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How to Detect Design

October 3, 2011

How to Detect Design


Perhaps the most common argument advanced against the intelligent design hypothesis is that the conclusion that certain parts of life were designed is an “argument from ignorance” or a “god of the gaps” argument. I must disagree with this claim, since several branches of science (particularly SETI) make design inferences, yet those inferences are not labeled “argument from ignorance” or “god of the gaps.”

What if we detected a triangle-shaped object floating in space? It would be reasonable to conclude that that object was intelligently designed. In fact, this conclusion is supported by the peer-reviewed literature:

“The forthcoming space missions, able to detect Earth-like planets by the transit method, will a fortiori also be able to detect the transits of artificial planet-sized objects. Multiple artificial objects would produce light curves easily distinguishable from natural transits. If only one artificial object transits, detecting its artificial nature becomes more difficult. We discuss the case of three different objects (triangle, two-screen, and louver-like six-screen) and show that they have transit light curves distinguishable from the transits of natural planets, either spherical or oblate, although an ambiguity with the transit of a ringed planet exists in some cases.” (Arnold, L. Transit Light-Curve Signatures Of Artificial Objects. The Astrophysical Journal, 627:534–539 (2005)).

The author goes on to note that:

“Transits of artificial objects also could be a means for interstellar communication from Earth in the future. We therefore suggest to future human generations to have in mind, at the proper time, the potential of multiple Earth-sized artificial structures in orbit around our star to produce distinguishable and intelligent transits.” (emphasis not added)

In short, detecting a triangle-shaped object in space would suggest that that object was intelligently designed – and this conclusion is supported by the peer-reviewed literature (The Astrophysical Journal has a fairly high impact factor, too).

So, would the conclusion that that object was probably intelligently designed be an argument from ignorance, or an “intelligence of the gaps” argument? If that conclusion is not an argument from ignorance, then the conclusion made by the hypothesis of biological intelligence is not an argument from ignorance (or “intelligence of the gaps” argument) either.

Why, then, would a triangle-shaped object in space be indicative of intelligence? The reason is because the shape of that object would be discontinuous from the shapes of objects known to be generated by non-teleological astronomical processes. Thus, discontinuity is one of the ways to strengthen a suspicion of intelligent design. Yet this is not the only way: in his The Design Matrix, Mike Gene proposes four criteria to help gauge our suspicion of intelligent design. These four criteria are, namely, Analogy, Discontinuity, Rationality, and Foresight.

Analogy, Discontinuity, Rationality, and Foresight

Imagine you are an astronaut of the future. You are walking on the surface of Mars, examining the features of this planet closely. You spy a suspicious-looking object a few feet in front of you, and when you bend down to examine it, you are shocked to find that the object is eerily similar to a common mousetrap.

The platform is made out of wood, it has a spring and a hammer, and all the essential components of a mousetrap. Of course, one would conclude that that object was the result of intelligent design. But why?


Firstly, the hypothetical Martian mousetrap would be strongly analogous to human-made mousetraps. The Martian mousetrap would be made out of the same materials terrestrial mousetraps are typically made of, and the Martian mousetrap would have all the components that terrestrial mousetraps have. This extremely strong analogy would very decidedly point in the direction of intelligent design. On the other hand, suppose that the ‘mousetrap’ was made out of clumsy clay parts? While we would almost certainly still conclude intelligent design, that conclusion wouldn’t be quite so strong. Why? Because the level of analogy between something known to be designed by intelligence (in this case, the terrestrial mousetrap) and something we suspect to be designed (the hypothetical Martian mousetrap) wouldn’t be as strong as in the first example. What if the hypothetical “mousetrap” was simply a hole in the ground with some sticky substance like oil inside the hole? This “device” can catch mice: if a mouse happened to walk into the hole, it would get stuck. Yet this “device” is not at all analogous to our terrestrial mousetraps. The level of analogy drops enormously, severely weakening our suspicion of intelligent design. In fact, the analogy is so weak that one might not even conclude design at all – and for a good reason, too. Thus we see that the stronger the analogy between an object suspected to be designed and an object known to be designed, the more reasonable our conclusion of intelligent design is. This would not be an argument from ignorance: it would constitute a positive case for teleology. Arguments from analogy are often used in scientific research, where if X is strongly analogous to Y, then Z is quite probably true for both X and Y.

For example, in a paper called “Comparative analyses of foregut and hindgut bacterial communities in hoatzins and cows,” researchers note:

“Foregut fermentation occurs in mammalian ruminants and in one bird, the South American folivorous hoatzin. This bird has an enlarged crop with a function analogous to the rumen, where foregut microbes degrade the otherwise indigestible plant matter, providing energy to the host from foregut fermentation, in addition to the fermentation that occurs in their hindguts (cecum/colon). As foregut fermentation represents an evolutionary convergence between hoatzins and ruminants, our aim was to compare the community structure of foregut and hindgut bacterial communities in the cow and hoatzin to evaluate the influences of host phylogeny and organ function in shaping the gut microbiome.”

Given that the South American hoatzin (a bird) has an organ with a function analogous to the mammalian rumen, one might predict that the microbiome of both these organs would be also analogous. This is indeed the case, as the abstract of the above paper notes:

“Regardless of the independent origin of foregut fermentation in birds and mammals, organ function has led to convergence of the microbial community structure in phylogenetically distant hosts.”

In this particular case, X and Y are analogous to each other, and so we expect Z (the structure of the microbial community) to be similar. Thus, since X and Y are analogous, then Z is quite probably true for both of them. We can see, then, that reasoning by analogy is not at all uncommon to scientific research, and reasoning by analogy is not necessarily a fallacy.

The nice thing about analogy is that it can actually help us make predictions about the living world. For example, if “at first glance” biological feature X is strongly analogous to feature Y, something known to be designed, then we could predict that the finer details of biological feature X are also analogous to Y. We can ask what Y predicts about X. Furthermore, if the telic predictions are confirmed it would strengthen the case for intelligent design, and it would also provide evidence that the analogy under discussion is an actual analogy, and not just a metaphorical analogy.


We have seen that analogy is one way we can gauge our suspicion that a given feature was intelligently designed: the more analogous that feature X is to something known to be designed, the more confident we can be that feature X itself is the product of teleological mechanisms. Now we come to discontinuity. By discontinuity, I simply mean that there are limits to what non-teleological mechanisms can accomplish. For example, a mousetrap is discontinuous from things that can be generated by non-teleological processes, such as canyons. A triangle-shaped object floating in space is discontinuous from objects that can plausibly be generated by non-teleological processes. This is a very important criterion, and the more discontinuous an object is from things known to be produced by non-teleological mechanisms, the more suspicious we become that that object was intelligently designed.

How can we detect discontinuity? Well, we can do this by seeing how far apart feature X is from things that are produced by non-teleological processes. For example, if cosmological non-teleological processes were known to be capable of generating objects shaped like almost perfect squares, then an object in the shape of a triangle wouldn’t be all that indicative of intelligence. Similarly, if mindless processes were able to generate things strikingly close in similarity to Mount Rushmore, the suspicion that Mount Rushmore was intelligently designed would be weakened.

In biology, we can detect discontinuity by firstly, determining if a system is irreducibly complex (IC), and secondly, scanning the known biological universe to how many precursor systems (if any) pre-date that IC system. The fewer the number of precursor systems that pre-date the IC system, the more discontinuous the IC system is from the rest of the biological universe. Furthermore, if the Darwinian pathways proposed to explain the origin of that IC system are extremely implausible, the more discontinuous that IC system is from the parts of life that non-teleological processes can account for.

Discontinuity is often used by scientists to detect design. I have mentioned the example of SETI science, and this example should be sufficient to dispel any notions that intelligent design is an argument from ignorance, or a “god-of-the-gaps” argument.



One hallmark of teleology is rationality. Several attributes of rationality may be noted here:

  • Specificity
  • Efficiency
  • Flexibility

A rationally designed system will generally exhibit all of the above. Naturally, “bad design” is usually not a hallmark of teleology. However, many instances of “bad design” really are not bad design. For example, the existence of viruses might be considered “bad design.” However, this is taking a human-centric approach. The virus is actually a very cleverly crafted system, well suited for its purpose. In other words, for the virus, its design is rational.

That said, any true instances of irrational design in a system must be considered evidence against the view that that system was the product of teleology. Before we can make this conclusion, though, we must keep in mind that a system might degenerate through non-teleological processes, resulting in an irrational design.

If we do find a system that performs its function in a rational way, then we must consider that teleology might have been involved in the origin of that system. The more rationally designed the system appears to be, the more confident we can be that the system was the product of teleology. Also note that the criterion of rationality can be used to generate telic predictions. For example, if at first glance, a molecular system seems to be rationally designed, then we would predict that further investigation would reveal that it is rationally designed. Consider the bacterial flagellum. If the arrangement and structure of the core flagellar system seems to be rational, then we would predict that further investigation at the molecular level would strengthen the case for the rational design of the bacterial flagellum.


Our final criterion is foresight. This criterion is a bit vague. A system that demonstrates foresight essentially means that the intelligent designer(s) designed that system right from the start. For example, the same DNA molecule is used throughout all of life, meaning that the designer(s) of the DNA molecular and genetic code got the design right the first time. Obviously, it is difficult to determine if a system displays foresight.


Here I have argued that the intelligent design conclusion is not an argument from ignorance or a “god of the gaps” argument. Its methodology of detecting design is as valid as the methodology used by SETI, for example. The various criterion used to deepen our suspicion of teleology constitute positive evidence for teleology.

The main points to take home are as follows:

  • The intelligent design conclusion is not an argument from ignorance or a “god of the gaps” argument as is often assumed by critics of intelligent design.
  • The various criterion used to deepen our suspicion of teleology constitute positive evidence for teleology.
  • These criterion are useful in guiding research and in formulating predictions under the intelligent design hypothesis.
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