The Design Inference

True scientific revolutions that impact more than a single discipline rarely occur more than once a century. Newton’s Principia, published in the 17th century, truly qualifies. Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859, also belongs on the list. Standing in the wings, ready to join these esteemed works and perhaps even overturn the latter, stands William Dembski’s The Design Inference.{1} This impressive work published by the distinguished Cambridge University Press outlines the mathematical principles necessary to distinguish intelligently caused events from natural events.

ust listen to some of the comments from the dust jacket of the book from secular philosophers and mathematicians. One wrote, “Dembski has written a sparklingly original book. Not since David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion has someone taken such a close look at the design argument.” Being put in the same sentence as David Hume is no small potatoes. Mathematician David Berlinski warns, “Those who agree with its point of view will read it with pleasure, and those who do not will ignore it at their peril.”

Dembski has rigorously detailed the key trademark of intelligent causes, what he calls specified complexity. The term specified refers to the notion that an event conforms to an independently given pattern. Complexity refers to an event of small probability. For instance, people win improbable lotteries all the time. The odds are usually in the millions to one. But when the number of tickets purchased is considered, nobody questions the legitimacy of someone holding the winning ticket. This would be an event of small probability without any specification. Somebody will win, but nobody can predict whom. But let’s propose that the same person wins the same lottery three times in a row! Suddenly there is an independent pattern and we immediately become suspicious that more than just chance is involved. We now have an event of extremely small probability that also conforms to a pattern or is specified. The most likely cause for such an event is that someone has intelligently tampered with the lottery.

Dembski boldly suggests that these same principles can be applied to the question of the origin of life and other evolutionary questions and still maintain the integrity of science. While Dembski has been sharply criticized by the evolutionary establishment, to their discredit, their critiques have been largely emotional and dismissive. No one has successfully challenged the heart of his thesis.

Now before you decide to run out a get a copy, please be advised that this book is not for the casual reader. Loaded with technical jargon and symbolic logic, you had better haven eaten your mental Wheaties before tackling this one. But Dembski has written a scaled down version, which I will now discuss.

Hasn’t Science and Philosophy Ruled Out Design?

William Dembski’s groundbreaking book, The Design Inference from Cambridge University Press, is highly technical. Dembski has therefore written a follow-up book titled, Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology,{2} which is more accessible to the general reader. Christianity Today has named it their 1999 Book of the Year in the “Christianity and Culture” category.

Listen to a few sound bites from comments of those recommending Dembski’s Intelligent Design. A quantum chemistry professor from the University of Georgia says, “William Dembski is perhaps the very brightest of a new generation of scholars.” A professor of philosophy from the University of Texas says, “William Dembski is the Isaac Newton of information theory.” Another university professor proclaims “If Dembski is right, and I believe he is, then it is unscientific to deny the existence of God.” Wow! Unscientific to deny God! Do you think that comment is rankling a good number of evolutionary biologists? Finally, another University of Texas professor of government goes further by claiming that “Dembski strengthens the case for saying that our deepest moral inclinations not only look designed, they are.”

Let me now begin to satiate your curiosity by telling you a little more about this groundbreaking work. The book is divided into three parts. In the first part Dembski gives a historical backdrop to the current controversy over design. In academia, the design argument has been considered dead for over 150 years. Dembski identifies two major reasons for this demise of design. The first was the continual attack on miracles, which culminated in the 18th and 19th century. Dembski cogently explains that their arguments don’t work.

The second blow to design came from Darwin’s Origin of Species. Darwin dismissed the prevalent British natural theology of his day by not so much refuting it, but by announcing that it simply wasn’t scientific. Dembski quotes evolutionary philosopher David Hull, “He dismissed it not because it was an incorrect scientific explanation, but because it was not a proper scientific explanation at all.” Darwin’s faulty conception of science is still with us and Dembski sets out to refute it.

The criteria used by the British natural theologians were naive in the sense that they believed that design was self-evident. This led to far too many false positives, that is, assignments of design that were later proved to be naturalistic. The design argument was forced to retreat. In the second part of Intelligent Design, Dembski articulates the principles laid out in his The Design Inference for the general reader.

What Does a Theory of Design Look Like?

Having told you about Dembski’s work and the impact it is beginning to have, I will summarize Dembski’s prescription or cure for the rule of naturalism in science.{3}

No one in the design movement as far as I know seeks to invoke God at every turn as an explanation for natural phenomena. So why bring God into the picture at all? For most scientists, God is only a hypothesis, and an unnecessary one at that. But beyond the ordinary operation of nature is its order. Dembski references Einstein’s remark that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. This order must come from outside the universe or from within. But science tells us today that the only allowable answer is that it comes from within. This naturalistic philosophy has become a form of idolatry. Nature becomes the do all and end all. As Dembski says, “Rather it is a matter of investing the world with a significance it does not deserve.”{4}

Naturalism is pervasive in the culture. Even most Christians think and live naturalistically without realizing it. So how can naturalism be defeated? What is needed, says Dembski, is a means of detecting God’s actions in the natural world. In other words there must be a reliable way to distinguish natural causes from intelligent causes. Some sciences already employ such methods such as forensic medicine, cryptography, archeology, and even the SETI program, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI depends on the ability to distinguish an intelligent message from space from the surrounding radio noise. This can be done without necessarily understanding the message or knowing the message sender.

This brings up another crucial point of intelligent design. Dembski says that intelligent design is theologically minimalist.{5} By this he means that intelligent design empirically detects design without speculating about the nature of the intelligence. This is crucial to answer the critics who accuse design theorists of simply wanting to bring the Bible into science. If one detects design or concludes that a particular natural phenomena contains the necessary earmarks of design, that’s all that needs to be said. One can personally reflect on the nature of this intelligence, but it is not a part of the scientific test.

Dembski calls for a new generation of scholars open to pursuing intelligent causes in the universe. Here at Probe we’re committed to helping find, select, and train such potential scholars to take part in a true scientific revolution.

Does Intelligent Design Offer a Bridge between Science and Theology?

In this review and summarization of Dembski’s insights let’s now explore the future Dembski foresees for the dialogue between science and theology.{6}

Of course most within the scientific community see no future at all for such a discourse. Most within modern academia hold to either of three models that Dembski labels as conflicting, complementing, or compartmentalizing. Most of us are very familiar with the conflict model. Most who call themselves rationalists or secular humanists would subscribe to this view. Basically they see science as having explained all of reality and that there is no room for theology at all. I once attended a conference where a theology professor was so intimidated by this view that he said that theology was a dead discipline and would cease to exist in twenty years.

Stephen J. Gould, a Harvard paleontologist, and the National Academy of Sciences have advocated the compartmentalization view. Basically they maintain that science and theology inform different parts of reality–science the realm of facts and theology the realm of morals and faith. There is no conflict and also no dialogue between the two. It is also not hard to see that this view basically rules theology out of any important discussions about real facts. Theology inhabits only the fuzzy world of morals, which must be relative if naturalism rules in science.

Similar is the complementarity view, which essentially states that science and theology can actually inform the same reality, but their language is so foreign to the other that no meaningful discourse can take place. Both are necessary to give a complete account of reality, but you can forget about the two ever talking to each other.

In one way or another, each of these three views will eventually rule theology as irrelevant to the important questions and a fully naturalistic science will eventually be the wellspring for all useful information and discourse. But as you might expect, Dembski offers a fourth view and argues that it is the only proper view of the two disciplines.

Dembski compares science and theology to two different windows that view the same reality. Since the windows are different, they gain a different perspective. But since they are viewing the same reality, what is seen from each window can in many cases be meaningfully related. Both science and theology may on occasion, be capable of further explaining observations from each window. He offers the current discussion concerning the cosmology’s Big Bang and theology’s act of Creation as an example. If the Big Bang is true, then Christianity’s theology of creation ex nihilo is a better explanation than naturalism’s attempt to explain something from nothing.

There is much more work to be done here as Dembski readily admits, but the tone and direction is very refreshing.

What Are the Standard Objections to Design in Science?

There is the potential of the intelligent design movement bringing about a revolution in science. I have summarized the work of William Dembski, a double Ph.D. in philosophy and mathematics with a Master’s of Divinity thrown in for good measure. In the appendix of his much acclaimed book, Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology, Dembski investigates several of the more common objections to intelligent design. To conclude this review I will examine one of these objections.

Dembski states the first objection this way, “Design substitutes extraordinary explanations where ordinary explanations will do and thereby commits a god-of-the-gaps fallacy.” Those believing that God used evolution as His means of creation usually voice this objection. This view is motivated by the tremendous history of naturalistic science in explaining very difficult natural phenomena by natural means. This often occurs after someone has claimed that God was necessary to explain a particular observation. Isaac Newton thought divine intervention was necessary to explain the irregularities of planetary orbits. It was eventually shown that these irregularities were periodic and not random and thus explainable by natural law.{7}

Newton was widely criticized for this view, and many Christians fear that appealing to design now will end up in ridicule later when natural processes may also explain contrivances of intelligent design later. While this fear is understandable in the light of history, there are considerable differences. Design does not claim to simply explain what we do not understand. Rather, intelligent design is attempting to demonstrate a real solution to problems based on what we know about design, not what we don’t know about natural explanations.

Besides, if we believe that the laws of nature are incapable of producing certain natural phenomena, such as the genetic code of DNA, just how long are we supposed to keep looking for a naturalistic solution instead of looking elsewhere? This puts shackles on scientific inquiry and stifles new ideas. Certainly we should attempt to exhaust all known naturalistic possibilities before pursuing a design answer. But fear of failure should not be our deterrent. There is always risk in proposing new scientific ideas and hypotheses. The risk is that you just might be wrong. But this has never permanently hindered the proposal of a new idea. Failure should be a constant risk in science. Otherwise nothing new will ever be discovered.

“Not all gaps are created equal. To assume that they are is to presuppose the very thing that is in question, namely, naturalism.”{8} William Dembski has issued a strong challenge through his books and more are to follow from others dealing with the philosophy and science of intelligent design. The next several years should be very exciting indeed.


1. William A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance by through Small Probabilities (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

2. William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999).

3. Ibid., 97- 121.

4. Ibid., 101.

5. Ibid., 107.

6. Ibid., 187- 210.

7. Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 91-92.

8. Dembski, Intelligent Design, 245.


© 2000 Probe Ministries

Raymond G. Bohlin is Vice President at Probe Ministries. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (B.S., zoology), North Texas State University (M.S., population genetics), and the University of Texas at Dallas (M.S., Ph.D., molecular biology). He is the co-author of the book The Natural Limits to Biological Change, served as general editor of Creation, Evolution and Modern Science, co-author of Basic Questions on Genetics, Stem Cell Research and Cloning (The BioBasics Series), and has published numerous journal articles. Dr. Bohlin was named a Research Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in 1997, 2000 and 2012.

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Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at

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