chance and matter. Arguing against this view, Dembski posits that “chance and necessity have proven too thin an explanatory soup on which to nourish a robust science. In fact, by dogmatically excluding [intelligent] design from science, scientists are themselves stifling scientific inquiry.”
What exactly is ID theory, and why should it be the new paradigm for directing scientific inquiry? “As a positive research program, intelligent design is the scientific discipline that systematically investigates the effects of intelligent causes,” especially in nature, explains Dembski.
Intelligent design theorists are careful to distinguish themselves from “creationists” because that label, as popularly applied, refers to biblical fundamentalists who read the Genesis account of creation as a literal, scientific text; many who hold to this view believe that, based on Old Testament genealogies, the universe is just over 6,000 years old.
ID theorists are creationists in one sense: They assert that we can know the universe has a designer. The launching point of their inquiry is not the Bible, but natural science. In this way, they are able to attack reductionist scientific materialism on scientific, rather than theological, grounds. For example, as Dembski notes, the ID theorists’ “critique of Darwinism is not based on any supposed incompatibility between Christian revelation and Darwinism. Instead, they begin their critique by arguing that Darwinism is, on its own terms, a failed scientific research program — that it does not constitute a well-supported scientific theory, that its explanatory power is severely limited and that it fails abysmally when it tries to account for the grand sweep of natural history.”
Dembski's most important contribution to advancing ID theory is “specified complexity.” Specified complexity is an ingenious tool, in great part because it gives teeth to the common-sense view that natural things are far too complex to have occurred through the blind workings of chance. This supposition was presented in philosophical terms by Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and advanced by scholars analyzing their thought through the centuries.
Dembski's specified complexity allows modern mathematics to be applied to the complexities of nature uncovered by macroscopic and microscopic advances over the past 50 years.
Chance is ‘too thin a soup on which to nourish a robust science’
Here's an example of specified complexity at work. For almost a century and a half, when Darwinists have been confronted by the astounding complexity of natural things, they have taken refuge in some version of what's been called the “typing-Shakespearean-monkey” argument: Give a monkey a typewriter and a million years and, eventually, by pecking mindlessly at the keys, he will produce a sonnet worthy of the bard himself. By this logic, over billions and billions of years, the universe “happens upon” marvels of complexity like the human eye. In other words, God is replaced by sheer chance.
Dembski doesn't think so. A Shakespearean sonnet, he argues, is an example of specified complexity — it can only have been generated by an intelligent cause. “Complexity guarantees that the object in question is not so simple that it can readily be attributed to chance,” he writes. “Specification guarantees that the object exhibits the right sort of pattern associated with intelligent causes. A single letter of the alphabet is specified without being complex. A long sequence of random letters is complex without being specified. A Shakespearean sonnet is both complex and specified. Specified complexity is how we detect design empirically.”
So we would not be shocked if the monkey happened to type “my.” But if he typed “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” then we would know that chance could generate something that appears to be designed but isn't. Could such a thing happen?
No. The chances of blindly generating even this short poetic line are so astronomically small as to be impossible. If a particularly diligent monkey typed at one keystroke per second, it would take him not 7 times as long as the universe has existed, but 70,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as long as the oldest estimated age of the universe, to peck through all the possibilities.
Even at 20 billion years, the universe is far too young to support such ridiculously low probabilities. The double criteria of specification and complexity filter out chance as a cause, and point directly to an intelligent designer — of Shakespeare's sonnets as well as the cosmos.
Monkey business aside, when we look at the complexity of, for example, the DNA sequence in even the simplest functioning organism, we find the odds of its generation by chance to be far smaller than a line from a sonnet. Thus does Dembski conclude that only an intelligent designer could have brought it about. This argument seems to gain strength as science continues to uncover ever-deepening layers of complexity in nature.
While InterVarsity publishes titles primarily aimed at evangelical Protestant audiences, and Intelligent Design is no exception, Catholics should be keenly interested in this work. The details behind these sorts of scientific investigations and theories can be quite daunting, yet Dembski has done a fine job of putting the ID and specified-complexity pieces of the puzzle in layman's terms. It's exciting to know that we can scientifically support the Catholic principle that the marks of God's magnificent designing intelligence are evident throughout nature.
Ben Wiker teaches at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.