Intelligent design (ID) proponent William Dembski is fond of Mount Rushmore. He often uses the American landmark carved into the granite hills of South Dakota by Gutzon Borglum in1941 as an obvious example of our ability to recognize design in nature. Of course Dembski is right. Clearly the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln were shaped out of the South Dakota granite by intelligence. But, how exactly do we come to this conclusion? Well, the most obvious evidence is the documented history of the project in writing and even film. We can look to the historical record and actually see Borlum and his workers suspended from the Rushmore cliffs chiseling out the images of these influential American presidents. But, what if we didn’t have that historical record? What if after thousands of years it is lost and future explorers rediscover Rushmore beneath the overgrown jungle of perhaps a now tropical South Dakota warmed by climate change? Could they recognize it as design and not the result of wind and rain on granite? Well, Dembski is right again, of course they could recognize it as such. But, why is this so? What is it exactly about the structure of Rushmore that would lead some future archeologist to conclude it was shaped by intelligence?
Dembski says we can recognize Rushmore for the human creation that it is because of specified complexity. The shape and structure of any hill side is complex with projections, undulations and cracks interwoven in intricate patterns, but, in the case of Rushmore these features are specifically concordant with the features of these four former presidents. The complex pattern we observe on Rushmore is specified to match the complex pattern unique to the faces of these four American presidents thus revealing the cliff face’s designed origins.
But, where does this specificity come from? What specifically draws our attention to the cliffs of Rushmore that so obviously screams “design”? Well, it is of course because we ourselves have faces. We see a nose, an eye, a chin and even spectacles because human beings have these features. We are familiar with these features. What’s more we recognize faces we are familiar with, faces seen in books, paintings and in the case of Roosevelt, even films. This would be true for human archeologists of the future. Even if the historical record were lost future explorers would still recognize these faces as human faces because they would have their own faces to compare them to. Also, these archeologists would know a little about the limitations of human designers. They could date the feature in the field with help from their pocket sized combination mass spectrometer and radioisotopic analyzer and determine it was formed in the mid-twentieth century. Knowing a little about the primitive humans of this era they would know that carving a mountainside would be a challenge but within the capabilities of human agents. If future human societies are anything like those of today and those societies of thousands of years ago they would also realize that human societies build monuments to their Gods, military generals and political leaders.
Future archeologists would have a template on which to match the pattern of the rock face, either recorded images of Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson or simply their own human faces. They would have an idea about the capabilities of the proposed designer and realize that such design was within human limits of the time. They also would have a clear idea of the purpose of the design, namely as a monument to some revered figures. These elements taken together are why we can recognize design in human artifacts. We know about human appearances, human abilities and limits and human needs and wants so recognizing human design is well within the capabilities of scientific investigation.
But, Dembski uses the example of Rushmore as an example of detecting design in general, even if the designer is not human or not even a material entity at all but a divine, omnipotent agent. Can we make this extrapolation? Is it possible to take the example of a human designed structure such as Borglum’s Rushmore and use it as a guide for detecting the actions of some divine intelligence on the material world? Let’s consider that for a moment.
We clearly recognize Rushmore as a human design because we match the pattern on the rocks to our own human faces or better yet the faces of the former presidents the sculpture is designed to represent. What about features designed by aliens? What should they look like? Well, it may be very difficult to recognize an alien portrait as we have no idea what aliens look like. If aliens look much the same as we do with faces, eyes, two arms, two legs, etc. (much like the aliens of Hollywood films) then maybe it would be quite easy to recognize an alien image carved in the landscape of another planet. But, what if aliens were amorphous blobs? They may have many distinguishing features easily recognized by other amorphous blobs but we would be completely unfamiliar with these forms and be unlikely to recognize the blob version of Rushmore, “Blobmore”, even if we were scaling up its face. Likewise the Amorphous Blob Society for Archeology would, having never seen a human face, or any face for that matter, have considerable difficulty recognizing the design of Rushmore and may easily and quite logically from their perspective chalk it up to a feature created by erosion. Omnipotent Gods are no better. Perhaps the face of God Almighty looks exactly like the Hillary Step on Mount Everest. If so then generations of climbers have been unceremoniously scrambling up this sculpture without a clue of its obvious design.
How about the capabilities of designers? Mount Rushmore was a massive undertaking but it was within the capabilities of a human race with access to chisels and pneumatic jackhammers in the mid-twentieth century. Modern molecular genetic tools allow us today to synthesize long stretches of DNA. What if we find an sliver of DNA imbedded in amber and very ancient, perhaps not coding for any particular gene product, but, a stretch of DNA nonetheless, could we pose a designer for this complex bit of nature. Well, human designers indeed can fabricate a stretch of DNA to match any sequence they so wish and future archeologists exploring the abandoned catacombs of the National Institutes of Health upon finding a stretch of DNA could indeed invoke design as such actions were within the capabilities of the intelligent agents known to exist during that time. However, they could not invoke design in regards to the same stretch of DNA dated to a time hundreds of thousands of years prior to the advent of automated DNA synthesis.
What about purpose? Rushmore was designed in homage to Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln and we expect such monuments to be built by humans as humans love to build big complex structures to honor Gods and great leaders. What about non-human design? The fact is other than human beings and a handful of other organisms who build things we have no idea as to why designers would build anything. Maybe alien designers or supernatural agents would design for exactly the same purposes we do, both practical reasons borne out of necessity and sociological ones, but, then again, maybe they wouldn’t. Dembski would say a stretch of DNA that codes for nothing, so-called “junk DNA” is "undesigned", probably the product of random mutation accumulating a locus because that locus is not constrained by selection, a perfectly natural explanation. But, what if divine agents just like to string together DNA for no reason? What if such sequences while serving no practical purposes in our cells, we would be perfectly fine without them, simply please their designers? What if complexity for complexity's sake was the designer's purpose? What if they do have a purpose that is completely unknown to us but obvious to a divine omnipotent designer? Again, without knowing this facet of the designer, His/Her purposes, unlike the example of Rushmore where the purpose of the monument could easily be deduced by future human archeologists, it becomes impossible to recognize design from “non-design”. Everything could potentially be consdered designed depending on the personal quirks and whims of the designer one is posing.
Dembski and other ID proponents are reluctant to say anything about who the designer(s) of nature are but in doing so they undermine their claim that they can recognize design through science. They often make parallels to archeology. Of course in archeology we can recognize design because we have very particular designers in mind. We know about their physical appearance. For example, we know the size of their hands and can recognize the size expected for a stone tool. We know about their limitations and know what sort of materials are available to them and thus we can use this data to recognize design and even design specific to different periods in human history. We also know about human needs and wants and thus can determine design by understanding the sort of things humans would create for themselves. We know none of these things for aliens, seeing as there is no compelling physical evidence for alien beings to begin with, nor do we have any clue as to any of these things as they pertain to divine, omnipotent agents. In fact divine, omnipotent agents could potentially be consistent with any conceivable data thus they can not be tested as science.
As long as ID remains silent on the identity of the designer it can not be tested as science. Maybe the designers are aliens as many ID proponents claim is a possibilty, but, we have no evidence aliens exist much less what sort of things they would design and why. Maybe the designer is an omnipotent God, perhaps in this respect ID proponetns are right, but, seeing as omnipotent Gods could have just as well directly designed a structure such as the Hillary Step as one resembling the face of Mount Rushmore such an assertion makes no testable predictions and therefore it isn’t amenable to the scientific method.
For a collection of William Dembski's writings on Intelligent Design click on the link below.
Design Inference Website: The Writings of William A. Dembski