Design Without a Designer?

I don’t need any new words and I don’t share the premise of “design implies a designer” with you. I have tried to document elsewhere in this thread the fact that design is a pretty integrated concept in biology, such that many biologists talk about design and design principles with no worry that they will be misunderstood. I’m afraid I don’t see how the concept of design without a designer is either hard to grasp (conceptually) or hard to understand (linguistically).

People have tried words like “designoid” and phrases like “apparent design.” The subtitle of Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker is “Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.” I’m well aware that many believers and unbelievers alike are stuck with the word ‘design’ linked to ‘designer’. I have seen only one argument for this approach so far, which is the dictionary. Maybe there are other things going on. But here is Dennett (from this piece) on one reason why it might not be a good idea to refuse to give ATP synthase the honor of showing design:

The second misplaced emphasis is Pinker’s phrase “the illusion of design in the natural world.” Richard Dawkins, in a similar vein, says “the illusion of design conjured by Darwinian natural selection is so breathtakingly powerful” in The Ancestors’ Tale (p457), and elsewhere proposes to speak of “designoid” features of the natural world (eg., Climbing Mount Improbable, p4). I disagree with this policy, which can backfire badly. I recently overheard a conversation among some young people in a bar about the marvels of the nano-machinery discovered inside all cells. “When you see all those fantastic little robots working away, how can you possibly believe in evolution!” one exclaimed, and another nodded wisely. Somehow these folks had gotten the impression that evolutionary biologists thought that the intricacies and ingenuities of life’s processes weren’t all that wonderful. These evolution-doubters were not rednecks; they were Harvard Medical students! They hugely underestimated the power of natural selection because they had been told by evolutionary biologists, again and again, that there is no actual design in nature, only the appearance of design. This episode strongly suggested to me that one of the themes that has been gaining ground in “common knowledge” is that evolutionary biologists are reluctant to “admit” or “acknowledge” the manifest design in nature. I recommend instead the expository policy of calling nature’s marvels design, as real as any design in the universe, but just not the products of an intelligent designer.

You can read how Dennett describes design here, in his recent cool book From Bacteria to Bach and Back.

Biology shows design. I don’t think that’s confusing or unclear, and I think it’s a mistake to make distinctions based on old dictionaries. YMMV.

Actually, it depends on who is making the comment.
When a theist makes the comment, he is making a reference to God as the designer.
When an atheist is making the comment, he is co-opting the word design to express something it cannot. Design implies a designer with agency.
That’s why scientists sometimes end up talking about nature as if it had agency… talking about it creativity and such.

1 Like

5 posts were split to a new topic: Ashwin and Rumraket on Design and Designers

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

1 Like

Do you think design is at all related to teleology?

I’m not a biologist, so this may very well be true within the sphere of biology. However outside the sphere of biology, and certainly within my sphere of engineering, the fact that there is a design, implies a conscious design process, which in turn implies a designer. I think this understanding is also what is understood in the general public.

I agree with much of what you are saying in your other posts in this thread. However if you have a word that is understood in very different ways by different people, you can’t argue that everyone has to understand your interpretation. If the goal is understanding and discussion, it’s better to add clarifying terminology than insist on using a word that creates misunderstanding.

1 Like

Good luck with that attitude…
Dont complain when people misunderstand you.

Thanks for this! This was really well written and I think engaging with Dennett’s description here would really be worth people’s time. I got a lot out of that section.

I am curious about this little bit:

Which battle do we want to fight? Do we want to try to convince lay people that they really don’t see the design that is stunningly obvious at every scale in biology, or would we rather try to persuade them that what Darwin has shown is that there can be design — real design, as real as it gets — without an Intelligent Designer?

I think it’s an interesting proposal but:

  1. Showing that there can be design without a designer doesn’t demonstrate that there isn’t a designer, right?
  2. I’m not sure how Darwin, or any scientist for that matter, will be able to show that there can be design without a designer with any sort of scientific certitude. All one has to do is move the goal posts and say that the whole thing was designed (i.e. evolution was designed to work that way, or the laws of physics were put in place to produce the chemistry needed to drive evolution, etc.)

I like much of what Dennet has to say about design here, but I feel like he’s trying to prove too much (i.e. to refute ID) rather than just focusing on reclaiming ‘design’ and talking about design without a designer. I feel like does a lot of good work and then kind of wastes it on what seems like a false dichotomy (ID vs biology free of any designer whatsoever) to me. As a Christian who is critical of ID I don’t have an a priori problem with there being design without a designer, I just don’t know what it proves since science cannot demonstrate that there is no designer.

I like design as a topic, and it’s fun to consider, I just have very little interest in ID vs atheism. I guess I’m maybe more interested in considering design from a scientific perspective, or maybe even epistemological perspective, than a metaphysical one.


Of course not.

I can’t know what is meant by “any sort of scientific certitude.” I think there are compelling reasons to believe that design can arise in situations where there is no clear designer, discussed before. But I don’t think there is value in arguing about whether/how someone would acquire ‘certitude’ about this, especially if that person already claims to believe in omnipotent gods. To me, this doesn’t matter and isn’t my point.

I guess I have failed to make the interesting point clear, even after explicitly saying what it isn’t.

That makes exactly two of us in this discussion, except that your questions above are mostly about “certitude” and about whether there is “no designer.” My failed quest was to stimulate discussion about design being considered without reference to or need for a designer. It is very striking that believers seem unable to handle this.

I understand your point, and completely agree that clarification is important. Nothing more to add.

I do, and I think I’d have to, since as I understand it, teleology is about purpose instead of origin. Dennett talks about reasons, and about “what for”, and that sounds like teleology to me. Of course this could raise the same tired “whose purpose” question but oh well.

1 Like

Sorry, I think I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. I was just trying to comment on how it seemed like Dennet was bringing it back to a question of designer-or-not. I should have just left it alone I guess.

I think maybe believers have a harder time with the “without reference to a designer” part, partially because it is at a point of disagreement between theists and atheists, and partially because the designer question is a given for them. In any case, I’m happy to leave the designer part aside and focus on design in biology.

I am interested, for instance, in how biological motors do what they do and the purpose/function behind the various components. I worked on a project to design a molecular motor with ~90 atoms, the scale difference between that and flagella or FTPase is just amazing.


Couldn’t you say that in both cases you have a purposeful arrangement of parts?

Yes, indeed. Hence the strength of the design argument developed by Meyer in Signature in the Cell ».

Depends on what you mean by purposeful. I think there is a way that we can speak coherently about functional purpose without it implying conscious intent.

I would definitely agree you have a functional arrangement of parts, in that what the parts are doing, and their relative positions and mutual interactions, are contributing to the function of the system. And I would agree that the function of a functional flagellum is in some sense also it’s purpose, as a propulsion and adhesion system.

But I don’t think there has to have been someone conscious who had thoughts and intentions about the system and it’s part, for them to have purposeful functions. It is when someone argues there has to have been conscious intent behind the systems origin and existence that I disagree.


IMO the weakness of that book and its “argument” makes it harder to talk about design in biology. What I am hoping for (and my hope borders on madness, as evidenced by this thread) is a more serious consideration of design than Meyer or anyone else in the ID movement has ever attempted. At least some biologists are doing this right now, by exploring “design principles” in biology. The fact that “arguments” for “design” have been made, poorly, with transparently religious goals, makes this harder because now someone (me, for example) who initiated a conversation about design has to worry about the religious pollution in the air. I’m with Dennett, that this should not cow biologists interested in design. But it’s clearly a problem, and I think this thread is showing us this pretty clearly.

1 Like

2 posts were merged into an existing topic: Ashwin and Rumraket on Design and Designers

I don’t know. But it certainly gives some kind of disconfort to evolutionists and their propaganda machines.

I’m just… so… happy…


This make me happy as well. I think @Rumraket really said it well. I just don’t think there is a neat, universal 1:1 correspondence between “designer” and “design”. Coming at it from the other direction, not everything a designer produces is design so it obviously can’t be a “If A, then B. If B, then A” type connection. It seems to me that identification or discovery of ‘design’ and ‘designer’ are two separate tasks.

So I think it’s appropriate, and indeed very interesting, to talk about design (functional arrangement of parts, patterns, etc.) in biological systems and leave the discussion of any potential designer for a separate conversation.

I am very much in awe of the complexity (please don’t read too much into that) of biological motors. I’m also curious about how many different functions a motor might have and how functional different components of a motor might be. I’m sure a lot of work has been done on this, I am mostly a novice when it comes to biological motors. We had a biochemist in my graduate research team that would talk about some of the differences between our artificial molecular motor design and FTPase/flagella. They were huge and efficient in comparison, but ours was much more specialized and “tuned”. I don’t work in that area anymore but I have been trying to dip my toes into biology/biophysics in the last year or so and so biological motors are a natural interest.