Does intelligent design theory require that the designs be perfect?

Structure of DNA
Structure of DNA

From Evolution News.


By the word “intelligent,” ID proponents simply mean to indicate that a structure has features requiring a mind capable of forethought to design the blueprint. Thus, ID proponents test ID by looking for complex and specified information, which is an indicator that some goal-directed process, capable of acting with will, forethought, and intentionality, was involved in designing an object.

We do not test ID by looking for “perfect design” or “undesirable design,” because minds don’t always make things that are “perfect,” and sometimes they make things that are “undesirable” (to other minds, at least). Holding biological systems to some vague standard of “perfect design” where they are refuted by “undesirable design” is the wrong way to test ID. Examples like broken machinery, computer failures, and decaying buildings all show that a structure might be designed by an intelligent agent even if it subsequently breaks or shows flaws. Intelligent design does not necessarily mean “perfect design.” It doesn’t even require optimal design. Rather, “intelligent design” means exactly what it sounds like: design by an intelligent agent.

“Undesirable design” arguments share three general problems, some or all of which can be found in each of Gilmour’s 130 examples. Here are the three main problems:

  1. An object can have imperfections and be undesirable, but still be designed.
  2. Critics’ standards of perfection are often arbitrary.
  3. “Bad design” arguments don’t hold up under their own terms, as the objects often turn out to be well designed when we inspect them more closely.

Problem (1) applies to every single example Gilmour gives. Problems (2) and (3) apply to many, though not all, of his examples. In fact, some of them are legitimate examples of undesirable design. I mean, who likes “easily worn out knees” or hernias — both examples of how our bodies break down? Objectively speaking, those are flaws or imperfections. But as much as you might not like “undesirable design,” they don’t refute ID because ID is a scientific argument that isn’t concerned with the moral value, perfection, or desirable/undesirable quality of a structure. Computers break down but were still intelligently designed. In the same way, the fact that our bodies break down doesn’t mean they weren’t intelligently designed.

If you would like  quick introduction to intelligent design, click here. The best introductory book on the subject is “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design” by Dr. Jonathan Wells, and the best complex book is “Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design” by Dr. Stephen C. Meyer.

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11 thoughts on “Does intelligent design theory require that the designs be perfect?”

  1. Well stated. I particularly appreciated the broken machinery/decaying buildings comparison…because according to the Christian worldview that’s exactly what we would expect to find. We’re living in a broken and sinful world, after all.


    1. I think that it suits God’s purposes that life not be perfect for us, because if his goal is turning us away from self, and towards him, then things should not be so comfortable for us.


  2. As Christians, we want to defend the claim that

    (1) There exists a being worthy of the title God,

    where “God” is a title for a perfect, supreme being who is maximally good and great and the creator of all contingent reality.

    So, while I don’t think so-called bad-design arguments count as very good evidence against the existence of God, it will not do to dismiss them as irrelevant because “an object can have imperfections and be undesirable, but still be designed.” Of course, I don’t think you’d dismiss bad-design arguments against the existence of God on such flimsy grounds; but there are plenty of Christians who are very happy to do so.


    1. Thomas, the argument from intelligent design has nothing whatsoever to do with God. Nothing. The inference to intelligent causes says nothing about whether that cause is embodied or disembodied, brilliant or stupid, good or evil, or so on. Intelligent design looks at specific effects, be they meaningful sentences, computer code, or proteins, and infers that random chance and nature law cannot arrange parts into sequences that have meaning, given the resources, time available and time for each trial (or flip, in probability speak).


        1. No it doesn’t mean that at all. The intelligent design argument is valuable because it disproves that materialism can account for the origin of life. Once materialism is out of the way, open-minded people are left with two alternatives. An unembodied intelligence or an embodied one. At this point, we look at other evidence, such as the evidence for the Big Bang creation event, the BVG theorem which requires that expanding universes like ours have a beginning, and the cosmic fine-tuning. THOSE arguments favor the inference that the intelligence is unembodied, since the cause of the universe cannot be physical – it created space, it is not IN space. On the other hand, we also have good evidence that argues that most of the universe is inhospitable to carbon-based life, which argues against the intelligence being aliens. Moreover, we have no independent evidence of aliens, but we do have indpendent arguments for God, like the moral argument and the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, intelligent design is useful for ruling out materialism, and positing an intelligence. OTHER ARGUMENTS, not intelligent design, are then used to prefer a supernatural intelligence to an embodied, natural intelligence.

          See, here is Dawkins making the design inference, then denying that the intelligence is unembodied:

          He thinks it’s aliens, but as I mentioned, he has no evidence for those aliens that is independent of the origin of life effect.


          1. Wintery, here’s the problem with that line of thinking. Suppose bad-design arguments are successful in that they show, to a reasonable degree of probability, that the designer of the universe is dumb, or weak, or that he communicated poorly to the creator of the universe (if the creator and designer of the universe are two different beings). Then those arguments would count as evidence against orthodox Christian theism as it has traditionally been understood.

            We also need to recognise that there could be a creator and designer of the universe who raised Jesus from the dead and grounds moral facts but is not, in fact, worthy of the title “God.”


          2. In order to make that argument, you would have to assume that God’s purpose in the world is to make everything so work well that his human pets will be very happy and never ever suffer or be offended. But that’s not God’s purpose at all, for Christians. His purpose is to invite them to know him and follow him, and imperfection and suffering may be perfect for that purpose. Only atheists think that God’s job is to make us feel good. But that’s not God’s job. Jesus suffered and learned obedience through suffering. Because the world is not a perfect place.

            Furthermore, engineers like me understand things like tradeoffs in our design. We recognize that nothing we make will satisfy every need. When you aim for a price point for laptops, you have to balance competing concerns like price, weight durability, RAM, disk space and speed, etc. Engineers understand that no product can ever satisfy all the nice to have design goals.

            I think a lot of atheists are unhappy with a God who can hold them accountable, and so they call God “evil”, since he doesn’t meet their need for happy feelings and safety. How dare he expect us to have to feel unhappy as part of getting to know him?


  3. I would argue that God has designed a world where there is not a single optimum design. Everything from biological to social systems can not long exist as a single optimized design. The systems are optimized from interaction of the imperfect. “Perfect designs” are perfectly flawed.


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