Introduction to Multiple Designers Theory


The last dozen years has seen a recrudescence of the Payleyist Argument from Design, the argument that because biological phenomena may appear to be designed, there must be an Intelligent Designer of those biological phenomena. A persistent focus of the Wedge-based Intelligent Design movement (headquartered at the Discovery Institute) over the last decade has been to attempt to persuade state legislatures and state and local boards of education to teach “alternatives” to the modern theory of biological evolution. The Discovery Institute has sent emissaries bearing that message to bodies ranging from the Darby, MT, local school board through the Ohio State Board of Education to the U.S. Congress.

Unfortunately, there are no scientific alternatives to evolutionary theory available to be taught. Mainstream Intelligent Design theory as it is represented in the published work of Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, and their brethren is conspicuous by its absence. I can find no reasonably extended description of what mainstream Dembski/Behe/Johnson/Meyer ID “theory” actually is beyond the naked claim that “something must have designed this thing”, nor any description of what an ID “explanation” of some biological phenomenon would actually look like beyond the bare assertion that “this thing is/was designed”. There are no ID hypotheses to be tested against data and therefore no systematic or coherent ID research program.

Mainstream Intelligent Design is proving itself to be scientifically vacuous. While Dembski has his Explanatory Filter and Complex Specified Information and Specified Complexity, and Behe has his Irreducible Complexity, no actual research program utilizing those concepts has emerged from the mainstream Intelligent Design movement. Therefore a revolutionary change in the conception of ID is necessary to rouse it from its empirical and theoretical slumber and to provide appropriate material for school boards and legislatures who want an alternative to modern evolutionary theory to be taught in secondary schools. Multiple Designers Theory is that revolutionary change.

Brief History of MDT2

Several years ago I published an early version of Multiple Designers Theory on ISCID’s Brainstorms, the web forum of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, a mainstream ID web site. ISCID’s URL is owned by William A. Dembski, Executive Director of ISCID and a leading proponent of mainstream intelligent design. (Dembski was recently appointed to the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.) A slightly earlier mention of MDT was in a thread on Access Research Network, also a mainstream ID web site. I also published remarks on validating methodologies for discriminating among multiple designers on ISCID, and provided responses to various issues raised by readers. Recently, several people suggested that I collate and elaborate the several postings in that earlier presentation of Multiple Designers Theory (MDT) for a wider audience. This posting and the next is the result.

This introductory description of Multiple Designers Theory is in three parts: this Preface and the “Introduction to Multiple Designers Theory” in this posting and “Validating Designer Discrimination Methods” in the next. “Introduction to Multiple Designers Theory” describes the central tenets of MDT together with some of the evidence from biology that appears to be consistent with it. It also describes some research directions MDT implies. The posting on “Validating Designer Discrimination Methods” describes preliminary work on developing and validating mechanical methods of discriminating among the products of multiple designers and reports some pilot data pertinent to that task.

Why MDT?

MDT is an exercise in extending the intelligent Design conjecture offered by such luminaries as Jonathan Wells, William A. Dembski and Michael Behe, and their Discovery Institute colleagues, who posit a single designer. As I show in “Introduction to Multiple Designers Theory” below, that is an arbitrary and unsupported assumption.

Tentatively assuming a position to be true and then systematically exploring its testable and theoretical implications is a time-honored and very useful exercise in scientific thinking, and MDT exemplifies what the mainstream single-designer intelligent design movement would do if its proponents were actually interested in doing science. They would explore their conjecture to see if it yields a fruitful research program. They have not yet done that and the prospects of them doing so are dim. In 2002 Dembski argued

Why should ID supporters allow the Darwinian establishment to indoctrinate students at the high school level, only to divert some of the brightest to becoming supporters of a mechanistic account of evolution, when by presenting ID at the high school level some of these same students would go on to careers trying to develop ID as a positive research program? If ID is going to succeed as a research program, it will need workers, and these are best recruited at a young age. The Darwinists undestand (sic) this. So do the ID proponents. There is a sociological dimension to science and to the prospering of scientific theories, and this cannot be ignored if ID is going to become a thriving research program. (bolding and italics added)

Dembski is clearly aware that there is no ID research program, and his view is that recruiting high school students is necessary to get one under way. That is a more damning criticism of mainstream ID than anything an ID critic has ever penned. The clear implication of Dembski’s remarks is that mainstream ID’s current senior members (including himself, the Isaac Newton of information theory and a “renowned” and “one of the most skilled philosophers of science in this generation”) are incapable of conceiving and executing a scientific research program to test their very own theory! Newton at least knew how to manipulate a prism.

Teaching Multiple Designers Theory

As mentioned above, there has been a persistent effort on the part of the Intelligent Design Movement to have alternatives to evolutionary theory taught in secondary schools. A candidate in the recent Kansas State Board of Education election, Kathy Martin, was quoted in the Salina, Kansas, Journal as saying that alternatives to evolution should be taught. Martin was elected, and MDT is an obvious choice for her. In Missouri, legislators urged that alternatives to evolution to be taught. And Phillip E. Johnson was quoted as saying that teaching alternative theories would only strengthen science education in Ohio. Living in Ohio, I’m all for that.

Unfortunately, when asked exactly what should be taught as an alternative theory, there has been deafening silence from the mainstream ID proponents except for complaints about evolutionary theory. In Ohio, ID proponents Jonathan Wells and Stephen Meyer unexpectedly withdrew a proposal to the State Board of Education to teach ID in Ohio schools. Apparently they realized, as Paul Nelson, a Fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and ID proponent explained to students at Dartmouth University, that intelligent design theory has nothing to offer to be taught in schools.

“It [ID] isn’t a fully-fledged theory – there isn’t yet enough there to actually teach,” Nelson said.

That lack is now remedied. Multiple Designers Theory is far more developed than mainstream intelligent design theory (which hasn’t been developed at all beyond the naked assertion “That [fill in the blank] was designed.”). MDT offers a substantially more detailed theoretical structure than mainstream ID (which has none), and in marked contrast to the mainstream ID movement MDT even has actual data that corroborates one of its central claims, that one can systematically distinguish among the products of several designers (see “Validating Designer Discrimination Methodologies”). Further, MDT provides interesting research directions that are not out of the reach of high school students, a significant pedagogical strength.

A non-negligible advantage of MDT is that it does not obviously contravene the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Because it does not posit a single intelligent Designer, there is no possibility that it can be construed to be a stealth form of Christian fundamentalist creationism. Multiple Designers Theory is therefore an ideal alternative to contrast with evolutionary theory in public schools. I urge Panda’s Thumb readers to provide legislators, school board members, and educators who want to teach alternatives to evolution with copies of this posting on The Panda’s Thumb (with the copyright notice and appropriate attribution, of course) .


I. Prologue

The observation that stimulated my thinking on this topic was of a humble grammatical phenomenon. In reading an array of ID works ranging from Henry Morris’s Scientific Creationism to Dembski’s No Free Lunch, I realized that almost without exception, the hypothesized entity responsible for the intelligent designing is referred to in the singular. Whether called an “intelligent designer,” an “intelligent agent,” or an “intelligent agency,” it is almost always referred to in the singular. Only in one or two remarks quoted in newspapers has the plural form appeared, for example in comments from leading ID theorists (e.g., Phillip Johnson and William A. Dembski) that “space aliens” might be the designers. Michael Behe, interestingly, in a quotation in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette (Feb 8, 2001) maintained the singular even there: “space alien.” However, off-hand public remarks quoted in newspapers can’t be taken as serious theoretical statements. The more technical and formal works in ID habitually refer to “designer,” not “designers,” “agent,” not “agents,” and “agency,” not “agencies.” There are occasional exceptions to my generalization. For example, in No Free Lunch Dembski has a section titled “Embodied and Unembodied Designers,” using the plural form. However, in the very first sentence of that section he reverts to the singular: “Even if we grant the possibility of an unembodied designer, …” (p. 347). The singular intelligent designer is a powerful default for mainstream ID proponents.

I will not speculate on the reason(s) people habitually use the singular in this context, but it seems obvious that it is an unsupported assumption (perhaps made out of awareness) that if design is responsible for the diversity of structures and properties of life on earth, it was an “it” rather than a “they” that did the designing: there was/is just one designer.

The central message of Multiple Designers Theory is that the unwarranted assumption of a single intelligent designing agent is not only unnecessary, it is an unjustifiable constraint that puts artificial and arbitrary limits on theory and research in ID. Therefore, with the advice and counsel of several colleagues I have prepared an introductory outline of Multiple Designers Theory, MDT, to stimulate thinking and discussion, and to provide a real alternative to evolutionary theory.

I do not claim that this is a complete statement of Multiple Designers Theory. That is not yet fully worked out. These preliminary remarks are by way of introduction to the outline of a theory that has the real potential to account for a good deal of observed data and to organize disparate lines of ID thought, and that has promise of generating potentially fruitful research programs in intelligent design. It is offered not as a belief system or a finished product, but as a hypothesis for discussion and a basis for elaboration.

II. Brief Multiple Designers Theory Overview

As its name implies, the central tenet of Multiple Designers Theory is that if intelligent design is implicated in the properties and structure of life of on earth, then multiple designers are implicated, not merely a single designer. As I will sketch below, the evidence that is interpreted to be supportive of the intelligent design conjecture almost universally implicates multiple designers rather than just one designer.

The universal ID assumption (and assumption it is) of a single designer is probably an artifact of language. If something – a human-made artifact or a biological structure – appears to have been designed (say on the formal grounds that Dembski invokes in No Free Lunch), so the ID argument goes, it must have had a designer. “Designer” is used in the singular, carrying with it the strong implication that there is just one designer. That linguistic practice leads ID theorists unconsciously astray. I do not recall reading anything in the ID literature that carefully examines or even explicitly mentions the assumption of a single designer, but the assumption is pervasive and it cripples mainstream ID thinking.

Multiple Designers Theory rests on the same philosophical, mathematical, and empirical foundations as mainstream Intelligent Design theory. All of the support that single-designer ID claims from the various scientific disciplines is, a fortiori, support for MDT. In fact, mainstream ID is a proper (albeit conceptually impoverished) subset of MDT, a special case that invokes just one designer. Thus MDT automatically inherits all of the the scientific evidence adduced for current ID.

MDT is a theory of biological diversity, not a theory of the origin of the non-biological material universe nor of abiogenesis. Biological material is the medium within which the multiple designers work; MDT does not speculate on the original source of the biological medium.
MDT does not dispute the various lines of scientific evidence that place the age of the universe (or at least the time since the Big Bang) at roughly 13.5 billion years, nor does it dispute the evidence that suggests that the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. The latter is a task for physicists and cosmologists, though MDT could potentially supply a framework for those scientists. I will note in passing that current cosmological theories that invoke multiple universes are completely consistent with MDT.

III. Some Hypothesized Properties of Multiple Designers

The multiple designers of MDT have one of the properties commonly attributed to the conjectured “intelligent agency” Dembski writes of in such works as No Free Lunch and Intelligent Design Coming Clean. That property is the first described below. Additional properties are implied by the hypothesis that there are multiple designers.

A. The multiple designers are unembodied. They are not of the material or biological world, but they can affect it in the same way(s) that Dembski’s “intelligent agency” affects the material world. In Intelligent Design Coming Clean Dembski suggested that since (in the limit) as the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation tends to infinity the energy tends to zero, an unembodied intelligent agent could in principle transmit information (designs) to biological entities via an infinite-wavelength zero-energy signal. That sort of conjecture makes physicists of my acquaintance very edgy, invoking as it does a purely mathematical abstraction (“in the limit”) to argue for the causal efficacy of an unembodied agent acting on physical matter via a zero-energy (and therefore zero channel capacity) signal using unfocusable (because of its infinite wavelength) electromagnetic radiation, but that’s something to be worked out later as the technical details of Multiple Designers Theory are fleshed out. As Dembski assured us in Intelligent Design Coming Clean, we don’t have to immediately understand how it happens as long as we know it does happen. In fact, we don’t even have to know how it happens, according to Dembski:

So too, we don’t “understand” how a designer imparts information into the world, but we “know” that a designer imparts information.

This is consistent with Dembski’s rejection of of what he calls “mechanistic” explanations in science, explanations that provide causal accounts of phenomena by describing the physical variables of which the phenomenon is held to be a consequence. We can dispense with all that explanatory baggage.

B. The multiple designers are not identical to one another. To posit identity of the designers would collapse MDT to the special case of SUDID (Single Unembodied Designer Intelligent Design – mainstream ID), and the evidence does not permit that. The multiple designers differ from one another in several potentially detectable respects, and those differences are of enormous importance because they can underpin a potentially rich scientific research program. I discuss that research program below and provide examples of pilot research in the second posting of this series, Validating Designer Discrimination Methods.

C. The multiple designers are not perfect designers. That follows from the fact that they are different from one another. By definition, perfect designers would be identical to one another, and their designs would be indistinguishable. Therefore MDT posits that the multiple designers are imperfect in the sense that they do not produce ideally optimized designs, the highest peaks on the ‘goodness of design’ landscape. Moreover, they differ from one another in their very imperfections, and those differences provide cracks into which one can drive MDT research wedges. A significant part of the research program underpinned by MDT will be teasing out the differences in designs that are diagnostic of different designers. The multiple designers must leave “fingerprints” on their work, and like human fingerprints, by hypothesis the metaphorical fingerprints that the multiple designers leave behind differ from designer to designer in ways that one may be able to discern with appropriate methodological ‘lenses’ and analytic tools.

D. There is a finite and limited number of multiple designers. This premise is more difficult to support by empirical evidence than the others, but it is logically necessary to prevent the MDT enterprise from degenerating into a mere list of designed phenomena, a cosmic oddity shop of designs, on the one hand, or single-designer ID on the other hand. Scientific theories condense disparate phenomena into similarity classes and explain the behavior of instances of the classes by invoking general principles and laws that refer to those classes rather than to individual instances. If the number of designers is unlimited then in the limit each class would have just one member, and since in that case no multi-member classes exist, no general laws are possible and therefore there is no science. It is logically possible that there is an infinite number of designers, but in that case no scientific study of design is possible. It is therefore a scientifically sterile speculation. Similarly, if there is just one designing agency there are no classes into which disparate instances will fall but rather just one class, and again no scientific generalizations are possible. So MDT hypothesizes a finite and limited number of intelligent agents.

IV. Some Evidence Consistent with Multiple Designers Theory

Multiple Designers Theory does not rest on thin air or (what is equivalent) purely philosophical speculation. There are plausible empirical bases for it. Several lines of evidence already well established in the biological literature are consistent with MDT in addition to the evidence that is usually claimed by mainstream ID theory. I will here indicate just a few of the lines of biological evidence that is consistent specifically with MDT. Other lines of evidence will no doubt occur to people more knowledgeable than I in the several subdisciplines of biology.

A. Design-versus-design: The design-vs.-design pattern (the phrase is due to Yvonne Strong) is a ubiquitous phenomenon in biology. In fact, it is fair to say that some of the most impressive and elaborate designs in biology appear to have as their primary purpose the defeat or subversion of other designs. (Added in edit: This insight is due to Nic Tamzek on II. In fact, now that he’s found the original ITWA postings, it appears that two years ago I borrowed his phrasing almost verbatim!) Designs engage in various kinds of biological arms races with one another. Some examples are:

  • Predator/prey arms races.
  • Parasite/host arms races.
  • Male/female arms races.
  • Disease-causing bacteria/drug companies arms races.

Each of these is an example of design pitted against design, directly implicating multiple designers. The fourth example is a particularly interesting hybrid case because we know exactly what one of the classes of designers is: human drug researchers. Pitted against human drug designers is the member of the population of unembodied multiple designers that is responsible for designing bacterial tactics and strategies for antibiotic resistance. The data tell us that this particular unembodied designer is superior to human designers: bacterial resistance is winning. There are now disease-causing bacteria that are resistant to the full spectrum of human-designed antibiotics. No new family of antibiotics has been invented by human designers for 20 years. MDT strongly suggests an intense research focus on ‘naturally’ occurring candidate antibiotic agents since that may make it possible to find and co-opt the work of some other unembodied intelligent designer if the design-vs.-design pattern holds. That, by the way, is a general principle that emerges from MDT: It is often a good tactic to take advantage of the work of an MDT designer that has already produced a design that (as a side effect) accomplishes a human goal than for humans to try to invent it themselves. Such general guides for practical action do not naturally emerge from mainstream Single Designer Theory. However, the ‘Failures and imperfections’ described below imply a cautionary limit on this recommendation.

B. Designs acting in concert: The fact that different designs sometimes act in concert rather than at odds is also consistent with MDT and points to lines of research, too. Such phenomena as symbiosis and cooperation raise interesting research questions. Does a flower/pollinator ‘team’ represent the work of a single designer creating a coordinated multi-component system, or is it the product of two designers working in collaboration? We know from analysis of the organization of human designers on large complicated projects that separate teams of designers often work on different components of the larger project, linked only by a set of common overall specifications and communication protocols. The same may be the case in MDT. In any case, the relationships among arms races, symbiosis, coevolution, and cooperation deserve sustained and careful study. However, their very existence is clearly most consistent with the hypothesis of multiple designers. Single Designer Theory cannot comfortably accommodate them.

C. Failures and imperfections of design: That the multiple designers are not perfect implies that their designs will vary in (at least) efficiency, quality, and longevity, and the evidence strongly supports design imperfections. The history of life on earth is littered with failed designs. While some designs may last a long time, others fail quickly and even catastrophically. The multiple unembodied designers vary in their skills and abilities, and the variable success of the designs they produce is evidence of those differences. Just as in a genetic algorithm running on a computer one can (roughly) map the topography of a fitness landscape by observing the dynamics of segments of the population as they traverse that landscape, finding peaks and valleys, first forming several clusters around suboptimal peaks and then finally migrating to cluster on the highest peak, so one can discern the tell-tale evidence of various designers as the several designs segregate themselves on a variety of suboptimal peaks on the ‘goodness of design’ landscape. A difference is that in contrast to a human-designed GA, the multiple (imperfect) designs never converge on a single highest peak. The designs of the multiple designers are dispersed on suboptimal peaks scattered around the ‘goodness of design’ landscape.

D. Learning and sharing among designers: The fossil record, comparative anatomy and molecular biology indicate that the various designing agents are capable of learning from one another, or at least are capable of some sort of inter-designer information transmission. A large number of biological inventions have occurred in the history of life on earth, and once a major invention appears it is often the case that other designers ape the functionality of that invention. For example, flight has emerged (at least) four times in four major groups, reptiles, insects, birds, and mammals. While they display similar functional themes, the four implementations appear to be so different as to implicate different designers, though of course that conclusion must be buttressed by formal data on the differences – see below, “Validating Designer Discrimination Methods”. It is at least plausible that the functional design theme of flight was invented just once and then borrowed by later designers from the earliest inventor, only to be implemented in different forms due to the differing biological media available to one or another of the borrowers. Like human designers, the unembodied designers of MDT are constrained by the media with which they must work

E. Intermittent interventions: By definition, an unembodied intelligent designer must intervene in what would otherwise have been an undesigned biological structure or process in order to impose a design on it. There are indications that those interventions occur intermittently as discrete events in time rather than either continuously or only once at the beginning of things. In Intelligent Design Coming Clean Dembski argued strenuously against ‘front-loading,’ writing

… as a general rule, information tends to appear discretely at particular times and places. To require that the information in natural systems … must in principle be traceable back to some repository of front-loaded information is, in the absence of evidence, an entirely ad hoc restriction. (Section 7)

MDT fully agrees. The observation of intermittent interventions is much more consistent with multiple designers intervening seriatim, in effect taking turns (perhaps sometimes in response to another designer’s earlier intervention on one side of an arms race) than with a single designer repeatedly altering its designs, flip-flopping back and forth, first taking one side and then the other in an inter-species arms race.

The proposed properties of the multiple intelligent designers constitute working assumptions, and perhaps also hypotheses suitable for empirical testing as appropriate methodologies are invented, validated, and calibrated against objects of known provenance.

V. Programmatic Research Directions

As I noted above, Multiple Designers Theory has great potential to drive fruitful research programs. I will here sketch a few lines that the research might follow, pointing also to the seeds of some potentially useful research methods. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. It includes only those lines of research that strike me personally as interesting. Others will no doubt see more implications of MDT that can be profitably studied. MDT is a rich vein waiting for empirical miners to exploit it.

A. The unit of analysis of design: This question is at the core of MDT (and of mainstream ID for that matter). It asks “Just what is it that is/was designed?” In mainstream ID literature most focus is on the molecular level these days, where “irreducibly complex” biochemical reactions and/or molecular structures are apparently taken to be what was designed. Michael Behe concentrates on this level, and the biochemical theme has been taken up by others. But sticking to that level seems to be a matter of happenstance rather than a considered choice based on systematic consideration of the problem. Behe is one of the few scientists in ID who has published real scientific research (though no ID-based research) and he happens to be a biochemist. Were he an anatomist I don’t doubt that the focus of mainstream ID would still be on morphological structures, as it was 200 years ago for Paley.

The biochemical speculations of Behe and others notwithstanding, I am aware of just one genuinely systematic on-going research effort that is clear on the level of analysis being assumed. That is the baraminology research program centered at Bryan College. There they are apparently mostly focusing on whole organisms – expressed adult phenotypes – as the unit of analysis, attempting (via a sort of statistical cluster analysis, it appears) to ascertain the boundaries between the basic Biblical “kinds.” While I think their methodology is problematic, nevertheless at least they don’t waffle on the unit of analysis question: they are attempting to answer it by doing actual research. And their work might someday shed light on the number of multiple designers there are/were: the number of “kinds” may provide clues to the number of unembodied designers involved in terrestrial biology if the appropriate unit of analysis for what was/is designed is at or near the organismic level.

At the moment MDT is agnostic on the unit of analysis question, but it is emphatically not indifferent to it. A prerequisite for defining the appropriate level(s) of analysis is the research to be performed under the “Design Themes” heading below. The presence or absence of design themes at various levels will provide information about the unit(s) of analysis that are likely to be most fruitfully incorporated into theory. MDT provides a research program to ascertain the appropriate level of analysis; it does not merely assume one.

B. Design themes: As I have mentioned elsewhere, in the study of human-designed phenomena like works of art or literature, there are more-or-less well-developed methods for assigning works to designers. Analysis of physical properties (e.g., characteristic brushstroke micro-patterns visible on a painting), statistical properties (e.g., distributions of vocabulary items or syntactic structures in texts), and other properties of human-designed objects are routinely used to attribute an object to one or another human creator. The same is hypothesized to be true of the unembodied designers of MDT. It should in principle be possible to identify characteristic design properties and even different general design themes that differentiate the work of one of the multiple designers from that of another. It is likely that the same methods that are used in attributing human-designed objects to one or another human creator could be adapted to attribute biological designs to one or another of the unembodied creators. That suggests the utility of multi-disciplinary research teams involving not only scientists but also those trained and experienced in discerning such things as individual esthetic themes and differing creative motifs among human artists. Their insights could form the basis for hypotheses that can then be tested scientifically.

C. Borrowing among designers: While substantial differences among various candidate design themes are superficially obvious to even the casual observer (e.g., 0-limbed organisms vs. 4-limbed organisms vs. 6-limbed organisms vs. 8-limbed organisms, not to mention organisms bearing odd numbers of limbs), it is also obvious even to the casual observer that some design themes are shared among what would otherwise be thought of as very different design implementations. For example, flying is a functional design theme that is currently found in mammals, birds, and insects, and at one time also occurred in reptiles (I am not aware of an extant true flyer among reptiles). Do the repeated occurrences of functional design themes across instances that are almost certainly the work of different designers represent collaboration, borrowing, or possibly outright plagiarism? (The last possibility was suggested by Dr. Gary S. Hurd in a posting on the Access Research Network – an intelligent design web site – Intelligent Design Forum in 2002.) Are there shared properties of designs among the multiple designers that can be traced in shared functional features across different structural design ‘schools’? Are there perhaps even lineages of intellectual and stylistic descent that are traceable through time among ‘schools’ of unembodied designers of biological phenomena as there is, say, in the Arts and Crafts to Art Nouveau to Art Deco to Art Moderne lineage in human designs?

D. Temporal succession of designers: A cursory review of the fossil record suggests that some prominent designs that occurred in early times are no longer present. There are fossils of creatures in the Burgess Shale that appear to have no current analogs. Is it possible to trace the careers of individual unembodied designers in the fossil record? Have individual designers come and gone over the millennia, leaving a record of their work in design themes that appear, flourish for a while, and then disappear? What is the life span (or at least the terrestrial work-life span) of the designers?

E. Characteristics of designers: Perhaps the most exciting potential research program provided by Multiple Designers Theory can be directed at ascertaining characteristics of the designers themselves. Since the various designers differ from one another, and since those differences are reflected in the designs they produce, it should be possible to actually do comparative research on the designs in order to gain insights into the designers themselves, to learn something of their preferences, temperaments, abilities, and other such characteristics. Archaeology has long attempted to infer cultural characteristics and practices from physical artifacts, and one should be able to do something similar with the artifacts – the expressed biological designs – created by the unembodied designers of MDT. There is a subdiscipline of psychology devoted to the study of individual differences, too. It may even be possible to make empirically-based inferences about the intentions of the several designers: the telos of individual unembodied designers may be empirically accessible to us.

VI. Summary

A. Multiple Designers Theory is a logical and empirical superset of mainstream Intelligent Design. Anyone who is an adherent of current mainstream ID is perforce an adherent of MDT, subject only to mainstream ID’s wholly arbitrary and unjustifiably ad hoc restriction to a single designer.

B. MDT provides a coherent theoretical structure for understanding a wide range of phenomena that are not easily or plausibly accounted for by a single-designer ID model.

C. MDT insulates ID from the claim of anti-ID critics to the effect that ID pays no attention to the nature of the designers. Empirical research on the nature and features of the designers can be a central focus of MDT once the appropriate designer discrimination methodologies are validated.

D. MDT provides rich research opportunities and offers the prospect of allowing one to make empirically supportable inferences about the designers themselves. MDT does not merely offer a list of general questions that ‘might’ be addressed by a research program, it offers specific research proposals and provides concrete methodological guidance for attacking the questions it raises.

On every criterion one might use to judge a scientific theory of intelligent design in biology, Multiple Designers Theory is vastly superior to mainstream ID.

VII. Additional Remarks Stimulated by Responses To MDT

There were a number of responses to my Introduction to MDT posting two years ago. One, by “Evan” (scroll down to the second posting in that thread), was supportive of the MDT approach and raised interesting questions in its own right. Many were uninteresting, but one in particular broached an issue that illustrates a serious misconception that characterizes mainstream ID thinking. “Anthony” said that

The idea of multiple designers raises more theological difficulties than it solves.

Anthony’s immediate attention to the theological implications of a scientific enterprise is an interesting (though not surprising) commentary on mainstream ID supporters.

I responded that it may be the case that MDT raises theological difficulties, particularly if one is wedded to the Judeo/Christian/Islamic monotheistic tradition. But to be blunt, I am not interested in the theological implications of MDT nor in solving “theological difficulties.” If I were interested in the theological implications of MDT I’d probably look to older traditions than the Abrahamic religious traditions. I’d look to the polytheistic traditions that pre-date monotheism, and ultimately to the animistic religious traditions. They are theologically consistent with MDT, though again that’s not a consideration for MDT as a scientific hypothesis. MDT is an attempt to find some empirical scientific content in the ID conjecture. Theology is way down on the list of concerns that inform that attempt.

Mainstream single-designer ID claims to be a scientific enterprise. Scientific programs generate sets of testable hypotheses, provide a research program to test and elaborate and correct those hypotheses, and offer coherent causal explanations of the phenomena we see in the world. Since (judging from its invisible scientific publication record) the mainstream ID movement has apparently been unable to generate its own research program, it seemed inappropriate to merely criticize it for that lack. Hence MDT. MDT subsumes mainstream ID and provides an actual research program.

What I’ve found most interesting about the MDT discussions on ISCID and on ARN is that no IDists have offered to actually build a research program that supports and tests its assertions in an attempt to corroborate hypotheses drawn from their theory. I see no evidence that mainstream ID is really interested in a scientific research program. While mainstream ID popular literature is replete with criticisms of evolutionary biology for ignoring intelligent design considerations, it does not provide us with an example of doing design-based biology itself, and when an example – MDT – is offered, mainstream ID is silent. That silence is eloquent.

“Evan” concurred, posting

At least in theory, a fully-developed design research program offers the possibility of strengthening or weakening the claims of various theological or metaphysical belief systems, but it is not the case that design theory should be motivated by any attempt to reconcile itself with any one of them. If design theory poses theological difficulties for a monotheistic deity, then that may in fact turn out to mean that such a conception of the designer is not as well supported by the data as some other set of beliefs.

But one of the dictums of ID theory is that we must follow the evidence wherever it leads, unconstrained by a priori limitations. If we allow that naturalism (even methodological naturalism) is one of those a priori constraints that should be removed, then so should the limitation that possible unembodied designers be singular, or omniscient, or otherwise consistent with traditional Western theological beliefs.

Just so.

VIII. Validating Designer Discrimination Methods: The next posting describes the issues associated with developing and validating methods for discriminating among multiple designers.


  1. I am known to be an ID critic, and readers may therefore believe that Multiple Designers Theory is presented as a parody of ID. It is not. It is a logical extension of the dominant stream of thought in mainstream ID. My very first published mention of MDT on the ID web site Access Research Network quite obviously takes the then-nascent idea of MDT seriously. Multiple Designers Theory takes the mainstream ID claim – that volitional intelligent design in biology can be detected – at face value and explores an obvious question implied by that claim. That question is completely legitimate and, as I point out, MDT accounts for observed patterns of biological phemomena that mainstream ID theory cannot comfortably accommodate. It leads to the kind of research program that mainstream ID has been unable or unwilling to provide, and MDT blunts at least one significant criticism of mainstream ID. It is the kind of theoretical structure and research that ID must build if it is to make good on its claims to scientific utility. Rather than a parody, read it as a challenge to mainstream ID proponents to make good on their promise of founding a scientific endeavour. All they have to do is present an actual intelligent design theory in a coherent and extended manner, provide some systematic data that validate the design detection methodologies they have offered, and describe in some detail what a testable intelligent design “explanation” would actually look like. So far all three are conspicuously absent.

  2. MDT also has some roots in Nic Tamzek’s ITWA concept, originally posted in the Evolution/Creationism Forum of II but now apparently unavailable – a brief search failed to turn it up. While Tamzek’s ITWA was written in a parodic manner and was apparently not intended to be taken seriously, it nevertheless contained the germ of a useful idea and Tamzek cited some pertinent papers from the professional literature of biology. However, Tamzek’s exclusive focus on inter-species competition and his metaphor of warring “armies” of designers, while provocative, is too limited. As I suggest later in the Introduction to Multiple Designers Theory section, there are clear indications that if multiple designers of biological phenomena exist(ed), they stand in a variety of relationships with one another and not solely in a hostile relationship.

  3. This description of Multiple Designers Theory and the next posting on Validating Designer Discrimination Methods are adapted from several of my 2002 and 2003 postings on ISCID Brainstorms, a flagship mainstream ID web site. The original context in which I named specifically mentioned MDT for the first time was in a discussion thread in August 2002 on Access Research Network, a mainstream ID web site. Since the several primary documents of Multiple Designers Theory were originally published on mainstream intelligent design web sites, MDT as I have conceived it has been directly available to mainstream ID proponents since its inception.

Copyright (c) 2002, 2003, 2004 by Richard B. Hoppe