A review of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, by Stephen M. Barr;
The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design, by William A. Dembski;
By Design: Science and the Search for God, by Larry Witham;
Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design, by Thomas Woodward


Do the marvels of the natural world, especially the great variety and complexity of living things, manifest the design of an intelligent being or merely the operation of unguided physical processes, of matter in motion following universal laws of nature? What light, if any, does modern natural science shed on this question?

In Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, physicist Stephen M. Barr appeals on this point to Steven Weinberg, "the leading particle physicist of our time," and biologist and arch-Darwinist Richard Dawkins. According to Weinberg, humans want to believe "that we have some special relationship to the universe, that human life is not just a farcical outcome of a chain of accidents,…but that we were somehow built in from the beginning…. It is very hard for us to realize that [the entire Earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe…. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Dawkins, reflecting on Darwin's great discovery of natural selection, concludes that "[t]he universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." As Dawkins famously asserted in his book The Blind Watchmaker (1986), "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

Against this brand of scientific materialism stands an increasingly influential, if small, band of scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers who maintain that the facts of nature, as revealed by modern science, provide compelling evidence that an intelligence was responsible for the design of the physical and/or biological world. Although "intelligent design," according to William Dembski of Baylor University, remains "an academic pariah," it has made its way into the nation's leading newspapers and magazines and, more controversially, into debates and decisions on teaching evolution in the public schools.

Larry Witham's By Design and Thomas Woodward's Doubts about Darwin are highly readable histories of the intelligent design movement, excellent points of departure for those who want to learn what the controversy is all about. Witham's is a broad survey of the dialogue between modern science and religion and especially of developments within modern science that lead many to ask whether "nature point[s] to something beyond itself—toward a God, perhaps, or a transcendent order." Woodward's is a more narrowly focused "rhetorical history" of that aspect of the intelligent design movement that specifically challenges the adequacy of evolutionary theory and Darwinian materialism to account for biological diversity in general and man in particular. Whereas Doubts about Darwin focuses almost entirely on biology, By Design also includes substantial treatments of recent developments in cosmology, astronomy, physics, and the scientific attempt to understand and explain human consciousness. 

For those who believe that science by its very nature must posit the absence of an intelligent designer, and therefore that science and theism are necessarily at odds, Stephen Barr provides a helpful catalogue, dating back to the 12th century, of "important scientific figures who were themselves monks, priests, and even bishops." Moreover, "many of the great founders of modern science, including Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Ampere, Maxwell, and Kelvin, were deeply religious men." And in The Design Revolution, William Dembski notes that "intelligent design figures substantively in Newton's Principia—see, for example, his General Scholium," where Newton holds that "[t]his most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being." And later, "All that diversity of natural things which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing…to discourse of whom from the appearance of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy." Even now, many scientists are believers. Barr notes a "recent survey which showed that roughly half of American scientists believe in a personal God who answers prayers."

Although the views of many contemporary physicists and astronomers lie closer to Weinberg's atheism than to Newton's theism, it is much less controversial for physical scientists to discuss the relationship of their science to belief in God (more below) than it is for biologists and life scientists generally. Consider, for example, the attack on the biological case for intelligent design in a recent book-length critique published by Oxford University Press: Intelligent design makes "lousy argument[s]" discredited long ago by David Hume. It is guilty of "[s]ophistry" and "lazy science." Its advocates, who are allied with "the dark powers of ignorance and regression" are "coming close to subverting the schooling of young Americans." It is "pernicious nonsense which needs to be neutralized before irreparable damage is done to American education." Intelligent design is "an important fragment of a much larger rejection [of the ideals]…upon which the United States was founded" and is the "chief weapon" used by "religious extremists who hope to turn the clock of science back to medieval times." This "stealth creationism" has as its "ultimate aim" the establishment of "a fundamentalist Christian theocracy" that would impose "discriminatory, conservative Christian values on our educational, legal, social, and political institutions" (Richard Dawkins and Niall Shanks in God, the Devil, and Darwin, 2004).

This is not a fringe view. Apparently, thousands of mainstream scientists have been persuaded that intelligent design threatens to destroy science, corrupt our youth, and undermine our freedoms. It is little wonder that it is extraordinarily risky for a biologist or other life scientist to question Darwinian theory or to research the issue of design in nature. "Doubting Darwinian orthodoxy," writes Dembski, "is comparable to opposing the party line of a Stalinist regime." Not surprisingly, the leading peer-reviewed journals, keepers of the orthodoxy, are walled off from intelligent design. Moreover, scientists "outed" as advocates of—or even associated with—intelligent design suffer professional ostracism, or worse. As Dembski ruefully concludes, "Welcome to the inquisition." (Since Dembski's book appeared, intelligent design made a small breach in the Darwinian fortifications when a peer-reviewed journal published by the Smithsonian Institution carried an article in September 2004, by design theorist Stephen Meyer. This very fact caused widespread controversy in the scientific community.

* * *

Dembski, who holds Ph.D.s in mathematics and philosophy and a masters in theology, is intelligent design's leading theorist. His highly influential, though dauntingly technical, first book, The Design Inference (1998), laid the mathematical and logical foundations of a methodology, called the "explanatory filter," for distinguishing design from necessity (the inexorable operation of physical laws) and chance. He followed this with two books more accessible to a broad audience: Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology (1999) and No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence (2002). His current work, The Design Revolution, is a collection of forty-four short chapters that introduce the reader to the subject and provide "supporters of intelligent design the tools they need to counter the attacks by critics of intelligent design."

Dembski describes a scientific movement that, perhaps paradoxically, makes claims that are both revolutionary and, on the largest philosophical-theological issues, quite modest. On the one hand, intelligent design is nothing less than "a full-scale scientific revolution" that, if successful, will overthrow naturalism and materialism. On the other hand, it is a technical scientific enterprise that takes no direction from theology or Biblical texts—"a strictly scientific theory devoid of religious commitments"—and that seeks to identify design in nature without saying anything about the nature of the designer, except that it exhibits intelligence: "the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the competence of science and must be left to religion and philosophy." Thus the designer in intelligent design theory is compatible not only with the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition but also with "the watchmaker-God of the deists, the Demiurge of Plato's Timaeus and the divine reason…of the ancient Stoics." And later, "This intelligence could be E.T. or a telic principle immanent in nature or a transcendent personal agent."

Perhaps Dembski's strongest argument for the scientific legitimacy of his enterprise is his claim that many fields of science regularly deal with the problem of identifying design. The archeologist determines whether objects discovered in a dig, which might appear to be tools, were in fact designed by humans. The cryptographer uses his training and skills to distinguish a coded message from a randomly generated string of numbers or letters. The medical examiner, upon investigating a death, concludes whether the cause was natural, accidental, or intentional (i.e., the result of human design).

It is not only scientists who must learn to distinguish design from chance. Dembski tells the story of Nicholas Caputo, a New Jersey county election commissioner, who was charged by law with determining by chance whether the Democratic or Republican parties should head the ballot (the preferred position). Strikingly, and quite suspiciously, Caputo's Democratic Party achieved the top position forty out of forty-one times over several decades. Although the New Jersey Supreme Court did not formally accuse Caputo of wrongdoing, it recognized that such a string of "coincidences" could undermine public confidence and it suggested changes in the way the drawings were held.

The paradigmatic example of science identifying design, used by Dembski in many of his writings, is SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. As depicted in the popular movie Contact, scientists received a radio signal from space that included a string of the prime numbers. Given that there is no known natural mechanism that could account for this, the scientists concluded that some intelligence was responsible for the signal. Although they knew nothing about the nature of that intelligence, this didn't shake their confidence that intelligent design was the cause of the radio signal. The entire SETI enterprise rests on the possibility, at least in principle, of distinguishing design from the vast sea of noise that arrives at radio telescopes on earth.

Dembski holds that just as radio signals may manifest intelligent design, so may biological systems. In recent years Lehigh University microchemist Michael Behe, to whom Dembski devotes a chapter, pursued this contention. Behe's bestselling Darwin's Black Box (1999) showed that numerous biomolecular systems exhibit a characteristic he calls "irreducible complexity": a variety of distinct well-matched parts work together to perform some function, but remove one part and the function ceases. Behe's most famous example is the bacterial flagellum, in effect a rotary motor of "staggering complexity" that some bacteria use for propulsion. Like an automobile engine, take one part away and the motor will not work. This poses a particular problem for evolutionary theory because it is difficult (impossible?) to see how a succession of small changes caused by random mutations, each of which must be functional to be preserved, could build a complex molecular machine. What does the scientific literature say about the evolution of irreducibly complex molecular systems? According to Behe, nothing at all.

Dembski's own contribution to this debate, which emerged from his studies in mathematics and philosophy, is the concept of "specified complexity," of which "irreducible complexity" is a type. Unlikely events happen all the time. Flip a fair coin a thousand times and the particular sequence of heads and tails that results surprises no one, despite its extraordinary improbability. But flip a coin a thousand times and get all heads—and the conclusion is inescapable that this is not a random process. Similarly, no particular deal of 52 cards in a game of bridge usually surprises us unless, say, one player gets all Hearts, another all Spades, the third all Clubs, and the last all the Diamonds. This is so improbable that no player in such a game would believe that it resulted from a fair deal. Dembski shows that the key to inferring design is the existence of an independent pattern, or specification, that matches the data. Hence the concept of "specified complexity," also called "complex specified information."

This led to the elaboration of Dembski's now well-known "explanatory filter," which can be explained briefly. First, one asks whether a phenomenon is contingent or not. If not, then one attributes it to necessity (or law of nature). Second, if it is contingent—if it could have been otherwise—is it also complex (or improbable)? If not, it may be attributed to chance. Third, if it is both contingent and complex, does it conform to a specified pattern? If not, it may also be attributed tochance. Finally, if contingent, complex, and conforming to an independent pattern, it must be attributed to design. Throughout The Design Revolution Dembski devotes considerable attention to critiques of the "explanatory filter" and of his broader claim that "detecting design is a perfectly ordinary, rational activity."

Somewhat less controversially, physicists in recent decades have been making their own independent contribution to the design argument. In particular, many have been struck by the increasing evidence of the "fine tuning" of the universe: that dozens of features of the laws of physics seem to be exactly what is required for the known universe, both physical and biological, to exist.

* * *

Stephen Barr, a physicist at Bartol Research Institute, University of Delaware, identifies and describes eleven such features, by no means an exhaustive list. The first of these is the "strong nuclear force," which holds atomic nuclei together. If this force were just 10% weaker, no elements but hydrogen would have formed. If it were just 4% stronger, stars would have burned up much too quickly for life to evolve. Similarly, if the mass of the neutron were not slightly greater than the mass of the proton, even hydrogen would not have formed and therefore none of the other elements either. What's more, the strength of the electromagnetic force, about one-hundredth of that of the strong nuclear force, is just what is required for the existence of about one hundred naturally occurring elements vital to earthly life. What are the odds, ask these physicists, that dozens of physical constants and other features of the laws of physics would be precisely what they must be to produce a universe with life as we know it? The theistic implications of the question are obvious.

To avoid these implications, materialists make four points. First, notes Witham, quoting "arch-atheist" Bertrand Russell, "The universe is just there, and that's all." Or as Niall Shanks, in God, the Devil, and Darwin, recently argued, "it was just a matter of luck." This is, of course, another way of saying, "We have no idea why things are the way they are." Is this science or surrender?

Second, some argue that when we finally discover the deep underlying mathematical structure of the universe, we will learn that all these constants and features of the laws of physics must be as they are. Yet as Barr retorts, "The simple and absolutely undeniable fact is that the universe did not have to have the particular laws it does have by any sort of logical or mathematical necessity. In other words, God had a choice—in fact, an infinite number
of choices."

Third, critics of the design argument offer the "anthropic principle," which states that we should not be surprised if the world in which we live seems particularly hospitable to life since if it were not, we would not be here to note the fact. Witham explains philosopher John Leslie's trenchant response:


He imagines himself tied to a post, awaiting his execution by firing squad. When the fifty sharpshooters all miss, to say to oneself, 'If they hadn't all missed then I would not be considering the affair' is not an adequate response; in other words, someone in that situation is required to be truly surprised that he is still alive. The analogy here is with human beings finding themselves alive in the universe: in their surprise, they are required to ask whether this outcome was designed or just the stochastic result of infinitely many possibilities.

The odds that fifty sharpshooters would all miss their target at the same time, or that dozens of physical constants would have precisely the values necessary to sustain life, are so infinitesimally small that some explanation
is required.

In the end, the only real explanation that is offered—if it can be called an explanation—is that ours is but one of an infinite number of universes in which the constants and laws of physics take on all possible values. We happen to inhabit the universe where everything worked out just right. Although Barr's critique of the various versions of the multiple universe argument is too complicated to reproduce here, his conclusion nicely identifies the leap of faith demanded by materialists: "It is a very curious circumstance that materialists, in an effort to avoid what Laplace called the unnecessary hypothesis of God, are frequently driven to hypothesize the existence of an infinity of unobservable entities…. It seems that to abolish one unobservable God, it takes an infinite number of unobservable substitutes."

This argument about "fine tuning" or "anthropic coincidences" is but one part of Barr's more comprehensive account of how the discoveries of modern science have "damaged the credibility of materialism" and supported "the central claims of religion." One of these discoveries was "that the universe began in an explosion that took place about 15 billion years ago." Developed by astronomers in the early-to-mid-20th century and confirmed in the 1960s by measurements of the background radiation of space, the Big Bang theory was stoutly resisted by Einstein and other prominent scientists because it pointed to creation and thus to a creator. A characteristic reaction was the 1931 comment by Arthur Eddington, one of the leading astrophysicists of his era: "The notion of a beginning is repugnant to me…. I simply do not believe that the present order of things started off with a bang…the expanding Universe is preposterous…incredible…it leaves me cold."

Barr also challenges the atheists' argument that "order can spring forth 'spontaneously' and 'necessarily' from disorder by unconscious laws rather than by intelligent design." To the contrary, Barr maintains, order emerges not out of chaos but out of a deeper order "already implicit in the nature of things, although often in a secret or hidden way." Here he describes in some detail the order and symmetry built into nature at the most fundamental levels: "science has given us new eyes that allow us to see down to the deeper roots of the world's structure, and there all we see is order and symmetry of pristine mathematical purity." "[O]ne must ask," he continues, "where this design comes from. Can science explain it? That is not possible…. [S]cience really has no alternative to offer to the Argument from Design."

Finally, Barr devotes the last third of his book to the question, "What is Man?" focusing on whether "the human faculties of intellect and free will [can] be understood in purely physical and mechanical terms." After succinctly summarizing key arguments against the reduction of human consciousness to deterministic natural laws, he addresses at some length the relevance of "two profound and epoch-making discoveries…[that] strengthen the case against the materialistic view."

One is Austrian mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem (1931), especially as later interpreted by philosopher John Lucas and, more recently, by mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose. Gödel showed that in any formal mathematical system there are statements that cannot be proven using the rules of that system but which can be known to be true. Lucas and then Penrose attempted to show how Gödel's theorem demonstrated that the human mind is not merely a computer, or, as Barr explains, that the power to understand cannot be reduced to mere computation, or to rules governing the firing of neurons in the brain. Barr notes, however, that this interpretation of Gödel's theorem is far from universally accepted.

The second "epoch-making" discovery is quantum theory, which provides a ground for free will by overthrowing determinism. Barr's point is not that "quantum indeterminism explains free will, but rather that it provides an opening for free will." Some will wonder, however, whether the form and content of physical laws matter here at all, if human consciousness, understanding, and will are not in the end reducible to matter in motion. Yet Barr goes even further to explicate the arguments of several leading physicists and mathematicians to the effect that quantum theory by its very nature is incompatible with a thoroughgoing materialism, that it "requires that the intellect of the observer lies to some extent beyond the possibility of physical/mathematical description." As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner wrote about quantum theory, "it will remain remarkable…that the very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of the consciousness is an ultimate reality."

The debate as to whether nature provides evidence of design and purpose is now over two millennia old. That debate took a decisive turn in the 17th century when Francis Bacon and others successfully argued for the exclusion of Aristotle's formal and final causes from the study of nature. The irony, as these four fine books demonstrate, is that the science of material and efficient causes now increasingly points to formal and final causes, or design, in the very foundations of the physical and biological world. It is because the implications of these discoveries are so profound that the issue is so intensely controversial.