Intelligent Design

The four tiers of Intelligent Design – an ecumenical proposal

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This post is my personal attempt to reconcile recent statements made by Barry Arrington and Eric Holloway, regarding whether or not a supernatural Designer is required in order to produce a living thing. The claim I am putting forward here is that there are four levels of inquiry in Intelligent Design:

(1) Which patterns in Nature can be identified, through a process of scientific investigation, as the work of intelligent agents? That is, which patterns in Nature can be shown to have intelligent agents as their proximate causes?
(2) Which of the patterns identified in (1) can be shown to have been caused by intelligent agents outside the observable universe?
(3) For which of the patterns identified in (2) as the work of intelligent agents from beyond our universe can scientists rule out chance and/or necessity as the ultimate cause?
(4) Which of the patterns identified in (3) would require an intelligence with an infinite information-generating capacity, and what kind of infinity are we talking about here (aleph-one or higher)?

Some quick definitions


1. All events are caused by entities whose behavior always conforms to a fixed and finite set of mathematical statements (laws).
2. These laws (or mathematical statements) are universal and exceptionless: they hold at all times and places within the universe of the entities they describe.
3. All entities inhabit some universe which is characterized by a fixed and finite set of laws. More precisely: an entity can only be defined in terms of the laws of the universe which it inhabits.


(a) At the very least, supernaturalism denies the truth of proposition 3 in the definition of naturalism. In other words, it affirms that some being(s) are not law-bound. I call this weak supernaturalism, because it is compatible with the claim that laws hold exceptionlessly within the universe they apply to.
(b) A stronger version of supernaturalism holds that entities do not always conform to mathematical regularities (laws) in their behavior. In other words, miracles sometimes happen: propositions 1 and 2 are therefore false.

Miracle: any event occurring within a universe which is an exception to a law (or mathematical statement) that characterizes (or applies to) that universe. A miracle may be either positive (when a supernatural agent brings about an effect that a natural agent could not) or negative (when a supernatural agent prevents a natural agent from bringing about an effect that it normally would โ€“ e.g. by withholding its customary co-operation with that agent).

Level 1

A lot of excellent work has been done at level 1. This level is compatible with naturalism. It does not require a supernatural being or any miracles, and is quite compatible with methodological naturalism. On this level, as Barry Arrington has correctly observed, we often see intelligent agents genetically modifying life, and there seems to be no reason in principle to suppose that human scientists (who are clearly natural agents) could not build a living thing from scratch, starting with the simplest organic compounds as raw materials. No miracle would be required. Kairosfocus concurs with this opinion. For my own part, I am agnostic on the subject: I see no reason why it couldn’t be done in principle, but in practice I wonder whether the stepwise assembly of a living cell from its simplest organic components could ever be implemented in the laboratory, even with a large number of parallel chemical processes occurring at once, or whether the cell-in-the-making would fall apart long before it was put together. Still, I may be wrong on this point, and I would certainly agree with Mr. Arrington that no-one has demonstrated the need for a supernatural Designer in order to produce a living cell.

Level 2

Some very original mathematical work has also been done at level 2. The cosmological fine-tuning argument is generally (but not always) conducted on this level. And recently we have seen some very interesting mathematical arguments put forward by Dr. Rob Sheldon, showing that the first living cells must have been produced by some intelligent agent outside our universe, owing to the information storage limitations of our universe.

In recent posts, Eric Holloway and Petrushka have put forward arguments in a similar vein, and I am sure that we will see a lot more scientific work done at this level in the future.

Level 2 is still compatible with naturalism: a Designer outside the observable universe might still be a natural agent, bound by the laws of the multiverse. Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument explores this possibility. In addition to fine-tuning the laws of the observable universe, the Designer would be able to input a vast amount of information into our universe – either at the beginning or during its subsequent development. If there is any ongoing manipulation of our universe, this may well violate the laws of thermodynamics which hold sway in our own universe. Even so, a naturalist might argue that the laws of the multiverse would still reign supreme, insofar as the Designer would still be constrained by them; so from this larger perspective, no miracles would take place.

Level 3

Level 3 is not often addressed by proponents of Intelligent Design. Occasionally, the cosmological fine-tuning argument reaches this level – for example, when it is argued that any multiverse would itself need to have been designed, and that the mathematically elegant beauty of the laws of physics points to a Designer who transcends the multiverse, or that a multiverse capable of generating universes like our own would itself need to be fine-tuned. Dr. Robin Collins has done some excellent work in this area (see here and go to section 6, or see here), and so has Dr. William Lane Craig (see here). Eric Holloway has also attempted to address this level in a recent post, which I shall discuss below.

Nevertheless, Level 3 is a critically important level. To see why, one need look no further than the mythology of the ancient Greeks. Uranus and Gaia, the sky god and earth goddess, were generally conceived of as the ancestors of the other Greek gods; but they themselves were generated from Chaos. Thus the Greek gods were believed to be ultimately the product of Chance. This is, to say the very least, a deeply unsatisfying account of the origin of things. In the end, it explains nothing.

It is at Level 3 that we finally see the chains of naturalism being cast off. A Designer at this level would not be constrained by laws of any sort, as He would be their author. The Designer would certainly be free to work genuine miracles which would be recognizable as such, even from the perspective of the multiverse. The interesting scientific question is whether the Designer would need to do so, or whether He could generate a multiverse that could give rise to life, without any miracles.

Level 3 does not yet take us into the realms of theology, however. A Designer who was not constrained by laws of any sort would not be a corporeal agent; however, such a Designer may or may not be unique, may or may not be infinite, and may or may not be an ex nihilo Creator.

Level 4

Level 4 is still in its infancy: to the best of my knowledge, no rigorous mathematical work has yet been published in this field. However, if mathematicians and scientists ever discovered that there were indeed patterns in Nature that required an intelligence with an infinite information-generating capacity in order to produce them, then it would be legitimate to speak of a scientific “theology”, for an Infinite Transcendent Being who was not constrained by laws of any sort would be a Deity in anyone’s parlance. Of course, one could still ask what kind of infinity best describes this Being, for there are infinitely many infinities! At present, it is extremely difficult to envisage how one could scientifically demonstrate that there are patterns in Nature requiring an Intelligence with an infinite information-generating capacity in order to produce them. However, it would be unscientific to rule out this possibility in advance.

I would like to remark in passing that the Jews have a fascinating name for the infinite God: Ein Sof. I would very much appreciate any comments from Jewish readers regarding the origin and history of this term, as it is widely believed that the mathematician Cantor chose to use the term aleph is because it is the first letter of Ein-Sof.

So there we have it: the four levels of Intelligent Design theory. It should be clear by now that a scientific researcher working on Level 1 would use a different methodology from a mathematician or physicist working on Level 2, and that someone working on Level 3 would have to resort to an even more abstract level of mathematics. It is only within the last 140 years, with the development of transfinite numbers, that we have gained any inkling as to how to address Level 4; but I will stop here, and invite others who are much more qualified than myself to put forward proposals as to how work might proceed in this area.

It should be clear also that an intellectual commitment to one level of Intelligent Design theory need not imply any commitment to a higher level. A scientific researcher could do some fine work on Level 1 while remaining agnostic about the nature and existence of any Designer(s) on Levels 2, 3 and 4. Thus within the Intelligent Design tent there is room for researchers with a wide variety of world-views to do some good mathematical and scientific work on any of the four levels I have described above.

Closing remarks

I’d like to briefly address two comments which are particularly germane to this discussion on the four levels of Intelligent Design.

In an Update to the recent Put Up or Shut Up! post by Barry Arrington, Mr. Arrington writes:

Let us assume for the sake of argument that intelligent agents do NOT have free will, i.e., that the tertium quid does not exist. Let us assume instead, for the sake of argument, that the cause of all activity of all intelligent agents can be reduced to physical causes.”

Mr. Arrington further clarified the point he was making by referring to an article he had writtten in an earlier post, from which I shall quote an extract:

For those, such as Aristotle, who believe free will exists, “agency” is a tertium quid (a third thing) beyond chance and necessity. The metaphysical materialist on the other hand must deny the existence of free will. For the materialist, what we perceive as free will or agency is an illusion, the complex interplay of the electro-chemical processes of our brain, which are in turn caused by chance and necessity only.

But the discussion needn’t break down here, because everyone should agree that whether intelligent agents have free will or not, they do in fact leave distinctive indicia of their activities. Did the engineers who designed the space station have free will or where they compelled to design the space station by purely electro-chemical reactions in their brain that can be reduced to the interplay of chance and necessity? For our purposes here it does not matter how one answers this question, because however one answers the question, it is certainly the case that the space station was designed by an intelligent agent. And it is certainly the case that the intelligent agents who designed the space station left indicia of their design by which an observer can distinguish it from asteroids and other satellites of the Earth that were not designed by intelligent agents.

The point is that for our purposes here, we need not argue about whether intelligent agents such as humans have an immaterial free will. Whether free will exists or not, it cannot be reasonably disputed that intelligent agents leave discernible indicia of their activity.

What these discernible indicia are can be described in a simple phrase: complex specified information. No knowledge of the intelligent agent’s motivations is required here: all that matters is that we can identify some pattern which is vastly improbable, but capable of being described very simply, in a few words. This combination of low probability and ease of description is the give-away sign of intelligent agency – and we can infer this agency whether the agents are free or not, and whether they are themselves merely the products of chance and necessity or not.

But all the same, there is something deeply unsatisfactory about the Greek notion that the intelligent agents governing our cosmos are themselves merely the products of pure Chance, or Chaos. Eric Holloway felt this difficulty keenly, and addressed it in a comment on Barry Arrington’s Put Up or Shut Up! post:

“[L]ets assume for the sake of argument that an intelligent agent is somehow the product of C&N. Perhaps it is an alien mind from some alternate dimension where Darwinism (a form of C&N) actually works and creates minds.

Now, a process of C&N can only ever produce entities that are themselves entirely ruled by C&N. Therefore, everything the intelligent agent produces, even life, is a product of C&N. This agent in fact does produce a living being (LB).

Let’s apply the explanatory filter to LB. We know the history of LB, that it is the product of C&N. Therefore, we can explain its origin entirely according to C&N. Consequently, since the explanatory filter can only posit ID when an entity cannot be explained by C&N, no product whatsoever produced by the intelligent agent can ever be considered ID.

I’d like to pause here for a moment. At this point, we need to distinguish between proximate and indirect causes, and among indirect causes, we finally need to go back to the ultimate cause. The explanatory filter applies to proximate causes. It can tell us that whatever produced an alien artifact, for instance, must have been an intelligent agent. Likewise, it can tell us that the Being who produced the first living cell in the observable universe must have been intelligent. However, the explanatory filter says nothing about ultimate causes. The explanatory filter alone cannot tell us whether the ultimate cause of a pattern manifesting complex specified information is intelligent or not.

Eric Holloway continues:

The only way an intelligent agent can produce ID is if its product creation process is not entirely ruled by nor reducible to C&N. But, if this is the case, then the intelligent agent’s creation of ID is contrary to the laws of physics. And, if its act is contrary to the laws of physics, then its act is supernatural.

Therefore, any creation of ID is always a supernatural act.


Now, I would certainly agree with Eric Holloway that the laws of physics themselves require an Intelligent Designer, and I have several times argued for the same view on Uncommon Descent (see here, here and here). This applies to the laws of the multiverse, just as much as it does to the laws of our observable universe. The Designer of these laws would therefore not be constrained by them, and would be able to contravene them if He saw fit to do so. But this is a Level 3 Intelligent Design argument. And it should be clear by now to readers that Barry Arrington’s recent Put Up or Shut Up! post was about Level 1 of Intelligent Design, not Level 2 or 3.

I earnestly hope that the distinctions I have formulated here will lead to a reconciliation between Barry Arrington and Eric Holloway, as well as sharpening the relevant issues for both critics and proponents of Intelligent Design.

13 Replies to “The four tiers of Intelligent Design – an ecumenical proposal

  1. 1
    Neil Rickert says:

    I disagree with all three of your stated characteristics of naturalism. Since I do not make any claim to adhere to naturalism, I suppose that is okay.

    I agree with both of your stated characteristics of supernaturalism. However, I do not claim to adhere to supernaturalism. I am pretty sure you would agree that I am no supernaturalist.

    May I suggest that there are problems with your definitions.

    So there we have it: the four levels of Intelligent Design theory.

    You have presented a philosophic theory, not a scientific theory. A scientific theory should give an account of how to connect theoretical principles with empirical data. And that seems to be missing.

  2. 2
    vjtorley says:


    Thank you for your post.

    If you don’t like my proposed definition of naturalism, would you like to suggest a better one? My definition was not intended to be philosophically controversial. The idea that I was trying to convey is that a natural entity is subject to laws of some sort, while a supernatural being is not. Sounds like a reasonable definition to me.

    Let me add that I had absolutely no intention in this post of putting forward a scientific theory. There are already many highly qualified scientists working in the field of Intelligent Design, and I’m sure they don’t need me (a non-scientist) to propose a new scientific theory to them. Rather, my intention in this post was simply to distinguish between different levels of research which are already going on in the Intelligent Design science program.

  3. 3
    Barry Arrington says:

    Vincent, excellent work as usual.

  4. 4
    EDTA says:

    This ties in with something that occurred to me recently:

    2. These laws (or mathematical statements) are universal and exceptionless: they hold at all times and places within the universe of the entities they describe.

    But if one is being truly open-minded about the multiverse idea, isn’t it possible that there could be universes where laws are not universal, i.e., where physical laws vary by location?

    If such universes were included as possibilities, then which would be more likely, a universe where laws varied randomly throughout space, or one where the laws happened to be the same everywhere? I would think it would be much easier to have one where laws varied, since there are many more ways for them to be variable than to be identical in disconnected places. In other words, complete lawlessness would seem easier to achieve in a universe. (Finding a basis for that belief would be tricky, though, since we only have experience with one kind.)

    To put it another way, the very homogeneity and isotropy of our universe is also a fact that needs explaining.

  5. 5
    Neil Rickert says:

    Giving my own definition of naturalism would be a bit long for a comment. So I have responded at my blog. Feel free to make any further comments either there or here.

  6. 6
    Neil Rickert says:

    I agree somewhat. Although I often disagree with the content of what vjtorley posts, I do find his posts to be clear and well written, and to directly address important points of disagreement.

  7. 7
    Petrushka says:

    I approve of any well written attempt to define ID and to provide structure for discussion.

    I have long thought that there are “levels” of ID thinking, some of which, such as Michael Denton’s “Nature’s Destiny” are naturalistic, except for the necessity of fine tuning.

    Not being a philosopher, my vocabulary is limited.

    I tend to think of ID levels as:

    Deistic: (one creation event that embodies the tuning
    necessary for evolution.

    Creationist: requiring multiple interventions

    Sparse: requiring only occasional intervention

    Mystical or pantheistic: God and matter are simply different aspects of existence.

    That’s what I can think of off the top of my head.

    Obviously I lean toward the view that regardless of what is TRUE, we can only know what we can know through empiricism. I do not believe we can know everything, nor do I believe we can know anything for certain.

  8. 8
    vjtorley says:


    You make a very good point. At first sight, it seems that one can imagine a universe in which the laws of Nature vary.

    The problem arises when one follows this through, and imagines all the laws of Nature varying in that universe, across space and time.

    First, supposing that this were the case, how could we still speak of objects in that universe retaining their individual identity, if even their most fundamental properties are allowed to vary? We’d end up with a very Heraclitean universe, in which the same man never steps into the same river twice (or even once, for that matter).

    Second, even if one is prepared to envisage such a scenario, there remains an even bigger problem: how could that universe be said to retain its individual identity from one moment to the next, if its most fundamental properties (the laws of Nature) are all allowed to vary? If we cannot speak of that universe as having an identity of its own, we cannot say when it comes to be, when it ceases to be, or how big it is, because it has no defining properties. So we get a reduction ad absurdum.

    To avoid this problem, then, it seems that we have to stipulate that any universe properly so-called has to have laws which are uniform across space and time.

    Thanks again for raising an interesting philosophical question.

  9. 9
    Petrushka says:

    The lack of response to this thread just reinforces a prejudiced view of mine, that there is very little internal discussion among ID supporters.

    I find ID to be in somewhat the same condition as the folks who tried to occupy Wall street yesterday. They were angry and full of protest, but had no message, no theme other than protest.

    Reading through the site I see ID supporters contradicting each other on key points, but only when confronting evolutionists. I almost never see any discussion among ID supporters attempting to resolve differences, or even to clarify the differences.

    For example, I don’t see how you can reconcile front loading with the assertion that complex function can’t evolve naturally.

  10. 10

    If you read my recent post at UD “Astrobiology, Hawking…” it has a link at the very end of the blog to my paper on the Origin-of-Life. I argue that front-loading is impossible, and thus multiverse is impossible. Recently someone brought a paper by Carrier to my attention where he objects to the numbers I am using (a theoretical objection to empirical data). So I will have to post the rebuttal, but this is what vjtorley refers to in his link in this post to “Rob Sheldon’s” results.

    I like your post, and as usual, find your thinking very clear and helpful. However I have to object on what seems to me a very obvious problem. “Does the Designer have to obey the Laws of Nature?” or “Is violation of the laws of nature the definition of supernatural?”

    Who defines the “Laws of Nature?” Are they mathematical? Are they metaphysical? What exactly is the inverse square law of gravity, or Newton’s laws of motion or the 2nd law of thermodynamics? And if we don’t know how to define these things precisely, then we don’t know how to define supernatural precisely. As Stephen Barr writes in “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith”, none of these laws are fundamental in themselves.

    But even if they were, they would be more fundamental than the Designer, and we are back to a Law above the Law, or a Designer of the Designer. Somewhere there is the power behind the Law, and how is that explained?

    In my recent blog post, “Astrobiology…” I looked at how the late great physicist John Archibald Wheeler looked at this problem. He concluded that the laws are not expressible in either material or geometrical terms, but in digital and participatory terms. More fundamental to him than the math of the “Laws of Nature” is the fact that someone is there to observe them.

    To translate Wheeler into theology, the observer, the self, the consciousness, the personhood of the Designer is more fundamental than the Laws of Nature. One Law, Three Persons.

    So what is the supernatural? Consciousness. Personality. Self. And we can dismiss all these “Violations of the Laws of Nature” as misguided definitions leading to fruitless debates.

  11. 11
    Eugene S says:


    Believe it or not, but the same amount of disagreement is in the evolutionists’ camp. They can’t really decide what evolution to believe in: saltational or gradual, punctual or continuous, &c. And most importantly, they are struggling to determine the purpose of all of this. The most cogent ones are bold enough to assert that there is no meaning in anything. But it takes one the bigotism of Dawkins’ to blatantly deny anything but selfishness of genes ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. 12
    Eric Holloway says:

    I do plan to respond, but I have quite a backlog of responding to do. Unfortunately, my regular life often intrudes on my ID interests.

    Btw, I appreciate your comments. They tend to be well thought out counters to pro-ID points, which I consider more valuable than mere agreement, though collaborative development of ID is also quite valuable.

  13. 13
    Eugene S says:

    There is also the philosophical/religious problem of empirical vs revealed knowledge. That aside, I agree with your last portion. Science can only rely on empirically acquired knowledge. I think it worth noting, that even that is not obvious, say, to Hindus. What I mean is that the empiricism of modern science rests upon the Christian world view, namely on two dogmas (axioms):

    1. the world is created by God, and consequently it is controlled by natural laws just like spiritual reality is controlled by its laws.
    2. man, as part of this world, is created too, and moreover he is created in the image of God. This in turn gives us moral motivation to explore it and assurance that we can, to a degree, develop an adequate understanding of its laws.

    I believe without these two starting points science would not have progressed to where it is today.

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